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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”