Hypsilophodon foxii cast part 3
By ucwehlc, on 3 November 2023
Previously on the Grant Museum blog we introduced our biggest dinosaur, along with several mysteries. How did we get it? Who made it? Why does its head look so strange? Then in an exciting turn of events 4 years later we discovered a picture of our cast being made at the Natural History Museum. Now another 4 years on the story continues with Museum Studies students Imogen Geoghegan, Nadia Adal, Lauren Brown Phelan and Yanning Huang who have written this blog about their dinosaur research project.
**The Hypsilophodon foxii cast (Part 3)**
We took part in a research project with the Grant Museum of Zoology (GMZ) to uncover the truth behind this mystery object in the GMZ’s collection. It started with a few photographs and texts from the GMZ which led us to discover the cast’s background and even the species of the dinosaur (Hypsilophodon foxii), both of which were in doubt and unconfirmed before our project began.
Cast making and conservation
The cast-maker was Louis Parsons (1889-1964) who was a fossil preparator at the Department of Geology at the British Museum (Natural History). The British Museum later split its natural history collections into another organisation, the Natural History Museum (NHM), where Parsons had an illustrious career. H. foxii was one of the many amazing casts he made. His work was so well-renowned that even King George V recognised his talents!
Casts were made in the late 19th – early 20th century mainly for educational purposes as they were less fragile than the actual fossils and could be readily reproduced so more people could access them. This cast was likely made for research and teaching purposes.
Unfortunately, there is little information on how the cast was actually made as many of the techniques were passed down verbally between preparators. We are also not sure the exact date the cast was made, however it is likely to be between 1924-1934. The GMZ then acquired the cast sometime between 1934-1980.
We also researched the production and conservation work done on the cast by the Grant Museum of Zoology. It was impressive how different the cast’s condition was on arrival compared the object we saw in the museum. Today, it is wrapped with tissue and masking tape and we can see small chips and missing parts; which is to be expected because of its time within the collection. By investigating the steps and tools in the process of conservation, we learnt various concentrations of conservation glues like Paraloid B72 were used to maintain the cast and we were able to make recommendations for the cast’s future conservation.
Dinosaur origins and species
One of the questions we tried to answer about the cast was whether the original fossil it was created from still existed. Our initial examination showed the label associated with the cast mentioned ‘Wealden’ – all Hypsilophodon foxii fossils have been found in the ‘Hypsilophodon beds’ of the Wealden group geological formation in the Isle of Wight, UK.
As there just happens to be a Dinosaur Museum located in the Isle of Wight near to these beds – we took this small nugget of information and visited the curators there. There was some scratching of heads (or skulls) as the skull of the cast just did not look as expected – the curators suggested it may have been misidentified. Further correspondence with other experts confirmed that the skull on the cast was not H. foxii! Additionally, we contacted several other collections with Hypsilophodon foxii fossils or casts to compare these against the GMZ one, with only one potential match at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge this makes the GMZ cast a unique object.
W.E. Swinton’s book was a huge help in providing evidence that the fossil at the NHM had originally been mounted with a reconstructed skull that matched our cast:
Uncovering the information about Parsons and the NHM and having photographic evidence showing the cast being made by him was good evidence to suggest we should look at the NHM collections next but we also had a letter stating the cast came from the USA so we needed to look into both possibilities.
We scoured the NHM’s online catalogues looking for H. foxii and Iguanodons (also found in the Wealden beds) to identify the cast’s true species. All H. foxii and Iguanodon skulls looked completely different to the cast’s. We took photographs of our cast and went to the NHM to look at and compare them to specimens found at the NHM.
Within 5 minutes of examining the NHM’s collections we found the display skeleton of a H. foxii, R5830 (above). While its skull looked completely different to GMZ’s cast, the skeleton is remarkably similar. However, after photographing and putting the fossilised remains away we found another older model of R5830’s head which was very familiar.
From discussions with staff at the NHM we found that the display model skull was a more accepted representation of the H. foxii skull despite only a few fragments of H. foxii skulls existing. This means the skulls are scientists best guess based on their current knowledge. To staff our skull looked more bird-like. They suggested it was the older of the two and that the current display skull of R5830 was redone later to be a more accurate representation.
This would mean that the GMZ’s cast is a Hypsilophodon foxii as the museum suspected but the skull is an older less accurate model created and sent out to the institution before the second model skull was created.
To see the cast in person, visit the Grant Musuem of Zoology when it reopens in 2024!