Saturday, May 2, 2015

Down on the (former) Dinosaur Farm

The Isle of Wight seemed faintly magical to me as a child - I mean, there was Blackgang Chine for a start, but where else could you pull off a country road with stunning views of the sea, cliffs and open downland, drive down a track, enter a farmyard barn and be surrounded by fossils and dinosaur art? (No, don't tell me where else you can do that. I don't wanna know.) The Dinosaur Farm museum, as it was back in the '90s, was stupendously exciting to a dino-entranced kiddiwink - it felt raw and unpolished, with fossil hunters actually preparing their finds on-site, and seemed to show the (very fragmentary) reality of finding fossils. Unfortunately, the museum closed a few years ago - but it was swiftly reopened by former staff members, and is now better than ever.

(An aside: I visited with Niroot, who took most of the photos you see here. I will mark the pictures with 'NP' as appropriate. Also, I'll probably get various small details wrong here; please correct me in the comments.)

Dinosaur Expeditions CIC now run the old barn as their 'Dinosaur Expeditions Centre', a showcase for local fossil hunting (as the name suggests, they also run fossil finding trips in the area). In addition to a lot of fascinating old bones, there's also a special emphasis on palaeoart. The above diorama (featuring a former Minmi model being slowly transformed into a half-size Polacanthus, hence the head) features no less than the largest Sibbick painting ever as its backdrop. Our wonderful host Oliver Mattsson provides some sense of scale. Absolutely gorgeous, of course (and the painting's pretty good too).

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The painting features a host of Isle of Wight dinosaurs, including non-avian coelurosaurian theropods (here restored as small dromaeosaurs), iguanodonts, a brachiosaur and the spinosaur Baryonyx. The flora is also based on the authentic palaeoflora of the region, and includes at least one species (the broad-leafed plant next to Baryonyx in the below close-up) never depicted before. It's a stunning, richly detailed piece that rewards closer inspection, as more and more animals become apparent. The two birds resting on a log just off centre are particularly easily missed.

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Naturally, I'm drawn to the big theropods, and the Baryonyx has a typically Sibbickian colour scheme, with a dull grey-brown base being interrupted by vibrant blue, yellow and burnt orange striped and dappled patterns. This restoration appears unusually hump-backed at first glance, but this is mostly down to the stooped posture (and hey, Baryonyx did actually have some pretty tall verts, even if they weren't as ridiculous-looking as those on some of its relatives).

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The Minmi/Polacanthus-to-be that forms the centrepiece of the three dimensional part of the diorama is still very much a work in progress, and currently sports an adorable cardboard head. Oliver showed us a box of spiky osteoderms, sculpted by himself, that will be painted and attached in the near future. No doubt a Gastonia-like head will follow (the head of Polacanthus itself being yet unknown).

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Opposite the diorama, the Centre boasts an original Bob Nicholls piece, 'live-painted' during the BBC's Live From Dinosaur Island series back in 2001 (a week-long event during which, sadly, nothing particularly spectacular was found). It's another huge painting, so I thought it'd be worth picking a shot with another human scale bar - even if that happens to be me. Apologies. Unlike me, the Nicholls artwork is lovely - the Neovenator and unfortunate iguanodont sport very fetching stripy colour schemes, and the palaeoenvironment is wonderfully realised. Apparently, there would likely be more vegetation included if this scene were to be painted today - but such is the nature of the science.

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The Centre can even boast one of Mark Witton's lifesize giant pterosaur models, once exhibited in London (see Darren Naish's article from the time, featuring a seemingly teenage John Conway), saved from an ignominious fate of rotting outside Portsmouth University and serving as an impromptu bed for drunken students to pass out on (possibly). What a stunner! While it was unfortunately damaged during its time outdoors - and much of the beak was chopped off in order to get it into the barn in the first place - there are plans afoot to resculpt the missing parts and stick 'em back on as required. Hurrah!

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And speaking of giants...the Dinosaur Expeditions team are currently working on a mounted skeleton of the island's brachiosaur, based on scaled-up elements of a juvenile specimen. Upon completion, it's set to be the largest mounted dinosaur skeleton in the UK. There's still a fair way to go, of course, but it's worth noting that a fair number of elements, including ribs and vertebrae, are in storage nearby and due to be mounted in the near future. I'd love to come back next year and see how far along they are with this - it should be spectacular even before it's finished.

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In all the excitement over the wonderful palaeoart on show, it's easy to overlook the fossils - which are, of course, the very reason for the Centre's existence. Just as with the more 'blockbuster' Dinosaur Isle museum over in Sandown, there's a lot of original, unique material on show that a more casual visitor might miss. The above case contains rare bits of Polacanthus, namely the ilium and a small section of the sacral shield (fused armour over the hips), which is certainly special enough in itself. However, what to make of a tiny lump of bone nearby, placed on a stand all by itself?

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This small piece of Polacanthus armour is, in fact, the only one of its type known. Originally posited as being part of a small 'tail club', the exact nature of this bony chunk is currently a matter of contention.

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Elsewhere, this cut 'n' polished Neovenator caudal vertebra is particularly eye-catching, although perhaps I am just drawn, magpie-like, to Shiny Things. Niroot was also especially taken by this specimen - Penny Newbury certainly did an excellent job.


Perhaps the museum's most significant collection of theropod parts consists of the most complete collection of Calamosaurus foxii bits anywhere - some collected by Oliver. These include the only known remains of the animal's leg (a tibia and metatarsals). Precious little is known about this small coelurosaur of otherwise uncertain affinities, and the Favorite Co. Velociraptor skeleton model is there mainly to illustrate what a small coelurosaur looks like. (The '90s-style nekkid dromaeosaur toy seems like an odd pick, although Oliver, at least, does explain to visitors that coelurosaurs are now thought to have been feathered.)

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Somewhat more visually spectacular is this truly enormous Baryonyx vert, which absolutely dwarfs the Calamospondylus tibia placed next to it. Baryonyx seems to be rather overshadowed by its bigger, more specialised relatives these days, so it's good to be reminded that it, too, was still pretty bloody huge. The Eotyrannus restoration here is by Peter Charles Montgomery*, and is one of a series of pieces by said artist on display in the Centre, which also features the excellent work of Beth Windle; they're keen on championing up-and-coming palaeoartists.

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Elsewhere, iguanodont specimens are, of course, in abundance - back in the Early Cretaceous, you wouldn't have been able to walk ten metres without bumping into one of the spiky-thumbed ones, eating ferns and mooing and switching between a bipedal and quadrupedal posture like some sort of oversized circus cow. The Centre contains specimens attributed to Mantellisaurus (the smaller 'Iguanodon' mounted at the Natural History Museum in London, for those who've been), the poorly known Proplanicoxa and the 'proper' Iguanodon, I. bernissartensis. While the latter animal makes for the more spectacular fossils (being a proper big ol' lump of an ornithopod), it's always fascinating to see specimens of its lesser-known relatives.


They've got sauropods too, of course - after all, the discovery of the 'Barnes High' sauropod led directly to the creation of the Dinosaur Farm back in the day. Why, there's an entire lovingly-put-together display case containing various sauropod specimens, as (partially) shown above. Incidentally, the museum-quality replica on show here is the Wild Safari Brachiosaurus, which I happen to have standing in my kitchen.

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And finally...upon arriving at the Centre, one can't help but spy this old fella lurking in the background, looking rather worse for wear. As I recall, this model was created to promote the Dinosaur Farm, and was parked near the otherwise quite inconspicuous entrance in the glorious tradition of the USA's roadside dinosaurs. Decrepit as it may be, I'm glad that that someone decided to hang on to this old guy, rather than consign him to a Blackgang-style scrapheap.

In all, I'm very glad we took the time to drop in on the Centre. The dedication exhibited (almost literally) by the volunteers running the place is truly exceptional - inspirational, even. It's run by dinosaur enthusiasts, for dinosaur enthusiasts, with nary an apology in sight. Although there's already plenty of wonderful stuff to see, perhaps the best aspect of the Centre is the huge promise that it holds - and as I'm sure you can imagine, I'm particularly excited about its potential as a new centre for exhibiting and celebrating palaeoart. Many thanks to Oliver for showing us round and doing a sterling job of explaining the various specimens - I hope we can meet again next time Niroot and I are on the island! (The first round's on me.)


*Warning: slightly ugly website, may induce Geocities flashbacks

5 comments:

  1. Interesting to see the part-assembled brachiosaur skeleton. My immediate gut reaction is that the ulna/radius look very short compared with the humerus. I wonder whether any or all of these sculpted elements are based on actual fossils?

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    Replies
    1. Some of them certainly are, although scaled up from a juvenile specimen.

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  2. I think that broad-leafed plant next to Baryonyx is the tree fern Weichselia. I've only seen it once in a dinosaur illustration before, which is odd considering it's known from every continent except australia and antarctica, from the middle jurassic through the very beginning of the late cretaceous.


    http://translate.google.com/translate?u=http%3A//aragosaurus.blogspot.com/2014/10/un-helecho-singular-que-convivia-con.html&hl=en&langpair=es|en&tbb=1&ie=UTF-8



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  3. The brachiosaur model was created on the mainland by a gentleman whose name I do not know. Apparently he made it for a school parade, or something, but didn't know what to do with it afterwards, but then sold it to Dinosaur Farm on the IOW. The neck had to be adjusted so that it fit under the deck of the car ferry on its journey over, which is funny as it now more accurately reflects the research of neck posture by Dr. Kent Stevens. It was originally grey, but was repainted red and green in the early 2000's.

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  4. "Unfortunately, the museum closed a few years ago - but it was swiftly reopened by former staff members, and is now better than ever."

    Reminds me of "Friends of Rogers" ( https://www.facebook.com/pages/Rogers-Environmental-Education-Center/156693884373558?sk=info&tab=page_info ).

    -Hadiaz

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