Published online 15 November 2007 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2007.249

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Dinosaur discovered after a century on the shelf

New sauropod genus lay unappreciated in London museum basement for 113 years.

One spine bone can tell a big story.Courtesy of University of Portsmouth

A part-time palaeontologist who programs computers as a day job has uncovered a new dinosaur species — not buried in the ground but hidden in the bowels of the Natural History Museum in London, UK.

After 113 years lying unloved and unstudied in the museum's vaults, the fossil's importance was finally realized by Mike Taylor, who was trawling the museum's collections as part of his part-time study for a PhD at the University of Portsmouth.

He stumbled across the new species — represented by a single bone from the dinosaur's spine — and realized that it was unique. "It leapt out at me as being different," says Taylor, who specializes in sauropods, the group of long-necked, plant-eating dinosaurs that includes the famous Diplodocus.

The newly described dinosaur is not just a new species but belongs to a completely new genus, christened Xenoposeidon. 'Xeno', which translates as 'alien', reflects the fact that it is quite different to its known relatives. 'Poseidon' comes from the Greek for 'Earth shaker'.

Relatively small

The biggest sauropods could reach a staggering 70 tonnes — the size of today's biggest whales. But Xenoposeidon was probably more modestly proportioned, coming in at about the size of an elephant. It probably lived around 140 million years ago, say Taylor and his Portsmouth colleague Darren Naish, who describe the specimen in the journal Palaeontology1.

The creature's remains are represented by just the single 30-centimetre bone uncovered by Taylor at the museum. The museum's records show that the specimen was dug up in the early 1890s near Hastings, in southern England, by the fossil-hunter Philip James Rufford.

The size of an elephant, but still small for a sauropod.Courtesy of University of Portsmouth

When it was deposited in the museum, it was briefly reviewed by palaeontologist Richard Lydekker, before beginning its long wait to achieve its due recognition.

Although 113 years is not much when you've been dead for 140 thousand millennia, it nevertheless seems remarkable that a new dinosaur genus could go unnoticed for so long in the museum's collection. But with such a huge archive, noteworthy items can indeed escape recognition, says Paul Barrett, a palaeontologist at the museum. "We have thousands of dinosaur specimens in our collection," he says. "Our collections still offer us lots of surprises."

Bones of contention

Taylor adds that the fact that this dinosaur is represented by a solitary bone probably contributed to its elusiveness. "If it's only a single bone it is so much easier to 'lose down the back of the sofa'," he says.

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Vertebrae are among the most readily preserved elements of sauropod skeletons — in contrast with their relatively small skulls, which do not fossilize as easily, says Taylor. But because their body plans are fairly well-studied, a single bone from the spine can reveal lots about a sauropod's overall shape and size.

Taylor, who hopes to complete his part-time doctoral studies in the next two to four years, says he is "extremely confident" that more new species will be found buried in museum collections.

But the computer programmer says he's not tempted to trade in his high-tech job to become a full-time fossil hunter. "Pretty much all I know is sauropods — in fact pretty much all I know is sauropod mid-dorsal vertebrae," he says.

Without Taylor's expertise, though, Xenoposeidon might never have come to light, says Sandra Chapman, the museum's curator of fossil amphibians, reptiles and birds. "It just took Mike to notice it in a moment," she reflects. "He's very thorough and very meticulous." 

  • References

    1. Taylor, M. P. & Naish, D. Palaeontology 50, 1547-1564 (2007).
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