Monday, 28 November 2022

Happy 10th birthday, Mark P. Witton's blog

The very first image posted at this blog, way, way back in November 2012. It shows a coloured version of a piece I created for the Pterosaur.Net blog earlier in the same year. How time — like so many quad-launching, cowboy-riding azhdarchids — has flown.

I don’t normally worry about blog anniversaries, but today marks a full ten years since I started writing this blog and a decade of writing and uploading artwork in the same venue feels like an achievement worth mentioning. According to Blogger stats, over 3 million people have checked in here in the last decade and, while I have no idea how genuine that number is, it implies someone is reading this stuff, even if it's just bots. If you are among those who have stopped by in the last few years, know that your visit is appreciated: I owe a big thanks to everyone who has read one of my posts, left a comment or shared my articles and artwork around the internet. And that applies to the bots, too: thanks for stopping by, fellas, and for all your weirdly-worded comments trying to get us to click stuff. We're not going to, but it's nice that you try.

It’s funny looking back on the very first days of this blog. I initially imagined this would be little more than a “picture of the day/week” style affair to promote my artwork in the wake of finishing my first book: Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy. That explains two pterosaur-themed first posts, and also why the third featured Tyrannosaurus: I chose T. rex as a palate cleanser after drawing and writing about pterosaurs for several years. There’s an ironic twist to this that I can’t reveal yet: let’s just say that the roles of those taxa might end up being reversed soon. A newly-released book called All Yesterdays formed the subject of post five, and my coverage of that saw the abandonment of any pretence that this would be a short-format blog.

From post 3, my first attempt to restore Tyrannosaurus as a semi-professional palaeoartist. It's pretty wonky to my modern eyes and — shock — even has exposed teeth. That won't fly in a few years, 2012 Mark, and we might want to talk about that facial reconstruction too (and, hey, 2022 Mark, when will you finish writing the paper on that?). This image would resurface a few years later in a modified form for one of the most popular articles on this site: "Revenge of the scaly Tyrannosaurus".

Since then, we’ve covered a fairly broad set of topics within palaeontology, with subject matter mostly divided across the science of extinct animal life appearance, deep-dives into animal palaeobiology, portrayals of palaeontology in the media, and the history of palaeoart. Although I’ve enjoyed writing virtually everything I’ve posted, a few pieces stand out as personal favourites. They aren’t the most popular articles, but those posts where I sought to answer a simple question and found a complex rabbit hole to explore, or the ones where I found conventional wisdom was incorrect and I could present an alternative based on peer-reviewed publications. Among these are my three articles on geomythology (covering the alleged fossil origins of griffins, dragons, cyclopes, unicorns and others), all of which found reason to question mainstream views linking certain fossils and mythological creations. I also enjoyed digging into the literature on the many fraudulent claims about mastodon hair: who’d have thought, with thousands of images of mastodons covered in brown, shaggy hair, that our evidence for such an integument would be near zero? In truth, writing about anything where the mainstream interpretation is at odds with science is fun because we get to explore why and how our wires have become crossed, whether that's just because something has been overlooked (e.g. Megaloceros as a powerful, fast runner and not just a pair of giant antlers) or we've been misled by popular culture (e.g. the actual science behind predicting dinosaur vocalisations). I could list articles I've enjoyed researching, writing and illustrating all day but that would be pretty dull for all of us. I'll instead point to the navigation panel on the right that can be used to explore my full catalogue of blog content.

I don't have much new art I can share at the moment, so here's the latest sharable painting I worked on, just so we have some new art content for this anniversary post: it's Yutyrannus huali bellowing on a chilly morning. And yes, it does have a bit of a Christmas card vibe.

It is, admittedly, increasingly difficult to find time to blog as my workload and personal responsibilities have increased in the last ten years. Following the first few years where I was able to post multiple times a month (looking back, I don’t remember ever having that much time on my hands!), I now aim for one post each month, along with regular updates on Facebook, Twitter and Mastodon — do check me out if you’re on the same platforms. I have every intention of keeping the blog going, especially as the line between it and my professional writing is now pretty blurred. Blog posts have become articles and books, and research for books and papers has become blog content. A lot of what you’ve read here has been overspill that I can’t work into other projects, especially from The Palaeoartist’s Handbook an The Art and Science of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs. At the risk of dipping my hand too far, you’ve also already seen some overflow from my unannounced sixth book — but in which posts, dear reader, which posts?

But I'm saying too much. Sincere thanks to you, my readers, for ten years of blogging fun and especially anyone who’s been around since the beginning. And an even bigger thanks to people who support me at Patreon, without whom I may not be writing here anymore, nor doing any of my other projects, for that matter. Here’s to another decade!

Sunday, 9 October 2022

Tabletop adventures + dinosaurs: introducing Dr. Dhrolin's Dictionary of Dinosaurs

Tabletop gaming and (scientifically credible) dinosaurs: together at last! The draft cover of Nathan Barling's Dr Dhronlin's Dictionary of Dinosaurs, a book illustrated with my palaeoart and now being crowdfunded over at Kickstarter.

Time to announce a new project that, I must admit, I never saw coming. For the last few months, I've been working with insect palaeontologist and taphonomy expert Nathan Barling to create a new book: Dr. Dhrolin's Dictionary of Dinosaurs: a palaeontologically-informed, palaeoart-heavy supplement for your tabletop roleplaying adventures. I'm aware that there are enough awesome keywords in that sentence to get some folks on board so, if you're already sold, head to the Kickstarter page for full details.

Still here? OK, here's some extra information and background. This project is, by far, Nathan's baby and I'm really only involved as an artist and paleontological consultant, along with fellow advisors David Hone (whoever he is) and pterosaur expert Michael O'Sullivan. Nathan, who I used to teach back in his undergrad days, approached me about illustrating this book at Christmas last year knowing full well that I don't do the whole tabletop gaming thing. My entire experience with such gaming was condensed into one evening about ten years ago, so everything I know about it comes from cultural osmosis. I believe it involves a traditional fantasy setting, dice, campaigns run from behind little cardboard houses and... Jeremy Irons? He's part of this somehow?

Fortunately for us all, Nathan wasn't interested in my knowledge of RPGs. Instead, he wanted my art so he could create a 5th Edition supplement featuring modern, scientifically-informed takes on prehistoric animals. There are, I understand, already some dinosaurs in official D&D canon, but they're apparently pretty "standard" and not especially accurate to their true palaeobiology. Realising that the reality of dinosaurs is way more interesting than their pop-culture stereotypes, Nathan wants to bring a diversity of extinct animals to your campaigns, each with stats and abilities inspired by their real anatomy and hypothesised behaviours. He's also taking inspiration from palaeoenvironmental reconstructions of specific geological formations to create new, science-informed worlds for your quests to take place in. Furthermore, he's creating palaeo-based player races that should be new and interesting, not predictable and familiar. With this supplement, you'll be able to play as folks inspired by azhdarchoids or obscure ornithischians rather than generic "dinosauroids". I'm sure we're going to meet all these goals. Even writing as I am — someone totally ignorant of this vast topic — I'm pretty confident that there aren't many palaeontology 5th Edition projects being guided by four published, PhDed scientists. If you've ever felt your tabletop campaigns were lacking a Yutyrannus ambush, a surprise encounter with Gigantspinosaurus or a Microraptor player companion, this is the book for you.

To bring all this to life, Nathan has full access to my artwork portfolio and is also commissioning me to do new pieces, both of species I've not yet painted as well as new works showing adventurers interacting with scientifically-credible extinct animals. You can get a flavour of what the latter will involve from the cover, which has already been painted and (provisionally) designed, below (NB: a professional designer will be putting everything together next year, so what you see here and at Kickstarter is only indicative of the final product, not finalised book content). This piece was very much a collaborative effort: I can handle dinosaur art well enough, but Nathan's got a tight grip on the more fantastical content and is steering me accordingly. I was thoroughly told off for including an orb staff in an earlier iteration of this image, which I now understand is the tabletop adventure equivalent of legwarmers.

Witton does 5th Edition art: two Utahraptor take on a band of travellers, including one of the new player races, the Pterochaps (OK, OK, actually called "the Children of Seth"). Can you spot all the palaeo references on the adventures? You're looking for azhdarchid pterosaur wings, a Tyrannosaurus skull (in anterior view), a juvenile Psittacosaurus skull and a bunch of ceratopsian-inspired costuming. No, you're a big dinosaur nerd.

The Kickstarter for DDDD (which, I confess, is not the most elegant acronym) went live yesterday morning and we've been totally blown away by the response. The £9000 minimum needed to get things moving was met by lunchtime and, at the time of writing (Sunday evening) the project has over £40,000 in pledges. Wow, and thanks to everyone who's pledged something already. Nathan's promotional efforts have really paid off (and he, indeed, deserves all the credit for this, I've done very little despite my name being on the draft cover). What this means is that DDDD is definitely happening and, if you want in at ground level, now's the time to sign up, especially if you want access to the Kickstater tiers with additional rewards. All being well, you'll be holding physical copies of Dr Dhronlin's Dictionary of Dinosaurs by late next year, which means we need to get to work. Here's that Kickstarter link again, and I'll see you on the flip-die. That's what you tabletop guys say, right? Because of the dice? Hello? Is this thing on?

Friday, 30 September 2022

Tyrannosaurs wrecks Triceratops

Well, this doesn't need a caption.

Predicting what will become a palaeoart meme is a dark, mysterious art. Sometimes news drops that should, given everything we know about the folks who create and like palaeoart, go absolutely viral. It should be illustrated again and again, find its way into books, magazines and maybe even documentaries, and inspire so much online content that old, miserable people like myself become quietly bored and tired of seeing it. But not all news of this sort takes hold among artists and, for whatever reason, it falls through the cracks.

Enter, stage left, the decade-old proposal that consumption of Triceratops carcasses by Tyrannosaurus involved the literal decapitation of the horned dinosaur corpse. Holy cow, how did we miss that one? Initially pitched in a conference poster at the 2012 SVP meeting by Denver Fowler and colleagues, the “How to eat a Triceratops” hypothesis has made a decent splash outside of the palaeoart community. It was featured in Nature and New Scientist among many other news outlets back in 2012, and the then-active Walking with Dinosaurs website turned it into a short film. The Smithsonian mounted the Nation's T. rex specimen gripping a Triceratops frill, an action hypothesised by Fowler et al. as necessary to get at the neck steaks beneath. But even with widespread sharing of a Nate Carroll graphic operating as an instruction manual for palaeoartists (below), the internet has not been inundated with images of Tyrannosaurus ripping the heads of horned dinosaurs, aside from rare examples like Luis Rey's take. I can't be the only one finding this strange, especially given the amount of T. rex art out there. Come on, people: it’s T. rex pulling the head off Triceratops! Were we asleep in 2012? As you've already worked out, the image above is my atonement for missing such an awesome source of palaeoartistic inspiration.

Nate Carroll's guide to eating Triceratops necks, if you're a T. rex. A, grab frill; B, use the frill as a lever to tear the neck; C, pull the head off; D, eat. It's not quite as straightforward as ordering a pizza, but you can't argue with the results. (From SciTechDaily)

Of course, and as Denver has noted on his website in response to the press interest in this hypothesis, we need to tread carefully around the “How to eat a Triceratops” data because it hasn’t been peer-reviewed and published yet. A paper is on the way but, for now, what’s suggested in the abstract is exciting and compelling. A collection of c. 100 Triceratops was examined for bite marks to reveal a large number (maybe as high as c. 18%) with scores and punctures attributable to T. rex teeth. It’s rare to allocate theropod bites to a single species but, among the very latest Cretaceous deposits in western North America, Tyrannosaurus is the only animal that was capable of leaving gigantic punctures and gouges in dinosaur bones. And if that's not convincing enough, casts of tooth marks sometimes replicate T. rex dental morphologies with precision (Erickson and Olsen 1996). Using these criteria, dozens of hadrosaur and horned dinosaur specimens with bites from Tyrannosaurus, as well as some T. rex bones with cannibalistic feeding traces, have been identified in recent decades (e.g. Horner and Lessem 1993; Erickson and Olsen 1996; Carpenter 1998; Happ 2008; Longrich et al. 2010; Depalma et al. 2013; Mclain et al. 2018). This work is all so recent because historic collection and examination practises tended to overlook T. rex feeding traces, so we're only now learning how common — relatively speaking — these marks are.

Tyrannosaurus tooth marks on horned dinosaur frills have been reported outside of the Fowler et al. study, suggesting whatever behaviour these traces represent may have been widespread and routine. These examples are from Longrich et al. (2010): C is only tentatively identified as a ceratopsid frill element, but D is confidently identified as a right squmosal (i.e. the bone forming the right lateral frill region).

What specifically underpins the “How to eat Triceratops” hypothesis are bite marks in specific places on the back of Triceratops skulls. Specifically, multiple specimens show tooth gouges and punctures on Triceratops frills, and these are difficult to explain as actual feeding traces. So far as we can tell, there wasn’t much to eat on this part of the Triceratops body. Perhaps, instead, they represent carcass manipulation marks, where the head was adjusted and pulled about to move the corpse into a more accessible position? But there's more: Fowler et al. (2012) also report tooth traces on Triceratops occipital regions: parts of the skull situated deep within Triceratops neck tissues that would only be accessible on heads separated from their necks. It’s not much of a jump to link these traces: maybe all that jostling with the frills wasn't really about moving the whole carcass, but specifically to get at the neck soft-tissues? While the frill was probably an obstruction to biting the voluminous cervical musculature on a living Triceratops, in death it may have been a useful lever with which to manipulate and pull at the head. Given enough pulling, twisting and brute force, that mighty Triceratops head would eventually tear off: dinner is served, as they say. 

Indirectly supporting this idea is good evidence that T. rex feeding could be very destructive in general, even when consuming animals as large as Triceratops. One of the most famous specimens to record Tyrannosaurus bite marks is a Triceratops pelvis described by Greg Erickson and Kenneth Olsen in 1996. Riddled with up to 80 tooth marks across several surfaces, this gigantic limb girdle was clearly moved around a lot by the feeding Tyrannosaurus (or tyrannosauruses) and chunks were literally shorn off by powerful bites, including one of the iliac blades and (almost) half a vertebra. The latter only remained attached by a small amount of bone and Erickson and Olsen ascribed this to the act of separating the pelvis from the rest of the body: a tremendous feat if it happened. Given this specimen, and the wealth of other fossils demonstrating the strength and force of a feeding Tyrannosaurus, I can totally buy that T. rex could decapitate Triceratops carcasses to access a bounty of horned dinosaur neck meat.

A caveat to all this, and a particularly necessary one in case we get swept along by the T. rex hype train, is that we shouldn’t imagine major dismantling of Triceratops carcasses taking place with freshly killed or otherwise untouched bodies. Neat as it is to imagine Tyrannosaurus ripping the head from a freshly-vanquished Triceratops, waving it aloft and roaring triumphantly like some kind of 8-tonne Predator, modern animals generally follow reliable carcass consumption patterns where easily accessed and nutritious tissues are eaten before difficult-to-access or less-nutritional parts (Blumenschine 1986). Typically, animal hindquarters are eaten first, then the contents of the abdominal cavity, followed by the forequarters and any fleshy bits on the skull, then the limb bones, and finally the internal contents of the head. Under this model, we might place Triceratops neck tissues as “mid-priority” fodder: decent enough eating to make them desirable, but only worth the energy and time investment of bypassing the head if more sought-after parts of a carcass are gone. I’ve attempted to show this in my artwork above by depicting the legs and arms of the Triceratops as already consumed, and the ribs are already exposed from the body being opened to eat the internal organs.

The image at the top of this post isn't my first dance with the Triceratops decapitation hypothesis. In this painting from earlier this year, the decapitated Javelina Formation ceratopsid is meant to be the result of tyrannosaur activity that preceded the arrival of more noble, elegant creatures who'll clear up the mess.

And that's where I'll leave things today. As noted above, a paper on all this is in the works and I'm looking forward to reading it when it comes out. I'm resisting the temptation to springboard onto other topics related to T. rex tooth marks: feeding habits, neck and jaw strength, and their embarrassment of older considerations of Tyrannosaurus tooth and jaw strength (“...its viscous-looking teeth were not as bad as they seemed: if it had tried to tackle living animals, the teeth would have snapped off in the struggle” - oh, Halstead 1975. that comment has not aged well). But time isn’t on my side and we’ll have to save that for another time. Or maybe we’ll finally move away from posts about big theropods. There is a good reason for all this, honest.

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References

  • Blumenschine, R. J. (1986). Carcass consumption sequences and the archaeological distinction of scavenging and hunting. journal of Human Evolution, 15(8), 639-659.
  • Carpenter, K. (1998). Evidence of predatory behavior by carnivorous dinosaurs. Gaia, 15, 135-144.
  • DePalma, R. A., Burnham, D. A., Martin, L. D., Rothschild, B. M., & Larson, P. L. (2013). Physical evidence of predatory behavior in Tyrannosaurus rex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(31), 12560-12564.
  • Erickson, G. M., & Olson, K. H. (1996). Bite marks attributable to Tyrannosaurus rex: preliminary description and implications. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 16(1), 175-178.
  • Fowler, D.W., Scannella, J.B., Goodwin, M.G., & Horner, J.R. (2012) How to eat a Triceratops: large sample of toothmarks provides new insight into the feeding behavior of Tyrannosaurus. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 32(5, abstracts vol): 96
  • Halstead, L. B. (1975). The evolution and ecology of the dinosaurs. P. Lowe.
  • Happ, J. (2008). An analysis of predator-prey behavior in a head-to-head encounter between Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops. In Larson P. & Carpenter, K. Tyrannosaurus rex the Tyrant king, Indiana University Press. p. 355-370.
  • Horner, J. R., & Lessem, D. (1993). The complete T. rex. Simon & Schuster.
  • Longrich, N. R., Horner, J. R., Erickson, G. M., & Currie, P. J. (2010). Cannibalism in Tyrannosaurus rex. PLoS One, 5(10), e13419.
  • Mclain, M. A., Nelsen, D., Snyder, K., Griffin, C. T., Siviero, B., Brand, L. R., & Chadwick, A. V. (2018). Tyrannosaur cannibalism: a case of a tooth-traced tyrannosaurid bone in the Lance Formation (Maastrichtian), Wyoming. Palaios, 33(4), 164-173.

Tuesday, 30 August 2022

Palaeoart reference review: the Beasts of the Mesozoic 1/35 Tyrannosaurus rex

"Hi, I'm the 1/35 unpainted Beasts of the Mesozoic Tyrannosaurus. You may remember me from this Kickstarter campaign and the Creative Beast Studio website. But now I'm being reviewed at this blog to evaluate my box claim of being an 'ideal 3D reference for palaeoart'. How do I fare? Read on!"

Now here’s something I never thought I’d have cause to write: a review of a commercially available dinosaur model marketed, at least in part, as a palaeoart reference. It’s testament to the rising popularity of palaeoart and the growth of the number of practitioners that products are now being advertised specifically to people who don’t just enjoy palaeoart, but enjoy creating palaeoart.

The model in question is Creative Beast Studio’s new Beasts of the Mesozoic 1/35 unpainted Tyrannosaurus, a poseable dinosaur figure with the very words “ideal 3D reference for paleoart!” printed on the box. David Silva’s Beasts of the Mesozoic (hereafter BotM) line has been creating quite a stir among collectors for bringing the detail and articulation of modern action figures to dinosaurs. The current range includes dromaeosaurs and ceratopsians, and the tyrannosaur line is inbound. The frequency of some models being sold out from online stores is a testament to their popularity and, with individual price tags mostly upwards of $50, BotM products are clearly in the realm of poseable models for grown ups rather than children's action figures.

Despite not being much of a dinosaur model collector myself, I preordered the BotM Tyrannosaurus specifically because I saw its potential as an artistic reference. The preorder price was $65 + shipping, which is the same as the preorder cost for the fully painted version that will be released later this year. I received my order earlier this month and it’s joined a small collection of other bits and pieces used in my efforts at restoring ancient animals, including model animals, replica fossils, 3D printed materials and my own crude constructions of wire, cardboard and sculpting materials. I feel that building animals in 3D before painting them is probably the best way to approach palaeoart — it was, after all, the practise that Charles Knight swore by — but the time, space, money and skills needed to create 3D models for every restoration are not available to everyone. Digital models, either made ourselves or sourced online, avoid some of these issues but are arguably less satisfying and informative to work from than physical ones. Holding and manipulating a real object conveys information about form and proportions that we may not get when viewing a 3D representation on a screen, and I find it much easier to experiment with light and shadow in the real world. Don’t get me wrong: I’ll use a digital model over nothing, but I’d much rather have a real, physical reference than a virtual one if given a choice.

I’m thus fully onboard with the sale of quality palaeoart reference models and — to my knowledge —the BotM Tyrannosaurus enters this field unchallenged by competitors offering models specifically as palaeoart reference aids. Indeed, it's rare to see an artistic reference offered for any type of reptile, as animal art guides are terribly biased towards mammals and birds. In this sense, advertising the BotM Tyrannosaurus as an art reference is quite exceptional, but being the only player on the field doesn’t tell us anything about quality. Let's get into this: how does the BotM Tyrannosaurus fare as a reference tool, and what are you getting for your $65?

Straight out of the box, it’s apparent that the BotM Tyrannosaurus is a high-quality product. The moulding detail is superb and it doesn't look or feel at all cheap or plasticky. At around 35 cm long the model is big enough to view its details without it dominating your workspace, and this was the main reason I opted for the 1/35 version and not its gigantic, almost 70 cm long 1/18 counterpart (even if that does look extremely cool). Although possessing a satisfying heft, the model is small and light enough to hold comfortably in one hand, which is a big plus for something you’re potentially drawing from.

To show off the detailing and reference potential of the BotM Tyrannosaurus, I took it outside to my garden for these shots. The sculpting picks up light and shadow extremely well and looks great even on a phone camera. Note that, among other poses, you can achieve the Prehistoric Planet courting posture if you want the first-hand experience of being flirted with by an 8-tonne murder reptile.

Not that you need to hold this model for it to retain a pose. A variety of interchangeable lower leg components are provided that can be used to create a range of postures and demeanours. The two solid legs are probably your default setting as they provide a stable base for free-standing on even slightly uneven surfaces, and you can make plenty of adjustments to the head, torso and tail before the model topples over. If you’re after something more dynamic, you can swap in the mobile leg pieces which, in addition to adjustable ankle joints, permit attachment of different feet to create distinct parts of a step cycle. The solid legs can be pinned to a base so that, when paired with an adjustable leg, the model can be positioned as if running or walking (although it's not recommended to leave it in this state permanently). Across the body, some 22 points of articulation allow for posing the jaws, head, neck, mid-torso, tail, legs and arms, often offering rotation as well as extension and flexion. The tail is articulated in several places and sports a wire-infused end piece that can continue any arc made with the more proximal, jointed segments.

I initially found the joints to be extremely stiff to the point where I couldn’t distinguish their rigidity from having reached the figure’s arthrological limits. Paperwork provided with the model acknowledges this and recommends heating the joints in water or with a hairdryer rather than forcing them, and this indeed loosens them somewhat. Happily, early fears that I was going to have to get the hairdryer out every time I wanted to adjust the pose have not been borne out as joint mobility has improved substantially as I’ve worked the model through its paces, so far without any sign of compromising stability.

As you can see in accompanying photos, the model does a great job of filling space around its joints so that we retain that classic T. rex shape no matter what pose we choose. I’m particularly impressed with the adjustable hood-like neck piece that hides the articulation for the neck and head: once you’ve twisted and rotated that head to where you want it, the neck piece can be pulled into the right place. This retention of form around joints comes at the price of some mobility, however, and the posing options are really more about varying standing and walking poses than exploring the full repertoire of joint motion available to a real T. rex. From an art reference perspective, it would be neat to have more flexibility but, realistically, there must always be engineering compromise in a figure like this, especially if we’re also expecting it to stand on its own feet. In all, given the challenges of creating jointed dinosaur models, the BotM Tyrannosaurus is extremely well-executed and looks far better than anything else I've seen attempting the same goal. Even the mouth closes nicely with a very respectable oral seal, despite a wealth of complex internal detail.

Moving on, I quickly want to mention the colour, even if this seems an odd thing to bring up for an unpainted, entirely grey model. I don’t know how much thought went into the specific shade of grey but, in any case, the choice of medium-dark grey works well: it’s neither too light or dark to obscure shadows or highlights and it photographs well. As an aside, I also think this thing looks great as a grey, uniform figure perched on a desk or shelf: it somehow looks more timeless and informative than any of the painted models I have. The option exists to paint this model yourself, of course, but I have no plans to: it works much better as an art reference if it remains a blank canvas.

More images from Tyrannosaurus trip to the garden. I was going for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science's famous high-kicking T. rex on the right, but I think I achieved something closer to Tyrannosaurus after it's stepped on Lego.

Of course, all this fine production will be for nought if the reconstruction itself is off, so what about the anatomy? In short, the BotM Tyrannosaurus is an excellent T. rex restoration for 2022. We would expect nothing less given that it was sculpted by Jake Baardse, the digital sculptor behind the awesome Saurian T. rex (among other excellent artworks). The body proportions are well captured with the laterally expanded and blocky posterior skull region, barrel-shaped torso and deep pelvis that characterise adult Tyrannosaurus all present and correct. Modern soft-tissue highlights include lips, correctly placed nostrils and ear openings, as well as well-rendered muscles of respectable position and volume. In terms of soft-tissue bulk, it hits the sweet spot looking like a healthy animal, being neither too lean nor too tubby. All this comes together so that, unlike many (perhaps most?) Tyrannosaurus models, this undoubtedly represents T. rex rather than a generic carnivorous dinosaur, a generic tyrannosaurid or — shudder — a Jurassic Park knock off.

It would be remiss not to mention the enormous amount of fine details in the sculpt. They include tarsal scutes, an individually crafted tongue, skin creases, calluses, large facial scales and bosses above the eyes. Some of these are necessarily speculative — remember that, for all its fame, we’re still mostly in the dark on exactly what Tyrannosaurus looked like — but it all feels appropriately grounded in what we know of theropod dinosaur soft-tissues. There’s nothing here that anyone can firmly point to as “wrong”. I wonder if some will lament the absence of protofeathers, but the wholly-scaly approach is probably better for an art reference than one where body contours are buried under speculative tufts. What we’ve essentially got here is the foundation anatomy you must include when drawing Tyrannosaurus, over which artists can accessorise or augment based on their own views. Perhaps the only genuine anatomical quibble I have is that the extremely fine (mostly submillimetre) scales across the body are too big for a tyrannosaur at this scale (T. rex scales were tiny, just 1-2 mm across) but I can look past this. It gives the model an appropriately rough texture rather than a gleaming, smooth finish and, hey, if nitpicking scale size is the only real complaint with a dinosaur restoration, that’s normally a sign of a job well done.

With the BotM Tyrannosaurus acing every test, we’ve reached a final question: the above is all well and good, but does anyone need a Tyrannosaurus palaeoart reference figure, what with the near infinite numbers of specimen photos, diagrams, 3D scans, model skulls and skeletons etc. that are also available? Surely this is something that’s just “nice to have” rather than essential? To test this, I returned to one of my previous Tyrannosaurus restorations to see how it stood up to the BotM sculpt and… I immediately noticed errors in my work. Not major glaring super errors, but things that I’d want to get right and was glad to fix. Our familiarity with T. rex makes it easy to forget that Tyrannosaurus was a pretty unusual theropod and, while it’s easy to draw something that approximates it, completely nailing T. rex can be an artistic challenge even with a whole folder of 2D reference material. I’ve yet to craft a whole illustration using the BotM T. rex but I can already see it’s going to be a valuable palaeoart aid when that happens.

What difference does a good 3D reference make? Comparing an image I completed a few months back with the BotM Tyrannosaurus revealed a few goofs, some gleaned from less-accurate references, and others from my own miscalculations of body shape. The biggest adjustments here concern skull shape and leg position, both of which are much better in the right image than in the original. And yes, this dark, dark image is probably the worst example I could have used for showing the positive effects of this model on refining T. rex anatomy. Slow clap.

And I think that speaks for itself as a conclusion. Is the Beasts of the Mesozoic Tyrannosaurus ideal for crafting palaeoart, as it says on the box? Absolutely, and it’s a strong recommendation from me to grab one if you’re in the regular habit of drawing king tyrants. It may, indeed, be the single best artistic reference tool for drawing adult Tyrannosaurus available and we’d be absolutely fine if the world was flooded with T. rex artwork based on it. To that end, my fingers are crossed that other species in the BoTM range get similar art reference treatment, being scaled to handheld proportions and released with a flat grey colouring. A BotM line aimed at artists would not only be extremely useful for individual palaeoart practitioners but would benefit palaeoart as a whole: like all artforms of natural things, development and investment in quality reference resources can only help our collective understanding and ability to visualise our subject matter, and stronger, more interesting art is the result.

The Beasts of the Mesozoic 1/35 Tyrannosaurus is available to preorder from here, as is its bigger 1/18 counterpart and the upcoming range of tyrannosaur figures. The full Beasts of the Mesozoic line can be viewed at the Creative Beast Studio website.

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Friday, 29 July 2022

Attempted adventures in dinosaur facial restoration, starring Giganotosaurus

Giganotosaurus carolinii carries the remains of a juvenile rebacchisaurid while sporting a bunch of crazy tissues on its face. Big scales, horns, and is that some kind of thick pad over its snout? Is all this artistic speculation or something inferred from fossils? Read on...

Up until now, my palaeoart career has not crossed paths with carcharodontosaurids, the gigantic, charismatic and famous allosauroids best known for Acrocanthosaurus, Giganotosaurus, Carcharodontosaurus and, most recently, Meraxes. This month, however, I finally had cause to restore Giganotosaurus carolinii, the largest of the group and, potentially, the largest of all theropods.

Carcharodontosaurids are, at first glance, not too challenging to restore: take an Allosaurus, turn everything up to 11 and job done, right? Well, maybe not. Not only are the proportions of carcharodontosaurids (and, to be fair, carcharodontosaurians in general) subtly different from their allosauroid ancestors, but their jaws and eye regions are characterised by a suite of complex sculpting and rugosities. It’s thought that these are epidermal correlates (Sereno and Brusatte 2008): distinctive bone surfaces and histological patterns that record different skin types interacting with the underlying bone (Hieronymus et al. 2009). I’ve written quite a lot about epidermal correlates at this blog because they provide heaps of important external soft-tissue information without direct soft-tissue fossilisation and learning to spot them, in my view, is an essential skill for any budding palaeoartist.

The presence of epidermal correlates on carcharodontosaurid skulls means that we can’t take an “anything goes” approach to restoring Giganotosaurus or its close relatives; instead, there probably is a “right”, or at least "more defensible", way to approach depictions of their faces. Alas, to my knowledge, no specific investigation has been conducted into what carcharodontosaurid skull textures represent despite our interest in other dinosaur epidermal correlates (e.g. Hieronymus et al. 2009; Carr et al. 2017; Delcourt 2018). This means there’s not yet a “go-to” study to provide artists with answers for restoring these animals and anyone wanting to illustrate Giganotosaurus credibly has to make their own interpretations from descriptions and illustrations in scientific literature. Having just been through this process myself, and realising that Giganotosaurus is a fan-favourite, I thought it might be of interest to share my thoughts here. I want to be upfront by declaring that the following deductions are little more than best guesses; without having direct experience of Giganotosaurus fossils I can’t write anything definitive about what Giganotosaurus looked like. Think of the following more as a discussion piece than a rigorous guide, and I welcome input and insight from others if I’ve made errors.

As I understand it, most of what's been illustrated of Giganotosaurus is shown above in this compilation of figures from Coria and Salgado (1995; greyscale graphics) and Novas et al. (2013; colour). Not as much as you might expect, right? There's a lot more known of this species that hasn't been published yet, some of which contain crucial information for palaeoartists (and I guess for scientists too).

And it’s in this spirit that, right off the bat, we need to mention that researching Giganotosaurus is pretty challenging. Its fossils are thinly documented despite Giganotosaurus being one of the more completely known carcharodontosaurids and, even today, almost 30 years since it was announced to the world, we only have a fraction more information available to us than when it was first named in 1995. Just a handful of its bones have been figured so good photos or illustrations of several fossils relevant to this conversation have not been published (Coria and Salgado 1995; Coria & Currie 2002; Novas et al. 2013). Thus, anyone trying to restore this animal from scientific papers alone will struggle for information and a lot of secondary sources — online photographs of fossils and casts, skeletal reconstructions and museum mounts etc. — are essential to obtaining basic information about its proportions and size, even if they risk introducing reconstruction errors. Closely related taxa and comparative descriptions (i.e. “Mapusaurus has a more rugose snout than Giganotosaurus”) are critical too, providing crucial details not mentioned in dedicated Giganotosaurus papers. I mention this because it means that, from the get-go, we’re not in an ideal research scenario for a palaeoartwork, and this makes the possibility of errors in interpretation all the greater.

With appropriate caveats established, let’s dive into this discussion. As with most theropods that have rugose, textured faces, our attention here is going to be on the bones of the snout and orbital region, as these are the principal areas to bear features that might signify epidermal tissues. The carcharodontosaurid fossil record contains a large number of maxilla bones (the main tooth-bearing bone of the upper jaw) and this is good news for artists, as the lateral surfaces of these potentially tell us a lot about the skin on the side of the upper jaw. The typical maxillary rugosity for carcharodontosaurids is well documented across several species, especially Carcharodontosaurus saharicus, Eocarcharia, Mapusaurus and Meraxes. It comprises a series of sub-vertical grooves and pits (Stromer 1936; Sereno et al. 1996; Coria and Currie 2006; Brusatte and Sereno 2007; Sereno and Brusatte 2008; Canale et al. 2022) and some species (e.g. C. saharicus, Eocarcharia, Mapusaurus) supplement these with prominent ridges extending along the base of the antorbital region. These bars separate the rugose maxillary body from the smoother bone of the antorbital fossa: that slightly impressed region of bone surrounding the antorbital fenestra.

The maxilla of Eocarcharia dinops, as illustrated by Brusatte and Sereno (2008), shows the texturing typical of carcharodontosaurid snouts. Note the ridge dividing the textured region from the smoother antorbital fossa: this feature isn't seen in all carcharodontosaurids but might tell us something about skin types all the same. The fossa region is particularly big in this species.

The texturing characterising carcharodontosaurid maxillae may be somewhat less pronounced in Giganotosaurus and thus, perhaps like Acrocanthosaurus, its maxillae may have been on the smoother end of the rugosity scale (Coria and Currie 2006; Eddy and Clarke 2011; Novas et al. 2013). All else being equal, this might imply differences in facial anatomy within Carcharodontosauridae: whatever those grooves and pits signify may not have been as exaggerated in some species as others. A caveat here is that, as is often the case with skin-altered bones, larger carcharodontosaurid individuals tend to have more exaggerated rugosity profiles than smaller ones (Coria and Currie 2006; Canale et al. 2014), suggesting a link with body size or age as well as differences between species. We probably want a number of maxillae from a range of differently aged individuals to establish whether a species has consistently smoother jawbones than its relatives.

Comparing these maxillary features with existing interpretations of dinosaur epidermal correlates provides potential insights into their significance. The textures in question are often likened to those adorning the lateral surfaces of abelisaur skulls and, if so, we might follow Delcourt (2018) in inferring that they represent scale correlates. This seems sensible to me, certainly more than other possible jaw coverings. Carcharodontosaurid maxillae lack the projecting rugosities consistent with armoured dermis or the branching neurovascular channels and oblique foramina found under beak or horn tissues (Hieronymus et al. 2009). Furthermore, the ridges bordering the antorbital regions in some carcharodontosaurids are inconsistent with beaks: cornified sheath tissues tend to terminate with obvious steps downwards into smoother neighbouring bone, not upwards to ridges of rugose bone (Hieronymus et al. 2009).

The skull of a common snapping turtle Chelydra serpentina. The more rugose parts of this skull correspond to regions covered in large scales, while the slightly finer rugosity around the jaws demark the distribution of the beak (also note the stepped topography at the beak/scale transition). Prominent ridges occur around the eyes and nose where large scales meet softer tissues: perhaps this is analogous to what we're seeing in those ridged carcharodontosaurid maxillae?

Raised bony ridges are seen, however, around the skull openings of reptiles with tough, tightly-adhering facial skin like crocodylians and certain turtles, marking some boundaries between thick, relatively immobile skin and softer, more flexible regions. We might expect the antorbital skin of theropods to flex slightly during breathing, as it does in birds, and I wonder if we're picking up some evidence of that in carcharodontosaurids? The notion that carcharodontosaurid maxillary skin might be tough and immobile is not without precedent, as early members of the broader Carcharodontosauria clade are thought to have had maxillary skin of this nature (Barker et al. 2019). If there really was a distinction in skin flexibility in the snouts of these animals it may have been obvious in life, as it is in crocodylians and turtles (I realise this sounds like advocating some form of shrinkwrapping — lightning flashes in the distance, thunder rumbles — but we can't overlook the fact that osteological features do, sometimes, correlate with skin types in living animals). I took these reptiles as inspiration in my reconstruction, giving Giganotosaurus a series of large, thick scales over the side of its upper jaw that terminate sharply around the antorbital region. I retained a full set of lips for reasons that have been thrashed out too many times to bear repeating here, except to mention that — like those of tyrannosaurs — carcharodontosaurid maxillae seem to constrain their rugosity to regions above the toothrow, suggesting whatever skin anchored above the labial foramina (the row of perforations along the jaw) was not so tightly anchored next to the teeth.

Immediately above the maxillae are another set of sculpted bones: the nasals and lacrimals. Collectively, these bones form the various fins and crests that line the top of the snouts in many allosauroids (see Chure and Loewen 2020 for a great visual of these), but the carcharodontosaurid condition is not typical of this wider clade. Nasal material is known for Giganotosaurus but it was not featured in its original description, nor (to my knowledge) has it been illustrated elsewhere. What’s hinted at in various reconstructions and papers is that Giganotosaurus joins Mapusaurus, Meraxes and Carcharodontosaurus in having especially sculpted nasal bones over the maxillary region, specifically bearing deep, generally parallel-sided grooves crossing transversely over the dorsal surface and vertically on the lateral face (Coria and Currie 2006).

The right nasal of Mapusaurus rosae, one of the better-illustrated examples of the crazy rugosities developed on these bones by some carcharodontosaurids. A shows the lateral view, B is dorsal, from Coria and Currie (2006).

These bones cannot be described as forming narrow crests as they can for Allosaurus and kin because their texturing meets in the middle of the skull and they are not pinched into long, narrow fins (Sereno et al. 1996; Coria and Currie 2006). Accordingly, some common artistic interpretations of these structures as supporting crests or a series of hornets over carcharodontosaurid faces (which I first assumed when embarking on this painting project, I think incorrectly: see below) may be erroneous: whatever skin made these features extended over the entire dorsal surface of the nasals as well as across the upper lateral region of the snout. Exactly what’s happening here is unusual among theropods, but the rugosity depth almost certainly implies some extensive cornificiation. I'll go further to say that, to the best of my knowledge, deep, subparallel grooves are uniquely associated with cornified pads growing at shallow angles to the underlying bone (Hieronymus et al. 2009). If correct, might we infer that heavy, thick bars of densely keratinised tissue adorned the top of carcharodontosaurid skulls? Cornified pads are predicted in this region elsewhere within Theropoda (e.g. within abelisaurids: Delcourt 2018) so such a suggestion isn’t entirely without precedent, but I'm not sure we've viewed carcharodontosaurids with such heavy ornament before. It would be great to see some actual research on this to investigate what’s really going on with these bones. Giganotosaurus striding around with fat cornified pads atop its face would be all sorts of awesome, especially given that we already think other regions of carcharodontosaurid faces might be adapted for headbutting (e.g. Sereno and Brusatte 2008; Cau et al. 2013).

An earlier version of my Giganotosaurus reconstruction with individual hornlets above the snout: thinking again on this topic, I probably got this wrong as the nasal texturing isn't consistent with the bones that underly hornlets in living species. I've already sent myself to bed without dinner as punishment.

The corrugated nasals are bordered posteriorly by further rugosities around the orbit. This is actually one of the better-known parts of the Giganotosaurus skull and it has been illustrated (Coria and Salgado 1995) so we can be pretty confident about what this region generally looked like, even if a lack of a comprehensive description means it’s difficult to know exactly what sort of rugosities it bears. In terms of basic structure, a rounded, horn-shaped process sits atop the lacrimal (the bone in front of the orbit) and a prominent boss projects above and somewhat laterally from the postorbital (the bone behind the eye). As seems typical for carcharodontosaurids and, indeed, for carcharodontosaurians in general, the latter slopes back and downward somewhat such that Giganotosaurus and kin probably looked perpetually worried, their postorbital bosses creating the appearance of a furrowed brow. 

From what I can gather, the ultra-rugosity of the nasal bones doesn’t extend fully over the eyes in Giganotosaurus or its relatives. I suspect, based on what we see in better-illustrated carcharodontosaurids, that this reflects adornment of the lacrimal process with a cornified sheath rather than a pad. This creates the potential for a sharper horn than implied by the underlying bone shape, although it just as easily could be an exaggeration of the relatively blunt underlying bone structure. As is widely known in palaeoart circles, it can be difficult to predict the exact shapes cornified sheaths will take, even in modern species (Angst et al. 2020).

The postorbital boss variation of carcharodontosaurids, as illustrated by Sereno and Brusatte (2008): A shows the simpler morphology of Eocarcharia dinops; B shows Carcharodontosaurus saharicus.

Similar textures seem to have extended continuously onto the postorbital boss in derived carcharodontosaurids, such that we might imagine a continuation of the sheathed skin of the lacrimal onto this region (Coria and Currie 2006; Sereno and Brusatte 2008; Canale et al. 2022). There is, however, some variation of boss morphology within the clade in that some species have relatively smooth, rounded bosses (e.g. Sereno and Brusatte 2008; Cau et al. 2012): this is another area where more information specifically on Giganotosaurus would be welcome. For those species lacking pronounced texturing, I wonder if we’re dealing with big scale correlates rather than a surface covered with thick, densely keratinised tissue? These skin types may not be mutually exclusive however, as there is precedent for scale correlates showing signs of cornification in some dinosaurs (Hieronymus et al. 2009). A scaly postorbital boss in a young animal could well develop into a more cornified, horny structure in an adult. Again, more specimens of different growth stages might be needed here to be certain of true differences between species.

The result of all this noodling: Giganotosaurus looking a little more knobbly than usual, and also a bit world-weary thanks to that postorbital boss. Maybe the pressure of the "who's the biggest theropod" competition is pretty intense for these guys.

Putting all this together resulted in the image of Giganotosaurus that accompanies this post. Thanks especially to the big cornified pad bridging the middle of the skull, this is a face that looks more heavy-duty than we’re used to and maybe less generically “allosaurian”. But unfamiliar as it is, I’m happy with this outcome because following evidence to unexpected results is one of the great joys of palaeoart, and I always enjoy rationalising an unusual reconstruction from a foundation in science rather than mere speculation. But, again, I want to stress that this is just my interpretation of information gleaned from a less-than-ideal representation of Giganotosaurus in technical literature. This means I may have made errors obvious to those more experienced with these fossils and, moreover, when the structures discussed here are finally studied for their soft-tissue significance, the outcomes may be very different.

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References

  • Barker, C. T., Naish, D., Newham, E., Katsamenis, O. L., & Dyke, G. (2017). Complex neuroanatomy in the rostrum of the Isle of Wight theropod Neovenator salerii. Scientific Reports, 7(1), 1-8.
  • Brusatte, S. L., & Sereno, P. C. (2007). A new species of Carcharodontosaurus (Dinosauria: Theropoda) from the Cenomanian of Niger and a revision of the genus. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 27(4), 902-916.
  • Calvo, J. O.and Coria, R. (1998). New specimen of Giganotosaurus carolinii (Coria & Salgado, 1995), supports it as the largest theropod ever found. Gaia, 15, 117-122.
  • Canale, J. I., Apesteguía, S., Gallina, P. A., Mitchell, J., Smith, N. D., Cullen, T. M., ... & Makovicky, P. J. (2022). New giant carnivorous dinosaur reveals convergent evolutionary trends in theropod arm reduction. Current Biology.
  • Carr, T. D., Varricchio, D. J., Sedlmayr, J. C., Roberts, E. M., & Moore, J. R. (2017). A new tyrannosaur with evidence for anagenesis and crocodile-like facial sensory system. Scientific Reports, 7(1), 1-11.
  • Cau, A., Dalla Vecchia, F. M., & Fabbri, M. (2012). Evidence of a new carcharodontosaurid from the Upper Cretaceous of Morocco. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, 57(3), 661-665.
  • Coria, R. A., & Currie, P. J. (2003). The braincase of Giganotosaurus carolinii (Dinosauria: Theropoda) from the upper cretaceous of Argentina. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 22(4), 802-811.
  • Chure, D. J., & Loewen, M. A. (2020). Cranial anatomy of Allosaurus jimmadseni, a new species from the lower part of the Morrison Formation (Upper Jurassic) of Western North America. PeerJ, 8, e7803.
  • Coria, R. A., & Currie, P. J. (2006). A new carcharodontosaurid (Dinosauria, Theropoda) from the Upper Cretaceous of Argentina. Geodiversitas, 28(1), 71-118.
  • Coria, R. A., & Salgado, L. (1995). A new giant carnivorous dinosaur from the Cretaceous of Patagonia. Nature, 377(6546), 224-226.
  • Delcourt, R. (2018). Ceratosaur palaeobiology: new insights on evolution and ecology of the southern rulers. Scientific reports, 8(1), 1-12.
  • Eddy, D. R., & Clarke, J. A. (2011). New information on the cranial anatomy of Acrocanthosaurus atokensis and its implications for the phylogeny of Allosauroidea (Dinosauria: Theropoda). PloS one, 6(3), e17932.
  • Hieronymus, T. L., Witmer, L. M., Tanke, D. H., & Currie, P. J. (2009). The facial integument of centrosaurine ceratopsids: morphological and histological correlates of novel skin structures. The Anatomical Record: Advances in Integrative Anatomy and Evolutionary Biology: Advances in Integrative Anatomy and Evolutionary Biology, 292(9), 1370-1396.
  • Novas, F. E., Agnolín, F. L., Ezcurra, M. D., Porfiri, J., & Canale, J. I. (2013). Evolution of the carnivorous dinosaurs during the Cretaceous: the evidence from Patagonia. Cretaceous Research, 45, 174-215.
  • Sereno, P. C., & Brusatte, S. L. (2008). Basal abelisaurid and carcharodontosaurid theropods from the Lower Cretaceous Elrhaz Formation of Niger. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, 53(1), 15-46.
  • Sereno, P. C., Dutheil, D. B., Iarochene, M., Larsson, H. C., Lyon, G. H., Magwene, P. M., ... & Wilson, J. A. (1996). Predatory dinosaurs from the Sahara and Late Cretaceous faunal differentiation. Science, 272(5264), 986-991.
  • Stromer, E. (1936). Ergebnisse der Forschungsreisen Prof. E. Stromers in den Wüsten Ägyptens. VII. Baharije-Kessel und -Stufe mit deren Fauna und Flora. Eine ergänzende Zusammenfassung. Abhandlungen der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Mathematisch-naturwissenschaftliche Abteilung n. f., 33:1–102.


Wednesday, 29 June 2022

Can dinosaur movies have too many dinosaurs?

Yes, against my better judgement, we're going there.
(Publicity image for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. This image is too populous online to find its original source, so let's just assume it's the PR department at Universal/Legendary Pictures.)

So, that’s that. With the release of Jurassic World: Dominion the so-called “Jurassic Era” — which is what certain posters now want us to call the six loosely connected films in the Jurassic Park series — is over. Whether it's actually concluded will surely be determined by box office revenues more than creative necessity but, whatever: for the time being, the Jurassic Park movie series is officially finished.

However we feel about the Jurassic films, we have to acknowledge two facts about them. First, they represent a uniquely successful stream of palaeontology-inspired products. I can’t think of another string of dinosaur movies that have all had theatrical releases, nor has anything dinosaur-related ever generated so many billions of dollars. Once enough time has passed to fully gauge their impact, I’m sure palaeontological historians will give the Jurassic films serious study as a cultural phenomenon that shaped decades of conversations about prehistoric life. Whether we like it or not, 21st Century dinosaur outreach takes place in a big, Jurassic Park-shaped footprint stamped into pop culture.

Second, it’s not controversial to say that the Jurassic series has been critically divisive. Only the 1993 original is regarded as a classic and is widely, deservedly considered to rank alongside Spielberg’s best crowd-pleasers like Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Jurassic sequels, on the other hand, have made a lot of money, but fans and critics often clash about which, if any, rank above mediocre. 2015’s Jurassic World is generally regarded as the best sequel, perhaps aided by borrowing much of its plot structure from the original film, but even this has not escaped accusation of thin, contrived plotting and flat, boring characters. This is to say nothing of the series’ slide away from palaeontological science towards increasingly inaccurate, toyetic creature designs.

Moreover, and echoing broader trends in blockbuster cinema, the Jurassic films have also become increasingly action-orientated. This means, relative to the original, they feature many more dinosaur sequences. The new trilogy in particular is stuffed with as many dinosaurs as each film can bear. Box office receipts show that this elevated level of prehistoric mayhem has paid off, as least among general audiences and we can't truly blame the Jurassic filmmakers for adding more dinosaurs: they are, after all, making dinosaur movies. Aren't they just giving us what we want and expect? Maybe, but I suspect this is actually the fault line along which these films divide opinion. If you're the sort of person who punches the air every time a Jurassic film includes a new species, no matter how fleetingly and inconsequentially, you've probably enjoyed the last three films. If, however, you tire quickly of what can be repetitive dinosaur sequences and want a little more in terms of story and characterisation from your Jurassic experience, you're more likely to view this dino-centricity as mindless, dull prehistoric noise.

This raises the question of whether dinosaur films can, perhaps against expectation, go too far with their main draw: can a dinosaur film actually have too many dinosaurs? The answer, of course, is a matter of opinion, but one way we might try to answer it objectively lies in revisiting the only Jurassic film we all agree is genuinely good: the original Jurassic Park. Were these filmmakers all in on dinosaurs, adding as many as their budget and technology would allow, or is the famously low dinosaur screen time of Jurassic Park a creative decision?

Now eventually you plan to have dinosaurs in your dinosaur film, right? Hello? Hello? Yes?

The story behind the script for the first Jurassic film is recounted in Shay and Duncan’s 1993 book The Making of Jurassic Park, and much of the following is taken from that source. The script took a long time to come together, going through several rewrites by different people. Original book author Michael Crichton was contracted to take the first stab at the film's screenplay but admitted that his heart was never in it. Crichton had literally just finished the novel and simply wasn’t interested in adapting the story so quickly after putting his own version to bed. A second treatment was penned by Malia Scotch Marmo, who’d just written Spielberg’s 1991 Peter Pan adventure Hook. Her version is notable for blending the character of Ian Malcolm with that of Alan Grant to give the latter more personality, as the weakly fleshed-out characters of Crichton’s novels were regarded as a problem that needed solving for the film.

Photograph of the essentially completed, but never used baby Triceratops built for Jurassic Park. The scene with this animatronic ended up being abandoned for creative reasons, despite the money invested in bringing it to completion. Fans would briefly see this guy in action during a very quick cameo in The Lost World, however. Image from Mike Tharme's Twitter feed.

But Marmo’s interpretation wasn’t well received either and, relatively close to the start of filming, another writer was hired for a third stab at cracking the story. Enter David Koepp, who you’re surely familiar with from some of the biggest blockbusters of the 1990s and 2000s: Jurassic Park and its first sequel, 1996’s Mission: Impossible, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, the 2005 War of the Worlds and… er… Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (hey, I didn’t say they were necessarily good blockbusters). Koepp proved to be the person who could finally tap the full potential of Crichton’s novel, perhaps because he and Spielberg agreed on a major problem with their source material: it had too many dinosaurs. Lest it be thought I’m generalising or paraphrasing, this is exactly how Spielberg described adapting the novel.

“Believe it or not… the first thing I thought was that the book had too many dinosaurs in it. I didn’t think it was physically possible to make a movie that chock-full of dinosaurs… What I wanted to do was boil the book down and choose my seven or eight favourite scenes and base the script around those. So we crunched the book.”

Steven Spielberg, quoted in Shay and Duncan (1993, p. 12)

Given that the first Jurassic Park was pioneering so many new special effects, we might assume that Spielberg’s reservations reflect limitations of technology and budget. But while these were surely limiting factors, they were not the only considerations when it came to losing dinosaur sequences. In fact, we know expensive effects were scrapped after script changes in at least one instance, when a year’s worth of development and production on an animatronic baby Triceratops was abandoned late in pre-production. This effect was intended for a whimsical scene where Lex Murphy would ride around on it, further demonstrating the "dinosaurs were not monsters" ethos etched into the writing and production philosophy of Jurassic Park. But Koepp found the scene interrupted the flow and tone of the film wherever he placed it in the script. As he explained:

“If we put the [Triceratops] ride before the T. rex attack, it slowed down the movie; if we put it after the T. rex attack, why would this kid who has just been attacked by a giant lizard go and ride one?”

David Koepp, quoted in Shay and Duncan (1993, p. 64)

Because Koepp was working on the screenplay at the 11th hour, this decision meant that work on the 1.5 m long baby Triceratops robot was abandoned literally days away from its completion, all so that the film would have a tighter, leaner story. As much as Koepp felt that the audience needed a reminder that dinosaurs were “innocent” animals following the T. rex attack, a child riding a bounding baby Triceratops would have been a tonal shift too far, and certainly out of character for a traumatised child. With this dinosaur scene cut, Koepp added a little more whimsy to the foraging Brachiosaurus sequence, allowing our shell-shocked characters to be reminded that dinosaurs aren't evil or vindictive. They're just animals, as Grant puts it, doing what they do.

Concept art for the Jurassic Park rafting sequence, swiped from the Jurassic Wiki. This doubtless would have been an action-packed scene, but would it have added anything to the film?

This was not the only planned dinosaur sequence that was cut for pacing and tone. Several parts of the novel that seemed tailor-made for cinema were abandoned, such as Muldoon tranquillising the Tyrannosaurus and the famous river sequence. The latter, where Grant and the kids escape a swimming T. rex in a raft, was included in all previous drafts of the screenplay and went as far as having concept art produced, but Koepp removed it without hesitation. In discussing why, he addresses the “too many dinosaurs” issue directly, noting that Crichton's novel was actually bogged down by its large number of dinosaur episodes. He remarked that “It seemed to me that at certain points in the book we were being taken on sort of an obligatory tour past every dinosaur the park had to offer", such that "the raft trip was rather redundant” (Shay and Duncan 1993, p. 55). Clearly, Koepp didn't consider dinosaurs for the sake of dinosaurs an excuse for their inclusion in Jurassic Park: they had to add something to the film to justify their presence. The result is that dinosaur scenes only constitute about 15 minutes of Jurassic Park’s two-hour runtime. Their off-screen presence drives the film, of course, but almost 90% of the film passes without a dinosaur in shot.

If we turn to literature, we find that this kind of reserved approach to creating a dinosaur story is in good company. Other classic works of "dinosaur" fiction such as Jules Verne’s 1864 Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Conan Doyle’s 1912 The Lost World and Ray Bradbury’s 1955 A Sound of Thunder feature prehistoric animals in memorable sequences but, like the first Jurassic Park movie, these are kept short and impactful. I wonder if this reflects a shared realisation about the narrative potential of fictional prehistoric animals: as initially exciting as they are, they quickly exhaust what they can contribute to a story. Most fictional dinosaurs invariably have to interact with people and their roles are essentially limited to inspiring awe or terror, which means their actions are either peaceful or violent. We can vary where and why these interactions occur, and we may gain additional mileage from featuring different prehistoric species, but it’s difficult not to basically rehash the same ideas and scenes over and over once dinosaurs turn up in a story. And because dinosaurs are real animals, we can’t ascribe crazy, unexpected biology or properties to them, either — not with a straight face, anyway. Jurassic World; Dominion was never going to end the series with a reveal that an evil interdimensional dinosaur was the real villain of the series all along, or show that the dinosaurs were really birthed by an awful, vengeful Megadinosaurus queen. More the pity, perhaps?

My take on the most famous scene from Ray Bradbury's 1955 A Sound of Thunder. This short story is possibly the ultimate example of lean dinosaur storytelling as it features only a single, short interaction with Tyrannosaurus. Despite this, it remains a highly effective, thought-provoking tale and contains some of the best prose describing the appearance and movement of a large theropod ever written. Check it out if you haven't.

Compounding these creative issues for dinosaur films are the huge budgets needed to create dinosaur visual effects. Movie dinosaurs are so costly that their films must appeal to broad, mainstream audiences to be financially viable, and this means avoiding creative choices that will alienate casual viewers, especially children and families. Anything too scientific and “boring” is unlikely to feature, as is anything too violent or horrifying. This, I suspect, is why the Jurassic films are the only game in town for dinosaur motion pictures. Whether humans meet dinosaurs through time travel, in a “lost world” setting or via resurrection from fossils, the Jurassic films are already exploring the full remit of what movie dinosaurs can do. There’s probably not enough creative space for another franchise to present their own, fully distinguished take on dinosaur scenarios, especially given the potential financial losses if such efforts flopped.

Back to the Park

In representing its own contained franchise, the Jurassic series represents a unique case study of attempts to escape these creative restrictions. But it seems fair to say that, even after six instalments, the franchise never really figured out how to get more agency from its reptile stars. Repetition, not innovation, is the order of the day, leading to essentially the same moments playing out in each instalment (as super-seriously scientifically documented by Dave Hone, see his tweet below). Instead of new dinosaur dramas, we simply get more of the same dinosaur scenes. This suggests a creative ethos of, when in doubt, add more dinosaurs!

Ramping up the dinosaur content began in the first Jurassic sequels but reached its apogee within the most recent films. Whereas Jurassic Park slowly led us into the world of recreated dinosaurs and established its setting, characters and story before letting dinosaur havoc commence at the one hour mark, the sequels have started their action sequences earlier and earlier. Jurassic World has Velociraptors attacking their handlers after 25 minutes, people are visibly chomped in the first five minutes of Fallen Kingdom, and Dominion is the least patient of all, showing prehistoric animals attacking people within the first minute. And this is where we can start to explore whether an “add more dinosaurs” approach has drawbacks, because all these extra dinosaur scenes absorb time from the fabrics that actually tie films together: stories, characters and themes. And, OK, we might ask who is really watching a dinosaur film for great characters and stories, but we've seen that perfectly serviceable, universally-liked dinosaur films can be done (Jurassic Park) and, moreover, screenwriters should be aiming to have something to hang a film on to give their dinosaur action agency. Putting characters in peril is toothless if we don’t care whether they survive or not. Writing a "dinosaur film" doesn't excuse filmmakers from attempting to make the best, most engaging film they can.

Viewed from this perspective, Fallen Kingdom and Dominion are especially full of what is ultimately pointless dinosaur action, wheeling out prehistoric animals to menace our heroes for a short time (often less than a minute) before moving on to the next, equally pointless encounter. Portions of these films are like riding a dinosaur-themed ghost train where dinosaurs pop out to roar at us before disappearing into the shadows, never to be seen again. And lest it be thought I'm some sort of film snob (I'm not: my benchmark for enjoying most films is how closely they approximate Evil Dead II), the tedium of such scenes was not lost on Steven Spielberg himself, who has candidly spoken of how bored he was making the (relatively) dinosaur-heavy The Lost World:

“I beat myself up…growing more and more impatient with myself… It made me wistful about doing a talking picture because sometimes I got the feeling I was just making this big silent-roar movie… I found myself saying ‘is that all there is? It’s not enough for me.’”

Steven Spielberg, quoted in McBride (2011, p. 455)

It’s hard not to contrast this creative approach and the impact of these dinosaur sequences with those of the first film. Jurassic Park clearly relied on the tried and true creative philosophy of “less is more” and carefully managed its story and tone so that its dinosaur action scenes, once unleashed, were genuinely exciting. But the successive films seem to have embraced a “more is more” approach that prioritises dinosaur violence over anything else. For me, this is one of the main reasons that the Jurassic World series has been such a flatline: the overabundance of dinosaurs roaring and fighting starts to get in the way of the films, actually undermining my enjoyment despite, in theory, adding to the excitement. To give an example, here are six minutes of the Fallen Kingdom volcanic eruption set piece. This takes place, for context, about 35-40 minutes in:


What stands out here is, first; wow, there are heaps of dinosaurs packed into this segment, but second, most are disposable, throwaway additions. The Baryonyx, which is never named, set up or returned to, comes and goes within 90 seconds. Likewise, the Allosaurus menacing the tumbling gyrosphere is there for a moment, and then gone. Clearly, the most important dinosaurs are the stampeding collective: they're what is really driving the action and story at this point, along with the erupting volcano. To give credit where it's due, I actually find the fleeing dinosaurs and eruption pretty engaging (as ridiculous as the galloping ankylosaurs and so are ) and, as our heroes shelter behind a fallen tree being smashed to pieces by charging dinosaurs, I'm curious to see what happens next. But then everything stops... so we can have a quick dinosaur fight scene. No more eruption, no more stampede. All the scene's momentum is discarded so Carnotaurus can slowly stalk around the human characters before getting into a fight with Sinoceratops. Why these dinosaurs are fighting rather than fleeing like all the rest isn't clear, but within seconds none of it matters: the Carnotaurus is put down (killed? I'm not sure) by the passing Tyrannosaurus, which then stops to roar in defiance despite the island literally exploding behind it. The T. rex then leaves, paying no attention to the humans, and the eruption and dinosaur stampede resumes as if someone has thrown a switch offscreen.

Along with killing all momentum, this dinosaur fight is confusing and, uh oh, gets us asking questions about the film. Why weren't these dinosaurs running away? Why didn't the Carnotaurus predate the easily-caught people instead of breaking off to attack a multi-tonne horned dinosaur? Why did the T. rex attack the Carnotaurus and then just walk off? Does T. rex watch Parks and Recreation and wanted to help out Andy Dwyer? Where did all the stampeding dinosaurs go? While the Baryonyx and Allosaurus portions are so superficial and inconsequential that they don't hurt the flow of the film by themselves (if, admittedly, such incessant "dinosaur cameos" of the World films do become repetitive and grating, especially in Dominion), the Carnotaurus sequence totally distracts from what should be our main focus at this part of the film. I guess the logic was that giant reptiles fighting is exciting and will thus make the eruption more engaging, but it actually does the opposite: it sucks energy and drive from the movie. It also presents a problem for story progression because it leaves the film struggling to raise the stakes later on. How do you create a situation more dangerous and exciting than dinosaurs fighting on an exploding island? Doesn’t everything seem a bit flat and dull after that? These additions are so out of place that I strongly suspect they were only added because the film otherwise lacked large theropods fighting, as if that's the only way to put drama into a dinosaur film.

Unrelated clip from Jurassic Park.

The irony in this, of course, is that the World films also revel in nostalgia for the first Jurassic Park, and yet the creative philosophy behind them is almost antithetical to that used by Koepp and Spielberg. In my view, this it shows little understanding of what made the first film great. We talk a lot about how the revolutionary dinosaur effects of Jurassic Park were integral to its success, and how its portrayal of post-Dinosaur Renaissance science blew audiences away. We also acknowledge that Jurassic Park is a rare "lightning in a bottle"-style production, the output of some of the best filmmakers of the early 1990s working at the top of their game. These are all true points, but we should add “creative restraint” to this list of success factors. A “less is more” dinosaur philosophy allowed for a logical, well-paced story with likeable, charismatic characters and truly iconic, memorable dinosaur scenes. It might only be 12% dinosaurs, but that's enough to make their screen time special and satisfying without any risk of it becoming boring or repetitive. This allows the dinosaur sequences to be the emotional high points of the movie, all choreographed perfectly to the developing story. The super-tense mid-movie T. rex attack initiates the start of chaos on the island. The Velociraptor kitchen scene ups the ante as we approach the climax, suddenly throwing the kids — hitherto shielded by adults against danger — against two smart, deadly predators. And the climactic battle between Velociraptor and Tyrannosaurus finishes the film with a flourish, saving our heroes at the last moment in the most exciting way possible. These are dinosaur action sequences that build upon one another and drive the story, such that we know, intuitively, where we are in the movie. You needn’t look at your watch to know that the sight of the Tyrannosaurus roaring as the “when dinosaurs ruled the Earth” banner slips past means the film is over. This is blockbuster entertainment done with real craft and care, and it remains the best dinosaur film ever made not despite its lack of dinosaurs, but because of its lack of dinosaurs. It’s no surprise that the World films mine the iconography of Jurassic Park so frequently because, in never taking a break from throwing dinosaurs around, they never established compelling enough stories, characters or moments to create their own iconic elements.

So perhaps, as contradictory as it seems, the Jurassic film series makes a case that dinosaur films can work a lot better when they have fewer dinosaurs or, at least, when dinosaur action isn't prioritised over more fundamental and important components of filmmaking. The problems outlined here are not unique to the Jurassic sequels, of course: we could level the "too many dinosaurs" criticism at plenty of other films, from Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong to even the likes of 1966’s One Million Years BC. And I think it's important to add that "too many dinosaurs" doesn't necessarily ruin a film, but they might diminish our enjoyment to greater or lesser extent.

Ultimately the point made here is just a dinosaur-specific reminder that special effects and action alone do not make good films: it's memorable stories, characters and situations that resonate most with critics and audiences alike. So if this really is the end of the Jurassic franchise, let’s hope that the next generation of dinosaur films doesn’t just bring fresh ideas, fresh stories, and fresh palaeontological science to our screens, but that they also reflect on a crucial question for this niche genre. Can dinosaur movies have too many dinosaurs? Well, if you want everyone to enjoy your film, and you want to make a film that will last the ages, then maybe yes, yes they can.

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References

  • McBride, J. (2011). Steven Spielberg: A Biography, 2nd edition. University Press of Mississippi.
  • Shay, D., & Duncan, J. (1993). The Making of Jurassic Park. Ballantine Books.