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Object: Fossil Iguanodon Tooth

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Title Fossil Iguanodon Tooth
Materials tooth
Classification fossils
Dimensions Part: 20mm (Height) x 42mm (Length) x 20mm (Width/Depth)
Overall: 50mm (Height) x 72mm (Length) x 21mm (Width/Depth)
Credit line Gift of the Mantell Family, 1930
Registration number GH004839

This small and rather unprepossessing object is one of Te Papa's most valuable treasures - a fossil dinosaur tooth with a worn crown. It is the first fossil ever to be recognised as dinosaur and its discovery marked the beginning of dinosaur studies.

Found by Mary Ann Mantell in September 1820 at a quarry near Cuckfield in Sussex, England, it is 132 to 137 million years old. Mary Ann and her husband, amateur palaeontologist Gideon Mantell, realised that the tooth belonged to no known mammal or reptile. Eventually, Mantell established that it resembled the molar teeth of Iguana lizards from the Caribbean. However, the fossil tooth was much larger and - unlike a lizard's tooth - was clearly used for grinding.

In 1825, Mantell gave the name Iguanodon to the animal that this and other Cuckfield fossils were derived from. Iguanodon was the first dinosaur to be described (although the term 'dinosaur' was not introduced until 1841). Using the fledgling sciences of palaeontology and geology, Mantell identified for the first time an important group of animals that no longer existed. This introduced the concept of extinction, and triggered a profound shift in human thinking that challenged the biblical view of the origins of life on earth.

After Gideon Mantell's death in 1852, the tooth was brought to New Zealand by his son Walter. A keen natural scientist, Walter helped establish the display of natural history objects - with the tooth in pride of place - when the Colonial Museum opened in 1865.

Text from: "Icons Nga Taonga: From the Collections of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa"

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