Thursday, September 29, 2011

Meet Matt Carrano

If you saw Dinosaur Revolution, you saw a bit of Matt Carrano, curator of dinosaurs at the Smithsonian Institution. But you didn't see enough, did you? Well, thanks to the generous organization for which he works, now you can. Pull up a chair and settle in for this interview, or if you're in public on a mobile device, why not pull some bystanders away from whatever their doing and show them something cooler and more important?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Planet Dinosaur, episode three - review

This week's Planet Dinosaur looked at the killer theropods of the Late Cretaceous. (I'm sure they're getting to non-theropods in time.) In the North, Daspletosaurus was the tyrannosaurs' representative while in the South, Majungasaurus held up the abelisaur end. There was also a brief sojurn into the Land of the Giant Troodon, but we'll come to that in a minute.

Daspletosaurus and Centrosaurus. Copyright the BBC.

Firstly, though, we must address the most important issue here: was Daspletosaurus spelled consistently in John Hurt's script? The poor guy seemed to be pronouncing it in two different ways; much of the time it was correct, but then equally as often he seemed to be saying "Desplatosaurus". Or do my ears deceive me?

We were informed from the off that Daspletosaurus co-existed with Gorgosaurus although, sadly, we never got to see the latter. (Also, the skeletal diagram for Gorgosaurus depicted, strangely, a juvenile animal.) Daspletosaurus was portrayed as gregarious, but not a pack hunter a la Currie - rather, it displayed the more reptilian behaviour of attacking in a mob without any tactics or co-ordination. Which was a Good Thing. Once again, the programme pointed to healed bite marks and puncture wounds on tyrannosaur skulls as evidence for intraspecific competition, which was welcome, but did feel like a bit of a retread.

For the most part, the creatures in this episode looked rather good, and the animation was decent with a few moments of stiffness (including a tyrannosaur that looked like it was skating). There were a few nice touches, such as a Chasmosaurus scratching itself against a tree, that lent the action a more naturalistic feel. Nevertheless, the animals still look completely rubbish when they fight - while no scrap was quite as slapdash-looking as the herky-jerky carcharodontosaur battle in the first episode, there is still something quite...wrong about the way Planet Dinosaur's beasts do battle. This is particularly true of larger animals, as they appear to lack the necessary mass.

The series was also guilty of presenting speculation as fact this week, notably when it portrayed an Alaskan giant Troodon population ganging up on juvenile Edmontosaurus. While it was pointed out that there is evidence of Troodon (or at the very least, troodont) bite marks on Edmontosaurus remains, we were presented with no evidence for Troodon being a co-ordinated pack hunter. It's plausible, perhaps, but still speculative - and it's a little disappointing that the show didn't point this out, given how good it has been on that front so far. Equally disappointing was the rather under-feathered appearance of the Troodon. It seems extremely unlikely, given the advanced feathers seen on other troodonts, that Troodon itself would have reverted to only having an extremely short, hairlike covering of protofeathers. This seems especially baffling given that, disregarding a few cock-ups with feather attachment points and the like, the show's dromaeosaurs all have wings.

The segment featuring Majungasaurus was enjoyable, if only for the adorable baby Majungasaurus that fed alongside their attentative mother (again, speculative, but in this case, I'm going to let it go. It's cute). Naturally, in addition to looking at the biomechanics of its bite, the show took delight in presenting the animal's cannibalistic side - following a (rubbish) fight with a burly male over a carcass, the mother Majungasaurus promptly devoured her opponent. It would've been better if the fight sequence itself was better animated - and the behaviour of the animals during the fight a little more convincing - but said cannibalism was still a cool fact to introduce to the public. Especially kids. I bet they loved it.

The final section in this episode was pretty cool, too, as a herd of Centrosaurus met a watery death in a flooded river while migrating en masse. Granted, some of the animals' behaviour was again a little odd (why weren't they resisting the Daspletosaurus more?), but this moody, stormy scene made for a good finale.

Overall, Planet Dinosaur continues to be a mixture of virtuous science, better-than-average CG restorations and slightly clunky animation. It's difficult to decide how pedantic one should be when writing these reviews. For me, the most important aspect of this series is the science that it's introducing to the general public. Most of this stuff won't be new to dinosaur enthusiasts, but episodes like last week's are likely to astound the public at large (who are also less likely to notice that the feathers are incorrect, or particularly remember how the feathers were arranged anyway). Hopefully, next week will see a break away from theropods - much as I like them - and John Hurt correctly pronouncing those tricksy dinosaur names.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Terrible '90s Dromaeosaur Face-Off: Round 3

After David's rather highbrow post yesterday, dealing with fancy art history and all that jazz, it's time for me to drag standards back down again - from the painterly sublime to the sketchbook ridiculous. Yes, it's time for the third round of the Terrible '90s Dromaeosaur Face-Off™!

First of all, however, I must announce that last week's winner (again, by only a single vote!) was Deinonychus from The Humongous Book of Dinosaurs/Dinosaurs! magazine. Described as "pruney skinned" (David), a "mutant '80s allosaur" (Hadiaz) and possessing a left foot that represents no less than "evolution perfection" (Henrique Niza), may we have a round of applause for our wrinkly brown friend, please.

In the blue corner, this week sees the triumphant return of Know the World of Dinosaurs to the competition. With the book's Velociraptor having already won one round, it'll be interesting to see how its Deinonychus fares. Although similar in many ways, the Deinonychus is notably leaner and its head longer and shallower. Which means they probably arranged their page incorrectly.

In the red corner we have an old Vintage Dinosaur Art favourite - the Velociraptor from those strange Dinosaurier trading cards David unearthed. "Hilariously wrong" it may be, but is it a worthy contender against the anatomical train wreck put forward by Know the World of Dinosaurs? That decision is down to you, oh readers! What japes we have.

Remember, I'm after your suggestions for future nominees as well as your votes. My aim is to have four initial rounds, followed by two semi-finals and a stupendously exciting floppy-handed lizardy-skinned all-out brawl of a finale!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Vintage Dinosaur Art: J.M.W. Turner

Apologies if this is out of left field, but whenever my current studies intersect with paleontology, I can't stop myself from sharing it. In my recent research into the foundations of the Arts and Crafts movement, a multi-faceted philosophy spurred by distaste for the excessive ornamentation of Victorian design and the early industrial revolution's devaluing of traditional craftsmanship, I inevitably met the figure of John Ruskin, an art critic whose writings were instrumental in the development of the views of William Morris, considered the most important figure in the movement.

One of Ruskin's major works was a multi-volume tome called Modern Painters, a book which has oddly enough received a bit of attention in the art and science blogosphere recently (see here and here). Ruskin is one of those figures I find particularly challenging to deal with: on one hand, he had a major influence and is still studied today. On the other, he was one of those 19th Century intellects who held firm against Darwin's revolution of thought, agonizing over humanity's demotion to the realm of "lesser animals."

Modern Painters is largely a defense of the painter J.M.W. Turner, and here is where we come to Ruskin's writing on the saurian beasts that so captured the imagination of England in the Victorian era. In a paper published by Prose Studies in 2008, Ruskin's Rewriting of Darwin, Andrew Leng proposes that Modern Painters V, published in 1860, is in fact the very first serious response to The Origin of Species, mirroring its "tree of life" motif. In the book's conclusion, which Leng calls "a paleontological apocalypse which dramatizes the triumph of the protean dragon," Ruskin brings all of his verbal weapons to bear as he bemoans the further defilement of the human spirit (and, by extention, the arts): first by the dehumanizing industrial revolution, now by Darwinian evolution. "Ruskin’s remorseless campaign against Darwin’s presiding emblem," Leng writes, "indicates his realization that The Origin had appropriated the almost universal symbol of the sacred tree of life, thereby investing the theory of natural selection with talismanic authority."

The dinosaurs whose existence was just now being revealed by the infant science of paleontology were seen by many as symbols of British power. Ruskin, however, saw this as a terrible irony; these dinosaurs were the great dragons of ancient times, symbols of avarice. In Turner's 1806 painting "The Goddess of Discord Choosing the Apple of Contention in the Garden of the Hesperides," the artist depicts the dragon guarding the titular garden in a way that, to Ruskin's eye, is nothing less than a premonition of Hawkins' Crystal Palace Iguanodon.

Here's Turner's original, from Wikipedia. You can hardly make out the beast at the pinnacle in the center of the image.

Luckily, Ruskin commissioned a detail engraving for his book.

Ruskin writes,
"There is something very wonderful, it seems to me, in this anticipation, by Turner, of the grandest reaches of recent inquiry into the form of the dragons of the old earth. I do not know at what period the first hints were given of the existence of their remains; but certainly no definite statements of their probable forms were given either by Buckland, Owen, or Conybeare before 1815; yet this saurian of Turner's is very nearly an exact counterpart of the model of the Iguanodon, now the guardian of the Hesperian Gardens of the Crystal Palace, wings only excepted, which are, here, almost accurately, those of a pterodactyle. The instinctive grasp which the healthy imagination takes of possible truth, even in its wildest flights, was never more marvellously demonstrated."
Having established Turner has a modern master; Ruskin was now imbuing him with the power of prophecy. I'm not sure that "healthy" human imagination has an "instinctive grasp" on any truths. If it does, however, Ruskin would be better served by another example. The Crystal Palace Iguanodon was doomed for obsolence less than thirty years after it was unveiled, when Louis Dollo's studies of the bounty of new fossils discovered atBernissart overturned scientific understanding of the animal.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Weishampel Opens the Hadrosaur Symposium

If you hear the dulcet tones of honking Parasauropholi this week, it's likely coming from Drumheller, Alberta, where the Royal Tyrrell Museum has been hosting the 2011 Hadrosaur Symposium. Most of us aren't able to be there, but in the spirit of the shiny digital future, the Tyrrell is making presentations available via their Youtube channel. The first upload is David Weishampel's opening talk, giving historical context to the presentations to follow. Great stuff to see presented in this manner, so if you've got a spare 25 minutes, settle in and press "play." Embedded below for your convenience.

The Tyrrell is also sharing the symposium's content via Facebook and Flickr. Hopefully, more presentations will make their way online, and thanks to Dr. Tom Holtz again for helping to spread the word about nifty dinosaur happenings online.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Planet Dinosaur, episode two - review

Entitled 'Feathered Dragons', this week's episode of Planet Dinosaur focussed on the glut of feathered nonavian dinosaurs discovered in China since 1996. And it was, I must say, a treat, in spite of a few minor niggles.

(Above: Microraptor and lizard prey. Copyright the BBC.)

Cheekily mentioning a 'dinosaur revolution' in China, smooth-talkin' narrator John Hurt introduced us first to Epidexipteryx, hunting for insect larvae and being hunted in turn by Sinraptor (which is probably fine if the former lived in the Late Jurassic). Nothing really to complain about here - there might have been a few impossible forearm rotations, but it was very difficult to tell, so I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt. Besides, it was a marvellous idea to introduce this animal to a wide audience in a CG dinosaur show - after all, who when thinking of a 'dinosaur' ever pictures a tiny creature with primitive feathers and a bizarre, aye-aye-esque elongated finger? If there was ever a perfect dinosaur to destroy people's preconceptions, it was Epidexipteryx.

Moving on, we were introduced to a perhaps under-feathered Saurornithoides having its nest raided by what was, in this case, a commendably non-specific "oviraptorid". The animal depicted resembled "Ingenia", the oviraptorosaur with a preoccupied name. Once again, the show played to its main strengths, presenting ample fossil evidence for oviraptorosaurs enjoying an omnivorous diet and displaying photographs of fossils, a few of which I hadn't seen before. This is really what sets Planet Dinosaur apart from every other CG dinosaur show out there, and is why the likes of Brian Switek and Darren Naish (for it is he) have been singing its praises. Over at Brian's Dinosaur Tracking blog, Heinrich Mallison has claimed that there was "no filter" between palaeontologists and those working on the show. For once, I can really believe that.

The next animal on the list was Gigantoraptor. Again, we were both told and shown exactly which bones from this beast have been discovered, which was fantastic. We were also told that, in spite of its size, it "seems certain that Gigantoraptor had feathers" based on phylogenetic bracketing. Hallelujah for that. Granted, things weren't perfect here - for example, the feathers on both Gigantoraptor and the unspecified oviraptorosaur were attached in the wrong places, and referring to Gigantoraptor as 'the largest feathered animal of all time' was dubious given the existence of Therizinosaurus. But I enjoyed the scenes featuring an animal that was akin, in the words of whoever wrote Hurt's script, to "a mouse the size of a cow".

It should probably also be noted that the Gigantoraptor scene drew direct comparison with Dinosaur Revolution, in that it featured the animals displaying to each other. David's already defended Dinosaur Revolution on the grounds that it was never originally intended to be a serious documentary show, whereas Planet Dinosaur always was conceived as such. As such, it is perhaps understandable that Planet Dinosaur should adopt a more plausible birdlike approach when portraying giant oviraptorosaurs displaying to one another. But it's still worth noting.

Unfortunately, the most dubious moments occurred in the final section of the show, featuring Microraptor and Sinornithosaurus. That's not to say that these weren't some of the best feathered dromaeosaurs yet shown on television, because they almost certainly were. Hopefully, following this, any show that dares depict a ridiculous 'gorilla suit' feathered theropod will become a laughing stock.

However - and I'll admit this is pedantry to an extent - it often appeared that the Microraptor was a little more...supple than it should have been. That is to say, it splayed its legs out to such an extent that they probably should have been a-poppin' out of their sockets. Sinornithosaurus was generally fine - in fact, it was one of the best looking CG dromaeosaurs I've ever seen - but the highly contentious 'venomous fangs' idea reared its head. And was presented as pretty much certified fact. (I'll leave any commenters to fight over that one.)

All controversies aside, I'll have words with any dinosaur geek who was unimpressed with this episode. Yes, the feathers weren't always perfect, and perhaps one or two controversial ideas were presented as fact, although not without fossil evidence. This is still the way forward for CG dinosaurs ont' telly. The animation was better this week too, as while it was occasionally still a little stiff and unnatural, the involvement of (mostly) small animals meant that the unconvincing portrayal of elephantine heft was not an issue. Here's hoping this is a series that will get better and better!

Any suggestions that I've been overly nice due to a guilt complex/alcohol will be mostly ignored.

Dr. Noonian Soong, Dinosaur Lover

As devotees of my Twitter feed can attest (and a raucous legion they are), I'm a hopeless fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation. After not seeing it since its original run, which I had fond memories of, I am currently revisiting the entire series on Netflix, and just finished the really terrific third season. When I began the third episode of season 4, I had vague memories of it, being the episode in which Data, the android officer on the U.S.S Enterprise, meets his long-lost creator, a cyberneticist named Dr. Noonian Soong. What I didn't remember was that Dr. Soong is apparently a dinosaur enthusiast, as well. His lab is crammed with paleo goodies. Just take a look.

Here, Dr. Soong grabs a plastic dinosaur out of the jaws of what I assume is a cast of a tyrannosaur skull. He proceeds to arrange it with his other figures in the large diorama in the foreground of the image at the top of the post.

Behind Data's evil brother, Lore, you can see a Triceratops model, which I think is one of those balsa wood skeleton kits.

In this later shot, which shows the bookshelves to have been reshuffled, you see the Triceratops again, as well as a couple of skulls. A mammal of some sort and what appears to be a Dimetrodon on the lower right.

At the end of the episode, Data generously bequeaths two of Soong's dinosaurs to two young brothers.

In his review of the episode for the AV Club, Zack Handlen remarks, "They still have toy dinosaurs in the future that look about the same as the toy dinosaurs I had growing up. This pleases me." It is pretty odd that even in the idealized future of Star Trek, in which you'd imagine that even corporations would be held to a high moral standard - and therefore above cynically cranking out obsolete dinosaur figures for a quick buck - some toy company is still producing man-in-suit theropods. There are alternative explanations, of course: maybe these are part of a collection passed down through generations of Soongs. Or maybe... just maybe... Paleontological research between now and the 2300s will completely overturn the current thinking, and we'll be back with upright tyrannosaurs, swamp-bound sauropods, and other quaint depictions we so smugly scoff at now. Kind of horrifying, isn't it?

What kind of paleontology is being done in the 24th century? It's not all star travel, after all; in the episode before this, Captain Picard briefly considers taking a post which would have him take charge of a deep sea research station. What new localities have opened up? What does the new technology reveal that we can't see? How has the phylogeny been rearranged? Most pressingly, what stops paleophiles of the future from whiling away their lives exploring simulated Mesozoic worlds created on Holodecks?*

It's not the most notable intersection of dinosaurs and Star Trek - that honor would have to go to the Voth, a hadrosaurian dinosauroid encountered by the crew of the Voyager in that series. I haven't committed myself to diving into that particular pool, but if I do, I'll be sure to write up a nice chunk o' blogginess about it.

*For the Philistines and Star Wars fans among us, a holodeck is a sort of immersive virtual reality technology introduced in The Next Generation.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Scooters and Dinosaurs

Flicker User Aurore&Aube is back at it with Lego builds. This time, the black Triceratops we're already familiar with squares off against a couple on a red scooter, and then the couple is chased by the blue T. rex.

scooter 007

scooter 008

You know, I would absolutely watch a movie about a couple of kids on a time traveling scooter having dinosaur adventures. I hope I still have my ol' screenwriting chops...

Terrible '90s Dromaeosaur Face-Off: Round 2

The votes are in! The winner in the first round of the Terrible '90s Dromaeosaur Face-Off is:

Velociraptor from Know the World of Dinosaurs! Described as "too plump not to pick" (Ryan DeLuca), looking " a fat Deinonychus running downhill from an avalanche" (Nobu Tamura) and "an inflated bipedal Gila monster" (Henrique Niza), this rotund fellow wins by a stunted snout. Congratulations.

Now, let us introduce this week's contenders! In the blue corner, Deinonychus from The Humongous Book of Dinosaurs/Dinosaurs! magazine, courtesy of Trish:

And in the red corner, Velociraptor from 100 Dinosaurs from A to Z, courtesy of tnthielen (which is actually from 1986, but like I said last week, we're allowing the '80s here too):

Vote for your favourite! And remember, 'favourite' doesn't have to mean 'least ridiculous'. In fact, it can mean quite the opposite. That's down to you.

In Defense of Dinosaur Revolution

"Gimme a chance, folks!" The Dinosaur Revolution Velociraptor.

Consider these two numbers:



They are the number of American households that tuned into the Discovery Channel premieres of Walking With Dinosaurs and Dinosaur Revolution, respectively. What a difference twelve years makes, eh? Walking With Dinosaurs was a ratings monster, not to be toppled from its position as the Discovery Channel's largest ratings earner until just last year, when Life surpassed it. The television landscape in the U.S. has changed drastically since then and a direct comparison is hard to make. There are more channels now. We've had a decade to be saturated with varyingly successful CG dino shows. Regardless of the reasons, it's clear that DR isn't the phenomenon WWD was. WWD is now truly a brand, after all, with accompanying books and a continuation of the series in Walking With Prehistoric Beasts, Walking With Cavemen, and the upcoming 3D extravaganza (er, T.rexstravaganza, anyone?).

The sad thing is, it doesn't seem that Dinosaur Revolution was given a fighting chance. We hear that it was meddled with as Discovery Channel executives came and went, and as I said in my review of the first half of the series, the end result is a show crammed into a format that doesn't suit it. So while I think that Mickey Mortimer's review, for one example, misses the point, I don't think it's completely unreasonable. DR is presented as a documentary on a network associated with documentary programming (however rigorous it may actually be). So it's going to have to take those pedantic lumps. The following crticisms from Mickey are entirely appropriate for a full-fledged documentary:
"What made Dinosaur Revolution most difficult to watch is the rampant anthropomorphism. Basically none of the subjects actually behaves like a reptile, or a bird, or even a non-ape mammal for that matter. They're chock full of human mannerisms. You can always tell what they're supposed to be feeling, as if brains that size could even house such emotion."
This wouldn't be a problem if Discovery, or preferably, a different media outlet entirely, would have released this series the way it seems that it was envisioned from the first: as a freakin' dinosaur cartoon. When someone picks up Delgado's Age of Reptiles, they aren't inspired to write hundreds of words about how inaccurate it is. It's a graphic novel. You don't pick it up expecting the veracity of a textbook or research paper. Even if Dinosaur Revolution had been presented as originally intended though, it would have a different set of expectations to overcome: it seems that there's something about CG animation that burdens the story with the baggage of documentary realism.

In the end, it's just another sad, typical example of a program thwarted by bad handling by the network. Well, if producer Erik Nelson and his friend Werner Herzog can actually bring it to the big screen, maybe it isn't the end after all. But I'll bet that even if it's renamed Goofy Dinosaur Talez, it'll have it's share of pedantry hurled its way. Because you know... dinosaurs aren't meant to be fun now, are they?

I'm trying to pull together the Nielsen ratings for other big Dino programs from the last decade or so, but am having some trouble finding them. However, I have found that 2001's When Dinosaurs Roamed America premiered with a very respectable 5 million viewers.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Vintage Dinosaur Art: A New Look at the Dinosaurs

As promised, today we'll examine some of the art featured in A New Look at the Dinosaurs. Dating all the way back to 1979, this rather popular book was authored by the late Alan Charig, and has been described as "rather boring" by one critic. When it comes to vintage palaeoart the full-colour restorations by Peter Snowball are of particular interest, and to this day they remain very attractive and surprisingly modern in appearance. This makes it all the more surprising that the publishers decided to stick some comparatively drab line art by Ray/Corinne Burrows on the cover (below).

Being something of an ignorant youth myself, the first I heard of this book was when Darren Naish mentioned it on his Tetrapod Zoology blog (see link above), describing Charig as "among the last of the 'old guard'" who argued against many of the new ideas put forward in the 1960s-80s. This piqued my interest when it subsequently appeared on eBay, as I was expecting it to feature a heap of horribly outdated art that would be good for a giggle. Seems I forgot about Peter Snowball.

Although a lot of Snowball's art is new to me (in spite of being rather old), the above image was instantly recognisable even for a grasshopper such as myself. Depicting Megalosaurus and Scelidosaurus, it was still commonly found in dinosaur books into the '90s, and I'm quite certain that it featured in Dinosaurs! more than once. Noteworthy here are the active postures of both animals, especially the Scelidosaurus - thyreophorans of every stripe were still commonly depicted as sprawling, tail-dragging and highly ponderous at that time. In addition, Snowball hasn't succumbed to the meme of depicting Megalosaurus as some sort of weird, skulking hunchback (a la Neave Parker). It's the well-informed nature of this piece that makes Megalosaurus' conspicuously absent first toe all the more strange. Can't win 'em all, I guess...

Snowball's painterly scenes portraying Mesozoic life remain quite beautiful. The above scene depicts various English Early Cretaceous dinosaurs. The usual suspects Iguanodon, Hypsilophodon and Polacanthus are here, but more unusually so is the theropod Altispinax (for which you should probably just read Becklespinax). Given recent suggestions that Becklespinax might have had a Concavenator-style hump rather than a sail, this artwork seems remarkably prescient. Elsewhere, Snowball's work features fully terrestrial sauropods and a Triceratops breaking out into an energetic trot (below) alongside what is, admittedly, a gigantic Pachycephalosaurus and a slightly funky Tyrannosaurus. Still, this stuff is just plain lovely - streets ahead of a lot of the crap being churned out at the time.

Charig, for his part, makes it clear that he believes dinosaurs to have been energetic and successful animals, in contrast with the old view of them as sluggish evolutionary dead-ends. However, he still promotes ideas that seem very odd today (if not as outright wacky as dinosaurs suffering from a hormonal imbalance). For example, he claims that there is no good evidence that the Saurischia and Ornithischia were more closely related to each other than they were to other archosaur groups, making 'the Dinosauria' an unnatural grouping of animals.

Charig is also quite fervent in his belief that birds cannot be dinosaurs, and yet he never really explains why. In fact, he goes a long way towards making the case (one that, even back then, was seriously solid) - one chapter arduously notes the similarities between Archaeopteryx and small theropods like Deinonychus (Snowball's restoration of which, in contemporary naked style, is above) but then dismisses them all for no good reason. In fact, most of Charig's reasoning seems to come from the fact that, in his opinion, regarding birds as dinosaurs just sounds silly, as we'd end up saying things like the following:
"'Dinosaurs of a feather flock together', and 'A dinosaur in the hand is worth two in the bush'. The dawn chorus of the dinosaurs would waken us early in the morning, we should visit the Dinosaur House at the zoo to see the humming-dinosaurs flitting lightly from flower to flower...[continues in similar vein]"
Alas, poor Alan, for you turned out to be wrong. And on that note, I'll leave you with what is undoubtedly the strangest restoration in the book. This quadrupedal Spinosaurus by one of the Burrowses is just utterly, utterly baffling. Especially as it appears to be worshipping at the feet of a Dilophosaurus-lord. All hail the Dilophosaurus-lord!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Today: Chat with Mark Norell

From the American Museum of Natural History:

There's new evidence that dinosaurs, once thought to resemble scaly lizards, were in fact fluffy, colorful animals. In the video below, Curator Mark Norell, who is chair of the Museum's Division of Paleontology and studies important feathered dinosaurs from Liaoning, China, shares his thoughts on the significance of two new studies about fossilized feathers reported in the current issue of Science magazine.

Want to know more? Dr. Norell will be answering questions via Twitter during a live chat on Friday, September 16, from noon to 1. Use the hashtag #dinofeathers to submit your questions before and during today's chat.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Planet Dinosaur, episode one - review

After almost comical hype (including featuring as an item in the Six O'Clock News), the Beeb's latest dino-fest is finally here. Planet Dinosaur is the other great CG dinosaur documentary event of the year, alongside Dinosaur Revolution (which David has already written about), although it is more in the Walking With Dinosaurs mould. It looks expensive. It features John Hurt's dulcet tones. And it's somewhat flawed. Looks like we're going to have to wait a bit longer for that dream CG dinosaur show.

(Above: the Planet Dinosaur Spinosaurus. Copyright the BBC, used with the assumption that it'll probably be alright, guv.)

Of course, there was much to commend here. For one thing, most of the speculation about the behaviour of the animals was backed up with fossil evidence, whether it was spinosaurs attacking pterosaurs or intraspecific competition in large theropods (although the assertion that such fighting was "likely territorial" was a spurious one). The animals looked pretty good for the most part, with the head of the show's star Spinosaurus being the closest that any CG documentary has yet come to the real thing, while Rugops had appropriately ridiculous, atrophied and largely immobile forelimbs.

That's the thing though - the forelimbs. Oh, theropod forelimbs, why must you trip people up so? For the most part in Planet Dinosaur they just look suspicously...human, but the pedantic dino-nerd is at least kept sated by the fact that the animals aren't adopting the classically erroneous bunny-hands posture. But then - gah! - the Spinosaurus does just that while attacking a sawfish. Shame.

At a more fundamental level, there's the animation. Say what you like about Jurassic Park 3 and that fight sequence, but at least you were left in no doubt there that the creatures smacking each other about were big. Here, while we're repeatedly told that Spinosaurus and its adversary Carcharodontosaurus were bloody enormous, the animation gives little impression of this. There's just no weight shifting, no sense of all that tonnage being smacked around. In fact all of the animals in Planet Dinosaur look unconvincing in this respect.

Still, at least the animals' behaviours were pretty convincing and, as I said before, frequently backed up with fossil evidence (although namedropping some of the palaeontologists involved in the research would've been nice). When Carcharodontosaurus was depicted hunting ornithopods in a forest, it didn't run out in full view, roaring and firing pistols into the air, unlike so many dino documentaries. When it tackled its prey, the show didn't skimp on the cruelty as the quarry hobbled away, bleeding copiously. Equally, Spinosaurus was depicted partaking in pleasingly plausible heron or grizzly-like fishing behaviour rather than tossing fully-grown Rugops about (as in certain other shows I won't care to mention).

Rugops did feature, however, and was described as having "weak jaws" and therefore being a "natural-born scavenger". Groan...

Oh, and that ornithopod? Well, that was Ouranosaurus, who must be too old for this shit. And I mean that literally, as Ouranosaurus lived millions of years before any of the other animals in the show. Well, bugger.

There we have it then - a mixed bag, with apologies for the cliché. Some good points - like including actual science in a dinosaur show! - and quite a few bad ones. I'm still looking forward to future episodes, which promise us properly winged dromaeosaurs if nothing else. If you've seen the show and think I've been too harsh (which I probably have), then do drop a comment.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

VDA special: Terrible '90s Dromaeosaur Face-Off

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, scientists and nerdy laymen with far too much spare time - welcome one and all to the first ever Terrible 1990s Dromaeosaur Face-Off competition. Inspired by a minor debate between Niroot and myself, and further encouraged by Trish*, in each round two utterly dreadful dromaeosaurs from '90s palaeoart will be presented for your consideration. It is up to you - the readers - to decide your favourite. By way of commenting.

This is definitely not just a way for me to gauge how many readers this blog really has. Oh no.

Reader participation will also be required when it comes to selecting entrants for future rounds (Trish has already provided one contender for next time). The only rules are that it has to be a dromaeosaur, from a serious publication with an educational remit, and from the 1990s. Or from the 1980s, whatever. Close enough.

Here we go then. In the blue corner: Velociraptor from Know the World of Dinosaurs.

In the red corner: Velociraptor from The Concise Illustrated Book of Dinosaurs.

I wonder if David still thinks allowing me to write for this blog was a good idea. Anyway, votes please!

*After splitting my sides reading her blog yesterday, I owe her one.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Concise Illustrated Book of Dinosaurs

This charming hardback volume, dating from 1993 and published by Grange Books, contains some illustrations that are best described as...'unusual'. Or perhaps 'quirky'. Unfortunately, the names of the illustrator(s) involved aren't provided, with the credit going only to Maltings Partnership (who appear to be still going strong). The text, by Rupert Matthews, is actually rather good and free from the more embarrassing gaffes that befoul kids' dinosaur books, although he does claim that "most experts" agree that Tyrannosaurus was an obligate scavenger. Yeah, whatever...

Naturally I've picked out the weirdest specimens from this book for your viewing pleasure, and I'm afraid that most of them are theropods. For some reason most of the herbivorous dinosaurs present have an appearance that's quite usual for the period, but the theropods often look all-out surreal and ever-so-slightly nightmarish. Here's a good example.

Since you were no doubt wondering, the above illustration is meant to depict Ceratosaurus. I've mentioned before how jobbing illustrators can't really be blamed for getting it wrong if they aren't provided with the right information, but, wow. Human musculature? Really? In fact, this has ended up looking like a super-ripped steroid-abusing version of that absurd 'Dinosauroid' thing (with added tail). Moving on...

Granted, it's less odd than the Ceratosaurus - but it's still pretty weird. Coelophysis did at least actually have a pretty long neck and tail. Apart from the hands, though, the head here is again very strange - is anyone else reminded of a dolphin?

On the opposite page, and ratcheting up the quirkiness level, we have the bipedal super-salamander of doom.

Run, non-specific fat little green thingies! Run for your lives!

Oh, by the way - have you ever noticed how much the dome on Pachycephalosaurus' head looks like someone's arse? What do you mean, it doesn't? Look, I trust dodgy 1990s restorations when it comes to establishing what dinosaurs looked like. You'll be telling me that dromaeosaurs had feathers next.

...When everyone knows they were surreal, Giger-esque monstrosities, with snaking necks and tails, shark-black eyes and sinister zipper grins. A certain Niroot P (yes, him again) insists that this restoration is worse than the one that featured in Know the World of Dinosaurs. I'm not so sure, but it is at least a lot more frightening. Perhaps LITC should hold a 'terrible 1990s Velociraptor face-off' to decide once and for all.

What do you get if you cross an ankylosaur, a glyptodont and an egg? This.

As I've already said, most of the non-theropods in this book actually emerge with their dignity intact, their appearances being rather anatomically incorrect to modern eyes but in keeping with what was common at the time. The sauropods are rather generic and pretty indistinguishable from one another, but they aren't as bizarre as the likes of Ceratosaurus and Velociraptor. The page below is of interest because it profiles an animal that later turned out to be a chimera, namely "Ultrasauros" (to prove this is the case - and that the book is not referring to the original Ultrasaurus from South Korea - I've included the text). You may recall that "Ultrasauros" also popped up in Dinosaurs! magazine. Reading about this non-existent animal in old books is always sweetly nostalgic.

One more scary theropod for the road. "Hello children. My name's Mr Staurikosaurus and I'll be your friendly guide to the Late Triassic..."

Many thanks to Niroot for letting me borrow this book. As to what's coming next, I've just got hold of a copy of Alan Charig's A New Look at the Dinosaurs, which features some old-fashioned art that, like the work of Neave Parker, is obsolete but still gorgeous...

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Scaphognathus Illuminated

You may remember that I went a bit batty over Scaphognathus crassirostris this year (here, here, and here).

In the Vintage Dinosaur Art post about S. crassirostris, I featured several reconstructions that used the same pose. It's rare that it's repeated nowadays, but I was mighty tickled to see this shared on Twitter today:

Yup, that's the pose. It's a light painting by artist Darren Pearson. Read more about his work and his series of dinosaur light photos at Petapixel.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Meet the Artist

Keen readers (and there are a few of you left, I know) will remember a post last month in which I shared artist Niroot Puttapipat's interpretation of a number of unlikely 'dinosaur battle' scenarios that David wanted to see. Niroot also illustrated Giraffatitan winning a fight through the power of sheer awesomeness, which sauropod luminary Mike Taylor (for it is he) lauded as "the single greatest work of art ever perpetrated" and reblogged under the headline 'The most awesome piece of art EVER'. Meanwhile, the appreciation was also shared at io9.

Well, here's the man himself, looking absolutely delighted to have his photo taken in front of (or rather, behind) the Natural History Museum's Diplodocus carnegii cast, 'Dippy'. Ain't he handsome?

The 'Godly Giraffatitan' piece was completed over a period of two days (not of continuous work, obviously, rather in-between other things), and Niroot was genuinely thrilled with the praise it attracted in the dino-nerd-o-blog-o-sphere. Although an illustrator by trade (currently working on Kipling's Just So Stories, a task he is naturally relishing), Niroot is yet to draw dinosaurs in a professional capacity, and tends to err towards silliness due to time constraints.

Nevertheless, while the animals in his dinosaur 'cartoons' tend to have slightly anthropomorphised facial expressions, he also takes great care to make them as anatomically correct as possible. I was fortunate enough to receive a birthday card from him last year that could also be 'conservatively described' as the BEST EVER - check it out.

I can't help but feel - and I know I'm not alone in this - that Niroot's stunning style, extreme attention to detail at often tiny scales, and genuine passion for the subject matter would make him perfect for any dinosaur book. Publishers - ditch your shoddy CG art and commission this guy, quick!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Review: Dinosaur Revolution, Part One

It's all about expectations. When we see The Lord of the Rings, we're not expecting nuanced political intrigue. When we see Elizabeth, we don't expect magical shenanigans. Expectations need to be set carefully. It's the same for science programming. I've expressed here how badly I'd love to see an certain kind of animated film based in the Mesozoic. No dialogue, no explanation, just pure visual story telling. When Dinosaur Revolution was first announced, with the working title Reign of the Dinosaurs, it seemed that it might be approaching that vision and my interest was stoked more than the average paleo series might stoke it.

That's not what we have, in the end.

My favorite pieces of science storytelling are Sagan's Cosmos series, Adam Rutherford's The Cell, and that beacon of hope for current science programming, Inside Nature's Giants. All three are able to zoom in and out, exploring discrete mechanisms and grand theories. They all engage their audiences with the enthusiasm of their presenters, the artistry with which they're shot and edited, and their celebration of the pure joy of exploration, wonder, and discovery.

That's also not quite what we have with Dinosaur Revolution.

What we do have is a bit of an awkward marriage between the pipe dream in my first paragraph and contemporary American cable documentaries. I've read in comments on Facebook that what you need to do to enjoy Dinosaur Revolution is to not think of it as a science documentary, but rather as a series of fictional narratives based on science. It's a nice thought, but unreasonable. It's packaged like any of the recent paleo series, Clash of the Dinosaurs with higher production values and smarter writing. It's impossible to get wrapped up in the stories. One of the creative talents behind the series is Richard Delgado; imagine reading his Age of Reptiles graphic novels with informational panels crammed into it. The narrator barges in too often. The cutaways to holographic researchers are too frequent.

About those holograms: familiar faces like Tom Holtz and Scott Sampson are represented as holographic projections in a meticulously set-designed paleontology lab. It's too pristine. It's lit like a Klingon Bird of Prey (well, not as red). I've been in only a few working prep labs, but they sure as hell don't look like this. Maybe this is a minor point to quibble over, but I think it matters. No decision is made lightly, after all. The tactile qualities of paleontology, the fortune of finding treasure on the last hour of the last day of a field season, the challenges presented by the elements, none of it is here. in the second episode, "The Watering Hole," we at least get to visit a mass fossil site in the Lourinha Formation of Portugal, but we don't know the stories of these people. When we see fossils coming out of the ground, it's the old stock image of a brush quickly clearing away loose overburden to reveal an easily recognized bone.

I mention all of this because it matters how a story is framed, and the excess baggage slows down what could have been an absolutely engaging set of stories. It's impossible to discuss Dinosaur Revolution without bringing in the might-have-beens. In a recent comment on a post at Archosaur Musings, Holtz lays out a distressing series of decisions that successively muddied what seems to have started as a clear vision. Watching the show, you can almost see the hands of the tinkerers at work.

On to the specifics of the first two episodes. There is a lot to like. It's a reassuring fantasy to imagine that had "the suits" not jimmied around with it so much, Dinosaur Revolution would have been the most awesome dinosaur program imaginable. The artistry on display is exceptional, and the team has worked in allusions from the history of paleoart to satisfy lovers of the form. I loved seeing a bit of Leaping Laelaps in the fight between rival Cryolophosaurus males in episode one, "Evolution's Winners." I loved the sly reference to one of my favorite memes, the bird-chasing Ornitholestes, in "The Watering Hole." You've probably read about the producers' Looney Tunes inspirations, and the Ornitholestes and Rhamphorynchus in "The Watering Hole" conjure memories of Sylvester and Tweety. Those with more finely honed eyes for anatomy and animation might find flaws, but I was happy with all of the animals' designs, even if some of the more acrobatic or fleet-footed action is unrealistic. One of the most fortunate things to happen to dinosaurs from a PR perspective is the discovery of their relationship to birds, and the avian nature so many of us find endearing is present in Dinosaur Revolution's cast of theropods, especially the baby allosaurs.

Tweety and Sylvester in the shadow of the bulldog Torvosaurus.

"Evolution's Winners" isn't the strongest foot to put forward; I found "The Watering Hole" to be more coherent, more engaging, and just plain more fun. The Eoraptors of the first episode are adorable. living as they do in a world of giant dicynodonts and rauisuchians. They're the underdogs. We root for them to get together, to raise some kids up, and to survive. Later in the show, we get a thoroughly unnecessary bit in which a mosasaur mama kicks much shark ass, a strangely underwhelming Gigantoraptor mating dance, and a visit to Antarctica, where Cryolophosaurus andGlacialisaurus could use a few mosquito nets. The highlight for me? Seeing the massospondylid Glacialisaurus in action. Though not the star of the show by any means - that goes to a red-faced bully of a Cryolophosaurus - it's nice to see some early Jurassic sauropodomorphs doing their thing.

"The Watering Hole" better delivers on the narrative distinction we've been told to expect: we get a lovable dork of an allosaur whose youthful foolishness gets him a badly broken mandible, thanks to the whip-tail of a Dinheirosaurus juvenile. The question of how the allosaur survives the immediate consequences of such a brutal injury is frustratingly unanswered, as we zip forward a few years to see the struggles of his life as the titular watering hole's resident predator. The jaw is wincingly askew, and when he shifts it from side to side, I find it hard to resist grabbing my face in empathy. This is a self-contained, expertly told story, needing none of the narrator's obvious interjections: "a familiar sight. predator and prey." Yeah. We get it.

I'm rambling on too long, and there are two more episodes yet to air! It's hard to sort out my feelings about this show: there is so much to like, and even love. There is so much potential. But it's too easy to see the shackles on the artist's hands. To all of you talented folks who brought these dinosaurs to life, who made bold storytelling decisions and dressed these animals in outrageous colors and plumage: bravo. I could watch that Ornitholestes chase that Rhamphorynchus for a whole feature-length movie. The Rube-Goldberg set pieces, the economical way personality is conveyed, the wild camera angles you could never get in a standard-issue nature film (under a stomping Gigantoraptor's feet, anyone?): all wonderful stuff.

I just wish people with more power had the same trust in you that I do.

Much more to come.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Reactions to the Revolution

Updated 9/20/11

Dinosaur Revolution premiered on Sunday, September 4 in the US, with its first two hours, Evolution's Winners and Watering Hole. Living on a budget that doesn't provide for cable TV at the moment, and being rebuffed in my attempts to get a screener from Discovery, I may have to wait a while before seeing it myself, but I've been keeping an eye on reaction from around the web. As might be expected by a series that blends the science of paleontology with bold storytelling devices and an occasionally comedic tone, the reviews are mixed. Of course, there aren't many yet. Which makes it a good time to start a roundup.

Before we start, however, here's Gigantoraptor (hopefully viewable internationally, though no guarantees)

Variety praises the series for its narrative-light presentation, which challenges viewers. Eschewing the common comparisons to old Looney Toons cartoons, the reviewer uses Fantasia and The Road as visual touchstones. Dinosaur Revolution "lustily attacks everybody's favorite extinct beasts with for-the-most-part impressive CGI effects and a cheeky storytelling approach."

Writing for Popmatters, Ross Langager finds the humor awkward, concluding that the program's "...melding of entertainment with science ends up disfiguring both."

More favorable is the review from the New York Daily News, as reviewer David Hinckley is enchanted by colorful, feathered dinosaurs and their quirky behavior.

Tom Conroy's Media Life Magazine review is concerned that the violence may be too intense for children who may grow attached to the highly anthropomorphized animals. An interesting point. It's disingenuous to claim that a dinosaur show isn't intended for kids, after all.

The reviewer for the Kansas City Star writes, "the animated raptors, allosauruses and T. rexes featured on Dinosaur Revolution are more realistic, engaging and emotionally complex than the humans on Terra Nova."

In the paleo blogosphere, we've had a couple of write-ups, as well. At Dinosaur Tracking, Brian Switek is tough but fair to the "dinosaur tribute," writing that "what gets me is that Dinosaur Revolution is being presented as a program about the latest dinosaur science when the actual scientific content is minimal." Switek wishes that the "talking heads" were a more diverse crowd and that it represented a real revolution in how we view dinosaurs, by providing the audience with an engaging description of how we know what we know. For naysayers who think that would just be boring, I offer the tremendous, enduring popularity of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.

Taylor of Beasts Evolved also reviews the first night's offerings. He's very positive about it, and provides a great breakdown of the critters introduced, giving praise for the number of new-to-TV species we finally get to see. His review of the last half of the series is also available.

Yours truly, now having seen the first two episodes, has reviewed them. Go here.

Albertonykus has written a review at Raptormaniacs as well, looking forward to the maniraptor-heavy second two hours.

Of course, what you're really looking for is pedantry. So head over and read Mickey Mortimer's withering review.

That's it for now, but I'll probably add to this list in the future, time permitting. The Discovery Channel airs the next two hours of the series next Sunday, September 11. Due to the September 11 anniversary, Discovery Channel is postponing the second half of the series indefinitely, reports Dr. Tom Holtz. I'll help spread the word when it's rescheduled. It will air on Tuesday, September 13 at 9pm Eastern time... on the Science Channel.

Inside Nature's Giants - The Dinosaur Bird

Last night Channel 4 in the UK aired the latest in the superb Inside Nature's Giants series, and at last dinosaurs got a look-in. Specifically, the programme's regular team (plus a few guests) examined the southern cassowary Casuarius casuarius (photo below by Paul IJsendoorn, via Flickr).


As the title might suggest, much was made of the cassowary's similarities with nonavian theropod dinosaurs, including its legs, feet, and respiratory system, all of which were directly compared with the allosauroid Australovenator. Readers of this blog will already be familiar with how birdlike even the quite distantly related allosauroids were, but seeing the near-identical (in all but size) bones side-by-side was a truly striking demonstration. Scott Hucknull, who was one of the authors of the paper describing Australovenator, explicitly referred to the cassowary as "a dinosaur", which was very refreshing to hear on TV.

Richard Dawkins (for it is he) also made his regular appearance and he, too, took delight in pointing out that while dinosaurs are "proverbially extinct", the truth is that they "flourish today" as birds. It was wonderful to finally hear this being said in the context of a popular science programme. There was also a little on the evolution of feathers and the reasons behind the cassowary's neoflightlessness.

As an enthusiastic amateur (or 'nerd' if you prefer), the only facepalm moment for me came when it was explicitly stated that Archaeopteryx was the ancestor of all of today's birds, and that it was a "missing link". Given the excellent standard of the rest of the programme, it seems a bit of a shame that they made this cock-up and perpetuated the 'missing link' myth.

Still, for a proper verdict you'll be wanting to hear from people who are, you know, qualified. Fortunately, Darren Naish has promised a review over at his Tetrapod Zoology blog, so keep your eyes peeled for that. UK readers can also still watch the show over at 4OD, and I highly recommend you do!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Guest post: How Dinosaurs Teach Us about Humanity

Today, we have a guest post from Jesse Langley, a dinophile from Chicago, who shares his musings on the appeal of dinosaurs throughout our lives. Take it away, Jesse...

We like dinosaurs. But you already knew that. It's just a fact. And while you might consider it a given, there's a lot going on with this under the surface. Young kids get excited about dinosaurs and that early obsession never really leaves us. During our school years, dinosaurs are a welcome escape from the repetition of schoolwork and endless boredom of long-winded chemistry lectures.

Awesome Dinosaur Terrorizes Children
Awesome Dinosaur Terrorizes Children

Even as undergraduates we remain dinosaur fans, but we tend to get distracted by things like education and jobs and other relatively unimportant stuff. So we evolve. However, underlying that veneer of social responsibility and preoccupation with mundane matters, we're still sort of obsessed with dinosaurs. It's not something you grow out of either.

There is something visceral about dinosaurs and maybe that forms the initial attraction. Dinosaurs are otherworldly creatures, but the fact that they actually existed on earth in the long-ago past makes them even more compelling. The fact that we know much less about them than we'd like to only helps serve to ensure that we stay curious.

But as young children, we also know that dinosaurs no longer exist. In this way, it's possible that dinosaurs give us our first glimpse into the fact that we're mortal. Understanding death is difficult for a child to grasp. But knowing that dinosaurs once were the masters of their domain but are now extinct may actually instill the first philosophical seeds about life and death and a terminal planet for kids in a postmodern society.

The interesting flipside to the fascination with the violence, size and mystery of dinosaurs is the way popular culture repackages dinosaurs to ensure that if the slight terror of the actual creature doesn't hook you, the repackaged soft and fuzzy version will. How many countless kids encountered dinosaurs through Barney or "The Land Before Time"?

As we grow into adolescence, dinosaurs fulfill a different function. The soft and fuzzy Barney evolves into the terrifying but delicious adventure of the "Jurassic Park" films. There's a reason that the "Jurassic" franchise was a huge hit. It may have been unwitting, but accident or not, those films tapped into the overwhelmingly human fascination with dinosaurs. I went to see the film with my Mom, Dad, four brothers and one sister. All of us—from my eight year old sister to my seventeen year old, too cool for school oldest brother—were on the edge of our seats with sweating palms.

It may have been the carnivorousness. In our postmodern society, there's rarely a need for hunting. But millions of years of evolution can't be switched off overnight. Dinosaurs were awesome hunters—at least the meat-eating kind—but the fact remains that we as humans managed to adapt and survive. We've got a pretty good record of hunting too. And in the absence of actual hunting experience, dinosaurs form a sort of vicarious thrill for us.

We may not be able to hunt down animals and tear them limb from limb in great bloody gulps, but we seem to find that mix of terror and fascination appealing. And there's a built-in irony in the fact that the mighty dinosaurs no longer exist, but we relatively puny humans do. We share a deeper level of kinship with dinosaurs too.

In a weird way, we sort of understand the existential terror inherent in knowing that we may be the agents of our own demise from the planet. We understand that while dinosaurs may have gone extinct due to a catastrophe of epic proportions, they were victims of extinction through an outside force. Humans have to live with the existential crisis of knowing that we're powerful enough to cause our own extinction, but either unwilling or unable to stop it. Who says that a childish obsession with dinosaurs can't teach you something valuable about the human condition?

Jesse Langley lives near Chicago. He divides his time among work, writing and family life. He writes on behalf of Colorado Technical University and has a keen interest in all things dinosaur and social media. He also writes for

Monday, September 5, 2011

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Carl Dahlgren

With so much attention being paid to Dinosaur Revolution, which is arguably setting a new standard for CG dinosaur restorations, I thought it would be nice to go way back this week and take a look at some obscure old illustrations. The work of Danish artist and California transplant Carl Dahlgren fits the bill. Born in the middle of the 19th century, after moving to the states he would work as the staff illustrator for Hutching's Californian Magazine. A couple of his pieces are available on-line, thanks to Copyright Expired and Dinosaur Central.

First up, this Stegosaurus, rearing up on its hind legs.

More famous is his Amphicoelias, which Copyright Expired shares thusly:

Take a look at Dinosaur Central's article on the history of the "cowboys and dinosaurs" meme, however, and you'll see an interesting bit that was cropped out. They're small, but you can definitely make out the group of hunters menacing the sauropod.

Unfortunately, the context of these drawings is unclear. In Dinosaurs in Fantastic Fiction, Allen Debus only makes passing reference to these depictions, and the story they accompanied isn't available online, at least not according to my digging. I wonder if there was anyone debating the merits of this story the way Dinosaur Revolution is being argued over now? Paleontology was still a ruddy-faced tyke in those days, but I like to imagine someone like Sternberg or Seeley getting a copy of the magazine and doing the 19th century version of the *headdesk*.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Mesozoic Miscellany 44

At his other bloggin' gig, our very own Marc Vincent picks some nits off of the recent Papo "Ankylosaurus."

The SV-Pow crew expounds further on how misleading it can be to try to infer internal structure from the neck's outer appearance. With great visual aids, as usual.

At the Open Source Paleontologist, Andy Farke reflects on the maturation process of a scientist coming to terms with how to judge the veracity of the literature and its authors.

That pesky devil Raptorex rears its head at Archosaur Musings, with Dave Hone's photos of a mount in China.

Mark Wildman raises our awareness of a threatened nature preserve in the UK, the geology of which bears record of "coral reefs within a tropical sea with a diverse marine community that includes crinoids, brachiopods, trilobites and many other animals. Their fossils are found in the limestone exposures and are often well preserved." A familiar geology to the one I live upon here in Indiana. Read more.

For more British geology, check out a post from the Lyme Regis Museum blog, detailing the history of the limestone in the area.

Nobu introduced us to a new mosasaur, including his restoration, naturally.

Anthony Maltese is still benefiting from fossil sites unwittingly prepped for him by poachers.

Some joker named Brian Switek was on the Little Atoms podcast, speaking about his book, Written in Stone...

Finally, tip o' the cap to Dinosaur Tracking for sharing this cute little tribute to Sam Neill's scary raptor speech in Jurassic Park, with plastic dinosaurs and hand-drawn infographics.

Raptor from Tal Moskovich on Vimeo.

Friday, September 2, 2011

How should dinosaurs revolt?

Zallinger Tyrannosaurs Rex
Rudolf Zallinger's famous T. rex. Photo by DJNick66, shared via flickr.

The lead up to Dinosaur Revolution has brought to the fore a certain message we've all heard before:

"Sunday Sunday Sunday! Prepare to have your vision of dinosaurs as sluggish, stupid reptiles destroyed!"

In Tom Conroy's review of Dinosaur Revolution at Media Life Magazine, he writes "Even if viewers haven’t read in scientific journals that dinosaurs weren’t stupid, sluggish creatures, they’ve probably gleaned that information from 'Jurassic Park.'" It's something that's bugged me as I've written here over the last two years. After all, in the Vintage Dinosaur Art series, Marc and I frequently discuss the transition from the sluggish reptiles of yesteryear to dynamic, diverse dinosaurs we know today. Don't people get it by now?

If asked to picture the world of the Mesozoic, does the average person on the street see the vision of Zallinger or Spielberg? We're now almost twenty years into the Jurassic Park era, and the idea of the "raptor" has ascended to a level of popularity arguably equal to Tyrannosaurus rex. As Matt Martyniuk points out in a recent post, Dinosaur Train is creating a new generation of dinosaur lovers who don't have that old baggage to deal with.

Are we beating a dead horse when we boldly claim to be killing obsolete ideas about dinosaur life? If so, what does this demand of future dinosaur edutainment? I'd argue that we need to focus less on dinosaur-specific lessons and more on broad concepts about evolution. Use the proven appeal of dinosaurs to teach about niche partitioning, convergent evolution, and other mechanisms of evolution. Be openly speculative and hypothetical. Work dinosaurs into the great tapestry of life on earth - all four billion or so years of it. These documentaries can be more than travelogues through time and showcases for weird, dead monsters. How to get there? I'm not sure. That's why I'm opening it up to you. What would you like to see future dinosaur projects do?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Planet Dinosaur launch trailer is here

So it is. Looking good too.

Highlights in the trailer: maniraptors with proper plumage! A Spinosaurus with a suitable head*! It's a little hard to critique the finer details when they're flashing past in a trailer montage (and yes, the use of the word 'pterodactyl' and a stock raptor sound effect is very lame), but it's looking like an improvement over many CG docus from the last decade or so. Here's hoping!

*Or not quite, as I've just seen these stills, which show that the mandible is a little off (not to mention certain other aspects of the anatomy, notably the forelimbs). Could be worse...I'm still happy about the feathered dinosaurs.