The Isle of Wight, 127 Million Years Ago.
The sun rises over the horizon as another day dawns on Dinosaur Island. Light dapples through the coniferous trees, illuminating the forest in a hazy yellow glow. As the morning continues the forest begins to waken, with the buzzing of insects, the crashing sounds of distant dinosaurs and the calls of the crow sized pterosaur Vectidraco echoing through the trees and creating a Cretaceous era symphony. Making the most of this early start are the Hypsilophodons. These small feathery dinosaurs chirp and bound among the gaps between the trees, nipping away at ferns that grow as far as the eye can see. As the group feeds one Hypsilophodon notices a bright yellow flower blooming among the green ferns. Flowering plants are a new phenomenon on Planet Earth at this time, having only appeared a few million years before this Hypsilophodon was born. Their appearance adds a dash of colour to the otherwise brown and green landscape of the Cretaceous period, and plants like these will continue to grow and evolve across the planet, watching millions of other species come and go and be a staple of the earth’s ecosystem right up to the modern day. The young Hypsilophodon curiously sniffs at the flower for a moment, taking in its distinctive smell, before taking a bite out of it and moving on to the next tasty plant!
Exiting the coniferous forest onto the wide open plains a loud bellowing sound reverberates in the distance. If we follow this noise we come across a large herd of Iguanodon travelling along the banks of a large river. They walk along on all four of their limbs but when they need to run or reach higher branches they rock back and balance themselves on just two legs. This also frees them up to swing their deadly “thumb spikes”. Their hands are like multipurpose Swiss army knives. The little fingers are incredibly dexterous and are used to manipulate and hold branches steady for their beaked jaws to reach. Their thumbs in contrast have evolved into spikes that act as effective stabbing weapons that give them protection against attack from the hungry predators on the island. However two male Iguanodon are currently using their thumb spikes against each other! Luckily for both of them no serious harm occurs this time and the victor of the dispute wanders towards the female he’d just won the right to court. These herbivorous ornithischian dinosaurs are a common sight on the island with their vast herds reminiscent of the large Wildebeest herds in the Serengeti and Masai Mara of modern day Africa. Amongst the large adult Iguanodons are what initially appear to be adolescents. However these are actually not Iguanodon but a close relative named Mantellisaurus. Inter species mixing like this can be seen in modern day, where Wildebeest and Zebra sometimes form huge herds together. So it’s no surprise to see these dinosaurs exhibiting this behaviour too. Lumbering along the outskirts of the herd is another, very different species of plant eating dinosaur. This is a Polacanthus, a 4 metre long four legged dinosaur that boasts a heavy casing of hard armour plating (known as osteoderms) on its back and a battery of sharp spikes lining its back down to its tail that it uses to protect itself. To complete this spectacular gathering of plant eaters are humongous Brachiosaurs; sauropod dinosaurs that tower over the rest of the herd. Palaeontologists currently do not have a formal scientific name for these particular Brachiosaurs yet, but what is abundantly clear is that these were by far the largest animals on Dinosaur Island. They feed on vegetation at the tops of the coniferous trees far above the reach of the other dinosaurs. As a consequence they can co-exist with the other herbivores as they do not compete for the same food.
As the sun moves higher in the sky some of the herd notice a bipedal, sharp toothed dinosaur crossing the path ahead. They watch each other for a moment, the herd wary of the sharp teeth and heavy claws of a predator! Luckily, this Baryonyx is not interested in them and instead makes her way towards the river bank. Her lunch today is not of the land living variety. Standing on the riverbank the Baryonyx places her long, crocodile-like snout in the water. Concentrating intently, she uses small sensors on her snout to detect movement in the water, and in combination with her forward facing eyes uses it to locate her prey. Suddenly, sensing a flash of movement close to her, she lunges forward, snapping her jaws around a large fish. She drags it to shore and, held securely by her strong foot, tucks into her hard earned prize. This is the first of many catches that the Baryonyx will need to make today in order to fuel her one and a half ton, 9 metre long frame. This fish eating lifestyle has allowed her kind to carve out a unique niche for itself on the island, one that is characteristic of the spinosaurid order of dinosaurs that Baryonyx is a part of. Later spinosaurids will take this lifestyle even further, evolving shorter hind limbs and paddle like tails to aid swimming. However Baryonyx still possess the stereotypical body plan of a theropod dinosaur (except for its long skull) and whilst they spend a lot of time fishing in the rivers and lakes of the island they’re not totally reliant on them and can hunt on land if they need to. Whilst this Baryonyx left the herd alone earlier in the day she may turn her attention to them at a later date if the fish stocks dry up.
It is now evening, and as the sun sets the herd begins to move on to other feeding grounds. However just 300 metres downwind the Isle of Wight’s top predator is watching them intently with hungry eyes. He is a Neovenator, a 7.5 metre long theropod dinosaur that is a relative of the mighty Allosaurus, which dominated the Late Jurassic just 25 million years earlier. He edges closer to the herd, keeping as silent as he can and staying downwind to conceal his scent as best he can from the Iguanodons. He needs to stalk his prey precisely to be successful. If he’s too far away he’ll run out of steam before he can catch his prey. If he’s too close the herd will spot him and his cover will be blown. The Neovenator picks his spot and identifies his target; an older Iguanodon struggling to keep up with the rest of the herd. The Neovenator strikes! As he charges towards his target the Iguanodon sound the alarm, making loud calls and sprinting away on their powerful hind legs. But it’s too little, too late, and the great carnivore reaches on his target, tearing into it with his blade like teeth and claws. The blood loss and shock is too much for the Iguanodon and the Neovenator finishes proceedings with a final bite to the neck. It’s brutal and it’s messy, but today it has proven effective. The Neovenator picks up his prize and drags it away to a secluded spot so he can eat in peace.
But the Neovenator will not get that peace today. As he tucks into his meal a small group of Eotyrannus approaches the giant. At only 4 metres a single one of these small feather coated carnivores isn’t going to trouble the Neovenator. But if they work together they pose a much greater threat. They hound the great carnivore like Hyenas do to Lions on the African Savannah today, surrounding and harrying the giant carnivore, using their speed to dodge his aggressive lunges. Eventually the Neovenator begrudgingly surrenders his kill to the group. This is a shape of things to come. In time the descendants of Eotyrannus will evolve larger body sizes, complete with bone crushing bites, and they will take over the role of top predators from the likes of Neovenator. But for now these relatively small, early tyrannosaurs are content with their place in the pecking order.
Today the Isle of Wight is still an island (hence the name). One thing is for certain is that it is a lot colder now than it was 127 million years ago! The dinosaurs that once roamed the island are now found preserved as fossils, and have been unearthed at locations such as Compton Bay, Yaverland and Shanklin. Fossils have been discovered at such sites like these on the Isle of Wight for centuries and new species are still being found today. In August of this year, partial remains of a new theropod dinosaur named Vectaerovenator inopinatus, which lived roughly 12 million years after the dinosaurs we’ve seen on this particular safari, were discovered in the rocks of Knock Cliff, Shanklin, on the east side of the island. Some of the many amazing dinosaur fossils are now on display in the Dinosaur Isle museum located in the town of Sandown, a place that showcases the lost world of Dinosaur Island for all to see. It’s amazing to think that a thriving ecosystem, containing miniature insects, flying pterosaurs and magnificent dinosaurs, once existed right here in the UK. The Isle of Wight is absolutely, unquestionably, the “Dinosaur Capital of the UK”!
UK fossils, “Category: Isle of Wight”, ukfossils.co.uk, https://ukfossils.co.uk/category/isle-of-wight/
Dino Wight, “The Dinosaurs of the Isle of Wight”, Dinowight.co.uk, http://www.dinowight.co.uk/