After 162 years, the first complete dinosaur skeleton to be recovered has been properly reconstructed and studied. Found on the shore under Black Ven at Charmouth in western Dorset, the 193 million-year-old Scelidosaurus spent over a century and a half stored at the Natural History Museum before being fully described and analysed by Dr David Norman of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Earth Science.
The Scelidosaurus remains were first uncovered in a quarry in 1858 by James Harrison and sent to Sir Richard Owen, the man who coined the term ‘dinosaur’, at the British Museum. Because the bones were mixed with the remains of other animals, Owen asked for more specimens. After a year, Harrison uncovered the first complete skeleton of a single dinosaur.
In 2017, Dr Norman took a new look at the skeleton and not only made a proper reconstruction but also mapped out where it sits on the evolutionary lineage of dinosaurs. For a long time, dinosaurs were divided into two groups; the Saurischians (lizard-hipped) and Ornithischians (bird-hipped), but Dr Norman and his students questioned that. Instead they believed that the two groups shared a common ancestor, with Scelidosaurus being more closely related to the latter. It was also a unique animal.
“Nobody knew that the skull had horns on its back edge,” says Dr Norman. “It also had several bones that have never before been recognized in any other dinosaur. It is 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 plastered over the surface of the skulls of living turtles.”
The armoured animal had an array of bony spikes and plates to protect itself from predators, and though it was once thought to be an ancestor of the more famous Stegosaurus, the completed skeleton suggests that it is more closely related only to the armour-plated Ankylosaurus.
Illustration by John Sibbick