Sunday 22 March 2015

More new-old art: Therizinosaurus, superpigeon, and Polacanthus, walking coffee table

Two Therizinosaurus cheliformis hanging out in Late Cretaceous Mongolia. The guy on the left thinks he's all that: she doesn't. Prints are available from my online store.

Time for more new takes on old pictures. First up, above, is a reworking of my 2013 image of two Therizinosaurus cheloniformis, giant therizinosaurids from Maastrichtian deposits of Mongolia. Before we knew just how bizarre Deinocheirus was, these pot-bellied, small-headed and scythe-clawed animals held the title of least expected anatomy in a non-avian theropod. The metre-long claws on their hands suggest they were dangerous, ferocious animals, and they are often restored with long arms and claws ready to lash out at passers by. I don't doubt that being clobbered by a Therizinosaurus would be an experience best avoided, but, being herbivores, they probably spent far more of their time eating and digesting that they did swatting other animals. For me, Therizinosaurus was figuratively 'de-clawed' for good in John Conway's restoration of them as squatting, shaggy 'feather mountains' harvesting leaves from trees. Since then, restorations of keen-eyed, 'scythe weilding' therizinosaurs have seen especially silly, even among other 'slasher pose' artwork.

My own restoration of these animals sides with the idea of Therizinosaurus being a large herbivore largely disinterested in the world around it. A clear source of reference for this painting were pigeons, specially the wood pigeon Columba palumbus. I find the proportions of these birds - tubby bodies, small feet, small heads - reminiscent of the anatomy of large therizinosaurs, and I thought it might be fun to mix the two together. The male animal on the left of the image is engaged in pigeon-like display behaviour, strutting around with a cocked head, inflated chest and making noises best described as '├╝bercoos'. The female, right, like most female pigeons presented with courting, couldn't be less interested (although, to be honest, it's hard to tell what pigeons find interesting: they always seem a bit confused to me. They're like avian Dougal McGuires).

Much as I normally try to avoid painting ancient animals in the clothes of modern species, I quite like the spin the pigeon-appearance puts on these animals. All too often Mesozoic dinosaurs are considered embodiments of savage natural selection and intense, often violent competition. There are few modern animals with characters further from this concept than pigeons, which succeed despite their apparent tendencies for confusion, pratfallery, and seemingly simple behaviour*. Transferring these qualities to the Mesozoic seems to put a different spin on ancient dinosaur lifestyles ecology.

*I say this with fondness: I find watching pigeons really interesting. I'm sure they're a lot more sophisticated than they often appear.

Wealden ankylosaur Polacanthus foxii and tiny feathered friends. Prints are available from my store.
Next up is another reworked 2013 piece, the large ankylosaur Polacanthus foxii on a Wealden hillock, with some speculative avians hitchikers. I was lucky enough to have a quick glimpse at some new Polacanthus material being worked on at the University of Southampton a few years back, including lots of limb and hip elements. The size of the specimens was really impressive (an impression helped, I guess, by the fact I'm used to working on much smaller, more gracile pterosaur bones) and it definitely seems that, like other ankylosaurs, Polacanthus was a 'walking coffee table': a low slung creature with a flattish back. The broad sacral shield of was probably an excellent place to put drinks, and experts have recently predicted that Polacanthus had very strict 'use a coaster' policy.

There are two species of birds show here: a flock of small, grey forms leaving the tree, and a suite of smaller brown birds hanging out on the Polacanthus itself. These animals are speculative additions to this Wealden scene as, while possible avialan teeth have from one Wealden formation (the Wessex) have been mentioned, I don't think they've been described or analysed in detail just yet. However, a diverse suite of small birds have been found in Lower Cretaceous deposits elsewhere in the world (including Wealden-equivalent deposits of Spain, and famously in China), so it's not a huge stretch to embellish a painting with such animals.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Love it. Do you think those scythe-like claws were used for grabbing branches - or as a last-resort defense against an approaching predator?

    1. An issue I have with the vegetation gathering idea is the arms have pretty limited range compared to the neck and head. Unless they were pulling trees over to access leaves much higher than even their heads could reach, I have trouble seeing it working.

      Other than that, I suspect the claws were multifunctional: defence, display, grooming, maybe digging in soft substrates to access water/nutrients, that sort of thing.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Love that extra resolution the new drawing rig is giving you, Mark! It just lends so much more realism and impact to your novel compositions and concepts. Beautiful stuff!

  4. When I look at Therizinosaurus, and their strange, flat, long claws, I wonder if they weren't used to make an alluring (or frightening?) clacking sound when jittered about. There is at least one species of bird that clacks its beaks with a mate's (making a racket). I just wanted to bark this idea someplace hahaha. Your focus on mating displays helps in imagining this.

    This is my favorite illustration of these creatures, very nice and humbling for them!

  5. Love the Two Therizinosaurus cheliformis the detail is amazing

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