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Sunday, 2 December 2012

The Joy of Rex

There is enough text, imagery and pop culture references to Tyrannosaurus rex that, if laid end to end, they would give the Martian rover Curiosity a bridge back home. (Image above: my painting of Tyrannosaurus, which extends that bridge far enough to give Curiosity something to wipe its feet on when it gets back). Tyrannosaurus has invaded the consciousness of palaeontologists and the public like no other extinct species. Far older than the dodo, more spectacular than mammoths and more frightening than the gigantic sauropods, Tyrannosaurus is the ultimate symbol of prehistoric life. Its rise to fame was helped by being discovered in plenty of time for dinosaur movie makers to become acquainted with its size and awesomeness, by being the largest predatory dinosaur for the best part of a century, and having a PR-perfect name. You don't have to be a scholar of ancient languages to know that something called Tyrannosaurus rex is going to be a whole heap of badassery, and unlike many Greek names, it's pronounceable on your first try. The truncated binomial, T. rex, is a piece of cake to remember and sounds cool, like the name of a sports car, a swish computer processer, or an assassinatobot from the Terminator franchise. The latter is entirely fitting for an animal of gigantic size, bone crushing bite and ability to swallow eight year old children-sized prey whole.

Like most child dinofanciers, I drew buttloads of Tyrannosaurus when I was growing up, a hobby spurned on by the 1993 release of Jurassic Park. Looking back on that movie, Tyrannosaurus was clearly its star and the creature that most effectively demonstrated the transition from the lumbering, lizard-like dinosaurs of Hollywood's Golden Age to the fast, cunning monsters we recognise them as today. The brachiosaur may have evoked awe, but it didn't behave in a dissimilar fashion to other movie sauropods. Velociraptor revealed an unfamiliar and sinister side to the dinosaur cannon, but mot people had no concept of Velociraptor or other dromaeosaurs before then. Tyrannosaurus, though, was already familiar through its out-of-shape, tail-dragging variants being featured in the 1925 The Lost World, the 1933 King Kong and 1964 Valley of Gwangi*. When the toned, fast and ferocious Jurassic Park version started overturning cars, smashing a small building to matchwood, and almost outrunning a jeep, it was clear that the perception of dinosaurs had received a complete makeover, and that their interpretation as lizard-like creatures had been banished.

*Yes, yes: I know. Gwangi wasn't a straight Tyrannosaurus, but he was half. Harryhausen made Gwangi, as he did his other prehistoric creatures, by compositing his favourite bits of different animals into one model. Gwangi was a mix of Tyrannosaurus and Allosaurus, which Harryhausen termed 'Allo-rex'.


Since 2005, I've drawn considerably fewer Tyrannosaurus, and certainly never painted one. In coming back to Tyrannosaurus after all this time, I made a wholehearted effort to do it justice. All too often, Tyrannosaurus is rendered as a generic theropod with short, two-fingered arms, a large head and massive teeth, but such portrayals miss a lot of remarkable anatomy (above, lateral view of the restored skull and mandible of FMNH PR2081, better known as the Tyrannosaurus called 'Sue', showing the characteristic shapes common to Tyrannosaurus skulls. Image by me, 2008). Tyrannosaurus is the acme of tyrant dinosaur evolution, knocking 'standard' tyrannosaurid anatomy up to 11 to become on the most 'extreme' dinosaurs known. Anatomical quirks include the very wide temporal region of the skull, the abrupt, vertical termination to the muzzle, and the cool shades over the eyes. Their necks probably heavily muscled, judging by the space for neck muscle attachment on the Tyrannosaurus skull, cervical vertebrae and anterior trunk skeleton. The torso shape is unusual too, with their gently arcing ribs forming a thoroughly barrel-chested torso, which would partially obscure the big thigh muscles when viewed from anterior aspect. As with depiction of a coelurosaur nowadays, a decision had to be made about whether to apply a covering of feathers, as is increasingly plausible for theropods of all sizes. I followed the data offered by several scrappy Tyrannosaurus skin impressions showing pebbly scales for much of the body, but also figured that a few large, thickened scales across the face, neck and back wouldn't look out of place. These were animals that habitually tried to bite each others faces off after all, so few bits of toughened hide would not have gone amiss. Oh, and a few feathers can be seen at the end of the tail, because even tough animals have their sensitive sides.

Some time was spent pondering what to have my Tyrannosaurus doing, too. Tyrannosaurus is a seriously busy animal in palaeoartistic renditions. It's always doing something, be it roaring, chasing a hadrosaur, eating a dead Triceratops, roaring, running for no obvious reason, roaring, stalking unseen animals, roaring, making or nurturing babies, roaring, battling other theropods or perhaps roaring (if our depictions of Tyrannosaurus are accurate, the Maastrichtian fauna of North America must've been deafened by the incessant screaming of the local tyrannosaurs, because they always seem to be making noise in our pictures of them!). To avoid these clich├ęs, the Tyrannosaurus here is doing, well, not very much, really. He's just standing around, looking like he's trying to remember why he walked over to that point in the first place, or perhaps wondering where he left his car keys. Point is, it's doing nothing in particular, which seems to be a relative rarity among tyrannosaur palaeoart, but perhaps allows for a little more appreciation of its shape and form. Plus, this is clearly a Tyrannosaurus from the northern extreme of its range, where forests of conifer and deciduous trees were common. I think I may have spent more time on the plants in this image than any other I've drawn, which requires a hat tip towards palaeoart man of the moment John Conway. John's attention to vegetation in his palaeoart has shown up other palaeoartists for all too often using plants as a generic, green backdrop to their work, which I'm entirely guilty of, and need to stop. There does seem to have been a bit of a push against purely green, tropical worlds in Mesozoic palaeoart recently , which joins the 'anti-shrink wrap' palaeoart movement mentioned in the previous post in marking a new age in our depictions of ancient worlds.

Anyway, I've gone on enough for the time being. I think the above painting is one of the more successful bits of artwork I've done, which may be why I'm still going on about it. Still, so much for a word-light approach to blogging.

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