Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Finback and the Shark: A Process Blog

I recently took a trip up to Seymour, Texas, in order to report on an intermittent, ongoing fossil dig happening up on the famous Early Permian deposits on the Craddock Ranch. My main source (and, admittedly, the reason I pitched the story in the first place) was Robert Bakker, and over the course of the two day trip, I ended up spending quite a bit of time shooting the breeze with him about fossils, religion, and various other topics. I'll be placing an edited, condensed version of our interview here in the coming days, but right now I wanted to share something else--some pieces of art inspired by those conversations.

The overwhelming majority of fossils from the Craddock belong to Dimetrodon, which was remarkably common in the seasonal floodplains and channels of the period. I'd never drawn Dimetrodon before, and decided to look for a movement analogue in order to get a feel for the animal. I ended up settling on big monitor lizards and Argentinian Tegus as a stand in, and watched a bunch of videos on Youtube of big lizards cavorting around. Dimetrodon is, of course, a stem-mammal and not a squamate, but the body plans seem at least marginally similar.

I soon started doodling. The resulting sketches are my attempts to get to grips with Dimetrodon anatomy and some wild ideas about what they got up to on a day to day basis, including a very speculative hatchling (clockwise, 4th from top.) Other highlights include display pushups (5th from top) and a Dimetrodon taking a dip on a hot day (2nd from top.)

Copyright 2015 Asher Elbein
Out of all of these sketches, I liked the rearing Dimetrodon the most. Big lizards can be surprisingly fleet footed, especially when it comes to wheeling around, shaking prey, or threatening predators. For an example, see this Youtube video of a Tegu fighting off a much, much larger dog. 

There remained the question of what would prompt the animal to wheel in such a aesthetically pleasing fashion. The answer lay, again, with Bakker--his studies of the Seymour deposits have led him to propose that Dimetrodon was a generalist that happily attacked amphibians and the sinuous, poison-spined Xenacanthus river sharks. As evidence for this, he points to the amount of chewed up shark remains in the deposit, as well as the fact that the massive populations of Dimetrodon in the area had to be eating something, and there simply weren't enough big herbivores in most of the rocks to go around. Also, the majority of the shed Dimetrodon teeth they find lie in aquatic, marshy or pond deposits, suggesting that Dimetrodon spent a good bit of time feeding there.

For the painting, I envisioned a big bull Dimetrodon attracted to a drying pond by the splashing of trapped sharks and amphibians. As a tip of the hat to my lizardy inspiration, I gave it the broad, flapping jowels of an Argentine Tegu, a sexually dimorphic trait, and a snout scarred by repeated tussles with other Xenacanthus sharks. This particular fellow has made a habit of killing sharks, and has gotten fairly good at it, but still gets tagged occasionally. In this frozen moment, he's shaking the shark hard enough that he's actually all but left the ground.

Copyright 2015 Asher Elbein
With the final pose settled on, more details were added with soft pencils.

Copyright 2015 Asher Elbein

Finally, I scanned the finished sketch into Adobe Photoshop and began cleaning it up and painting it. I eventually decided that I might as well go all the way and settled on a showy, Tegu-like color scheme. Dimetrodon was pretty clearly a somewhat flamboyant animal, and as a big predator of aquatic game may not have needed much in the way of camouflage. The final image, after much fussing, fuming, and some momentary, computer-freeze related terror, is below. I'm rather proud of it.

Copyright 2015 Asher Elbein 

Dimetrodon, as it turns out, is quite fun to draw, and is a much more fascinating beast than is popularly credited. I can't wait to share the finished article in a few months.


  1. "Dimetrodon is, of course, more closely related to stem-mammals than it is to lizards"

    Dimetrodon is a stem-mammal.

  2. Love the field sketches. Some good ideas there.

  3. Beautiful art work. Dimetrodon was always one of my favorite prehistoric animals and it's great to see it in such a dynamic pose.

    What I can't wait for, however, is the interview. Robert Bakker was one of my childhood heroes, an almost Indiana Jones-esque figure who made the act of discovery itself seem like an adventure. I remember watching many a documentary featuring Bakker (championing the concept of warm-blooded dinosaurs back then), as well as Jack Horner (usually discussing Maiasaura). I can't wait to see what he's been up to lately!

    1. It'll be a bit, I'm afraid, but it should be worth the wait. :)

  4. Yes! More artwork accurately depicting what prey Dimetrodon actually hunted. The field sketches are also very dynamic, which is an aspect I like to see in paleoart!


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