Monday, October 21, 2013

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Archosauria - Part 3

We've established by now that John McLoughlin's Archosauria was a beautifully bold, often highly prescient book, dedicated to overturning notions of dinosaurs as 'great fossil lizards' that were nature's way of killing time before those 'superior' mammals took over the place. McLoughlin illustrated feathered theropods and supercharged sauropods at a time when the number of people doing so could be counted on one hand. Given its boldness, it's surprising that Archosauria so infrequently oversteps the mark, but when McLoughlin goes too far, he has the decency to do so very memorably.

McLoughlin's ceratopsians are easily the most infamous of his Archosauria illustrations. Elsewhere, McLoughlin proposed cheeks and well-developed, sensitive noses for ornithopods, ideas that have now become mainstream and are (arguably) supported by the animals' anatomy. Further to this, he thought that ceratopsians' heads must have been more fleshy than traditionally depicted, too...and then some. As can be seen in the transition from Psittacosaurus to Protoceratops above, McLoughlin viewed the frill as being dedicated to muscle attachment, and thus completely enveloped in flesh. On the smaller ceratopsians, this looks almost plausible (although he takes, shall we say, some anatomical liberties with Protoceratops), but as the book moves on to the larger and larger forms, the animals start looking ever more like they've been sent through a teleporter by Jeff Goldblum.

And so we reach the Triceratops at last. Oh boy. As if its passing resemblance to a leatherjacket wasn't enough, the front end appears to have been stitched together (particularly near the underside of the neck and, of course, where McLoughlin has attempted to incorporate the ecoccipitals), like some sort of horrible Franken-dino.

McLoughlin enhances the spread with a diagram of the animal's supposed 'chewing muscles', alongside a Knightian 'great fossil lizard' restoration. McLoughlin posits that the animals evolved such musculature to provide a ludicrously powerful bite, able to slice straight through tree trunks. Such reasoning is flawed - animals don't need muscles the size of Spain to gain momentous biting power, and that's without mentioning the fact that, from a biomechanical point of view, locking the heads of these animals against their shoulders doesn't make any freakin' sense. Especially as their frills were sometimes wider than their shoulders, or projected quite strongly upwards.

Of course, all this has been said before, notably by Darren Naish (and assorted commenters) over at Tetrapod Zoology Mk 2. Still, it's worth reiterating as a caution against any attempt to extrapolate to the EXTREME!!!!!!!1! based on a superficially plausible idea. Also, because those embedded ceratopsian heads are still amusing. Pity poor Styracosaurus and its mega shoulder-hump of spiky doom.

It wouldn't be right and proper to end a review of the astonishing Archosauria with McLoughlin's silliest work, so let's turn now to his illustrations of thyreophorans - that is, stegosaurs, ankylosaurs and their kin. Given their tendency to be depicted as pointy, shuffling flesh-hillocks (stegosaurs) or weird, squat, short-tailed, no-necked reptilian hedgehogs (ankylosaurs) until surprisingly recently, McLoughlin's work is very welcome indeed. His striding Kentrosaurus, tail firmly aloft, is a world away from the embarrassing meat mountains of old; it's a stegosaur that means business.

His other thyreophorans, though dated, show a dynamism that didn't become commonplace in palaeoart until the late 1980s, at the very earliest. The Polacanthus (bottom) is worth contrasting with John Sibbick's tail-dragging version from the Norman encyclopedia. If these illustrations are to be faulted, then it's again because McLoughlin made his subjects too sleek and slender - in reality, ankylosaurs had hips so wide and flat that you could've painted a great big 'H' on them and put them on duty on a hospital roof. However, they're so beautifully ahead of their time that picking holes in them seems unduly mean. And you know me...I'd never act in such a way. the end, I can't help but go out on an amusing image, so here's a Stegosaurus protecting itself by flopping to the ground and curling up, thus "presenting sawtooth armour from all sides". Something tells me this wouldn't quite work, although admittedly the plates could present quite the tripping hazard to any theropod leaning over to take a bite out of the belly. Perhaps they were bright yellow and know, warning colours.

To wrap up (so to speak): Archosauria is a stunning book, even with its occasional forays into the absurd. McLoughlin is to be applauded for presaging today's palaeoart in many ways, breaking the stifling conventions of the time with considerable artistic flare and the occasional poetic flourish. I'll give him the final words:

"Our look at the Mesozoic offers us a lesson in the special fragility of advanced living things. In reviewing the early triumph and long success of the dinosaurs, we are primarily impressed with their efficiency and adaptability in the face of change. And in examining the sudden disappearance of these splendid animals, we are forced to look to our own time. Here we face responsibility as human beings, our unique responsibility for the continuation or termination of the Cenozoic Era. Unlike the dinosaurs, we have a choice in the matter."


  1. Is that a Syrmosaurus I see between Scelidosaurus and Polacanthus?

  2. That Protoceratops looks rather phallic. I'm sad that I saw it because I can't not see it now.

    1. Nooooooooooooooooo!! Why, why, why would you say that? Now I can't unsee it, either.

    2. Damn, and just after that Tsintaosaurus.

  3. I did an Ankylosaur with warning colours funny enough...

  4. Any chance for a take on his Synapsida? Mostly non-Mesozoic I know ...

  5. Only a few years before ARCHOSAURIA came out, McLoughlin produced an illustration of an aquatic sauropod for a book by Ratkovich. Lol. Btw see this blog:

  6. I always thought the Triceratops in Archosauria was WAY too wrinkly to properly get the concept across. (The other ceratopsians looked MUCH better!) I much prefered the versions shown in Dinosaurs of the SW which, although less detailed, looked far more "natural" (to me). i've never seen any one else ever address that those heads had to have been DAMN heavy (triceratops skulls are 7 tons, granted that's fossilized, but living bone isn't balsa wood.)

    Did McLoughlin ever do anything else with the concept? (yes, I know there are 2 other books in the series: Synapsida & The Canine Clan) is he still alive?


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