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Crystal Palace Park, in south London, still hosts the world’s first dinosaur sculptures. They were created in the 1850s based on what were, at the time, very recent scientific discoveries: fossils, unearthed in England just decades earlier.
Scientists struggled to make sense of the creatures, and the sculptures were the first attempt to visualize them in true-to-life size. They were depicted like giant, mammal-like beasts, heavy set and four-legged – an already revolutionary idea compared to earlier ones that imagined dinosaurs essentially as huge lizards. But it was just as wrong.
We know today that dinosaurs did not look at all like the scaly versions at Crystal Palace. For decades, however, the sculptures, as well as many other subsequent depictions, inaccurately influenced the public’s view of these extinct giants. Renowned paleontologist Michael Benton’s new book, “Dinosaurs: New Visions of a Lost World,” however, offers the latest interpretation.
“It’s the first dinosaur book where the dinosaurs actually look like what they looked like,” claims the author, who worked with paleoartist Bob Nicholls to bring the creatures to life. “Every detail, as far as possible, is justified by evidence. We tried to pick species that are quite well documented, so that in the text, I can indicate what we know and why we know it.”
Much of the evidence comes from the most recent fossil discoveries from China, which starting in the 1990s, changed the way we interpret the appearance of dinosaurs. The 1996 discovery in the country’s Liaoning province of a feathered fossil, for example, created a direct connection between dinosaurs and birds.
“I think we can say that feathers originated way earlier than we had thought, at least 100 million years earlier, so right at the root of dinosaurs,” Benton said.