Thursday, 12 December 2013

Shedding [no] light on dinosaur predation scenes

The carcharodontosaurian Neovenator salerii stalks a pair of rebbachisaurid sauropods in Lower Cretaceous Britain, using darkness as cover. (If this image is impossibly dim, a brighter, albeit less atmospheric version can be seen at the end of the post.)
Finding time for Blogging has recently become quite difficult despite no shortage of topics to cover or new paintings to post. In the interest of keeping things alive, here's a quick painting I recently finished which tackles that most traditional subject of dinosaur palaeoart: predation. This is a rare topic for my work because the ferocity, speed and armaments of theropods and their prey are subjects of so many depictions that I almost find them artistically off-putting. For all their dynamism - gaping maws, slashing claws, wrestling limbs - they've become so common that they're (whisper it quietly) a bit boring. Even the most exciting experiences become dulled if overexposed, and we may have hit that mark with dinosaur predation scenes. Not to mention that a lot of the overly-done operatics associated with dinosaur predation art really start to grate after a fashion. Theropods roaring at their prey; 'slasher poses', animals wrestling in long, drawn out battles; completely mismatched combatant species which bear little resemblance to predator/prey interactions in modern times (seriously chaps: stop drawing a dromaeosaurs attacking animals hundreds of times their size - they're not freakin' superheroes!), and so forth. So yes, for the most part, I switch off when I see depictions of dinosaur predation in favour of things which I find more conceptually interesting. Like, er... animals standing around doing nothing, lying down, walking about or perhaps, if I'm feeling adventurous, chewing a leaf.*

*Bear in mind that, in being British, I'm allergic to excitement.

My interest in dinosaur predation art was piqued recently however thanks to re-watching the excellent BBC series Planet Earth and The Life of Mammals. Both feature copious amounts of footage filmed at night using infra-red lights, revealing how many animal species are as active nocturnally as they are during the day. Many species undertake complex nocturnal activities in spite of poor night vision, and it's obvious that this brings clear advantages to species with generally higher visual acuity or those with eyes specifically adapted to work well in dim conditions. Generally speaking, this means advantage: predators.

Did the same apply to Mesozoic ecosystems? Possibly. We can currently only speculate on the day-night activity cycles of ancient animals (and no, using sclerotic rings and orbit shape to infer nocturnality as proposed by Schmitz and Motani [2011] doesn't work: see Hall et al. [2011]), but given what we know of dinosaur physiology and palaeoecology, facultative nocturnal habits for some species do not seem out of the question. Theropod dinosaurs, like modern carnivores, often have more acutely developed senses than the herbivores they likely often preyed upon, and it isn't crazy to think that some would use this to their advantage by hunting at night. We may further speculate that - like some modern carnivores - nocturnally active theropods would punch above their weight, attacking unusually big or dangerous prey because their ability to remain undetected is that much greater (see, for a famous modern example, the lions and elephants in the BBC video below).

From here, it's easy to see how I came up with the image above. It shows the carcharodontosaurian Neovenator, one of the largest theropods known from the Lower Cretaceous Wessex Formation, creeping close to a couple of rebbachisaurid sauropods (a relatively recent addition to the Wessex dinosaur fauna, but currently not represented by any name-bearing material). The Neovenator can see the sauropods with much greater clarity than they can see it, although they are not completely oblivious to its presence. I've tried to instil a sense of agitation and nervousness about them, brought on by the proximity of something which sounds and smells like trouble. Despite its ocular advantage, the Neovenator is not charging in with blazing teeth in typical palaeoart fashion, instead biding its time, keeping low and quiet, and waiting for the right moment to launch an attack. The sauropods are, after all, a bit bigger than it is (estimated as 9 m long by Mannion 2009, compared to 7.5 m for Neovenator) and a lot heavier. I don't imagine Neovenator would normally take prey as large as this, and is only taking such a chance because the night has shifted odds slightly in its favour. Still, a clumsy move would not only ruin a successful stalk but also risk injury, so caution is the best policy. Maybe the copse behind the sauropods is part of the plan too, with Neovenator driving the sauropods into a setting where they're likely to encounter unseen obstacles and pitfalls. Hopefully, the dim nature of the painting helps convey some of the uncertainty and dread that the sauropods are experiencing. Like the sauropods, we can't see much, only just enough to be sure that the rebbachisaurids are in trouble, and that the game is currently Neovenator's to lose.

I've not had the time to check thoroughly, but it does seem that images of dinosaurs in near darkness are pretty rare, and maybe that's something worth thinking about changing. Palaeoart is primarily about showing off the anatomy and form of animals but, if we're trying to create mood, we may want to take bold steps away from clearly lit subjects shown in broad daylight. There's a lot of atmosphere to be found in the unseen or the murky and, as with adding atmosphere to any visual medium, less is often more. Using extremes of lighting or visually-limiting weather conditions may obscure some details of the animals we're aiming to show, but it can tell us a lot about the biology and 'character' of a particular species. An 'extreme' environment becomes a character in its own right, and the animals have to respond to their surroundings rather than simply existing within them. I enjoyed painting these Pelorosaurus in a rainstorm (below), for instance, because the picture seems to convey how tough these animals would have to be. There's no shelter large enough for sauropod-sized animals, so they simply must have endured any awful conditions thrown at them. This isn't a great picture for saying 'this is what Pelorosaurus looked like', but we get a good sense of the hardy nature of these animals, as well as the message that their physiology is capable of sustaining them through hard times. Hopefully, the barely-seen postures and positioning of the animals in the predation scene at the top of this post convey a similar sense of character, as well as throwing some new light (or removing it, I guess) from a familiar palaeoart subject. It would be remiss of me to talk about atmospheric palaeoart without mentioning Doug Henderson's new online gallery, a site the internet has sorely needed for some time and a veritable masterclass in using environments to create moody, character-filled palaeoart.

Pelorosaurus conyberi in the rain, looking all tough and moody. For more on this image, head to this post.
So that's my brief take on dinosaur predation then: a barely discernible scene of virtually immobile, quiet animals without a single tooth, claw or roar in sight. Coming next (probably): something more substantial on a boring old ornithopod that's on the lee slope of fame.

UPDATE (almost immediately after posting): Predictably, a couple of people are suggesting the image at the top of the page is a little dim. Here's a slightly brighter version to show what's going on.

  • Hall, M. I., Kirk, E. C., Kamilar, J. M., & Carrano, M. T. (2011). Comment on “Nocturnality in dinosaurs inferred from scleral ring and orbit morphology”. Science, 334(6063), 1641-1641.
  • Mannion, P. D. (2009). A rebbachisaurid sauropod from the Lower Cretaceous of the Isle of Wight, England. Cretaceous Research, 30(3), 521-526.
  • Schmitz, L., & Motani, R. (2011). Nocturnality in dinosaurs inferred from scleral ring and orbit morphology. Science, 332(6030), 705-708.


  1. "Bear in mind that, in being British, I'm allergic to excitement."

    I'm an over-excited Mediterranean guy, but strongly agree with you: almost all theropod predation scenes are boring (and not "a bit") and too superheroistic to be considered as naturalistic illustrations.

  2. And I'm a cool-cat from socal, that pic is super stoney... brah. It's like night vision equipped theropods yo!

  3. Pity we cant use sclerotic ring and orbit morphology to predict activity patterns--it seemed like a very informative glimpse into the lives of animals we will never see in life. Unrealistic predation scenes have plagued depictions of extinct predators for as long as they have been known--so yes, naturally it gets dull. Itwould be very, very nice to see a realistic predation scenefor, say, Deinonychus in which the predator stalksits prey, catchesit after a short sprint, imobilizesit efficientlyandbegins feeding. This would fit their morphology admirably and not require longand unrealistic wrestling bouts.

  4. @Tayo Bethel

    "Itwould be very, very nice to see a realistic predation scenefor, say, Deinonychus in which the predator stalksits prey, catchesit after a short sprint, imobilizesit efficientlyandbegins feeding."

    It's been done (in reference to the bottom pic in this link: ).

    @Mark Witton

    "The carcharodontosaurian Neovenator salerii stalks a pair of rebbachisaurid sauropods in Lower Cretaceous Britain, using darkness as cover."

    While not a night scene, the pic in this link reminds me of yours in that the Deinonychus pack is using the shadows to creep close to the tenontosaurs (which "are not completely oblivious to its presence"):