Iguanodon bernissartensis

The enormous skeleton of the dinosaur named Iguanodon bernissartensis stands like a sentry guarding the entrance to the museum. This dinosaur has a long association with the Sedgwick Museum. The first teeth and bones of Iguanodon were discovered near the village of Cuckfield, West Sussex. It was the second dinosaur to be scientifically described, in November 1825. In the archives of the museum we have a letter sent on 26 October 1825 by Dr Gideon Mantell (the discoverer and describer of Iguanodon) to Professor Adam Sedgwick. The letter came with a parcel of specimens, including ... " casts of the best teeth of the Iguanodon in my collection; and of a horn (which you well doubtless remember) which the French [experts] declare is the bony base of a horn of a saurian animal – of course I shall claim it for the Iguanodon." Some of these original specimens are exhibited nearby.

Iguanodon proved vital to the scientific understanding of dinosaurs during the Victorian Era and, almost single-handedly, demonstrates how scientific ideas change or ‘evolve’ over time. When first described by Mantell, on the basis of just a few teeth and broken bones, Iguanodon was thought to be a gigantic herbivorous lizard-like creature (some estimates gave Iguanodon a body length of 60metres!). Two decades later (1842), after some more bones had been discovered, Richard Owen used his anatomical skills to suggest that Iguanodon resembled a giant rhinoceros-shaped reptile (life-sized models of which can, to this day, be seen in Crystal Palace Park, South London). Then, in 1878, an extraordinary discovery was made at a coal mine in the tiny village of Bernissart, Belgium: a treasure-trove of Iguanodon skeletons, many of which were complete and therefore allowed a much more accurate reconstruction of its appearance.

Louis Dollo (based in Brussels) described these dinosaur remains in the 1880s and kindly offered to Cambridge (through King Leopold II) a cast of one of the best Bernissart Iguanodon skeletons. The rearing pose of the animal conforms to Dollo’s original conception of the animal, but we now understand (through the work of a former Director of the Sedgwick Museum) that it would have normally walked with a more horizontal pose.


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Nov 7, 2017

Dr Elizabeth Harper has been appointed Acting Director of the Sedgwick Museum following the retirement of Dr Ken McNamara.

Oct 30, 2017

Celebrating 100 years since John Edward Marr (1857-1933) became the 9th Woodwardian Professor, Monday 30th October: Visit our online Archive gallery