Bristol Dinosaur Project


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Bristol Dinosaur Ed Drewitt from Bristol University runs the educational side of the Bristol Dinosaur Project. Fossils of dinosaurs local to Bristol were found on the Downs 180 years ago. They have made a major contribution to the history of paleontology and are still being studied now.

Drawing of Thecodontosaurus antiquus (The Bristol Dinosaur) as a quadraped

Bristol Dinosaur (Ben Jones)


Ed Drewitt:

The Bristol Dinosaur gets its name because it was specifically found on the Downs in Clifton. The Bristol Dinosaur is a very early dinosaur that was living right at the very beginning when dinosaurs first existed . It was around Bristol round about sort of 210 million years ago and back then Bristol was a very different place.

All the really big hills that you have in the city, including Clifton and Durdham Downs, would have been islands, and all the dips, all the lower bits of the hills would have been the sea, covered in the sea. And it was on those islands there were lots of plants growing, there were very early crocodiles and reptiles. But also the Bristol Dinosaur, called a thekodontosaurus, which means socket toothed reptile, named on the sort of teeth it had when it was discovered. And it lived in small groups on these islands as a  vegetarian feeding on very tough plants back then, and just like you get animals found only on islands today – perhaps in Indonesia or other parts of the world, it was just found on those islands around this part of Bristol. And its important  from a number of respects.

One it was a very early dinosaur and it evolved  into a lot of the really big dinosaurs that then roamed across mainland Europe,  but also it was only the fourth dinosaur ever discovered in the world. The actual word ‘dinosaur’ was still a few years off having been properly invented. It was first discovered in 1834 in an area near Quarry Steps. As the name suggests it was near a quarry, and there would have been men with pickaxes and other tools working long days, digging out the rock for buildings, and no doubt for other things such as road building as well. And in  amongst that rock you find abnormalities, usually filled caves which we call fissures, and it was in one of those filled caves where you’ve got  different material, instead of it being the carboniferous limestone,  the grey limestone that  you see throughout the avon gorge and the Downs its kind of this reddy colour rock called breschia ,and it basically looks like a mishmash of rocks and mud that has basically become hardened. And it was in there that some quarry workers actually  discovered these bones. And fossils at that time weren’t necessarily a big thing, so there must have been something about what those fossils looked like that really caught their eye. And actually when  you look at some of that original material indeed some of that original material is on display at the M Shed down by the harbourside in Bristol, and you see some of those bones, you can see they are very white and they do almost look like your kind of classic cartoon dog bone in many respects. And so what we think happened was that when the Bristol dinosaurs died, their skeletons were perhaps on the ground or just below the topsoil, and heavy rain washed their bones into caves which had formed in the limestone, these caves had probably been etched out by rainwater over time. So what we find, we’ve got a mish mash of different individual Bristol dinosaurs but obviously because we’ve got duplicates of the same bones we know  that we’ve got more than one individual, more than two individuals in fact. We don’t know exactly how  many, but we do have enough bones of those individuals to be able to build up a good picture of what the skeleton generally would have looked like, and the interesting thing about the Bristol Dinosaur is that ideas have changed over time.

So the Bristol dinosaur project was set up in 1999 to actually properly start looking closer at the bones, and to obviously start enabling people in the city to learn more about the dinosaur. And when that was first set up we thought that the Bristol dinosaur was a meat eater and walked around just on its two back legs, and as we’ve studied its bone and teeth closely we now think it actually walked round on all four legs. That’s  due to the discovery of a particular tailbone that tells us that the tail would have been much more level with the body and therefore the animal would have been  much more on four legs, a bit like a cat or a dog, and looking at the teeth and when we compare those with other dinosaurs we know are definitely meateaters these days, and we can tell actually the teeth were used for slicing up very tough plants and leaves that they used to eat back then.

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