Friday, July 30, 2010

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Charles R. Knight

Charles R. Knight's most famous painting. From Norman Felchle, via flickr.

There's really no other way to wrap up this week than with Charles R. Knight, one of the three early giants of paleoart and probably the best known. His work is showcased all over the Field Museum, and casts a long shadow over the paleoart of most of the last century. Many of his dinosaurs became the iconic representations of their taxa, arguably persisting even after the dinosaur renaissance of the last thirty to forty years radically altered our ideas of their posture, physiology, evolutionary affinities, and even behavior.

Knight, born in 1874, was working at a time that paleontology truly was a new frontier: the bitter rivalry between paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope had resulted in many fossils being pulled out of the American west, and exactly what they all meant was still being sorted out. It didn't help that Marsh and Cope's bone war produced a tangled taxonomy that's still being sorted out today. Witness Knight's Agathaumas, a piece based on a smattering of fossils named by Cope. It required him to fill in with his imagination what time did not preserve.

Knight's very reptilian Agathaumas. From wikimedia commons.

An astute commenter reminded me of the Knight Agathaumas a couple of weeks ago when I wrote about a similar version, by German artist Heinrich Harder. I had seen it before, but for some reason didn't associate it with Knight. It's not one of his truly iconic pieces, though I am oddly attracted to it. It's certainly a relic of a time when dinosaurs were believed to be much more reptilian than our modern conception of them as a truly unique branch on the tree of life. This Agathaumas has iguana-like features, and you can see an affinity to my favorite Knight piece, Leaping Laelaps.

From wikimedia commons.

Aggie could be right around the bend, really. This is my favorite dinosaur painting of all time. It's not posed; it's a snapshot of these dinosaur's lives. Laelaps is now known as Dryptosaurus, and though the anatomy here isn't up to date, it's irrelevant. This is the kind of piece that plants a seed and inspires a person to explore natural history.

Amazingly, Knight was nearly blind. Not only had he inherited astigmatism, an errant rock severely damaged his right eye when he was only six. These expansive visions of prehistoric life were created by a man who had to work with his face inches from the canvas to see what he was doing.

Trachodon, now Anatotitan. From wikimedia commons.

Knight's paintings were a doorway through which artists could explore prehistoric worlds, but I also think about the impact they had on other observers. Imagine stepping into the Field Museum or the American Museum of Natural History at a time before television existed. Knight's colossal murals would have plunged visitors into the depths of Earth's history, bringing them face to face with a cultureless world, expanding their imaginations. I wish I could rewire my brain so I could experience these paintings as purely as their original audiences did.

Knight's La Brea Tar Pits mural. From wikimedia commons.

I've recommended it before, and I'll do it again. Indiana University Press's commemorative edition of Knight's Life Through the Ages is a great addition to your bookshelf. It goes well beyond his Mesozoic reconstructions and shows just how absorbed he was by nature in general, and how vivid his imagination was when conjuring scenes lost to the ages. It's also a great read, having been published in the mid 1940's, when Knight was a science lecturer as well as artist. Some of his page-long descriptions read like he was pitching them to Walt Disney for use in Fantasia: "A gentle breeze blows softly through the forest glades; the silence is oppressive, for no song of birds, no cry of an animal breaks the stillness of that shadowed land," he writes, describing a scene from the Carboniferous. Stephen Jay Gould wrote a foreword for this edition, and as a long admirer of Knight's, it makes you wonder if some of his gaudier prose was inspired in part by Knight.

More on Knight: The official website, chock full of information and images. The Open Source Paleontologist reviewed Knight's autobiography. Check out the Field Museum's Knight collection on-line here. It would behoove you to check out William Stout's Knight sketchbooks. Browse the Vintage Dinosaur Art flickr pool to see plenty of examples of blatant Knight rip offs!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Interview: Lindsay Zanno

Today, as part of Field Museum week, I'm very happy to present an interview with Dr. Lindsay Zanno, John Caldwell-Meeker Postdoctoral Fellow in the museum's geology department. After watching Waking the T. rex, I told my wife that I may have been the only person in the theater to think, "hey, there's Lindsay Zanno!" when she entered the frame, searching the desert for pieces of the Mesozoic.

Her profile may be low for now, but I suspect that her star will continue to rise as her career progresses: she was a natural on screen, and as you'll read, she's an enthusiastic, insightful ambassador of science. She gave her thoughts on the Field, Robo Sue, her doctoral advisor Scott Sampson, and her important work on North American therizinosaurs.

Can you tell us a bit about your own childhood experiences with museums, or any other formative experiences that encouraged your interest in natural history?

As a child I can remember visiting the American Museum of Natural History near my home in NY. It was a profound and wondrous experience, full of mysterious objects in looming glass cases. At the time I thought that to work there was the most venerable job to which one could aspire; and yet, I’d have to say my love for natural history stems from a deeper place. Put simply, I have a primal fascination with the ancient, an emotive connection with history (last week I had the immense pleasure of discovering a hand-forged tack in the 19th century sofa I am reupholstering and spent a few glorious moments imagining the workshop in which it was made and the man who hammered it in 150 years ago).

To my mind, fossils are the epitome of antiquity. Fossils illuminate a foreign world almost beyond human comprehension, yet incredibly accessible. You can stand where a tyrannosaur once stood, you can hold a dromaeosaur tooth that ripped the flesh of an unfortunate victim in your hand, and you never know what lies around the next hill waiting to be discovered. Therein lies the rub. It’s a simple draw to the antiquity and the wonderment of its history.

Had you been familiar with the Field Museum before you pursued your fellowship?

Yes of course! The Field Museum is a pillar of science and culture. It was founded on the idea that to educate the children of the Midwest about the natural world was a noble and paramount endeavor and it now continues that legacy by educating people all over the world about their past, present, and future.

Has working for the Field offered you any unique opportunities? What parts of their collections do you find most exciting?

Working at the Field is a great honor and not a day goes by that I don’t recognize it as a gift. The staff, scientists, and volunteers are extremely dedicated and exude a pure and contagious joy for their work. Being part of such a brilliant and talented team of individuals who strive every day to better understand the world we live in for the protection of our past and the uncertainty of our future is by far the grandest part. They are my favorite part of the museum’s “collections!”

Lindsay and Fossil Vertebrates Collections Manager Bill Simpson at a Waking the T. rex shoot. Photo credit: David Clark

What is your perspective on museum exhibits like "Robo Sue?" As a visitor, I have a pragmatic attitude towards them, though they're not really my cup of tea. Do you think that they have a real impact, positively or negatively?

Exhibits such as “Robo Sue” are not designed to educate the public and no doubt there are individuals who don’t favor the concept. To my mind the role of the modern museum is about more than just education and research, it’s also about inspiration. In our technologically frenzied and increasingly displaced world, inspiration brought on by tactile exploration, by physical interaction, is hard to come by. Many scientists that I know believe this is one of the greatest problems facing modern society—a disjunct with our own natural environment and I concur.

“Robo Sue” is intended to be an immersive experience; the point is to embrace visitors, allow them to step inside the Cretaceous for a moment and feel the enchantment. It may not transport everyone, but with a little bit of imagination, there is the great opportunity to ignite a fascination with the natural world.

You've done a lot of work on therizinosaurs. What brought you to their study and what questions about them do you most want to explore?

Therizinosaurs fell into my lap as a grad student and I knew very little about them. In fact, to be honest, I had never even heard of them! I had just graduated with a degree in biological anthropology and was a dinosaur neophyte. I feel terribly lucky to have been given the opportunity by Jim Kirkland and my advisor to work on a new species of therizinosaur from Utah and the more I studied the group the more interesting they became. Therizinosaurs are certainly oddballs in the “predatory” dinosaur world (in no small part because they were plant-eaters). I used to think this little incongruity set them apart from their maniraptoran cousins; however, my latest research supports the idea that plant-eating was widespread among maniraptorans and likely had a big impact on their evolutionary history. This is the aspect I am most interested in exploring.

Do you participate in the on-line science community (i.e. blogs, mailing lists, forums, open-source journals) at all? Do you feel that it's becoming an important part of the scientific dialogue?

Yes, somewhat on all counts. The on-line science community has its place but as I said I am a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to technology--we are a TV-free house and I only carry a cell-phone because it was gifted to me! I fear that technology is taking the place of real exploration. Open-source journals are surely a positive advance and the increased ease of communication with colleagues a benefit of mailing lists etc., but we should take care to get away from the computer screen now and then. Science is best done hands-on.

Do you think you'll stick with Mesozoic beasts or are you interested in other extinct animals?

Surely I am interested in life beyond the Mesozoic. For now, however, my feet are firmly planted there, research-wise.

Scott Sampson has a growing reputation in pop culture, between Dinosaur Odyssey and his work on "Dinosaur Train." Do you think he could be a Sagan/ DeGrasse-Tyson level science popularizer?

Oh, I think he’d be delighted at the comparison. Scott is a brilliant man, a talented writer, and has a great passion for inspiring the populace to connect with their environment and take responsibility for securing its future. He seems to have found his niche in the public realm and I believe it is his true calling. Being a vector between science and the public is not something we all can do and, unfortunately, it is often greatly undervalued in the academic realm making it difficult to achieve in any great capacity. I am grateful he is out there fighting the good fight and I know that the rest of the paleontological community is as well.

* * *

Huge thanks to Dr. Zanno for doing this interview. For more, read my posts on her recent osteology of Falcarius and therizinosaurs' place in the maniraptoran family tree.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Elizabeth Morse Genius Dinosaur Hall

Most of the Field Museum's dinosaurs and other mesozoic fossils are housed in the Elizabeth Morse Genius Dinosaur Hall. It takes up the middle third of the Evolving Planet exhibit, which leads visitors from the Precambrian beginning of life on Earth to the Cenozoic origin of our species.

The first dinosaur you meet after passing through the Field's impressive selection of Permian critters is Herrerasaurus, a beast so low on the dinosaur family tree that its status as a dinosaur has been doubted in the past.


The hall is roughly divided by the great clans of dinosaurs. First up, the armor-bearers, the clade known as the thyreophorans, get a little action, in the form of a Stegosaurus and an ankylosaur skull and tail club.


Team sauropod is represented by a composite mount of Apatosaurus as well as diminutive Rapetosaurus, a fairly recently discovered Malagasy titanosaur. There's also a case showing off a variety of sauropod skulls.

Rapetosaurus and Apatosaurus

Theropods aren't neglected, of course, with a section devoted to dromaeosaurs, including Deinonychus and Buitreraptor.

Deinonychus and Buitreraptor

I've mentioned before that the entrance hall of the Field used to have a mount of an Albertosaurus standing over a fallen Lambeosaurus. When it was found that parts of the skull had been remodeled in plaster, it existed in a taxonomical limbo, until 1999, when Thomas Carr reassigned it to Daspletosaurus.


Daspletosaurus and Lambeosaurus

Then it's back to the ornithischians, with a selection of ceratopsian material, including an Anchiceratops frill.



Partial Anchiceratops Skull

Besides the Lambeosaurus who so graciously provides Daspletosaurus with his supper, the ornithopods present are a Maiasaura calf and an impressive specimen of Parasaurolophus. One of the most popular features in the hall is the "musical" Parasaurolophus head, which lets visitors hear what one of the big honkers may have sounded like.

The Musical Parasaurolophus Head


Maiasaura Calf

As you can see behind the Parasaurolophus above, one of the coolest parts of the hall is that the murals of Charles R. Knight are still hanging on the walls. An informational plaque near the Daspletosaurus also gives Knight's background. It's a good tie to Field history, and I hope that people take the time to appreciate them.

Beyond the Genius Hall, you should also stop in at the newly renovated Grainger Hall of Gems, home to an unexpected treat from the Mesozoic: an opalized Plesiosaurus vertebra. The first step in its formation was when water enriched with silica filled a cavity left by the decayed bone. A cast of the bone was left behind when the water evaporated, leaving behind a silica gel which hardened into opal.

Opalized Plesiosaur Vertebra

The dinosaur action didn't end inside the museum, though. After we exited the building, we saw that a small theropod was waiting to say goodbye: a gull, perched on a stone pillar overlooking the marina. I was pretty surprised that he let me get as close as I did. I kept inching closer, thinking I'd scare him away, but he stood his ground, completely at ease, as happy to pose for the camera as his fossil cousins inside.


Feel free to check out more photos in this Flickr set.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Sue vs. Mecha-Sue


Entering through the Field Museum's north entrance, you are immediately greeted by the museum's centerpiece, the Tyrannosaurus rex nicknamed Sue. I'm not going to rehash the story of how Sue ended up at the Field again; instead I'll talk about the exhibits themselves: Sue herself, Robo Sue, and the new Sue 3-D movie.

The original is still the best. Sue is one of the best mounts I've ever seen; you really get a sense of the beast's power in life. There's not much to say. You just have to see it in person to appreciate it.

Sue's Healed Ribs
Her ribs show signs of injury and healing.

Those holes have been attributed to a Trichomonas-like infection.



The Field's dinosaur hall is located on the upper floor as part of the larger Evolving Planet exhibit, and before entering it, you get a chance to view Sue from above. The balcony to Sue's rear holds more of Sue, such as her original skull, which is too heavy to be mounted.

Sue Overhead

It's a clever set-up that allows you to take in the entirety of the dinosaur from a distance, as you check out casts of some of her tail vertebrae and wishbone.

Sue's Caudal Vertebrae

Sue's Furcula

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Sue's unveiling, the Field teamed with Kumotek Robotics to create a temporary exhibit called "Robo Sue." As the Sue Escapes website says, "these fearsome dinosaurs will react to your every move, sizing you up as friend, foe--or their next meal!"

There are three main parts to the exhibit: a pack of the dromaeosaur Saurornitholestes, a Triceratops guarding her nest, and Robo Sue herself.

Saurornitholestes Robot

Robo Trike

Robo Trike Hatchlings

Robo Sue

I couldn't help but think of Richard Fortey's Trilobite when I was in the exhibit, in which he longed for the days of simple exhibits that highlighted the fossil above all; he saw the "herky-jerky" animatronics as a mockery, not a tribute. In a recent post on the exhibit, Brian Switek quoted a Stephen Jay Gould passage which echoed these thoughts.

I tend to fall into this camp, to be honest. I appreciated the engineering, but the fleshed out robots didn't do anything to spur my imagination - I find the life-size diorama of a Carboniferous forest in the Evolving Planet exhibit more compelling. The final stop in the Robo Sue loop is a game in which the visitor is tasked with guessing what behavior a Saurornitholestes puppet is displaying: threat, stalking, or calling to his flock. It's purely speculative and not terribly relevant, other than as a demonstration ofwhat the software could do. There was an elderly lady who found the whole thing marvelous, though.

I know that museums are in a pinch, and need to try new ways of engaging visitors. So I don't begrudge their efforts to use technology to do so. And I'm not even sure that it's not educational. Maybe most people come out of Robo Sue with some new knowledge. For me personally, I get my kicks out of the fossils themselves. I'd much rather spend time in a simpler exhibit chock-full with fossils. I'd love to hear other perspectives on how useful these sort of exhibits are. Are they merely ways to bring in money? Are museums acting on research that suggests they provide real educational value?

Museums aren't the problem, of course. Neither are animatronics. Maybe the problem is whatever constellation of social factors leads museums to consider animatronics necessary. That's something they can't really effect. Alternatively, maybe the problem doesn't exist. Would people really stay away from museums if these exhibits weren't put on? In my experience, it seems that what really generates interest are big traveling exhibits that focus on historically significant artifacts or fossils, but that's just my narrow opinion. Maybe we can convince a few museums to act as controls in an experiment to see what would happen if they kept their exhibits based strictly on fossils and other "authentic objects of nature and culture" as Gould writes in his essay. Then we'll see if these flashy "theme park" exhibits have a legitimate role to play, or are simply reactions to overhyped problems.

I'll tell you what I did really like, though: the 3-D movie about Sue's discovery and what we've learned about her life, Waking the T. rex. I didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I did; 3-D doesn't thrill me. But there was a nice amount of time devoted to field and prep work, with a great personal account of what life in the field is like from Field paleontologist Lindsay Zanno. The CG Sue was alright, but it was the real-world story of scientists figuring out how Sue lived that gave the most value, and it seemed that the audience reacted to it enthusiastically.

Tomorrow: The dinosaurs of the Field beyond Sue: The Elizabeth Morse Genius Dinosaur Hall.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Field Museum Week!

The Field Museum, North Entrance
The north entrance of the Field Museum

I recently had a chance to visit that cathedral of natural history I'm glad to call my home turf, Chicago's Field Museum. It had been a few years, and there was plenty of new stuff to look forward to. The Mammoths and Mastodons exhibition was in town (featuring Lyuba), the Grainger Hall of Gems was reopened after renovations, and the 10th anniversary celebration of Sue's unveiling was still in full swing. So I sprung for the full access pass for both Jennie and myself and dug in. As is always the case, we saw maybe 25% of what is publicly visible; thinking about what lies behind restricted-access doors just makes me dizzy. I could seriously do nothing but visit a single large museum for the entirety of a week's vacation, but that's a tough sell when you're happily married and hope to stay that way.

What we did see was substantial enough that I figured I'd devote a whole week of posts to it. I readily admit that my photography skills aren't exactly professional, so please forgive the odd blurry shot or awkward angle through stubbornly shiny glass. I weeded through the best photos and put them in a Flickr set. I also must apologize for being less than thorough in my labeling; I tried to take as many reference shots of labels and plaques as I could, but I often forgot or the shot came out poorly in low light. Some of the fossils that I don't know by sight aren't labeled, but it won't affect these posts too much as I have decent command of dinosaur taxa. And hopefully keener minds than mine will toss out an ID here or there.

A welcoming site from South Lake Shore Drive: the Field's Brachiosaurus

Caveats, mea culpas, and preemptive apologies out of the way, I'll kick off the week with a little background on the Field. An outgrowth of the World's Columbian Exhibition, an event that has left a lingering mark on American culture - including literary works such as Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City and Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth - the museum was founded in 1893 as the Columbian Museum, gaining the "Field" the next year with a generous 1 million dollar grant from Chicago retail baron Marshall Field. As described in The Century magazine, the museum was to be "a magnificent fireproof building especially adapted for its purposes into which could be gathered at the close of the Exposition such antiquities and articles of historical value as the Fair had brought together the same to be made the nucleus of a great museum for the education of the people for all time."

North Facade of Field Columbian Museum
The old Field Museum in 1912. From the Field Museum Library at Flickr commons.

The building the Field Columbian Museum occupied had been the exhibition's Palace of the Fine Arts, and had never been intended to be its permanent home. In a 1905 book reviewing American museums, German anthropologist Adolf Bernard Meyer described the building as being a bit small to house the museum's enormous collections - which in his opinion needed to be pared down - and stated that the building housing the American Museum in New York was "incomparably better." He also devoted quite a bit of space fretting that the fireproof ideal voiced in The Century didn't come to fruition. "I believe," he wrote, "that in spite of all the careful precautionary regulations the expensive collections of the Columbian Museum are seriously endangered in this building..."Around the same time as Meyer's review, the museum was rechristened again, dropping four syllables to become simply the Field Museum.

Meyer didn't live long enough to see the museum move to its current location on the lakefront just south of the Loop in 1921 (the bizarre parade is described in a March 1920 article in The Illustrated World magazine). Field had left the museum $8 million when he died, half of which was set aside for the construction of a new building. Chicago's premier scientific institution would have a worthy permanent home, and to this day the Field maintains world-class collections and promotes vital research in all areas of natural history.

I could easily be writing this about a museum with a different name. Marshall Field was known for being a relatively clean businessman, but he wasn't a Carnegie-style visionary. In fact, he wasn't eager to lend his name to the museum at all. He had to be convinced by fellow business tycoon and future museum president Edward Ayer, who made the point that Field had, as yet, not done a single thing to provide himself with a legacy. At first, Field refused. "I don't know anything about a museum and I don't care to know anything about a museum. I'm not going to give you a million dollars," he's quoted as saying, sounding like a true stick-in-the-mud.
Ayers' argument must have been convincing in the end, and Field bought his legacy with a down payment of a million dollars. Marshall Field's department store would be a Chicago icon over the next century or so, but Ayer's instinct proved correct. When the Macy's company bought the store in 2005, Field's name was dropped, leaving the museum his lasting mark on Chicago.

Tomorrow, we'll get down and dirty with the Tyrannosaurus rex who conquered Chicago (and our hearts), Sue.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

An Anniversary

Tomorrow is the one year anniversary of this blog. It's an arbitrary thing to celebrate, but we humans seem to have a penchant for such things, and I'm not going to resist. I do feel a small sense of satisfaction, to be honest.

LITC began as an experiment. For many years, I struggled to find not just my voice as a writer but, more importantly, my purpose as a writer. I jumped between different genres and methods and styles as I worked toward my writing degree from Columbia College Chicago. After I graduated, I continued searching. I had momentary successes, but never achieved the consistency I wanted.

Then something funny happened. Based on my portfolio of amateur design work I'd done over the years - mainly for small personal projects - I was able to finagle my way into an entry-level graphic design job. It satisfied many needs: I was able to devote my energies into learning a new way of working, picking up new tools, and absorbing lessons from my fellow designers. Without realizing it, I'd taken pressure off of my writing. I was no longer desperately waiting for something to click. I could loosen up. I think that new mindset is one of the factors that allowed the notion to start LITC to hit me. The other was finding out that such a thing as the paleoblogosphere even existed. I don't remember which blogs I first discovered, but before long my Google Reader swelled with them.

Eventually, I decided that I would join in, and LITC was born. And over the last year, I feel like I've made a lot of progress toward that consistency I wanted. And I definitely feel like I've figured out my purpose as a writer. I love writing about this stuff. It's the best way to learn. So I want to thank everyone for reading this blog, for offering your thoughts in the comments, for criticizing me when I've gone astray. I'm serious about that last point. Over years of writing workshops, working with design clients, and being married to a woman with a good bullshit detector, I can take it. I'm still figuring out the ins and outs of the paleo community online, but one thing I value is that we hold ourselves accountable. I know I'm not the most knowledgeable paleo blogger, but what I can offer is an honest accounting of what I'm learning, and hopefully that process can offer some insight into the science. My traffic has grown more than I ever could have hoped, especially after my interview with the charming and gallant Mark Witton in February. That's extremely encouraging. I can't stress enough how grateful I am to my readers.

A fitting way to mark this birthday is to share my thoughts on the place most responsible for my interest in science (with a deserved shout-out to the Brookfield Zoo). To this day, stepping into this building takes me back to the awe I felt when my dad would bring me there as a child. We weren't churchly folks; we weren't world travelers. I'd never before been inside a building that echoed with so much history. The Field Museum in Chicago was the place that first introduced me to the shared joy of nature, to the sciences as a cultural treasure. Tomorrow I'll kick off a week devoted to the museum with the story of its beginnings.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Call Me Dave Linkin'

I don't drop enough link bombs up in this joint. So that's what I'm going to do. They won't all be dino-specific, but they'll all be sufficiently paleo.

ReBecca at Dinochick Blogs suggests Paul Brinkman's The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush for your bookshelf. Looks like a great read, covering paleontology in America in the aftermath of the bone wars.

I recently posted an animation called The Dinosaurs Song. This one is called Dinosaur Song, and it is not to be confused. It's immeasurably superior, in my estimation. It's the work of Christian Robinson, based on a poem by Daria Tessler.

I got a little freaked out when Dot Dot Dinosaur disappeared, but not to worry. Jenn has just renamed and refocused the blog, now known at It's Always Rawr! in Philadelphia.

Matt Martyniuk got his gush on over a great gallery of the Jehol fauna at DinoGoss.

Logo design and branding blog Brand New was none too impressed with the new logo for the Indianapolis Children's Museum.

Brian Switek wrote about trace fossils of a small theropod digging up mammal burrows at Dinosaur Tracking. He was then kind of plagiarized by the BBC, which was completely unnecessary, especially after the Pepsigate shenanigans which led him to migrate his Laelaps blog to his personal website. Luckily the BBC responded to his complaint and has revised the post; the BBC writer claims that he believed the Dinosaur Tracking post was written by the paper's lead author.

"A fecking armored dinosaur" on the cover of an old fantasy novel, at the snarky book cover blog Good Show, Sir!

Have you checked out the relatively new blog Fins to Feet by Arvind Pillai? It's totally money, and he just wrote three fine posts on the evolution of flight in theropods.

More welcome additions to the paleoblogosphere come from Larry Witmer's vital fossil lab. They're the official blog, Pick & Scalpel, and grad student Ashley Morhardt's Penchant4Paleo, begun this spring.

Why Evolution is True writes about fossil evidence of the origin of baleen whales, provided by a transitional species with both teeth and baleen from the Oligocene called Aetiocetus weltoni. The study was published two years ago, but Jerry Coyne felt it hadn't recieved the press it deserved. Bonus: it includes a great Carl Buell illo!

THIS JUST IN: Barbarella Psychedella proposes Dinosaur Day.

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Zdeněk Burian

It's high time I got around to featuring Czech artist Zdeněk Burian here; he is definitely one of the titans of paleoart, a contemporary of Charles M. Knight's and his equal. Thanks to Greg Paul mentioning him on his coffee table book's description, I have finally amended this grievous wrong.

Like Knight's portfolio, much of Burian's work looks familiar even if you've not seen the specific piece before; many other artists, likely working under tight deadlines and for little money, borrowed from his work. You can't blame them. This stuff looms over me, making me aware just how meager my arsenal of superlatives is.

Many of his scenes are so iconic that they overshadow the man, and in looking over his work again, I think that I might go about sifting through the Vintage Dinosaur Art Flickr group and tagging other artists' work where they are clearly nicking things from the big three.

paleo 1-5 004
Image from claudiasfinds, via Flickr

Зденек Буриан (22)
Image from Сергей.Владимирович, via Flickr

Зденек Буриан (23)
Image from Сергей.Владимирович, via Flickr

paleo 1-5 001
Image from claudiasfinds, via Flickr

And I can't resist including this gorgeous depiction of Carboniferous life. It's my home bedrock, after all.
paleo 1-5 002
Image from claudiasfinds, via Flickr

Looking at this work, you can't help but understand why paleoartists are so goshdarned important. How many future scientists did artists like Burian, Knight, and Zallinger spawn?

More: An essential post at the fine illustrating blog Lines and Colors, a great Russian gallery of his work, and the official website.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Dinosaur Craft Explosion!

My wife is quickly asserting herself as the official craft blogosphere correspondent for Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs. Today I found myself bombarded with links to cool dinosaurian crafts. So here goes.

Here's a post at the blog Paper n Stitch about a DIY golden dinosaur pendant. One of the dinosaurs used is an old Spinosaurus figurine. If you want to go all Flava Flav with it, you could use something much larger, maybe the big Jurassic Park Tyrannosaurus rex. In fact, I highly encourage that. Blogger Brittni also shows off other uses for faux-gold dinosaurs - it's a great way to get new use out of old, beat up miniatures.

Rockin' the Spinosaur Pendant

Next, the Tinysaur, which I thought I'd heard of at the blog formerly known as Dot Dot Dinosaur as well (now known as It's Always Rawr in Philadelphia). Now that I've sorted out the new name, I can't find it there. So whoever posted about this previously, I'm not claiming this as a scoop. Anyway, Tinysaurs are the specialty at the Etsy shop Everything Tiny. The Tinysaurs are laser-cut, which is most certainly the best combination of lasers and dinosaurs since the Dino-Riders.

The Tiny Stegosaurus by Everything Tiny

Finally, perhaps most awesomely, an amazing crocheted dromaeosaur skeleton. The skull proportions are like those of Buitreraptor. Knithacker featured it today, and Jennie says it's blowing up the "stitchin' bitchin' world." It's created by Etsy seller Knittingneedle, and can be yours for the modest price of $500. Here's the best part: they take requests! Name the dinosaur and the color. This has to be one of those moments where someone got an idea and immediately thought, "that's so going viral."

She just wants her eggs back!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Greg Paul's Dinosaur Coffee Table Book

You don't have to wait until the October publication of his Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs for new material from Gregory S. Paul. In what he calls an "early 21st century experiment in cyber paleo publishing," Paul has published his Dinosaur Coffee Table Book via DIY publishing service Blurb.

The publishing industry is in the middle of an upheaval, spun for a loop by the internet and the rotten economy. More than ever, publishers are held up by big tentpole titles by blockbuster authors or celebrities. This means much less of a willingness to take a risk on an unproven author or on content that doesn't appeal to the broadest audience. The effect in turn on science writing - print or digital - has been dramatic, as evidenced by the recent Pepsigate problem at ScienceBlogs and the cutbacks on dedicated science writers at many news organizations. So while paleo enthusiasts might view a full color book containing many never-before-seen Greg Paul pieces as a sure-fire hit, it's not the easiest sell to a publisher.

Paul writes at the Blurb product page, "I have long wanted to do a book featuring the bulk of my body of color restorations of dinosaurs, something like those Zdenek Burian [link mine] put out when I was a kid... The problem with all color books is that they are so expensive to produce that they often don’t make much money and publishers are reluctant to produce them, all the more so as the world goes increasingly digital."

Even spending $20 on a book is a careful decision for me right now, so I don't think I'll be able to shell out the nearly $70 for this one (or $120 for the larger deluxe edition pictured above). Certainly, I don't hold the price against Paul; one downside to print-on-demand publishing is higher cost-per-unit. And really, it's not out of line for what a traditional publisher might charge for a large-format art book. An initial review sent out to the Dinosaur Mailing List today indicates that the quality is quite good, so if you're a big collector of paleo books and artwork, I would definitely consider picking this one up.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Microbes and Dinosaurs

Science writer Carl Zimmer recently gave a lecture at the American Society of Microbiology meeting in which he discussed his perspective on telling the stories of science. He opens his discussion by talking about, of all things, Anchiornis and the recent discoveries about feather color in dinosaurs. Why? Because they're such a great gateway drug into other scientific topics.

MWV39 - Carl Zimmer: Newspapers, Blogs, and Other Vectors: Infecting Minds with Science in the Age of New Media from microbeworld on Vimeo.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Tiny Theropod

Birds have been a popular photographic subject forever, so they are predictably well-represented at Flickr. Some of my favorite photos are those at Dan's Photo Art. I was thinking over the weekend that I don't feature enough birds here. When this photo popped up in my contacts feed, the situation was immediately rectified. Browsing through Dan's photostream, it's tempting to click the "fave" button over, and over, and over... but that defeats the purpose of such a thing.

Female Ruby Throated Hummingbird_RGB3903

The clarity of his images floors me. He must have preternatural patience, and possibly a bit of good luck.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Vintage Dinosaur Art: German Dinosaur Cards

Today, we're taking a look at some more from the collections of Norman Felchle. These are from a collection of German dinosaur cards. Not sure who the illustrator(s) might be, but they are pretty fantastic. I'm a sucker for ancient prints like this. If you have any information on who published or illustrated them, let me know.

Update: Thanks to commenters, I learned that these are the work of German artist Heinrich Harder, and the series is titled Tiere der Urwelt, which translates to "Animals of the Prehistoric World." He was an art instructor and landscape painter who became involved in natural history illustrations in the early part of the last century. I'll probably do a future VDA post dedicated to him.

Here's a strange Triceratops; it looks like the artist worked from a verbal description rather than physical specimens. It's much more reptilian than our modern conception of the ceratopsians, with their pebbly skin and occasional quills.

The thirsty hadrosaur: another classic meme of paleoart.

This painting of rhamphorhynchid pterosaurs by the shore at sunset has a great moody feel to it.

Here's a great depiction of the antiquated notion of the "sprawling sauropod." My knees are aching in sympathy for this poor Diplodocus.