When a big fossil discovery is announced, the initial imagery that floods the news outlets is carefully controlled by the lab responsible for the discovery. That is usually followed by a period of rougher, often inaccurate attempts to reconstruct the animal by aspiring illustrators or adoring geeky fans around the globe. But then an amazing thing starts to happen. As the discovery gains a foothold in the public's consciousness, mature artwork and reconstructions begin to emerge that add a richness to the original crop of imagery, one that would not be possible with one or two science illustrators' perspectives.

For at least the first three years after the announcement of the discovery of Tiktaalik, an image search on "tiktaalik roseae" returned images almost entirely from our lab: the Shubin Lab. Now, as the announcement of Tiktaalik approaches its 7th anniversary, the science art surrounding it is beginning to ripen. Last night, on a whim, I typed "tiktaalik" into my browser and discovered this delightful portrait by John Sandford. It was the cover art created to accompany a 2009 article about Neil Shubin and the discovery of Tiktaalik for the children's magazine Muse.

Of course, die-hard Tiktaalik fans will object that he is depicted with actual digits. But Sandford explains it this way:

I wanted to show this very early ancestor in the mode of formal portraits or photographs. As my work is for children's books, magazines and textbooks, I employ anthropomorphism quite a bit. I'm afraid if that, given an assignment to render an animal realistically, I'd fail.

I disagree. The accuracy of Tiktaalik's head is what caught my attention in the first place. And didn't portrait artists of old often save time by having the subject sit only for the detail work of the head and face, using a generic body and hands? So, for me, this portrait of "The Honorable Mr. Tiktaalik" works beautifully.

The John Sandford Archive