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The Great Dinosaur Art Event of 2012

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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People have always wanted to know what extinct animals might have looked like when alive. Combine the science of anatomical and palaeoenvironmental reconstruction with the liberal amount of speculation involved in the imagining of animal soft tissues, behaviour and lifestyle, and you have the vibrant and ever popular field known as palaeoart (or paleoart).

September saw the release of a large, visually spectacular, beautifully produced volume devoted entirely to palaeoart. I am of course referring to Dinosaur Art: the World’s Greatest Paleoart, edited by Steve White and published by Titan Books (White 2012).

Somewhat late to the party due to other commitments (apologies for all those promises in which I said that my take on this book was “coming soon”), I want here to discuss both the book’s contents and theme as well as the public events that accompanied its release. The disclaimer here is that I was personally involved in the putting-together and production of this volume (I was the scientific consultant); furthermore, I’m a close personal friend of the editor as well as of several of the contributors.

The only photo I have of everyone at the NHM Dinosaur Art event, sorry about the blinding back-lighting! And... why so serious? L to r: Naish, Rey, Nicholls, Conway, White, Sibbick. Thanks to J Taylor for the photo.

Coincident with the release of the book, Steve and myself hosted a special evening at the Natural History Museum, London, titled ‘Dino Art: the Art of Drawing Dinosaurs’. Based as it was in the southern UK, we couldn’t fly in Doug Henderson, Greg Paul, Mauricio Antón, Julius Csotonyi, Todd Marshall or Raúl Martín, but we did have John Conway, Bob Nicholls, Luis Rey and John Sibbick for the duration. We had each artist on stage, in turn, and chatted with them about their work, their inspirations, and their thoughts on the past, present and future of palaeoart. It was great fun and everyone seemed to enjoy it. The event was punctuated by a lot of book signing.

Julius representin' (both for Canada, and for left-handed palaeoartists). Good work, my friend.

The day after, we attended another signing at Forbidden Planet in Soho. John Sibbick couldn’t join us, but we were graced with the presence of designer Barry Spiers. We signed hundreds of books and also drew tens of little dinosaurs and other fossil animals. I started off with the best of intentions but ended up doing some really terrible drawings; apologies to anyone whose book I defaced. Over those two days we met and spoke with innumerable people interested in palaeoart and prehistoric wildlife, though I’ll resist the urge to drop names. I will say thanks, however, to Palaeosam for the dropgorgon art. Most recently, another signing event was held at the Chapters book store in Edmonton. Funnily enough, I couldn’t make it for this one, and in fact it was a solo effort featuring the one and only Julius Csotonyi.

Dinosaur Art: the contents

John Sibbick's scene showing new look, super-spiky scelidosaurs in a flash flood. From Dinosaur Art.

Already Dinosaur Art has been reviewed an enormous number of times online. In fact it looks likely that it might end up being the most-reviewed dinosaur book of the decade. If you have written a review (you know who you are), rest assured that I’ve read it. Some of these reviews have been thorough, insightful and interesting, but some are – if I may – a little dumb in making the same mistake. This is that they criticise the selection of included artists, typically noting that several major names in the field are conspicuous by their absence.

Furthermore, the inclusion of other, newer artists has been noted as odd in view of those absent ‘grand masters’. While I obviously have privileged insider info, I like to think that – even if I didn’t have this special information – I’d still be able to work out for myself that some people are absent for obvious reasons. Remember that putting together a book like this is not simply the assembling of a dream team. Rather, it’s a complex and tortuous process involving deals, battles, alliances and promises, especially when the project is essentially a giant gamble. I’ll say no more, but I hope you can read between the lines.

Anyway, Dinosaur Art features an outstanding selection of popular, classic and even brand-new artwork produced by ten leading illustrators of prehistoric life. Rule Number One when producing a book that contains dinosaurs is that the word ‘dinosaur’ must get included in the title, even when other kinds of animals are included too. Mauricio Antón’s section is – bar one illustration showing Permian non-mammalian therapsids – devoted entirely to fossil mammals, and illustrations of squamates (including Cretaceous snakes and mosasaurs), pterosaurs, crocodyliforms, Mesozoic marine reptiles and assorted other fossil animals are included in various of the other sections. Hell, the main character on the cover is a crocodyliform (albeit one that’s lunging towards a surprised tyrannosaur). More on that crocodyliform a little later.

A bounding neosuchian crocodyliform I drew in Marc Jones's copy of the book. Sorry, Marc.

The production values of Dinosaur Art are really high: the reproduction is outstanding, the colours are crisp and vibrant, and the book’s large size (31 x 28 cm) means that the pictures are shown appropriately large, often taking up much or all of a page, or even being spread over two pages. Several gatefolds allow full advantage to be made of the panoramic scenes produced by Julius Csotonyi and Raúl Martín. Each section of the book (each one devoted to a different artist) is 16 pages long and each includes anywhere between 15 and 25 illustrations – this number of course depends on how many small pictures are included.

Gatefold from Dinosaur Art, featuring Julius Csotonyi's Campanian Montana Landscape. Note measuring tape. And, yes, my desk is always covered in dinosaur books like this.

The accompanying texts are arranged as interviews in a question and answer format. Artists were asked questions about their inspirations, the techniques they use, and how and where their work has been informed by the science. There’s some great backstory stuff here. However, it should be stressed that knowing what to include in a book like this – text-wise – is difficult, since you will definitely never please everybody. People interested in art and in how the reconstructions are done want to hear about styles, techniques and opinions on the ‘digital transition’, while palaeo-nerd types want to know about the anatomical nitty-gritty and the specimens the artists were looking at when crafting their reconstructions. I definitely tend toward the latter camp and I do feel that some sections of the text focus too much on artistic styles, techniques and media. Having said that, this is a book devoted to palaeoart, and it isn’t as if we really get this information anywhere else.

An unavoidable observation I have to make is that palaeoart has to be considered a very much male-dominated field, since female artists are conspicuously absent here. While I’m sure we can all think of great female palaeoartists, they are few in number and we can but hope that things will become more balanced in time.

Csotonyi, Paul and Henderson

If you recognise this cover, you'll know the horror within. Thanks to Steve's 3D pics (not featuring until long after issue 1 shown here) I actually purchased the whole series. Hat-tip to Jim Robins as well.

The volume starts with an introductory review of the history of palaeoart by volume editor Steve White. For those who don’t know, Steve is a brilliant artist himself (you’ll know his work if you’re at all familiar with the 3D centre-folds featured in the famous Orbis part-work Dinosaurs!), and he’s big in the world of comics. We then get into the ‘meat’ of the book with Julius Csotonyi’s section. His mostly Cretaceous-themed pieces blend digitally illustrated animals with photographic backgrounds. The astonishing details and thoughtful patterns and hues applied to the animals look great and pleasingly naturalistic. I especially like the Heloderma- and Varanus-inspired skin patterns on his mosasaurs.

The anatomically accurate school of which Julius is a part owes much to Greg Paul, arguably the most influential and important palaeoartist of recent decades. To quote myself: “A new, anatomically rigorous movement in dinosaur art was initiated during the 1980s by American artist Greg Paul. Paul argued that artists should produce their own accurately scaled and posed skeletal reconstructions before attempting to ‘bring a dinosaur to life’. Many good palaeo-artists have followed his lead” (Naish 2009, p. 138).

Cover of Greg Paul's 1996 The Complete Illustrated Guide to Dinosaur Skeletons. Yes, I own one.

I fully appreciate that many working palaeontologists disagree with Greg’s contentions and proposals as goes systematics, palaeobiology and functional morphology (as well as being a world-class artist, Greg is an independent researcher who publishes in the technical literature). However, his role in the depiction of dinosaurs and other fossil archosaurs should never be understated. As I’ve said before (Naish 2012), his 1987 ‘The science and art of restoring the life appearance of dinosaurs and their relatives – a rigorous how-to guide’ (Paul 1987) really is a not-yet-bettered classic; it’s much in the same vein as Charles Knight’s Animal Drawing: Anatomy and Action for Artists (Knight 1959).

Most of Greg’s pieces will be familiar to fans, but there’s a drawing of Heterodontosaurus that I don’t think I’ve seen before, he’s modified his Quetzalcoatlus pair (the one where they’re fending off a small tyrannosaur) and his hypothetical post-Cretaceous dinosaur scene might be new to some. A drawing that shows a Troodon chasing an Orodromeus has also been tweaked: the Troodon now has feathers sprouting from the upper surfaces of its second fingers. We now think that all non-avialan maniraptorans were like this – that is, they were bird-like as goes finger-feathering – but it hasn’t yet been universally adopted in palaeoart (as you can see from work included elsewhere in this very book).

I understand that Greg has a new book out. My previous thoughts on Greg and his work can be seen in my review of his Dinosaurs: A Field Guide.

Pteranodons and Plesiosaurs, by Doug Henderson. From Dinosaur Art. God, I love this piece; I can feel the wind, and hear the waves.

In my opinion the volume is made a real ‘must have’ thanks to the inclusion of Doug Henderson’s section. His beautiful vistas, landscapes and seascapes definitely benefit from large-scale treatment; his animals look great, but it’s the breathtaking and wholly believable scenery he creates that really sells these pictures. I can spend ages looking at them, admiring the way the plants, the texture of bark and the interplay of light and shade mimic the scenes of the real world. Unsurprisingly, the ‘landscape-led’ angle of his art forms the focus of part of the interview text and I find it wholly appropriate that some of his sketches and photos of modern-day scenes are included.

Reconstructions of past animals and past environments are often more than random speculations – they frequently depict specific hypotheses. With that in mind, here’s a question inspired by the Henderson piece shown below: would a near-Earth asteroid ever look like this? Wouldn’t it obviously be moving quickly, and hence have a tail? These are honest questions and I’d like to hear your thoughts. Nit-pick: that asteroid can’t be the one that hit Earth during the late Maastrichtian, since those aren’t late Maastrichtian dinosaurs!

Albertosaurus and Lambeosaurs Under Asteroid, by Doug Henderson. From Dinosaur Art.

John Conway: magnolias and the ‘anti-shrinkwrapping’ movement

Moving on, another personal highlight is the John Conway section. The full-page versions of his tarbosaur vs ornithomimid scene, Anthracosaurus pair and, most striking of all, a blooming Cretaceous magnolia, troodontids standing beneath its boughs, are breathtaking.

Troodon formosus & Magnolia, by John Conway, from Dinosaur Art. Needless to say, this tiny version of the illustration does not do it justice.

That incredible magnolia came up in discussion at the NHM event. Firstly, there’s the whole issue of how palaeoartists get hold of palaeobotanical information: there just aren’t any accessible reference sources out there, meaning that artists either have to (1) guess and/or fabricate things and hope for the best, (2) rely on data provided by consultants and collaborators, or (3) go to the trouble of getting hold of the primary technical literature. Were I to produce the Ultimate Hand Book to the Reconstruction of Ancient Life (something I’d really like to do, by the way), I’d be sure to include a major section on fossil plants. I still think that Robert Long and Sam Welles’s 1978 children’s book All New Dinosaurs and Their Friends is one of the most useful sources on the life appearances of fossil plants, and that’s a pretty sorry state of affairs.

Secondly, the idea behind John’s magnolia is – - let’s do this right. Palaeoartists have frequently made nods to the Cretaceousness of magnolias, but, all too often, those magnolias are tucked away in a corner, or shown as little shrubs in the background. By making a giant pink flowering magnolia tree the centre-piece of the art, John has produced a startling and thought-provoking – yet apparently wholly reasonable and accurate – rendition of a Cretaceous scene.

Sauropod-themed anti-shrinkwrapping PSA, from SV-POW!

I’m not alone in regarding John’s work as real game-changer stuff. Let’s start with the whole ‘anti-shrinkwrapping’ thing. John is one of several modern artists who have decided to go the whole hog and give dinosaurs (and other fossil animals) the integumentary coverings and other soft tissues that they really deserve. The ‘problem’ with this approach – and perhaps the reason it hasn’t been more widely embraced – is that it often means obscuring the underlying musculoskeletal anatomy of the animal concerned, the very stuff that Greg Paul has been saying we need to get right. At the extreme end of this trend we have the near-skeletal dinosaurs produced by William Stout during the 1980s, where every bone is visible and but a thin veneer of skin clothes the bones. Note how, in Greg Paul’s dinosaurs, the edges of cranial openings and bones around the back of the skull are clearly visible; Stout’s contemporary dinosaurs aren’t so zombie-ish anymore, but their heads still have that sunken, skeletal look (Stout 2009). ‘Anti-shrinkwrapping’ is one of the main themes that John, Cevdet Kosemen and myself focus on in our new book All Yesterdays, due out early next month. You may also know the theme from the expositions given at SV-POW! (check out this SV-POW! article, among others) and Lord Geekington. Cough cough cough.

There’s often a beauty to John’s art that involves lighting and subdued, naturalistic shading and colouring. These features of John’s art have led to it being sometimes described as looking oriental, or as recalling the oils and watercolours of people like John Constable. Those troodontids beneath the magnolia are perhaps not obvious at first. You know, like real animals.

Nicholls, Marshall, Sibbick and more…

Double Death, by Bob Nicholls, from Dinosaur Art. Two carcharodontosaurs hoist a juvenile Paralititan from the ground. Larger versions of this awesome image are available elsewhere online (google 'Bob Nicholls Double Death').

The Bob Nicholls section is also a joy. Whether by chance or design, it’s somewhat ‘marine-heavy’, featuring brilliant and innovative renditions of ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, chondrichthyans and two reconstructions of the gigantic pachycormiform fish Bonnerichthys. A mosasaur dumped by a water spout, hanging from trees, will raise eyebrows, as will the remarkable ‘Double death’. Two carcharodontosaurs momentarily hoist a juvenile sauropod clear off the ground, the setting sun in the far distance. Predictably enough, the physics involved formed the focus of part of the NHM event. Bob explained how Don Henderson sent extensive sets of calculations on the probability or not of this scene. It may or may not be possible for two big theropods to lift a heavy animal like this; as Bob and I both said, given that a piece of art captures a snapshot in time, we have the possibility that the image shows that fraction of a second where inertia has made the improbable possible.

Bob Nicholls loves being provocative, dangerous even. Here, he works the magic while (at left) a shocked John Conway reacts and (at right) an angry Luis Rey and Darren Naish noisily protest. Thanks to J Taylor for the photo.

Like many other contemporary artists, Bob has moved from traditional to mixed media in recent years. He has also established himself as a major name in the installation of museum displays.

It's like a scene from ROTJ. The giant Cretaceous anuran Beelzebufo eats a baby theropod, by Todd Marshall, from Dinosaur Art.

To get back to anti-shrinkwrapping, it could be said that Todd Marshall – who also has a very nice section in the book – has developed his very own way of trying to make Mesozoic animals look real, this time by decorating them with dewlaps, soft spikes, spines and other bits of integumentary decoration. Skin impressions show that dinosaurs did have soft frills and spines and such, but I think Todd often overdoes it quite a bit. In one of his most ‘extreme’ animals – a Spinosaurus shown leaning down towards a body of shallow water (it’s not included in Dinosaur Art) – there are tall dermal spines on the neck, along the top of the sail and tail and along the edges of a large dewlap, while feather-like papillae line the lower arm and metatarsus. Keratinous hornlets surround the eyes as well. The result is rather more dragonesque than realistic. But don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Todd’s work and his section looks great and fits well into the book.

One topic that gets appropriate coverage in the text of Dinosaur Art is Todd’s collaboration with Paul Sereno. We get to see preliminary sketches and final pieces that focus on the dinosaurs Nigersaurus, Aerosteon, Rugops and Raptorex as well as the crocodyliforms Kaprosuchus and Araripesuchus. Sereno’s recently named African heterodontosaurid, Pegomastax africana (Sereno 2012a, b), sneakily debuted in this volume thanks to one of Todd’s illustrations (that is, the name appeared in the book before the technical publication appeared).

Getting John Sibbick to contribute to the book was also a major coup. Dinosaur Art features a selection of newer pieces, some published here for the first time. They include scenes depicting the animals and environments of Cretaceous Liaoning, reconstructions of the amazing new super-spiky Scelidosaurus specimen (see above), and the Jurassic marine scene ‘Ammonite Graveyard’.

Ammonite Graveyard, by John Sibbick. From Dinosaur Art. Based on a slab of matrix at Ulster Museum, we can see numerous cephalopods, the stem-teleost Dapedium and fragments of monkey-puzzle trees (and a plesiosaur, of course). Sediment is cascading down the cliff-face at left.

I’m fascinated by the massive role John has had in the recent history of palaeoart. Thanks to David Norman’s hugely popular 1986 Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and to the use of John’s art in the dinosaur display at the NHM, Sibbickian dinosaurs have shaped the views of numerous non-specialist artists, scientists and laypeople. Those 1986 dinosaurs are heavy-set, possess shapeless limbs, and have a peculiar lumpy skin texture that doesn’t resemble real dinosaur skin; compared to the dinosaurs being illustrated earlier, or contemporaneously, by Bakker, Paul, Hallett, Peter Zallinger and many others they look decidedly anachronistic for a book published in 1986. Arguably, Sibbickian dinosaurs helped keep old, ‘traditional’ dinosaurs in the mainstream for longer than was appropriate. John is acutely aware of this and was almost apologetic about it at the NHM event.

And, yes, I do appreciate the irony here given that one of my own books – 2009’s The Great Dinosaur Discoveries – includes some decidedly old-school, 1980s dinosaurs (those produced by Steve Kirk for the 1988 Macmillan Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals). What can I say? Constraints of budget.

There are good consultants, but there are downright useless consultants

Just some of the books we signed at the Forbidden Planet event....

On that note, why have inaccurate, anachronistic dinosaurs persisted in parts of the literature for so long? And, on a related point, why are there so many god-awful CG dinosaurs around these days? I have to say that palaeontologists are the main cause of these problems. Ok, many palaeontologists work very hard to ensure that artwork is accurate. Many make sure that artists are as well-informed as they can be. And many understand and care about anatomy enough to know what to look for, what to criticise, and what to regard as accurate or otherwise. A long list of dinosaur-focused palaeontologists have worked closely with artists to produce outstanding, super-accurate work: due respect here to Paul Sereno, Mark Norell, everyone associated with the Witmer Lab, Matt Wedel, Luis Chiappe, Andrew McDonald and many others.

A number, however, are not interested at all in the life appearance of fossil animals, are not concerned about the portrayal of fossil species in art, and are simply uninterested, or untrained, in soft tissue anatomy. I’m not speculating, but writing from experience. A few years ago I asked a colleague why he’d given the ok to some appalling artwork that couldn’t be considered at all acceptable. He told me that he wasn’t that bothered about artwork; that only the text of a children’s dinosaur book was important. On another occasion I asked another colleague why he was giving the ok to dinosaurs that lacked a realistic hindlimb musculature. He told me that he didn’t know about muscles and only cared about bones.

While I again want to make it clear that I’m not talking about all dinosaur-focused palaeontologists, what’s obvious from this sort of information is that some palaeontologists are simply not that useful when it comes to providing advice on palaeoart. If anything, they’re the opposite of useful. When a dinosaur book published in 2011 features scaly-skinned, completely un-feathered dromaeosaurs with down-facing palms, and yet was supposedly checked by one of the world’s most famous and respected vertebrate palaeontologists, we know we have a problem. And this really happened, by the way. It’s not a hypothetical.

Good dinosaurs (Gallimimus & Tarbosaurus), by John Conway. Ha - of course, the ostrich dinosaurs should actually be even featherier. UPDATE: John has now updated this piece, adding the required forelimb feathers. See comments.

More good dinosaurs. Look: pronated hands! Seriously, it's better than some of the other stuff out there.

At the risk of making myself even more unpopular amongst my palaeontologist colleagues, I also think that artists are often ‘more right’ about the stuff they’re most interested in – life appearance and possible renditions of behaviour – than are the palaeontologists I have in mind. A stronger interest in soft tissues, in the portrayal of skin texture and behaviour, and an intuitive feel for what seems reasonable definitely gives informed palaeoartists the edge when pitted against technical experts who have no real interest in, or experience with, those areas. A few years ago, an author produced a rather stinging book review in which he accused Mauricio Antón of making numerous anatomical errors and of not making fossil mammals look weird enough, or big enough. In a lengthy and thorough response, Antón went through every one of the criticisms (Antón 2003). He showed how, time and time again, he had actually been accurate, had used specimens and sources unknown to the reviewer, and had found in his own research that the ‘weird’ and ‘big’ reconstructions expected by the reviewer were the product of tradition, not evidence (Antón 2003). And, maybe my memory is selective, but my over-riding recollection of the ‘feathered dinosaur’ issue during the 1980s is that renditions of feathered non-birds were considered crazy and speculative, and that artists should definitely keep those dinosaurs scaly. While nobody ever discusses it much, it’s important to note that, in the end, the palaeoartists were right.

Rey, Martín, and that cover image

Dating to 2009, this picture has been on Tet Zoo before. Proof that babies love Luis Rey. After seeing this image, my mother said "Don’t let her become too interested in those things. One palaeontologist in the family is enough!". I agree.

To get back on track… from John Sibbick we jump to the wholly different look of Luis Rey. Luis’s work is synonymous with bright colours and flamboyant, dramatic scenes. Appropriately enough, his section opens with a bristly pinkish-blue Triceratops piling on top of a vanquished tyrannosaur amid a spray of liquid mud and panic and rage. Classics like his ‘Cretaceous rodeo’ and head-butting Carnotaurus scene are featured, as are newer scenes that depict Gigantoraptor and Sinusonasus.

Luis Rey's speculatively adorned Deinonychus. Looks stupid but, then, animals often do.

I will be brutally honest and say that I am not especially fond of Luis’s digitally composited scenes, but the drama, vibrancy and sheer audacity of his work always makes it fun to look at. Despite the credit I’ve given John Conway above as goes the anti-shrinkwrapping movement, we should be fair and note that Luis was headed in this direction quite a few years earlier. His elaborately adorned dromaeosaurs (like the Deinonychus shown here; from here on Luis’s blog) look odd and perhaps ridiculous, but no more so than many modern birds and other animals.

The volume ends with the anatomically detailed, nicely lit dinosaurs of Raúl Martín. Oh, and a few proboscideans and a selection of animals from the Eocene forests of Messel get a look-in as well, as does Effigia… and Deinosuchus. Yes, it’s Deinosuchus that makes the cover, as mentioned earlier.

That Deinosuchus illustration is moody, interesting and appealing (especially to those who think that theropods are over-rated), and I know that everybody wants to see Deinosuchus reconstructed in all its glory. However, I have to note that we might be being led astray here. You see, nobody is really all that sure what Deinosuchus looked like and reconstructions that make it look like a gigantic crocodile (by which I mean – as always – a member of Crocodylus) are likely far off the mark. Martín’s illustration actually gives the animal several unique, diagnostic features of the living Saltwater crocodile C. porosus so, from a technical point of view, the picture is problematic. In cases such as this, I’m reminded of something Mark Hallett once said about a wholly different animal (you might like to guess which one): “When it was proposed as an illustration for a recent book, my consultant, Robert A. Long of the University of California, Berkeley, and I decided that a painting of this animal would be an exercise in pure fantasy and should not be attempted until more complete remains are described” (Hallett 1987, p. 99). Wise words indeed, yet we also have to recognise the fact that palaeoartists often don’t have the luxury of choosing not to illustrate something.

Raul Martin's famous reconstruction of the carcharodontosaurian allosauroid Concavenator, with its weird hump and (perhaps) feathery arms.

Anyway, Martín’s section includes some striking scenes that feature the likes of Guanlong, Concavenator and a selection of giant sauropods. Like several other artists whose work features in the book, the style and scale of his work means that it looks ideally suited for such things as museum murals.

I certainly didn’t start writing this article thinking that I’d be commenting on the work of all of the book’s contributors. I hope it’s clear, however, that all of the artists whose work is included are world-class and that there are angles to the work of all the featured artists that are relevant to palaeoart as a whole. Part of the reason that art is so fascinating is because it isn’t ‘just’ art; it’s history as well. Just as photographs capture a snapshot of a particular time, pieces of art relate to a time, and a ‘place’ in history. Imagine how enthralled we would be if the palaeoartists of decades past had produced a sumptuously illustrated, semi-biographical volume detailing the back-stories to their work and ideas. As a snapshot of where we are right now, Dinosaur Art should be seen as a fascinating and valuable work, both for scholarly and historic reasons as well as aesthetic ones. Let’s try and remember I said that in 20 or 30 years.

Finally, I should note that Phil Currie and Scott Sampson both provided brief, introductory sections of text. For a book of such size and quality, Dinosaur Art is highly affordable and already it’s been hugely successful in terms of sales. It’s available here on amazon and here on amazon.co.uk (the book’s title is spelled incorrectly on the latter page: can someone correct it please?). A brief movie featuring myself and Steve talking about the background to the book is viewable here.

Thanks and well done to Steve, and everyone else at Titan, for organising the events and for pulling it all off. Thanks to Tom Green for help with the images, to Jenny Taylor and Julius Csotonyi for taking various of the photos. I want to finish by bringing your attention to the websites of the various artists featured in the volume…

Refs – -

Antón, M. 2003. Reconstructing fossils mammals: strengths and limitations of a methodology. The Palaeontological Association Newsletter 53, 55-65.

Hallett, M. 1987. Bringing dinosaurs to life. In Czerkas, S. J. & Olson, E. C. (eds) Dinosaurs Past and Present, Volume I. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County/University of Washington Press (Seattle and Washington), pp. 96-113.

Knight, C. R. 1959. Animal Drawing: Anatomy and Action for Artists. Dover Publications, New York.

Naish, D. 2009. The Great Dinosaur Discoveries. A&C Black, London.

- . 2012. [Review of] Dinosaurs: a field guide/The Princeton field guide to dinosaurs. Historical Biology DOI:10.1080/08912963.2012.670534

Paul, G. S. 1987. The science and art of restoring the life appearance of dinosaurs and their relatives – a rigorous how-to guide. In Czerkas, S. J. & Olson, E. C. (eds) Dinosaurs Past and Present Vol. II. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County/University of Washington Press (Seattle and London), pp. 4-49.

Sereno, P. C. 2012. Taxonomy, morphology, masticatory function and phylogeny of heterodontosaurid dinosaurs. ZooKeys 226, 1-225. doi:10.3897/zookeys.226.2840

- . 2012. Corrigenda: Taxonomy, morphology, masticatory function and phylogeny of heterodontosaurid dinosaurs. ZooKeys 226: 1-225. ZooKeys 227, 101.

Stout, W. 2009. William Stout: Prehistoric Life Murals. Flesk Publications, Santa Cruz.

White, S. 2012. Dinosaur Art: the World’s Greatest Paleoart. Titan Books, London.

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at darrennaish.wordpress.com. He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at tetzoo.com! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. TikiCosmonaut 10:05 pm 11/5/2012

    I love this book. We bought ours just a week or so back.

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  2. 2. John Conway 5:43 am 11/6/2012

    I can’t believe I have to modify the Tarbosaurus and Gallimimus painting again—that’s four revisions in two years. Stand still second, palaeontology, so I can paint you!

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  3. 3. Jerzy v. 3.0. 7:00 am 11/6/2012

    Longest self-advertisement of a book I ever read, but good thing.

    What about paleoartists getting ecology right, too? For example, Luis Rey Deinonychus is imagined as a large predator, but has bright colors which would give it away for prey and fleshy tubercules which would no last in a fight. John Conway magnolia is painted from a park specimen – in the real forest a small tree cannot grow so perfectly spread to all sides. Vegetation in Gallimimus and Tarbosaurus scene is bizarre with multi-trunked trees and no undergrowth. The only natural situation I can imagine is that it was a river floodland which was twice destroyed by very big floods. Etc., etc. If anybody looks for another consultant, you at least know where to ask.

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  4. 4. Jerzy v. 3.0. 7:02 am 11/6/2012

    Typos, sorry.

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  5. 5. Steve P 7:09 am 11/6/2012

    I’m guessing the animal Mark Hallett was talking about was Protoavis.

    Great review – I’ll have to get myself a copy.

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  6. 6. Steve P 7:12 am 11/6/2012

    Crud; on reading his quote again it suggests he decided not to paint the animal… well, as the tree said to the lumberjack, I’m stumped.

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  7. 7. naishd 7:26 am 11/6/2012

    Thanks for comments. But… Jerzy, habitat- and plant-wise you’re talking nonsense – there are plenty of wild magnolia trees that look like that, there are plenty of (flood-damaged or not) forests that look like that. The world is complicated.

    Darren

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  8. 8. C.M. Kosemen 7:39 am 11/6/2012

    Jerzy,

    Gallery forests can generate a lot of scenes like the Gallimimus painting.

    Wild magnolias can look as magnificient as gardened ones.

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  9. 9. John Conway 7:51 am 11/6/2012

    Hi Jerzy, the magnolia is not painted from a park specimen, it’s based on several trees I’ve seen in a similar open woodland setting or even denser stettings. As for the lack of undergrowth, I’m not sure what your objection here is. You give one perfectly good natural explanation for it (the Nemegt does indeed have floodplain deposits), and then move on like you’ve demolished the premise of the picture(?).

    You have a point about large predators never being brightly coloured though.

    As for you being a consultant, I doubt anyone would want to work with such a …. difficult individual [edited by D Naish].

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  10. 10. naishd 7:55 am 11/6/2012

    Hey hey hey, keep it friendly, please. John, I am going to edit your comment.

    Darren

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  11. 11. John Conway 8:11 am 11/6/2012

    Fairy nuff Darren. Jerzy, if you saw that, I apologise.

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  12. 12. vdinets 11:39 am 11/6/2012

    Killer whales and African wild dogs are brightly colored (for mammals, at least). Interestingly, both species have individually unique markings. I think the reason is that they are coordinated hunters, and the ability to see and recognize each other is more important to them than camouflage.
    Note that Harris’ hawks (coordinated hunters, too) are among the most brightly colored raptors.

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  13. 13. Dartian 12:26 pm 11/6/2012

    Darren:
    Luis Rey’s speculatively adorned Deinonychus”

    To me, it looks mostly like a condor or a vulture (e.g., Vultur, Sarcoramphus, or Torgos). The conclusion is clear: dromaeosaurs were obviously scavengers. ;)

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  14. 14. Heteromeles 12:40 pm 11/6/2012

    I think my biggest grumble isn’t about magnolia trees (I thought the one above was gorgeous, incidentally), it’s that we don’t really have a good visual idea about what a large and diverse mega-herbivore population might make a coniferous forest look like, especially a coniferous forest that is *not* dominated by members of the Pinaceae. We don’t really have precise modern analogs, and it shows in the artwork.

    For example, (see above) some people still think that sauropods belong in what looks like modern-day redwood forests. Even the redwoods disagree. They root-sprout like crazy, and grow quickly out of what would have been dinosaur browsing zones. Perhaps these are the ghosts anti-herbivory defenses against dinosaurs? How would you get a forest layered with fallen trunks (as in modern redwoods) if (according to some coproliths) the dinosaurs chewed away all the rotten logs?

    In any case, I urge artists to experiment more with what a savanna maintained by browsers might look like. Bracken fern fields and equisetum stands (among many other places) give a pretty good idea of what the “prairie” herbaceous layer might have looked like without grasses or angiosperms, and the structural malleability of cypresses, junipers, redwoods, and other old-line conifers may offer some hints for how they would respond to browsing. Many of them respond better to pruning than most Pinaceae do, and it’s worth remembering that the Pinaceae didn’t dominate the northern hemisphere until the Cenozoic.

    It’s possible to imagine a Mesozoic Serengeti with yellowing ferns on the ground, browse-lined cupressoids (perhaps looking like a Monterey cypress on a golf course) dotting the sea of brown, and the occasional spiky cycad clump sitting like a bunch of armored euphorbias. It’s just a bit harder to find such illustrations.

    Still, that’s a minor grump. Everyone wants their showy dinosaurs, and I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of this book.

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  15. 15. Halbred 1:52 pm 11/6/2012

    I got the book a few weeks back–it’s really fantastic, spared no expense. I’m also an advocate of the idea that “if it ain’t known from good remains, don’t bother” school of thought. I understand that a job’s a job, but the client should know better sometimes. Case in point: those two cute little neoceratopsids found recently, both from partial lower jaws. That illustration is included in the book, and I consider it utter speculation despite its beauty.

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  16. 16. naishd 2:11 pm 11/6/2012

    On that Doug Henderson scene with the asteroid, Doug says…

    “Well, the asteroid in the image you mentioned in your review really is too big to be seen at its intended distance well before reaching the atmosphere–it looks 50 miles across. But if imagined viewed through a telephoto lens, perhaps OK. Any asteroid not yet touching the atmosphere would not leave a tail–but appear as brightly lit in the night sky as the moon and grow slowly in size in one crescent phase or another until it did plunge on in. Unless a comet, but that’s another picture. The animals were the request of the museum–with an assertion that Albertosaurs survived to end Cretaceous times. Just following orders with a little license.”

    Thank you, Doug.

    Darren

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  17. 17. JoseD 5:00 pm 11/6/2012

    @Naishd

    Thank you SO much for this. If there’s 1 thing I love, it’s a long/readable/in-depth article about dino science/art. As you may have noticed by now, I usually have A LOT to say in response to my favorite articles, & this 1 is no different.

    “I understand that Greg has a new book out.”

    Are you referring to his 2010 field guide or an even newer book? If the latter, what’s the book?

    “A bounding neosuchian crocodyliform I drew in Marc Jones’s copy of the book. Sorry, Marc.”

    What’s wrong w/it? I really am curious b/c, AFAICT, it’s just fine for a quick croc sketch.

    “If you recognise this cover, you’ll know the horror within. Thanks to Steve’s 3D pics (not featuring until long after issue 1 shown here) I actually purchased the whole series.”

    Did you purchase the series in book form or magazine form? If the former, how many books are there? I know of 2 (“The Humongous Book of Dinosaurs” & “The Big Book Of Dinosaurs”), but I think there might be more.

    “Bob Nicholls loves being provocative, dangerous even. Here, he works the magic while (at left) a shocked John Conway reacts and (at right) an angry Luis Rey and Darren Naish noisily protest.”

    Out of curiosity, what was Nicholls drawing in that photo that was so provocative/dangerous (even if you guys were just kidding)?

    “A number, however, are not interested at all in the life appearance of fossil animals, are not concerned about the portrayal of fossil species in art, and are simply uninterested, or untrained, in soft tissue anatomy.”

    For better or for worse, your articles have a tendency to blow my mind. That’s what that whole paragraph just did (I only quoted the 1st sentence to save space). I mean, paleontologists who don’t care what the fossils say about prehistoric life? What the heck?!? As for the guy who said “that only the text of a children’s dinosaur book was important”, he was obviously never a child.

    “When a dinosaur book published in 2011 features scaly-skinned, completely un-feathered dromaeosaurs with down-facing palms, and yet was supposedly checked by one of the world’s most famous and respected vertebrate palaeontologists, we know we have a problem. And this really happened, by the way. It’s not a hypothetical.”

    I’m gonna guess you’re referring to an MJB book, given the quality (or lack thereof) of the paleoart in a lot of his books. Am I right? If not, what book is it? I really am curious.

    “At the risk of making myself even more unpopular amongst my palaeontologist colleagues,”

    Hey, it worked well for Bakker.

    “And, maybe my memory is selective, but my over-riding recollection of the ‘feathered dinosaur’ issue during the 1980s is that renditions of feathered non-birds were considered crazy and speculative, and that artists should definitely keep those dinosaurs scaly..”

    I think you’re right, based on what I’ve read from the 1980s. Specifically, I remember GSPaul & Bakker pointing out that there were then no skin impressions for small non-avian theropods & that, based on their shared anatomy w/birds, feathers were perfectly plausible.

    “In cases such as this, I’m reminded of something Mark Hallett once said about a wholly different animal (you might like to guess which one)”

    Seismosaurus?

    “Luis Rey’s speculatively adorned Deinonychus. Looks stupid but, then, animals often do.”

    While definitely not my favorite Deinonychus (That honor goes to Skrepnick’s depiction), am I the only 1 who sees the striking similarity btwn Rey’s depiction & another pack-hunting maniraptor?

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  18. 18. naishd 5:00 pm 11/6/2012

    One more thing: I said above that John Conway’s Gallimimus now need to be “even featherier” (due to the recently published discovery of long, pennaceous forelimb feathers in these animals). John has now updated the piece to take this discovery into account. Fast work!

    Darren

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  19. 19. SciaticPain 5:20 pm 11/6/2012

    I’m glad to see so much attention towards the interface between dinos and Mesozoic vegetation. If anyone wants to look closer at paleobotany check out 2nd ed Paleobotany: The Evolution and Biology of Fossil Plants- its the best book on the subject with 1000′s of photos and illustrations, check it out. Part of the problem with having a quick guidebook towards fossil plants which Darren suggests is that often only bits and pieces are preserved or simply pollen. Hopefully one day a whole Jurassic forest will be found preserved in situ but until then recreating ancient floras takes a lot of imagination tempered with comparison to modern flora in its proper environmental context.

    Although I have not seen Dino Art yet I have no doubt Doug Henderson gets the feel of the vegetation the best by far out of all the artists. One problem I have with most dino illustrations is that the main subjects, the dinos, are placed on some type of barren ground substrate- seemingly separate from the vegetative context of their environment. Except for extreme deserts one does not see large expanses of barren ground in most environments, plants will colonize all exposed land.

    Instead of battling it out on exposed bare ground surrounded by swaths of vegetation dinosaurs should be shown clambering through, between and over the vegetation.

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  20. 20. jeiman 5:32 pm 11/6/2012

    Concerning the piece with the incoming asteroid, would it be visible from where the dinosaurs depicted lived? Chicxulub Crater is quite a distance from Alberta, right?

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  21. 21. Heteromeles 6:50 pm 11/6/2012

    @Jeiman, Personally, I think that’s the Chicxulub on its infamous (and largely forgotten) first pass, when it missed the Earth, before coming to slam in much later on.

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  22. 22. vdinets 6:54 pm 11/6/2012

    SciaticPain: Actually, it’s common for places where many large animals congregate to have no vegetation cover. Savanna watering holes, rainforest salt licks, etc.

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  23. 23. vdinets 6:56 pm 11/6/2012

    As for the asteroid in the picture, if it is above the atmosphere, how come the non-sunlit half is visible as dark against blue background?

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  24. 24. StupendousMan 8:45 pm 11/6/2012

    Let’s work through some of the details of that picture of the asteroid. Assume the field of view of the picture is the typical field of view of unaided human vision, about 50 degrees wide. The asteroid is about 1/5 of the field of view in diameter, or about 10 degrees wide. The diameter of the Chicxulub object is estimated to be roughly 10 km. So, how far away must an object of diameter 10 km be to appear about 10 degrees wide? A little trigonometry reveals the answer: about 60 km.

    That’s close. Really close. That’s at the top of the stratosphere, far below the point at which ordinary little tiny bits of space-dust turn into meteors. It’s close enough that the interaction with the atmosphere — which must already be happening, though the picture doesn’t show it — will have a strong effect on the asteroid’s motion.

    (If the asteroid is considerably smaller than the Chicxulub object, it must be considerably closer, and so even lower in the atmosphere.)

    Why is the non-sunlit half visible? Well, at its small distance above the Earth, the asteroid will be receiving sunlight which has been reflected off the Earth — “Earthshine,” as we call it.

    The typical speed with which an asteroid will pass by/through the Earth is about 30 km/sec. If this object is 50 km above the surface, it’s either going to smash into the surface within 2 seconds, or (if those dinosaurs are lucky) fly past this portion of the Earth on its way back to space. If it is moving across the line of sight, it will move its own diameter in a small fraction of a second, so it would cross the sky in just a few seconds. It would set up enormous disturbances in the atmosphere as it did so.

    Even if the dinosaurs aren’t smashed like bugs in a few seconds by the direct impact, they are going to be thrown bodily a great distance by the shock wave when THAT hits them in a few seconds.

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  25. 25. Margaret Pye 9:09 pm 11/6/2012

    I’m not a scientist, but I confess to being a bit dubious about Deinonychus being illustrated with that kind of bright red face. It seems to me that the large predators that are brightly coloured are either pursuit predators with no need for camouflage (Lycaon, Parabuteo, Sagittarius, Orcinus…) or are brightly coloured in a way that’s actually good camouflage (half the Felidae etc).

    Now, Deinonychus is a short-legged, heavily muscled sort of critter. It looks like an ambush predator – it was probably a great sprinter, but it doesn’t look like an animal with much endurance. And ambush predation requires good camouflage.

    And that vulture-thingy doesn’t look remotely camouflaged. I can’t imagine what background it could blend into.

    Now, if someone feels like covering their tyrannosaur in hideous red wattles, I can’t see why not. Tyrannosaurs look like the kind of predators that wouldn’t necessarily need camouflage. And if someone feels like making their large megapredatory dromaeosaur bright orange with black stripes, or yellow with black spots, or green if that’s physically possible… that sort of colour scheme only looks conspicuous in a zoo. But I’m quite dubious about the idea of giving an obviously megapredatory, notably short-legged animal the sort of blatant look-at-me colouring that Luis Rey’s put on that Deinonychus.

    Have I missed anything?

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  26. 26. Margaret Pye 9:14 pm 11/6/2012

    Wait. We’ve found retrices on ornithomimids now? Definite ones, or is this like Concavenator having quill knobs?

    Does that imply that most of the Coelurosauria is descended from gliding ancestors? Or does it imply that retrices initially evolved for something completely non-flight-related (display?) and were around as a convenient preadaption?

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  27. 27. Christopher Taylor 10:21 pm 11/6/2012

    From my own observations of a certain introduced pestilence in this part of the world, the rainbow rat, I would say that bright colours are not at all problematic for concealment. Despite their kaleidoscopic appearance, lorikeets can be surprisingly difficult to see amongst vegetation.

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  28. 28. Margaret Pye 1:10 am 11/7/2012

    You have a point, but I’m not sure how successful lorikeets would be at ambushing large animals with good vision (like, say, pigeons). Not that they try, obviously :-)

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  29. 29. JoseD 1:58 am 11/7/2012

    @Naishd & Heteromeles

    The following are just a few things I forgot to ask/mention in Comment 17.

    “‘Anti-shrinkwrapping’ is one of the main themes that John, Cevdet Kosemen and myself focus on in our new book All Yesterdays, due out early next month.”

    I have 2 very important questions about that.

    Will it cover dino natural history (Specifically, what/how we know about it) to a large extent?

    Will it be for casual readers, enthusiasts or specialists ( http://whenpigsfly-returns.blogspot.com/2008/04/paleo-reading-list.html )?

    Many thanks in advance.

    “The giant Cretaceous anuran Beelzebufo eats a baby theropod, by Todd Marshall, from Dinosaur Art.”

    Is there any hard evidence for Beelzebufo having eaten baby dinos or is that speculation based on living bullfrogs eating whatever they can fit in their mouths?

    “I think my biggest grumble isn’t about magnolia trees (I thought the one above was gorgeous, incidentally), it’s that we don’t really have a good visual idea about what a large and diverse mega-herbivore population might make a coniferous forest look like, especially a coniferous forest that is *not* dominated by members of the Pinaceae.”

    Out of curiosity, what do you think of Sibbick’s “Apatosaurus herd and Ceratosaurus” ( http://www.johnsibbick.com/library/displayfull.asp?product=D2 )?

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  30. 30. vdinets 7:44 am 11/7/2012

    #24: Earthshine or no earthshine, no part of an incoming asteroid can be visible as dark against blue background unless it’s deep within the atmosphere (certainly no higher than 20 km). At which point it can’t possibly be dark anyway – you probably wouldn’t even be able to look at it without burning your retina.

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  31. 31. John Conway 7:56 am 11/7/2012

    @Heteromeles all good points. It’s a tremendously complex business this, and there are many areas to be improved.

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  32. 32. naishd 8:59 am 11/7/2012

    Thanks for more excellent comments. I don’t have time to respond to the longer ones (sorry, JoseD), but will aim to do so in time.

    Inspired by some comments above, I want to say some more on plants. It’s definitely true that artists of prehistoric life have chosen ‘prehistoric-looking’ scenes to illustrate before fitting the animals in; this explains why there are so many charismatic redwood-dominated forests and Olympic Peninsula-esque scenes in Mesozoic palaeoart, also why we see modern monkey-puzzles in Walking With Dinosaurs. In these cases, more homework and more info on the fossil plants really known from the respective times and places wouldn’t go amiss.

    However, again I have to say that… the world is complicated. It isn’t easy to formulate hard rules about the dos and don’ts of prehistoric vegetation (as per Jerzy’s comment above on magnolias and bare ground in a forest) when things are known to be so super-variable.

    – Take groundcover, for example. Above we have a complaint that dinosaur-dominated scenes never show appropriate groundcover. Not only is this so because artists are more interesting in showing animals than plants, you’ll note it’s also so because the animals are often shown walking across floodplains, mudflats and dry river beds where groundcover hasn’t grown.
    – Even in woodlands and other non-flooded habitats, groundcover can be rare or even absent due to light competition, toxic leaf litter and so on. A habitat showing absent groundcover is >not< 'wrong'.
    – Browse lines are not a ubiquitous feature of the world: they are absent in many places (even with healthy herbivore populations) and might partly result from over-browsing, not from normal levels of plant predation.
    – Some dinosaurs might have eaten wood, but those kinds of dinosaurs (hadrosaurs) did not live throughout the whole of the Mesozoic, nor were they always numerous or present in all places. Fossil tree trunks and limbs show that there was TONS of dead wood lying around on the ground at times.

    Note that some palaeoartists have been trying very hard already. There are already plenty of reconstructed scenes out there that show fern prairies, cycad-dominated woodlands and so on.

    Darren

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  33. 33. Heteromeles 9:03 am 11/7/2012

    @29 JoseD: I like the picture you linked to, and thanks for bringing that up. I’d hoped that some artists had started thinking along those lines.

    The only quibble I have is one of the scale of the trees. It seems to me (perhaps out of ignorance) that many conifers could manage to grow out of the sauropod cropping zone. It seems to be the best strategy for anything growing straight up on a single trunk, as those Araucarias are in the illustration. Assuming this is the case, I’d expect the sauropods to be browsing off the lower branches of trees that are growing leaves mostly above their head heights.

    Still, even if trees could overtop sauropods, they all have to grow through the browse zone.

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  34. 34. WarrenJB 11:48 am 11/7/2012

    Recognise that cover? I still have it around here somewhere, with the 3D glasses! (Steve’s 3D illustrations were a big improvement on the sad-looking concrete models too, to my 12-yo eyes.)

    I don’t go crazy for some of Luis Rey’s colour choices myself, but I like that Deinonychus! But to pick up from Margaret’s complaints as an interested layperson: is there any speculation about how dinosaur vision would have affected cryptic colouration?

    On the matter of uncaring authors: if the person in question is the one I’m thinking of, it’s mildly surprising to me, since the first I heard of him was when he gave a talk on the outward appearance of (feathered) dinosaurs over here recently.

    Also, thoroughly ashamed that I haven’t bought this book yet.

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  35. 35. SciaticPain 11:56 am 11/7/2012

    @vdnets yes that is true about salt licks, water holes- but must we immediately assume that dinos-who most likely produced uric acid (like reptiles and birds) instead of urine- would have been as heavily dependent on these resources as mammals who produce urea and therefore lose relatively more water (and salt ions) than reptiles/archosaurs? Following from this I would argue that riparian habitats were not as stressed as modern mammal dominated riparian habits.

    @Naishd- all valid points concerning the presence/absence of groundcover in dino illustrations and of course if the dino is the star the artist does not want to muck it up with vegetation. But I do think an honest analysis of dino art reveals it has become beholden to this convention of minimal to nonexistent groundcover to the point where, imo, this convention is doing injustice to portraying complete ecosystems.

    I also think it is interesting that most modern extant gymnosperms are relatively slow to moderate in growth habit- Cycads particularly so- but even most conifers and ferns are more moderate in growth than angiosperms. Of course there are exceptions, redwood trees for instance are fast growing and we can’t immediately assume modern gymnosperms are perfect analogues for Mesozoic ones, but it does beg the question about the exact intensity of dinosaur pressure on vegetation during the Mesozoic.

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  36. 36. Heteromeles 12:36 pm 11/7/2012

    @SciaticPain: I’d suggest the crucial, missing point, is that 65 myr without dinosaur grazing pressure is a long time in evolutionary terms. The conifers we see now are not those that were optimized to survive dinosaur browsing. Instead, they’re optimized to survive insects (and mammals) but even more, they’re optimized to out-compete other plants in the same ecosystems.

    This is a common theme on islands, where we often see plants that have abandoned anti-herbivore defenses in favor of growing bigger or faster. These plants suffer disproportionally when confronted with novel herbivores. Given that such insular adaptations happen fast in evolutionary time (<1 million years), I'd say that the only remnants of dinosaur defenses we see among current conifers are those that have been repurposed for other uses, such as the fast rate of redwood growth and its ability to stump-sprout, both of which are useful for growing along the floodplains and landslide-prone slopes of Northern California.

    As for other Mesozoic survivors, both Equisetum and bracken (Pteridium) are notoriously hard to kill, because their sensitive buds are located well below-ground, and their aboveground portions are armored by either abundant silica (equisetum–don't mow it if you like your mower) or some interesting carcinogens (bracken). I wouldn't be surprised if such adaptations were more common in the Mesozoic.

    It's kind of daunting for would-be time travelers to realize that the most edible bits of the Jurassic landscape are things like Araucaria nuts (way up in that tree), cycad nuts (what fun), ginkgo nuts (in the Arctic), podocarp fruits, or carefully cooked bracken fiddleheads (more fun). Or you can eat meat and eggs. We’re really not adapted for a Mesozoic diet. Tyrannosaur balut, anyone?

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  37. 37. vdinets 9:52 pm 11/7/2012

    SciaticPain (#35 part1): Good question. Some frugivorous and granivorous birds certainly use mineral licks: there are huge parakeet/parrot gatherings at such places in the Amazon; I’ve recently seen a large gathering of white-winged doves in Guatemala. Even if most dinosaurs didn’t use mineral licks, they probably had favorite gastrolith-gathering sites, and such places can also get trampled really bad (I remember seeing a patch of bare ground about 10×10 m in a place where dozens of capercallies used to gather to swallow gravel).

    Everybody: Just how much do we know about the density of the ground cover in pre-Angiosperm world? I would expect moist places to look a bit like fern meadows of some Pacific islands, but was there enough aridity-adapted plants to create ground cover in drier climates? Or was it like the coniferous belt of the Sierra Nevada today, with sparse, patchy vegetation between trees even in non-shaded places? Ferns and horsetails seldom get abundant in dry areas, so what was it: small coontie-like cycads? bonsai-like conifers? Ephedras? Sorry for my ignorance, but this kind of information isn’t easy to find.

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  38. 38. SciaticPain 12:56 am 11/8/2012

    @vdinets #37. Mesozoic groundcover in arid conditions is a problem I have grappled with a lot. Cheilanthoid ferns are actually arid adapted ferns that are surprisingly diverse in arid habitats of the US southwest. The resurrection plant (Selaginella- google the video of this plant coming back from desiccated condition) is actually a type of lycopod also found in southwest deserts. James Kirkland suggests plants like these as good models for possible groundcover in arid Morrison (link).

    Unfortunately there is going to be a heavy bias against arid, upland plants being preserved in the fossil record. But when we see dinos like Nigersaurus which seem specialized at ground level grazing suggesting that some habitats supported a diverse, abundant groundcover. I suspect it was a complex mosaic of rhizomatous ferns, prostate conifers, horsetails, cycads, seed ferns, bryophytes, lycopods, fungi and lichens. It is just hard to imagine this because the mind immediately leaps to images of grass dominated savanna type habitats.

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  39. 39. vdinets 1:33 am 11/8/2012

    That was probably a beautiful sight… Perhaps the closest thing today would be the upper slopes of Mongolian Altai, with prostate junipers, krummholz larch, tundra lichens, Ephedra and occasional mosses and ferns. Just replace the few Angiosperms with cycads and seed ferns. Accidentally, these mountains are only a short distance away from the dinosaur sites in the Gobi :-)

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  40. 40. naishd 4:58 am 11/8/2012

    Nice comments on groundcover. One thing to remember: the Mesozoic was a looooooong time, lots happened. Groundcover during some of the Mesozoic was lycopod-, fern-, cycad- or horsetail-dominated, but there were herbs, grasses and other angiosperms forming groundcover during part of the Cretaceous at least. The magnoliopsid Nelumbites has been reconstructed as forming groundcover in some Cretaceous scenes.

    Darren

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  41. 41. Heteromeles 11:48 am 11/8/2012

    @Darren, Ummm, no. We actually do have evidence from the late Cretaceous, from one very good site (see ref at bottom). While angiosperms were the majority of species, ferns and cupressoid conifers were a large majority of the biomass, even there. Woody angiosperms were confined to stream margins, which then as now were highly disturbed habitats. There’s a similar situation in prairies and other grasslands, where grasses are a majority of the biomass while other species are a majority of the species richness.

    Actually, that’s the norm for non-tropical plant communities in any case. Without a strong disturbance such as frequent fires or massive grazing, one life form is dominant (tree, herb, or shrub), and within that life form, one-three species are dominant. The vegetation may contain 100 other species, but by mass and cover, most of it is a single species.

    Angiosperms did not become dominant in any known fossil bed until well into the Cenozoic, so far as I know. This does *not* mean that they didn’t dominate some late Cretaceous landscapes. For example, I’d suggest strongly that the pine and oak families evolved in mountains, simply because that’s where their pollen was found in the Paleocene in the UK. Unfortunately, that means that, absent a miracle (as in Scotland, where the Paleocene equivalent of Kilauea’s tree islands preserved pollen from high paleoaltitudes) we’re unlikely to get early critical fossils of the tree groups that now dominate the northern hemisphere.

    Source, Wing et al. 1993. Implications of an exceptional fossil flora for late Cretaceous vegetation. Nature 363. 342-344 (from an project to understand ectomycorrhizal evolution).

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  42. 42. vdinets 11:54 am 11/8/2012

    Darren: wasn’t Nelumbites an aquatic or semi-aquatic plant like lotus? It was found with water-lilies in Israel.

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  43. 43. naishd 12:00 pm 11/8/2012

    Heteromeles (comment 41): what, you’re disputing that “there were herbs, grasses and other angiosperms forming groundcover during part of the Cretaceous at least”? I didn’t mean to imply that ferns and conifers etc. didn’t take up most of plant biomass in the Cretaceous, rather that there would have been places where angiosperms (and other groups) may have formed some, much or all of the groundcover. My understanding is that Late Creaceous swampy areas, channel edges and banks and so on may well have been visibly dominated by angiosperms.

    Darren

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  44. 44. Heteromeles 12:09 pm 11/8/2012

    @SciaticPain: I agree. The weird thing for a spore-dominated desert vegetation (ferns, equisites, lycopods) is that they require water for germination. This means that reproduction was rare, but the adults were pretty bomb proof. I’d speculate that there would have been a lot of deep rhizomatous species (as with bracken) and bulb-equivalents (there are some bulb-bearing ferns today, and there are anatomically a number of ways to make those structures). Given I also see things like Isoetes in vernal pools, I’d guess that ephemeral waters probably played a huge role in letting them have sex. Absent water, there were probably a lot of mechanisms for asexual reproduction. Actually, it would be cool to have dinosaurs happily grazing in a green desert landscape of filled vernal pools.

    My guess is that such drylands really went through a spring greening, and were brown most of the rest of the year. The Karroo or the (for me) the Mojave might be good examples.

    Moss mats and biological crusts were probably as important then as now. Incidentally, I strongly suggest that every ecologist check out soilcrusts.org. I got enlightened recently in both the importance and diversity of these structures globally, and there’s no reason not to use them as background in paleoart.

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  45. 45. Heteromeles 1:25 pm 11/8/2012

    @Darren: that’s my understanding too. My general take is that, then as now, a lot of angiosperm diversity and active evolution was among disturbance followers, what we’d consider weeds. Certainly, the banks of seasonal streams qualify for that.

    For those who know them sycamores (aka plane trees) are a hold-over from that early niche. Where I live, they grow on the rocky banks of ephemeral streams.

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  46. 46. naishd 4:05 pm 11/8/2012

    Response (at least) to JoseD’s comment # 17…

    Re: new Greg Paul book

    Are you referring to his 2010 field guide or an even newer book? If the latter, what’s the book?

    It’s called Gregory S. Paul’s Dinosaur Coffee Table Book and it’s very expensive. That’s all I know.

    Re: bounding neosuchian crocodyliform I drew in Marc Jones’s copy of the book.

    What’s wrong w/it? I really am curious b/c, AFAICT, it’s just fine for a quick croc sketch.

    Thanks. It’s not that bad technically, I just don’t much like the look of it.

    Re: Orbit part-work Dinosaurs!

    Did you purchase the series in book form or magazine form? If the former, how many books are there? I know of 2 (“The Humongous Book of Dinosaurs” & “The Big Book Of Dinosaurs”), but I think there might be more.

    I acquired them when they came out as individual parts, and later purchased one of the big, bound, softcover compilations – can’t remember its name. I disliked the written content immensely, but it was worth a look for some of the art. I also liked those hilariously OTT cartoons near the back. David Norman’s Q&A thing was also good for a laugh. Smilodon beats Tyrannosaurus in a fight? Ha ha, yeah, sure, sure.

    Re: Bob Nicholls being provocative, dangerous even.

    Out of curiosity, what was Nicholls drawing in that photo that was so provocative/dangerous (even if you guys were just kidding)?

    You know, I can’t remember. But it was very, very offensive.

    Re: those palaeontologists not interested at all in the life appearance of fossil animals, not concerned about the portrayal of fossil species in art, and uninterested, or untrained, in soft tissue anatomy.

    I’m gonna guess you’re referring to an MJB book, given the quality (or lack thereof) of the paleoart in a lot of his books. Am I right? If not, what book is it? I really am curious.

    I’m deliberately not mentioning any names. The book in question was for young kids and was published by Disney.

    Re: the thing-that-should-not-reconstructed according to Hallett…

    Seismosaurus?

    Ok, you can all stop guessing. It was Spinosaurus.

    Not sure when I’ll get round to respond to your other comment. I try, honest (smiley).

    Darren

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  47. 47. naishd 4:07 pm 11/8/2012

    Hmm, blockquote tag not working. How annoying.

    Darren

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  48. 48. SciaticPain 4:34 pm 11/8/2012

    Good points all around!

    @naishd- so true that the Mesozoic was a looong time and all sorts of different groundcover regimes proliferated.

    @Heteromles-excellent reference- I assume you live in possibly northern CA? I’m glad you brought up soil crusts because they are fascinating- I first learned of them on a trip to Sedona Arizona. Fungi/lichen get no respect- caribou live off the stuff to a large extent and I wonder if any dinos did?

    @vdinets It never dawned on me that Ephedra is a gymnosperm- learned something new here!

    Anyways glad to see so much interest in topic and it is a subject I explore/speculate on in my blog http://antediluviansalad.blogspot.com/
    Not trying to just plug my blog but hopefully I can get some of this discussion over there because there is not a lot of paleobotany resources on web and I am basically just learning as I go along so any constructive input is welcomed!!!

    Cheers
    Duane

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  49. 49. kuartus 5:07 pm 11/8/2012

    That Gallimimus could pass for an emu or ostrich. Seriously, why aren’t these animals just considered birds? They had feathers and a beak for crying out loud!

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  50. 50. Margaret Pye 6:08 pm 11/8/2012

    Problem is, if you classify them as birds, you also have to classify tyrannosaurs (about equally closely related to sparrows) and therizinosaurs (much nore closely related to sparrows) as birds.

    Which you could if you wanted to, but most scientists don’t, just because calling tyrannosaurs “birds” feel slightly silly.

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  51. 51. Halbred 6:09 pm 11/8/2012

    Well, if you want to get technical…

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  52. 52. Heteromeles 6:49 pm 11/8/2012

    Perhaps we should call them “berds,” because it’s one vowel before “birds.” Just thinkin’ out loud.

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  53. 53. JoseD 7:23 pm 11/8/2012

    @Naishd

    Many thanks for answering my Comment 17 questions. There’s just 1 question I forgot to ask in Comment 29: Will “All Yesterdays” be a real book (as opposed to just a kindle book)?

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  54. 54. Dartian 5:46 am 11/9/2012

    Darren:
    It’s like a scene from ROTJ.

    Actually, I think Beelzebufo looks more like that whatshisname leader of the Gungans in The Phantom Menace.

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  55. 55. jeiman 9:50 am 11/9/2012

    @Dartian: That would be Boss Nass. And I agree, as far as facial features go, Beelzebufo more closely resembles a Gungan than a Rancor.

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  56. 56. jeiman 9:58 am 11/9/2012

    @jeiman: I meant Jabba the Hutt, not a Rancor.

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  57. 57. David Marjanović 1:25 pm 11/9/2012

    The animals were the request of the museum–with an assertion that Albertosaurs survived to end Cretaceous times.

    Those remains have been assigned to subadult Tyrannosaurus since the mid-1990s. However, there’s Lambeosaurus in the picture, which means early Maastrichtian anyway, right? So I thought the asteroid was supposed to be the one that formed that early Maastrichtian crater somewhere in North America and had only local effects.

    I mean, paleontologists who don’t care what the fossils say about prehistoric life? What the heck?!?

    Biostratigraphers?

    As for the guy who said “that only the text of a children’s dinosaur book was important”, he was obviously never a child.

    Seconded.

    Is there any hard evidence for Beelzebufo having eaten baby dinos or is that speculation based on living bullfrogs eating whatever they can fit in their mouths?

    No direct evidence that I know of, but all extant frogs that aren’t somehow specialized seem to eat anything that moves and can be stuffed through between their shoulder blades. The reconstruction makes Beelzebufo look exactly like the extant Ceratophrys, called “horned toad” or… “pacman frog”.

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  58. 58. David Marjanović 1:27 pm 11/9/2012

    Oops. “Biostratigraphers?” wasn’t supposed to be in italics.

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  59. 59. JoseD 4:56 pm 11/9/2012

    @David Marjanović

    “Biostratigraphers?”

    OK, that’s a good point, although I always figured that the whole point of paleontology was to find out what life was like b-4 recorded history & what it can tell us about modern life.

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  60. 60. pmurphy98 8:11 pm 11/9/2012

    Looks like an absolutely fantastic volume! Will have to update my Christmas list.

    Just one question – do the proto-feathers of Sciurumimus mean that they were present across Tetanurae? Seems like the answer would have big implications for reconstructions. Was just curious after looking at Raul Martin’s Concavenator (which is still very good, by the way)

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  61. 61. JoseD 10:19 pm 11/9/2012

    @Pmurphy98

    “Just one question – do the proto-feathers of Sciurumimus mean that they were present across Tetanurae?”

    To quote Martyniuk ( http://albertonykus.deviantart.com/journal/Otto-312279124 ), “Well, at the very least all of Orionides. But Cau found this as a basal coelurosaur, and his analysis included more coelurosaur species, so I’d tend to put more stock in that one.”

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  62. 62. John Scanlon FCD 4:59 am 11/10/2012

    ‘Perhaps we should call them “berds,” because it’s one vowel before “birds.” Just thinkin’ out loud.’

    OK, in the same vein, why is ‘vowel’ not an English word for ‘bird’?

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  63. 63. Heteromeles 10:17 am 11/10/2012

    No linguistic jokes? No airds before birds, or berds before birds? Oh well.

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  64. 64. Heteromeles 4:15 pm 11/10/2012

    Just got the book incidentally. Looks wonderful. Now I’m stuck figuring out whether to treasure it, or to give it as a Christmas present to one of my favorite people.

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  65. 65. Henrique Niza 1:31 pm 11/11/2012

    “The ‘problem’ with this approach – and perhaps the reason it hasn’t been more widely embraced – is that it often means obscuring the underlying musculoskeletal anatomy of the animal concerned, the very stuff that Greg Paul has been saying we need to get right.”

    I’m a big fan of Greg Paul work but that is the main reason why I think most dinosaur artwork is, well, boring – most are basically colorful skeleton reconstructions. Even depictions of feathered dinosaurs are mainly scales replaced by feathers only.

    Label stuff like D. Naish did here “Luis Rey’s speculatively adorned Deinonychus” doesn’t help either I believe. How come Luis Rey’s Deinonychus is speculative while other dinosaur artwork isn’t?

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  66. 66. naishd 4:48 pm 11/11/2012

    Henrique: I think it’s ok to describe Luis Rey’s Deinonychus as “speculatively adorned”, given that the adornments are, you know, speculative. This choice of description is not meant to be negative – I would use it for any reconstruction that depicted a fossil animal with wholly speculative adornments.

    Darren

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  67. 67. Henrique Niza 5:22 pm 11/11/2012

    Darren: I didn’t meant your choice of words are negative in any way and my apologies if it sounds that way.

    I agree that Luis Rey’s Deinonychus is speculative but Raul Martin’s Concavenator here even though maintain the ‘colorful skeleton reconstruction’ is also quite speculative itself.

    When can you trace the line of what is or isn’t “wholly speculative” regarding a depiction of a fossil animal and thus justify the use of the word speculative?

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  68. 68. David Marjanović 11:47 pm 11/11/2012

    OK, in the same vein, why is ‘vowel’ not an English word for ‘bird’?

    Well, “fowl” is, sort of. :-)

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  69. 69. Gwen! 11:56 pm 11/16/2012

    Regarding comments arguing against brightly-colored predators:

    The problem that comes to mind for me is that mammals in general don’t have spectacular color vision. If orange and green aren’t very distinguishable to a deer, no harm is done if a tiger–or a human hunter–is wearing bright orange. A lot of human hunters consciously take advantage of this, even.

    But assuming that dinosaurs did have good color vision–which seems to be the general consensus nowadays–then “flashy” mammals like tigers and jaguars don’t seem like the best comparison for dinosaurian color constraints. Why assume that Deinonychus would have had the color vision to make such displays meaningful, but that herbivores like Tenontosaurus (for example) were somehow stuck with the same crap quality of color vision as a deer? Is there a reason to think that predators should have better color vision than herbivores in general?

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  70. 70. David Marjanović 7:26 pm 11/17/2012

    “flashy” mammals like tigers and jaguars

    Aren’t they colored like dry grass and forest floors in sunshine, respectively?

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