Iguanodon skeleton of international importance

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The first substantially complete dinosaur skeleton to be unearthed anywhere in the world is on display in the Natural History Museum in London.

The towering iguanodon is a popular exhibit to the tourists who flock to see the amazing denizens of the bygone world depicted in hit films such as Jurassic Park.

And its likeness – uniquely in the world – also appears on the coat-of-arms of the town where it was first unearthed – Maidstone.

The plant-eating iguanodon, named as its teeth resemble those of an iguana, lived around 120 million years ago at a time when Kent was part of a large subtropical island dominated by wide rivers. The reptilian beast stood up to 13 metres in height and weighed around three tonnes when fully grown.

Others species around at roughly the same time included a fearsome armoured reptile called a polacanthus, a huge flying creature now known as ornithocheirus and the carnivorous velociraptor – one of the best known species thanks to its appearance in the Jurassic Park films.

Its remains were recognised in 1834 by a man named Gideon Mantell who had already been responsible for finding bones and teeth from the prehistoric age.

He was part of a scientific movement which was pushing for the acceptance of the existence of monstrous beasts from past millennia – in the face of conservative opposition from an establishment which largely took the Adam and Eve story literally.

Before 1800 the word “dinosaur” (meaning terrible lizard) did not exist but following chance discoveries, which were at first thought to be the remains of elephants bought to Britain by the Romans, scientists started looking at quarries and other sites across the country to establish what the bones actually were.

When skeletons were reassembled and put on display – as in the Maidstone find – they drew gasps of amazement from spectators who had previously consigned such creatures to the realms of mythology.

Dr Paul Barrett, the Natural History Museum’s merit researcher in paleontology said: “The dinosaur was found in Bensted’s Quarry near Maidstone in 1834 from rocks of around 120 million years old - from the Early Cretaceous period.

“Originally described as iguanodon, the correct name for the skeleton is now mantellisaurus.

“This skeleton was the first substantially complete dinosaur skeleton found anywhere in the world, including bones of the limbs, hips, backbones and the impression of a tooth. As a result it is of great historical significance in the early understanding of dinosaur biology and anatomy.

“The specimen was bought by a group of Gideon Mantell’s friends and presented to him to work on. It was originally part of Mantell’s collection, which was later purchased by the Natural History Museum.

“At the time mantellisaurus was alive, southern England was a large island covered with broad meandering rivers. The climate was subtropical and the vegetation consisted largely of ferns, cycads and conifer trees.”

The town requested an iguanodon be incorporated in the civic coat of arms in 1946. The request was granted three years later and a citation from the College of Arms proclaimed: “I, the said Garter Principal King of Arms, do by these presents further grant and assign to the Borough of Maidstone the Supporters following, that is to say: on the dexter side an Iguanodon proper Collared Gules suspended therefrom by a chain or a scroll of Parchment.”

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