Discovering dinosaurs in Britain –the significance of the British dinosaur record

Palaeontology and Britain

In its simplest form, palaeontology is the study of prehistoric life, through examination of fossils. Palaeontology is, however, not just dinosaurs. Dinosaurs constitute a miniscule portion of what palaeontology is. After all, a myriad of different, and often down-right bizarre, organisms lived long before the dinosaurs and ended up as fossils under their feet. Regardless, the imagination and wonderment that dinosaurs create are why they are considered a symbol for palaeontology – they are a gateway into this most incredible of sciences.

The geology and palaeontology in Britain is incredibly diverse. Rocks of almost every geological period are exposed and have been studied for hundreds of years. This provided a platform for geology and palaeontology to flourish and evolve. Some rather notable individuals include the geologist, William Smith – the ‘Father of Geology’. In 1815, Smith created the very first geological map of England, Wales and part of Scotland, a ground-breaking achievement. Incredible fossil discoveries found along the beach at Lyme Regis, by the greatest fossil hunter ever, Mary Anning, paved the way for the first scientific descriptions of large, extinct reptiles – the ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. The Rev William Buckland provided the very first scientific description of a dinosaur – this would change the world.

Fig. 1
Fig. 1. The author pictured with dinosaur footprints at Hanover Point, Brook, Isle of Wight (2014).

Our fascination and intrigue in studying and examining the rocks and fossils within has unlocked an ancient, alien world. If you could travel back tens of millions of years, you would be hard-pressed to recognise the area that today forms the British Isles.

A brief history of British dinosaur discoveries

Whether it is a feathered theropod from China, a colossal sauropod from South America or a new species from some other far-away land, most new dinosaur discoveries from around the world are now the major talking point in dinosaur palaeontology. ‘Dinosaur’ and ‘Britain’ are rarely used together in the same sentence, but, if you can excuse the pun, they should really be two words set in stone.

The name ‘dinosaur’, meaning terrible (or fearfully great) lizard in Greek, was created sometime between 1841 and 1842 by the famous scientist, Sir Richard Owen – founder of the Natural History Museum in London. The very first time Owen mentioned the word in public was during a meeting in Plymouth on 20 July 1841. Hence, the very concept of dinosaurs is a British ‘invention’. This name was coined to distinguish the remains of several large-bodied fossil ‘lizards’ discovered in the English countryside during the early 1800s. The very first was Megalosaurus, collected from slate mines in the small village of Stonesfield in Oxfordshire and described in 1824 by the Rev William Buckland. The second was Iguanodon, collected from quarries around Cuckfield in West Sussex and described in 1825 by a country doctor called Gideon Mantell. And finally, there is the often forgotten Hylaeosaurus, also collected near Cuckfield and described in 1833, also by Mantell. Although these large ‘lizards’ were not identified as dinosaurs at the time, their descriptions represent the first scientific accounts of what can definitively be identified as dinosaurs. It was Owen, who later recognised an important link between these animals and other isolated bones, which helped him to establish the new-found group, Dinosauria. Historically, over 100 different species of dinosaur were described from remains in the British Isles, although today, palaeontologists consider approximately 50 to 60 species as valid. There are roughly 1,500 species of dinosaur known worldwide and the British representatives therefore constitute approximately 4% of all dinosaurs currently known.

The British Isles can boast one of the best dinosaur records from anywhere in the world. Dinosaurian remains have been recorded from rocks of Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous age (collectively termed the Mesozoic Era). From the Isle of Skye to the Isle of Wight, dinosaur remains have been collected from various locations in the British Isles. It is often portrayed that almost all British dinosaurs are known from fragments, perhaps just one or two bones. Yet, some British dinosaurs represent nearly complete to complete skeletons and are arguably among the best known in the world. Not only are the bones and teeth of dinosaurs recorded, but thousands of footprints have been found, along with fossilised dinosaur faeces, called coprolites. As many British finds were described when the science was only just evolving, this subsequently resulted with many firsts. For example, the very first description of what is now identified as a ‘raptor’ (dromaeosaur) was originally misidentified as a type of lizard in 1854. The specimen is an isolated, partial lower jaw with teeth that was collected on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset and belongs to the dinosaur, Nuthetes destructor.

Various dinosaur bones and teeth have been recorded from the Triassic rocks of the British Isles. Some Triassic species include the Bristol dinosaur, Thecodontosaurus, and the Welsh ‘dragon’, Pantydraco. However, most dinosaurs in the British Isles are from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. One fine example from the early Jurassic is the thyreophoran dinosaur, Scelidosaurus (an early ancestor to stegosaurs and ankylosaurs), which has only been discovered in the vicinity of Charmouth in Dorset. Scelidosaurus is the most complete British dinosaur and was the very first nearly complete dinosaur described worldwide. The very first dinosaur to be identified – Megalosaurus – with its now iconic lower jaw, lived during the Middle Jurassic and was discovered deep underground inside a slate mine in the village of Stonesfield in Oxfordshire, probably sometime during the 1790s. Even the very large stegosaur, Dacentrurus, which was found in Swindon, was the very first skeleton of a stegosaur to be described anywhere in the world. The Early Cretaceous deposits, especially those on ‘Dinosaur Island’ (the Isle of Wight), are represented by a diverse group of dinosaurs and include some rather incredible meat-eating species such as the allosaur, Neovenator, and the tyrannosaur, Eotyrannus. The Isle of Wight has been touted as the best place to look for dinosaur bones in Europe. This title is appropriate, given that many species have been described from the island and new discoveries continue to be made each year.

Dinosaur Type Diet Geological age Location of discovery Cool fact
Megalosaurus bucklandii Theropod Carnivore Middle Jurassic, 167mya Stonesfield, Oxfordshire The very first dinosaur to be described (1824).
Cetiosauriscus stewarti Sauropod Herbivore Middle Jurassic, 166-163mya Fletton area, Peterborough One of the most complete large sauropod dinosaurs found in the British Isles.
Dacentrurus armatus Stegosaur Herbivore Late Jurassic, 155mya Swindon, Wiltshire The world’s very first substantial stegosaur. It predates the description of the North American Stegosaurus by two years.
Baryonyx walkeri Theropod Piscivore/Carnivore Early Cretaceous, 125mya Near Dorking, Surrey The fossil remains of fish and dinosaur bones were found in the stomach contents of this dinosaur.
Proceratosaurus bradleyi Theropod Carnivore Middle Jurassic, 167mya Minchinhampton, Gloucestershire The world’s oldest tyrannosaur. The granddad of Tyrannosaurus rex.

Table caption: A small selection of some of the author’s favourite British dinosaurs, with a brief account of their discovery and importance; mya = millions of years ago.

Fig. 2
Fig. 2. A selection of British dinosaurs, drawn to scale. From left to right, Hypsilophodon, Thecodontosaurus, Scelidosaurus, Polacanthus, Eotyrannus, Megalosaurus, Baryonyx, Cetiosaurus, Iguanodon and Pelorosaurus. (Courtesy of Nobumichi Tamura: spinops.blogspot.co.uk.)

Collecting dinosaurs in Britain – changing times

During the 1800s, as an indirect result of the industrial revolution, dinosaur bones were discovered throughout Britain. Finds were uncovered through blasting in quarries, exploring deep underground in mines, and even through the creation of railway cuttings and reservoirs. Numerous dinosaur bones were discovered and ranged from fragments to complete skeletons, some representing one-of-a-kind specimens. Prominent individuals, such as Dr Gideon Mantell – the country doctor, eminent palaeontologist and geologist referred to above, and author of several dinosaur studies (including Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus) – had great relations with quarry owners and would actively visit to examine material that was being collected. Specimens would be given to (or purchased by) Mantell, which resulted in a new discovery recorded. Such specimens were subsequently donated, sold or later bequeathed to museums.

Fig. 3
Fig. 3. The dinosaur specimen to rule them all – the lower jaw of Megalosaurus bucklandii. Scale bar = 5cm. (Courtesy of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.)

Today, very few quarries exist where dinosaur fossils may be found or collected – they are as rare as the bones. The only area where dinosaur fossils may be actively collected from is on the beach having been eroded from the cliffs and foreshore. However, collecting dinosaur bones (or any fossil) comes with a set of rules and regulations, which some fossil collectors are unaware of. In fact, many fossil hunting sites are protected and regarded as SSSIs (that is ‘Sites of Special Scientific Interest’).

Dino cover-5th version latest Jan 2014.indd
Fig. 4. The front cover of Dinosaurs of the British Isles, published by Siri Scientific Press, Manchester.

A little knowledge can go a long way

When looking for fossils, ensure you are not breaking the law and make sure you understand the rules and regulations of the fossil site you intend to visit; and always be aware of health and safety issues (no chipping at cliffs). If you find a fossil, ensure that you record all of the details (when found, where, the date, age and so on) and identify the specimen. It is important that none of this data is lost. Contact a local museum, university or geological society if you believe the find could be something rare or important. The rewards could be unimaginable. If that fossil happens to be rare or exceptional, it may turn out to be something new to science.

Fossil collecting is one of the most active, fun and genuinely stimulating aspects of palaeontology. Discovering a fossil and rescuing it from its geological tomb is a special event. Irrespective of the number of fossils you collect, either as a child or as a palaeontologist, the magic never disappears. You are the very first person to see, examine and touch that specimen in however many millions of years – an incredible honour.

Regardless of where you intend to fossil hunt, always ensure that you have permission. Consulting organisations, such as the UK Amateur Fossil Hunters (UKAFH; see www.ukafh.com) and UK Fossils Network (see https://ukfossils.co.uk/), visiting museums and reading books provide excellent advice on effective fossil collecting. When searching for fossils, the best tool is your eyes, so keep them protected.

A final note

My initial interest in British dinosaurs led me to write the book, Dinosaurs of the British Isles (which was reviewed in Deposits in Issue 40). The book is for anybody who wishes to delve deeper into the fascinating history of British dinosaur discovery and it is my hope that it will inspire a new generation of palaeontologists. From readers curious in uncovering what dinosaurs have been found and where they lived, to those interested in learning about the many species found here, the book will no doubt appeal to anybody who shares an interest in dinosaurs and the natural history of the British Isles.

Fig. 6
Fig. 5. The author lecturing at Thomas Hardye School in Dorset about British dinosaurs in 2017. (Courtesy of Thomas Hardye School.)

Acknowledgements

I would like to dedicate this article to Dr David Penney and Nigel Larkin for all their help and guidance to me over the years. Thanks also to Dr Nobumichi Tamura (co-author of Dinosaurs of the British Isles) for all of his help with the book and for his excellent life reconstructions. Thanks also to James McKay for allowing the use of his life restoration. Finally, thanks to the late Malcolm Tait for encouraging me to write this article.

About the author

Dean is an internationally recognised, multi-award-winning palaeontologist, science communicator and author. He has travelled the globe working on many fascinating projects from excavating dinosaurs in the American West to describing new species of extinct marine reptiles and winning a gold medal for excellence in science. An Honorary Scientist at the University of Manchester, Dean is passionate about communicating palaeontology with the public and regularly appears on television, including as series advisor and on-screen expert presenter for ITV’s Dinosaur Britain. He has written two books, numerous scientific papers, and many popular articles, including for this magazine. Dean is also the patron of the UK Amateur Fossil Hunters organisation (UKAFH).

To learn more about the author, please visit his personal website, www.deanrlomax.co.uk.

Further reading

Benton, M. J. and Spencer, P. S. 1995. Fossil Reptiles of Great Britain. Chapman and Hall, London. pp. 386.

Cadbury, D. 2000. The Dinosaur Hunters: A True Story of Scientific Rivalry and the Discovery of the Prehistoric World. Fourth Estate (HarperCollins), London. pp. 374.

Lomax, D. R. and Tamura, N. 2014. Dinosaurs of the British Isles. Siri Scientific Press, Manchester. pp. 416.

Martill, D. M. and Naish, D 2001. Dinosaurs of the Isle of Wight (Guide 10; Field Guide to Fossils Series). Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 440.

Naish, D. and Martill, D. M. 2007. Dinosaurs of Great Britain and the role of the Geological Society of London in their discovery: basal Dinosauria and Saurischia. Journal of the Geological Society, 164, 493–510.

Naish, D. and Martill, D. M. 2008. Dinosaurs of Great Britain and the role of the Geological Society of London in their discovery: Ornithischia. Journal of the Geological Society, 165, 613–623.

Penney, D. 2016. So you want to be a palaeontologist? Siri Scientific Press, Manchester. 64 pp.

Torrens, H. S. 2012. Politics and Paleontology: Richard Owen and the Invention of Dinosaurs. In Brett-Surman, M. K., Holtz, T. R. and Farlow, J. O. (Eds.). The Complete Dinosaur. Second edition. Indiana University Press, Bloomington. pp 25–43.

Dean R Lomax


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