Field of Science

The dinosaur as kangaroo

In 1841, during a lecture in which he coined the term "dinosaurs", the English palaeontologist Richard Owen described some of the new established species of this group of vertebrates, including the Iguanodon. He imagined the Iguanodon like a chimera in part crocodile, in part elephant with elements of a hippopotamus, with a kind of horn at the end of the snout, in the end reminiscent in aspect of a modern rhinoceros.
In 1854 the sculptor and artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins created some models of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, under the supervision of Owen, to be displayed in the gardens of the Crystal Palace in south London.

Fig.1. In 1860 Hawkins published "A Comparative View of the Human and Animal Frame" as a work intended by him "to give a comparative view of the variation in form of the bony skeleton or framework of those animals most frequently required by the artist, designer, or ornamentist".

The approach for the reconstruction and representation of the animals adopted by Owen and later by Hawkins can be explained by considering the historical context.
Hawkins was a follower of the theory of "types" developed by the French naturalist Cuvier - Cuvier asserted that in the animal anatomy there were four basic types of "animal forms or archetypes" (a concept comparable in it's significance to the modern concept of Phyla). Owen maintained a similar approach, claiming that the possible anatomical "types" of animals are limited.
Therefore between apparent different groups of animals, like reptiles and mammals, there exist similar types and forms of life. The Victorian dinosaurs were the reptilian equivalent of quadruped large carnivore or herbivore mammals, and so Hawkins reconstructed the dinosaurs as large mammals with only the scaly surface identifying them as reptiles.

Owens's dinosaurs had also two other advantages: 1) The, compared to modern represents, superior prehistoric reptiles confuted the proposed "scala naturae", the ladder of progress in geological time, of the young "evolutionists" movement, and 2) the super - reptiles of course were once inhabitants of England, nature itself provided evidence that Britain was a higher developed nation already in the geological past.

The exhibition in London was a great success, and in 1868 Hawkins was invited by the American Museum of Natural History in New York to organize a similar spectacle in Central Park.

Fig.2. The laboratory of Hawkins in New York. It's interesting to note that in front of the dinosaur is collocated a (presumably giant) deer in a very similar pose.

He designed an enormous stage, where dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals were shown during predation, in battle and quiet browsing. But the organized crime in the city, financing the project, decided that the "business" would not earn as much money as planed, and stopped the work destroying the models in preparation. An appalled Hawkins went back to Princeton, from his New - Yorker project only a few sketches and drawings survived.
To celebrate the centenary of the declaration of independence from 1876 to 1878 he began to work again on a model of a dinosaur, this time a Hadrosaurus, a species described in 1856 by the American palaeontologist Leidy. Observing the disproportion in size of the limbs, Leidy in 1858 had proposed a bipedal posture for the animal. The upright standing model of Hadrosaurus displayed at Princeton is today considered the first dinosaur to be reconstructed in a (more) correct manner.

Then in 1877, in a coal mine near the Belgian town of Bernissart, 31 perfectly preserved skeletons of Iguanodon were discovered.
The outstanding preservation allowed the palaeontologist Louis Dollo (1857-1931) to describe in detail the anatomy and biology of the animals. Dollo confirmed the reconstruction of Leidy, the forelimbs seemed too fragile to support the body, and refuted the model of Owens rhinoceros.
But doing so, a problem emerged: to which modern animals should artists refer for the reconstruction of body and especially posture of the dinosaurs?
Initially Dollo used as reference frogs, then ostriches and other ratites, to shift finally to the kangaroo in a resting pose and using it as a model.

Fig.3. Figure showing a phase in the reconstruction of a skeletons of Iguanodon from Bernissart, note in the background a skeleton of a kangaroo, animal used by Dollo as a reference model for the posture of the dinosaur (figure from GAYRARD-VALES 1987, the Institut Royal des Sciences Naturelles de Belgique, Brussels).

The famous bipedal reconstruction of Dollo's Iguanodons will influence later generations of palaeoartists.

Charles R. Knight (1874-1953) was an American artist specializing in animal models and drawings. In 1896/97 he produces in collaboration with Edward Drinker Cope, palaeontologist of the American Museum of Natural History, an oil painting depicting a group of dinosaur of the genus Laelaps during the act of fighting, doing even (at least it seems) a somersault!
In an early article published in “The American Naturalist” (1868), Cope himself evokes the figure of a kangaroo:

"...joined with the massive tail points to a semi erect position like that of the Kangaroos while the lightness and strength of the great femur and tibia are altogether appropriate to great powers of leaping."

The image of the reconstruction by Knight, but influenced by Cope, is first exposed in public and then published in the "Century" magazine, from where it will soon be copied by other newspapers and enter the collective mind and popular culture.

Fig.4. C. Knigth (1896) "Laelaps".

Not only the image of dinosaurs resembling, even acting, like kangaroos so for decades will spread in form of depictions, it is even immortalized in various (pulp-)stories and in modern classic novels.

In a story of 1891 in “Hardwicke's Science-Gossip”, a short-lived 19th century pop-sci magazine, we read:

“The Laelaps was forty feet long, stood twenty-five feet high on its hindlegs, and was built like a kangaroo. It was the most astonishing jumper that ever existed, with teeth for cutting and sharp claws on the front feet, evidently designed for tearing out its adversary's eyes.”

Sir John William Dawson, geologist, depicts Laelaps in his 1873 pop-sci book “The Story of Earth and Man” as follows:

“Had we seen the eagle clawed Laelaps rushing on his prey; throwing his huge bulk perhaps thirty feet through the air, and crushing to the earth under his gigantic talons some feebler Hadrosaur, we should have shudderingly preferred the companionship of modern wolves and tigers to that of those savage and gigantic monsters of the Mesozoic.”

The writer Arhur Conan Doyle - known for his Sherlock Holmes stories - in 1912 publishes "The Lost World". The sudden appearance in the novel of a dinosaur he describes as follows: "I said deliberately" jumping", because the monster moved like a kangaroo, and jumped straight on its powerful hind legs - the forelegs were folded in front of the chest. It seemed much bigger then an erected elephant. But despite it's huge size, it's movements were very swift." (Doyle 1912: p. 183).


DWORSKY, A. : Die sich wandelnde Idee des Dinosauriers. Exposé zur Dissertation
GAYRARD-VALY, Y. (1987): Les fossiles - empreinte des mondes disparus. Editions Gallimard, Paris: 208

Online Resources:

ORR, D. (03.08.2010): Leaping Laelaps, Indeed. Accessed 04.08.2010

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