More than 100m years ago she was lumbering around a subtropical forest in what is now Wyoming, ceaselessly chewing plant matter while keeping her terrifying spiked tail at the ready to swat any predator that dared to try its luck. Today, Sophie the Stegosaurus has a new home, London’s Natural History Museum, where her stunning presence dominates the Earth Hall.
With 85% of her skeleton intact, she is the world’s most complete specimen of the instantly recognisable dinosaur famous for the huge plates cresting its back and the four spear-like horns on the end of its tail.
Although museum scientists do not actually know the sex of their Stegosaurus, “she” has been informally named Sophie after the daughter of the wealthy hedge fund manager whose donation made the acquisition possible.
At 5.6 metres long and 2.9 metres tall, Sophie is relatively small compared with the largest of her species, which measured up to nine metres.
But what she lacks in size she makes up for in beauty. Poised on a small stage just inside the museum’s Exhibition Road entrance with her tail up, body lowered, and open jaws pointing at arriving visitors, she brings the Cretaceous era alive.
Sophie is the first complete dinosaur specimen to go on display at the Natural History Museum in nearly 100 years. She joins “Dippy” the Diplodocus, whose massive 26-metre skeleton – a replica – has stood in the museum’s central Hintze Hall since 1905.
Professor Paul Barrett, the museum’s chief dinosaur scientist, who found Sophie while attending an international fossil fair in the US, said: “It’s an honour to have this extraordinary specimen permanently on display to inspire Natural History Museum visitors.
“Stegosaurus fossil finds are rare. Having the world’s most complete example here for research means we can begin to uncover the secrets behind the evolution and behaviour of this intriguing dinosaur species.”
Sophie was a young adult when she died 150m years ago. Her fossilised bones were discovered in 2003 at Red Canyon Ranch in Wyoming, US, by paleontologist Bob Simon.
Prof Barrett led a year of negotiations that eventually secured the Stegosaurus for London’s Natural History Museum despite strong interest from a number of other institutions. Her cost – likely to be substantial – is not being disclosed at the request of hedge fund manager Jeremy Herrmann, who provided most of the money. A total of 69 other private donors all contributed to the purchase.
The scientific value of the specimen, containing 360 individual bones, is priceless. Many of the bones have already been laser-scanned and imaged with CT (computed tomography) x-rays to create “virtual” models that can be studied within computer simulations.
Researchers are especially interested in the way Sophie moved and ate, and the function of her 19 bony back plates, which still remains uncertain.
Prof Barrett said: “Although we know Stegosaurus was a plant eater, we don’t know exactly what sort of plants it might have been eating or how well it was able to use its feeble looking teeth to eat and support a body weighing a couple of tonnes.
“Another project is reconstructing models of the hind limbs and hips,” he said. “Stegosaurus moved on all fours very slowly, we think … It was a fairly unathletic dinosaur. A good modern analogue is something like a rhino, although a rhino is capable of short bursts of speed.”
Turning to the back plates, he added: “The function of the plates is quite controversial. An early idea was that they were a form of armour but most people don’t believe that any more, because they were quite thin. It’s possible they provided a kind of passive defence because they would have made the dinosaur look a lot bigger from a distance.”
Alternatively they could have been used as radiators. They had a large surface area and a lot of blood vessels running through them. Another possibility is that they were used for display, like a peacock’s tail.
Sophie will be on public display at the museum from Thursday. via the guardian