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Sunday, 16 June 2013

What Daleks, xenomorphs and slasher movies tell us about palaeoart

A Mesozoic slope supporting a nesting Torvosaurus tanneri, one of the biggest and most distinctive predators of the Jurassic, and yet strangely under-represented in palaeoart compared to other theropods. I'm not sure why: we should be queueing up to draw this thing. Long body plan, a skull and teeth that go all the way up, and a maxilla that won't quit. What's not to like?
Palaeoartists are obsessed with rendering fossil animals accurately. It's part of the job. The latest palaeontological research is grilled for data which can inform the appearance, posture and behaviour of their subject matter, allowing them to recreate ancient life in the most accurate manner currently available. Accordingly, the harshest scrutiny applied to any painting or sculpture of a fossil taxon concerns the anatomy of its creatures. Do their bone structure and proportions match the fossils? Are the muscles big enough and attaching in the right places? Does the integument match up to fossil data? Get those wrong, and the reconstruction isn't truly successful, because it doesn't accurately reflect reality.

Beyond the animals themselves however, are other choices which are relevant to achieving a sense of realism in palaeoart: the basic composition of the image or sculpture itself. The landscape, the setting, the mise en scène. For all of the excellent palaeoart out there, I think virtually all of us are guilty of some stylistic choices which may work against making our images looking totally convincing. This isn't because of problems with  artistic ability or approach but instead, as All Yesterdays pointed out for animal reconstructions, some stylistic conventions have become so overused that they've become tropes and stereotypes. Once you notice them, it's hard to forget that you're basically looking at a product of imagination. In other instances, we perhaps unintentionally lean too heavily on pieces of influential but inaccurate artwork or have simply developed habits which, viewed from within the looking glass, are actually a little strange.

It's these stylistic issues that I want to talk about here. There are lots of quirks and niggles we could cover - they become very numerous once you start thinking about them - but, in this post, we're going to pick on my personal top four stylistic points that jar my sense of disbelief. Before we get going, I think I should remind everyone that this is very much an opinion piece, and please feel free to tell me where to get off if you disagree with these points. Moreover, I count myself as guilty as anyone else in perpetuating some of the tropes and annoyances discussed here, and I'm certainly not having a pop at anyone in particular. The goal here is to get us thinking, that's all. Just for fun, I've assigned a five point 'Reality Crash Rating' to each, with scores of one meaning that I think something is in danger of becoming a negative stereotype eroding palaeoartistic credibility, and five being a habit that we should all snub and divorce immediately because it completely ruins the illusion of an ancient world. All set? OK, off we go.

1. The Mesozoic, ripe for Dalek conquest
It's a well known that the famous Doctor Who villains, the Daleks, were perceived to struggle with complex terrain and stairs for much of their televisual history. This became such a joke that the show itself had a few pokes at that obvious failing of their most famous antagonists. Of course, recent advances in Dalek technology (and er, BBC VFX) negate these problems for modern episodes, but even a roadside kerb would be a bit of an issue for an onscreen Dalek for much of the series history. What does this have to do with anything? Palaeoartistic work indicates Daleks would do a heck of a lot better if they just invaded the Mesozoic. Completely flat, horizontal ground stretching way off into the distance seem to occur in the overwhelming majority of palaeoart scenes. Go and Google some for yourself to check. See what I mean? Sure, there may be some highlands and forests as a far-off backdrops and even sometimes in the middle distance, but the animals themselves keep to flat stages without inclination or slope. What's more, as pointed out by Duane Nash at Antediluvian Salad, said animals often occupy patches of bare earth without vegetation. Frankly, I can't imagine a superior Dalek holiday spot.

"Puny Earthlings: your mighty stairs cannot save you this time! Exterminate! Exterminate!"
(Hasty composition thrown together with awesome sauropod artwork by Mark Hallett, borrowed from here, and Daleks borrowed from The Mind Robber).  

It's obvious why our palaeoart landscapes are generally so flat. Most palaeoartists are interested in showing off as much of their animals as they can, and sometimes as many animals as they can, and a flat stage is a pretty good way to do that. And yes, many animals from terrestrial biomes are preserved in ancient floodplain deposits, so much of their local landscape probably was fairly flat. Interestingly, the most common alternative to flat ground is complex and tiered environments such as forests (with obligatory fallen trees) and rocky outcrops. It's either a flat stage, or backgrounds so awesome that they dwarf their animals. There's not much in the way of middle ground.

Reality Crash Rating: 2/5
We might ask ourselves if this matters or not. I mean, the images are about the animals, right? Who cares what the terrain is like? I think it does matter, though. Our planet isn't just comprised of flat, open space bordered by dramatic valleys, giant dunes and redwood forests. A lot of it is just a little bit hilly, with immature woodlands and, you know, little gullies and stuff. There's no reason to think the planet has had a significantly different landscape for much of its recent history, and I think we should try to reflect that in our artwork. Adding a few slopes and inclinations to an image gives the terrain a little bit of character and goes a long way to making a setting look like an actual location, one that we could stumble across ourselves on hikes and walks in our own countrysides. Überflat or superforested settings, but contrast, are more 'extreme' environments that certainly exist, but comprise considerably less of the Earth than palaeoart suggests (even correcting for anthropic factors). What's more, they're so commonplace now that they've become a bit generic: how many images of ceratopsids in dense forest are there? Or sauropods on open, flat ground? I'm amazed at how much more believable images look once a few slopes and inclines are added: check out John Conway's sauropod herds for the impact that adding some slight topography can have. I like that series of pictures so much because many of them have unusual topography, which makes it seem far more like John went out and painted some real sauropods from a real location.

2. Franchisosaurs
How many recreated extinct species owe significant aspects of their reconstruction to popular franchises? Regular readers may recall touching on this problem when considering Feather Resistance a few months ago. If animals are reconstructed memorably in film and literature they run a chance of being forever depicted in that same guise in popular media. Jurassic Park and the Walking with... series are probably the biggest modern focal points for these sort of homages, as the work of famous palaeoartists Charles Knight and Zdenek Burian were before them. The influence of these works is typically fairly muted among professional or, shall we say, 'dedicated' palaeoartists, but is rampant among toy and model manufacturers, book illustrators and more 'casual' palaeoartists. 

Vladimir Bondar's Jurassic Park dromaeosaurs, recently given a baffling rebranding as Torvosaurus in a media release. Seriously, what happened there? Note the animal in the middle distance is directly mirrored in this still from Jurassic Park III.  Image borrowed from the Huffington Post
Reality Crash Rating: 5/5
Does a little bit of copying from other work matter? I mean, why not take a cool looking depiction of a fossil species and use it again if you like it? On the one hand, no. Taking an existing colour scheme or plumage pattern and tacking it to a new reconstruction may be unimaginative, but it's not the end of the world. All out copying of franchise animal anatomy is risky however, because many famous reconstructions of prehistoric species don't reflect modern thoughts on the appearance of fossil animals. The reason for this is not, as you may expect, just because they've fallen behind palaeontological science. Sometimes, they were never accurate in the first place. This applies to several modern franchises. The much-copied, cool-looking arches above the eyes of Jurassic Park Tyrannosaurus? Nothing like that on real Tyrannosaurus skulls. The ridges on the headcrest on the Walking with Dinosaurs Tupandactylus (called 'Tapejara' in the show)? Not sure why they're there, as the fossils show nothing like that. Of course, it goes without saying that virtually all famous maniraptoran dinosaur reconstructions are a million miles away from their extinct counterparts. And these are just the examples that first spring to mind.

I guess the reasons for depicting 'incorrect' species in modern franchises are many. Sometimes the technology just isn't there to render anatomies convincingly (I believe this explains the general lack of feathers and other fuzz in the original Walking with Dinosaurs), and maybe some inaccuracies are just honest mistakes. Often, however, these anatomical discrepancies are often introduced in spite of technical guidance. It is extremely common for filmmakers to tweak designs or just plain ignore suggested changes from consultants, and sometimes they have no real regard for accuracy at all. For whatever reason, franchise reconstructions frequently only partly resemble actual fossils species despite their slick on screen rendering, and thus are moving towards being fantasy creatures (to greater and lesser extent, of course) than reconstructions of ancient realities. The obvious moral is to base reconstructions on up-to-date, scientifically rigorous skeletal reconstructions and fossils themselves, and take only inspiration from our favourite palaeo-themed media. No news at all to practised palaeoartists then, but clearly a lesson that other artists would do well to learn.

3. The Slasher Pose
The tension of many slasher movies is broken with a classic shot of an antagonist leaping directly at the camera from obscurity, arms agape and weapons ready to grab and hack whichever young starlet has just stumbled past their hiding place. It's what I'll term the Slasher pose. When used well, it's certain to burn that moment into the mind of the audience who've just spilt their popcorn in terror and, despite being clichéd and a cheap scare, it's featured in many of the best horror films of all time.

A completely different medium has recently latched onto the Slasher Pose, also to reveal creatures to audiences from obscurity: palaeoart. How many press release images of new dinosaur species feature animals with their faces and hands careering towards the viewer, usually while running, jumping or doing something else dramatic at the same time? Classic Slasher Poses, every one of them. It's even better if said animal has some nasty teeth, claws or horns: get those in our faces to show us how weird and nasty this guy was. It's not just press releases where we see this concept either. If you want to 'refresh' the appearance of a familiar species, or else make things look bodacious for the kidz*, Slasher Poses are the Go To posture. Nothing says "X-TR3ME!" like a dinosaur posed so we can check out the content of its nostrils. A variant on this trope is to show a similarly posed animal without the distorting perspective. They still very much look like they wants to grab you or twat you around the face with some neon claws, but they aren't so close to the viewer.

*I'm reassured that this is the sort of language kids are into nowadays. God forbid the idea that I'm one of those cats who's lost touch with modern youth. That'd be so square.

The most ungodly and terrifying theizinosaur in the world. Seriously: look at it. Part Freddie Fruger, part jabberwock, all terror. Classic Slasher Pose action. Photograph from The Birds & The Peas.
Reality Crash Rating: 3/5
To an extent, the use of Slasher Poses is a purely stylistic choice that no-one can really moan about objectively. I'm sure plenty of fossil species adopted such postures on occasion and, who knows, maybe they also got in each others faces while doing so. I do have to admit not being a fan of Slasher Poses personally. For all of their conveyance of prehistoric animals as dynamic and exciting, Slasher Posed animals look a bit cartoony. This isn't a problem restricted to dinosaurs. Even fictitious creatures specifically designed to look menacing or cool can't pull off Slasher Poses in still images (below), and I personally don't think it's an effective way to reconstruct real species. I've speculated before that Slasher Poses may even be a factor in the lack of 'acceptance' of feathered dinosaurs by the general public. Such artwork was definitely in vogue when feathered dinosaurs were first being discovered en masse in China, so many of the first images we saw of these animals were improbably cartoony and somewhat weird-looking. They were certainly nowhere near as cool as their scaly forebears, and perhaps did little to warm people to the most significant discoveries in recent dinosaur palaeontology. In addition, Slasher Poses are of questionable use from a purely functional perspective. They actually don't tell us much about the anatomy of the animal because its either obscured by enormous, perspective-enlarged heads or is distorted by foreshortening.

This scares the pants off me when it's a quick, rapid cut at the end of a tense scene. Freezeframed, it looks a lot less menacing, and almost a bit silly. If Geiger's xenomorphs can't pull off a Slasher Pose, despite being one of the coolest creature designs of all time, nothing can. Image borrowed from You've Got Red on You.
Of course, the above is my entirely subjective view. There is perhaps one objective reason why Slasher Poses may be considered a bad habit for palaeoartists, however. Slasher Posed imagery is completely at odds with the way we observe modern animals (excluding those unfortunate few who get on the wrong end of a large, dangerous species). The postures and perspectives are so contrary to our own animal experiences that they can't fool viewers into thinking that the artist has drawn something real, but are clearly largely derived from imagination. If, as discussed above, a goal in palaeoart is convincing viewers that the artist has actually seen the worlds they're reconstructing, this is a problem. In addition, the frequency that we see Slasher Poses suggest extinct animals were pulling them all the time, but, if modern animals are anything to go by, they would have spent much of their time looking subdued and less dynamic. Paintings of calmer, more distant animals may not be as exciting as Slasher Pose works, but they're a heck of a lot more convincing (see below for more on animal posture in palaeoart). To me, Slasher Poses seem to be more about trying to make animals look awesome than they are about depicting reality. If the latter is our intended goal, Slasher Poses probably aren't the way to reach it.

If there's one thing extinct animals do well, it's roaring. Roaring, roaring, roaring. All the places, all the time. Some species are hardly ever depicted with their mouths shut because they're too busy bellowing their lungs out at absolutely anything. Alone or in groups, exerting themselves or just standing around, they're roaring at something. When combined with Slasher Poses - which frequently happens - it's us being roared at, but there's frequently nothing obviously on the end of all this noise. I assume said animals are just angry with passing clouds or having a sugar crash. The award for Most Tinnitus Inducing Prehistoric Species undeniably belongs to dinosaurs, and particularly to big theropods who are almost entirely incapable of quiet expression. It's like the entire world left Caps Lock on for 180 million years.

Dinosaur social networking must have been a nightmare to read. 'Profile pictures' by John Sibbick, Luis Rey, Todd Marshall, Papo, Walking with Dinosaurs and Raul Martin.

Reality Crash Rating: 4/5
OK, I'll put my cards on the table now: the roaring trope really annoys me. I get why people want their dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals roaring and vocalisation all the time. It looks dramatic and suits some compositions well. The end of the first Jurassic Park movie would've been a let down if the Tyrannosaurus just killed the dromaeosaurs and then just quietly walked away, for instance. But do fossil animals have to be loudly vocalising so frequently? Take a look at the animals we see in every day life: they aren't forever making noise. Vocalising has a specific function, a time and place to be used. That time is not 'all the time', and the place is not 'everywhere'. We need to think harder about when fossil animals should be screaming and growling, and when they should being shutting the Hell up. For instance, why, dear Lord why, are there so many reconstructions of extinct predators and prey animals roaring at one another? Bear in mind that predatory acts are strenuous. The prey animals are running or fighting for their lives, while the predator is using precious energy to catch and kill them. Both are at extremely high risk of injury or death. Does it make sense to have these animals yelling at each other, using precious effort and concentration to do so, and sometimes even looking at each other while running to maximise the dramatic effect? Almost certainly not. Predators and prey should look focussed on the task at hand, not waving their heads around screaming like babies. Presumably, this focus is why modern animals keep quiet during crucial moments in predator/prey interactions: they're literally in a life and death situation, not an action movie.

But it's not just choosing the right moment for depicting loud vocalisations that's important. When fossil species roar and vocalise, they should do in the same manner as their modern relatives. Dinosaurs and other fossil archosaurs are my big bug bear here. Unlike mammals, archosaurs don't need to open their mouths wide to make a heck of a lot of noise. For a cracking example, check out these bellowing alligators from Colorado Gators (some of the best examples occur after the 3 minute mark).

Wonderful stuff, and all done without a single gaping mouth. All manner of hisses, squeaks and calls can come from archosaur throats without waving their jaws around agape. Sure, they do use their mouths to control the pitch and volume of their vocalisations in many cases, but they don't need to resemble Pavarotti to achieve some magnificent noises. We really need to consider that before we draw yet another screaming tyrannosaur with widely gaped jaws. I suppose an argument could be made against this point that, without open jaws, viewers won't know that the animal is meant to be making any sound. This isn't entirely true, however: the throat sacs of vocalising archosaurs are often inflated to assist with noise production and pitch, and dinosaur throats were almost certainly doing the same thing (notice the workings of the throat sacs on the bellowing crocodylians above, for instance). I think we're simply become so accustomed to seeing dinosaurs vocalise in a mammalian fashion that we haven't really bothered to explore the many other sonic alternatives for these animals.
Aggressive snap display posture in the effectively mute marabou stork, where the body is lowered, the neck retracted  and the bill is clattered towards an attacker. One of many threat displays in this species, and quite unlike most aggressive postures shown in restored dinosaurs. Image from Kahl (1966).
There's more to this trope. Why do so many of our depicted vocalising archosaurs have the same basic elevated head and torso posture? Body language is extremely diverse and important to modern archosaurs, and social signalling doesn't always involve simply rearing up and yelling. There's all sorts of elaborate head movements, neck postures, torso orientations, and even tool use in play there. We only really show reconstructions of animals fighting and flirting, but modern archosaurs have body postures to reflect feelings of agitation, attract attention, indicate distress, for begging and even distinct copulation postures. The number of these within a species is compounded by differences in social stature, age and the nature of the stimulus. There's a lot of this stuff that could be incorporated into palaeoart. With all this in mind, we have a great opportunity to turn the infernal racket made by restored archosaurs into intelligent communication between  the reconstructed animals, and more importantly, the viewer. There's a goldmine of  language in ethology papers that we could be translating into our palaeoart, rather than just depicting animals roaring and telling us how big they are. (For more on this topic, check out Tetrapod Zoology Podcast episode 6, and this post.)

The end bit
On that noisy bombshell, it's time to wrap up for the time being. Again, I want to emphasise that this piece is not about palaeoartists 'getting it wrong'. It's simply saying that we may be guilty of becoming to comfortable with certain conventions which, for whatever reason, may be detrimental to the goal of reconstructing extinct animals. There's certainly many more things to say on topics like these. At one point, this post was going to feature 10 points, complete with the theme tune from BBC's Pick of the Pops to count down with. Maybe I'll feature the other 6 if and when I get the time. Until then, feel free to make your own suggestions about compositional tropes or bad palaeoartistic habits in the comments below.

  • Kahl, M. P. 1966. A contribution to the ecology and reproductive biology of the Marabou Stork (Leptoptilos crumeniferus) in East Africa. Journal of Zoology, 148, 289-311.


  1. Mesobook is the best thing ever. Looking forward to seeing the other six points as well, whenever they may come.

  2. I can't stand when media depict Dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures spending their time in roaring : it looks silly and cartonny.
    It's a shame that many documentaries keep this fashion ''Monsters saurians''. In 2013 we want a lifelike behavior for extinct animals !


    1. I think you've hit on a split in palaeoart: those that want 'real' animals in their art, and those that want cool-looking creatures inspired by real animals. The two things don't really have a shared goal.

    2. I don't mind roaring when the animals are actually shown being territorial with other members of their own species (and can't open-mouth roaring be justified by the fact that theropods are a lot more closely related to birds, which generally vocalize with open beaks, than to alligators?), but it bugs me when they're shown roaring at prey, which I think (correct me if I'm wrong) is not something living predators do much, if at all.

    3. Hahaha, I just watched the new Primeval TV series and all of their dinosaurs just bellow and roar constantly all this as it is hunting prey(people). This REALLY REALLY bothers me. I always start to think of a lioness hunting thinking if she roared every time she is hunting wildebeests they will always know where she is and what she is up to, I thought stealth and surprise is her biggest and most successful hunting technique? Im sooooo glad Im not alone in this :)

    4. JesseM: "can't open-mouth roaring be justified by the fact that theropods are a lot more closely related to birds..."

      Except birds can and do vocalise with closed mouths (sometimes) and also use a lot of postural communication. I'm not saying that we shouldn't draw another dinosaur roaring, but it shouldn't be happening all the time even in disputes over territory.

      brie987: Ah, the old Roar Before Beating trope. I guess movies and TV have to use this silly old meme because, in reality, the human characters would be picked off terribly easily by efficient predators.

    5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    6. @brie987 Yes, Primeval is just silly. All the roaring. And the creatures just kill, kill, kill. They kill everything they see, non-stop. Do real life predators do that? No. Real life predators kill one thing, eat it, then take a nap.

    7. @James: I believe there are time skips between these scenes, and that is most cases by the time the vocalizations began their presence was already known (which is the real unrealistic part, because they wouldn't attack in such a way that their presence is revealed).

      Also, some carnivores were more interested in being left alone than hunting anyone which eliminates the need for silence.

  3. Mark,

    Very nice write up. I'm looking forward to hearing more and I share many of the same 'issues' with modern paleoart as you have mentioned here. One I'm curious about is how do you feel about the almost complete takeover of 3d artwork of prehistoric life in Children's and even some adult popular books? Any ideas on what might be causing this and why? It appears to me that many of the 'motifs' in the 3d models are repeated across species and if there is an inaccuracy, then that inaccuracy is also repeated.

    1. I wonder if the dominance of 3D art nowadays is an attempt to associate books with the Big League palaeo franchises: "our book has slick looking prehistoric animals too!" My own impression is that 3D art became dominant around the same time as the first Walking with... series, so perhaps the success of that show had an influence there. There certainly seemed to be a lot of WWD knock-offs doing the rounds in books in the late 90s/early 00s, complete with all the inaccuracies and colourations of those in the TV show. I could be wrong on that, though. Maybe it was simply that 3D rendering became cheap enough for smaller businesses to use at that time.

      As for why they're so popular, I guess they are generally a step towards photorealism, even if some of their execution means this isn't achieved (far from it, sometimes). Because many 3D models in books fall far from their intended species, I must admit to generally preferring 2D art in books. A book full of good 3D digital models, though, would be fine by me. Imagine a whole book full of David Krentz work. There's one customer for that right here.

    2. It's been disappointing to see the uptake of 3D in paleo books.

      Almost always, even the best 3D falls short as still images, usually because it's been lifted directly from a documentary where motion, different lighting and layout considerations, and the lower resolution of the format, result in ugly animals in print.

      Good 3D, like all good illustration, takes time and effort to make it look good.

    3. I agree with Evan in regards to colour schemes. Another one I don't like is when the artist depicts predatory dinosaurs with an over-adornment of wattles and crests. It seems a little counter intuitive to me. Vultures, turkeys and even iguanas seem like more popular models than the likes of eagles, shrikes and monitor lizards. Yes, there's sexual display but there is also practicality to consider.

      Paul W.

    4. Sorry, I responded to the wrong post by accident. I'm referring to a comment made by Evan Boucher below.

      Paul W.

  4. Who started the "slasher pose" meme? The earliest image I can think of that might fit the genre is the foreground animal in Hallett's famous Tyrannosaurus rex painting "Awakening of Hunger" from 1985.

    1. Hi Brad,

      I'm not sure who stared Slasher Poses, actually. It doesn't help that my knowledge of exactly when specific paintings were done isn't great. 1985 seems like a good provisional date though. John Sibbick's 1988 Dromaeosaurus (in the Dave Norman encyclopaedia) may be another good early example.

    2. Charles R. Knight's 1896 Laelops painting shows something like an early version of the pose. In the 1980s, I wonder if some of John Gurche's famous paintings helped popularize the pose, even if he didn't originate it--his Daspletosaurus and Styracosaurus became the cover of Bakker's 1986 Dinosaur Heresies (not sure when the painting was actually made), and his Deinonychus vs. Tenontosaurus painting (or vs. Iguanodon, depending on which webpage you believe--Gurche's own site doesn't give names or dates of paintings) was reproduced a lot too.

    3. I know what you mean with some of those classic paintings: they do have elements of embryonic Slasher Poses. I guess the key difference with those is that they're directed at other components of the image, whereas 'true' Slasher Poses are directed towards the viewer. I wonder if the discovery of animals like Deinonychus played a part in developing Slasher Poses? Big theropods don't lend themselves quite as well to them, but the claws and long limbs of maniraptorans make them ideal fodder for leaping in someone's face.

  5. Excellent write-up, love the "slasher meme" that's a great one. I believe a lot of paleo-art distortions and cliches could be avoided if artists simply went out on hikes more often. I am lucky that I live in California which is full of a variety of micro-habitats to ponder and try to imagine how they fit into Mesozoic scenes. Very good observation about topography as well. As for vegetation in dino art I am sick of what I call the Mesozoic Big Three- throw in a generic cycad, some very conservative looking ferns, and some conifers, usually redwoods/araucarias- and your backdrop is complete! Not that these groups were not important they are just overrepresented imo. Throw in some gnetales once in a while, give a carpet of lycopsids instead of the ubiquitous "fern prairie", consider cheirolopediaceae. Also we need to expand our idea of how diverse in appearance many of these plants actually are. I recently came across a stand of coffee fern in some Ca chapparal- it does not resemble a fern in the least.

    Duane Nash antediluvian salad

    1. Yep, can't disagree with the palaeoflora suggestions. I know my own work is particularly bad with respect to plants. They're the green things that some animals eat, right?

      What doesn't help is that there's not many good artistic references for fossil plants, at least that I know of. There are palaeobotanical textbooks, but they don't really feature many full-blown reconstructions of ancient plant species. I guess this is because they're hard to construct because of piecemeal way plants are preserved as fossils. Maybe this explains some of the slightly generic nature of fossil plant restorations?

    2. Yeah there is not really a quick reference go-to guide I have found. Paleobotany by Taylor, Univ Press 2nd edition is the best I can find. Still even this mammoth volume is not Mesozoic exclusive. Part of the problem is bias in the plant fossil record towards vegetation found near sedimentation areas as well as incomplete remains. Pollen records are only so useful because dominance in pollen count does not automatically imply dominance in the ecosystem, esp for plants that spread vegetatively.

      But I believe informed speculation is useful to a point- there must have been diverse communities of plants inhabiting riparian areas, deserts, mangroves, alpine habitats, volcanic soils, stuff we may never know about that was colonized by crazy gymnosperms/ferns/gnetales/horsetails and others. Stuff we have no precise reference for in todays angiosperm dominated flora but must surely have existed then.

  6. Agree on all accounts! Especially the RAWRing/slasher poses. People need to spend more time watching actual animals.

    Other things that tend to bother me are:

    1. When artists take exact color schemes/feather patterns from living animals and pasting them on extinct ones. It's one thing to be inspired by and take some influences from something, but replicating it exactly sort of annoys me, especially when going from a bird to a non-avian feathered dinosaur, just because it becomes so obvious where it comes from. Maybe I'm just very tired of seeing the Cassowary Oviraptor meme.

    2. Not so much a problem with paintings/illustrations, but in animation, when animators try to sell the weight of a large animal by exaggerating its dorsoventral movement as it walks, almost as if it doesn't really know how to walk in its own body, and is constantly going to fall over with every step. Combine that with all the excessive roaring, and I can't imagine a more surefire way to lose a chase due to wasted energy. Oh, and don't get me started on camera shakes!

    1. "1. When artists take exact color schemes/feather patterns from living animals and pasting them on extinct ones."

      I don't mind that too much, so long as the source isn't something that's been done a million times before and it's not a 100% copy. In some cases, 'dressing up' an animal in familiar colours can make audiences view them in a very different light. For instance, I tried to make people think differently about therizinosaurs by using a very obvious and familiar pigeon-like colour scheme in this image, contrasting with their normal portrayal as weird, scissorhanded freaks.

      "...when animators try to sell the weight of a large animal by exaggerating its dorsoventral movement as it walks..."

      Yep. This is something that a lot of folks seem to struggle with. There's either over-the-top, silent movie style motions or overly restricted shuffles with no 'weight' behind them at all.

  7. they aren't forever making noise

    Based on my personal observations of the Anthropocene maniraptorans of the genus Mimus, I'm not so sure about this... :)

    Anyhow, very interesting post, and I love the Mesobook "screenshot"!

    @Boucher: I agree with you about reconstructed dinosaurs "dressed up" as modern birds. This also applies to flamingo!Pterodaustro, though at least that's vaguely plausible given its filter-feeding.

    1. Matt Martyniuk had something very interesting to say on the idea of pink Pterodaustro over at Laelaps. Unfortunately, I can't link directly to the comment itself, so you'll need to scroll down to the end of the comments to see it.

    2. Many thanks for pointing that out, Mark. I haven't checked that article in a while, & so I didn't know that Matt had responded to my question.

  8. Patrick Murphy17 June 2013 at 12:53

    Very interesting, agreed on all counts.
    Also, and sorry if this seems random, but what is your favorite pterosaur?

    1. I'm not very good with choosing favourite anythings, to be honest. I have quite an affinity for a lot of the azhdarchoid species, because I spend a lot of my research time with them, but the entire group is pretty cool. No such thing as a boring pterosaur, that's for sure.

  9. The constant roaring issue reminds me of how every single commercial with a cat in it uses the same.recorded.meow...often without the cat opening it's mouth. Maddening!!

    On the other hand, the cattle living on the hill outside my house are constantly yelling at each other. Or me, or the grass? Who can tell with a cow? ;)

  10. Mark, you had me at the caption for the Torvosaur illustration. Great post; I agree with everything in it, and chalk up another one interested to know what your other bugbears. To nick a bit from Evan's comment: "People need to spend more time watching actual animals." QFT.

    Other things that annoy me: there's a variation of always-roaring combined with slasher poses that Hollywood uses for it's monsters (including 'dinosaur' monsters). I call it the 'scare the humans' procedure: any macropredator worth it's salt will A) lean over 'til it's head is almost touching the ground; B) stretch it's neck out as far as it will go; C) roar for as long as it can. Especially useful when there's a nearby tasty human protagonist that you can spray spittle and halitosis all over. Make sure they see just how big your teeth are and hear just how loud you are - that's the important thing! Never mind that the squashy little squirt will take the opportunity of those few seconds to start running as fast as it can in the other direction.
    An early example is the Tyrannosaur from Jurassic Park, in it's first appearance when it steps onto the road. Only, in those first trials of the procedure, it wasn't yet known that the optimal distance for the nearest human is two feet in front of it's snout. If only it had known when it was blowing hats off Jack Horner expies...

  11. Part 2, since I apparently used up my comment allotment above:

    The big disappointment of the book 'Dinosaur Art', for me, was all the space given to and all the praise heaped upon the 'photographic composites' (aka photomanips, photochoppery) used by, from the looks of things, four of the featured artists. Would it be too mean-spirited to name names? In any case I dont like it. It's more subtle in some work but it all still sets off little klaxons in my head - 'Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!' - like you say, working against making the image look convincing. It's like the hated iguana-texture-mapped 3D dinosaurs in kids' books: the shapes and dimensions of the animals themselves may be more accurate, even very well rendered, but the whole piece looks incongruous, off-putting. In the individual collage pieces you have different levels and possibly directions of lighting; different sharpness and detail (you might have pin-sharp, detailed photos of fern fronds beside a blurred, impressionistic, even cartoonish dinosaur; alternatively, a 3D dinosaur carefully studded with highly defined scales set in a softened landscape. And in some cases with extra 3D vegetation that's as convincing as said kids' book dinos); parts and edges of the pieces run under the blur tool to indicate motion or in a hasty attempt to hide the joins. It didn't look good in the WWD book and there's no vast improvement here.
    I might have banged on about the subject enough for one blog comment, and no master illustrator I to rival the palaeoart greats, but I feel strongly about it. It flabbergasts me (flabbergasts, I say!) to think that these talented people, dedicated in some (no small?) amount to representational art, can take such flawed shortcuts and approaches and think it good. It's like another form of plonking sauropods down in flat, barren landscapes - 'dunno, don't care, can't be bothered'. Maybe unkind words to put in the artists' mouths but that's how it's coming across. Coming from art sites and blogs where the emphasis is firmly on learning to render everything - subject and environment together, lighting, perspective, definition, etc. - it's especially jarring.

    TL;DR: my first thought on cracking open the book was 'they cut out Mark Hallet for *this*?' I also hoped the All Yesterdays 'movement' would knock this kind of thing on the head. Can't imagine it did, not completely; but I admit I haven't often gone hunting for palaeomanips to 'admire'. At least, I'm grateful for the likes of you and John Conway for helping put and keep the 'art' in 'palaeoart'. (much as Mr. Conway might dislike the term)

    Can you tell I've been saving it up for a while?

    1. 'Hallett', that should've been. And on that note, also, 'coming from long admiration of palaeoartists like Hallett, Sibbick, _et al_' as well as art sites and blogs. Flat the plain might be, but lookit the beeootiful clouds he put behind those Seismosaurs...

    2. I must say photochopping leaves me cold too. In the end it's about economy, it's easier to do than to render everything by hand. Except when you actually want it to work all as one piece, then the work load grows considerably.

      Mostly I don't like it because you lose the artist's hand in the work. It becomes all about photorealism, which is usually not achieved anyway.

    3. I don't mind composite photography, so long as it's done well. Obviously, that gets harder and harder as the images become more complex and I wonder if, in the end, it would be just as quick to paint the whole thing from scratch! I imagine a lot of the call for photomanipulation comes from clients who want 'real' looking images. We're spoilt by the exquisite renderings of multi-million pound productions which effectively create photo-realistic animals, and that's a hard bar to meet for artists working with considerably higher workloads, smaller budgets and reduced time. I think this is more of an explanation for the quality of some photo compositions instead of a "dunno, don't care, can't be bothered" attitude. I've never met a palaeoartist who considers their work that way.

      Re. the artist selection in Dinosaur Art, the scientific consultant of that volume, Darren Naish offers a perspective on that here.

  12. "Mostly I don't like it because you lose the artist's hand in the work. It becomes all about photorealism, which is usually not achieved anyway."

    Precisely! If only I could be that succinct...

    Mark: fair enough. I know I'm being too harsh, but I'm still no fan of photo composites. As Matt said about 3D illustrations above, it still takes time and effort to look good (or better); but IMO the same time and effort would look even better in fully 2D rendered art, even if individual parts are less photorealistic.

  13. Gotta say I agree with all of the above except for your point about the end scene in Jurassic Park: I think a silent ambush followed by a Tyrannosaur staring down the humans with a "trying to steal it will be the last thing you ever do" look would have been much, much scarier. Think how much worse the scene in Hannibal would have been if Dr. Lecter had bellowed out loud after slitting the guy's throat in the tower in Venice. Silent is more frightening every time.

    1. I guess, but it's at least in keeping with the rest of the film. Jurassic Park has the potential to be a horrible nightmare of a movie (James Cameron had plans to do just that), but they made it into a family movie instead. And as a final shot of a dinosaur in that game-changer of a movie, the roaring tyrannosaur did seem appropriate. It's cheesy as all Hell, of course, but it was an ideal way to send off the dinosaurs.

  14. Mike from Ottawa20 June 2013 at 16:17

    Woo-hoo! Just heard my copy of Pterosaurs has shipped.

    1. Great news. Hope you enjoy it once it arrives!

  15. As others have said, I too would like to see the other 6 points. 1 possible trope that always bothers me is the depiction of non-maniraptoran dino nests as being completely exposed to the elements. AFAIK, all living reptiles that don't incubate their eggs w/direct body contact either bury their them or cover them w/vegetation. Is this a fair criticism or are there any living reptiles that actually do expose their nests to the elements (Better yet, is there any evidence of non-maniraptoran dinos having done so?)? Many thanks in advance.

    "For instance, why, dear Lord why, are there so many reconstructions of extinct predators and prey animals roaring at one another?"

    I have a question about that: In a given piece of predator-prey paleoart, how do you know that a predator is roaring at its prey & not just opening its mouth to bite down on its prey?

    "Aggressive snap display posture in the effectively mute marabou stork, where the body is lowered, the neck retracted and the bill is clattered towards an attacker."

    That reminds me of the possible beak clacking behavior of terror birds (See 16:00-18:00: ).

    "Body language is extremely diverse and important to modern archosaurs, and social signalling doesn't always involve simply rearing up and yelling. There's all sorts of elaborate head movements, neck postures, torso orientations, and even tool use in play there."

    That's 1 of the things I liked about DR/Dinotasia's dinos: They (especially the Allosaurus & T.rex) used a lot more body language than what I was used to seeing in dino docs.

    1. "Is this a fair criticism or are there any living reptiles that actually do expose their nests to the elements (Better yet, is there any evidence of non-maniraptoran dinos having done so?)?"

      Not that I know of, though I'm not an expert on such things. I imagine most non-maniraptoran dinosaurs would be burying their eggs in something, and not leaving them exposed. That's certainly the take home message from the histology of the recently described Torvosaurus eggs: they're too porous and prone to dessication to be fully exposed.

      "I have a question about that: In a given piece of predator-prey how do you know that a predator is roaring at its prey & not just opening its mouth to bite down on its prey?"

      If the predator's mouth is close to the prey, then I agree that we could be seeing some biting action. All to often however, the predator is well away from the prey item and still waving an open mouth about. I assume these animals are meant to be roaring.

      "That's 1 of the things I liked about DR/Dinotasia's dinos: They (especially the Allosaurus & T.rex) used a lot more body language than what I was used to seeing in dino docs."

      Agreed. I thought about those shows a lot in this post. They're meme busting in all sorts of ways, and perhaps under-appreciated for that.

  16. Mike from Ottawa21 June 2013 at 18:34

    A bunch of comments:

    First, that resting Torvosaurus puts me very much in mind of a similar pose I see from my cat. Overall relaxed but head up and aware of the surroundings.

    The watery Therizinosaur would make a good item in a pop-up dino book if it popped up quickly enough. Otherwise, it just looks silly to me.

    And, finally, a couple of well placed footsteps and those Daleks would look like pop cans run over by a bus. Dangerous getting in among the feet like that. No tactical appreciation of the uses of ranged weapons.

    I did get a good laugh from the pic, though, as I didn't spot the Daleks right off so they were a surprise. Now, what would be real fun would be a Dalek being punted by Brontomerus!

    And Bookwatch continues as the paleoliterary treat of the year didn't turn up today. Happily, I just realized that while Monday is a holiday where I work in Quebec, it isn't in Ontario where I live and so I might only have to Monday to wait. And, Mark, if I don't enjoy your book once it arrives, I will be checking myself into the nearest mental health facility.

  17. Mike from Ottawa22 June 2013 at 10:18


    The book has arrived and in perhaps the least suprising outcome since Baldrick last cunning plan came a cropper, I love it!

    It's packed with awesome and leavened with the most hilarious picture captions I've seen (my Mom laughed so hard she had to use her inhaler early). Having skimmed over it, I'm really looking forward to delving into the text now.

    I particularly like the use of the take-off pose, life and skeletal reconstruction as the standard. Oh, and the full spread of the dust jacket is fabulous. The composition makes the whole image soar. Truly grand.

    You really owe it to yourself to take a bit of time to be insufferably proud of yourself for this book.

    To others: If you like pterosaurs, get Pterosaurs If you don't know much about pterosaurs, get Pterosaurs and you will and you will like them. If you don't like pterosaurs, (a) what are you doing here? and (b) what, seriously, is wrong with you - get help.

    1. Thanks Mike. Reading between the lines here, I'm assuming you like the book. ;)

      "I particularly like the use of the take-off pose, life and skeletal reconstruction as the standard."

      I found that the quad launch poses worked very well from not only a scientific perspective: they actually save a buttload of space. Drawing pterosaurs with their wings swept up, which is the more traditional way of restoring their skeletons, takes up a lot of room without too much imagery. A mid-quad launch pose is nice and compact however, and meant I could get the skeletal and life restorations neatly alongside one another on the same page.

    2. Mike from Ottawa24 June 2013 at 14:07

      I don't like the book, I looooove the book. So has everyone I've shown it to. Blown away by the weirdness/awesomeness of the pterosaurs and the beauty of your illustrations of them.

      I should say that the overall design is also excellent. The colour bars to denote chapters are a great idea and the general layout is very easy on the eyes and works very well with the adjacent images. If you did it, kudos, if not, if you know the person who did, please pass on my compliments.

      I think fans of other types of animals will be dead envious of pterosaur fans. The world could use a similar book on ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs and mosasaurs, but I've been saying that since I read Dave Unwin's great 'Pterosaurs: From Deep Time'.

  18. I bought the Kindle earlier and it looks great!

    1. Thanks Emily. Is your version in colour?

    2. Yes it is, and the illustrations are gorgeous. Although there's one odd problem: fig.5.13 is missing, with a message saying "to see this image, refer to the print edition of this book."

  19. When I first read the proposition that birds are a surviving branch of dinosaurs my thoughts flew back to the summers I spent on my grandfather's chicken farm and it immediately and permanently clicked with a solid and satisfying "cluck."

    Not that any chicken, anywhere, has ever been satisfied with a single cluck. Nor to the best of my knowledge has any rooster, anywhere, ever been satisfied with going more than five minutes without crowing rapturously (raptorously? :-) skyward. Let's not mention the racket ducks make, chicks of almost any sort make, or the terrifying open-mouthed honking and hissing of geese when they attack, the open-throated bawling of gulls or the sometimes deafening croaking of ravens and cawing of crows when they're on the offensive.

    At any rate, given that recollections of the moronic cackle of barnyard birds helped cement my recognition of the relationship between birds and other dinosaurs I'm completely sanguine about the notion of perpetually roaring dinosaurs (or, I suspect more likely of squawking, hissing, clucking, or extremely loud peeping ones.) Meanwhile I'm not impressed that you managed to pick out a notoriously mute stork as your counterexample. And if I'm not mistaken, like a lot of other birds with missing syrinxes and/or syringeal muscles, even they can still hiss when provoked.

    As for prey dinosaurs vocalizing when attacked, quite a few birds do this as well (nothing more piteous than hearing a starling's alarm cries as a Peregrine falcon carries it to the top of a local phone pole and starts tearing into it. So to the extent birds are related I'm not going to... err... grouse about that possibility either.

    That said I'll agree with almost everything else in your post including the point that, like their surviving relatives, most dinosaurs also must have had a very wide array of postural and other behavioral forms of communicating both within and between species.


    Oh, and don't forget Nathan Myhrvold's proposition that sauropods communicated by bull-whip cracks of their tails. :-P He's a genius at patent trolling! He wins chili cookoffs with ostrich meat (possibly involving liquid nitrogen and sous vide!) It must be true! How come you guys never draw that!?!?!


    1. The point being made here isn't that dinosaurs and other extinct species shouldn't be depicted roaring or with wide open mouths at all, but that there's a lot more scope for showing these animals communicating than simply waving open mouths at each other. The same for predator-prey interactions: there will be cases where the animals do vocalise when being attacked (although not so much during chases, so far as I can see) but there some occasions where animals are eaten alive without a peep. Again, I'm calling out this trope because we it's so overused that it's misleading, not because it's wrong per se.

    2. For that matter, we don't even know if dinosaurs could vocalize at all, let alone make the range of sounds that some modern birds can achieve. Much as I like to imagine Anchiornis screeching like a scrub jay, or Microraptor making the kek-kek-kek sound of a Cooper's Hawk, or baby raptorlings peeping in their nests... (Of course, even if dinosaurs did vocalize they wouldn't sound exactly like any modern bird, just as their plumage wouldn't look exactly like that of an extant species.)

      Say, do we know anything about the possible vocal abilities of pterosaurs?

  20. Interesting blog post. Must read it again. Too much to take in all at once.

    One criticism: your comment on "the banded headcrest" could be clearer that it's the banded shape rather than the headcrest itself that's fictional.

    1. Thanks for the tip: I've changed the text to read slightly more accurately.

  21. I'm impressed by the lack of imagination in many theropod reconstructions, not for soft parts or behaviours, but for features that we may confidently infer from the skeletons, and thus are less speculative than most of the images many paleoartists produce.
    For example, it seems that all Torvosaurus reconstructions done show it lacking any form of nasal crest/s. Note that no nasals of a megalosaurid are currently known (or as far as I know, described). Thus we lack evidence that megalosaurids lacked nasal ornamentation. Why artists depict megalosaurids lacking a nasal crest? This absence of crests in the reconstructions is bizarre since Torvosaurus is bracketed by taxa all showing various forms of nasal crests (spinosaurids, Monolophosaurus, allosauroids, dilophosaur-grade forms, all with nasal ornamentations). In particular, both Monolophosaurus and spinosaurids show an elongate median nasal crest, a shared feature that may support it as a genuine megalosaurian condition.
    Perhaps, that boring flat nasal with no crests will result the correct condition, and they were unique among non-coelurosaurian theropods in having unornamented nasals... or, and I feel it's the correct explanation, it's just the "boring generalised unspecialised basal tetanuran"-meme from the early XX Century that never die even in the age of "All Yesterdays".

    1. Thanks for the comment, Andrea, and I can't disagree with anything you say. I think this issue, and similar ones, rise from a lack of intimate knowledge of known material for given taxa. I didn't know, for instance, that the nasals of megalosaurids were unrepresented by fossil material: these animals have been depicted as crestless for so long that I figured that's just how they were. That sort of information can be difficult to source without diving into the technical literature on these animals - which is not always possible.

      On your final point, I can't say I've ever considered Torvosaurus a boring animal: its distinctively shaped jaws and proportionally large head were part of the reason I wanted to render it for this piece. Megalosaurs just don't seem to get the press that other dinosaurs do, despite being just as interesting. Of course, you could say this about many extinct animal groups.

    Ankylosaurus obsessed with his tail.

    I love this post!