Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Who would sit at paleontology's last supper?

Image by Nick Farrantello, via Rational Crank.

This parody image has been making the rounds lately. It's the work of Nick Farrantello, who posted it on his blog Rational Crank. On Facebook, I jokingly asked where Dr. Thomas Holtz was. Of course, he didn't think he deserved a spot, but let's face it: we'd like to see some paleontologists at the table. So let's put it up for debate: what paleontologists would we set at a Paleontology Last Supper? This needn't be limited to dinosaur paleontology, or even vertebrate paleontology. We've got thirteen spots to fill with the people who have given us the most insight into the lost worlds of the past. Who should sit at them?

Monday, January 30, 2012

Reminder: ART Evolved Gallery Deadline

Just a super-fast reminder that ART Evolved returns with a new gallery for February. The theme this time around is a real winner: Feathered Dinosaurs. There's sure to be a bumper crop of good work to share, so even if you're not the dinosaur-drawing type, keep your eyes peeled for the gallery's posting.

Artists, submit your work to artevolved(at)gmail(dot)com by February 1 for inclusion.

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Yet More Dinosaurs!

Today we'll be revisiting the wonderful early '90s world of Dinosaurs! magazine (do check out my first and second posts on it if you haven't already - for background if nothing else). Once again, I have primarily opted for the quirky and/or historically interesting, and it's for the latter reason I present...a FEATHERED DROMAEOSAUR!?!

Unsurprisingly, this (at the time) startling image appeared in the penultimate issue of the magazine (103) in 1995. Sculpted by Ulrich Zeidler and Susanne Henssen, this model was inspired by a Greg Paul illustration that outrageously depicted Velociraptor with feathers, instead of the super-cool Jurassic Park version that was obviously way cooler and better and badass and this just looks like a chicken and and *throws toys out of pram*.

Of course, this Velociraptor looks decidedly under-feathered these days, lacking the 'wings' that it should possess. Back in 1995, however, this model blew my mind. I wasn't persuaded by the idea of feathered dromaeosaurs back then (being a Jurassic Park-loving child and all), but I thought its highly realistic appearance was very cool. And I still do. It's a remarkable and prescient achievement for the time.

At the end of the article, the anonymous author commented
"If only we could go back in time! Then we could see if Velociraptor were a feathery beast like this model, or the scaly brute of Jurassic Park."
Fortunately there was no need for time travel in the end (or indeed cloning based on DNA fragments). And that's why palaeontology is awesome.

Such was the nature of Dinosaurs! magazine that, in the same issue as the wonderful Zeidler/Henssen model appeared, we were also treated to the following abomination.

Shudder. This giant-headed freak was lucky to avoid the Terrible '90s Dromaeosaur Face-Off...

Returning to art that was ahead of its time, Dinosaurs! had to be one of the first publications anywhere to feature restorations of the strange crested theropod Cryolophosaurus. Formally described in 1994, Dinosaurs! first featured an illustration of it that very same year.

It might only be a head, but you can't fault their rapid response to a new discovery - surely beyond the call of duty for a kids' magazine. Equally, while the crest may be a little off, the shape of the head is close to more modern restorations as opposed to the 'allosaur' look that prevailed for a while. The illustration used when the animal was profiled (in issue 101 (1995)) does depict a more allosaur-like head, but also - remarkably - correctly-orientated forelimbs, rather than the 'bunny hands' look that was still prevalent at the time. While this magazine's art might have been of a wildly varying standard, the creator of this piece - James Robins - certainly knew what he was doing. Only the scale diagram brings the strangeness on this page.

Regular readers will remember my featuring a book entitled If Dinosaurs Were Alive Today last year, which was a glorious cavalcade of Photoshop failures featuring ugly, ugly dinosaurs (and plesiosaurs, and pterosaurs). In its later issues, Dinosaurs! magazine had a pop at very similar 'what if' themes, but - in an age before photo manipulation became easy and cheap - actually hired illustrators to produce images based on their unlikely scenarios, and therefore did a much better job. In 1994.

Here, for example, is an illustration from an article looking at how nonavian dinosaurs might be domesticated and put to work if they lived with us today, in which a policeman (probably from the Met) is struggling to prevent a slavering Deinonychus from brutally murdering a 1980s-style genero-crim. Something worth noting: at the end of this article, the author admits that it's actually incredibly unlikely that a nonavian dinosaur would have sufficient brainpower to be trained like this, thereby essentially admiting that the whole thing's an excuse to print awesome illustrations of policemen restraining their pet raptors.

Speaking of dinosaurs as pets, Dinosaurs! tried that one too. Here we see a girl playing with her 'cuddly' Compsognathus, while one of them raids the goldfish bowl.

In its 92nd issue, Dinosaurs! posed an important question - could (nonavian) dinosaurs survive today? This resulted in the only illustration I've ever seen of a giant tyrannosaur facing off against a rhinoceros. I only wish they'd drawn it cowardly running away as described in the text.

Previously, I mentioned that on one occasion 'Dr David Norman of Cambridge University' (for it was he) answered a rather amusing question in his 'Ask the Expert' column - namely, who the victor would be in a fight between Tyrannosaurus and Smilodon. Happily, I've found the issue in which it appeared.

I also found the issue in which he said this:

...Well, neither did a lot of people in 1994.

And finally (until next time), here's a Tylosaurus with a good ol' sea monster fin lunging at some pterosaurs. Enjoy.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

My letter to the State Senators of Indiana

Today, I have emailed every State Senator in Indiana, including my own Senator Vi Simpson, a democrat serving us in Bloomington. On Monday, SB 89 will be on the agenda. Here is what I wrote.

As a concerned, life-long citizen of Indiana, I am driven to write to you today to express my opposition to SB 89, which provides "that the governing body of a school corporation may require the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science, within the school corporation."

One of the defining qualities of our country is the separation of church and state. The founding of the United States of America was largely rooted in the intellectual revolution of the Enlightenment; modern science is as well. When properly put to use, our government and science both provide a common ground from which people with dramatically different beliefs can coexist, participate in a common society, and communicate effectively for the betterment of all.

This is a precious thing. It is threatened by SB 89. We gain our values from the traditions we were raised in, and those we've explored as we've grown. Living in a country like the United States allows this flexibility. We can test our ideas against those of our fellow citizens. Bills like this are often couched in language which espouses "freedom of choice." And I do believe that we all are free to choose what we believe. But we also have a duty to change our minds in the face of new evidence.

The evidence is firmly in favor, for example, of evolution as a means of explaining the incredible diversity of life on Earth (a fine starting point for this is provided by the National Center for Science Education's evolution page located at http://ncse.com/evolution). The vast majority of the scientific community recognizes this, though it will always be possible to find a minority who disagree, for whatever their reasons. These reasons needn't be because of religious dogma; it's well beyond the ability of scientists to be experts in all fields of science. Of course, SB 89 pertains to the "origin of life," which is quite a different topic than evolution. It is an open question in science. But it is not one that is beyond its purview, and as knowledge progresses, I for one think it is likely that a purely natural theory of abiogenesis, as strongly supported as evolution, will be reached in my lifetime. To invoke a supernatural creator, as creationism, creation "science," and intelligent design do is the opposite of science. It is to quit in the face of a difficult challenge. It is, in my opinion, un-American.

The traditions of the religions of the world, the multitude of creation stories devised by humans, is a fascinating topic worthy of exploration in an educational setting, though I doubt it's one for the K-12 curriculum. But as the espousing of one religion's views is far beyond the purview of the United States government, no creation stories belong in our classrooms as a counterpoint to scientific hypotheses on the origin of life. I believe that allowing the teaching of material that is firmly religious in nature in our schools erodes the integrity of our country, and I cannot stay silent when this is proposed for the state I'm proud to call my home, a state built by fields of science including biology, chemistry, geology, and physics which have provided the knowledge to power its industries.

Rectangular web graphic

I appreciate your patience as I take this little detour into the broader topic of science education. And I sincerely thank everyone who has been so kind as to link to our posts and spread the word otherwise. Feel free to distribute this as you wish as well, and of course any fellow Hoosiers can use my set of graphics opposing SB 89, shared via Flickr. For more, also check out Reba Boyd Wooden's blog post for the Center of Inquiry for Indiana.

Friday, January 27, 2012

A bit of levity


A child's drawing of Chasmosaurus, shred on flicker by Kurt Best. Love the description: "Chasmosaurus was a rhinocerosish dinosaur."

Mesozoic Miscellany 50

I feel like I've been running at waaaaaay too many revolutions per minute for the last week, so what better way to relax a bit than to share some of the excellent work my fellow dinosaur bloggers have been doing? Maybe indulge in a bit of inspiring dinosaur art while we're at it? The fiftieth edition of our occasional roundup series is here, so pour the tea, light the stogies, put on a bit of Kenny G, and slip into your Forever Lazy. It's chill time.

The prize for coolest paleo story since the last coolest paleo story has to go to the discovery of a Massospondylus nesting site in Africa. In a long in the works paper released online prior to publication by PNAS, a team from the Royal Ontario Museum has described discovery. It's a real one-two punch for the sauropodomorphs after Heinrich Mallison's great paper about bipedal Plateosaurus, covered recently here in a terrific post by Marc. Check out a terrific Julius Csotonyi painting from 2010 about the site at his site. Also covered by Dinosaur Tracking, Palaeoblog, and Chinleana.

Dave Hone on big-ass carnivore battles: "Who cares?"

At Green Tea and Velociraptors, Jon Tennant tackles that perpetually thorny issue: What makes a fossil species?

Stephen Fry has returned to the Mesozoic, lending his vocal talents to a new iPad dinosaur Encyclopedia. Switek has the skinny at Dinosaur Tracking.

I love the stuff Raven Amos has been doing, and yesterday she shared a wonderful Pachyrhinosaurus with booty-quills.

For the serious sauropod nerds out there, Mike Taylor has a puzzler for you: Can you identify these sauropod cervical vertabrae?

Terrific Rubeosaurus by Andrey Atuchin. Go look!

Scott Hartman has shared his thoughts on Eoraptor, with a new skeletal diagram to book. Check it out at the Skeletal Drawing blog.

I was unable to join the good folks at ScienceOnline in North Carolina this year, but Andy Farke was, and he's got some cogent thoughts on the whole affair. Check out his summary thoughts at this post at The Open Source Paleontologist, which includes links to his daily reports.

Newt Gingrich, armchair paleontologist. At DinoGoss, Matt Martyniuk shares his perspective on a debate between Jack Horner and Gingrich, on the topic of whether T. rex was a scavenger.

DeviantArt remains an excellent source of dinosaur art, and a prime example of just how freaking lucky we are to live at this moment in time, when access to the science of paleontology is better than ever and the means to share one's artwork is so readily available. My newest discovery on DeviantArt is Julio Lacerda (H/T to Albertonykus for the introduction), whose portrait of a Gorgosaurus pair in the snow I shared on Twitter this week. Once again, superlatives fail me.

Illustration by Julio Lacerda, via DeviantArt.

I'm still overwhelmed by the amount of artists on DeviantArt, and find the interface less than optimal, so please don't hesitate to share your own favorite artists in the comments, so I can add them to my watch list.

Finally, one last bit of shameless self-promotion: I've been adding items to my Cafepress shop this week, as you may have seen in my Wednesday post. Besides the LITC design, I've added a line of "I Left My Heart in (geological period)" t-shirts. Four geological periods are represented, with more to come. If you do happen to buy one of my shirts, send me a photo of yourself wearing it and I'll post it here! It just so happens that I've been cranking out dinosaur themed designs and Jennie and I have been trying to get some traction with our Etsy shop, so you can expect more cool stuff to be shared here in the coming months.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Indiana's new state flag

UPDATED! Tweaked my first design, added a second.

UPDATED AGAIN! Using this as a landing page for my efforts to spread the word, so added context.

I've designed two posters to help fight creationism in Indiana schools, after our state senate's "Committee on Education and Career Development" voted to let Senate Bill 89 through (Marc and I have already posted twice about the issue). Forgive the intrusion of this issue here. It's much broader in scope than our usual subject matter here, but I think I speak for both Marc and myself when I say that the reason we write about dinosaurs is that we're passionate about science, reason, and the educated appreciation of nature. So not to use this platform would be wrong. If this doesn't interest you, feel free to disregard it; we'll not be turning this into an Evolution Vs. Creationism blog, and all things saurian will continue to rule here. Anyhow.

The first poster is a play on our state flag - in case you're not familiar with it, there's supposed to be a flame on that torch.

Indiana's Alternate Flag

The second is a cheeky travel poster. I flipped the state upside down. How clever!

Ignorant Indiana Poster - Final Version
These are web versions, but I've got them ready to go at 300dpi, 11" x 17" in TIF or PSD. Available at request. Please share to your heart's content.

I feel really crummy that this has gotten this far. I've been so swamped with school, work, and family life that I haven't really stayed abreast of the issue, except to read NCSE's updates and RT them. I doubt I have the eloquence or poise to make a convincing argument to any elected official. Or a fellow citizen, for that matter. But luckily it's not all in my hands. NCSE reports that these fine people have spoken up for our childrens' education:
John Staver, professor of chemistry and science education at Purdue University; Chuck Little, executive director of the Indiana Urban Schools Association; David Sklar, the Director of Government Relations for the Jewish Community Relations Council; the Reverend Charles Allen, a chaplain for Grace Unlimited, a campus ministry in the Indianapolis area; and Reba Boyd Wooden, executive director of the Indiana Center for Inquiry.

I admit to a feeling of despair that their words didn't persuade the seven Republicans and one Democrat who voted this through the so-called "Committee on Education and Career Development" in the State Senate.

But that's as far as it's going. SCIENCE THROWDOWN. For more, please do keep up with the National Center for Science Education, who does excellent work to protect our intellectual future.

Hey, Indiana - REALLY?

David's already made his anger quite clear, but I wanted a word too, and it wouldn't fit in a comment I'm afraid...

This is a sad day, and I really hope this rapidly evolving religious fundamentalist contagion doesn't spread to other states (see what I did there?), and doesn't pass in the state senate. Perhaps the worst thing about creationism is that, when compared with reality, it's just so bloody boring. Apart from the fact that the notion of a 'divine creator' raises more questions than it answers (and renders invalid pretty much all science ever), the real truth about the history of life on Earth - its constant struggles, the ever-spiralling complexity from simple forms, the beauty of evolution through deep time - is far more glorious than some ancient myth.

Emu skeleton. By Sklmsta, via Wikipedia.

In case you haven't noticed, this blog is about dinosaurs, and they are the perfect ambassadors for the teaching of the truth of evolution - through their pop culture popularity and their living descendants. Avian dinosaurs, with their huge suite of inherited theropod features, and a whole other load of glorious derived adaptations, are one of the most fantastic and evocative examples of evolution over millions of years. Next to that, 'God did it' just doesn't cut it, I'm afraid.

Of course, as a Britisher, I could have a good snooty chuckle and point out how our education secretary recently outlawed the teaching of creationism in science classes in the new-fangled 'free schools'. However, I won't for various reasons - not only because I would sound like a dick, but because we have an established church and a bleedin' monarchy ferchrissakes, so we don't really have a leg to stand on when it comes to rationality and enlightenment and all that noise.

In fact, I've always admired the United States for lacking those things, and for its separation of church and state, enshrined in the constitution. Remember this, and don't let them get away with it. For as David says, "creationism is bullshit".

Indiana's new state motto

I've got a new state motto for the good ol' Hoosier state, which I've called home since I was born.

Seems about right. Seriously.

I am an Indiana citizen, and Creationism is bullshit.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

I left my heart in the Jurassic!

Shameless capitalism in t-minus 3... 2... 1...

I just uploaded a new line of paleontology tees to my on-line shop, so you can head over there to check 'em out. At the moment, I just have them in white, but I'll be adding designs for black shirts really soon. I pretty much just designed shirts that I'd like to wear, proclaiming my desperate and irrational desire to travel to an ancient era of Earth's history. Here's the (so far, only) Mesozoic representative, based on a Josef Smit illustration of Stegosaurus.

I left my heart in the Jurassic

There's a mastodon, dimetrodon, and trilobite available as well. Sorry to interrupt your blog reading with this advertisement. Now back to regular scheduled programming.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Brontosaurus by Rourke

Well, look who's stomping through our house again, dragging with it heavy baggage of paleontological history, taxonomic confusion, and philosophical hoo-ha. It's ol' Brontosaurus, who in 1981 received the Rourke Publishing treatment in a storybook written by Angela Sheehan and illustrated by Colin Newman. Mr. Newman unfortunately joins the majority of Vintage Dinosaur Art subjects in being fairly obscure; searches are complicated by a contemporary artist of the same name. A Goodreads listing of Newman's publishing credits shows him to have been busy in his day, favoring wildlife titles.


Colin Newman's illustrations are far removed from those of Bernard Long, whose Rourke Iguanodon work was featured here a couple weeks ago. Newman's work is less dynamic, moodier in color, and he seems to prefer wide views that place the titular sauropod within Jurassic panoramas. It would translate nicely to a pop-up book.



As is generally the case for Rourke titles, the flora and fauna are admirably accurate for their time period, in this case the famed Late Jurassic Morrison of North America. You may have heard dim rumors of the controversy surrounding Brontosaurus; this book was published several years before the name's taxonomic obsolecence was popularized by the US Postal Service's use of it on a stamp (a contemporaneous essay on the flap is the cornerstone of Stephen Jay Gould's collection Bully for Brontosaurus). Yes, the head of Camarasaurus had been placed on the original, headless specimen of "Brontosaurus" excelsus, but the real sticker was that eighty years before the publication of today's title, Elmer Riggs of the Field Museum had sunk the animal into the genus Apatosaurus. The public was simply slow to be informed and ultimately unwilling or unable to let go of Brontosaurus. The mistaken head issue seems to have caught on as a preferred explanation for the nomenclatural issue; I believed it up until recently. I imagine this has to do with the public's love of scientific schadenfreude. "Bumbling scientists can't even get the right head on the animal, and that means I have to stop using Brontosaurus? Bah!"


As for the dinosaurs themselves, the artwork is inspired much more by Zallinger, Knight, and Burian than the work of the early Dinosaur Renaissance. Take the title off of the cover, and it would be difficult to correctly ID the sauropod. Compare it to what may be the most accessible and quick primer on Apatosaurus, Matt Wedel's recent review of the Sideshow maquette at SV-POW. It would be nice to see something more accurate, but it's an awful lot to ask of a children's book that came out just as the dinosaur dark ages were mercifully being put to death.


As for the story, well, there are only so many ways a plot for a wildlife book can go that avoid egregious anthropomorphism. Like other Rourke books, the story of Brontosaurus is pretty simple, working paleontological knowledge into a basic story structure. In this case, there's a drought, the dinosaurs have a tough time, blood is shed, the rains come, and the future welfare of the Brontosaurus is insured by the appearance of a glorious rainbow. We all love a happy ending. I wonder how many Brontosaurus die-hards still hope for a happy ending of their story, either by an over turning of Riggs' work or some completely left-field pronouncement of the nomenclatural powers that be? Gould argued for a "common sense" approach to nomenclature in Bully, one that avoids both anarchy and overly strict interpretations of the rules, but Brontosaurus has been so long dead that to bring it back would create a thunder lizard sized mess in the literature. Best to let it lie, a linguistic fossil in its own right.


Previous Rourke books featured here:
Iguanodon (Bernard Long)
Triceratops (John Francis)
Pteranodon (Doreen Edwards)
Allosaurus (Doreen Edwards)

Friday, January 20, 2012

Plateosaurus didn't gallop

Recently, I finally read a paper by Heinrich Mallison entitled 'The digital Plateosaurus II: an assessment of the range of motion of the limbs and vertebral column and of previous reconstructions using a digital skeletal mount'. Yes, it's from 2010, and I should hang my head in shame for not having read it before etc. etc. But bear with me. Reading Heinrich's paper, I was reminded of an e-mail sent to us some time back by Jay Epperhart, one that I referenced in a previous post. As a reminder, it read:
"So occasionally you will make a quip along the line of 'can you believe they ['80s and '90s authors/artists] thought dromaeosaurid theropods had non-feathered pronated hands *snicker*" and I'm like 'wait, what?!' since that it what my 10-year-old self memorized."
It's all about preconceptions, you see. In case you haven't read it (in which case, shame on you, too!), in 'The digital Plateosaurus II', Mallison - utilising a painstakingly-created digital Plateosaurus skeleton - looked at (perhaps predictably, given the title) the possible range of motion of Plateosaurus' spine and limbs, and the implications for a range of reconstructions.

Photo of SMNS wrong-o-mount by Ra'ike, via Wikipedia.

In the past, Plateosaurus was often presumed to be a quadruped - or at least, capable of switching between quadrupedalism and bipedalism, but tending towards the former. Looking at it, it's quite easy to see why - with its long neck and reasonably robust forelimbs, it looks a little front heavy. Furthermore, the more derived sauropodomorphs - the sauropods - were all resolutely quadrupedal, and so it made sense for the lineage to be heading in that direction, evolutionarily speaking. In addition, trackway evidence appeared to show 'prosauropods' walking on all fours.

However, Mallison discovered that far from being a habitual quadruped, Plateosaurus was not even able to rotate its forearm so that the palms of its hands faced the ground (pronation) - in fact, the range of motion was comparable with that of the short-armed allosauroid Acrocanthosaurus. In other words, Plateosaurus was a biped whether it liked it or not.

In fact, Mallison's work had independently confirmed the conclusions of an earlier study, by Matthew Bonnan and Phil Senter, in 2007 ('Were the basal sauropodomorph dinosaurs Plateosaurus and Massospondylus habitual quadrupeds?'). Bonnan and Senter also found Plateosaurus to be an obligate biped, in spite of the great number of quadrupedal Plateosaurus reconstructions that had popped up in the many decades since the animal's discovery.

Plateosaurus gracilis correctly restored as a biped, by Nobu Tamura via Wikipedia.
Note that this species has sometimes been placed in its own genus, Sellosaurus -
Mallison's paper deals only with P. engelhardti.

In his study, Mallison found that some of said reconstructions didn't just snap the forelimbs into an impossible position, but warped much of the rest of the body as well. A quadrupedal mount in the Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Stuttgart (SMNS) is of sufficient sprawling-limbed wrongness that, if the animal were alive "compressive forces on the forelimbs would shear the humerus from the glenoid" (p. 449). Mallison goes on to comment that
"The...overall proportions and limb positions are in direct contradiction to the adaptations to cursoriality visible in Plateosaurus, and require significant disarticulation in several parts of the skeleton."
Mallison ultimately attributes such mistakes to the need for the reconstruction to fit a preconceived notion that Plateosaurus was highly reptilian and lizard-like, with sprawling limbs and a wide ribcage.

In addition, quadrupedal reconstructions by Gregory S Paul were found to feature very significant inaccuracies, and this was especially true of a muscular reconstruction that depicted Plateosaurus in a galloping pose (if you have the 2010 Field Guide it is on page 162). The errors - including limbs in impossible positions and huge gaps in the skeleton - were inconsistent with a reliance on data provided by Friedrich von Huene (Paul had not examined the fossils). Rather, Mallison claimed that
"...the errors seem to result from a preconceived notion that prosauropods were quadrupedal, that their manual digits I were raised off the ground during locomotion...and a desire to depict the animal in as dynamic a pose as possible." (p. 455)
(An important note before I continue: I in no way wish to join in what seems like a bit of a trend for Greg Paul-bashing after his comments pertaining to copyright and skeletals. It just happens to be Paul's work that is described in this way in Mallison's paper.)

How is this relevant to Jay Epperhart's comments about dromaeosaurs? Well, just like Plateosaurus, reconstructions of these animals were long influenced by preconceived notions, leading to the reconstructions we all remember from the '90s that often flew in the face of anatomical evidence and common sense. In fact, people's notions of what these animals looked like continue to be influenced by preconceptions based on what said people think they should look like.

Pronated theropod forearms would be an obvious reference point here. They still appear regularly in art - often commercial art - but are always based on someone's preconceived notion of how a theropod should look. The same is true of scaly or near-bald dromaeosaurs; hopefully I needn't go over the evidence yet again as to why it's far, far more likely that any given dromaeosaur was feathered than not. Those who dream of scaly Deinonychus often seem to resort to the argument that 'it looks like a chicken' when (accurately) depicted with feathers - as if looking like a plucked chicken is less absurd. And let's be quite honest - an anatomically correct, naked dromaeosaur will inevitably look like it's been prepared for the dinner table.

In truth, I think it's down to the '10 year old self' coming through with preconceived notions, borne of nostalgia and a belief in what a dinosaur should look like, contrary to the evidence. But it's not the 1990s anymore, Plateosaurus didn't gallop, and Deinonychus had feathers.

And if you're angry at me now, please placate yourself with this photo of me being a dork (also featuring Plateosaurus).

Photo by Nicole Heins.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

SOPA Sauropod sez...


Monday, January 16, 2012

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaur Time revisited

Experiencing feelings of déjà vu? It's quite all right - you're getting on a bit now, and your delicate mind isn't quite what it was. But apart from that, David's looked at this book before - all the way back in December 2009. Unfortunately, owning a fragile hardback edition prevented him from scanning anywhere near as many pages as he wanted to. Good thing, then, that I have come into possession of a similarly historical paperback edition from 1974. Check out Mr Orr's original post if you haven't already, and then join me for more from this intriguing book!

Peggy Parish and Arnold Lobel were (and maybe still are, posthumously) apparently big names in the world of children's books in the USA - David described them as "giants" in his post. However, I hadn't heard of them before acquiring this book. I should probably feel ashamed, but on the other hand I have a feeling that Parish and Lobel might not have made so much of a splash over here - I can reassure you that I did read a lot of books as a child. In any case, this is a book clearly aimed at very young children who are just starting to read, and both that simple text and Lobel's stylised saurian renditions are very charming.

While stylised and a little fanciful, Lobel's dinosaurs still resemble the animals in question and often appear to draw from more 'serious' well-known palaeoart of the time. Zallinger and Burian appear to be major sources of inspiration. The Stegosaurus, Diplodocus and Ankylosaurus (with its light brown colour) in particular are reminiscent of illustrations by Zallinger appearing in Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals.

Where the inspiration for this bronto (below) came from, however, is harder to ascertain - presuming Lobel didn't just draw it from his imagination. Although enormously rotund, it at least doesn't suffer the indignity imposed upon Brachiosaurus...

...which is described, rather bluntly, as "fat". Not just fat, in fact, but "too fat to run from enemies," and hence in need of the protection of water. 'Cos everyone knows that theropod dinosaurs melt upon exposure to the slightest drop of water, a bit like the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz or the rubbish aliens from Signs. Have you ever seen a bird in a thunderstorm? No? EXACTLY.

Of course, I don't blame Parish/Lobel at all for this silliness; it was standard fare at the time. Indeed, similar ideas are espoused in DaOPR, while the illustration appears to borrow from Burian.

As was traditional back then, long before the discovery of the more visually arresting Microraptor, Compsognathus is the representative for 'small dinosaurs' in general. I love the unusual composition of this illustration - the rocks simultaneously make the dinosaur seem tiny (by filling most of the space) and help draw attention to it by placing it on a 'podium'. Unusually, Compsognathus is illustrated here with four fingers. It had three in reality, but for many years was widely thought to have two (as in The Ultimate Dinosaur Book), based on an incomplete specimen.

Another interesting entry in this book, and one that seems unusual for a short kids' book, is Teratosaurus. Here the animal is presented as a theropod, as was assumed until the mid 1980s, when it was found to be a non-dinosaurian archosaur, namely a rauisuchian. The skulking theropod depicted by Lobel is reminiscent of many, many depictions of Megalosaurus, including Neave Parker's. From reading around I get the impression that Teratosaurus as painted by Peter Zallinger also looked somewhat like this, but I haven't seen that one (and so cannot verify).

Here we have the animal currently mostly known as Edmontosaurus annectens. This is a fairly standard hadrosaur for the time with Lobel's usual stylistic touches giving it a rather anthropomorphic air (although not as much as his loungin' Ornithomimus) and a very odd neck.

This is probably my favourite illustration in the whole book - and not just because it's that much bigger than the others (although that certainly helps). I think it's mostly down to exactly how pleased with itself this rather toad-like Pentaceratops looks - it's probably because he has the longest nose horn in the whole herd. The head definitely owes more to Triceratops than Pentaceratops (although the frill is too rounded for either). Incidentally, the look of this lumpen, crosshatched creature reminds me very much, for whatever reason, of illustrations from books by British children's illustrator/author team Janet and Allan Ahlberg (now there are names I remember from my childhood).

And finally...that big theropod. You know the one - coelurosaur, atrophied forelimbs but powerful, muscular hindlimbs, quite possibly the only animal alive or dead to be routinely referred to by its abbreviated scientific name among the general public. That's right... C-Casuarius!

Photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, from Wikipedia.

Only joking - it's that obscure Late Cretaceous species Tyrannosaurus rex. Lobel's given it a particularly fearsome, bloodthirsty air, with the blank eyes, slit pupils and dragged tail of a cold-blooded killer. Worthy of note is that this is the only dinosaur in the book to be depicted against a background of volcanic activity, no doubt intended to further add to the sense of fear and foreboding.

Dinosaur Time is a charming little book the likes of which we are, unfortunately, seeing fewer and fewer of now. Most kids' dinosaur books these days content themselves with illustrations that are straight knock-offs of those by more accomplished artists, or terrible CG 'reconstructions' hardly worthy of that designation. If only there was an artist out there who was somehow able to mix anatomical accuracy with whimsical charm, quirkiness and a finely detailed, 'fairytale' art style, and if only a publisher would commission said entirely hypothetical person for a dinosaur book...we can but dream...

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Today's Geological Google Doodle

The Google Doodle for today, January 11, 2012, deserves a mention here. It honors Nicolas Steno, the 17th century Danish scientist who refused to simply accept things on faith. He's a main figure in the opening chapter to Brian Switek's Written in Stone, for the very good reason that he was the man who first struck on the idea that the stone shark's teeth found all over Europe had once been the teeth of living sharks, and burial under the sea floor had eventually petrified them. He set us on the path that would lead to the science of paleontology. Very cool to see his place in the history of science given the spotlight by Google today.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Vintage Dinosaur Bots: Dinamation's Dinosaurs Alive!

All right then, hands up - who remembers these? Of course you do. You're reading Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs.

It didn't feel quite right to slot this in with the Vintage Dinosaur Art posts, so it's getting its own special entry. As you've already gathered, this book was produced to accompany the touring Dinosaurs Alive! exhibit from Dinamation Corp. In 1996, Dinosaurs Alive! came to Brighton and, of course, I wrote a review:

"Come out of busy, bustling Brighton and step one step back in time. See a Tarbosaurus leg and head. Step into an indoor Jurassic jungle and bump into a Pachycephalosaurus." (Dinosaur Footprints magazine, issue 1, September 1996. P. 5)

While Pachycephalosaurus may not have lived in the Jurassic, I was certainly enthused by the big old American robots. Sadly, my memories of that visit have all but been erased by three years of vodka abuse (known as 'university' in common parlance), so hooray for eBay! As an extra pleasant surprise, a lot of the Dinamation robots actually appear to be a lot better than I had previously very dimly remembered. So let's get the weirder ones out of the way first.

If you think it looks creepy here, just imagine encountering this monstrosity as a towering, life-size bot in a dark, dry ice-filled hall. It's like Allosaurus via a nightmarish 1980s latex beastie horror movie. It should have tendrils of gelatinous drool hanging from its maw.

Sticking with the orange-and-black theme, here's a very tiger-like early '90s Deinonychus. Dinamation had a trio of the animals snacking on their perennial favourite food, Tenontosaurus - a dinosaur rarely seen alive or dead in art without any number of dromaeosaurs hanging onto it. Interestingly, the Natural History Museum had a similar, non-Dinamation scene (with somewhat less rubbery-looking robots) installed in the early '90s - makes one wonder which came first...

Near the naked Deinonychus sits a Pteranodon that just looks....plain wrong for reasons that I can't quite put my finger on (knowing little about pterosaurs as I do). Pterosaurs can be pretty creepy anyway, but there's something particularly Chernabog about this restoration. It looks like it should be sitting up high on Notre Dame Cathedral. To make matters worse, its pterosaur fuzz has been rendered as long, whispy strands coming down from its neck. Shudder.

Never mind that, though - here are some outraged sauropods.

The biggest Dinamation Apatosaurus was apparently 'only' half size, but the company had a pretty decent go at the beast (too-thin neck aside). I've no doubt that the juveniles would look somewhat different today. Thankfully, while it seems that the brown stripey brontobots didn't get along too well, the tangerine version (below) was somewhat more serene.

This Stegosaurus is pretty cool - it looks like it only has a few, quite minor anatomical faults. Unfortunately this photo, like many in the book, is less than brilliant - thanks to the strange focus the life-size model looks like a miniature, and those odd speckly bits aren't the result of my scanner having a fit - they were actually on the original page. Shame. The Triceratops (below) is rather good too, although of course it has old-fashioned elephantine hands*, and a rather conspicuous ear opening has been placed in a strange position directly behind the eyes. Maybe they thought the skull opening immediately behind the orbit was an ear-hole. I do love the dimly-lit pine forest setting, though.

Thought I'd save the best 'til last. As I previously mentioned, a lot of the Dinamation bots depicted in these pics surprised me with how good they were - I guess I haven't been giving them enough credit in the past. While the arms are obviously wrong by modern standards, this Tyrannosaurus is generally excellent - there are robots still out there doing the rounds that aren't any better than this one. It's hard to believe that this and the terrifyingly strange Allosaurus were made by the same company - I can't help but wonder if they represent 'before' and 'after' representations of how the models changed when the company sought out advice from palaeontologists. (They may have had different people involved in their production too, of course.)

To wrap this up - it seems a real shame, seeing how good some of their robots were, that Dinamation folded amid all sorts of dodgy financial goings-on (or so sayeth the Wall Street Journal). Various vestiges of their long-lost dinobot empire can be seen all over the world, like bits of town wall sticking out of some forgotten corner of a former Roman city. I've posed next to a few while on my travels. If you've seen anything out there then I'd love to hear about it.

One last thing, actually...D'AWWWWW! And I'm sorry if this post isn't up to standard (which it probably isn't) - I've started a new job recently, and some other stuff's been going on, and I'm not quite on top of everything yet. I'll improve, promise!

 *I keep getting comments when I mention this, so I'll explain. In a lot of old palaeoart, ceratopsians were shown with elephantine 'paws' for hands. In fact, the digits were distinct and the hands were turned quite strongly outward (so that the palms faced in). This was actually a rather primitive condition for large, quadrupedal dinosaurs.