Saturday, 30 June 2018

Wisbech and Fenlands Museum's Temnodontosaurus platydon

The following is an article I wrote for The Fens – Wisbech & District, a free magazine available in my hometown in Cambridgeshire, England. It's a non-technical piece intended to draw attention to the town's wonderful museum by focussing on one of its specimens, which is all too easy to walk past! I'm leaving it here for posterity...

Digging Up The Past: Dinosaurs* At The Museum

Late July—September will see Wisbech & Fenland Museum play host to Dinosaur!, a series of dinosaur-themed events and exhibitions which coincide nicely with the release of the latest instalment in the Jurassic World film series. Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences in Cambridge has loaned Tyrannosaurus and Allosaurus fossils to the museum, and visitors will be able to decorate ichthyosaur bones which will go to form a full skeleton that will eventually hang in the main gallery. I will also be exhibiting several of my own illustrations, including reconstructions of some of the ichthyosaurs found in the museum's collections.

Wisbech Museum is an excellent venue for such an event, and the museum itself dates from a time when the study of dinosaurs was in its infancy. Its own geology collection contains several interesting dinosaur specimens as well as many other locally-found items donated by Fenland residents. Some items have travelled further, such as the Teleosaurus 'hand' (actually the hind foot of a prehistoric crocodilian), which has its post-discovery origins in another collection.

Probably the most interesting specimen from that period is an imposing set of fossilised toothy jaws, blackened by millions of years of entombment – and some antiquated varnish – on the wall by the staircase leading to the geology displays. These jaws, discovered at Lyme Regis, Dorset, on England's Jurassic Coast, leave little indication of the form of the animal to which they belonged. However, thanks to the relative abundance of these types of animal, palaeontologists have a very good idea of how these animals looked and lived.

The fossilised jaws of Temnodontosaurus, at Wisbech & Fenland Museum. (Copyright © 2018 Garry Monger)

The animal represented by those jaws is Temnodontosaurus platydon, a large marine reptile whose name means 'cutting tooth', in reference to its carnivorous nature. It belongs to a group of animals called ichthyosaurs, meaning 'fish lizard', which were reptiles that evolved fish-like bodies, having entirely abandoned the land for the sea. Their legs became flattened to form paddles, and they developed deep tail fins to drive them through the water. Temnodontosaurus specimens of nearly 40 feet in length are known, placing them among the largest of all ichthyosaurs. Remains of fossilised gut contents show that common prey items included fish, squid, and other ichthyosaurs. Temnodontosaurus may have hunted in deep water where the light was poor, as suggested by its enormous eyes, which are among the largest of all known vertebrates.

Although ichthyosaurs were not closely related to dinosaurs, they lived at around the same time, appearing in the early Triassic and going extinct during the last half of the Cretaceous period, followed by most dinosaur families at the end of the Cretaceous.

Temnodontosaurus platydon, whose jaws guard Wisbech & Fenland Museum's geology displays.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is currently playing at both The Light Cinema and The Luxe.

Gareth Monger is a scientific and natural history illustrator from Wisbech, currently living in the Northwest. He will be launching a book of prehistoric animal reconstructions, titled 'A Disarray Of Palaeoart', at a signing at the museum on Saturday 21st July, and will be at the museum again on the 28th. A selection of his illustrations will be on display throughout the duration of Dinosaur!

'A Disarray Of Palaeoart' is available right now, at Lulu (here).


*Yeah, yeah, I know; ichthyosaurs aren't dinosaurs. But 'dinosaur' IS a buzz word, and there's a certain amount of pressure from publishers to use it to hook readers, hence its presence in the title.

Wisbech Museum is located at Museum Square, Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, PE13 1ES, and is open Tuesday—Saturday.