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Tuesday, 6 October 2015

New sauropodoramas: Stormy brachiosaurs! Apatosaurine brontosmash!

Realising that Recreating an Age of Reptiles was a bit light on sauropod art, I've been beavering away on two additional sauropodoramas* to pad things out a bit. I thought I'd share them here.

*Sauropods are such special animals that they deserve their own nomenclature for most things, including artwork. See, for another example, 'shards of excellence'.

The first is a reworking of a 2013 image of the Wealden (probable) brachiosaur Pelorosaurus conybeari in hammering wind and rain. We know that Wealden climates were subject to storms and intense downpours on occasion (lightning and floods being, of course, key elements in the production of fossil-rich plant debris horizons in certain Wealden deposits) and it stands to reason that any sauropods around when those rains arrived would have got quite wet indeed. I don't say that just casually: the prospects of being a wild animal the size of a house mean that you're actually pretty exposed to just about everything weather can throw at you. When unexpected meteorological fit hits the shan, your options as a giant are pretty limited. Running away is out, because your legs are pillar-like structures adapted for supporting immense weight, not nimble escape. Seeking shelter is not an option either, because you're bigger than everything else around you. You're just too darned huge to do anything but stand there and take it. The life of a sauropod must've been spent baking in the sun, being battered by wind, and drenched in rain. I find that idea quite romantic and evocative as an artist. When painting sauropods, I often wonder how cracked, weathered and worn their skin must've been through a lifetime of battles with changing weather.

Like masts in a storm, three Pelorosaurus conybeari brave typically English weather, c. 135 million years ago. They're doing their best to look tough next to a couple of rainbows.
Second is an image inspired by a recent SVPCA talk by sauropod expert Mike Taylor and his colleagues Matt Wedel, Darren Naish and Brian Engh. Regular readers of the palaeoblogosphere will probably already know where this is going, given that Mike's talk (and the upcoming Wedel et al. paper) has been given some hefty coverage at SV:POW!. Those familiar with sauropods will know that apatosaurines (Apatosaurus, Brontosaurus and a few other taxa) have atypically proportioned, large and robust neck vertebrae, with their cervical ribs being especially elongated and reinforced. These structures possess peculiar buttresses on their underside which, it seems, are not products of muscle or ligament attachment (if they are, they have no modern analogue). Instead, they might relate to an epidermal feature like a boss or horn, as such structures sometimes leave peculiar swellings on underlying bones. Exactly what these anatomies indicate has long been puzzling, and all the more so because all apatosaurines show neck vertebrae with these features. Some (like Brontosaurus) were more extreme than others in development of these features, but even modest apatosaurines were doing crazy, mysterious stuff with their neck anatomy. Question is, what?

Matt, Mike and others have recently been outlining a first principles approach to this conundrum. They note that the reinforced construction of apatosaurine necks, the additional muscle attachment afforded by vertebral expansion, and those strange vertebral buttresses might render their necks effective clubs or wrestling appendages, particularly well suited to rapid, powerful downward motions. Summarised a little more succinctly: there is reason to think Brontosaurus and kin might've smashed the crap out of each other, or other animals...

...with their necks.

Yowsers. But outlandish as the Brontosmash hypothesis seems, it really isn't just idle speculation: a paper is in the works, the Taylor et al. SVPCA talk abstract is a preprint at PeerJ, and you can see the case explained in Mike's talk slides here. I find it pretty convincing myself: I mean, there had to be some reason apatosaurines had those crazy necks. Evolution is a sloppy craftsman at times, but the energy put into growing and maintaining such massive neck anatomy must've been substantial, and that almost certainly reflects a certain adaptive purpose. Combat might well have been that driving force. We also know from living animals - camels, giraffes and some seals - that necks are used for fighting, and that neck-based combat can promote reinforcement and restructuring of neck anatomy. It certainly sounds provisionally convincing to me, and I'm sure we'll hear a lot more about it in the future as the hypothesis is developed.

We're also sure to see this concept frequently in future palaeoart. Mike has been collecting some of the early artwork of this idea over at SV:POW!, including a wealth of coloured sketches and concepts by Brontosmash coauthor and palaeoartist Brian Engh, palaeoartist Bob Nicholls, #MikeTaylorAwesomeDinoArt (the revolution palaeoart deserves, if not the one it needs) and an alternative interpretation of apatosaurine neck data provided by myself (we secretly know I'm on the money with that one). I also decided to attempt a full on painting:

Multiple tonnes of Brontosaurus excelsus in disagreement.
There're two nods to classic palaeoartists here. There's a Knightian influence to the style (not the first time he's infected my work), as well as, via the very upright postures of the wrestling animals, a hat-tip to Robert Bakker's famous 'boxing Brontosaurus' image. The latter had a big impact on me when I first saw it as a teenager, and it's been on my mind for obvious reasons with all this talk of fighting apatosaurines. I thought it also made for a bit of a contrast to Brian's 'official' depictions as well, these showing the animals in quadrupedal or near-quadrupedal poses (I assume at least some of the postures in those artworks mimic neck combat in elephant seals, a favoured modern behavioural analogue of Team Brontosmash). The setting is meant to be in the wetter, northern parts of the Morrison Formation palaeoenvironment, alongside swollen river margins. Initial plans were to record the progression of the wrestling match in muddy footprints, but adding splashes and visual noise to proceedings was too much fun, especially with those tails whirling around everywhere. Sloshing water provided a means showing specific actions, too, the splashes from colliding brontosaur hide signifying each powerful, multi-tonne impact. This was definitely a fun image to put together, and it's certainly a favourite of my recent work. Brontosmash!

That's all for now. Coming soon (probably): The Triassic! And a boring old pterosaur that we just can't leave alone!

These sauropodoramas were brought to you by Patreon

Regular readers will know that this blog and artwork is sponsored by patrons who pledge support at my Patreon page. For as little as $1 a month you can help keep this blog going and, as a reward, you get to see a bunch of exclusive content, and I'm really grateful to everyone who contributes. I'm especially thankful at the moment because, around a week ago, my art PC almost flatlined. My patrons have taken the sting out of repair costs, as well as given an incentive for futureproofing my hardware. Thanks chaps - you're awesome (if, sorry, not quite as awesome as neck smashing brontosaurs. But what is?).

14 comments:

  1. Miller Donaldson6 October 2015 at 19:14

    The "Brontosmash" painting is certainly a refreshing departure from the usual depiction of sauropods as harmless giants (I never really understood what wasn't terrifying about the prospect of a reptilian terrestrial herbivore the size of a large whale).

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  2. Beautiful work there on Brontosmash, a name which I will now be adopting in preference to our own more pedestrian terminology "the apatosaur neck combat hypothesis". I love the Knight influence -- the sombre palette, the washed-out skies -- and the contrast of that with the extreme dynamism of the animal behaviours. Also enjoyed the properly fat apato-necks (though I am surprised you have them bulging ventrally so much), the Knight-tastic individual in water in the background, and the unusual "camera tilt". This is very much my favourite of your recent work.

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    1. Glad you approve, Mike. I must admit to not being sure what to do with the base of sauropod necks (and especially apatosaurines). I'm familiar with existing hypothetical cross sections, but there doesn't seem to be much agreement among them. I figured I'd just lay on some chunky padding here: they'd be worse things to have on a neck if you're routinely slamming it into things. If anyone asks, it's all air sacs.

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  3. 11/10 x2, they look incredible, I love how you show their daily life, are these in paint or are they digital?

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  4. I imagine that if there was a thunderstorm about the sauropods would lower their necks close to the ground.
    You do not wan't to be the highest point in the landscape when lightning is striking.

    I imagine over time that species with the instinct to lower their necks would out-survive those that did not.
    Although a sauropod getting struck by lightning would make an interesting picture.

    LeeB.

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    1. Prompted by this, I checked out giraffes being struck by lightning: turns out that it does happen, but it's pretty rare (e.g. http://www.giraffeconservation.org/our_news.php?pgid=29), as it is for other large mammals. A lot of those injuries occur from animals taking shelter under trees rather than being struck themselves.

      As I understand it, lightning initiation location seems to be the most important factor to being struck - we all know stories of buildings being hit below their highest points, and people being struck despite being alongside poles or trees and so forth. So maybe sauropod height made them a bit more susceptible to lightning strikes, but - as with any animal - being struck was probably ultimately determined by them being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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    2. Yes but generally trees are taller than the animals nearby.
      Where there are no trees in central Asia nomadic horsemen used to fear lightning; of course having a metal helmet on your head and carrying a metal tipped lance probably did not help your chances of survival.

      If the sauropods were among redwood trees their neck position probably did not matter but if they were among low vegetation it may have.

      LeeB.

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  5. also, what medium did you use, acrylic, watercolor, etc. :)

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    1. These are both Photoshop paintings. I wouldn't know where to start with 'real' media!

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  6. LeeB writes "Although a sauropod getting struck by lightning would make an interesting picture."

    Bob Nicholls has done this: see http://paleocreations.tumblr.com/post/43426533607/all-three-colour-versions-of-wrong-place-wrong


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  7. These are fantastic! I love the term "Brontosmash" (Mike Taylor: I look forward to seeing you use that in a conference presentation). If you're on a sauropod neck kick, I'll add the selfish plug that I have a sauropod neck mechanics talk coming up in a week at SVP. Overall, my results (which are about inertial dampening and blood transport) jive very well with the Brontosmash hypothesis. Of course, that's coming from someone that usually plays pterosaur specialist...

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  8. I really want a print of that brontosmash painting. it looks absolutely fantastic.

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