Wednesday 23 September 2015

Book review: British Polacanthid Dinosaurs by William T. Blows

Tentative reconstruction of the ankylosaur currently under study at the University of Southampton.
It would not be unreasonable to say that since their discovery in 1832 in a Sussex quarry, ankylosaurs have had a far more modest amount of attention directed at them than some of their more famous relatives. This may seem odd as the first to be discovered, Hylaeosaurus, was one of the three taxa that led Owen to erect the Dinosauria in 1842 and was the subject of one of Waterhouse Hawkins superb reconstructions at Crystal Palace. It seems that despite their spectacular array of spikes, clubs and shields they might forever be in the shadow of taxa considered more exciting by both palaentologists and the public alike, so a book dedicated to British ankylosaurs is a very welcome addition to the palaeontological literature.

William Blows has been working on British ankylosaurs for several decades and discovered and excavated one of the specimens discussed in this book (NHM R9293) and has published many papers on the subject in that time; he is probably the leading worker on British Wealden ankylosaurs. Siri Scientific Press, based in Manchester UK, are a prolific publisher of paleontological and natural history books and specialise in well-illustrated textbooks that often cover niche areas of interest, although they also publish more general volumes. One of their most recent publications was Dean Lomax and Nobumichi Tamura’s ‘Dinosaurs of Great Britain’, an exhaustive and lavishly illustrated review of British dinosaur specimens, some never figured before in the literature. 

British Polacanthid Dinosaurs continues in the same vein, although obviously concentrating on a far smaller number of specimens. The book begins with a review of British ankylosaur research (fronted by the excellent Neave Parker reconstruction) which discusses systematics, polacanthid synapomorphies, stratigraphy and possible relationships with other taxa, principally those from North America. This is followed by a historical account of the discovery of Hylaeosaurus and the subsequent milestones in British ankylosaur research. This includes some gems like the tale of Mr Lee’s lost sacral shield specimens (which I discussed here last year) and contains some wonderful quotes from early dinosaur workers such as Hulke and Nopsca. This chapter is a good overview of the subject and a welcome addition to the literature, putting modern research into British ankylosaurs into context.

The main bulk of the book consists of descriptions of most of the currently known specimens, broken down into sections by skeletal element: skull and jaws, vertebrae and ribs, limbs etc and the descriptions of the specimens are clear and detailed. This part of the book contains many photographs and these images are of excellent quality, captioned with accession numbers and (with the odd exception) are accompanied by scale bars and are the real strength of this book for ankylosaur workers; these images are a valuable resource. Most of the known specimens are covered here, although some are being worked on and are not included (this does include the Soton specimen, although the parts of the specimen held at Dinosaur Isle are figured and described here). The remainder of the book is given over to a brief discussion of other polacanthids, especially the North American taxa and the re-assignment of Polacanthus rudgwickensis to the newly erected taxon Horshamosaurus which Blows now considers a nodosaurid and not a polcanthid.

But there are a couple of issues. Firstly, who is the book aimed at?  At £59 plus postage this is an expensive volume and running at 220 pages not huge (although no-one can doubt the considerable work gone into creating it) and this would suggest it was aimed at academic and avocational palaeontologists rather than amateurs and curious layfolk. On the other hand, the tone of the book is not written in the scientific prose we expect from a paper or technical volume and the referencing is inconsistent. It contains some jargon but is more accessible than much of the scientific literature is, presumably for the benefit of the lay audience, but this gives the impression the book falls between two stools.

Secondly is the existence of the ‘Polacanthid’ clade. The author states his opinion on this subject right from the outset in the title of the book (as well as his distrust of modern phylogentics, stating: “It is possible too much faith is applied to cladograms”), and confirms his position in the text: Polacanthidae is a valid clade and most British ankylosaurs are polacanthids. A lay person coming to the subject via this book would be forgiven for thinking this issue is cut and dried, which it is not. There are conflicting hypothesis about whether Polacanthidae (a clade alongside Ankylosauridae and Nodosauridae) or Polacanthinae (a clade nested within either Ankylosauridae and Nodosauridae) represent a monophylectic clade. The author justifies his conclusion it is by citing support from Kirkland (1998), Carpenter (2001) and Burns and Currie (2014) as well as Martill and Naish (2001). Kirkland’s recovery of a polacanthine clade was based on morphological similarities between several taxa and supported by cladistic analysis, however Carpenter’s assignment of Polacanthus to polacanthidae was based on a priori sorting of the sampled taxa into the three clades which were then analysed. Martill and Naish (2001) adopt Kirkland’s suggestion of a polacanthid clade because of doubts about the evidence for polacathines as basal ankylosaurids rather then direct evidence to the contrary, whilst Barrett and Maidment (2010) adopt Thompson et al’s 2012 conclusion of these taxa as basal nodosaurids, however Arbour’s 2015 analysis of ankylosaurids recovers Gastonia as a basal ankylosaurid. There is much work to be done in untangling the relationships of basal ankylosaurs and at present the exact status of all British ankylosaurs are uncertain.

If you’re interested in ankylosaurs at all then it’s worth buying this book; if you're interested in or work with Early Cretaceous ankylosaurs it's essential. In years to come I can see this book being a very useful resource for workers and other interested parties alike; hopefully in future editions we will see more specimens are they come to light and are made available. It is a good review of the field as it stands from an author with decades of experience of studying British ankylosaurs and the images are superb, the specimen descriptions are detailed and the history of ankylosaur research is a great read.

If only it wasn’t so expensive.


Arbour, V. M., M. E. Burns, and P. J. Currie. 2011. A review of pelvic shield morphology in ankylosaurs (Dinosauria: Ornithischia). Journal of Paleontology 85:298–302.

Victoria M. Arbour & Philip J. Currie (2015): Systematics, phylogeny and palaeobiogeography of the ankylosaurid dinosaurs, Journal of Systematic Palaeontology, DOI: 10.1080/14772019.2015.1059985

Barrett, Paul M. and Maidment, Susannah C.R. 2011. Armoured Dinosaurs In: English Wealden fossils. Paleontological Association Field Guide to Fossils. Batten DJ, editor. 26: 391-406.

Blows, William Taylor. 2015. British Polacanthid Dinosaurs. Monograph Series Volume 7. Siri Scientific Press. Manchester, UK.

Michael E. Burns & Philip J. Currie (2014) External and internal structure of ankylosaur (Dinosauria, Ornithischia) osteoderms and their systematic relevance, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 34:4, 835-851, DOI:10.1080/02724634.2014.840309

Carpenter K (2001) Phylogenetic analysis of the Ankylosauria. In: Carpenter K, editor. The Armored Dinosaurs. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp 454–483.

Kirkland, J.I. 1998. A Polacanthine ankylosaur (Ornithischia: Dinosauria) fron the Early Cretaceous (Barremian) of eastern Utah. In Lucas, S.G., Kirkland J.I. and Estep, J.W. (eds), Lower and Middle Cretaceous Terrestrial Ecosystems. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin 14: 271-281. 

Martill D, Naish D. 2001. Armoured Dinosaurs: Thyreophorans. In: Martill D, Naish D, eds. Dinosaurs of the Isle of Wight. London: Field Guide to Fossils No. 10: Palaeontological Association, 310–323.

Richard S. Thompson, Jolyon C. Parish, Susannah C. R. Maidment & Paul M. Barrett (2012): Phylogeny of the ankylosaurian dinosaurs (Ornithischia: Thyreophora), Journal of Systematic Palaeontology, 10:2, 301-312

Sunday 6 September 2015

SVPCA 2015

This years SVPCA meeting was organised by Gareth Dyke and his team and was held at the National Oceanography Centre Southampton (NOCS), home of Ocean and Earth Science at the University of Southampton. Situated on the bustling docks and surrounded by hulking container ships and the floating tower blocks that modern ocean liners all seem to resemble these days, this excellent facility is home to vertebrate palaeontology research in Southampton, located as it is close to the Jurassic Coast and the Isle of Wight.

Talking ankylosaurs at SeaCity before the auction

Following hard on the heels of the Flugsaurier meeting the previous week in Portsmouth and with the SPPC preparators meeting the day before, delegates convened on Tuesday 1st September to hear three days of talks, attend two poster sessions and various social events. This year there were around 160 delegates attending, from emeritus professors to young palaeontologists, undergrads, postgrads, professional and amateur workers alike and palaeoartists were well represented. The SVPCA is always a more relaxing meeting than the SVP, less daunting to those giving their first talks and people there are always constructive with their advice.

The talks were of a high quality and despite being restricted to 15 minute slots for both talk and questions didn’t seem rushed; the programme put together by Mark Young and Darren Naish  contained a wide variety of talks that covered a satisfying wide variety of subjects. Even if a subject wasn’t particularly relevant to your own research chances are you left a session having learnt something or been found something to inspire new thinking in some way. There were no major technical glitches (although the movies didn’t work on my talk) and the sessions ran on time. There will be a special PeerJ volume based on papers arising from the meeting talks and posters, so if you did present it's time to get writing.

Conversations went on well into the night in the pubs near NOCS. The annual auction at SeaCity Museum raised a fantastic £1900 thanks to the sterling work of Jeff Liston as auctioneers  as well as the SVPCA A Team of Jessica Lawrence Wujeck, Aubrey Roberts, James Hansford and Liz Martin-Silverstone. The conference dinner was held in a dockside Thai restaurant and was very enjoyable, although being the day before the field trip . . . 

Delegates inspecting the Wessex Formation at Chilton Chine, Isle of Wight.

The field trip was led by Steve Sweetman and visited Brighstone and Compton Bays where the group took a long walk down the beach to inspect the fossil-bearing strata of the Wessex Formation, some of the most productive dinosaur localities in Europe. Dinosaur bone, plant material and dinosaur footprints were found. Lunch was taken at The Wight Mouse Inn, a pub beloved of the many vertebrate palaeontologists who visit the island. The next stop was at Dinosaur Isle where delegates saw the museum and the team of Alex Peaker, Shaun Smith and Gary Blackwell retrieved specimens for closer inspection and photography.

Further reviews are here:

The next meeting will be hosted by Liverpool John Moores University, and I’m looking forward to it already. As one delegate said to me before leaving, “it’s been inspirational”. You can’t really ask for more than that can you?

Saturday 22 August 2015

SVPCA 2015 Abstracts volume

Although it's been while since my last blog post I have not been idle. Indeed along with the other members of the host committee I've been beavering away on various bits and bobs for this year's SVPCA meeting that is being hosted at the excellent National Oceanography Centre in Southampton.

The abstract volume is available for download from HERE.

As you will see this meeting has an exciting range of talks as well as two poster sessions, an icebreaker at the SeaCity Museum (featuring the ankylosaur specimen we're working on), the auction, a field trip to the Isle of Wight and the conference dinner.

I hope to see you there!

Friday 19 June 2015

Fossils on the small screen at Dinosaur Encounter, SeaCity.

As part of the exhibition at SeaCity I was commissioned to create videos to accompany two of the exhibits, the Sandown Academy crocodile which was worked on by Michela Johnson and the nodosaurid which is being worked on by myself and Sarah Strachan. These videos are intended as interpretive aids to help visits understand the fossils and hopefully allow people to see how the bones fit together and give an idea of what the animals looked like in real life.

Still from the croc video showing bone outline highlighted to
aid interpretation of the specimen.

The croc skull itself is still encased in the block of matrix it was found in. This means that from the outside only cross sections of bone can be seen and these can be difficult to interpret to the untrained eye (and often to the trained eye too). The skull has been scanned using the University of Southampton’s CT scanner and 3D data had been extracted. The croc skull video features footage of this CT data and concentrates on how this technique allows us obtain detailed data without even prepping the fossil. In fact, as CT resolution improves over the years it’s entirely possible we won’t need to prep some specimens that might prove difficult to reveal for any number of reasons including matrix that is too hard or too soft. The great thing about the CT data is it translates readily into visuals and thus lends itself to motion graphics; we can highlight certain elements and add labels to aid understanding. 

The crocodile video next to the specimen as part of the display.
Image: Liz Martin.

The Polacanthus video is more focussed on the bones themselves. As I’m working on this specimen for my PhD I already had enough data to attempt a reconstruction for the video, which is played on a screen situated above the display case containing the dinosaur. It has to be stressed this reconstruction was the first I have done of the dinosaur, and was produced primarily for the video and not publication. For the sequences showing the bones of the specimen I used the actual photogrammetry data and this also enabled me to make relatively accurate inferences about the length and height of the animal. I based the missing elements of the skeletal reconstruction on Polacanthus foxii and other nodosaurids. The final muscle and life reconstructions were far more speculative but give a relatively good idea of how the animal looked in life. The neutral pose was chosen deliberately to keep the orientation of the bones as easy to see on screen as possible; unfortunately time did not permit a more dynamic reconstruction, but watch this space . . . 

First reconstruction of the nodosaur currently being studied at
University of Southampton. Video still.

Monday 15 June 2015

Encountering dinosaurs at SeaCity Museum

As is fitting following the arrival of the summer blockbuster Jurassic World, dinosaurs are coming to the south of England this summer with a major exhibition at SeaCity museum in Southampton along with events at other venues in the region (website here), and I was fortunate enough to have been involved in this exciting project.

All it needs is a real dinosaur . . .
the exhibition space at SeaCity with the build in progress.
The work of palaeontologists, all postgrad students and Research Associates from the University of Southampton, is well represented with several of the members of the Southampton Vertebrate Palaeontology Groups’ work featuring in the exhibition. This is a great opportunity to see the research happening at the university and the specimens we are working with, as  the subjects of our research will be on display too.

I’m pleased to say the nodosaurid will be prominently featured and this is a good chance to see this superb specimen, along with a crocodile skull and other material from Britain currently under study at the university. Also featured are a cast of the skeleton of the ornithopod dinosaur Maiasaura and skull casts of Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops; these are impressive exhibits and along with an animatronic tyrannosaur and baryonychid provide a real sense of drama, but it’s always the bones that are the highlights for me.

Doing the dinosaur jigsaw.
I was responsible for laying out the dinosaur in its display case and producing two of the videos that serve as interpretive aids to the public: one for the nodosaur, one for the crocodile. After a couple of trips out to Ikea to get decent packing boxes (mmm . . . meatballs) and ordering in a jumbo roll of bubble wrap I got down to the task of carefully stowing the specimen in boxes for the trip to SeaCity. A few days later we arrived at the exhibition hall and started the job of laying out the dinosaur in it’s impressive 3m x 2m display case. As part of the video I had already planned the layout so this saved time, but of course there were issues . . .

Firstly, although I’d recorded the majority of the specimen for my PhD there were significant parts missing and I didn’t have time to record all of these so this will have to wait until the exhibition closes at the end of September. This meant I was unfamiliar with some elements and needed to be sure I was putting them in the correct place, not too hard a task. Secondly, the fragmentary nature of the some of the skeleton, especially the limbs meant that when laid out they looked a little lost and out of context. Rather than place these bones where I thought they might have gone in life I grouped them; a bit of artistic licence to enable easier interpretation of the skeleton as otherwise odd bits would be scattered around the appendicular skeleton and osteoderms and look lost.

The nodosaur final layout.
The final layout certainly looks the part. I had to curl the tail to fit the skeleton in and compress certain parts of the skeleton that are either missing or held at other institutions. Most of the sacral shield is missing because although it was recovered it remains in hundreds of pieces a little smaller than roman tesserae; however some is still present and is viewable on the upper surface of the ilium, although this needs prepping out as it is partially covered with matrix from the plant debris bed it was excavated from. This is an impressive skeleton and gives a real idea of the size of this dinosaur plus its spectacular armour.

The accompanying video gives an aid to interpretation and also shows a tentative 3D reconstruction of both the skeleton and life appearance of the dinosaur. This will be the subject of my next post, so stay tuned.

Wednesday 27 May 2015

SVPCA 2015 Second circular

The second circular for the SVPCA is now available, and can be downloaded as a pdf from here or viewed on the SVPCA website here.

Abstract deadline is 24th July, so now’s the time to start thinking about talks and posters. I hope to see you there!

Tuesday 3 March 2015

SVPCA 2015 First Circular

This year the SVPCA is being hosted at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (NOCS) by the Ocean and Earth Science school. It's worth making a note in your dairy of the dates as there are field trips to the Jurassic Coast (in association with Flugsaurier which is being held at Portsmouth this year) and a post-meeting trip, location to be confirmed. The Jurassic Coast trip is being held in association with the Flugsaurier 2015 meeting being hosted at Portsmouth immediately before the SVPCA (see here:

The circular is available for download here, and the SVPCA website is here.