Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Help Brian Switek Tell the Stories of Fossil Hunters in the Field

...at its core, fieldwork still relies on patience, luck, and a strong back to carry enough water to fight off lingering hangovers. - Brian Switek, from his "Have Allosaurus, Will Travel" Kickstarter campaign page.

Brian Switek prepares to enter Natural Trap Cave. Photo by Eric Scott.

Brian Switek is on a mission to tell a story. For years, he has carved out a niche as a journalist of life's history, and has written about every major palaeontology story in recent memory. More importantly, he's shed light on many that don't hit the front pages. He's told these stories via the various incarnations of his Laelaps blog, as a freelance reporter, and as the author of the popular Written in Stone and My Beloved Brontosaurus (as well as his new Prehistoric Predators, featuring the art of Julius Csotonyi, which I reviewed last week).

Next, he intends to tell the stories of the men and women who work for months in conditions most people wouldn't tolerate for a day to make the shiny museum exhibits and cavorting CGI saurians possible. He describes it as a need more than a want. To make this possible, he's raising funds via Kickstarter to allow him to spend the summer traveling between 10 important dig sites across western North America, spanning the last 250 millions years of Earth's history.

I love this idea. Pop-palaeontology often jettisons the uncertainty and debate that surround discoveries. Look no further than the NatGeo Spinosaurus blitz of last year, in which the publication of new fossil material was accompanied by a documentary, magazine cover story, and museum exhibition. These publicity efforts sell the public a story, one that tends to elide the "more research is needed" that is almost always part of a research paper's conclusions.

Brian is on the road now, but took a few minutes to do a brief interview about the project.



What do you think are the major misconceptions people have about the way field work and other research is undertaken?

Have a look at paleontology news items. Most of them are about the results of science - the naming of a new species, or a discovery about the way a particular animal lived. The passion of paleontology - the thing that keeps people trudging through deserts and spending countless hours in the lab - is often missing. That's symptomatic of science storytelling in general. The result is the focus rather than the process. And even though the first Jurassic Park film came out over 20 years ago, it partly fills that void. I regularly get asked whether paleontologists use ground-penetrating radar to find fossils (nope) and there's often an assumption that dinosaurs come out of the ground as lovely, articulated skeletons (that's rare).

The truth is that fieldwork roughly resembles how it was done a century ago. Making an important discovery starts with being dirty, sweaty, tired, and possibly hungover on long desert hikes where you feel like your brain is going to boil out of your ears. And when you find a fossil of note, it's often the beginning of commitment that involves years of digging, chipping, studying, and puzzling. It takes a special kind of madness to enjoy this kind of work, but it's that human story that I want to tell.

What media - writing or otherwise - do you think has done a good job of telling the story of palaeontology?

Some of the best works on the process of paleontology are books that look at the history of the discipline. Some that immediately come to mind are Paul Brinkman's The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush, David Rains Wallace's The Bonehunters' Revenge, and the harder-to-find biography of O.C. Marsh by Charles Schuchert and Clara MaeLeVene. Maybe it's because we're more distant from these researchers - and their dinosaur-sized personalities - so we feel more comfortable talking about their successes as well as their faults. Whatever the reason, these books are at the intersection of science and the personalities that drove it.

Do you have a favorite field site you've visited?

I don't know if I can choose! I've been lucky enough to work at a variety of sites around the west over the past four summers, and each has its own flavor. Quarries brimming with bone, such as Ghost Ranch, are nice, but there's nothing quite like the thrill of going prospecting to find a new site. So even though I can't pick a favorite, I'll say that I'm the most excited about the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry. It's a rich Jurassic boneyard full of Allosaurus, and last summer I found a new dinosaur site outside the main quarry. I don't know what dinosaur it is or how much is in the rock, but in a few weeks I'll be going back to find out.


Best of luck to Brian in his efforts - I know firsthand how difficult crowdfunding can be. At the time of this posting, he has a week to raise about half of his funds, so please do consider pitching in and spreading the word on social media. Let's help him in this effort to sing the praises of palaeontology's usually unsung heroes.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Review: Prehistoric Predators

Two years ago, after the director of Jurassic World confirmed that the movie would not feature feathered Velociraptors, John Conway wrote a brief but influential blog post about the effects of what he called Awesomebro culture on perceptions of nature and, specifically, palaeontology. While pitched at a popular audience, Prehistoric Predators, newly published by Cider Mill Press, hits the scene at a time that palaeoart hobbyists, professionals, and enthusiasts are looking critically at the ways that palaeoart can evolve in a pop culture that still holds on to a view of dinosaurs as monsters. Illustrated by Julius Csotonyi and written by Brian Switek, the book is tightly focused on its titular topic, offering almost a hundred pages of ancient beasts in the heat of predatory action.



In the hands of lesser talent, a project like this could go off the rails. But Csotonyi has proven himself time and time again in his adherence to accuracy as well as drama, and Switek is the most prominent writer continually working the palaeontological beat, not afraid of nuance and uncertainty as he portrays the science to his readers. They're supported in the project by an impressive production team, who have wrapped their words and images in a beautiful package. The skin of Csotonyi's vibrant Giganotosaurus close-up cover art features a pebbly, textured surface, with glossy teeth and title text. The end-papers are a pattern made of some of the book's featured predators. And the book is a generous size, measuring just a bit under 12" x 11", as large as it is the the recent Titan Books publications Dinosaur Art and The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi. With a retail price of $20 US, it's a great deal for the amount of art and information within.

The Mesozoic gets the vast majority of the attention, comprising about 2/3 of the book's pages, so there's no doubt about the book's real stars. The theropods of Prehistoric Predators are decked out with feathers and filaments, from the plumes of Ornithomimus to the moss-and-rust fuzz covering Daspletosaurus (an update of his Judith River mural at the HMNS - the original is much less fuzzy). There's a good variety of takes on integument, and though it's not a focus of the text, readers will come away with a view of dinosaurs that is thoroughly contemporary, and for the most part the animals feel real, weighty, as if caught in mid-action by a preternaturally brave photographer. There are spots where feathers are a bit too detailed to my eye, a bit too shaggy, a bit too closely tracing the contours of the body. When dealing with a group of animals experimenting with plumage, I suppose it makes sense to assume that not all would be covered in a "dynamic shell" of feathers, as Matt Martyniuk has put it. It can be hard for me to completely buy illustrations that split the difference between fuzz and full, birdy plumage. But this is an issue that is larger than is wise to tackle in a review.

Though the overall project will satisfy anyone coming to see high stakes conflict, we do get glimpses of animals in less extreme circumstances, such as the alvarezsaur Linhenykus keeping an eye on the horizon, Cryolophosaurus wading at the Antarctic coast, or Guanlong drinking water in the amber light of dusk. The book features a handful of new pieces, with my favorite being a spread featuring new-look Spinosaurus squabbling with a pair of crimson-headed Deltadromaeus over a sawfish. Csotonyi has also confirmed that besides the Daspletosaurus noted above, several other pieces that have appeared elsewhere have been revised for new information. A bit of dodgy stock art shows up, with the worst case being the introduction to the Permian period, and readers familiar with Csotonyi's work would be able to pick those inferior animals immediately, even without warning.

For younger readers and others who aren't as familiar with palaeontlogy as LITC readers, this would be a solid choice for an introduction to what we know about the history of carnage-dealing beasts on Earth. Switek ably summarizes the featured geological eras and offers plenty of evidence-based descriptions of the animals. Again, even if we are mostly concerned with feats of predation here, readers learn about their palaeoecology, the varieties of theropod diets, and the ranges of size they attained (still an underappreciated fact, in my experience). Therizinosaurus gets a whole spread, Oviraptor is featured prominently, and Sinornithosaurus is seen from the point of view of its prey animal (with no mention of the controversial claim that it had venom glands). Only a few animals are depicted with scale diagrams, and not all of the "lesser" participants in the illustrations are named, but the amount of information is impressive. Switek's descriptions are approachable and light on jargon, taking confused time-travelers by the hand as they visit these lost worlds and their fantastic denizens.

In Prehistoric Predators, the Awesomebro is served up with a hearty helping of modern palaeontological knowledge. I'm optimistic that the book can lead readers to learn more about other aspects of extinct life that are less red in tooth and claw. There will always be a side of palaeontology media that focuses on the monstrous side of life, but that's no different than any nature media. It's refreshing to see it done with such care.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Superbook of Dinosaurs

Given the despairingly awful recent parliamentary election result in the country in which I happen to live, it's a good thing that Vintage Dinosaur Art is on hand to cheer everyone up. Especially as I've been quite looking forward to writing about this one - it might mostly be a fairly typical book of the period (1985), but it features a few tropetastic pieces that definitely raise a smile. Furthermore, much of the art is actually pretty good - at least at a technical level - and there are one or two early pieces from now well-established names. It's no less than The Superbook of Dinosaurs!


Saturday, May 2, 2015

Down on the (former) Dinosaur Farm

The Isle of Wight seemed faintly magical to me as a child - I mean, there was Blackgang Chine for a start, but where else could you pull off a country road with stunning views of the sea, cliffs and open downland, drive down a track, enter a farmyard barn and be surrounded by fossils and dinosaur art? (No, don't tell me where else you can do that. I don't wanna know.) The Dinosaur Farm museum, as it was back in the '90s, was stupendously exciting to a dino-entranced kiddiwink - it felt raw and unpolished, with fossil hunters actually preparing their finds on-site, and seemed to show the (very fragmentary) reality of finding fossils. Unfortunately, the museum closed a few years ago - but it was swiftly reopened by former staff members, and is now better than ever.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Interview: Lisa Buckley

The world is constantly in flux. Nature's erosive forces expose and then deteriorate the traces of prehistoric life. Human communities meet their practical needs by reshaping the natural environment. And though it would be lovely if human concerns only ever preserved fossil resources, it doesn't always work out that way. Such was the case in the Peace Region of British Columbia, when two hydroelectric dams were built on the Peace River in the 1970s, inundated important fossil exposures. While palaeontologists were able to rescue some of the fossils, they could not get everything before the water of the new Dinosaur Lake covered them. Sadly, this included tracksites discovered by Charles M. Sternberg four decades prior.

Fast forward another few decades, when a new, extensive tracksite was discovered by a local resident - a resident who thankfully appreciated the importance of the site to our shared natural heritage. They reported the discovery to the researchers at the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre who were excited to begin documenting the first major tracksite in the province since Sternberg's sites were lost.

The Williston Lake Tracksite. Image from the Indiegogo campaign page.

Time is of the essence; not all of our fellow citizens respect prehistoric sites. To save the tracks from vandals and profiteers, the team at PRPRC needs to document the site fully. This is where we all come in. Via the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo, the museum is raising funds to engage in fieldwork at the site. The effort is represented online by palaeontologist Lisa Buckley, who you may know from her blog and Twitter. She graciously agreed to an interview about this campaign, the importance of ichnology in general, and the fossil heritage of British Columbia.



To start, can you give a brief introduction to the field of ichnology to readers who may be unfamiliar?

Ichnology, for its basic definition, is the study of any traces left by an organism: burrows, trails, borings, footprints, bite marks, nests... it's the study of how a moving, breathing, living organism interacts with, reacts to, and shapes its environment. It's another window into the lives of extinct organisms. In terms of dinosaurs, which is vertebrate ichnology (study of traces left by vertebrates), it tells us what the animals actually did while they were alive: it compliments what we know from skeletal paleontology. Skeletons give us what the animals looked like and what they might be capable of doing, and ichnology tells us what they did do... as long as it fossilizes.

What was your path to ichnology?

I was first seriously introduced to ichnology when I went up to Tumbler Ridge in the summer of 2003 to help colleague (and now fellow researcher at the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre) Rich McCrea. That summer we were working on British Columbia's first dinosaur bone excavation, but he had been researching dinosaur footprints in the Peace Region since the mid 1990s. On days when we were not on the dig site, he showed me the dinosaur footprints sites in the region. It fascinated me the amount of information that could be gathered from footprints, and how, like modern animal footprints, you can use those footprints to identify what animals were in the area. For a province like British Columbia that was historically dinosaur bone poor but dinosaur footprint rich, these footprints provided the ONLY records for what dinosaurs once lived in BC.

My personal research focus is now a blend of skeletal anatomy and ichnology. My doctoral thesis is looking at the correlations between bird foot anatomy and the skeletal features that can possibly show up in bird footprints. Being introduced to trace fossils has given me a much better appreciation for fossils as living organisms with habits, environmental preferences, and complex behaviors.

Stepping back a bit further, what experiences first sparked an interest in natural history when you were younger?

I have to thank my great-aunt Molly for my interest in natural history. She was always interested in natural history, but growing up in the Depression in a poor family made it impossible for her to go to college. Regardless, she read everything she could find on dinosaurs, prehistoric mammals, and flying reptiles. I remember her telling me that they very first book she had the money to buy when she was 12 was a dinosaur book. One of my earliest memories of her is from when I was preschool age, and she was reading to me from a book on extinct mammals. She was showing me the pictures of Eohippus, the saber-toothed cats, and the giant ground sloths. I must have asked her "how do they know these were real?" because she told me that we know about these animals because people dig them up and study them, and I knew then that was what I wanted to do. Molly is the reason I'm doing what I do today. She has since passed away, but she was alive to see me enter the field of paleontology and help establish the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre, and I kept her updated on all of our discoveries. I am very happy I had that opportunity.

Burgess Shale Discovery Site with Mount Burgess
The Burgess Shale Discovery Site by Edna Winti, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Most of us will be familiar with the Burgess Shale - what other important palaeontological sites are in BC?

I'll admit I had a bit of a chuckle regarding "most people being familiar with the Burgess Shale" - I have no doubt that most paleontologists, paleoartists, and paleo-enthusiasts (and readers of your blog!) are familiar with the Burgess Shale, but when I ask people not involved with paleontology if they have ever heard of the amazing Burgess Shale fossils near Yoho, it comes as a complete surprise to them! Fossils haven't been part of BC's cultural heritage in the same way that they are in Alberta, and it has taken some time and a lot of public outreach to introduce people to BC's fossil heritage. Slowly but surely we are making progress!

Here are the top five sites that pop in my mind when I think of significant fossil sites in BC. A classic BC fossil locality is Wapiti Lake Provincial Park. In this park are outcrops of Triassic-age marine deposits, and this is from where our classic Triassic marine fish like Bobasatrania, Albertonia, Birgeria, and the iconic coelacanth are recovered, along with marine reptiles like ichthyosaurs and thalattosaurs. Andrew Wendruff described an entirely new family, genus, and species of coelacanth, Rebellatrix divaricerca, from collections we made from other Wapiti Lake-equivalent outcrops in other parts of the Peace Region. This story is great because the holotype specimen was discovered by a (then) 11 year old girl who used to live in Tumbler Ridge.

With marine reptiles in mind, the Pink Mountain site is from where the late Dr. Elizabeth Nicholls with the Royal Tyrrell Museum recovered the giant ichthyosaur Shastasaurus sikanniensis. That site is in the BC Peace Region near Fort St. John. That ichthyosaur is a monster of a beast!

Turning back to dinosaurs, we are planning for continuing our excavation of BC's first (mostly) complete dinosaur skeleton. This is Late Cretaceous in age (late Campanian-early Maastrichtian), and it is a site that contained an articulated skeleton of a lambeosaurine hadrosaur. The helicopter airlift of the skeleton is featured in Episode 2 of "Dino Hunt Canada". We need to return to that site, because in 2013 we discovered that there is more than one skeleton preserved. We may be dealing with a hadrosaur bonebed.

One of my favorite sites is the BC tyrannosaur tracksite. The site is late Campanian - early Maastrichtian in age, and shows three beautifully preserved trackways of the same type of large theropod, walking in the same direction and roughly spaced evenly from one another. The sediment even preserved skin impressions with the footprints. This paper came out in PLoS One in 2014 (A Terror of Tyrannosaurs). Preserved at this site are more beautifully preserved footprints of hadrosaurs, medium-sized theropods, and ankylosaurs. This is another track surface that needs excavating: all of the tyrannosaur trackways continue on the track surface under a steep, high hill. We need to expose more of that track surface to see what other tyrannosaur behaviors might be preserved.

Last but not least, we have the dinosaur tracksites from within the boundaries of the newly established Tumbler Ridge Global Geopark. We have an impressive range of dinosaur track-bearing rocks ranging from 140 million years old to 73 million years old. That's 67 million years of dinosaur history in BC, and for a great deal of geologic time in western Canada, for which there is a sketchy body fossil record. Every terrestrial formation we have examined within the Geopark boundaries contains footprints from vertebrates, which gives us a great picture of how dinosaur communities were changing from the Early Cretaceous to the Late Cretaceous in western Canada.

A detail of the tracksite, featuring large bird tracks. Photo from the campaign page.

What about the new site, Williston Lake Tracksite, excites you most?

The Williston Lake Tracksite represents something that we never thought we would have the opportunity to do, and that's return to the start of dinosaur paleontology in British Columbia. Dinosaur tracks were first documented from the Peace River Canyon near the community of Hudson's Hope in 1930 by Charles M. Sternberg. The tracks were from the Gething Formation (around 115 million years old, Early Cretaceous) and in 1932 he named several new footprint types from the Peace River Canyon: small-, medium-, and large-sized theropod tracks, ornithopod tracks, and one of our favorites, Tetrapodosaurus borealis, ankylosaur tracks. This was the first ever description of an ichnofauna (a relationship of footprints and footprint-making animals in an environment) for Cretaceous footprints. Anyone working on Cretaceous footprints needs to refer back to Sternberg's 1932 works. It would be better still if they could visit the localities of these prints, but they can't - no one can.

Although the Province of British Columbia granted the Peace River Canyon tracksites Provincial Heritage Resource status (the highest protective status available at the time) in 1930, all of these historically and scientifically important tracksites were flooded when the Peace River Dam went online in 1979. All of these sites are now entombed under what is now called Dinosaur Lake. There was a huge salvage effort done between 1976-1979 by the Provincial Museum of Alberta (now the Royal Alberta Museum), but no where near all of the tracks could be saved.

The Williston Lake Tracksite is the first large track-bearing surface from the Gething Formation that has been exposed in 36 years. This site is the closest thing we have to revisiting the classic Sternberg localities, and the first chance we've had to seriously update Sternberg's 1932 track descriptions using footprints from the same formation and in the same region. We never thought we would have the opportunity in our lifetimes to continue Sternberg's work in this formation.

Do you know the approximate age of the new tracksite, or if it preserves the same ichnofauna as Sternberg's site?

The new tracksite is from the Gething Formation, which is approximately 115 million years old. This is the same formation that Sternberg documented. From what is exposed at the site, we can see that some of the ichnofauna Sternberg documented and named are present: we see the large theropod prints Irenesauripus, and the ankylosaur prints Tetrapodosaurus. So far this is what we would expect to see from the Gething Formation, but there is only a small portion of the tracksite exposed right now. The exciting finds will happen when we uncover large surfaces and examine them in detail. Personally, I'm hoping for more bird footprints from the Gething Formation! Aquatilavipes (small shorebird) was described by Currie in 1981, and we recovered Limiavipes (large wading bird) from close to the area in 2005. The Early Cretaceous was a hotbed for shorebird diversity in Asia - I want to see how similar (or different!) the bird footprint diversity was in similarly-aged deposits in North America.



The Williston Lake trackway is certainly a fossil site worthy of proper study. I love the fact that the team at PRPRC is working with the local community to secure the location, including plans to build an interpretive center at the site. The financial mountain the team has to climb is a tall one, though - see the project budget detailed at Indiegogo. So please share this interview and links to the campaign page far and wide. And, of course, donate as you are able. Thanks to Lisa for taking the time to answer my questions. I wish the team the best of luck in reaching their goal!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Vintage Dinosaur Art: The First Life on Earth (Wonder Why book)

We return to the 1970s this week, with a book that encapsulates why it was such a wonderful decade for kids' dinosaur books. The First Life on Earth (1977, a Wonder Why Book of) is typical of so many children's books on prehistoric life in that it purports to offer a potted history of the evolution of animal life on Earth, while focussing disproportionately on dinosaurs. Of course, this is most certainly a Good Thing, as dinosaurs are the bestest animals ever and all us mammals should feel thoroughly inadequate. In addition, illustrator John Barber might employ the gigglesome palaeoart tropes of the period, but his technique is quite intriguing - his work rewards a closer look.


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Which Mammoth is Mopey Character are You?

We're now two weeks from the end of the Mammoth is Mopey Indiegogo campaign I've posted about here a few times and tweeted about prolifically. In the interest of keeping promotion fresh, we've hopped on the quiz bandwagon. They're scientifically proven to be the number one way to come to self-knowledge in the hustle and bustle of this digital world. No hallucinogens, fasting, or pilgrimage required!



We're just about 65% funded, and it's totally possible for us to reach full funding. As a fixed-funding campaign, we need to hit that number to get any money at all. If you've backed us or spread the word via social media, Jennie and I are grateful for the support. We look forward to fulfilling orders this summer!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Interview: Angela Connor

Weave the Cosmos by Angela Connor, featuring Amaruuk, a Microraptor-inspired mythical creator.

I've admired Angela Connor's Paleo Portraits for a while, and her work has been discussed here previously (here and here). Her portraits are full of character, and in the same way that simple portraits of owls focus our attention differently than other photographs might, Angela's portraits are a way to experience these diverse, sadly extinct, animals in an intimate way. In addition to her palaeoart, Angela's body of work includes simple, engaging animations, sculpture, and fantasy illustration.

I interviewed Angela recently and I'm thrilled to share our conversation with you today.

What is your background as an artist?

I'm still very young and green, so for me, "background" kind of means creative childhood pastimes more than anything. I didn't grow up in an artsy place, but having an artist mom and getting to dabble in a lot of different media in summer workshops (drawing, painting, sculpture, and even one-offs like claymation) kept the creativity going. Plus at home we had lots of art supplies of all sorts and I loved combining them in different ways. In particular I liked making miniature animals with clay, wire, and glass beads, and of course drawing and painting were a way of life.

In high school I branched into a variety of digital stuff (digital painting, pixels, vector, 3D texturing, and web design) mostly inspired by seeing other kids on the 'net doing them and wanting to learn too. Then in college I studied graphic design for a while before changing majors to animation, where I learned that as well as 3D modeling/digital sculpture and other production-y things, but in the years after graduating I've found myself more drawn to painting, GIFs, and other odd experiments, and soon I'll be able to return to making physical crafts like I did as a kid, but now armed now with an adult brain, resources, and the existence of new tech like 3D printing.

Three of Angela Connor's Paleo Portaits: Jinfengopteryx, Styracosaurus, and Deinocheirus.

What was the inspiration for doing the Paleo Portraits series?

I don't think there was any one thing in particular that inspired it, but rather a culmination of several factors. The void that graduating college tends to create kind of makes you start asking yourself the big "Who am I, really?" sorts of questions, and for me one of the things that happened as a result was rediscovering my fascination with the history of life on Earth. I know the collective of science-types I had found online by that point, particularly the LITC and TetZoo circles, played a huge part in reigniting that flame.

I also just wanted to challenge myself to do a series, because my art tends to be one-off pieces rather than cohesive sets of any sort. A bonus is that it's also a great way to study all these different animals (and find new ones I didn't know about before!) because some degree of research is required in order to make them not terrible or too inaccurate. Comparing the myriad shapes past animals took is also good practice for when I go to design my own creatures, and indeed, several of my most-admired creature designers started with, dabble in, or are at least inspired by paleontological reconstructions.

How do you choose what animals to feature for Paleo Portraits? You've covered an impressive diversity of taxa so far.

At first it started out just being ones Scott Hartman had skeletals of, but then it kind of mushroomed out further (but still only ones with acceptable reference). Looking up one animal often leads to a wiki-walk in which I find several more animals so there's actually kind of a backlog I'll go and pick from or just start a new one, chosen more on whim than anything else. Though if there is an event or a certain animal or group is seeing a lot of press or being discussed I will sometimes use that to inform my choice. And as for the diversity, that's part of the goal of the project, though my preferences definitely still are in evidence at this stage.

More Paleo Portraits: Tylosaurus, Dimorphodon, and Psittacosaurus.

What are your early memories of dinosaur art, stories, or other media?

What exactly first sparked my interest in prehistoric life is lost to history, but I do remember having watched Jurassic Park as a wee little girl, and I can't even count how many times I saw The Land Before Time. I also remember We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story and the obscure, vaguely animated VHS version of Michael Berenstain's I ♥ Dinosaurs that got watched a lot. Later, when Walking with Dinosaurs first aired, I think I saw it at a friends' house and we got really into it.

As for books, I would have to go back to mom's and dig through the attic to find/remember any others, but the ones I can think of off the top of my head are Raptors!: The Nastiest Dinosaurs and AMNH's Book of Dinosaurs and Other Ancient Creatures. The latter of those was probably one of the first things that really introduced me to the world of prehistory beyond just the (mostly) Mesozoic rock stars, and was especially fascinating for that reason, though both books had very memorable art.

I don't think there's much outside of film/TV/books but when we got our first computer around '94-'95, (I think) it came with a bunch of these educational DOS games, one of which was called 3D Dinosaur Adventure. It's exceedingly dated now, but it blew my tiny child mind at the time and I played it to death. And, of course, we had quite a number of dinosaur toys and whatnot, in particular I remember the nice rubber models my brothers and I played with in the sandbox, and a JP raptor action figure that I actually have here in my apartment somewhere. Oh, and my favorite thing in the world when I was maybe 5 or 6 was a tiny black Dimetrodon I named "Creamy" that came in one of those novelty egg-shaped soaps.

Inspired by "Creamy," the Dimetrodon Paleo Portrait.

Walking with Dinosaurs has received surprisingly few nods in the interviews I've done, but I also was very inspired by it. Even though it's a bit dated now, I still rewatch it from time to time. do you have any favorite bits that have stuck with you?

I was only maybe twelve at the time so perhaps that is why it stuck with me. I rewatch it occasionally myself, too, as well as the Beasts and Monsters ones that came after. Walking with Monsters may actually be my favorite because of how it steps through the periods by sort of following the one lineage via those "evolution takes over" sequences in between segments while showcasing what's going on around each new iteration and its place in the ecosystem. Plus, there are scant few good programs that portray Paleozoic things or stem-mammalian ancestry in general. My soft spot for synapsids came about perhaps because of that show. My favorite bit of Walking with Dinosaurs was probably New Blood because I love origins of things and Triassic critters in general.

You've done amazing work that melds palaeoart and fantasy art - as in your gorgeous, Microraptor-inspired Amaruuk. As more non-avian dinosaurs are revealed by research to be virtual chimaeras of birds and lizards, it seems a fertile area of exploration. Can you tell us a bit about what inspired this in your own work?

Theropods to me are basically just bird dragons, two of my favorite things mixed together into something way too cool to not make a mythical mascot creature out of (though originally she was supposed to be a creation deity, a mother of all life sort of thing). Plus the ideas of mythical creatures in many ancient cultures come in part from found fossils. Extrapolating from observations and weaving tales and images from that is so very human. I love fantasy and mythos as well as real world zoology/paleontology so combining them seems only natural. Though we have a lot more data now than ancient people did, it's still fun to use it to create deities and beasts of legend.

There is another thing, though. A lot of fantasy art seems to portray creatures from a "monster" angle (though they are still inspired by real animal anatomy and so forth, and some of my favorite fantasy artists are in fact paleo nerds), or when I tell people I make creature art they say "Oh, you mean like monsters?" but personally my approach is what could be called the Alan Grant way. They're not monsters, just animals. They just do what they do. Rather than going full "awesomebro" or exploring the dark depths of the human psyche, I mostly enjoy just building on nature. That plus a little mystical majesty and the ocassional dose of childlike wonder is generally how I like my fantasy, and all the de-monstering and All-Yesterdaysing that paleoart is trying to do right now has certainly had some level of influence. Plus, I'm a 26-year-old woman who goes giddy as a schoolgirl just finding a perfectly ordinary lizard outside. Part of me just wants to put that feeling into my art, too. Life is really amazing, and fusing myth and fantasy with reality kind of brings it out for me. Heck, my piece, Guard of the East Tower, literally is that. I saw a green anole on my windowsill and painted it through the lens of fantasy.

Guard of the East Tower by Angela Connor.

Monsters are certainly central to the genre, but is there any fantasy fiction/ media that you think does a better job than most in regards to portraying creatures more as animals as opposed to monsters?

The portrayal of fantasy creatures as animals versus as monsters really depends more on what kind of story is being told and where they fit into the narrative. If it's central to the plot like a big kaiju or anomalous marauding creature in what is otherwise our reality or enemies in a video game then those are almost always monsters (though the latter also tends to have plain animals as early-on foes). But it tickles me most when creatures exist to flesh out a whole fictional world with its own ecosystem, usually an alien planet like Pandora from Avatar (I admit I'm kind of under a rock with media so I'm sure there are more that I'm simply failing to think of). Part of me really wants to see something like the Star Trek universe delve into its own planets' evolutionary histories and exobiology. More than any media or franchise, though, when I think of treating fantasy creatures as animals, my mind goes to specific artists like Terryl Whitlatch, Brynn Metheney, and Tiffany Turrill. I can't not get fired up looking at their work!

Besides a personal interest (and a real knack for it IMO), do you hope to produce palaeoart in the usual, scientific-illustration-accompanying-research-manner?

Why, thank you! While at this point I know I am nowhere near the level of people who are masters of anatomy and have their noses in up-to-date literature, I'd love to be able to have an opportunity like that in the future. Something along those lines that I really want to get into practicing for in the coming months is model making, as I think it'd be great to produce reconstructions for museums and things of that nature. Outreach about the history of life on earth is really important to me, so it would be an honor to someday be able to help actual paleontologists show their findings to the world. In the meantime I think it's also good to inject what I've gleaned from being connected to this community into hobbies and regular-people stuff, and just kind of help to normalize new discoveries. After all, I am no scientist. I just follow them on Twitter and buy their shirts, haha.


All work in this post is © Angela Connor and used with her permission. Please check out her website and purchase her fine wares at Redbubble. You can directly support her work by pledging at her Patreon page. Follow her at Twitter, DeviantArt, ArtStation, and Facebook, and Newgrounds, too. Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Angela!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Mesozoic Miscellany 74

The Thunderously Big News

Didja hear about Brontosaurus yet? Eh? Well, if you haven't, hold on your butt. Arguably the most famous generic name in all of the dinosauria has returned, thanks to a massive phylogenetic reassessment of diplodocidae led by Emanuel Tschopp of Universidade Nova de Lisboan, and published in PeerJ. The press has, predictably, been mostly vomiting on its own shoes, grasping taxonomic and phylogenetic concepts with varying degrees of incompetence. Not all bad, of course, thanks to knowledgeable and clearly written posts by the researchers and journalists of the dinoblogosphere. Brian Switek, Andrea Cau, SV-POW, Dave Hone, and Everything Dinosaur have all covered it well. Anthony Maltese reminisces about working on a mount of the famous sauropod. Also see articles from The New York Times, Nature News, Wired, and SciAm. There are more, of course. Hey media! Enough with the swampbound, antiquated depictions of Brontosaurus. That beast is still happily obsolete.

Remember Project Daspletosaurus? We're seeing the research hit the press now! Dave Hone, who led the research with Darren Tanke at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, has written about it at his Guardian blog, Lost Worlds, as well as at Archosaur Musings. Cannibal tyrannosaurs and Brontosaurus. Funny week in Mesozoic news.

Around the Dinoblogosphere

Last time around, I featured the news of Carnufex carolinensis. Jaime Headden has written a post about finding that one of his pieces of artwork was adapted for a figure in the publication, without credit. I think a lot of palaeoartists will find value in, and perhaps identify all too closely with, his reasoned post on the issue.

A Carboniferous forest simulator has been developed, and is in alpha testing. Watch the walkthrough by the Palaeocast team below, and check out the project team's work here and here.



The latest episode of the TetZoo Podcats featured conversations of special interest to palaeoartists, including stem-mammal gaits and the homology of scales. There will surely be follow up on the former topic, as John Conway has had some interesting conversations on social media after sharing his tall-striding Dimetrodon. Also see his jaw-dropping recent Dolichorynchops.

Trish Arnold invites you to watch the totally 90's "Bonehead Detectives of Paleoworld."

Jason Goldman's terrific interview podcast The Wild Life featured the fantastic Jennifer Hall, discussing taxidermy and Dreadnoughtus. Jennifer was also interviewed about her career by Pacific Standard. Jennifer's new-ish site is Art in the Age of Evolution.

At ART Evolved, please check out Herman's latest round of reviews, celebrating the occasion of one R. Bakker's hatching day.

Chris DiPiazza, formerly of the defunct Jersey Boys Hunt Dinosaurs site, has begun his own blog, and it promises terrific content. He plans on bringing more conservation issues to the fore, as well as sharing his gorgeous watercolor palaeoart. Go say "hello" to Prehistoric Beast of the Week.

The children's book blog Design of the Picture Book interviewed Flying Eye Books about their restoration and reissue of The Wonderful Egg. It's one that fans of our mid-century Vintage Dinosaur Art titles will love.

Paleoart Pick(s)

Designer-illustrator Sharon Wegner-Larson's Geo-rex Vortex is so cool. It is featured in the new Skullmore zine and as part of an exhibition called Revisited at Exposure Gallery in Sioux Falls, SD. Sharon wrote a bit about her process at her blog and has made the design available on shirts at Redbubble. Prints? Check her Etsy shop.

Geo-Rex Vortex (purple-pink gradient)
Geo-rex Vortex © Sharon Wegner-Larson

Speaking of tees that rock, Neatoshop is running a free shipping promotion this week. Which is pretty nifty because Raven Amos has some frickin' great stuff there. Her Art Nouveau Troodon, Pachyrhinosaurus, highly caffeinated pterosaur, and Styracosaurus are there and I proudly wear her "Swamp Dragon" Ichthyovenator design, seen below. Also: Kaiju/Nintendo mash-ups Gamario and Linkzilla! Go forth and dump legal tender into her coffers!
Swamp Dragon © Raven Amos

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaurs (Start-Right Elf Book)

What with the current media hullabaloo over a certain taxonomic reshuffle (which sounds utterly improbable, but there you have it), it seems apt that this week's Vintage Dinosaur Art takes us back to a time during which that generic name was firmly cemented into the minds of children, in spite of it having been deemed obsolete for decades. Dinosaurs (1971, a Start-Right Elf Book from Rand McNally) is a perfect, and very charming, example of the sort of book that has crusty old brontosaur fans gently wiping a tear from their wrinkly grey faces.