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Our favourite diplodocus hits the road: The Cult of Dippy the Dinosaur

a black and white photo of a large dinosaur skeleton in a museum gallery

Dippy at Natural History Museum. 1905. Courtesy Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Guy Kerr, Programme Manager at The Jurassic Coast Trust, on Dippy the Diplodocus as the venerable dinosaur heads out on a UK tour – with a first stop at Dorset County Museum in Dorchester

After over 100 years in place at London’s Natural History Museum, “Dippy” the Diplodocus is heading out on tour. His first stop is Dorset County Museum in Dorchester, just a stone’s throw from the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, a globally unique geological phenomenon and the birthplace of palaeontology. This will be Dippy’s only host venue in the entirety of the south-west, as he begins his two and a half-year tour which will take in seven other venues across the UK.

Dippy is in residence from February 10 until May 8, and it’s predicted that up to 70,000 people of every age and level across the spectrum of dinosaur-fandom will turn out to see him.

Dippy’s 292 carefully-constructed bones will be accessorised by a thoughtfully assembled set of interpretation materials relating to the Jurassic Coast, its dinosaurs and the larger story of natural history which Dippy represents, along with a display of paleo-art from four very different artists, each displaying their unique spin on the natural world.

Dippy the Dinosaur

The dinosaur from which Dippy’s specimen originates is diplodocus carnegiei, a type of sauropod (large herbivorous dinosaur) that lived around 150 million years ago, about half-way through the age of the dinosaurs. His home was near a lake, on land in what is now southwestern North America.

Very far from Dippy, the Jurassic Coast was submerged below a shallow sea at the time. Sauropods wouldn’t emerge on the Jurassic Coast until about five million years after Dippy’s lifetime, and traces of their time here are now recorded in the footprints found at Keates Quarry in Purbeck.

a photo of a large dinosaur skeleton in a museum

The original Diplodocus skeleton in the Carnegie Museum. © Carnegie Museum of Natural History

a photo of a large dilpodocus skeleton assembled with man seated at its base

Dippy awaiting transit to London. © Carnegie Museum of Natural History

a photo of workmen hauling a huge skeleton into a museum exhibition space

Moving Diplodocus men hauling torso & legs across east Waterhouse corridor. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum

an archive photo of men sitting on the structure around Dippy the Diplodocus

The arrival of the Diplodocus in London. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum

Diplodocus travelled in “segregated herds” according to age, with adults travelling separately to juveniles. Analysis of their fossilised teeth indicates that they ate by stripping branches from trees and bushes in one movement. Their long necks and ability to raise themselves on their hind legs allowed them to reach plants at varying heights, giving them a diverse herbivorous diet. It has also been speculated that they grazed on water-based plants in rivers and lakes too.

“A Tyrannosaurus rex would much rather have picked on a raptor or hadrosaur”

Diplodocus lived for 70-80 years, similar to modern day elephants and humans. They were able to reproduce after about 10 years, but kept growing long after that, reaching lengths of up to 25 metres. They reproduced by digging shallow pits, laying their eggs, covering them with vegetation, and keeping a careful look-out whilst they incubated over 2-3 months.

A baby Diplodocus wasn’t enormous, weighing less than 5 kg. But, once born, they grew fast, gaining size at a rate far beyond that of any other creature on Earth, past or present.

Due to their size, Diplodocus would have been relatively untroubled by predators. A Tyrannosaurus rex or Allosaurus would much rather have picked on a raptor or hadrosaur than try to tackle one of these colossal creatures. If one of them did try to prey, perhaps on a young Diplodocus, the other members of the herd would have used their whip-like tails to scare them off, as well as making all the noise a 16 tonne dinosaur can muster.

Dippy the Specimen

Dippy’s fossilised skeleton was discovered by railway workers in 1899. The Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie had financed a team of experts to go on a dinosaur hunt through the “Badlands” of Wyoming, USA, which led to his discovery.

a drawing of a diplodocus in side profile

Plans representing how a Diplodocus exhibit should be mounted. © Carnegie Museum of Natural History

a black and white photo of men in coat tails gathered around a dinosaur

Lord Avebury during a speech at the unveiling of the Diplodocus exhibit in London. © Carnegie Museum of Natural History

a side view of the diplodocus skeleton

A skull to tail representation of the Diplodocus exhibit housed at the Natural History Museum. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum

“The sheer scale and majesty of these replicas brought palaeontology to the wider public for the first time”

Dippy’s skeleton was found on the 4th of July, leading to his original nickname, “The Star Spangled Dinosaur”. The specimen was extracted from the earth, put together piece by piece, and became the star attraction at Carnegie’s new museum in Pittsburgh. It was put together by Arthur Coggeshall, one of the original Wyoming excavation team, pioneering fossil extraction and specimen mounting techniques which are still in use today.

Upon its completion, scientists noted that the skeleton was an entirely new species of Diplodocus, and named it Diplodocus carnegeii in honour of their patron. By good fortune, King Edward VII saw a sketch of the skeleton whilst visiting Carnegie at his castle in Scotland, and remarked that he’d like one for London’s Natural History Museum.

In response, Carnegie ordered replica “Dippy’s” to be made, and dispatched them to museums from Madrid to Buenos Aires. In an era before smartphones and television, the sheer scale and majesty of these replicas brought palaeontology and enthusiasm for dinosaurs to the wider public for the first time.

Dippy’s Visit to Dorset

Dippy has spent a year out of public view, being taken apart and cleaned by the team of experts contracted to reconstruct him.

Dippy’s tenure in Dorset includes appointments with thousands of local school children, whose visit to the museum will include a couple of extra activities to accompany their tour of the massive specimen. One of these is a game called “Fossil Face Off”, in which two of the museum’s prize paleontological specimens are pitted against each other in a “Top Trumps” style battle.

The museum’s appropriately named Jurassic Coast Gallery is home to an exceptional skull specimen from a pliosaur, a giant underwater beast contemporaneous with Diplodocus in the Jurassic period. It also houses a set of megalosaur footprints, a trace fossil from a giant land-based carnivore who makes a worthy adversary for his aquatic counterpart.

a photo of a large dinosaur skeleton in a museum

A version of Dippy in St Petersburgh. © Carnegie Museum

a photo of two people on a scaffold examining a large dinosaur bone

A Dippy inspection at the Natural History Museum. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum

a close up of a skull of a dinosaur

The skull of Dippy. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum

Dippy’s tenure in Dorchester is accompanied by an extensive programme of schools’ handling sessions and other events along the Jurassic Coast and its neighbouring areas, in order to encourage people to explore their local nature.

This series kicks off with a visit from papier-mache artiste extraordinaire Darrell Wakelam to Weymouth. With help from local children, Darrell will be constructing a dinosaur-themed back drop which will be used at his ten other sessions throughout Dippy’s visit.

There are also events planned at many of the Jurassic Coast’s most iconic museums and visitor centres, including a day at Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre, in which Dippy’s replica 3D-printed skull will be on show, alongside Charmouth’s very own dinosaur hero, Scelidosaurus. The programme takes in guided walks, arts and crafts days and more, ranging from Exmouth to Studland between February and May.

Dippy will be at Dorset County Museum from Saturday February 10 2018 – Monday May 8 2018. Entry is fee but pre-booking is strongly advised. For booking info and to keep up  to date with all the events for Dippy’s visit to Dorset visit jurassiccoast.org/dippy

For more on Dippy’s tour of eight regional museums, finishing in Norwich in 2020, see www.nhm.ac.uk

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Dorset County Museum

Dorchester, Dorset

Dorset County Museum contains a wealth of information about Dorset’s culture and history. Six Galleries set out nearly 200 million years of Dorset’s history, culture and its natural environment. Two of the most popular galleries are the Ancient Dorset and the Jurassic Coast galleries. In the form of a Tableau,…

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