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First Complete Dino Skeleton Ever Found Finally Gets Respect

Artists rendering of green spikey dinosaur
John Sibbick

The world’s most complete dinosaur skeleton was unearthed in England along south England’s Jurassic Coast over 160 years ago. That skeleton was sent to Sir Richard Owen at the British Museum and…nothing much happened to it. Now, however, the great beast is getting the attention it deserves.

Owen was something of a celebrity scientist of his day. Through his work with fossils, he helped solidify modern paleontology, and he even coined the term by which we refer to “terrible lizards” today: Dinosaurs. Yet, when he was sent a complete Scelidosaurus skeleton unearthed from rocks dating to about 193 million years old, he wrote two brief papers about it but failed to describe it completely—nor did he, more importantly, attempt to reconstruct it.

At Last

Enter Dr. David Norman from Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences. For the past three years, he’s been working to make a complete investigation and description of the fossil, which now resides at the Natural History Museum in London.

“It is unfortunate that such an important dinosaur, discovered at such a critical time in the early study of dinosaurs, was never properly described,” said Norman. “It has now—at last—been described in detail and provides many new and unexpected insights concerning the biology of early dinosaurs and their underlying relationships. It seems a shame that the work was not done earlier, but, as they say, better late than never.”

In particular, Norman was able to reconstruct what Scelidosaurus would have looked like when it was alive, and this helped him place the dinosaur in its proper place on the evolutionary tree.

Generally, dinosaurs fall into two categories based on their hip bones. If those bones were more lizard-like, they are classified as saurischians, and if the hips were more bird-like, they are put into the ornithischian category.

Norman determined that the Scelidosaurus falls into the ornithischian category and that it was one of the first of this kind of dinosaur which, he believes, split off—as did saurischians—from a common ancestor. Norman has also been able to give a very detailed account of what the beast would have looked like.

“Nobody knew that the skull had horns on its back edge,” he said. “It had several bones that have never been recognized in any other dinosaur. It’s also clear from the rough texturing of the skull bones that it was, in life, covered by hardened horny scutes, a little bit like the scutes on the surface of the skulls of living turtles. In fact, its entire body was protected by skin that anchored an array of stud-like bony spikes and plates.”

Norman has reported his work as four separate studies in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society of London.