Mantellisaurus in its display case in Hintze Hall

The Mantellisaurus holotype was recently temporarily removed from display so it could be scanned

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Mantellisaurus: 3D-scanning one of the most complete British dinosaurs

After two years in Hintze Hall, a Mantellisaurus skeleton was recently removed from display - but only temporarily, and for good reason.

A team from the Museum removed the dinosaur from its glass display case to carry out high-resolution scans of its bones and to study it up close. The data collected will be available to scientists around the world, allowing them to study a specimen that is usually inaccessible.

Dinosaur data

Mantellisaurus atherfieldensis was a large herbivorous dinosaur that lived during the Early Cretaceous Period in what is now western Europe. 

Mantellisaurus on display in Hintze Hall

The Mantellisaurus skeleton has been on display in Hintze Hall since 2017. It was previously suspended from the ceiling in the Dinosaurs gallery.

The dinosaur in the Museum's Hintze Hall was discovered in 1914 and was the first of its kind ever found, although for 80 years it was considered to be a species of Iguanodon

This specimen is the holotype of Mantellisaurus, to which all others are compared. This makes it of great interest to researchers around the world - but it's currently locked in a glass case.

A team from the Museum has been working to make this important dinosaur more accessible by collecting data that can be shared globally. Aided by the Museum's Imaging and Analysis Centre, they used laser and handheld scanners to build up 3D digital models of each bone. 

Susie uses a laser to scan the surface of a dinosaur leg bone

Dr Susie Maidment and the team used a laser scanner to build up very high-resolution digital models of the Mantellisaurus bones

Dr Susie Maidment, a dinosaur researcher at the Museum says, 'We put the 3D models onto the computer and can manipulate them, turn them around and rearticulate the skeleton. We can do all sorts of things.

'We want to make this data available for scientists all over the world. Mantellisaurus has been a problem because we haven't been able to allow them access to it.

'It also means that we can share our data with researchers who might not be able to come to London. We can share the files with them and they will be able to compare them to the dinosaur bones they have at home.'

An exclusive opportunity

Scientists and students at the Museum also used this rare opportunity to collect data for their research while the dinosaur was out to be scanned.

Joe Bonsor is a PhD student working with the Museum and the University of Bath. Studying the Mantellisaurus skeleton is an important part of his research on iguanodontian dinosaurs.

Joe says, 'These were big herbivores that had large claws on their thumbs and roamed around in the Cretaceous Period. I'm trying to work out how they're all related to one another and eventually I'm going to try and build a big family tree.

'The Mantellisaurus specimen is really important for my project. It's the holotype, so it's important for me to be able to study it and then compare it to other dinosaurs in the same group to see what characters they share.

'It's great to have the opportunity to study these bones in person. It gives us the opportunity to rotate them in hand and study them up close. That's something you can't do when it's behind glass.'

Two PhD students inspect the tail bones of Mantellisaurus

Palaeontology PhD students João Leite (L) and Joe Bonsor (R) closely inspect the Mantellisaurus skeleton as it's removed from its glass case

Deconstructing a dinosaur

In 2017, the Mantellisaurus was removed from the Dinosaurs gallery and installed in Hintze Hall. Opening the new case and retrieving the dinosaur involves more than just a lock and key, so the operation could only start after the Museum had closed for the day.

The team worked through the night to remove the bones from their mount - and it was no quicker when they put them back a few days later. 

Two scientists remove a dinosaur leg bone from its mount.

Susie and Joe begin removing one of the dinosaur's heavy leg bones around four hours after the process of opening the case began

Despite the challenge of getting it off display, in the end it did make the scanning process easier. Susie has scanned a number of specimens around the Museum, such as the stegosaur Dacentrurus, which can be seen in the Fossil Marine Reptiles gallery

Susie explains, 'Dacentrurus is mounted on the wall and was quite difficult to do. It's quite high up so we had to use step ladders. It's much easier where we can get the bones off display and onto the floor so we can move around them.'

Mark Graham works on removing a dinosaur bone from its mount.

Senior fossil preparator Mark Graham was part of the team that unmounted and reinstalled the dinosaur

When the Museum opened the following day, visitors were treated to an unusual sight in the Mantellisaurus case: a mount with just a few bones left in place.

'We had to scan some of the bones in situ because they're attached to the mount,' says Susie. 'That included the pelvic area, which we scanned with a handheld scanner. The resolution is a little lower, but it still gives us loads of data'.

The Museum's Mantellisaurus is one of the most complete dinosaur skeletons found in the UK, made up of around 80% to 90% real bone. Casts of the missing elements are included in the Hintze Hall display, but these were also left in the case as there was no need to scan them. 

The armature and cast elements of Mantellisaurus

There was little left to see in the Mantellisaurus's case, but visitors were invited to watch the team scanning the dinosaur's bones in the Marine Invertebrates gallery

Joe explains, 'These are replicas of the bones that we don't have. A good example is the skull. We have the bones that make up the skull individually, but what's on display is actually a cast of all of those parts put together.

'The fact that we're missing parts of the dinosaur is very common. It's extremely rare that you'd find a complete specimen. But if, for example, we have a left arm but no right arm, we know that they're going to be basically the same, so we can just flip them.' 

Armature and cast tail bones of Mantellisaurus

Only a small amount of the Mantellisaurus isn't real bone. Elements that are casts weren't 3D scanned so they were left on the mount.

The Mantellisaurus skeleton is now back on display in Hintze Hall.