Friday, June 13, 2014

Dinosaurs of Brussels

Brussels is an intriguing city - home to the European Parliament, breathtakingly stunning buildings, more recent, butt-ugly buildings, fantastic beer, busy but untalented graffiti artists, and countless gift shops stuffed with tiny statuettes of a young boy taking a leak. It's also home to the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences*, also known as the Museum of Natural Sciences, and confusingly promoted about town using just the word 'museum' (often, but not always, accompanied by a John Sibbick-aping Iguanodon logo). The RBINS boasts the largest dinosaur gallery in Europe, occupying some 300 square metres. Fortunately for all concerned, it's a completely wonderful piece of work, packed with far, far more than the spiky-thumbed ornithopods you were expecting.

Even so, dinosaurs are the stars of the show here, and none more so than Iguanodon bernissartensis, that most quintessentially Belgian of stab-happy ornithischian herbivores. And quite right, too. The logo besides, visitors to the museum are greeted with a giant wooden statue of an Iguanodon in Louis Dollo-style, tail-dragging pose, positioned right outside the entrance. It's a welcome taster for what's inside...

Most natural history museum visitors will be used to seeing a single Dollo-style Iguanodon, a seemingly obligatory inclusion for its historical significance, and often maintained with its classic 'tottering tripod' posture. In Brussels, however, you'll gaze upon a whole herd of the brutes, beautifully presented inside an enormous glass box. A Mantellisaurus atherfieldensis is thrown in for good measure, too (see bottom photo above). It's a positive embarrassment of Iguanodon, and a really fantastic sight. But they're inaccurate, right? Shouldn't the museum point out that heroic Dr David 'Dinosaur!' Norman swept away this vision of Iguanodon back in the '80s? Don't worry, they've thought of that.

It would have been quite easy for the museum to explain it all away on a plaque, so a full mounted skeleton (or nearly full - it's a bit tail-less) is a wonderful inclusion. It maintains the link to the museum's history, while also providing a none-better illustration of how our views about these animals have moved on. Furthermore, it's actually quite rare to see Iguanodon mounted in this more accurate, quadrupedal fashion, and it radically transforms one's perception of this animal - from comedy waddling thumbs-upper to striding ornithopod powerhouse.

In most other museums, the Iguanodon would completely steal the show. Here, they must compete with a panoply of other saurians. On the theropod side, we of course have that most usual of suspects - a mount of the Tyrannosaurus known as 'Stan', or as I prefer to call it, 'Captain Dangleteeth'. Still, it's a nice mount. Gastralia! Vestigial metacarpal! Furcula! Yippee!

Mounted alongside Rootin' Tootin' Rexy is Velociraptor, thus prompting every museum visitor's girlfriend to ask - "How come they were so big in Jurassic Park, then?". (Clearly, I haven't been working hard enough.) There's even an Archaeopteryx In A Box - a rare example of a 3D mount of this dinosaur. While it's lovely to see handsome mounts of the famous names - and especially lovely that one can walk around and admire them from every angle, without any glass screens to get in the way - the museum does also cater for more...unusual tastes.

...Although having said that, Cryolophosaurus is pretty well-known these days. The skull on this cast is more Allosaurus-like than is now thought likely, but this is still an impressive mount,  stressing the surprisingly large size of this quite early dinosaur. Again, the opportunity to examine and take photos of this cast from every angle - the front, sides, even from the balcony above - is to be applauded. Nearby, an interactive display explains the story of how Cryolophosaurus was found.

Cryolophosaurus was one of many 'firsts' for me in Brussels, as was Eoraptor, the basal saurischian that the fossil record seemingly regurgitated purely to bring about an intense furrowing of brows. This mount is easily missed by those running around gawping at the big spectaculars, but is an ideal inclusion in an exhibit that looks at where dinosaurs came from and their continued evolution. It's also a celebration of their massive diversity, and that's where poser sauropods come in.

As someone who grew up with the Natural History Museum in London, I am used to viewing Diplodocus as a stately behemoth, a noble beast to be presented in a solid standing posture on a highly polished plinth, like some mighty military figure of the Jurassic. The RBINS' more modern approach is, therefore, a real delight to behold - here, the traditionally stoic Dippy clambers over the top of the gallery's displays and peers down at a chicken. It's a fantastically playful mount. (NHM veterans may also wish to note the single claw on the hand, a tell-tale sign that this is a much more recent creation.)

Ornithischians (other than Iguanodon) do get their due, too. Near Sir Dodgy Dentures, several of them are clustered together on one base, all the better to compare their various bodily proportions. Perhaps the most famous of the bunch is Olorotitan, and a beautiful cast shows just what is currently known of this animal (although a display nearby promises more to come).

There's also a mount of the lesser-known Amurosaurus, a contemporary of Olorotitan. Here, the incomplete skull cast allows a fantastic glimpse at the animal's frankly absurd dental battery. Again, accompanying displays offer details on the animals' discovery and research conducted by RBINS scientists, which is always a welcome inclusion.

The gallery's spacious interior also leaves plenty of room for this hadrosaur, never knowingly depicted without a nest...

...And a certain spiky-tailed thyreophoran. Actually, I was very excited about this one - it's the first full Stegosaurus mount that I've seen (there aren't any in the UK that I'm aware of). I'm sure there's nothing particularly remarkable about it (in fact, I'm quite certain that this cast is on display in a number of museums in the States in particular), but it provided a heart-warming moment of geekery for me, at least. At last, here was the fancy-backed one in all its chunky-limbed, pin-headed glory...something I've wanted to see since my childhood.

That other great herbivorous dinosaur staple, Triceratops, puts in an appearance too; it's a fittingly dynamic pose, even if that frill looks a bit iffy (or is it just me?). Observant readers may have noted the small models placed beside the skeletal mounts - unfortunately, most of these aren't especially good, with the Triceratops being particularly derpy.

Oh dear. But never mind that; this remains one of the greatest dinosaur galleries I have ever had the pleasure of visiting in a natural history museum (although I'll admit to not having seen so many). It's so enormous, the RBINS can cram in numerous large dinosaurs and still leave room for terribly bored significant others to pace about and shrug, and for children to run around shrieking and generally being a nuisance, as they are wont to do. Although there is a clear route around the exhibits, one is free to wander off, explore, and analyse the specimens from every angle. There are even gorgeous wrought iron staircases and balconies. In short, it's the perfect space to display dinosaurs, and it's utilised brilliantly.

All this, and I haven't even got to the best part. Whereas certain other museum dinosaur galleries shy away from declaring birds to be Actual Living Dinosaurs, the RBINS makes no bones (arf) about it. The place could be dubbed Feduccia's Nightmare. Not only is the message stated explicitly, it's delivered in the most deliciously subtle way through the judicious employment of stuffed birds throughout. While those standing by the skeletons are obvious, I completely missed the numerous specimens hanging from the ceiling at the gallery's entrance, and, well, there's a reason for the chickens. What's more, Cenozoic bird specimens (real ones!) are presented as evidence of the dinosaurs surviving the K/Pg extinction. Presenting: Messelornis, from over 45 million years ago.

Beautiful. I'd love to write more about the RBINS, but my tour was a little whistle-stop. Nevertheless, I think the new mosasaur room deserves an airing, so I'll try and cram in a post about that soon (there are a lot of very cool original specimens in there). But this weekend, I'm off to see more dodgy robosaurs...

*Dutch: Koninklijk Belgisch Instituut voor Natuurwetenschappen, French: Muséum des sciences blahblah something


  1. I am grotesquely gelatinous! But this at least means you'll be better able to take the lead and guide me here when we make that Swansong trip. ;)

    And for my 'me too!' moment of the day/week/whatever: that delightfully tottering, peering Diplodocus makes me think of something I might draw.

  2. Aah. Been there meself, once upon a time, thoroughly enjoyed it. Unfortunately I was there with a bunch of relatively uninterested people so I didn't get to spend very long, geeking out. Still, I can tick the Iguanodon (and the Bernissartia!) off my bucket list. :)

  3. Hmm, is it just me or does calling a small gracile Iguanodont with no thumb-spikes a new genus like calling a gracile baby eland with no horns a new genus? I don't know if I'm the only one who doubts Mantellisaurus.

    1. It does have thumb spikes. But I get the point.

  4. "A Mantellisaurus atherfieldensis is thrown in for good measure, too (see bottom photo above)."

    If there's 1 thing I've learned from Tet Zoo, it's that "Paul’s taxonomy should be ignored" ( ). That's why, for as long as at least some non-crazy dino experts do so (E.g. Maidment & Barrett: ), I'll continue to refer to Mantellisaurus as Iguanodon atherfieldensis.

    BTW, many thanks for this post. I can now see why Rey calls RBINS "the -definitively- best dinosaur museum in Europe" ( ), although I'm still partial to NHM London for its website & popular books.


    1. While I completely agree to ignore Paul's taxonomy if it's otherwise unsupported, I'm unaware of any recent analysis that places atherfieldensis closer to bernissartensis than to hadrosaurids (e.g. McDonald, 2012). So unless you support paraphyletic genera, it's best to separate them ala Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan.

    2. Maybe I'm being too stubborn & traditional. I mean, there was the "'Age of the Dinosaur" exhibition at the same museum ( ).


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  6. "thus prompting every museum visitor's girlfriend to ask" Just would like to point out that sentence could be probably construed as stereotypical and sexist. Great post and pictures though!


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