Thursday 28 March 2013

Book news for Easter: more from Daisy and the Isle of Wight Dragon, and exciting plans for Pterosaurs

Two bits of good news, everyone! You can now purchase Martin Simpson's Daisy and the Isle of Wight Dragon, which I co-illustrated, direct from Amazon  for a mere £5. To celebrate, here's an vaguely Easter-themed illustration I contributed to the book, depicting a Vectidraco hatching from a typically soft-shelled pterosaur egg. I'm sure hatchling pterosaurs would be adorable little urchins that we'd feature in innumerable YouTube videos if they were alive today, but perhaps only once they'd dried out from hatching. Like freshly-emergent bird chicks, baby pterosaurs were probably initially covered in goopy, matted integuments and would look pretty skanky (as in the image above, then). For the nerdy among you, I used the hatching body mass regressions detailed in Lü et al. (2011) to work out the likely mass of a Vectidraco hatchling to get an idea of its size and proportions. The reported wingspan estimate for an adult Vectidraco by Naish et al. (2013) is 0.75 m, which translates to a freshly-laid egg mass of 10 g, an egg mass of 16.25 g at the end of the incubation period, and a hatchling mass of 7.25 g. To put that into perspective, Vectidraco hatchlings would have tiny wingspans of 18-19 cm, and would probably neatly fit inside your loosely-closed hand.

The second bit of good news is that Princeton University Press and I have been putting our heads together to plan some launch events for my own book, Pterosaurs (preorders being taken here). They're still at very early stages and we cannot say anything concrete about them yet, but there are plans to bring some leathery-winged goodness to the Internet, and parts of the UK, this July. Further updates as they come in. Enjoy the Easter weekend, all!

  • Lü, J., Unwin, D. M., Deeming, C., Jin, X., Liu, Y. and Ji, Q. 2011. An egg-adult association, gender, and reproduction in pterosaurs. Science, 331, 321-324.
  • Naish, D., Simpson, M. I. & Dyke, G. J. 2013. A new small-bodied azhdarchoid pterosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of England and its implications for pterosaur anatomy, diversity and phylogeny. PLoS ONE 8(3): e58451. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058451

Tuesday 26 March 2013

The 'no feathers' Jurassic Park tweet: statement of intent, or simply ruffling feathers?

No surprise about what this post will cover: the announcement by Jurassic Park IV director Colin Trevorrow that his new JP instalment will not feature feathered dinosaurs (unlike the new image, above, which features a fully feathered Dromaeosaurus raiding a giant azhdarchid nest). Like many folks in the palaeoblogsphere, my reaction to this hasn't been particularly positive. It seems like an overlooked opportunity to bring the dinosaur-bird themes of the first movie full circle, jars with overwhelming evidence that some JP dinosaur stars were feathered, and misses a terrific chance to affirm modern concepts of dinosaur palaeobiology with a wide audience. The JP franchise would also probably benefit more from featuring feathery species than it will from maintaining its flimsy creature design continuity (see Laelaps for more on this) as the series clearly needs some fresh ideas and content. It hasn't really delivered much else than people being chased by dinosaurs since the one hour mark of the first film, and a certain amount of repetition has set in ("Oh, look, they're running away from a large predatory dinosaur. Oh, look, they're running away from smaller predatory dinosaurs. Oh, look, one dinosaur is fighting another dinosaur. Oh, look, it's a sweeping shot of peaceful dinosaurs", etc.). The introduction of feathers could provide some nuances to the JP story and provide a new edge for its overly familiar creatures. Beyond this, as someone with an interest in science education, I find broader concepts to be upset about as well here. Feathering dinosaurs in JP IV would demonstrate the incremental processes through which science works, highlighting the way in which the dromaeosaurs of the series became progressively more feathered as the dinosaur bird link was cemented by mounting evidence*. There's obvious utility with this movie being a basis for teaching concepts of evolution, too. And yes yes yes, I know this movie isn't being made to educate people, but I genuinely think featuring feathered designs would be of advantage to many.

*Before anyone mentions it, I know the JP franchise didn't leap on the feather bandwagon quick enough, but it's one of the few major areas of common knowledge of dinosaurs, and provides a good focal point for educating laymen or children about these topics.

There's a truckload of things we could talk about concerning the lack of feathers in JP IV, but I don't want to focus on that here. Instead, I want to highlight one point that troubles me with all this discussion and outrage. This whole episode was started by Colin Trevorrow tweeting only two words: "no feathers" (well, three, if you include the '#JP4' bit). As others have noted, that doesn't really tell us much about the plot, the species under discussion or anything else. This has got me wondering how much of the film has actually been set into place yet. To my knowledge, Trevorrow has only been at the helm of JP IV for a couple of weeks, and the movie is still in pre-production. No casting details have been announced, no shooting schedule, no sneak-peaks of the plot. So are Universal Studios, the JP franchise wranglers, playing their cards close to their chest, or is much about the movie may still up in the air? If the latter is true (and it may not be: I'm not claiming any insider knowledge, just that I pay attention to movie news), I'm wondering if the glib 'no feathers' tweet was simply put out there to test the waters. See what the reaction was from JP fanboys and other demographics to see if they should keep their dinosaurs canonical or give them a much needed update. The movie isn't destined for release until June 2014 - perhaps that's enough time to design and implement feathery integuments to their dinosaurs? Note that I don't know much about VFX in movies, so I could be talking out of my bottom on this. That said, movie release dates change all the time, so the projected release may not mean much at this early stage.

If the feathers comment is a cheeky PR exercise for this franchise, it's in good company. Universal Studios have made repeated attempts to reignite interest in the JP franchise over the last few years. We had the core of the franchise, the first movie, back in cinemas in 2011 to coincide with the JP Blu-ray launch. The same film is returning to the big screen again this year, this time in 3D. We saw the first licensed Jurassic Park video game for 8 years in 2011. Concept art for the aborted JP IV dinosaur-man movie was revealed late last year. That in itself seems pretty unusual to me. There must be piles of discarded movie concept art in Hollywood which never sees public eyes, and creature design imagery is typically owned by movie studios. Heck of a coincidence if that just happened to slip onto the internet as rumours of a new JP film are circulating. Even if the latter was coincidental, we've had a lot of JP events in a short space of time, and only one of them coincides with a sensible franchise anniversary (this year's 3D Jurassic Park release, for the 20th anniversary of the original movie). Seems to me that Universal really, really want to remind us that Jurassic Park exists, perhaps because well over a decade has passed since the last chapter of the story. Generating discussion about whether the next instalment should feature feathered dinosaurs is an excellent way to get some free PR for the upcoming movie as well as, possibly, testing reaction to realistically feathered dinosaur species.

Of course, this may all be the wailing, cynical conspiracy theory of a madman. Time will tell, I suppose. In the mean time, I'd best get back to other things.

Thursday 21 March 2013

Daisy's dragon: the full painting

Sadly, I've been too busy this week to synchronise posting of the image above with the wave of publicity now surrounding Vectidraco daisymorrisae, the new diminutive Isle of Wight azhdarchoid recently described by Darren Naish and colleagues (2013). The story of the Vectidraco discovery by little Daisy Morris is becoming well known thanks to a storm of media interest, so I won't repeat the details here. Instead, I'm showcasing the press release image I drew up for the Vectidraco launch, shown here in its full, uncropped form rather than the smaller version currently doing the rounds in news outlets (below). I should stress, of course, that the animal is only known from a sacrum, so much of what you see here is extrapolated from other azhdarchoids. Because we cannot tell what sort of azhdarchoid Vectidraco is from a pelvis alone, I rendered an animal that attempts to pander to all non-azhdarchid azhdarchoid clades. The obvious influence on its colouration is the European magpie, a deliberate choice to make the animal look convincing to eyes unaccustomed to pterosaurs. Some reconstructions of extinct animals try to play up the more unusual or horrific parts of their anatomy to produce monstrous and grotesque species (sometimes even against overwhelming fossil evidence to the contrary: for shame, Jurassic Park 4 director Colin Trevorrow), but I wanted this one to look like it was a regular animal, one that could even be considered unremarkable if part of our modern fauna. This wasn't an effort to downplay the importance of the discovery of course, but instead an effort to make the reconstruction appear more convincing. I think this is also one of the first pterosaur reconstructions to show iridescent pycnofibres.

The reason for compositing the pterosaur at the top of the full image stems from the use of the painting as a cover image for the upcoming book by Martin Simpson, Daisy and the Isle of Wight Dragon. The book covers the story of Daisy's discovery of the Vectidraco holotype, and is fully illustrated by myself and two other illustrators. I have 9 images in the book, including the following painting of the holotype specimen, NHMUK PV R36621 (below). I'm quite new to painting fossils, rather than fossil animals, but am quite pleased with how this turned out. The book should be available soon from Martin's website and Amazon, and will only set you back £5. Purchasing links will be posted once they are available, perhaps with more of my illustrative contributions. In the meantime, like the Daisy and the Isle of Wight Dragon Facebook page for more immediate updates.

  • Naish, D., Simpson, M. I. & Dyke, G. J. 2013. A new small-bodied azhdarchoid pterosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of England and its implications for pterosaur anatomy, diversity and phylogeny. PLoS ONE 8(3): e58451. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058451

Tuesday 12 March 2013

Rexperiments in black and white

Another black and white sketch, another awful pun...

After last week's moody Dsungaripterus, here's a stylistically similar image with a pair of tyrannosaurs. This was thrown together quickly yesterday following a numbing Powerpoint preparation marathon, so please excuse any inaccuracies. My intention was to make each animal look distinctive despite the monochromatic colour scheme and their morphological similarity, and think it's been fairly successful. It's already been suggested that they need names, so they must look like distinct individuals. Suggestions for names are welcome, but they must be better than 'Speckles'. That shouldn't be hard.

I've been having a whale of a time with this concept and have received a lot of positive feedback from chums and Facebook friends. So much so, in fact, that I'm starting to give serious thought to putting them to use in a more substantial project. Still, no time for that now: best get back to something that will actually pay the bills.

For more tyrannosaur goodness, and some colour, head here.

Friday 8 March 2013

Putting the 'sin' in Junggar BaSIN

See what I did there? Not good? I know. Never mind.

The reaction to a very detailed commission, development of the minimalist theme of my misty azhdarchid painting and an overindulgence in Prodigy tracks has lead to the above, a monochromatic Dsungaripterus weii striding its way through a Cretaceous swamp in what will become China's Junggar Basin. Some readers may note more than a passing resemblance between the style of this and the artwork of Frank Miller's Sin City graphic novels, and I can't deny their obvious influence on this work. In keeping with their noirish aspects, I wanted this painting to be a little edgy and dark, but not overtly violent or gruesome. I figured a skull-like motif was a good place to start, with the chunky dentition of Dsungaripterus continued across the posterior skull region with a fleshy structure meant to recall a Glasgow smile (fascinating Dsungaripterus fact to share this evening at dinner: the teeth are actually fully overgrown by the jaw bones in adult individuals. Check out the posterior teeth in IVPP 64043-3, a Dsungaripterus skull and mandible described by Young [1973], for an example, below. Image from Witton 2013.) The eye region is also deliberately socket-like. If you think the face of this thing is slightly creepy, I've succeeded.

The nastiness continues with the limp body of a baby pterosaur seen dangling from the Dsungaripterus jaw tips. This chap is loosely based on Nemicolopterus, a small pterosaur from China's Cretaceous Jiufotang Formation that is almost certainly a baby Sinopterus (of course, I'm not the first to say this and won't elaborate more here, but do go into more detail on this issue my book). Dsungaripterids are not normally shown with vertebrate prey, as their edentulous jaw tips and large, blunt posterior teeth are generally seen as evidence for a diet largely comprised of shellfish (e.g. Wellnhofer 1991; Unwin 2005; Witton 2013). I don't disagree with this assessment, and further evidence for shell crushing may stem from the rarely-discussed knobbly palatal ridge found in Dsungaripterus, which projects prominently along its palatal midline at the back of the jaw. To my knowledge, similarly robust and prominent ridges are not present in any other pterosaurs, despite considerable variation in palatal structure across the group, and I wonder if they provided an additional crushing surface within the jaws. But, while their powerful jaws and teeth would undoubtedly make short work of clams and snails gleaned from lakes and ponds, I doubt these powerful pterosaurs would turn their noses up at baby pterosaurs and other small tetrapods if they could catch them. And besides, a little bit of infanticide also seems entirely in keeping with the noir overtones of this image.

As a bonus extra for this post, here's an inverted version of the above painting, shifting the setting from a cloudy night to the middle of the day. I was flicking the colours of the painting constantly when working on it, and couldn't really decide which version I liked most. I think the black version just edges it, but it's a close contest.

And as an additional bonus extra, here's a Warhol-inspired portrait run of our murderous friend, just for fun.

That's it for now, then. I'm off to lament not choosing the dsungaripterid Noripterus as the subject for this post, because of the NOIRipterus jokes I could have made in the title. D'oh.


  • Unwin, D. M. 2005. The Pterosaurs from Deep Time. Pi Press, New York, 347 pp.
  • Wellnhofer, P. 1991. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Pterosaurs. Salamander Books Ltd., London. 192 pp.
  • Witton, M. P. 2013. Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy. Princeton University Press. [In press]
  • Young, C. C. 1973. Pterosaurian fauna from Wuerho, Sinkiang. Reports of paleontological expedition to Sinkiang II, Kexue Chubanshe, Nanjing, China, 18-34.

Monday 4 March 2013

"There's something in the mist!"

One of the most effective movies I've seen in recent years is the  2007 science fiction siege thriller, The Mist, which isn't to be confused with the considerably more forgettable eighties pirate horror outing, The Fog (which has one of the most long-winded and least suspenseful trailers ever). Like all good stories, the plot of The Mist is dead simple, with a mysterious, creature-filled fog mist descending on a small Maine town and trapping a small population of people within a supermarket, who proceed to bicker about the best response to their crisis, descend to the level of primitive savages, and throw cans of peas at each other. It also has one of the most killer endings of a movie I've ever seen. I won't ruin it for you here, but it's a terrific antidote for the sickly-sweet, rosy endings slapped onto films at the last minute to please test screens. 1986 Little Shop of Horrors, A.I., and the original cut of Blade Runner: I'm looking at you. And all your pansy-ending friends.

One of the best things about The Mist is that Frank Darabont, it's director, knew exactly what to do with his monsters, in that he shows as little of them as possible. Instead, most species (and there are many) are glimpsed in silhouette at the far reaches of the fog mist, so we're never really sure what they look like or what they might be capable of. This, and the handling of the bickering survivors in the supermarket, turns a very pulpy plot into an intelligent and tense movie, and I heartily recommend you track it down if you've not seen it.

The handling of the creatures in The Mist got me thinking about how bizarre, and perhaps how terrifying, the silhouettes of barely-glimpsed creatures in the Mesozoic may have looked on misty, drizzly days. It's not hard to think of a number of Mesozoic animals that would look downright weird when glimpsed through thick fog, but the outlandish proportions of giant azhdarchid pterosaurs, with their long necks and limbs, oversize heads and small bodies, make them unlikely animals at the best of times and truly strange when only seen in outline. The lightweight frames and long limbs of these animals would probably make them lithe and quick over land, and it's not hard to imagine these enormous carnivores giving many Mesozoic animals the hebbie-jebbies as they stalked silently across Cretaceous landscapes. And not just little animals, either: prey of human dimensions may also have been alarmed by a stealthy, fog-strewn azhdarchid.

With this in mind, I've been slowly adding to the painting above for the last few weeks in a very piecemeal, 5-minute burst fashion. It's a deliberately basic image with a limited colour palate and detail, which came from both a desire to attempt something a bit different with my art and enhance the dreary atmosphere. The intention was to make the pterosaur in the background looming and menacing, all but invisible in the dismal weather save for its treetop-scraping silhouette. The small azhdarchid in the foreground, who's giving its big relative an understandably wide berth, serves to add scale, as does the rotting log in the foreground. The taxa here are not meant to be any azhdarchids in particular, but this scene could take place in several places around the Late Cretaceous world. As pointed out by Matyas Vremir et al. (2013), several azhdarchid-bearing deposits yield azhdarchid species of vastly contrasting size, suggesting giants and diminutive species frequently lived alongside one another (see summary image, below, of cohabiting azhdarchids of distinct size, from Vremir et al. [2013], featuring Ron Blakey's fantastic latest Cretaceous palaeomap (Colorado Plateau Geosystems, Inc.), and my handiwork. The image features a new skull reconstruction of Quetzalcoatlus sp., which offers a sneaky peak into some of the imagery used in my book). The scant record we have of these cohabiting species indicates that at least some bore distinct jaw and skull proportions, suggesting different dietary preferences and habits which would prevent them stepping on each other's ecological toes.

Some geological units reveal evidence of two or even three sympatric azhdarchid species. Diagram produced by Mark Witton and map used with kind permission of Ron Blakey, Colorado Plateau Geosystems, Inc; from Vremir et al. (2013).
The result, hopefully, is something a little different and interesting, and I definitely see potential for more things like this in the future. That's all for now, though: got to head out to be social. Next week, or perhaps the week after, should see something fairly special in these quarters, so be sure to check back soon.

  • Vremir, M., Kellner, A. W., Naish, D., & Dyke, G. J. (2013). A new azhdarchid pterosaur from the Late Cretaceous of the Transylvanian Basin, Romania: implications for azhdarchid diversity and distribution. PloS one, 8, e54268.