Monday, December 31, 2012

Mesozoic Miscellany 56

The year 2012 was less than apocalyptic, never mind what the dimestore prophets predicted, but as with any arbitrary range of time, it saw plenty of changes. So it goes with the dinosaur blog world so I thought I'd collect some notable changes, which may have gone unnoticed in the blogroll, into the latest round of our occasional Mesozoic Miscellany series.

Filling a long-empty niche in the podcasting world is Palaeocast, covering all matters paleontological. From an in-depth discussion about the largest of the trilobites, Isotelus rex, to an overview of Mesozoic vertebrate evolution with Dave Hone, it's been a treat to finally have some concentrated doses of prehistory to listen to.

Some huge shake-ups have occurred among major players in the dinosaur blogging world recently. Brian Switek left his post at Smithsonian's ever-popular Dinosaur Tracking to join the new Phenomena blog network by National Geographic. Sticking with the name Laelaps, Switek will be no longer be separating dinosaurs from his other prehistoric coverage. Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, and Virginia Hughes complete NatGeo's sci-com all-star team.

Dave Hone's hard work was also rewarded this year as he moved into new digs at the Guardian, Lost Worlds. He still maintains Archosaur Musings, so don't go neglecting it.

Public Library of Science has debuted a new team blog featuring Shaena Montanari, Sarah Werning, and Andy Farke. The Integrative Paleontologists covers paleontology in the digital age and offers terrific coverage of new research published in PLoS, building on the diverse research interests of its authors.

Mark Witton has begun posting on his own blog now. Much easier to follow than his Flickr account, and just in time for publication of his upcoming book from Princeton University Press, Pterosaurs.

A new paleo-blog from North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Expedition Live!, also deserves a look, especially for therizinosaur lovers: Lindsay Zanno herself heads it up!

On the artistic side of things, some welcome additions to the blogging world included John Conway, Luis V. Rey, Julius Csotonyi, and Julio Lacerda.

Finally: Doug Henderson now has an Etsy shop! Seriously, there are no superlatives up to the task of describing Henderson's work. But you know that. Here, you can purchase his originals, including published work and sketches. Beyond supporting Henderson, which is a noble enough cause, your purchase may benefit a project he's developing, "to expand the illustration of Earth History beyond the realm of dinosaurs in a mudpie project of my own, one that needs funding and I hope sales of my original works may provide a little help."

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Extant Anatid and the Sauropodomorph

Daffy Duck has always been my favorite Looney Tunes character, so I was happy to learn that director Chuck Jones' first go at Daffy was 1939's Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur. It's a fitting start, since Daffy is Warner Brothers' most famous extant theropod (back off, Tweety-lovers, just back off). Set in the stone age - "millions and billions and trillions of years before you people were even born," a title card informs us - it's one of a long line of Warner Brothers cartoons in which a prey animal protagonist outwits a hapless hunter. In this case, it's Casper Caveman. Not only does it seem to presage The Flintstones (Casper has a pet sauropod named "Fido," and his home has a very Bedrock feel), Casper's first attempt at killing Daffy may well have been the inspiration for the famous "bullet time" effect in The Matrix.

Daffy Duck and the Cave Man might have been a more accurate title, but I think Jones knew that dinosaurs were a better draw.

Dinosaurs in Oxford

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History is one of the best in Britain, housed in a glorious, soaring Victorian neo-Gothic building. What's more, there are a number of skeletal mounts of dinosaurs ranging from Tyrannosaurus to Hypsilophodon, with many historically important British specimens also on show (by jingo). And entry is gratis. It's a must-visit if you're ever in the city, and Niroot and I just so happened to pop up there earlier in the month.

Although they are both grand Victorian museums built for the purpose, the OUMNH has a very different atmosphere to London's Natural History Museum. It's much smaller, of course (and has a different architectural style - Gothic as opposed to Romanesque Revival), but is also illuminated far more by natural light inside, giving a much more open, airy and less stately feel. It also doesn't receive the preposterously huge hordes of visitors that the NHM has to deal with, and as such allows visitors to get closer to its mounted skeletons.This, combined with the lighting conditions, makes it fantastic for photography.

The first thing every kid's eye is drawn to upon entering is a cast of BHI 3033, or 'Stan', the relatively small but big-noggined Tyrannosaurus rex. Of course, it's only 'relatively small' for an adult T. rex, which still means it's pretty bloody huge. The mount displays a fairly unusual 'rearing' posture, with the front end sloping upward, which makes it appear suitably imposing. Although standing on a wooden plinth, there's no glass in the way, so it's still possible to get up close to Stanny boy and take in that crazy tyrannosaur anatomy from all sorts of angles. I have a particular affinity for feet, apparently.

The head model is a little derptastic (they were probably better off displaying it separately, as they used to), and there's something off about that right forelimb (that one's for the nitpickers), but you can't go far wrong with a T. rex mount. The animal's just too awesome.

Directly in front of Staniel stands an Iguanodon bernissartensis cast in a classic Dollo-style 'kangaroo' pose. Much to the museum's credit, a nearby sign points out how this posture would be quite impossible for the living animal, even including a diagram with a dirty great arrow indicating where the tail has been broken.

Surrounding this enormous pair are the assorted remains, safely ensconced within glass cabinets, of British dinosaurs and others of particular historic interest. It's here you'll find Cetiosaurus, Eustreptospondylus and Megalosaurus, alongside the British "Camptosaurus" (Cumnoria) and more Iguanodon. It's a fascinating glimpse into the earliest days of palaeontology, and a wonderful opportunity to look at animals that are seldom seen in museums.

The Eustreptospondylus mount (a juvenile specimen) is accompanied by a model head, apparently fished out of the bins when Walking With Dinosaurs was completed.

The Cetiosaurus remains from Chipping Norton are helpfully labelled...

...While Megalosaurus jaw bits are assembled according to their positions in a (slightly speculative) restored skull. Just visible here is a reproduction of a restoration from 1854 (which the signage drily describes as a "slightly overweight quadruped"), which shows just how little they had to go on back then.

Cumnoria is yet another dinosaur with a tangled taxonomic history. In the museum it's labelled as "Camptosaurus" prestwichii, and (predictably) it was dumped into Iguanodon before that. The animal's lumping into Camptosaurus was accepted for decades, but recent studies have supported its generic separation.

Just around the way, there's a wonderful array of mounted skeletons and skulls from various Late Cretaceous North American dinosaurs, including Edmontosaurus, Triceratops, Pachycephalosaurus, a truly superb Struthiomimus, and, again. Thanks to the lack of protective glass (for all but the T. rex skull cast), it's possible to poke one's camera lens into all sorts of improbable places (ooh er). If you enjoy inspecting every last minute little nodule on Pachycephalosaurus' preposterously adorned cranium, then you're in for a treat.

There's also this little fellow...why, it's Bambiraptor feinbergi! Or at least, that's how most of us know him - of course, the person who writes the signs at the OUMNH has taken it upon themselves to sink it into Velociraptor (nice 1990s-style illustration too). I believe it's known as 'doing a Paul'. It's a very minor nitpick, of course, but worth bringing up 'cos it's amusing, and also because I'm not aware of anyone else having proposed this lumping (but feel free to enlighten me if you have [And right away, someone did - see Alberta Claw's comment]).

Speaking of, er, maniraptors, Archaeopteryx gets the life restoration treatment too, and just for a change the model's actually very good, rather than being a hideous lizardy freak with miniature hands. There's also an excellent cast, of course. Compsognathus gets a similar deal, and the model's very lovely, although advances in palaeontology have dated it a little more. Nevertheless, it remains admirable for its high level of craftsmanship and stunning, intricate attention to detail.

On the other hand, it's pretty safe to say that Utahraptor didn't look like this. At all. Of course, this isn't entirely the model makers' fault - rumours abound that new(ish) material, yet to be published, indicates that this animal was a lot weirder than previously thought. Actually, I'd be very interested to learn where this model came from - it looks like it might be another Walking With Dinosaurs artefact (the 'raptors' in said show were also buck-ass nude), but the strangely allosaur-esque head and colour scheme don't seem like a good match. Any ideas?

I'd like to round things off - for the time being - on a pleasant note, so just take a good gander at this lovingly sculpted Iguanodon head (below and, if you squint a bit, above). It's a seriously impressive work of art and no mistake - the subtly rendered skin folds and bony nature of the face remind me a great deal of modern ungulates like horses and giraffes. Er, except for the beak. Entirely too rarely for palaeosculpture (if I may call it that), this has the appearance of a living animal rather than a monster or an inert, clinical restoration. Just excellent.

That'll be all for now, but there's far too much great stuff in the OUMNH to contain in a solitary post, no matter how photo-laden. We will return!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Changing View of T. rex

In an excellent little explainer video, Field Museum paleontologist Dr. Peter Makovicky explains how science has changed the way we see Tyrannosaurus rex over the last 112 years. Embedded here for your enjoyment.

The Changing View of T. rex from The Field Museum on Vimeo.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaur Babies

If any of the great artists of the Dinosaur Renaissance era deserve a much greater online presence than they currently have, then it's Eleanor (aka Ely) Kish. We've only featured her work on two occasions before, and this is the first book to grace LITC that is entirely illustrated by her. Happily, it's also a pop-up book - from the same National Geographic series as the recently-featured Creatures of Long Ago: Dinosaurs. As the title suggests, it's an insurmountable onslaught of cute.

Dinosaur Babies is quite unusual for Kish in that, by necessity of the format, it places the animals up front and centre, rather than featuring them as components of a more broadly realised prehistoric landscape. That doesn't stop the backgrounds being beautiful, of course, as amply demonstrated by the gorgeous desert scene on the cover.  Of course, the Pinacosaurus are lovely too - I'm particularly taken by the expression on the face of the individual on the right. It's not impressed...

A 1980s book about fresh-from-the-egg saurians was inevitably going to feature Protoceratops - after all, it took a nest with it wherever it went (even the Carnegie toy had one). True to form, the opening spread features a hatchling peering right out of the page at you. There's wonderful attention to detail - note the egg teeth - and the inclusion of a lizard, if quite common in these scenes, helps add a little faunal variety. The adult animals display Kish's typical anatomical rigour, with a modern-style posture advanced from the sprawling, lizardy portrayal of the animal that was still quite prevalent at the time. Kish's creations were sometimes prone to 'zombie dinosaur' syndrome - deathly thin with a pelvis that could take your eye out - but fortunately there's scant evidence of that here.

Maiasaura was another shoo-in for a book like this, for obvious reasons. In fact, a Maiasaura nesting site also appeared in Sibbick's pop-up effort, and there are a number of similarities - from the viewer taking on a nestling's perspective, to the adult chasing off a Troodon in the background. While the Sibbick scene, with its three-dimensional rendering of the mother's head, is the more striking overall, Kish's take is still delightful. The protruding arms are a nice touch.

My favourite scene in Dinosaur Babies is definitely this one, featuring cryptically camouflaged young Corythosaurus attempting to evade the eyes of prowling Albertosaurus. Cryptic camouflage remains a surprisingly underexplored theme in palaeoart (with recent notable examples popping up in All Yesterdays), and Kish has a particular talent for it. Of course, this is also an effective showcase for Kish's skill in creating highly detailed, believable and lush forested landscapes for her dinosaurs to dwell in. More than any other spread in the book, this one is bursting with tiny details and charming interactive features.

Pulling this tab, for example, will conceal two young hadrosaurs in the foliage as they cower from their toothy aggressor.

 The tyrannosaur's head, leering out over the top of the page, helps set the scene very effectively - the very motion of it popping up akin to what the hadrosaurlings would see as the predator scanned over the undergrowth. Lifting a flap to the right reveals a Corythosaurus staring up at the carnivore, looking utterly terrified to be suddenly exposed. Just brilliant stuff.

While the Corythosaurus scene remains superb, this baby Deinonychus tug-of-war hasn't aged so well - if it weren't for the feet, these creatures would be unrecognisable as dromaeosaurs (the purple colouring is also, in retrospect, rather unfortunate). They seem to have cheeks, not to mention what appears to be luscious lipstick. Oh dear. It's always good to see Deinonychus doing something other than reducing an implausibly large adversary to juicy meaty chunks - look, there's one scratching! - but this one is perhaps best skipped over. Except...

...this is a nifty feature - the terrified Gobiconodon are just getting an eyeful at first, but pulling a tab sends forth a probing claw. Again, Deinonychus predating animals smaller than itself is a pleasant change.

Ah, the good old paddlin' sauropod. The animal ("Pleurocoelus", one of those dodgy genera with complicated histories) appears to be an adult but, strangely, is described as a 'thousand pound baby' in the text. Never mind - the scene is rendered pleasantly enough and the sauropod is decent for the '80s (remember, some people were still illustrating toddling 'brontosaurs' at this time), while the pop-up element is put to good effect in creating the tangled plant life dragged along by the giant animal.

Pulling the tabs here results in one animal swimming across the lake, while another (in the cameo image) pops its head up to say hello. Unfortunately, its face rather resembles that of the highly phylotarded sauropods in the brilliant documentary Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend.

And finally, as previewed on Facebook, here it is - the adorable Styracosaurus tot, bounding out of the page toward the reader, with a mischievous glint in his eye! A beautiful illustration. This spread also sees an airing of the now-discarded 'ceratopsian wagon circle' meme (below), with a deft pull of the tab making the facing animals flick their heads into the air. Unfortunately, Daspletosaurus seems to have fallen foul of the Curse of the Dodgy Perspective, but seeing a herd of ceratopsians acting like frontiersmen is sweetly nostalgic in a way that only peculiarly prevalent stereotyped notions of dinosaur behaviour as depicted in art can be.

There'll be more Vintage Dinosaur Art in the new year, when I embark on the futile task of attempting to scan pages from the gigantic De Oerwereld van de Dinosauriërs (Czerkas & Czerkas) using my pathetic all-in-one printer. Keep it Chasmosaurs!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

All Yesterdays: Some Thoughts

We've been focusing a lot on All Yesterdays here of late, partially because we're all very artistically minded, and partially because it's just a gorgeous, thought provoking little book. I'm not going to review it here; you've seen enough by now to know that we're all pretty wild about it. Instead, I'm going to list some thoughts inspired by the book, and shamelessly tease you all with promise of a future, All Yesterdays style event.

Paleontological art has always been at its most valuable when it gives us a glimpse, not only into how extinct organisms looked, but also how they lived. Reading through All Yesterdays again prior to writing this, I was reminded of how my favorite pieces combined bits of soft tissue speculation with interesting and novel behaviors. Elasmosaurs waved their necks over the turbulent ocean, struggling to out-display their rivals. Heterodontosaurs wandered out of their burrow, adorned with spiky tails, eyes narrowed against the sun. Therezinosaurs sat like bristly, clawed mountains in the dim light, feeding placidly from the branches. All of these illustrations had an immense amount of character to them, and I think character is what's been missing from a lot of dinosaur art.

Leaellynasaura copyright John Conway
Animals aren't all the same. Not all herbivores are placid, and not all carnivores voracious. Some lions are tolerant, some cows insanely aggressive. There's huge individual variation among most species, whether of appearance or behavior, but most paleoart doesn't capture that. Every Tyrannosaurus becomes the same Tyrannosaurus, every Triceratops becomes the ideal spokesman for its species, every reconstruction rendered as a platonic ideal.

There's a huge opportunity sitting here for artists, and it's mostly been ignored. So much imagination already goes into paleoart; why not go even further, and create individualized creatures? Scars and bumps, behavioral quirks, even bits of expressive body language can go a long way toward characterizing an animal. There's something deeply immersive and realistic about this kind of reconstruction; it offers a harmonious blend of soft tissue speculation and behavioral imagination, and results in memorable art.

This kind of art doesn't have to be done in a photo-realistic manner, and I'd argue that it probably shouldn't. Excessive realism often ends up being  a trap; it constricts us into thinking of extinct organisms in the drabbest, most conservative terms. Like stuffed museum specimens standing in barren dioramas, the results often feel lifeless, choked by their own detail, petrified by repeated cliche. Zoological illustration has a long tradition of abstraction, gesture drawing, loose sketches and mixed media, all of which seek to capture the idea of movement or character in ways unrelated to the direct and detailed. A lot of paleontological illustration shies away from this, and I can't help but wonder if more experimental styles wouldn't help break us out of the the current, endless cycle of memes.

Giraffe style Barosaurus by Bakker, which begat...
...Giraffe style Barosaurus from Burian, which begat...
...whatever the hell this is.
This call for stylization shouldn't be mistaken for an excuse to get anatomy wrong; if anything, it's going to require better anatomical knowledge on the part of artists attempting it. It's important to know something very well before you attempt to capture it in the abstract. I'd be interested in seeing what artists choose to focus on when freed from the prison of trying to set down every wrinkle and fold of skin.

Over all, I found finishing All Yesterdays to be deeply frustrating, because it left me with an almost dizzying sense of possibility. I didn't want it to be over. I wanted more of a look into a world who's strangeness I'd taken for granted. So I did the only thing I could--I picked up a pencil...

Keep an eye out, dear readers. The LITC crew has a special announcement to make in the coming days, one that will make the more artistically inclined among you very, very happy! Stay tuned!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Ivan Chermayeff

This will be a quick one today, featuring a poster rather than a book. In 1982, legendary graphic designer Ivan Chermayeff designed a poster for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, advertising free admission on Friday and Saturday nights.

 Poster design by Ivan Chermayeff; image courtesy the AIGA design archives.

You know you're a design bigwig if you're signing your work. A delightful bit of modernist design, playing on the upright forms of theropods that stalked museum halls before the dinosaur renaissance. Chermayeff likely got the gig thanks to the Mobil connection, as Mobil was one of the Chermayeff & Geismar design studio's big clients, and most enduring logo designs.

I do have a bunch of books to scan, and I know Marc always has something in the works, so I'm sure we'll be back on our usual Vintage Dinosaur Art schedule soon. This post also gives me the idea to look for more dinosaurs used in poster design, so I'll start rooting around and see what I can find.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Conway, Kosemen, and Naish Discuss All Yesterdays

C.M. Kosemen has uploaded videos from the Friday, December 7 launch event for All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals to his Youtube channel.

First, Darren Naish introduces the book and the thinking behind it.

John Conway discusses his artistic process and rationale for his speculations.

And Kosemen chimes in as well, talking about "lenses of distortion."

Great to see what Marc, Niroot, and the rest of the rabble got to enjoy at the launch event.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Obamadon is Not a Dinosaur

This illustration of Hell Creek fauna at the end of the Cretaceous is the work of Carl Buell [FB]. The big bad in the foreground chasing baby edmontosaurs is Palaeosaniwa. The little blue fellow is a polyglyphanodontian lizard called Obamadon. It is not a dinosaur.

The large fellows in the distance, who you might rightly guess to be Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops? Those are dinosaurs. Palaeosaniwa's breakfast? Those little green dumplings are dinosaurs. Obamadon, I'm sorry to report, is not. A page or two of web search results may lead you to believe it may be a dinosaur, but it is not a dinosaur.

Buell's artwork accompanies press about new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences studying the effect of the end-Cretaceous mass extinction on squamates - lizards and snakes - from Nick Longrich, Bhart-Anjan S. Bhullarb, and Jacques A. Gauthiera. They find that while the exact cause or causes of the extinction are still debated, a devastating and sudden loss in squamate diversity at the K-Pg boundary supports the Chicxulub impact hypothesis. While squamates have generally been seen as coming through the extinction relatively unscathed, Longrich and team found that less than a quarter of species persisted, and these were small and geographically widespread. Today's great diversity of squamate life took tens of millions of years to rise from the catastrophe. Longrich writes in his conclusion that "...the squamate fossil record provides a striking example of how mass extinction works as a form of creative destruction, and shows how the origins of the modern biota can be understood only in light of catastrophes occurring in deep time."

This paper erects a number of new squamate species, one of which is Obamadon. However, being a Cretaceous species does not grant our plucky little lizard membership in the esteemed ranks of the dinosaurs. Still a squamate, despite what headline writers, journalists slumming it in the science beat, and giddy political columnists might have you believe.

Distinguishing this extinct lizard from dinosaurs is just too much hassle when you've got a puff piece to crank out, or a witty analogy about the fiscal cliff and the K-Pg extinction to bestow upon your delighted readers.

Yes, Virginia, there is an Obamadon. But it's not a dinosaur.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Paleoartistic Kaleidoscope of All Yesterdays

John Conway's Allosaurus and Camptosaurus, from the new book All Yesterdays.

This has been a wonderful year for Mesozoic publishing ventures. Paleontology enthusiasts are being treated to Dinosaur Art, the new edition of The Complete Dinosaur, the recently-published Field Guide of Mesozoic Birds by Matt Martyniuk, and of course, the collaboration between Darren Naish, John Conway, and C.M. Kosemen, All Yesterdays, featuring a meaty introduction from Naish and vital support from skeletal diagram master Scott Hartman. The team, web veterans all, have done a fine job of spreading the word, and reviews have sprung up across the web. It is available in ebook and print editions.

We've begun covering the book here, thanks to Marc and Niroot's attendance of last week's book launch event, and there is so much meat on this bone that we're not limiting ourselves to a single review. I'll kick things off by putting the book in context based on my personal experience. I plan on also writing from my perspective as an illustrator, though one who does not present my subjects in anything resembling a technical light. That will be a post for another day.

Reviews that have hit the web so far have been overwhelmingly positive, with notable pieces by Mark Witton, Emily Willoughby, Andrea Cau, Mike Taylor, and Brian Switek.

For readers unfamiliar with All Yesterdays, here's the skinny: in the face of the woeful lack of material the fossil record preserves, the intriguing glimpses into integument we've gained since the '80s, and the incredible diversity of soft tissue adornments and behaviors among extant animals, many of our artistic reconstructions of prehistoric animals may be far too conservative. Half of the book is dedicated to Conway and Kosemen's evidence-based speculations of Mesozoic fauna, with a second half devoted to showing what reconstructions of extant animals might look like if some future paleoartist took a too-conservative, skeleton-only approach.

Instead of being presented as a bold declaration of war on the establishment, Conway, Kosemen, and Naish see the book as rising out of a movement in paleontological illustration which has been building for a while (a point also made by Andrea Cau in his post linked above). This "All Yesterdays movement" (which I'll abbreviate AYM here) may not be the sole creation of these authors, but I think it's fair to say they they are its most important voices, if only for having the nerve to put the ideas to print (and e-print). To fully understand AYM, All Yesterdays is essential reading.

When I took part in the ScienceOnline 2011 panel discussion on science-art, I used Brian Engh's Sauroposeidon as an example of what has become the AYM. Sharing a work-in-progress of an illustration of the sauropod bearing a speculative display sac on its neck, with SV-POW blogger and sauropod expert Dr. Matt Wedel, Engh received this advice:
I think it rocks. But not nearly enough. Look up some pictures of prairie chickens, hooded seals, singing frogs, and everything else with inflatable display sacs. They don’t look like they just swallowed a stick of Mentos–they look like freeze-frames from half a millisecond after the the detonation of that bomb they swallowed. Real display sacs are so big and so colorful that no other animal could possibly mistake them for anything else. Therefore if you want to draw speculative display sacs they must be so big and colorful that none of the people who see the piece could possibly mistake them for anything else.
For Engh, this was a green light; he writes of having had a nagging feeling before consulting with Dr. Wedel.
When I look at illustrations of dinosaurs, even very technically good ones, I’m often left with the uneasy feeling that it just doesn’t ‘feel’ like a real animal. Its as if only two simple layers have been added to the still-recognizable skeleton – while living vertebrates often look nothing like their skeletons...
It's no secret that I am a devout admirer of Conway's work, and am thrilled to now have it in two different volumes - in print with Dinosaur Art, and the Kindle version of All Yesterdays. I'm also happy to have Kosemen's work; the two artists compliment each other by being as daring stylistically as they are in their anatomy. If only as a way to have this art available as a conversation piece, it would warrant a recommendation. It's the richness of the explanatory text which couches the restorations which makes it essential, for here the speculation is put into context, and there will likely be new information to even knowledgable readers; I was pleasantly surprised to learn about the shoulder joints and humeri of abelisaurs such as Carnotaurus, which allowed for much more range of motion than was possible in most large theropods. Both Conway and Kosemen take advantage of this to depict Carnotaurus in unique display postures. In other places, they write about the bizarre behaviors witnessed in extant animals, and the possibilities they may open up in dinosaurs, perhaps most outrageously in a pair of Morrison herbivores.

C.M. Kosemen's randy Stegosaurus and rather alarmed Haplocanthosaurus.

A more speculative approach to paleoart is a precarious enterprise, and All Yesterdays makes clear that speculation should be grounded in what has been observed in the natural world. As Naish writes in his introduction, "Science and speculation are happy bedfellows, so long as we remain grounded in our speculations, and so long as we state the core evidence we have in the first place." I see no reason to fear such speculation. Granted, it has the ability to drive us up the wall; just see the reaction to any given televised documentary. But one of the promising possibilities AYM presents is what could happen if other media truly embrace the approach. Imagine a documentary which does not present paleontological theory in narratives, as in Walking With Dinosaurs or its spin-offs. Instead, it could present a whole set of hypotheses and reconstructions, flipping the traditional script of talking heads serving the needs of narrative. Instead, narrative and reconstructions would demonstrate the living process of paleontological science, multiple hypotheses presented with their strengths and weaknesses in kaleidoscopic variety. Viewers would see science being done instead of stories which grant certain hypotheses, some tenuously supported in the paleontological community, the weight of fact.

I see AYM as an essentially modern phenomenon. Facilitating contact between illustrators, researchers, writers, and paleontologists around the world, the web has allowed a call-and-response culture in which one artist, blogger, or scientist can propose something and set off a chain of works and writings inspired by it; browsing work on the paleo-hotbed of deviantArt reveals a culture of constructive criticism and an iterative approach to reconstruction. An artist need not be isolated in his or her studio, referring only to literature and a limited number of advisors; conversations in cyberspace and the mutability of digital artistic processes allow for flexibility and fearlessness. All Yesterdays and the global constellation of artists who make up AYM have taken a bold step forward. It is a true paradigm shift. It will leave plenty of practitioners cold, as paradigm shifts must. But count me among those thrilled to live during this era of paleontological restoration, excited by the possibilities and eager for the conversation to continue.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Defending Velociraptor

Velociraptor maquette from the exhibition Les Géants du Jurassique. Photo by Dominique Pipet.

In my interview with Chris Masnaghetti this week, I shared his wonderful Velociraptor infographic. He bemoaned the animal's status in pop culture, calling it the "most misinterpreted dinosaur ever," putting heavy blame on Jurassic Park. Seems right to me: those scaly beasties have become the theropod equivalent of Brontosaurus: a placeholder for dinosaurkind in general, whether or not they represent current paleontological thinking. Combine a catchy name with innumerable pop culture references, and you've got a dinosaur ambassador to the public that more often than not serves to obscure the wonders of paleontology as it is actually practiced.

The web is vast, and while some of us are brave and persistent enough to try to kill all the "unsinkable rubber ducks" of paleontological myths that get repeated in comment thread arguments ad nauseum, we'll never root them all out. There will always be people who believe that Triceratops is doomed, that the invalid status of Brontosaurus is pure scientific bullying, and perhaps most pernicious of all, that feathers on Mesozoic non-avian dinosaurs are like, totes lame.

Example: this recent Tumblr post from someone who just finished a college course on dinosaur paleontology:
i think the most important thing i’ll take away from my dinosaur class (other than pterodactyls are not actually dinosaurs and my entire life has been a lie) is that velociraptors were covered in feathers. and dog-sized. but mostly
covered in feathers
can you imagine that shit in jurassic park??
What followed was an unattributed image of a feathered Velociraptor sculpture.

I reblogged the post, adding the comment, "Funny how no one maligns wolverines by saying they could just 'kick them away.' Small does not equal harmless!"

You've got to feel sorry for either the student for having a teacher who failed to impart a greater level of appreciation for paleontology; or for the teacher for having such a closed-minded student. Knee-jerk dismissal of feathered dinosaurs is nothing new. Nor is the widespread misunderstanding of all dinosaurs as little more than bloodthirsty Kaiju monsters. Both are rubber ducks we'll probably always be annoyed by.

My first point in writing this post, beyond ragging on another feather-hater, is that more strongly than ever, I think that what we really need is a big, stupid, pulpy piece of entertainment that makes feathered dinosaurs scary and cool. Televised documentaries won't do it. It doesn't have to be perfectly accurate, but if it can at least achieve a rough approximation of what dinosaurs could have looked like - combining the "All Yesterdays" approach with pulp fiction, perhaps - public opinion could well swing our way. Especially as the Dinosaur Train generation grows up.

Ferocity and general badassness will drive public popularity of dinosaurs, but my second point is that after writing my "wolverine" rebuttal, I realized I'd inadvertently fallen into a similar trap as the original poster. My defense of a more accurate Velociraptor relied on the animal being vicious. Viciousness is certainly a trait of some animals, but when it's focused on as a particular special or admirable trait, it reduces animals to mere robotic killing machines (see any sensationalized story about shark attacks). Velociraptor is super cool, even if in life it was as docile as Nummymuffincoocolbutter. I formally apologize for this grievous error. Now I'm going to find a wolverine to cuddle.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

All Yesterdays: Appendix

Following on from Marc's reliably sterling report of the 'Live Spectacular' itself, this post is an appendix indeed in that it serves no real purpose whatever, but is merely my own brief, insubstantial reflection on the event. However, it does illustrate very well the level of vacuity which my contributions henceforth will consist of. You have fair warning.

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the talk given by Darren Naish, John Conway, and C. M. Kosemen; and the book signing which followed. I think Marc will agree that it was worth every travel hiccup we encountered during the journey there and back (of course they had to occur that evening). I must confess I was preparing to feel slightly intimidated, but I was very happy to have had all such feelings dispelled, even in the presence of all the authors and a number of other palaeo-luminaries such as Dave Hone, Mark Witton, Luis Rey and Robert Nicholls (does this constitute grotesque name-dropping?).

Marc queues for the book signing.

In conversation with Dave Hone. I think it is just as well my hair obscures my expression at this moment. 

My copy of All Yesterdays, with the authors' drawings and signatures.

For my own part not only as a geek but as an 'improper' palaeo artist (or 'palaeontographer' out of courtesy to Mr. Conway), even though I understood the premise of the talk prior to the event, I still found it highly illuminating. And even as I had no complacency regarding my own approaches to dinosaur restoration, I nevertheless came away with a great deal of food for thought. Perhaps I may share some of these in greater depth another time.

By the by, the hug which John Conway bestowed upon me, as seen in Marc's post, was specifically requested by fellow artist and blog reader, Tiffany Turrill. David Orr then supplemented the request with a demand. The things the Chasmosaurs team would do for our readers.

My sincerest thanks to the authors and everyone else involved for the event, and to David Orr too for sanctioning our attendance and report. And to make sure that the uselessness of this appendix is thorough, I close with a silly drawing inspired by the spirit of All Yesterdays: A Shantungosaurus adorned with a huge dewlap (reminiscent of Brahmin cattle) perched atop a precipitous rock to reach a tiny morsel of leaves.