Thursday 24 February 2011

Theropod tails: getting the (not) skinny

The reconstruction of dinosaurs is a tricky business and artists really need to do their research when it comes to making sure they are using the most up-to-date and accurate science to base their art on. This has just been made that bit easier by W. Scott Persons who has been working on new data (along with  Dr. Phil Currie) on the musculature of theropod tails and their correct representation in reconstructions. He has written an superb article for artists and comes complete with an tail anatomy 101 and informative diagrams and pictures. Persons describes it all better than I ever could so head over and take a look:

We are certainly entering an interesting age with respect of the reconstruction of dinosaurs. There is a pronounced trend away from the shrink-wrapped bony dinosaurs of recent years and a move towards more bulked-out beasts. Excellent articles such as this are most welcome to those of us attempting to depict these wonderful animals. Well done sirs!

Wednesday 23 February 2011

Kicking the opposition into touch

Mike Taylor and Matt Wedel of SV-POW!, along with co-author Richard Cifelli have just published a paper describing a new sauropod from Utah, Brontomerus mcintoshi. It's a superbly presented piece of work, with excellent photos and drawings of the fossil along with some excellent paleo-art by Francisco Gascó, showing an adult Brontomerus mcintoshi booting a marauding Utahraptor into the air in defence of it's accompanying juvenile.

As might be expected, the media have picked up on the possibility of a calcitrant dinosaur (I'm resisting the urge to make a football/Aston Villa joke here) and the BBC have an article on their web site entitled Dinosaur named 'thunder-thighs', a reference to the name as "bronto" means "thunder" and "merós" (both from the Greek) means thighs; excellent nomenclature gentlemen!

The BBC site also features an interview with Dr. Mike Taylor along with some animations of the artwork, which are 3D models composited on a photograph. There are several exponents of this style of paleo-art around at the moment, notably Julias Csotonyi, whom I mentioned in the post last week about the dead elephant documentary. Of course this particular method of depicting dinosaurs has been around for a while and Jane Burton created some memorable images in the book she illustrated (text by Dougal Dixon) The Age of the Dinosaurs: A Photographic Record . These images are studio set-ups with what I assume to be painted and sculpted cut-outs of the various subjects in them to give a quite natural look; I will be writing about this book in the future.

Modern technology means we can now create very natural looking scenes by combining computer models with real-world environments that have been filmed or photographed. This is a  technique that has become very familiar and mainstream ever since a certain brachiosaur strode onto our screens and changed everything, and it's great to see it used for a reconstruction in a paper.

3D dinosaurs? Hmmm, I must post about that at some point . . .

Taylor M., Wedel, M., Cifelli, R. (2011) A new sauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Cedar Mountain Formation, Utah, USA. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica. 56 (1).

Monday 21 February 2011

At last! An actual drawing . . .

As this is the first art post proper I thought I'd start with the image used in the design of the Paleo Illustrata header. Chirostenotes pergracilis is an caenagnathid oviraptorsaur from the Late Cretaceous, (Late Campanian) of Dinosaur Park, Alberta, Canada. It's known from several partial skeletons, an articulated hand and an articulated foot (Currie, 2005) and according to Currie et al in life would have been around 2.3m long. 

I created this sketch of Chirostenotes pergracilis after being impressed by the mounted specimen of a large oviraptorsaur which I saw in the Black Hills Institute Museum in South Dakota last year. This striking mount is actually an replica acquired from Treibold Palaeontolgy, and the caption accompanying the exhibit states it was found in Harding County, South Dakota in 2000. This skeleton is actually a composite; two separate fossils of the same species were found within a few hundred feet of each other and these two have been merged to make the single skeleton, a cut-and-shut caenagnathid. I believe these specimens both remain undescribed and I seem to recall seeing a documentary regarding this skeleton on UK TV some years ago, and there was some controversy associated with it.

The BHI Oviraptorid - a biggie to be sure.

The sketch was based on one of Scott Hartman's excellent skeletal illustrations and the pose is taken directly from there, as the image was originally intended to try out the integument rather than be a finished work in itself. Whilst looking at the skeleton and speculating about how the feathers might have been arranged on this animal I was struck by it's superficial resemblance to extant ratites, and with its distinctive crest it occurred to me that the image of Chirostenotes pergracilis reconstruction based on the plumage of a ratite might well work - specifically a Cassowary.

In the end I was pleased enough with the illustration although it's essentially a working sketch, and another is in the 'concept stage' (artist speak which translates as "thinking about it") which will put Chirostenotes pergracilis in an actual landscape, and in colour.

Currie, P.J. and Koppelhus, E. B. eds (2005) Dinosaur Provincial Park. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp 379-380

Sunday 20 February 2011

Top ten creationist arguments (plus ten more)

Relevant to palaeontology and included in this blog as it features pictures and stuff GrrlScientist, who has an excellent blog over at The Guardian website, has recently featured two videos featuring the Top ten creationist arguments which are worth a look (this makes twenty arguments in all - the OU is paying off already!). Familiar territory to those who ever tried to point out that creationism is not science but superstition, but good fun for a Sunday.

Part one is here:

. . .  and part two is here:

Loved the bit about what caused the big bang; I bet Stephen Hawking has an equation proving the existence of Ted somewhere. Or perhaps not.

Thursday 17 February 2011

Elephants, maggots and cadaver decay islands.

Last night saw the broadcast on Channel 4 here in the UK of an excellent documentary called The Elephant: Life after Death. The documentary is available online, but I think might be blocked to non-uk residents: The Elephant: Life after Death

The basic premise of the programme runs thus: A sub-adult bull elephant that had been mortally injured by poachers has to be put down, and an experiment is set up whereby the carcass is placed by a stream bed (such areas are busy spots on the savannah for a variety of reasons), the cameras are set up and a team of experts sit and watch what happens. The next six days and nights see the elephant, all 6 million calories (enough to feed 300 people for a week) of it reduced to skin and bones. A veritable parade of secondary consumers (hyaena, leopard, flies, jackal, soldier death beetles, civet) then appear to partake of the proboscidian feast. Some of these become food for other predators such as birds, civets and ants which come to dine on the maggots and flies, a secondary food chain created by the carcass for the duration it can provide food.

The programme had a good smattering of interesting information, such as the dining habits of Pine Nut Vultures and the fact female hyaenas have penises and give birth through them (wince). Some animals, such as the aforementioned Soldier Death Beetles rely on elephant carcasses to complete their life cycles and feed, mate, lay eggs and provide food for their young. More worrying was the absence of vultures at the site; it seems something is wrong in the ecosystem and numbers are declining and there have been changes observed in the behaviour of the birds, who have become more skittish in recent years.

The programme was an excellent illustration of the flow of energy within an ecosystem, the unlocking of that converted solar energy that is contained in the elephant carcass as a result of it's enormous intake of sunlight-processing plants (elephants can eat up to 300kg of forage a day) and it's dispersal across a wide area by a variety of animals, microbes and also fungi in the longer term.

I bet this smells quite awful . . .

Did something similar occur with dinosaurs in Mesozoic ecosystems? Well, there is an obvious analogue between the death of a megafaunal primary consumer such as an elephant and the death of a hadrosaur or a sauropod (to name but two examples from many), and this makes it tempting to speculate on Mesozoic equivalents, but to find out we need to look at the smallest but vitally important players in the ecosystem. Slightly disappointingly not the not all decomposers at all trophic levels were mentioned (wot no microbes?) in the documentary which also payed fleeting attention the effect of the juices flowing from the carcass on the local environment (although the image of the civet licking maggots up out of the juices surrounding the dead animal was a slightly stomach-churning and fascinating image). This creates a (wonderfully named) cadaver decay island, and during the excavation of Dakota (the hadrosaur mummy found by Tyler Lyson in the badlands of the Hell Creek Formation, Montana) Phil Manning and the crew from the Marmarth Research Foundation and Manchester Univerisity noticed the presence of staining around the body, possibly produced by the seepage of fluids from the decaying dinosaur (Manning, 2008). All this is detailed in Phil's excellent book Grave Secrets of Dinosaurs, which goes into more detail is well worth a read. It would have been really fascinating to have sectioned the ground within the cadaver decay island after six days to see how fluid seepage had affected the soil below the carcass; there was speculation about the appearance of ants which prey on maggots feeding on the carcass, as they live underground and seemed to sense the presence of the carcass from the fluids percolating down through the soil.

On the art front, the cover of  Grave Secrets of Dinosaurs was illustrated by the brilliant paleo-artist Julius T. Csotonyi. I don't have permission to illustrate his work here but it's worth swinging by his site to have a look at his work, which is outstanding. Favourites of mine include his illustration of Cretaceous wildlife of Midland Provincial Park and a Dsungaripterus weii about to dine on a nautliod.

Manning, P. (2008). Grave Secrets of Dinosaurs: Soft Tissues and Hard Science. Washington: National Geographic Society. pp181

Monday 14 February 2011

Don't touch the exhibit!

Well, this is art of a sort . . . This rather charming advert made me laugh when I first saw it, and luckily it's appeared on YouTube so I thought it worth sharing.

East Coast Trains 'Museum' TV ad

Friday 11 February 2011

With one step . . .

And so it begins. Welcome to the first post of Paleo Illustrata, the blog about one man's journey into the art of palaeontology. Enraptured by books and films of dinosaurs as a small boy, the fascination never left me as I grew up. Around the age of nine my family went on holiday to Charmouth in Dorset and on the beach there I picked up my first fossils and that was that, I was totally hooked and am still - now more than ever though I'm in my mid-forties. As happens in life somewhere along the way I got a little lost . . . and ended up a graphic designer instead of a vertebrate palaeontologist, but still the fascination persists, the passion burns strong and along with my wife I still go collecting, talking to and learning from as many palaeontologists, scientists, collectors, dig volunteers etc as I can and making new friends along the way. It's a privilege to be able to spend time in the company of these most inspiring of people.

This blog is going to mainly be about dinosaurs and my art, although palaeontology is an immense subject and other critters might creep, crawl or fly in from time to time (I mean, who doesn't love those Burgess Shale beasties for a start?). I will also be looking at other paleo art and trying to dig out some of the more obscure representations of past life on earth and pay homage to some of the many known and unknown paleo artists who have blazed a trail for the modern masters who communicate the latest scientific discoveries in their dazzling depictions of ancient life.

So this is the blog of one enthusiastic amateur's journey into the art of palaeontology. I hope you can come along for the ride, where old fossils, new cutting-edge, multi-disciplinary science and the timeless pursuit of art all combine together to enable us to take a glimpse back into deep time . . .

 A sketch of the head of Neoveantor salerii, Wessex Formation, Isle of Wight, England.