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The Tale Of The Disappearing Dinosaur Tail

by | 3 December, 2013

Behind the Scenes at the Natural History Museum, London

The sale of a Diplodocus skeleton for £400,000 at auction in West Sussex last week brought to my mind a little titbit about the Museum’s specimen. The Diplodocus in the Central Hall, affectionately known as Dippy, is a cast taken from the type specimen of Diplodocus carnegii that was unearthed in Wyoming, USA in 1898.

When it was originally put on display in the Museum in 1905, the long tail drooped downwards and trailed along the floor.

Dippy’s lavish unveiling ceremony, attended by 300 people, on Friday 12 May 1905, © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

Dippy’s lavish unveiling ceremony, attended by 300 people, on Friday 12 May 1905, © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

I learned from Professor Richard Fortey that this placement was not popular with staff:

“Unscrupulous visitors would occasionally steal that last vertebra from the end of the tail. There was even a box of “spares” to make good the work of thieves so that the full backbone was restored by the time the doors opened the following day.”

It wasn’t until 1993, as scientific understanding of dinosaur biology improved, that Dippy’s tail was repositioned to curve above visitors heads, which is how it is seen today.

Dippy’s tail was remounted after research showed that the tails of these dinosaurs did not drag along the ground, as had been assumed for many years. It was found that they stuck out straight behind the animal and were held clear of the ground, © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

Dippy’s tail was remounted after research showed that the tails of these dinosaurs did not drag along the ground, as had been assumed for many years. It was found that they stuck out straight behind the animal and were held clear of the ground, © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.