December 11, 2012 | 32
My latest book, All Yesterdays, is now out (Irregular Books, 2012; details below). Subtitled Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals, the book – available both as an e-book and as a hard-copy, actual book book – was co-authored by John Conway, C. M. Kosemen (aka Memo) and myself. It’s fantastically illustrated in both colour and black and white, containing about 50 original pieces of artwork produced by John and Memo. An additional number of excellent skeletal reconstructions are included too and were provided by Scott Hartman of SkeletalDrawing.com.
You may already have heard about All Yesterdays if you follow palaeontology- or palaeoart-related news, since it’s been extensively reviewed and discussed online.
Before continuing, I have to insert the usual disclaimer over the term ‘palaeoart’. The term is not ideal, since it could mean “art produced during prehistoric times”. John’s term palaeontography could be used as a replacement but has yet to become popular, despite its appearance in at least one popular book (Baines 2010). There’s also the issue over what we really mean when we talk about ‘palaeoart’. Is any depiction of ancient life an example of palaeoart (no matter how abstract or technically inaccurate), or do we insist that illustrations classed as palaeoart are meant to be technically accurate, meticulously researched reconstructions? Here’s where recognising the distinction between palaeoart and palaeontography could be a very good idea.
On Friday 7th December, we held our official launch event at Conway Hall (ha ha, total coincidence), London. John, Memo and I all gave presentations about the book, about the history and science of palaeoart in general, and about the interplay between science and speculation before signing copies, body parts, napkins and so on. A neat and interested crowd turned up and it was great to see both familiar stalwarts of the dino-art crowd as well as many new faces. Interested laypeople, bloggers and journalists were there too, some of whom have already posted reviews of the event online (see links below). The talks were filmed and will appear online at some stage.
What is All Yesterdays about? It revolves around the central concept that much about long-extinct animals is unknown and essentially unknowable, rendering it possible that extinct animals were sometimes as bizarre, as incredible and as ridiculous – anatomically, behaviourally and physiologically – as are many living animals.
While we’re certainly not advocating unrestrained silliness or absurdity, the point is that many ‘mainstream’ works in palaeoart have been notoriously samey, with the same look to the animals and the same behavioural interactions perpetuated again and again, often as memes where colour schemes, postures, details and compositions are copied over decades or even centuries.
As I hoped to convey in my talk, much of the reason for this situation comes from the fact that many artists paid to illustrate fossil animals for books and such are given minimal advice (or no advice at all), are working to near-impossible deadlines, and are working for peanuts. It’s about impossible to change this situation, since demand for books on prehistoric animals is at an all-time high while the willingness and ability of publishers to pay artists appropriately or even at all is at an all-time low. In any case, the artwork in ‘normal’, ‘mainstream’ books isn’t the stuff that’s carrying us forward, or changing or challenging our expectations – over the last several years, the exciting and innovative stuff has been produced independently, often for fun, and has appeared online.
‘New look’ dinosaurs (and other animals)
It’s a fair assumption that the extravagant looks, fat, flabby or heavily fuzzed-up or feathered-up bodies and fantastic display structures of living animals raise the possibility that fossil ones were often much weirder in appearance than their skeletons alone might lead us to think.
And both recent fossil finds and attempts to reconstruct soft tissues have shown that dinosaurs and other fossil animals were less ‘shrink-wrapped’ than depicted in much of the art that has appeared since the Dinosaur Renaissance. Necks were almost certainly deeper and more muscular than often thought; tissues associated with the nasal region mean that dinosaurs of some groups had ‘softer’ faces than often portrayed (Witmer 2001); bristles, integumentary fibres, frills and spines decorated the heads, tails and/or bodies of many species (e.g., Horner 1984, Czerkas 1992, Mayr et al. 2002, Zheng et al. 2009); feathery species were often extravagantly feathered, with feathering extending to the ends of their fingers, toes and tail tips. According to as-yet unpublished or unverified claims, dewlaps, inflatable throat pouches, balloon-like nasal sacs, chainmail-like scalation and other structures decorated the bodies of certain ornithischians and theropods.
The idea that dinosaurs (and other fossil animals) were complex in appearance and a million miles away from the zombie-like renditions produced by some artists in the past is now a very familiar one; or, it is to anyone seriously interested in the restoration of extinct animals. A large number of artists have been illustrating fossil animals with the appropriate amount of soft tissues for a while now. Many of these artists have been innovative and have deliberately avoided the sorts of stereotypes mentioned above. The world does not need another Deinonychus pack shown leaping onto the flanks of a Tenontosaurus.
In arguing that fossil animals – dinosaurs especially – should be portrayed this way, All Yesterdays is part of a much grander movement in palaeoart; we do not represent a lone voice in the wilderness, nor are we the first people to say what we’re saying. However, All Yesterdays is (so far as we know) the first book to be published that’s devoted to an exploration of both ‘soft dinosaurs’ (a term I’m stealing from the brilliant Jason Brougham) and to the deliberate non-perpetuation of behavioural memes and stereotypes.
What we’re not saying
It’s very easy to completely misunderstand the point of All Yesterdays if you haven’t read what we’ve written. Over at the io9 article about the book, a palaeontologist objected to the implication that the door is wide open for whatever you might want to imagine about fossil animals. We certainly are saying that some aspects of life appearance (and some aspects of behaviour) are up for grabs in some cases, but we certainly aren’t saying this for the general overall appearance of those species known from good remains.
The near-complete, articulated skeletons known for some species, combined with the information we have from muscle attachment sites on bones and the myology of extant animals, means that the basic musculoskeletal anatomies of some fossil animals are well understood. We explicitly state in All Yesterdays that rigorous musculoskeletal reconstructions are needed if an animal is to be reconstructed properly, and none of our artwork is ‘off’ when it comes to proportions and other such basics.
The easiest thing here is to quote from the book itself: “We must note to begin with that reconstructing a fossil animal is not a speculative process that has many possible outcomes, but a rigorous and evidence-led one where informed artists produce a technically accurate musculoskeletal reconstruction for a given animal” (Conway et al. 2012, p. 8). What we do say in the book (and as I said in my talk) is that while the positions of muscles might be known (or reasonably inferred), their size is typically something we can’t be so sure about. Hence we now have fat-tailed theropods (Persons & Currie 2011) – as opposed to the slimmer-tailed ones produced by Bakker and Paul – and also a degree of leeway as goes how chunky and how muscular animals like Tyrannosaurus might have looked overall (Hutchinson et al. 2011).
When it comes to behaviour, I can’t see that we’re saying anything particularly surprising. Body shapes and bits of evidence like stomach contents, bite marks, tracks and burrows and so on give us a broad idea of what many fossil animals did when alive. The point is that extinct animals surely engaged in surprising and weird bits of behaviour during sociosexual displays or when intimidating enemies or predators; furthermore, they surely played, slept, engaged in acts of sexual deviance, ate things and did things that they were probably not supposed to, and so on. Again, we have to infer all of these things because they are so widespread in the modern world. And if you think that interesting and complex behaviours are restricted to mammals and birds, you need to revise your opinion in view of what we now know about lizards, turtles, crocodiles and even amphibians and fish. And anatomy is not destiny (Smith & Redford 1990). Animals sometimes do counter-intuitive things that seem surprising in view of their anatomy, both because their anatomy ‘allows’ it and because they can be curious, stupid and/or willing to take unusual risks.
We had fun with these possibilities, and hence we have John’s lekking elasmosaurs – aiming to impress potential mates by thrusting their long necks vertically out of the water – and Memo’s sexually frustrated stegosaur, about to molest a surprised sauropod. For most of these activities “[n]o record of such behaviour could possibly exist – [they are] wholly and unashamedly speculative – and yet things equally spectacular must have happened throughout the history of life” (Conway et al. 2012, p. 20).
For those who think that we’re being too sensational and only depicting crazy and quirky stuff, we also have sleeping tyrannosaurs, animals standing around doing nothing, and tenontosaurs strolling on their own without a single bloodthirsty Deinonychus in sight. In fact, one point we make is that some dinosaurs – feathery theropods in particular – have been depicted as dragonesque monsters far too often. The real animals were probably… well, more like real animals.
So far, the reception we’ve received for All Yesterdays has been encouraging, with most readers understanding entirely where we’re coming from. Keeping in mind that it represents the sort of stuff that many people in the community are thinking and talking about, and illustrating, we have to wonder: does All Yesterdays mark some sort of watershed with respect to the maturity of palaeoart?
It’s clear that we need to know our history – we’ve only gotten to where we are with respect to the portrayal of extinct animals thanks to the ideas and work of our predecessors. We also need to know as much about anatomy as possible, to understand the things that we do know, but also the things that we don’t know, since those are the areas where there’s scope and even need for speculation. We need to have some sort of documentation of what we do know, since there’s a surprising absence of good texts on the techniques and history of palaeoart. The ‘anatomically rigorous’ movement in palaeoart, initiated by people like Robert Bakker, Greg Paul and Jay Matternes, and today carried on by so many excellent scientists and artists, needs to be supported and celebrated.
We basically hope that All Yesterdays inspires more people to think about the science and speculation involving in depicting fossil animals in a new way: there’s clearly lots to think about, lots to argue about, and lots that will be informed by ongoing scientific work. Has All Yesterdays been a triumph? I’m making a note here: huge success. It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction. What with the also recent publication of Steve White’s Dinosaur Art volume – John and myself were both involved in that one too – I think this has been a very exciting year for anyone interested in palaeoart.
Conway, J., Kosemen, C. M. & Naish, D. 2012. All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals. Irregular Books. ISBN 978-1-291-17712-1. Softback, 100pp.
Buy All Yesterdays directly from Irregular Books (the page there has a nice list of reviewer comments) or here at lulu.com: as a printed softback book it’s £22 (c. US$36, c. EUR27); as an ebook it’s £6 (c. US$9.6, c. EUR7.4).
Here’s what’s already been said about All Yesterdays online:-
Refs – -
Baines, F. 2010. Know It All: Facts, Stats, Lists, Records and More. Dorling Kindersley, London.
Czerkas, S. A. 1992. Discovery of dermal spines reveals a new look for sauropod dinosaurs. Geology 20, 1068-1070.
Horner, J. R. 1984. A “segmented” epidermal tail frill in a species of hadrosaurian dinosaur. Journal of Paleontology 58, 270-271.
Hutchinson, J. R., Bates, K. T., Molnar, J., Allen, V. & Makovicky, P. J. 2011. A computational analysis of limb and body dimensions in Tyrannosaurus rex with implications for locomotion, ontogeny, and growth. PLoS ONE 6(10): e26037. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0026037
Mayr, G., Peters, D. S. & Plodowski, G. 2002. Bristle-like integumentary structures at the tail of the horned dinosaur Psittacosaurus. Naturwissenschaften 89, 361-365.
Persons, W. S. & Currie, P. J. 2011. The tail of Tyrannosaurus: reassessing the size and locomotive importance of the M. caudofemoralis in non-avian theropods. The Anatomical Record 294, 119-131.
Smith, K. K. & Redford, K. H. 1990. The anatomy and function of the feeding apparatus in two armadillos (Dasypoda): anatomy is not destiny. Journal of Zoology 222, 27-47.
Witmer, L. M. 2001. Nostril position in dinosaurs and other vertebrates and its significance for nasal function. Science 293, 850-853.
Zheng, X.-T., You, H.-L, Xu, X. & Dong, Z.-M. 2009. An Early Cretaceous heterodontosaurid dinosaur with filamentous integumentary structures. Nature 458, 333-336.