Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals of England

In a way, England was the birthplace of dinosaurs—not the first, real dinosaurs, which evolved in South America 130 million years ago, but the modern, scientific conception of dinosaurs, which started to take root in the United Kingdom in the early 19th century. The most notable English dinosaurs and prehistoric animals include Iguanodon and Megalosaurus.

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Acanthopholis, a dinosaur of England. Eduardo Camarga

It sounds like a city in ancient Greece, but Acanthopholis (meaning "spiny scales") was actually one of the first identified nodosaurs—a family of armored dinosaurs closely related to ankylosaurs. The remains of this middle Cretaceous plant-eater were discovered in 1865, in Kent, and forwarded to the famous naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley for study. Over the course of the next century, various dinosaurs were classified as species of Acanthopholis, but the vast majority are today believed to be unrelated.

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Baryonyx, a dinosaur of England. Wikimedia Commons

Unlike most English dinosaurs, Baronyx was discovered relatively recently, in 1983, when an amateur fossil hunter happened across a huge claw embedded in a clay quarry in Surrey. Amazingly, it turned out that the early Cretaceous Baryonyx (meaning "giant claw") was a long-snouted, slightly smaller cousin of the giant African dinosaurs Spinosaurus and Suchomimus. We know that Baryonyx had a piscivorous diet since one fossil specimen harbors the remains of the prehistoric fish Lepidotes.

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Dimorphodon, a pterosaur of England. Dmitry Bogdanov

Dimorphodon was discovered in England almost 200 years ago—by the pioneering fossil-hunter Mary Anning—at a time when scientists didn't have the necessary conceptual framework to understand it. The famous paleontologist Richard Owen insisted that Dimorphodon was a terrestrial, four-footed reptile, while Harry Seeley was a bit closer to the mark, speculating that this late Jurassic creature might have run on two legs. It took a few decades for Dimorphodon to be conclusively identified for what it was: a small, big-headed, long-tailed pterosaur.

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Ichthyosaurus, a marine reptile of England. Nobu Tamura

Not only did Mary Anning discover one of the first identified pterosaurs; in the early 19th century, she unearthed the remains of one of the first identified marine reptiles as well. Ichthyosaurus, the "fish lizard," was the late Jurassic equivalent of a bluefin tuna, a streamlined, muscular, 200-pound ocean dweller that fed on fish and other marine organisms. It has since lent its name to an entire family of marine reptiles, the ichthyosaurs, which went extinct by the beginning of the Cretaceous period.

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Eotyrannus, a dinosaur of England. Jura Park

One doesn't normally associate tyrannosaurs with England—the remains of these Cretaceous meat-eaters are more commonly discovered in North America and Asia—which is why the 2001 announcement of Eotyrannus (meaning "dawn tyrant") came as such a surprise. This 500-pound theropod preceded its more famous cousin Tyrannosaurus rex by at least 50 million years, and it may well have been covered with feathers. One of its closest relatives was an Asian tyrannosaur, Dilong.

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Hypsilophodon, a dinosaur of England. Wikimedia Commons

For decades after its discovery, in the Isle of Wight in 1849, Hypsilophodon (meaning "high-ridged tooth") was one of the world's most misunderstood dinosaurs. Paleontologists speculated that this ornithopod lived high up in the branches of trees (to escape the depredations of Megalosaurus); that it was covered with armor plating; and that it was much bigger than it actually was (150 pounds, compared to today's more sober estimate of 50 pounds). It turns out that Hypsilophodon's main asset was its speed, made possible by its light build and bipedal posture.

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Iguanodon, a dinosaur of England. Wikimedia Commons

The second dinosaur ever to be named (after Megalosaurus), Iguanodon was discovered in 1822 by the English naturalist Gideon Mantell, who came across some fossilized teeth during a walk in Sussex. For over a century afterward, pretty much every early Cretaceous ornithopod that even vaguely resembled Iguanodon was stuffed into its genus, creating a wealth of confusion (and dubious species) that paleontologists are still sorting out—usually by creating new genera (like the recently named Kukufeldia).

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Megalosaurus, a dinosaur of England. Wikimedia Commons

The first dinosaur ever to be named, Megalosaurus yielded fossil specimens as long ago as 1676, but it wasn't described systematically until 150 years later, by William Buckland. This late Jurassic theropod quickly became so famous that it was even name-dropped by Charles Dickens, in his novel "Bleak House": "It would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill."

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Metriacanthosaurus, a dinosaur of England. Sergey Krasovskiy

A case study in the confusion and excitement caused by Megalosaurus is its fellow English theropod Metriacanthosaurus. When this dinosaur was discovered in southeast England in 1922, it was immediately classified as a Megalosaurus species, not an uncommon fate for late Jurassic meat-eaters of uncertain provenance. It was only in 1964 that paleontologist Alick Walker created the genus Metriacanthosaurus (meaning "moderately spined lizard"), and it has since been determined that this carnivore was a close relative of the Asian Sinraptor.

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Plesiosaurus, a marine reptile of England. Nobu Tamura

Not only did Mary Anning discover the fossils of Dimorphodon and Ichthyosaurus, but she was also the motive force behind the discovery of Plesiosaurus, a long-necked marine reptile of the late Jurassic period. Oddly enough, Plesiosaurus (or one of its plesiosaur relatives) has been suggested as a possible inhabitant of Loch Ness in Scotland, though not by any reputable scientists. Anning herself, a beacon of Enlightenment England, would probably have laughed such speculation off as complete nonsense.

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Strauss, Bob. "Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals of England." ThoughtCo, Sep. 1, 2021, thoughtco.com/dinosaurs-and-prehistoric-animals-of-england-1092066. Strauss, Bob. (2021, September 1). Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals of England. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/dinosaurs-and-prehistoric-animals-of-england-1092066 Strauss, Bob. "Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals of England." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/dinosaurs-and-prehistoric-animals-of-england-1092066 (accessed March 26, 2023).