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10 Toothy Facts About Iguanodon

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Perhaps more than any other dinosaur, Iguanodon reveals how dramatically our perception of these amazing creatures has evolved—while reminding us how much we’ve yet to learn.  

1. It’s Got One of the World’s Oldest Dinosaur Names.

Our story begins with an eccentric English doctor. The year was 1825. Sussex’s Gideon Mantell had recently obtained a fossilized tooth, one which looked rather strange. Convinced that his specimen belonged to some huge, plant-eating reptile, the physician named it “Iguanodon,” meaning “iguana tooth.” Seventeen years later, anatomist Richard Owen coined the word “Dinosaur”—or “fearfully great reptile”—to classify a trio of newly-unearthed prehistoric creatures: Hylaeosaurus, Megalosaurus, and Mantell’s Iguanodon.

2. The Original Iguanodon Specimen May Have Actually Belonged to Another Dino.

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Today, the Iguanodon genus only contains a single species: Europe’s handsome Iguanodon bernissartensis (pictured above). Nice and simple, right? Well, way back in the 20th century, over a dozen vastly different-looking dinos—spread out across four continents—were lumped together as members of the Iguanodon genus. From a classification standpoint, this was hardly helpful, so scientists started divvying them up during the early 2000s. 

Brand new titles such as Mantellisaurus and Dollodon were given to former Iguanodon species. After the dust eventually settled, none but I. bernissartensis remained unaltered [PDF]. Thickening this plot still further, Mantell’s tooth—the fossil that started it all—might also deserve to be placed in a separate genus.

3.  Iguanodon’s Famous “Thumb Spikes” Were Originally Mistaken for Nasal Horns.

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At first, this long-extinct beast was only known from assorted bits and pieces. Iguanodonsnouts, therefore, seemed like as good a place as any for paleontologists to put their conical spikes. When more complete remains started turning up in the 1870s, it was realized that they actually belonged on the sides of their hands.

4. By the Way, Scientists Still Aren’t Entirely Sure What Those Spikes Were Used For.


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Iguanodon is often drawn using its thumbs as powerful weapons, heroically jabbing these clawed digits into careless carnivores. But they could have also been employed to tackle less-dramatic errands like breaking open nuts or stripping tree bark. After all, though feeding may lack the glamour of combat, both tasks can force evolution to get inventive.

5. In 1878, a Belgian Mine Yielded Oodles of Game-Changing Iguanodon Skeletons.

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That year, two miners unwittingly stumbled on a prehistoric treasure trove over 1000 feet beneath Bernissart, Belgium. Among the fossils their site yielded were 14 beautifully-preserved Iguanodon skeletons, which finally helped paleontologists understand what this majestic animal looked like.

6. Iguanodon Apparently Preferred Four Legs to Two.

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With such robust torsos and long, powerful arms, chances are adult Iguanodon bernissartensis didn’t spend too much time walking about on their hind limbs; instead, using all fours served as the standard method of transportation. Nevertheless, when life called for a brief two-legged stroll, these animals could have doubtlessly risen to the occasion.

7. Iguanodon Has Had a Sizable Literary Impact.

The Lost World, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 epic adventure story, involves herds of Iguanodon roaming the South American wilderness. One comically-oversized specimen trudges through Paris in Nicolas Flammarion’s The World Before Man (1886). And then there’s Raptor Red (1995)—written by maverick paleontologist Robert Bakker—which features a botched Utahraptor attack triggering an Iguanodon stampede.

8. There’s A Still-Orbiting Asteroid Called 9941 Iguanodon.

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On February 4, 1989, a new asteroid was found inside the rocky belt between Mars and Jupiter. In a move that might sound like naming an iceberg after the Titanic (at least, if some popular extinction hypotheses turn out to be correct), NASA subsequently gave it this dinosaurian title.

9. It’s On an English Coat of Arms.

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In 1834, Mantell received some congregated Iguanodon bones that turned up near the town of Maidstone, which has since honored its paleontological heritage by adding the dino to its official coat of arms.

10. A Super-Cool New Year’s Eve Party Was Once Thrown Inside an Iguanodon Sculpture.

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As 1854 approached, London’s Crystal Palace saw what was arguably history’s strangest New Year’s Eve celebration. Sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins had been commissioned to build a menagerie of full-sized prehistoric creature statues which still captivate visitors today.

Hoping to promote this Victorian Jurassic Park, Hawkins hosted a dinner party in the belly of a partially-completed Iguanodon. On the guest list were 20 great academic figures, including the aforementioned Owen. Ham was served, wine was imbibed, and soon, a cheerful chant rang out: “The Jolly Old Beast is Not Deceased, There’s Life in Him Again!”

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Denver Museum of Nature & Science
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Construction Workers in Colorado Discover 66-Million-Year-Old Triceratops Skeleton
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Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Construction projects have yielded some pretty amazing ancient finds: ancient ports, Stone Age homes, forgotten cemeteries, burial grounds, and even the bones of King Richard III. Now, The Denver Post reports that workers in Thornton, Colorado, just north of Denver, recently discovered a 66-million-year-old adult triceratops skull, along with other bones, while breaking ground for the city's new public safety facility. It's an incredibly rare find as most of the fossils found in the region are about 12,000 years old.

Instead of digging on—which may have destroyed the skeleton—the workers contacted experts to take a closer look. Joe Sertich, curator of dinosaurs at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, was called to the scene to examine the bones.

"This is what we as curators dream about—getting a call about a possible fossil and confirming it's not just a dinosaur fossil, but a record-breaking one!" Sertich said in a statement.

Museum staff, construction staff, and museum volunteers work to excavate the Thornton triceratops skeleton on August 30, 2017.
Museum staff, construction staff, and museum volunteers work to excavate the skeleton on August 30, 2017.
Denver Museum of Nature & Science

So far, scientists and volunteer diggers have unearthed the skull, two horns, a portion of the dinosaur's frill, shoulder bones, the beak at the front of the lower jaw, and ribs and vertebrae. The skeleton appears to be separated, indicating that the dinosaur may have died and lain on the ground for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, according to The Washington Post. As it decayed, its bones and flesh fell apart, and other dinosaurs, like T. rex, may have even taken a nibble at the corpse.

Joe Sertich, curator of dinosaurs at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, speaks with a construction worker while leading the excavation in Thornton, Colorado of a newly discovered triceratops skeleton.
Joe Sertich, curator of dinosaurs at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, speaks with a construction worker while leading the excavation in Thornton, Colorado of a newly discovered triceratops skeleton.
Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Experts say the triceratops skeleton could be the most complete Cretaceous dinosaur ever discovered in the Front Range region, and one of the oldest fossils. They've also noted that the newly discovered dino fits a larger pattern: When found in the Denver area, triceratops are typically half the size of similar ones that once lived in the Dakotas and Montana.

A closeup of the triceratops fossil as it's unearthed in Thornton, Colorado.
A closeup of the triceratops fossil as it's unearthed.
Denver Museum of Nature & Science

"We don't really know why," Sertich said in a Facebook Live broadcast. "Even though we have hundreds of triceratops from the American West, we only have three good skulls. And this might be one of the best skeletons to tell us why Denver triceratops are smaller than all of their cousins everywhere else."

[h/t The Denver Post]

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© Zachary James Johnston, The Field Museum
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SUE the T. Rex Is Getting a Makeover
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© Zachary James Johnston, The Field Museum

Our lives are constantly changing—even those of us who are already dead. The beloved fossilized T. rex skeleton known as SUE will soon be treated to a makeover and new digs at The Field Museum in Chicago.

SUE’s move is motivated by more than just luxury; the museum needs to clear out its great hall to make room for the largest dinosaur ever discovered. A private donor has bestowed the museum with a full-size cast of the Argentinean titanosaur Patagotitan mayorum.

Illustration of a titanosaur cast in a great hall.
The Field Museum

The touchable 122-foot-long marvel will stretch across Stanley Field Hall and upward into the second story. SUE will be disassembled in 2018 and eventually relocated to a fancy new suite in another hall along with other fossil specimens.

Illustration comparing the size of a titanosaur, a human, and a T. rex.
The Field Museum

“At 40.5 feet long, she’s the world’s biggest T. rex, but in that giant hall, people sometimes remark that she’s smaller than they expected,” senior exhibitions project manager Hilary Hansen said in a statement.

“By putting her in her own gallery in our Evolving Planet exhibition, she’ll be put into the proper context of her fellow dinosaurs, and she’ll dominate the room.”

(SUE’s sex is unknown, but many museum staffers take a cue from the fossil’s ladylike name and use female pronouns.)

With the new setup comes a whole new look. The SUE we see today is incomplete; when the skeleton was assembled in 2000, dinosaur curators omitted one group of bones, unsure where to put them. They’ve since figured it out. The bones are gastralia, which cage the stomach area like a lower set of ribs.

Dinosaur gastralia arrayed  in a bed of sand.
© Zachary James Johnston, The Field Museum

T. rex had a bulging belly,” associate curator of dinosaurs Pete Makovicky said in the statement. “It wasn’t sleek and gazelle-like the way you might think.”

Over the last two decades since SUE’s assembly we’ve learned a lot about the way SUE and family looked and moved. Makovicky and his colleagues also plan to tinker with SUE’s posture so that upon the grand re-debut in 2019, “she’ll be walking rather than skulking.”

Or strutting, more accurately. The gloating dinosaur’s Twitter bio now reads “Private Suite Haver.”

Never one to be left out of the conversation, SUE issued a public comment, writing, “For years now, I've been pitching this to the Museum. A room with a better defensible position against velociraptor attacks and reduced exposure to possible meteorite collisions. Finally, the mammals in charge have come to their senses."

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