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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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What 6 Dinosaurs from Jurassic Park Really Looked Like
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by Alex Carter

In the 24 years that have passed since the original Jurassic Park hit theaters, what we know about dinosaurs has changed—a lot. Here's some of the new research that may change how you imagine these ancient animals, along with illustrations of what the animals may have looked like when they actually roamed the Earth.

1. VELOCIRAPTOR

Movie:

Velociraptors in Jurassic Park.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

A drawing of a Velociraptor.
Matt Martyniuk, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY SA-3.0

A far cry from the large and vicious hunters of the Jurassic Park movies, velociraptors were in fact small and covered in feathers. More like vicious turkeys, if you will. The dinosaur in the movies was based on the Deinonychus, a much larger species whose name, appropriately, means “terrible claw.” (Even Deinonychus wasn't quite as big as the raptors portrayed in the movie.) That said, other large raptors have since been discovered, including the entire genus Utahraptor. (Its discoverers originally considered naming the type species Utahraptor spielbergi in hopes that the director would finance their research, but the name-for-funds deal never went through, so it was ultimately called Utahraptor ostrommaysorum.)

2. TYRANNOSAURUS REX

Movie:

A T. Rex in Jurassic Park.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

A feathered version of a T. Rex.
A feathered version of a T. Rex.

Large. Imposing. Fluffy? Apparently, the T. rex looked much, much stranger than the beast brought to life on the silver screen. Its face might have been covered with patches of armored skin and large scales, its eyes were placed much farther forward than other dinosaurs, and it carried itself rather horizontally, not upright, as most people still imagine it. It's thought from discoveries in close relatives that T. rex was covered in some feathers for a part of its life (especially as a juvenile, as seen in The Lost World), although the details remain hotly debated. Also debated are what it used its arms for: Hypotheses have ranged from a role in reproduction to lifting itself up (which is increasingly considered unlikely) to nothing at all.

3. COMPSOGNATHUS

Movie:

A Compsognathus in Jurassic Park.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

A feathered version of a Compsognathus.
A feathered version of a Compsognathus.

This dinosaur was actually bigger in real life, although not by much. The smaller version depicted in the movies was based on what is now believed to be a young (and therefore small) Compsognathus. While many dinosaurs of its type were covered in feathers, there has been a notable lack of evidence about whether compies, as they're known, had feathers or scales. Most artists tend to draw simple proto-feathers, though; the result is an animal that looks more furry than feathery—and remarkably like a stretched rat.

4. TRICERATOPS

Movie:

A Triceratops in Jurassic Park.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

These creatures are generally portrayed as leathery and pointy—a bit like a rhinoceros designed by committee. The reality is somewhat stranger: They actually resembled porcupines. Some paleontologists believe that several nipple-shaped protrusions in their skin suggest where bristles would have been. In other areas, their skin was likely scaled rather than leathery. Their horns are another mystery. A 2009 study indicated that they were used largely for combat with other Triceratops, but they probably had a role in courtship as well.

5. BRACHIOSAURUS

Movie:

A Brachiosaurus in Jurassic Park.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

A drawing of a Brachiosaurus.

In Jurassic Park, the Brachiosaurus is the first dinosaur seen after everyone arrives on the island, memorably rearing up to get at some particularly delicious leafage. But that behavior is now considered unlikely. The book Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs attempted to calculate if Brachiosaurs were able to rear on their hind legs and concluded, “Brachiosaurus would have expended considerably more energy [than a Diplodocus], could not have attained a stable upright pose, and would have risked serious injury to its forefeet when descending too rapidly.” Dr. Heinrich Mallison noted that it “was probably unlikely to use a bipedal … posture regularly and for an extended period of time. Although this dinosaur certainly could have reared up, for example during mating, this was probably a rare and short-lived event.”

6. SPINOSAURUS

Movie:

A Spinosaurus in Jurassic Park III.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

A drawing of a Spinosaurus.

Joschua Knüppe, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

The Spinosaurus was discovered only a few years after the Tyrannosaurus, but it never attracted fans in quite the same way. The fossils were destroyed in World War II during an Allied bombing raid on Munich, and the dinosaur became largely forgotten. However, Jurassic Park III resurrected the dinosaur's fame with a showdown that saw the Spinosaurus kill a Tyrannosaurus. Many fans cried foul, and the size of the Spinosaurus was indeed a mistake … in reality, it was much bigger.

It would have been up to three times heavier and 20 feet longer; a creature on the higher end of that range would have been bigger than even Jurassic World's (invented) I. rex. But could Spinosaurus have taken on a T. rex and lived? Almost certainly not. While physically bigger and armed with a bigger jaw, it was much less powerful, as most paleontologists now believe Spinosaurus used its long jaws for fishing. It actually lived mostly in the water.

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Meet Spinosaurus, the Giant Dinosaur That Was Scarier Than T. Rex
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Contrary to what the film Jurassic Park may have led you to believe, Tyrannosaurus rex wasn't the largest—or scariest—dinosaur to ever roam the land. That honor goes to Spinosaurus, a genus of predators whose members could grow up to 50 feet long. They roamed North Africa during the mid-Cretaceous Period, around 100 million years ago.

Learn more about Spinosaurus—and the era's other fearsome creatures, which included carnivorous crocodiles and enormous flying reptiles—by watching the TED-Ed video below.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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