Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Introducing Aquilops!

The early history of ceratopsians is mostly known from Asia, so it's with great fanfare that Andy Farke et al. present Aquilops americanus, a 106 million-year-old animal from the Cloverly formation (unit VII) of Montana, USA*. Accompanying the paper (published today in PLOS ONE) are a number of superb artworks from renowned palaeoartist and occasional soggy-looking rapper Brian Engh - not only depicting the tiny, spiky-cheeked Montanan of long ago, but also placing it in a richly realised palaeoenvironment. They're quite ravishing to look at, I'm sure you'll agree, and happily Brian was more than happy to share the full story behind them.

All artwork is © Brian Engh, used with permission. Do not reuse without permission, or a Gobiconodon will get you.

Firstly, a little more background on the beastie. It's known from a crushed partial skull and fragments of the beak, enough for a stab at a size estimate - co-author Matt Wedel believes it to have been a subadult of about 60cm long and perhaps 1.5kg in weight, based on scaling elements of the Chinese basal ceratopsian Archaeoceratops. Speaking of which, Brian's reconstruction draws (quite necessarily) heavily from Archaeoceratops and Liaoceratops, while also utilising what is known about the integument of more distantly related ceratopsians such as Psittacosaurus - although he did get to handle the holotype material himself, and it has duly been incorporated. The result is a piece that, while obviously speculative, presents an extremely well-informed, not to mention beautifully realised, restoration of this little dinosaur.

Brian's approach to the animal's integument is perhaps my favourite aspect of this piece, drawing obviously on Psittacosaurus (and other, far more distantly related ornithischians) in its depiction of the animal with speculative 'quills'. Unlike some reconstructions, these don't seem like cute accessories glued to an otherwise all-scaly creature, nor are they electroshock-fuzzy. The lizardy head-nodules are rather well observed, and the animal has a just-so, convincing amount of bulk to it, including li'l ceratopsian mighty-thighs and that all important plump forward-driving dinosaurian rear end. The mottled, naturalistic, highly plausible and yet far from bland colour scheme is also to be commended.

While the eye is immediately drawn to the individual in the foreground, depicted as calling out in alarm, the most important parts of this scene are over to the right, where the under-appreciated contemporary mammal Gobiconodon ostromi (described by Brian as possessing 'crazy fang incisors') menaces a group of baby Aquilops. Brian wished to avoid the trap of illustrating a straightforward, very static, 'spotter's guide'/diagnostic view of Aquilops, and so opted not only to depict various stages of the animal's life cycle (based on Protoceratops, and illustrating what we know about dinosaur breeding strategies), but also hypothetical sheltering behaviours. The largely hidden individuals under the tree are adult Aquilops, and are a homage to the old palaeoart trope of ceratopsian parents forming rings around their babies (apparently Matt Wedel's idea). Brian explained to me that, since large boulders aren't known from the formation in which Aquilops was found, he opted to have the animals sheltering in the roots of a redwood.

And just in case you were wondering about the redwood, it is also quite accurate for the time and place; Brian's consultant for Cloverly Formation flora was Nathan Jud, a graduate student from the University of Maryland who (says Brian) "recently defended his thesis which focused on the flora of Cloverly Formation unit VII" (appropriately enough). Redwoods similar to the modern day Sequoiadendron giganteum are known from the Cloverly Formation, along with small-leaved ferns and flowering plants similar to ragweed, indicating an open canopy, seasonally dry ecosystem.

The main piece was drawn in pencil and coloured digitally, and Brian estimates that (once the composition had been finalised) it took three weeks or so to finish - one week for the pencilling, and a further two for the colouring. The additional head reconstruction (above) took another week, while the cutesy-pie size comparison image (below) consumed a mere evening of his time. (I love the slightly alarmed, glassy stare of the Aquilops in this one. D'awww.) Of course, that's only part of the story. Brian also spent time handling the aforementioned holotype material and casts of other ceratopsian remains, collecting appropriate imagery, and even went camping in order to acquire photographs of modern day Cloverly-alike vegetation. All in all, it sounds like he had far too much fun for such a deadly serious piece of work. Tut tut, Brian. I hope you didn't throw a waterlogged rap into the bargain.

I'd like to thank Brian for giving me the chance to share all this with LITC readers (and positively overloading me with information), and I'll also offer hearty congratulations on producing such lovely, lively artwork where one could easily have phoned it in (because it's 'just' a diminutive ornithischian, after all). Be sure to read the paper over at PLOS ONE (it's open access after all!) and follow Brian's work at

And finally: damn, that's a cool name. The American Eagle Face. Sam would be proud.

*Corrected from 'Wyoming' following a comment from SVPOW.

MORE AQUILOPS: I wrote this post (mostly) in advance, so I'll be updating this page with additional links.

Andy Farke's post on PLOS blogs - 'the little dinosaur that could'
Matt Wedel's post over at SV-POW 
Matt Wedel's follow-up post over at SV-POW (all about reconstructing the skull)
Matt Wedel's follow-up to the follow-up (all about estimating the animal's size)
Brian's post over at his blog, detailing the creation of the artwork (new species of dinosaur, yo!)
Laura Geggel at LiveScience
Brian Switek at NatGeo


  1. Hi guys, thanks for the lovely post, and the kind words about Brian's hard work on the art. Just one minor edit: although most of the Cloverly Formation does lie in Wyoming, Aquilops is from the little bit that sticks up into Montana.

  2. Amazing art. Thank you for this cup of fresh water. I love the final picture with the Aquilops being held by human.

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  4. oh crud that Wyoming thing was my mistake! sorry to misinform!!

  5. Gorgeous work by Brian, so well thought through and executed on every level.

  6. Can all reconstructions be like this? Please? This is the most fun and vibrant paleoart with an educational bent I've seen in ages.

  7. Brand new early ceratopsian from North America? Skreeeonking fabulous!

  8. The skull is in the collections of the Sam Noble Museum in Norman OK. This website features their ongoing work on an interactive digital reconstruction of Aquilops. Try it out!


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