Dinosaur Isle must be one of the UK’s most underrated visitor attractions. Viewed from a distance the building is a striking shape featuring two protruding poles and an arched canopy intended to resemble a pterodactyl (though you may be unable to resist a possibly ungracious comparison to a pair of narwhal tusks or knitting needles).
It’s something of a bizarre gem where you find both an important fossil collection and a main hall containing genuine skeletons and bones, alongside supersized dinosaur mannequins. Fossils from 35 types of dinosaur have been found on the Isle of Wight, and in total the museum’s catalogue extends to more than 40,000 fossils gathered from right across the Island, with around 1,000 on display at any time.
The walk-through collection of Island finds is a highly informative eye-opener into the sheer range of animals that once roamed what is now called the Isle of Wight, including many of a more recent vintage, dating back a mere 10,000 to 15,000 years. Objects on display include the tusks of a mammoth and a hippopotamus; fossil teeth and femur of a straight-tusked elephant; the lower jaw of Bothriodon, a pig-like hippopotamus; and the jaw of another pig-like amphibious mammal, Elomeryx porcinus.
In the main hall, giant vertebra and casts of Jurassic Park-style footprints share cabinet space with tiny fossils of large-winged termites and water spiders that resemble the smeared imprint of flies on your car windscreen. Eye-catching exhibits include the skeletal display of a Neovenator dinosaur – its femurs each weigh three stone – along with the femur and humerus (each more than 3ft in length) and gastroliths (stomach stones) of a 45ft sauropod (these long-necked creatures were the largest dinosaurs ever to have lived).
Several knowledgeable palaeontologists – some amateur, some professional – are on hand to shed light on the displays and there is a working laboratory on view, which works on the same principles as an open kitchen in a restaurant. Staff like to point out that Yorkshire, the rival to the Jurassic Coast, has promoted its ‘Dinosaur Coast’ but you could count the number of bones the county has on the fingers of one hand. The captions display a refreshing candour that is absent from more pompous and self-important establishments; these regularly include statements about their more mysterious remains that have yet to be fully identified, in effect shrugging a shoulder and admitting ‘we don’t know’ or ‘we’re not sure’.
The museum runs year-round guided fossil walks on Yaverland Beach and further afield. As is the case at the museum, the guides are affable, neither precious nor guarded with their considerable knowledge, and keen to inspire future generations of palaeontologists.
Look for fossils
Having brushed up on the facts at Dinosaur Isle, the next step is to hunt down some fossils for yourself. Stare for long enough at a map of the Isle of Wight – with a ridge through the middle and gently tapering east–west points – and it can come to resemble a large slice of vertebra from a fossilised backbone. A coincidence maybe, but the Island’s primordial soup was perfect for fossilisation of animals such as dinosaurs, which inhabited the Island for around ten to 15 million years.
Dinosaur fossils can be found around much of the coast, but one of the Island epicentres of discovery are the cliffs below Culver Down and Yaverland, where you will find what are termed Early Cretaceous and Wealden group rocks. Spend an afternoon searching for these hidden treasures and soak up the island’s gorgeous natural scenery at the same time. It’s win-win.