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Delving among dinosaur bones

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Among the tens of thousands of fossils in the Ulster Museum's collections are various dinosaur remains. Most are just isolated teeth or fragments of bone. Some of the more spectacular items are on display. The hand of an Ornithomimus; a bone that was bitten when its owner was still alive; and a huge Edmontosaurus skeleton. Each has a fascinating story to tell.

Most of these fossils are from well-known dinosaur locations in North America, in central Asia, and the Isle of Wight in England. Alongside them - and on display in the Deep Time gallery, are the only dinosaur bones ever found in Ireland.

Skeleton of Triceratops horridus

Skeleton of Triceratops horridus

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Ceratopsian tooth

Ceratopsian tooth

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Dinosaur skin

Dinosaur skin

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Hadrosaur teeth

Hadrosaur teeth

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Megalosaurus tooth

Megalosaurus tooth

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Inside the mouth of Tarbosaurus

Inside the mouth of Tarbosaurus

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Ankylosaur scutes (bony armour plates)

Ankylosaur scutes (bony armour plates)

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Dinosaur forensics

Dinosaur forensics

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Ireland’s only dinosaurs

Ireland’s only dinosaurs

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Skeleton of Edmontosaurus annectens

Skeleton of Edmontosaurus annectens

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Skeleton of Triceratops horridus

Triceratops is one of the best known dinosaurs and one of the last of the horned ceratopsians. Around 65 million years ago herds of Triceratops roamed across the plains of what is now North America. Its horns and bony neck frill helped protect it against attacks from Tyrannosaurus and other large predators.

This is a replica of a real skeleton. The original is in the American Museum of Natural History, in New York. It was built from the bones of several Triceratops from two separate localities. The skull is from Niobrara County, Wyoming. Other parts of the skeleton are from Lismas, Montana.

Image: Triceratops horridus replica skeleton 5.5m long, 2m high
Triceratops horridus replica skeleton 5.5m long, 2m high
  • Triceratops horridus (cast)
  • 65 million years old (Upper Cretaceous)
  • Niobrara County, Wyoming (skull) and Lismas, Montana (other bones), USA
  • Original in the American Museum of Natural History, New York.

 

Ceratopsian tooth

There were far more plant-eating dinosaurs than meat-eaters. Each group had its own distinctive type of teeth, adapted for munching on various types of plants. This tooth is from a ceratopsian dinosaur, the group that includes the formidable Triceratops. Ceratopsians had narrow beak-like jaws lined with teeth like this. They could slice through tough plants, rather like a set of garden shears. The ridges on the side of the tooth gave it greater strength and maintained a serrated edge to the tooth as it was slowly worn away.

Image: Ceratopsian tooth 5cm high
Ceratopsian tooth 5cm high
  • Ceratopsian tooth K25123
  • Upper Cretaceous Period (about 70 million years old)
  • Mongolia

 

Dinosaur skin

Dinosaur skin is rarely found because it would have have rotted away soon after death. This sandstone block contains part of the ribcage of a dinosaur but the knobbly texture between the ribs is a natural cast of the skin!

The dinosaur that it belonged to was buried by sand before the skin had decayed. This formed an imprint in the sand. When the animal's body rotted away, more sand filled the space to form a natural cast of the skin’s texture.

Image: Dinosaur skin 30cm wide
Dinosaur skin 30cm wide
  • Hadrosaur skin impression K17182
  • Upper Cretaceous Period (about 70 million years ago)
  • Kazakhstan

 

Hadrosaur teeth

This peculiar looking object is actually part of a hadrosaur ‘tooth battery’. Hadrosaurs were a type of dinosaur that lived in herds in semi-desert environments. The Edmontosaurus skeleton in the Ulster Museum is a hadrosaur.

To grind up tough leaves and twigs the mouth of a hadrosaur contained hundreds of closely-spaced teeth. As the older teeth wore down and fell out, new teeth took their place. You can see some worn-out teeth in the lower half of this specimen. New teeth that were never used can be seen in the upper half.

Image: Hadrosaur tooth battery  12cm long
Hadrosaur tooth battery 12cm long
  • Hadrosaur tooth battery K25131
  • Upper Cretaceous Period (about 70 million years ago)
  • Kazakhstan

 

Megalosaurus tooth

More than 150 years ago huge fossil bones and teeth were discovered in a quarry in Oxfordshire. The word ‘dinosaur’ was coined for these fossils, and the public’s fascination with these extinct animals began.

These first dinosaur bones and teeth were from a two-legged meat-eater called Megalosaurus.

This tooth is from the same rocks as that original dinosaur discovery. Its blade-like shape and serrated edge would have been effective at slicing through the flesh of its prey.

Image: Megalosaurus tooth 4cm long
Megalosaurus tooth 4cm long
  • Megalosaurus bucklandi K12051
  • Great Oolite Limestone
  • Middle Jurassic (about 170 million years ago)
  • Naunton, Gloucestershire, England

 

Inside the mouth of Tarbosaurus

This is part of the upper jaw of a huge predatory dinosaur called Tarbosaurus. This is a view from the inside, somewhere you would not have wanted to be when this animal was alive!

Like other dinosaurs, new teeth were constantly growing to replace those that became worn out or broken. When this dinosaur was alive each socket would have held a large blade-like tooth projecting for several centimetres. Most of these teeth are not preserved in this specimen. Only three unerupted, teeth can be seen in their sockets.

Tarbosaurus was a cousin of the better known Tyrannosaurus. It lived at the same time, around 70 million years ago, but in Asia rather than North America.

Image: Tarbosaurus maxilla 55cm long, 30cm high
Tarbosaurus maxilla 55cm long, 30cm high
  • Maxilla (upper jaw) of Tarbosaurus bataar K17181
  • Upper Cretaceous Period (70 million years ago)
  • Turkestan

 

Ankylosaur scutes (bony armour plates)

These bony plates, known as scutes, are from a type of dinosaur called an ankylosaur.

Ankylosaurs were heavily armoured plant eating dinosaurs. They lived alongside giant predators, such as Tarbosaurus and Tyrannosaurus. Perhaps these scutes were to deter these meat-eaters from taking a bite.

The first armoured dinosaurs, ancestors of the ankylosaurs, appeared almost 200 million years ago. Ankylosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago.

Image: Ankylosaur scutes 15cm long (larger of the two)
Ankylosaur scutes 15cm long (larger of the two)
  • Ankylosaur scutes K17172 & 17174
  • Upper Cretaceous Period (70 million years ago)
  • Kazakhstan

 

Dinosaur forensics

This leg bone from a young plant-eating dinosaur is remarkably well-preserved. At first glance you might mistake it for the leg bone of a modern cow. But this animal died 70 million years ago!

There is a recent break at one end but an area of crushed and shattered bone at the other end. The circular pattern of cracks in this area shows that the owner of this bone probably was still alive when the damage occurred.

Perhaps a bite from one of the large predatory dinosaurs crushed and punctured the bone. The victim’s flesh held the broken pieces of bone together, but clearly the bone did not heal. We can only assume that this poor dinosaur did not recover from its injury!

Image: Bitten bone 50cm long
Bitten bone 50cm long
Image:
  • Undetermined juvenile hadrosaur tibia K17179
  • Upper Cretaceous Period (about 70 million years ago)
  • Kazakhstan

 

Ireland’s only dinosaurs

Across the whole of Ireland only two small dinosaur bones have ever been found. Incredibly, both were collected by just one person, the late Roger Byrne, over the course of more than 20 years. Roger found these black pieces of bone on a beach strewn with black basalt boulders and pebbles.. This makes their discovery still more remarkable.

These bones are around 200 million years old, from the very earliest Jurassic. Both are fragments of hind legs – though from two different types of dinosaur. The larger bone is part of the tibia (lower leg bone) of a megalosaur, a bipedal carnivore. The smaller is part of the femur (upper leg bone) of a scelidosaur, a four-legged, armoured herbivore.

Scelidosaur 6cm high
Scelidosaur 6cm high
Megalosaur 10cm long
Megalosaur 10cm long
  • Lower leg bone (tibia) fragment from a megalosaur
  • Lowermost Jurassic Period (200 million years ago)
  • The Gobbins, Islandmagee, County Antrim

 

Skeleton of Edmontosaurus annectens

Edmontosaurus was one of the last of the great non-avian dinosaurs. It was a herbivore that moved in large herds across the plains of what is now North America. Edmontosaurus bones are so abundant at some sites that they have been called the "Cattle of the Cretaceous".

This is the most complete dinosaur skeleton on display anywhere in Ireland. It is a composite skeleton made from the bones of several different individuals. The bones are from a quarry in South Dakota, USA, where hundreds of Edmontosaurus have been found. All of them died at once, suggesting that a large herd was drowned by a flood.

Image: Edmontosaurus skeleton 6m long, 2.5m high
Edmontosaurus skeleton 6m long, 2.5m high
  • Edmontosaurus annectans
  • Upper Cretaceous Period (70 million years ago)
  • Ruth Mason Quarry, South Dakota, USA

 

Tyrannosaurus rex

Perhaps the most iconic of all dinosaurs, the skull of a mature T.rex was more than a metre long and its knife-like teeth were as much as 15cm long. It was clearly a huge and formidable predator, but recent discoveries have shown that even larger, dinosaur predators once existed.

A peculiar feature of Tyrannosaurus are its tiny arms. These could not even have reached its head, yet they were strongly muscled. Quite what they were used for remains something of a mystery.

The original skeleton of this example is in the Museum of the Rockies, in Montana, USA. There are casts of it in other museums around the world but, alas, the Ulster Museum is not one of them.

Image: Tyrannosaurus rex
Tyrannosaurus rex