10 Monstrous Facts About Megalosaurus

This English predator was among the first dinosaurs ever discovered—and, back in those early days of paleontology, its fearsome jaws must have fueled countless Victorian nightmares.

1. Megalosaurus Used to Be Called “Scrotum humanum.”

The illustration on the left was drawn by an artist/naturalist named Robert Plot in 1676. At the time, scholars hadn’t yet learned of the existence of dinosaurs, so nobody could identify the fossil Plot’s picture depicts. For his part, Plot theorized that this bone (which had turned up in an Oxfordshire quarry) once belonged to a Roman war elephant. 

Nearly a century later, physician Richard Brookes copied Plot’s sketch, but didn’t buy his interpretation. To Brookes, it looked suspiciously like a certain piece of masculine anatomy, so he dubbed the specimen “Scrotum humanum.” Today, most scientists agree that the fragment in question actually came from a Megalosaurus leg bone.

2. It was The First Dino to be Scientifically Described.

In 1824, a large jawbone from some ancient reptile emerged near Oxford, prompting British geologist William Buckland to do something that had never been done before: formally describe a dinosaur specimen in an academic paper. His paper, “Notice on the Megalosaurus or great Fossil Lizard of Stonesfield,” saw publication via the Geological Society of London. 

3. Megalosaurus Was Named by a Guy With Really Weird Dietary Habits.

Buckland’s quirks were legendary. When he wasn’t examining fossils or coining the word “Megalosaurus,” he enjoyed dressing up his pet bear (!) in academic robes. He owned a table made with dinosaur droppings which “was often much admired by persons who had not the least idea of what they were looking at” [PDF]. And, stranger still, the man literally attempted to eat his way through the animal kingdom. Striving to sample every living thing in existence, Buckland devoured such main courses as panthers, crocodiles, and toasted mice. Apparently, the nastiest entrees he ever tried were mole and blue-bottle fly.

4. Megalosaurus was Mentioned in a Charles Dickens Novel.

Published serially between 1852 and 1853, Bleak House is, among other things, notable for having one of the world’s first literary dino references. While describing a gloomy day cloaked in fog, Dickens writes:

“As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.”

5. Scientists Aren’t Exactly Sure What Its Skull Looked Like.

Aside from some bits of snout and upper and lower jaw, no significant cranial material has been attributed to Megalosaurus.

6. Megalosaurus Helped Inspire the Word “Dinosaur.”

In 1842, Megalosaurus, Iguanodon, and Hylaeosaurus were three recently-discovered prehistoric reptiles which many scientists imagined as little more than overgrown lizards. Sir Richard Owen felt very differently. Seeing them as dynamic, active animals, he lumped them together in a brand-new group he called the “Dinosauria.”

7. … And Buckland’s Son Believed it May Have Also Inspired European Dragon Myths.

Franklin Trevelyan Buckland followed in his father’s footsteps and became an accomplished zoologist in his own right. At one point, he posited that dinosaurs like Megalosaurus may well have given rise to Europe’s greatest mythical monsters.

“May not the idea of the dragons,” he wrote, “curious stories of which are chronicles in various parts of England, owe their origin, in some way or other, to the veritable existence of these large lizards in former ages? To point out the train of ideas or circumstances which led to these ancient dragon stories is of course impossible, particularly as man was not coexistant with Megalosaurus and Co.—still there is a certain shadow of connexion [sic] between them.”

8. Scientists Have Dramatically Reduced Megalosaurus’ Top Length Estimates.

William Buckland suggested that adult Megalosaurus were about 40 feet long, though newer specimens indicate a maximum measurement closer to 21.

9. History Buffs Can See a Bear-Like Megalosaurus in London’s Crystal Palace Park.

During the 1850s, sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was commissioned to build more than 30 life-sized prehistoric animal models which were to populate a glasshouse inside this historic English park. The house burned down in 1936, but the statues survived and are still being enjoyed (thanks, in no small part, to the efforts of local volunteers). Because scientists hadn’t yet learned that predatory dinosaurs were bipedal, Waterhouse’s Megalosaurus stands stoutly on all fours.

10. The Protagonist of TV’s Dinosaurs Sitcom is Purportedly a Dim-Witted Megalosaurus.

In 1991, ABC premiered Dinosaurs, a nuclear family-style comedy revolving around sentient dinos. Originally conceived by Jim Henson, the program’s patriarch is one Earl Sinclair, a beer-drinking, lunchbox-toting, television-loving Megalosaurus with less-than-exemplary parenting skills. 

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January 9, 2015 - 6:00pm
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