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STL Science Center
01 September 2012
Megalosaurus at the Crystal Palace
Nothing says "19th Century Paleontology" quite like the statues at the Crystal Palace in London; except that giant Iguanodon that hosted a dinner party. The Megalosaurus to your left, yes, that is a Megalosaurus, is a product of that 19th Century paleontological thought. Strangely, the arms of Megalosaurus were never even close to large enough to constitute a quadrupedal stance, let alone be anywhere near as beefy as the arms on the Crystal Palace's statue. At least Megalosaurus did not have the displeasure of having its thumb put on its nose like Iguanodon did. The fact that Cuvier and other early anatomists thought of these newly found skeletons as giant reptiles, which we of course know that they are but not in the traditionally though of sense, completely influenced the sculptors of the Crystal Palace denizens; Megalosaurus just happens to be a prime example of that view point. In our current understanding this statue is horrendously inaccurate, but when you think back to what was known of dinosaurs at the time, before they were even widely called dinosaurs, it is in fact a very good piece of scientific art.
Megalosaurus, like many other dinosaurs, has come a long way since 1853 though. Today we know that Megalosaurus, in addition to still sounding like a pretty awesome dinosaur, was a large Mid-Jurassic theropod with three fingers on its noticeably shorter-than-a-leg arms and three forward pointing toes on its hind legs. It is very notable that the fifth digit on the foot is depicted as pointing backward, like dewclaws in modern canines. Given that much of the material attributed to Megalosaurus is fragmentary and incomplete, this has been adopted in conjunction with the fragmentary evidence and presumed characteristics; citations to academic papers supporting this information are not available at this time to myself and we know that does not mean they are not out there.
Megalosaurus has, however, fallen into that category of "typical" theropods. Every bag of dinosaur toys has a Tyrannosaurus with two fingers and a non-descript three fingered theropod that may be Megalosaurus or Allosaurus or somebody else. Regardless of that fact, Megalosaurus is a very interesting dinosaur in part because its classification and remains are still debated almost 200 years after their discovery and description. Granted, part of the reason is the fragmentary remains; the holotype is an incomplete right dentary (lower jaw) bone that contains a few teeth and is broken off at the attachments to the angular and surangular. While this Megalosaurus has that "typical" look, it also looks rather dangerous and hungry. There is a lot of personality in Megalosaurus, it just takes a little imagination to put those fragments together and give it that personality and from the 1853 statue to modern illustrations, Megalosaurus has always had some attitude and personality.