Some 125 million years ago, dinosaurs like Iguanodon and Polacanthus walked the floodplains of the Isle of Wight, a quaint island off the southwestern corner of England.
In fact, so many of these giants roamed there — or the conditions for preservation were so good — that the island now holds one of the richest deposits of dinosaur fossils in all of Europe, with parts of more than 20 species dating to the early Cretaceous period.
Some of these, like the Iguanodon, were among the first dinosaur species ever formally described by scientists — and fueled what’s been called a “Dinomania” in the 19th-century Victorian Age. But thanks to continued erosion on parts of the island, the discoveries continue even today.
“The spotlight will be more and more on the Isle of Wight for years to come,” says Jeremy Lockwood, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London and at the University of Portsmouth.
Geology of the Isle of Wight
During the Cretaceous, because the sea level was a lot lower, the Isle of Wight connected to mainland England. At that time, the area was a floodplain full of vegetation — perfect for preserving evidence of dinosaurs, according to Lockwood.
“You’ve got these flooding events which bury stuff and protect it,” he says.
The first Iguanodon fossils —only the second dinosaur given a formal name after Megalosaurus — were actually found on mainland England, in Sussex, in the 1820s and described by British paleontologist Gideon Mantell. But more Iguanodon remains, thought to be from a time when the island was still connected to the mainland, were found shortly after on the Isle of Wight.
One reason fossils are so prevalent on the island is due to its unique geology. In modern times, huge storms from the Atlantic hit cliffs to the island’s southwest, resulting in the erosion of up to 6.5 feet per year in some areas.
As the cliffs deteriorate, Lockwood says, bones sometimes fall directly onto the beach below. This particular area is the richest place for dinosaur fossils, though there have also been discoveries in parts of the island’s southeast.
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Paleontologists have uncovered more than 20 species of dinosaurs on the Isle of Wight so far. Some of the earliest discoveries in the Victorian Age include the Iguanodon and the Polocanthus, a heavily armored herbivorous ankylosaur that walked lower to the ground.
In 1978 — well into a dinosaur renaissance that began about a decade earlier — fossils from a theropod that would come to be known as the Neovenator fell from the cliffs on the south of the island. This creature, the first of its genus, is thought to have weighed about a ton and measured about 24 feet in length at one time.
Then, in 2001, researchers described the Eotyrannus, a member of the Tyrannosaur family and an animal that had some of the longest hands of non-bird dinosaurs. Meanwhile, Lockwood and his colleagues very recently described a massive spinosaur theropod discovery in 2022.
“We think we’ve found the biggest meat-eating dinosaur in Europe,” he says.
And dinosaurs aren’t the only fossils discovered here: Paleontologists have also found several contemporary groups including pterosaurs and crocodilians. Most of these date from the Barremian age to the early Aptian age, when the rising sea level covered everything in deep water.
Paleontologists have also discovered a trove of even more recent deposits from the Eocene, dating roughly 35 to 38 million years ago. These include mammals, sharks and other fish, and non-dinosaur reptilians.
New Dinosaur Renaissance
The period of the Cretaceous that most of the dino fossils come from was transitional by nature; just before this period, a mass extinction would have caused a subsequent diversification in surviving species.
But for most of the history of paleontology in the Isle of Wight, only a handful of species have been discovered. Lockwood says that many more species should have been found by now.
Many of the dinosaurs that Lockwood and others have described in recent years were actually discovered decades earlier and mislabeled as belonging to Iguanodon or one of the other known species at the time. Still, others were placed in boxes in museums like the island’s Dinosaur Isle Museum.
Then, as the dinosaur renaissance picked up in other parts of the world, many forgot about the island completely. “Everyone thought that Isle of Wight was done and dusted,” Lockwood says.
But closer inspection of many of these bones is now revealing that there may be more diversity hidden and mislabeled in previously discovered bones. Since 2020, between new fossils discovered and the reinterpretation of old fossils, about seven new dinosaurs have been added to the Isle of Wight pantheon.
“Often we’re finding them in boxes, and they were dug up 20, 30, 40 years ago,” Lockwood says, adding that there are still some bones in collections that haven’t been fit together with others yet. “We’re suddenly seeing a renaissance in the last two or three years [in the Isle of Wight].”