Pioneers, Paleontologists and Poliacanthi

Pioneers, Paleontologists and Poliacanthi

With so many fascinating fossil finds and new species being discovered here on the Island through the centuries, we thought we’d pull it all together for you in a potted history of fossils & the Isle of Wight

The term ‘dinosaur’ was first used in 1841 by Sir Richard Owen after he examined a fossil that had been found on the Isle of Wight but the first documented finds on the Island were in 1829. Although it is likely that people were finding these strange relics but not realising what they were thousands of years ago. Shark’s teeth and trilobites have been found in stone age burial mounds for example.

Robert Hooke

The first person associated with the Island and known to have an interest in fossils was Robert Hooke (1635 – 1703), who was born in Freshwater and he is said to have looked for fossils on Headon Hill near Alum Bay. “He knew about the big ammonites and because creatures of this size are only found in ‘torrid environments’ he surmised that the Isle of Wight could have been somewhere else once upon a time,” said Trevor Price from dinosaur Isle.

Dean William Buckland

Dean William Buckland (1784-1856) was the first person to scientifically describe Megalosaurus (‘great lizard’) in 1824 and he was a visitor to the Island. The first material he found on the Island was in 1829 at Yaverland and was an Iguanodon (‘iguana tooth’) pedal phalanx (toe bone), but this was prior to the naming of ‘dinosaurs’.

In 1832, Buckland spent the summer at Yaverland, and found five boxes worth of fossils, the first Island dinosaur bones to be part of a dinosaur collection. William Buckland also had a complete Hypsilophodon skeleton in his collection from the Brighstone area, but failed to recognise it as a new species, believing it to be a baby Iguanodon.

Gideon Algernon Mantell

Gideon Algernon Mantell (1790-1852) was a physician and surgeon who lived in Lewes, East Sussex, and he first discovered the dinosaur he named Iguanodon in 1822 in a quarry in Cuckfield. He believed it was like a prehistoric iguana, which he named Iguanodon, meaning Iguana Tooth. Publishing the description in 1825, he became the second person to publish the discovery of a dinosaur.

Mantell’s curiosity led him to the Isle of Wight where in 1850 he wrote: “The quantity of bones collected from the seashore in Sandown, Brixton (Brighstone), Brook and Compton Bays during the last few years is very considerable; the examples I have seen and in the possession of different persons, must have belonged to between 150 and 200 individual dinosaurs.”

Mantell wrote several books on geology and palaeontology, including Geological excursions round the Isle of Wight and Along the Adjacent Coast of Dorsetshire in 1854, and the article Notes On The Wealden Strata of the Isle of Wight, with an Account of the Bones of Iguanodon and Other Reptiles Discovered at Brook Point and Sandown Bay in the second Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London in 1846. The dinosaur Iguanodon mantelli is named after him.

Sir Richard Owen

Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892) is perhaps most famous for inventing the term ‘Dinosauria’ in 1842 to describe the first three dinosaurs to be discovered – Buckland’s Megalosaurus and Mantell’s Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus. He was instrumental in establishing the British Museum of Natural History, now known as the Natural History Museum.

Owen created the name ‘Dinosauria’ after closely examining a fossil discovered on the Isle of Wight in late 1841. This was the first Iguanodon sacrum discovered, and Owen noticed that it had identical characteristics to the sacrum of Megalosaurus: the five sacral vertebrae that formed the lower part of the spine of both Megalosaurus and Iguanodon were fused identically1. This unique characteristic immediately distinguished the dinosaurs from the other pre-historic lizards found; the sea lizards, pterosaurs and crocodiles did not have a fused sacrum. This discovery meant that dinosaurs could be united into a distinct group separate from all other forms of prehistoric reptiles, and Owen created the name ‘Dinosauria’ in recognition.

John Whitaker Hulke

John Whitaker Hulke (1830-1895) was a British surgeon, geologist and long-time fossil collector from the Wealden cliffs of the Isle of Wight. His work on vertebrate paleontology included studies of Iguanodon and Hypsilophodon from the Wealden (Lower Cretaceous).

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) started writing The Origin Of The Species (first published in 1859) while staying at Sandown, very near Yaverland and it is likely that he went dinosaur fossil hunting while he was here as he would have been aware of recent finds.

William Fox

But the real champion of dinosaur fossil hunting was local resident, William Fox (1813-1881), curate of Brighstone Village, who was avidly collecting fossils around the Brighstone area – known as Brixham in those days – and has more English dinosaurs named after him than anyone else.  He would write about his finds to Richard Owen, who had been introduced to him by the poet Tennyson in 1865 and to and Gideon Mantell.  Although he was not a professional scientist William Fox became obsessed with dinosaur bone hunting and also bought fossils from local fishermen,  discovering  the rear of the first four Poliacanthi to be found on the Island.

But William Fox’s dinosaur hunting got him into trouble with the church as he was described as putting “always the bones first and the parish next”. He was denied a permanent position in Brighstone but in a letter to Owen said: “I cannot leave this place while I have any money left to live on, I take such deep joy in hunting for old dragons.” Although Fox was unable to remain curate of Brighstone Church he stayed on the Island until he died.

Fox’s collection of more than 500 specimenswas acquired by the Natural History Museum after his death and he is credited with the finding of several species, most described by his friend Owen and named by him after their finder. These include Polacanthus foxii, Hypsilophodon foxii, Eucamerotus foxi,Iguanodon foxii, Calamosaurus foxii (formerly Calamospondylus) and Aristosuchus.

Samuel Husbands Beckles

Samuel Husbands Beckles (1814-1890) visited the Isle of Wight on several occasions and was the first person to discover dinosaur footprints on the Island.  He described these in ‘On Some Natural Casts of Footprints from the Wealden of the Isle of Wight and Swanage’, published in 1862 in both ‘The Geologist’ and the ‘Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London’

Reginald Hooley

Reginald Hooley (1865-1923), a Southampton business man, was making frequent visits to the Island around the turn of the twentieth century and found a near complete skeleton of a six metre long Iguanodon Atherfieldensis, several incomplete skeletons and thousands of individual bones.