Iguanodon

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A pair of Iguanodon bernissartensis grazing Belgium Early Cretaceous Period Ardeosaurus in foreground Archaeopteryx in background

Iguanodon (meaning “iguana-tooth”) is a genus of ornithopod dinosaur that existed roughly halfway between the first of the swift bipedal hypsilophodontids of the mid-Jurassic and the duck-billed dinosaurs of the late Cretaceous. While many species have been classified in the genus Iguanodon, dating from the late Jurassic Period to the early Cretaceous Period of Asia, Europe, and North America, research in the first decade of the 21st century suggests that there is only one well-substantiated species: I. bernissartensis, which lived from the late Barremian to the earliest Aptian ages (Early Cretaceous) in Belgium, Spain, and possibly elsewhere in Europe, between about 126 and 125 million years ago. Iguanodon were large, bulky herbivores. Distinctive features include large thumb spikes, which were possibly used for defense against predators, combined with long prehensile fifth fingers able to forage for food.

The genus was named in 1825 by English geologist Gideon Mantell, based on fossil specimens that are now assigned to Therosaurus and MantellodonIguanodon was the second type of dinosaur formally named based on fossil specimens, after Megalosaurus. Together with Megalosaurus and Hylaeosaurus, it was one of the three genera originally used to define Dinosauria. The genus Iguanodon belongs to the larger group Iguanodontia, along with the duck-billed hadrosaurs. The taxonomy of this genus continues to be a topic of study as new species are named or long-standing ones reassigned to other genera.

I. bernissartensis skull and neck. Photo by Ghedoghedo

Scientific understanding of Iguanodon has evolved over time as new information has been obtained from fossils. The numerous specimens of this genus, including nearly complete skeletons from two well-known bonebeds, have allowed researchers to make informed hypotheses regarding many aspects of the living animal, including feeding, movement, and social behaviour. As one of the first scientifically well-known dinosaurs, Iguanodon has occupied a small but notable place in the public’s perception of dinosaurs, its artistic representation changing significantly in response to new interpretations of its remains.

Thumb spike

The thumb spike is one of the best-known features of Iguanodon. Although it was originally placed on the animal’s nose by Mantell, the complete Bernissart specimens allowed Dollo to place it correctly on the hand, as a modified thumb. (This would not be the last time a dinosaur’s modified thumb claw would be misinterpreted; NoasaurusBaryonyx, and Megaraptorare examples since the 1980s where an enlarged thumb claw was first put on the foot, as in dromaeosaurids.)

This thumb is typically interpreted as a close-quarter stiletto-like weapon against predators, although it could also have been used to break into seeds and fruits, or against other Iguanodon. One author has suggested that the spike was attached to a venom gland, but this has not been accepted, as the spike was not hollow, nor were there any grooves on the spike for conducting venom.

Hand of Iguanodon shown in the Natural History Museum. Credit to: Ballista.