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Monday, 1 September 2014

The accuracy of palaeoart and the 'new' Spinosaurus

Spinosaurus, big and small versions, poking about a stream in Cretaceous Morocco. Someone's about to ask if these chaps should have humps or sails - head to Palaeontology Online for my thoughts on this, and read on for why it doesn't resemble the (in?)famous National Geographic thumbnail.
Corking news, all: I've got a new article out at Palaeontology Online on the accuracy of palaeoart, explaining how confident - or not - we can be about different aspects of extinct animal appearance. It features two new bits of palaeoart, a Spinosaurus and a bizarre - but not implausible - reconstruction of Camarasaurus. The former started life as a simple illustration to make a point about reconstructing fatty tissues (including camel-like humps) in fossil animals, but I thought it warranted some elaboration: the painting above is the result.

The goal of the Palaeontology Online piece is not another 'how to?' guide to palaeoart, but a piece specifically targeted at those who want to know how accurate our restorations are. I've attempted to outline the reliability of standard palaeoart methods including phylogenetic bracketing, restoring musculoskeletal systems, placing fatty tissues, choosing integument types and, of course, deciding on colours and patterns. Note that the few years of optimism we've had for restoring fossil colour using melanosomes are over, because several new studies have highlighted numerous concerns with this technique: more on that at Palaeontology Online. All Yesterdays gets further mainstreamification, as does the mysterious, unexplained 'Support Original Palaeoart' logo (more on that in due time), and there's some philosophising over the goal of palaeoartists: are we actually bothered about 'the truth', or more concerned with making plausible art in line with fossil and biological evidence? OK, that's enough signposting for now: point your browser this way for the full piece, and be sure to leave any feedback below.

Just a quick note on the Spinosaurus illustrations here and in the article: they are not based on the thumbnail image of a unusual Spinosaurus skeleton at the National Geographic website, despite this spawning much excitement, umpteen new spinosaur renditions and revisions to Spinosaurus illustrations all over the Web. As stressed at Palaeontology Online, palaeoart is a scientific process requiring verified and trustworthy data. We have no idea how reliable the radical National Geographic depiction of Spinosaurus is because no information about the mount has been made public, and the image itself is tiny: it's silly to think there's enough resolution there to understand its anatomy. Moreover, there's enough counter-intuitive and weird morphology in that tiny photo to justify waiting for the data behind the mount to be published so it's accuracy can be evaluated. I'm not saying it's wrong, but I am joining the chorus of bona fide theropod experts in suggesting restraint against adopting it as the 'definitive new look' for Spinosaurus until we know more about it. The reconstructions here and at Palaeontology Online are based on Scott Hartman's skeletal: the appearance of the juveniles is speculative.

Coming soon (probably): exciting news from the world of sauropods!

UPDATE (02/09/14): Like buses, it seems palaeoart articles all arrive at the same time. Head to Tetrapod Zoology for Darren Naish's detailed article on the changing life appearance of dinosaurs.

11 comments:

  1. "...are we actually bothered about 'the truth', or more concerned with making plausible art in line with fossil and biological evidence?"

    With my own palaeo-illustration, I know I am very much interested in reality or 'the truth', but the evidence we have doesn't allow me to reach that, so I have to settle for as close as possible.

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  2. Excellent thoughts and questions. I heartily agree with your about the speculation; it's well and good as long as it's not mistaken for life restoration and remains understood as 'speculative' Stevie Moore, studiospectre

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  3. Excellent article Mark. I've lost track of how many times in the last few weeks I've had to repeat the mantra that we won't know anything about the new Spinosaurus material until it's published.

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    1. Augh Wordpress ate my post I think. I found this italian NatGeo page with more information from the exhibit I think (the life restoration in the link below is one of the thumbnail graphics on the english event page)

      http://www.nationalgeographic.it/scienza/2011/09/14/foto/come_torna_in_vita_un_dinosauro-502106/1/#media

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  4. Someone should really post an article about the hands of giant theropods. Look Ma, big claws - can't even reach the mouth. Were they even used for getting food?

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    1. Aha - you need to listen to this episode of Tetrapodcats.

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    2. Nice.. thanks for the lead. I'll probably have another listen since I can't get over the fact that Spinosaurus was mentioned near the 1hr7minute mark AND the mental image of Darren doing the floppy frilled lizard bit. I did get the gist that we just don't know what they did with those arms (and that different theropod groups had different issues).

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    3. ...AND I'll stop complaining about the hands. The supposed "new" Spinosaurus is apparently weirder.

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  5. Would the sauropod in question happen to be Dreadnoughtus?? :) Or something even more mysterious?

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    1. Alas, no. What a cool name, though. Entirely befitting for a giant sauropod.

      This is something just as a neat, though: now confirmed as emerging early next week.

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  6. This art is really atmospheric. You don't focus your interest only on the animals.Like Scleromochlus, the animal is part of its environment. What type of vegetation have you painted here ? Were you inspired by some semi-arid ''modern'' landscapes , or Createceous Marocco was like nothing from now ?

    Oliver

    Oliver

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