Thursday 15 December 2022

Book review: John Conway's A History of Painting (with Dinosaurs)

It's Christmas time, which means it's time for a festive book review! This year's subject: John Conway's A History of Painting (with Dinosaurs).

It was ten years ago that palaeoartist John Conway, along with his colleagues Memo Koseman and Darren Naish, published one of the seminal works on palaeoart for the modern age: All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals (Conway et al. 2012). Seeing that palaeoartists of the 2000s and early 2010s were already chipping away at the “rigorous reconstruction” conventions established by palaeoartists of the late 20th century, All Yesterdays blew them apart entirely by drawing focus to the “known unknowns'' of restoring fossil organisms. It not only pushed for greater experimentation with style and subject matter, but also, in its cleverest trick, revealed the hilarious/horrific results of applying palaeoartistic techniques to living animals. The slew of online discussions, artworks, memes and projects that followed All Yesterdays have been of variable quality and legitimacy, a comment that applies to the lesser-mentioned crowdsourced follow-up, All Your Yesterdays as anything else, so the legacy of this book is a complex one and there are discussions to be had about its long-term impact. But however we feel about All Yesterdays, we can’t deny that it has shaped much of the conversation around palaeoart in recent years. Its name has, deservedly, become synonymous with the current, postmodern era of extinct animal reconstruction (Witton 2018; Nieuwland 2020; Manucci and Romano 2022).

A decade later, John Conway is back with another book — and this time it’s personal, or, at least, a solo-authored book project, aside from a foreword written by English Literature scholar and dinosaurophile Will Tattersdill. This volume, A History of Painting (with Dinosaurs), imagines what art history may have been like had the great masters of Western art chosen prehistoric animals as their subjects of choice rather than people, landscapes or constructs of human society. It’s hard not to see this, at least partly, as a deep-dive into one of All Yesterdays’ threads about deviating from traditional palaeoart styles. The sense that A History of Painting is a spiritual successor to All Yesterdays also ebbs from its identical size and length, its print-on-demand publishing model, as well as its low price (£19) and sometimes playful, winking tone. But the similarities end there: whereas All Yesterdays used a scattergun approach to critiquing palaeoart in 2012, A History of Painting is a book with a singular point to make.

What that point is, though, is for readers to decide. In John’s own words, “A History of Painting is either a big joke that will make you smile, or a serious questioning of subject matter in art that will make you think”. If A History of Painting is, indeed, a joke, it’s had a long build-up to its punchline. John has been working on this book for two years and produced 50 new paintings specifically for this project, only a few of which can be found online (I've used nearly all of them in this post). They are some of John’s most interesting pieces yet — which is no mean feat, given the quality of his artwork in general — and cement his reputation as one of the most important palaeoartists working today. He has created a series of pastiches of artwork from the 14th to 20th century that range from caricatures of iconic artworks (Mona Heterdontosaurus or The [troodontid] Scream, anyone?) to more “serious” efforts at injecting palaeoart into famous paintings or artistic styles. While a certain amount of Conway DNA exists across each painting, the diversity of styles and genres is seriously impressive and I could easily believe several artists contributed to this book. It’s difficult to think of another palaeoart volume that varies so much stylistically, and I’m including multi-artist compendiums like Mesozoic Art in that consideration. If you’re a fan of Conway palaeoart, you need to grab this for its art alone. I can give no better indication of the quality of artwork than mentioning that I bought a large print of one of the paintings at the launch event (below), and it’s going to be framed and hung in the house somewhere.

Proof, if proof be need be, of my ownership of these Conway Moospods. The animals here are Saltasaurus, rendered over Ploughing in the Nivernais by the 19th century animalier Rosa Bonheur. Art by John Conway, from Conway (2022).

Had A History of Painting only been filled with dinosaur-flavoured riffs on da Vinci, van Gogh or Warhol, I’m not sure I’d be writing about it here. John’s takes on these iconic works are great but we’ve seen so many imitations and parodies of the paintings in question that there’s not much more to be mined from reimagining them, even with dinosaurs. Happily, A History of Painting is mostly comprised of unexpected mashups of paintings and palaeo: a sauropod-themed reimagining of Bacon’s biomorphic Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, a Late Gothic battle scene retooled with lances swapped out for sauropod necks, a bellowing theropod set against the same lightning flash that frightened Delacroix’s horse. It’s among these that any pretence of the book is a joke falls away, because anything but the most superficial glances at such works gives cause to reflect on dinosaur art more generally. Seeing dinosaurs in such artistic contexts is simply incorrect, but the quality of their superimposition is such that they can’t be dismissed as crude puns at the expense of historic masters. Rather, this juxtaposition of dinosaurs in “serious” artworks gives much to think about palaeoart, our wider attitude to dinosaurs, and maybe even our relationship with nature itself.

Because the book itself is light on text, I found knowing something about the origins of A History of Painting helped my reading of it. Back in 2017, John gave a public talk at a Popularising Palaeontology event about the interaction between dinosaurs and mainstream art, or lack thereof. In a whirlwind tour of the history of painting, John argued that innovations in style have been pursued at the expense of innovations in subject matter, tracking how Western art initially fought to capture the basics of reality, eventually achieving what we’d today describe as hyperrealism or photorealism, and then pushed back to explore new movements like expressionism, surrealism, and abstraction, cumulating in works such as Rauschenberg’s 1951 White Painting. Style, John argued, is now a dead-end for experimentation, with artists having reached beyond reality into the furthest reaches of the abstract. But in terms of subject matter, mainstream artists have remained pretty focused on matters of humanity: our own form and appearance, our religions, beliefs and cultures, our dramas and tragedies, and the local world we inhabit. So if style is dead, maybe the next artistic frontier is… subject matter? And if artists want to continue pushing boundaries and the limits of human experience, what would make better subjects than extinct animals?

The unmistakable painting approach of Gustav Klimt, reworked to feature hadrosaurs. It's recognisably palaeoartistic, but not as we know it. Art by John Conway, from Conway (2022).

It’s this line of thinking that gave rise to A History of Painting. The opening of the book asks, bluntly “did the vast majority of artists really ignore the greatest subject of all, dinosaurs and closely related animals?”. Though approached somewhat facetiously, it's hard not to find some validity here. Consider the wealth of discovery we’ve experienced over the last few centuries: the reality of Deep Time and extinction, the endless parade of exotic organisms, living and fossilised, that exist and have existed on our planet, the vastness of the cosmos and the nature of other worlds, the fundamental components of physical reality… we could go on and on. And yet, these subjects, which represent the very limits of human knowledge and challenge our comprehension of reality and possibility, remain largely untouched by our most famous artists. Those of us that explore the details of the natural world aren’t part of the classic painter canon: we are given different labels (“scientific illustrators”, “wildlife artists”, “palaeoartists” etc.) and our work, if exhibited at all, is more likely to be shown in a natural history museum than the National Gallery.

John is, of course, not the first person to point out the divide between conventional art and palaeoart, nor to imply that palaeoart is undervalued (Mitchell 1998; Lescaze 2017; Manucci and Romano 2020). W. J. T. Mitchell (1998) and Zoe Lescaze (2017) have suggested several reasons for the obscurity of palaeoart, mostly pertaining to stylistic issues and facts of history. Mitchell regarded the work of prominent 20th-century artists as stylistic “throwbacks” compared to trends in mainstream art, while Lescaze argues that the genre draws on too many artistic influences — Romanticism, Impressionism Fauvism and so on — and thus presents a “cacophony of dialects” to scholars attuned to more unified artistic voices and styles. Mitchell further notes that palaeoart developed too late as a genre to capitalise on the animal painting craze of the 19th century.

But there’s a deeper issue, simply identified as “snobbery” by Lescaze (2017). The symbology of dinosaurs is all wrong for refined, dignified artistic traditions. In popular culture, dinosaurs are synonymous with spectacle, violence, mass consumption and childhood interests (Mitchell 1998; Lescaze 2017). Thusly, as Lescze (2017) observes:

“Throw an engraving of an egret above the mantelpiece and no one balks. Hang a painting of a T. rex in the same spot, and the decision screams nerd stuck in second childhood.”

Lescaze (2017), p. 268.

A Monet-esque impressionist take on Tupuxuara. How would you feel about having this hanging over your fireplace? More relevant here, what would your non-pterosaur-fan friends say about it? Art by John Conway, from Conway (2022).

We might thus have some answers to John’s question, the most important being that great artists did not regard dinosaurs as we — as in, the scientists, scholars and enthusiasts who read blogs like this — do today. We think of prehistoric animals as amazing extensions of the living world, species that must have been as majestic and amazing and inspiring as the greatest of today’s creatures. But to non-specialists, these animals are vulgar, monstrous forms represented by tacky merchandise and blockbuster movies. Even if they followed the scientific thinking of the time, artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries would have regarded dinosaurs as inferior animals to mammals and birds (a view that might explain the absence of “lower animals” — invertebrates, reptiles and amphibians — in mainstream painting as well). And, of course, we have the longstanding, entirely false idea that art and science are inherently incompatible. These conspire, Mitchell concludes, to force dinosaurs into a niche well separated from the traditions of studio art:

“...the dinosaur seems to have its ‘proper’ place as the figurehead image of the natural history museum, [where] it helps to reinforce the illusion of a strict separation between nature and culture, science and art. The truth is, this separation is one of cultural status and has absolutely nothing to do with nature, which is just as much the object of art as of science.”

Mitchell (1998), p. 62.

By injecting dinosaurs into classic paintings, A History of Painting continues this discussion in a radical new way, allowing us to explore the inherent “wrongness” of seeing dinosaurs approached as “serious” art subjects. I see John’s book as a direct challenge to the idea that palaeoart must have a purpose, sensu Mitchell’s (1998) comment that “A cubist dinosaur would not be of much use, either to a palaeontologist or to the public” (p. 60). Three cubist paintings (Therizinosaurus, Triceratops and Ankylosaurus) allow us to judge that for ourselves. Are these “useful” paintings of dinosaurs? OK, they distort the appearance of the animals in question, but does a distorted dinosaur serve no purpose? Does bringing a cubist approach to dinosaurs deny us the interpretations we might discuss around conventional cubism, such as its capturing of movement or time, its use of multiple perspectives to convey three-dimensional shapes, and the use of a flat image to capture reality? And, more broadly, it asks why must art of dinosaurs be useful? Can it not be art for the sake of being art, or created purely for aesthetic value? As John pointed out at the A History of Painting launch, the unusual shapes and anatomy of dinosaurs allow for terrific abstractions if we can allow ourselves to abandon the idea that they should only be rendered in ways that show their bodies precisely and clearly. And, ironically, this very discussion already shows that John’s cubist dinosaurs have a purpose, inviting us to question our relationship with dinosaurs in art.

But lest it be thought that A History of Painting is full of strange and bizarre paintings, some works also allow us to recognise the roots of palaeoart itself. John demonstrates that conventional palaeoart has a home, at least stylistically, among the Romantic landscapes of Constable, Corot and Boheur. Here, John creates pieces where dinosaurs are dwarfed by richly painted, detailed surroundings, recalling Henderson-esque landscapes with a Romantic twist. Each could be dropped into a dinosaur textbook without raising eyebrows. His artworks allow for other reflections on palaeoart practises too. His German Renaissance-inspired take on Nemegt Formation dinosaurs allows for a surprisingly effective take on a classic“menagerie” scene with multiple species, the distorted perspective allowing animals of all sizes and shapes to remain visible and uncrowded in what would be an otherwise overly-busy scene. The intentionally warped anatomy of certain restorations provides a new perspective on animal monsterisation: the aforementioned Delacroix Therizinosaurus is disturbing and nightmarish, the reddish hues that accompanied the original facial features of the horse being extended across the face and neck in a fashion that recalls an open wound. And the large number of intimate portraits, often of theropods with forward-facing eyes, encourages us to consider dinosaurs as individuals, a goal we often pursue by adorning them with wear and tear (e.g. scars, scratches, blotches etc.), not quiet, close interaction with viewers. Needless to say, the great stylistic experimentation gives much to ponder about traditional approaches to rendering fossil species. Do some of the paintings in the book transcend “palaeoart” as we might typically define it, or are they "art that features dinosaurs"? Where would we draw the line? Should we even bother with lines at all?

Tarbosaurus hunts Saurolophus in Cretaceous Mongolia, imagined here in Lucas Cranach's 16th Century style. Against all expectations, the strange perspective and lofty point of view make this potentially overcrowded scene very pleasant to look at: it's essentially 5-6 small paintings in one. Art by John Conway, from Conway (2022).

We could go on: there is much to ponder over when thumbing through A History of Painting, and writing this has only prompted even more to think on and discuss. And it’s here, with my brain full of thoughts and ideas, that I find my only real concern (as opposed to criticism) about this project. Much of the above paraphrases points that John has raised in talks about his book, but there’s no substantial discussion of this nature in the book itself. Instead, it leads with a short meta-fiction, suggesting the paintings are recreations of a lost collection of dinosaur artworks by well-renowned artists. The descriptions of the paintings toe this line, making suggestions as to the original artists and subject matter as one might if recreating a series of images from photographs. It’s a fine enough set-up but I worry that it denies the book a context and, dare I say it, an importance that it might otherwise have had, risking it being seen as little more than an exercise in kitsch rather than a considered entry to an ongoing scholarly discussion. A version of A History of Painting was drafted that contained more explanation and text, but didn’t make the cut for being overly stuffy and academic: this is a book designed to appeal beyond a few historians and researchers, after all. I can’t criticise the book for the approach it’s taken because there’s surely no right or wrong way to frame such an unusual project, but I hope its approach doesn’t see it become ignored or brushed off as lightweight frippery. I feel John’s thoughts on this should be recorded somehow, and I wonder if those unused drafts would warrant being turned into a complementary paper or article. And, again, this idea gets my brain turning over: I’m curious to know what non-palaeontological artists and art historians would make of all this. Some sort of public discussion outside of the bubble of palaeo-enthusiasts could be a terrific event. But — no, we must stop.

This wanting the book to be discussed and contemplated is, of course, a strong, if indirect, recommendation for getting yourself a copy. Although it's probably too abstract to have the impact of All Yesterdays, A History of Painting (with Dinosaurs) is a book like no other and another important contribution to the palaeoart book canon from John Conway. Beyond being great to look at, it’s a thought-provoking exploration of not only the value and role of palaeoart, but of our societal relationship with extinct animals and nature, and all for just £19. At the time of writing, there’s still time to get it before Christmas and it should be available pretty much wherever Amazon operates (John has some quick links at his website, but check your national Amazon webpage for details). If you have any stockings to fill for a palaeoart fan, or perhaps for anyone interested in art history, this is well worth your money.

And having mentioned festive season, it’s time at the bar for 2022 at this (now ten-year-old!) blog. However you mark the end of the year, I hope you all have a safe and happy time, and I’ll see you in 2023.

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  • Conway, J. (2022). A history of painting (with dinosaurs). Independently published.
  • Conway, J., Kosemen, C. M., & Naish, D. (2013). All yesterdays: unique and speculative views of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. Irregular books.
  • Lescaze, Z. (2017). Paleoart: Visions of the prehistoric past. Taschen.
  • Manucci, F., & Romano, M. (2022). Reviewing the iconography and the central role of ‘paleoart’: four centuries of geo-palaeontological art. Historical Biology, 1-48.
  • Mitchell, W. T. (1998). The last dinosaur book: the life and times of a cultural icon. University of Chicago Press.
  • Nieuwland, I. (2020). Paleoart comes into its own. Science, 369(6500), 148-149.
  • Witton, M. P. (2018). The Palaeoartist's Handbook: Recreating prehistoric animals in art. The Crowood Press.

Monday 28 November 2022

Happy 10th birthday, Mark P. Witton's blog

The very first image posted at this blog, way, way back in November 2012. It shows a coloured version of a piece I created for the Pterosaur.Net blog earlier in the same year. How time — like so many quad-launching, cowboy-riding azhdarchids — has flown.

I don’t normally worry about blog anniversaries, but today marks a full ten years since I started writing this blog and a decade of writing and uploading artwork in the same venue feels like an achievement worth mentioning. According to Blogger stats, over 3 million people have checked in here in the last decade and, while I have no idea how genuine that number is, it implies someone is reading this stuff, even if it's just bots. If you are among those who have stopped by in the last few years, know that your visit is appreciated: I owe a big thanks to everyone who has read one of my posts, left a comment or shared my articles and artwork around the internet. And that applies to the bots, too: thanks for stopping by, fellas, and for all your weirdly-worded comments trying to get us to click stuff. We're not going to, but it's nice that you try.

It’s funny looking back on the very first days of this blog. I initially imagined this would be little more than a “picture of the day/week” style affair to promote my artwork in the wake of finishing my first book: Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy. That explains two pterosaur-themed first posts, and also why the third featured Tyrannosaurus: I chose T. rex as a palate cleanser after drawing and writing about pterosaurs for several years. There’s an ironic twist to this that I can’t reveal yet: let’s just say that the roles of those taxa might end up being reversed soon. A newly-released book called All Yesterdays formed the subject of post five, and my coverage of that saw the abandonment of any pretence that this would be a short-format blog.

From post 3, my first attempt to restore Tyrannosaurus as a semi-professional palaeoartist. It's pretty wonky to my modern eyes and — shock — even has exposed teeth. That won't fly in a few years, 2012 Mark, and we might want to talk about that facial reconstruction too (and, hey, 2022 Mark, when will you finish writing the paper on that?). This image would resurface a few years later in a modified form for one of the most popular articles on this site: "Revenge of the scaly Tyrannosaurus".

Since then, we’ve covered a fairly broad set of topics within palaeontology, with subject matter mostly divided across the science of extinct animal life appearance, deep-dives into animal palaeobiology, portrayals of palaeontology in the media, and the history of palaeoart. Although I’ve enjoyed writing virtually everything I’ve posted, a few pieces stand out as personal favourites. They aren’t the most popular articles, but those posts where I sought to answer a simple question and found a complex rabbit hole to explore, or the ones where I found conventional wisdom was incorrect and I could present an alternative based on peer-reviewed publications. Among these are my three articles on geomythology (covering the alleged fossil origins of griffins, dragons, cyclopes, unicorns and others), all of which found reason to question mainstream views linking certain fossils and mythological creations. I also enjoyed digging into the literature on the many fraudulent claims about mastodon hair: who’d have thought, with thousands of images of mastodons covered in brown, shaggy hair, that our evidence for such an integument would be near zero? In truth, writing about anything where the mainstream interpretation is at odds with science is fun because we get to explore why and how our wires have become crossed, whether that's just because something has been overlooked (e.g. Megaloceros as a powerful, fast runner and not just a pair of giant antlers) or we've been misled by popular culture (e.g. the actual science behind predicting dinosaur vocalisations). I could list articles I've enjoyed researching, writing and illustrating all day but that would be pretty dull for all of us. I'll instead point to the navigation panel on the right that can be used to explore my full catalogue of blog content.

I don't have much new art I can share at the moment, so here's the latest sharable painting I worked on, just so we have some new art content for this anniversary post: it's Yutyrannus huali bellowing on a chilly morning. And yes, it does have a bit of a Christmas card vibe.

It is, admittedly, increasingly difficult to find time to blog as my workload and personal responsibilities have increased in the last ten years. Following the first few years where I was able to post multiple times a month (looking back, I don’t remember ever having that much time on my hands!), I now aim for one post each month, along with regular updates on Facebook, Twitter and Mastodon — do check me out if you’re on the same platforms. I have every intention of keeping the blog going, especially as the line between it and my professional writing is now pretty blurred. Blog posts have become articles and books, and research for books and papers has become blog content. A lot of what you’ve read here has been overspill that I can’t work into other projects, especially from The Palaeoartist’s Handbook an The Art and Science of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs. At the risk of dipping my hand too far, you’ve also already seen some overflow from my unannounced sixth book — but in which posts, dear reader, which posts?

But I'm saying too much. Sincere thanks to you, my readers, for ten years of blogging fun and especially anyone who’s been around since the beginning. And an even bigger thanks to people who support me at Patreon, without whom I may not be writing here anymore, nor doing any of my other projects, for that matter. Here’s to another decade!

Sunday 9 October 2022

Tabletop adventures + dinosaurs: introducing Dr. Dhrolin's Dictionary of Dinosaurs

Tabletop gaming and (scientifically credible) dinosaurs: together at last! The draft cover of Nathan Barling's Dr Dhronlin's Dictionary of Dinosaurs, a book illustrated with my palaeoart and now being crowdfunded over at Kickstarter.

Time to announce a new project that, I must admit, I never saw coming. For the last few months, I've been working with insect palaeontologist and taphonomy expert Nathan Barling to create a new book: Dr. Dhrolin's Dictionary of Dinosaurs: a palaeontologically-informed, palaeoart-heavy supplement for your tabletop roleplaying adventures. I'm aware that there are enough awesome keywords in that sentence to get some folks on board so, if you're already sold, head to the Kickstarter page for full details.

Still here? OK, here's some extra information and background. This project is, by far, Nathan's baby and I'm really only involved as an artist and paleontological consultant, along with fellow advisors David Hone (whoever he is) and pterosaur expert Michael O'Sullivan. Nathan, who I used to teach back in his undergrad days, approached me about illustrating this book at Christmas last year knowing full well that I don't do the whole tabletop gaming thing. My entire experience with such gaming was condensed into one evening about ten years ago, so everything I know about it comes from cultural osmosis. I believe it involves a traditional fantasy setting, dice, campaigns run from behind little cardboard houses and... Jeremy Irons? He's part of this somehow?

Fortunately for us all, Nathan wasn't interested in my knowledge of RPGs. Instead, he wanted my art so he could create a 5th Edition supplement featuring modern, scientifically-informed takes on prehistoric animals. There are, I understand, already some dinosaurs in official D&D canon, but they're apparently pretty "standard" and not especially accurate to their true palaeobiology. Realising that the reality of dinosaurs is way more interesting than their pop-culture stereotypes, Nathan wants to bring a diversity of extinct animals to your campaigns, each with stats and abilities inspired by their real anatomy and hypothesised behaviours. He's also taking inspiration from palaeoenvironmental reconstructions of specific geological formations to create new, science-informed worlds for your quests to take place in. Furthermore, he's creating palaeo-based player races that should be new and interesting, not predictable and familiar. With this supplement, you'll be able to play as folks inspired by azhdarchoids or obscure ornithischians rather than generic "dinosauroids". I'm sure we're going to meet all these goals. Even writing as I am — someone totally ignorant of this vast topic — I'm pretty confident that there aren't many palaeontology 5th Edition projects being guided by four published, PhDed scientists. If you've ever felt your tabletop campaigns were lacking a Yutyrannus ambush, a surprise encounter with Gigantspinosaurus or a Microraptor player companion, this is the book for you.

To bring all this to life, Nathan has full access to my artwork portfolio and is also commissioning me to do new pieces, both of species I've not yet painted as well as new works showing adventurers interacting with scientifically-credible extinct animals. You can get a flavour of what the latter will involve from the cover, which has already been painted and (provisionally) designed, below (NB: a professional designer will be putting everything together next year, so what you see here and at Kickstarter is only indicative of the final product, not finalised book content). This piece was very much a collaborative effort: I can handle dinosaur art well enough, but Nathan's got a tight grip on the more fantastical content and is steering me accordingly. I was thoroughly told off for including an orb staff in an earlier iteration of this image, which I now understand is the tabletop adventure equivalent of legwarmers.

Witton does 5th Edition art: two Utahraptor take on a band of travellers, including one of the new player races, the Pterochaps (OK, OK, actually called "the Children of Seth"). Can you spot all the palaeo references on the adventures? You're looking for azhdarchid pterosaur wings, a Tyrannosaurus skull (in anterior view), a juvenile Psittacosaurus skull and a bunch of ceratopsian-inspired costuming. No, you're a big dinosaur nerd.

The Kickstarter for DDDD (which, I confess, is not the most elegant acronym) went live yesterday morning and we've been totally blown away by the response. The £9000 minimum needed to get things moving was met by lunchtime and, at the time of writing (Sunday evening) the project has over £40,000 in pledges. Wow, and thanks to everyone who's pledged something already. Nathan's promotional efforts have really paid off (and he, indeed, deserves all the credit for this, I've done very little despite my name being on the draft cover). What this means is that DDDD is definitely happening and, if you want in at ground level, now's the time to sign up, especially if you want access to the Kickstater tiers with additional rewards. All being well, you'll be holding physical copies of Dr Dhronlin's Dictionary of Dinosaurs by late next year, which means we need to get to work. Here's that Kickstarter link again, and I'll see you on the flip-die. That's what you tabletop guys say, right? Because of the dice? Hello? Is this thing on?

Friday 30 September 2022

Tyrannosaurs wrecks Triceratops

Well, this doesn't need a caption.

Predicting what will become a palaeoart meme is a dark, mysterious art. Sometimes news drops that should, given everything we know about the folks who create and like palaeoart, go absolutely viral. It should be illustrated again and again, find its way into books, magazines and maybe even documentaries, and inspire so much online content that old, miserable people like myself become quietly bored and tired of seeing it. But not all news of this sort takes hold among artists and, for whatever reason, it falls through the cracks.

Enter, stage left, the decade-old proposal that consumption of Triceratops carcasses by Tyrannosaurus involved the literal decapitation of the horned dinosaur corpse. Holy cow, how did we miss that one? Initially pitched in a conference poster at the 2012 SVP meeting by Denver Fowler and colleagues, the “How to eat a Triceratops” hypothesis has made a decent splash outside of the palaeoart community. It was featured in Nature and New Scientist among many other news outlets back in 2012, and the then-active Walking with Dinosaurs website turned it into a short film. The Smithsonian mounted the Nation's T. rex specimen gripping a Triceratops frill, an action hypothesised by Fowler et al. as necessary to get at the neck steaks beneath. But even with widespread sharing of a Nate Carroll graphic operating as an instruction manual for palaeoartists (below), the internet has not been inundated with images of Tyrannosaurus ripping the heads of horned dinosaurs, aside from rare examples like Luis Rey's take. I can't be the only one finding this strange, especially given the amount of T. rex art out there. Come on, people: it’s T. rex pulling the head off Triceratops! Were we asleep in 2012? As you've already worked out, the image above is my atonement for missing such an awesome source of palaeoartistic inspiration.

Nate Carroll's guide to eating Triceratops necks, if you're a T. rex. A, grab frill; B, use the frill as a lever to tear the neck; C, pull the head off; D, eat. It's not quite as straightforward as ordering a pizza, but you can't argue with the results. (From SciTechDaily)

Of course, and as Denver has noted on his website in response to the press interest in this hypothesis, we need to tread carefully around the “How to eat a Triceratops” data because it hasn’t been peer-reviewed and published yet. A paper is on the way but, for now, what’s suggested in the abstract is exciting and compelling. A collection of c. 100 Triceratops was examined for bite marks to reveal a large number (maybe as high as c. 18%) with scores and punctures attributable to T. rex teeth. It’s rare to allocate theropod bites to a single species but, among the very latest Cretaceous deposits in western North America, Tyrannosaurus is the only animal that was capable of leaving gigantic punctures and gouges in dinosaur bones. And if that's not convincing enough, casts of tooth marks sometimes replicate T. rex dental morphologies with precision (Erickson and Olsen 1996). Using these criteria, dozens of hadrosaur and horned dinosaur specimens with bites from Tyrannosaurus, as well as some T. rex bones with cannibalistic feeding traces, have been identified in recent decades (e.g. Horner and Lessem 1993; Erickson and Olsen 1996; Carpenter 1998; Happ 2008; Longrich et al. 2010; Depalma et al. 2013; Mclain et al. 2018). This work is all so recent because historic collection and examination practises tended to overlook T. rex feeding traces, so we're only now learning how common — relatively speaking — these marks are.

Tyrannosaurus tooth marks on horned dinosaur frills have been reported outside of the Fowler et al. study, suggesting whatever behaviour these traces represent may have been widespread and routine. These examples are from Longrich et al. (2010): C is only tentatively identified as a ceratopsid frill element, but D is confidently identified as a right squmosal (i.e. the bone forming the right lateral frill region).

What specifically underpins the “How to eat Triceratops” hypothesis are bite marks in specific places on the back of Triceratops skulls. Specifically, multiple specimens show tooth gouges and punctures on Triceratops frills, and these are difficult to explain as actual feeding traces. So far as we can tell, there wasn’t much to eat on this part of the Triceratops body. Perhaps, instead, they represent carcass manipulation marks, where the head was adjusted and pulled about to move the corpse into a more accessible position? But there's more: Fowler et al. (2012) also report tooth traces on Triceratops occipital regions: parts of the skull situated deep within Triceratops neck tissues that would only be accessible on heads separated from their necks. It’s not much of a jump to link these traces: maybe all that jostling with the frills wasn't really about moving the whole carcass, but specifically to get at the neck soft-tissues? While the frill was probably an obstruction to biting the voluminous cervical musculature on a living Triceratops, in death it may have been a useful lever with which to manipulate and pull at the head. Given enough pulling, twisting and brute force, that mighty Triceratops head would eventually tear off: dinner is served, as they say. 

Indirectly supporting this idea is good evidence that T. rex feeding could be very destructive in general, even when consuming animals as large as Triceratops. One of the most famous specimens to record Tyrannosaurus bite marks is a Triceratops pelvis described by Greg Erickson and Kenneth Olsen in 1996. Riddled with up to 80 tooth marks across several surfaces, this gigantic limb girdle was clearly moved around a lot by the feeding Tyrannosaurus (or tyrannosauruses) and chunks were literally shorn off by powerful bites, including one of the iliac blades and (almost) half a vertebra. The latter only remained attached by a small amount of bone and Erickson and Olsen ascribed this to the act of separating the pelvis from the rest of the body: a tremendous feat if it happened. Given this specimen, and the wealth of other fossils demonstrating the strength and force of a feeding Tyrannosaurus, I can totally buy that T. rex could decapitate Triceratops carcasses to access a bounty of horned dinosaur neck meat.

A caveat to all this, and a particularly necessary one in case we get swept along by the T. rex hype train, is that we shouldn’t imagine major dismantling of Triceratops carcasses taking place with freshly killed or otherwise untouched bodies. Neat as it is to imagine Tyrannosaurus ripping the head from a freshly-vanquished Triceratops, waving it aloft and roaring triumphantly like some kind of 8-tonne Predator, modern animals generally follow reliable carcass consumption patterns where easily accessed and nutritious tissues are eaten before difficult-to-access or less-nutritional parts (Blumenschine 1986). Typically, animal hindquarters are eaten first, then the contents of the abdominal cavity, followed by the forequarters and any fleshy bits on the skull, then the limb bones, and finally the internal contents of the head. Under this model, we might place Triceratops neck tissues as “mid-priority” fodder: decent enough eating to make them desirable, but only worth the energy and time investment of bypassing the head if more sought-after parts of a carcass are gone. I’ve attempted to show this in my artwork above by depicting the legs and arms of the Triceratops as already consumed, and the ribs are already exposed from the body being opened to eat the internal organs.

The image at the top of this post isn't my first dance with the Triceratops decapitation hypothesis. In this painting from earlier this year, the decapitated Javelina Formation ceratopsid is meant to be the result of tyrannosaur activity that preceded the arrival of more noble, elegant creatures who'll clear up the mess.

And that's where I'll leave things today. As noted above, a paper on all this is in the works and I'm looking forward to reading it when it comes out. I'm resisting the temptation to springboard onto other topics related to T. rex tooth marks: feeding habits, neck and jaw strength, and their embarrassment of older considerations of Tyrannosaurus tooth and jaw strength (“...its viscous-looking teeth were not as bad as they seemed: if it had tried to tackle living animals, the teeth would have snapped off in the struggle” - oh, Halstead 1975. that comment has not aged well). But time isn’t on my side and we’ll have to save that for another time. Or maybe we’ll finally move away from posts about big theropods. There is a good reason for all this, honest.

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  • Blumenschine, R. J. (1986). Carcass consumption sequences and the archaeological distinction of scavenging and hunting. journal of Human Evolution, 15(8), 639-659.
  • Carpenter, K. (1998). Evidence of predatory behavior by carnivorous dinosaurs. Gaia, 15, 135-144.
  • DePalma, R. A., Burnham, D. A., Martin, L. D., Rothschild, B. M., & Larson, P. L. (2013). Physical evidence of predatory behavior in Tyrannosaurus rex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(31), 12560-12564.
  • Erickson, G. M., & Olson, K. H. (1996). Bite marks attributable to Tyrannosaurus rex: preliminary description and implications. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 16(1), 175-178.
  • Fowler, D.W., Scannella, J.B., Goodwin, M.G., & Horner, J.R. (2012) How to eat a Triceratops: large sample of toothmarks provides new insight into the feeding behavior of Tyrannosaurus. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 32(5, abstracts vol): 96
  • Halstead, L. B. (1975). The evolution and ecology of the dinosaurs. P. Lowe.
  • Happ, J. (2008). An analysis of predator-prey behavior in a head-to-head encounter between Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops. In Larson P. & Carpenter, K. Tyrannosaurus rex the Tyrant king, Indiana University Press. p. 355-370.
  • Horner, J. R., & Lessem, D. (1993). The complete T. rex. Simon & Schuster.
  • Longrich, N. R., Horner, J. R., Erickson, G. M., & Currie, P. J. (2010). Cannibalism in Tyrannosaurus rex. PLoS One, 5(10), e13419.
  • Mclain, M. A., Nelsen, D., Snyder, K., Griffin, C. T., Siviero, B., Brand, L. R., & Chadwick, A. V. (2018). Tyrannosaur cannibalism: a case of a tooth-traced tyrannosaurid bone in the Lance Formation (Maastrichtian), Wyoming. Palaios, 33(4), 164-173.

Tuesday 30 August 2022

Palaeoart reference review: the Beasts of the Mesozoic 1/35 Tyrannosaurus rex

"Hi, I'm the 1/35 unpainted Beasts of the Mesozoic Tyrannosaurus. You may remember me from this Kickstarter campaign and the Creative Beast Studio website. But now I'm being reviewed at this blog to evaluate my box claim of being an 'ideal 3D reference for palaeoart'. How do I fare? Read on!"

Now here’s something I never thought I’d have cause to write: a review of a commercially available dinosaur model marketed, at least in part, as a palaeoart reference. It’s testament to the rising popularity of palaeoart and the growth of the number of practitioners that products are now being advertised specifically to people who don’t just enjoy palaeoart, but enjoy creating palaeoart.

The model in question is Creative Beast Studio’s new Beasts of the Mesozoic 1/35 unpainted Tyrannosaurus, a poseable dinosaur figure with the very words “ideal 3D reference for paleoart!” printed on the box. David Silva’s Beasts of the Mesozoic (hereafter BotM) line has been creating quite a stir among collectors for bringing the detail and articulation of modern action figures to dinosaurs. The current range includes dromaeosaurs and ceratopsians, and the tyrannosaur line is inbound. The frequency of some models being sold out from online stores is a testament to their popularity and, with individual price tags mostly upwards of $50, BotM products are clearly in the realm of poseable models for grown ups rather than children's action figures.

Despite not being much of a dinosaur model collector myself, I preordered the BotM Tyrannosaurus specifically because I saw its potential as an artistic reference. The preorder price was $65 + shipping, which is the same as the preorder cost for the fully painted version that will be released later this year. I received my order earlier this month and it’s joined a small collection of other bits and pieces used in my efforts at restoring ancient animals, including model animals, replica fossils, 3D printed materials and my own crude constructions of wire, cardboard and sculpting materials. I feel that building animals in 3D before painting them is probably the best way to approach palaeoart — it was, after all, the practise that Charles Knight swore by — but the time, space, money and skills needed to create 3D models for every restoration are not available to everyone. Digital models, either made ourselves or sourced online, avoid some of these issues but are arguably less satisfying and informative to work from than physical ones. Holding and manipulating a real object conveys information about form and proportions that we may not get when viewing a 3D representation on a screen, and I find it much easier to experiment with light and shadow in the real world. Don’t get me wrong: I’ll use a digital model over nothing, but I’d much rather have a real, physical reference than a virtual one if given a choice.

I’m thus fully onboard with the sale of quality palaeoart reference models and — to my knowledge —the BotM Tyrannosaurus enters this field unchallenged by competitors offering models specifically as palaeoart reference aids. Indeed, it's rare to see an artistic reference offered for any type of reptile, as animal art guides are terribly biased towards mammals and birds. In this sense, advertising the BotM Tyrannosaurus as an art reference is quite exceptional, but being the only player on the field doesn’t tell us anything about quality. Let's get into this: how does the BotM Tyrannosaurus fare as a reference tool, and what are you getting for your $65?

Straight out of the box, it’s apparent that the BotM Tyrannosaurus is a high-quality product. The moulding detail is superb and it doesn't look or feel at all cheap or plasticky. At around 35 cm long the model is big enough to view its details without it dominating your workspace, and this was the main reason I opted for the 1/35 version and not its gigantic, almost 70 cm long 1/18 counterpart (even if that does look extremely cool). Although possessing a satisfying heft, the model is small and light enough to hold comfortably in one hand, which is a big plus for something you’re potentially drawing from.

To show off the detailing and reference potential of the BotM Tyrannosaurus, I took it outside to my garden for these shots. The sculpting picks up light and shadow extremely well and looks great even on a phone camera. Note that, among other poses, you can achieve the Prehistoric Planet courting posture if you want the first-hand experience of being flirted with by an 8-tonne murder reptile.

Not that you need to hold this model for it to retain a pose. A variety of interchangeable lower leg components are provided that can be used to create a range of postures and demeanours. The two solid legs are probably your default setting as they provide a stable base for free-standing on even slightly uneven surfaces, and you can make plenty of adjustments to the head, torso and tail before the model topples over. If you’re after something more dynamic, you can swap in the mobile leg pieces which, in addition to adjustable ankle joints, permit attachment of different feet to create distinct parts of a step cycle. The solid legs can be pinned to a base so that, when paired with an adjustable leg, the model can be positioned as if running or walking (although it's not recommended to leave it in this state permanently). Across the body, some 22 points of articulation allow for posing the jaws, head, neck, mid-torso, tail, legs and arms, often offering rotation as well as extension and flexion. The tail is articulated in several places and sports a wire-infused end piece that can continue any arc made with the more proximal, jointed segments.

I initially found the joints to be extremely stiff to the point where I couldn’t distinguish their rigidity from having reached the figure’s arthrological limits. Paperwork provided with the model acknowledges this and recommends heating the joints in water or with a hairdryer rather than forcing them, and this indeed loosens them somewhat. Happily, early fears that I was going to have to get the hairdryer out every time I wanted to adjust the pose have not been borne out as joint mobility has improved substantially as I’ve worked the model through its paces, so far without any sign of compromising stability.

As you can see in accompanying photos, the model does a great job of filling space around its joints so that we retain that classic T. rex shape no matter what pose we choose. I’m particularly impressed with the adjustable hood-like neck piece that hides the articulation for the neck and head: once you’ve twisted and rotated that head to where you want it, the neck piece can be pulled into the right place. This retention of form around joints comes at the price of some mobility, however, and the posing options are really more about varying standing and walking poses than exploring the full repertoire of joint motion available to a real T. rex. From an art reference perspective, it would be neat to have more flexibility but, realistically, there must always be engineering compromise in a figure like this, especially if we’re also expecting it to stand on its own feet. In all, given the challenges of creating jointed dinosaur models, the BotM Tyrannosaurus is extremely well-executed and looks far better than anything else I've seen attempting the same goal. Even the mouth closes nicely with a very respectable oral seal, despite a wealth of complex internal detail.

Moving on, I quickly want to mention the colour, even if this seems an odd thing to bring up for an unpainted, entirely grey model. I don’t know how much thought went into the specific shade of grey but, in any case, the choice of medium-dark grey works well: it’s neither too light or dark to obscure shadows or highlights and it photographs well. As an aside, I also think this thing looks great as a grey, uniform figure perched on a desk or shelf: it somehow looks more timeless and informative than any of the painted models I have. The option exists to paint this model yourself, of course, but I have no plans to: it works much better as an art reference if it remains a blank canvas.

More images from Tyrannosaurus trip to the garden. I was going for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science's famous high-kicking T. rex on the right, but I think I achieved something closer to Tyrannosaurus after it's stepped on Lego.

Of course, all this fine production will be for nought if the reconstruction itself is off, so what about the anatomy? In short, the BotM Tyrannosaurus is an excellent T. rex restoration for 2022. We would expect nothing less given that it was sculpted by Jake Baardse, the digital sculptor behind the awesome Saurian T. rex (among other excellent artworks). The body proportions are well captured with the laterally expanded and blocky posterior skull region, barrel-shaped torso and deep pelvis that characterise adult Tyrannosaurus all present and correct. Modern soft-tissue highlights include lips, correctly placed nostrils and ear openings, as well as well-rendered muscles of respectable position and volume. In terms of soft-tissue bulk, it hits the sweet spot looking like a healthy animal, being neither too lean nor too tubby. All this comes together so that, unlike many (perhaps most?) Tyrannosaurus models, this undoubtedly represents T. rex rather than a generic carnivorous dinosaur, a generic tyrannosaurid or — shudder — a Jurassic Park knock off.

It would be remiss not to mention the enormous amount of fine details in the sculpt. They include tarsal scutes, an individually crafted tongue, skin creases, calluses, large facial scales and bosses above the eyes. Some of these are necessarily speculative — remember that, for all its fame, we’re still mostly in the dark on exactly what Tyrannosaurus looked like — but it all feels appropriately grounded in what we know of theropod dinosaur soft-tissues. There’s nothing here that anyone can firmly point to as “wrong”. I wonder if some will lament the absence of protofeathers, but the wholly-scaly approach is probably better for an art reference than one where body contours are buried under speculative tufts. What we’ve essentially got here is the foundation anatomy you must include when drawing Tyrannosaurus, over which artists can accessorise or augment based on their own views. Perhaps the only genuine anatomical quibble I have is that the extremely fine (mostly submillimetre) scales across the body are too big for a tyrannosaur at this scale (T. rex scales were tiny, just 1-2 mm across) but I can look past this. It gives the model an appropriately rough texture rather than a gleaming, smooth finish and, hey, if nitpicking scale size is the only real complaint with a dinosaur restoration, that’s normally a sign of a job well done.

With the BotM Tyrannosaurus acing every test, we’ve reached a final question: the above is all well and good, but does anyone need a Tyrannosaurus palaeoart reference figure, what with the near infinite numbers of specimen photos, diagrams, 3D scans, model skulls and skeletons etc. that are also available? Surely this is something that’s just “nice to have” rather than essential? To test this, I returned to one of my previous Tyrannosaurus restorations to see how it stood up to the BotM sculpt and… I immediately noticed errors in my work. Not major glaring super errors, but things that I’d want to get right and was glad to fix. Our familiarity with T. rex makes it easy to forget that Tyrannosaurus was a pretty unusual theropod and, while it’s easy to draw something that approximates it, completely nailing T. rex can be an artistic challenge even with a whole folder of 2D reference material. I’ve yet to craft a whole illustration using the BotM T. rex but I can already see it’s going to be a valuable palaeoart aid when that happens.

What difference does a good 3D reference make? Comparing an image I completed a few months back with the BotM Tyrannosaurus revealed a few goofs, some gleaned from less-accurate references, and others from my own miscalculations of body shape. The biggest adjustments here concern skull shape and leg position, both of which are much better in the right image than in the original. And yes, this dark, dark image is probably the worst example I could have used for showing the positive effects of this model on refining T. rex anatomy. Slow clap.

And I think that speaks for itself as a conclusion. Is the Beasts of the Mesozoic Tyrannosaurus ideal for crafting palaeoart, as it says on the box? Absolutely, and it’s a strong recommendation from me to grab one if you’re in the regular habit of drawing king tyrants. It may, indeed, be the single best artistic reference tool for drawing adult Tyrannosaurus available and we’d be absolutely fine if the world was flooded with T. rex artwork based on it. To that end, my fingers are crossed that other species in the BoTM range get similar art reference treatment, being scaled to handheld proportions and released with a flat grey colouring. A BotM line aimed at artists would not only be extremely useful for individual palaeoart practitioners but would benefit palaeoart as a whole: like all artforms of natural things, development and investment in quality reference resources can only help our collective understanding and ability to visualise our subject matter, and stronger, more interesting art is the result.

The Beasts of the Mesozoic 1/35 Tyrannosaurus is available to preorder from here, as is its bigger 1/18 counterpart and the upcoming range of tyrannosaur figures. The full Beasts of the Mesozoic line can be viewed at the Creative Beast Studio website.

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Friday 29 July 2022

Attempted adventures in dinosaur facial restoration, starring Giganotosaurus

Giganotosaurus carolinii carries the remains of a juvenile rebacchisaurid while sporting a bunch of crazy tissues on its face. Big scales, horns, and is that some kind of thick pad over its snout? Is all this artistic speculation or something inferred from fossils? Read on...

Up until now, my palaeoart career has not crossed paths with carcharodontosaurids, the gigantic, charismatic and famous allosauroids best known for Acrocanthosaurus, Giganotosaurus, Carcharodontosaurus and, most recently, Meraxes. This month, however, I finally had cause to restore Giganotosaurus carolinii, the largest of the group and, potentially, the largest of all theropods.

Carcharodontosaurids are, at first glance, not too challenging to restore: take an Allosaurus, turn everything up to 11 and job done, right? Well, maybe not. Not only are the proportions of carcharodontosaurids (and, to be fair, carcharodontosaurians in general) subtly different from their allosauroid ancestors, but their jaws and eye regions are characterised by a suite of complex sculpting and rugosities. It’s thought that these are epidermal correlates (Sereno and Brusatte 2008): distinctive bone surfaces and histological patterns that record different skin types interacting with the underlying bone (Hieronymus et al. 2009). I’ve written quite a lot about epidermal correlates at this blog because they provide heaps of important external soft-tissue information without direct soft-tissue fossilisation and learning to spot them, in my view, is an essential skill for any budding palaeoartist.

The presence of epidermal correlates on carcharodontosaurid skulls means that we can’t take an “anything goes” approach to restoring Giganotosaurus or its close relatives; instead, there probably is a “right”, or at least "more defensible", way to approach depictions of their faces. Alas, to my knowledge, no specific investigation has been conducted into what carcharodontosaurid skull textures represent despite our interest in other dinosaur epidermal correlates (e.g. Hieronymus et al. 2009; Carr et al. 2017; Delcourt 2018). This means there’s not yet a “go-to” study to provide artists with answers for restoring these animals and anyone wanting to illustrate Giganotosaurus credibly has to make their own interpretations from descriptions and illustrations in scientific literature. Having just been through this process myself, and realising that Giganotosaurus is a fan-favourite, I thought it might be of interest to share my thoughts here. I want to be upfront by declaring that the following deductions are little more than best guesses; without having direct experience of Giganotosaurus fossils I can’t write anything definitive about what Giganotosaurus looked like. Think of the following more as a discussion piece than a rigorous guide, and I welcome input and insight from others if I’ve made errors.

As I understand it, most of what's been illustrated of Giganotosaurus is shown above in this compilation of figures from Coria and Salgado (1995; greyscale graphics) and Novas et al. (2013; colour). Not as much as you might expect, right? There's a lot more known of this species that hasn't been published yet, some of which contain crucial information for palaeoartists (and I guess for scientists too).

And it’s in this spirit that, right off the bat, we need to mention that researching Giganotosaurus is pretty challenging. Its fossils are thinly documented despite Giganotosaurus being one of the more completely known carcharodontosaurids and, even today, almost 30 years since it was announced to the world, we only have a fraction more information available to us than when it was first named in 1995. Just a handful of its bones have been figured so good photos or illustrations of several fossils relevant to this conversation have not been published (Coria and Salgado 1995; Coria & Currie 2002; Novas et al. 2013). Thus, anyone trying to restore this animal from scientific papers alone will struggle for information and a lot of secondary sources — online photographs of fossils and casts, skeletal reconstructions and museum mounts etc. — are essential to obtaining basic information about its proportions and size, even if they risk introducing reconstruction errors. Closely related taxa and comparative descriptions (i.e. “Mapusaurus has a more rugose snout than Giganotosaurus”) are critical too, providing crucial details not mentioned in dedicated Giganotosaurus papers. I mention this because it means that, from the get-go, we’re not in an ideal research scenario for a palaeoartwork, and this makes the possibility of errors in interpretation all the greater.

With appropriate caveats established, let’s dive into this discussion. As with most theropods that have rugose, textured faces, our attention here is going to be on the bones of the snout and orbital region, as these are the principal areas to bear features that might signify epidermal tissues. The carcharodontosaurid fossil record contains a large number of maxilla bones (the main tooth-bearing bone of the upper jaw) and this is good news for artists, as the lateral surfaces of these potentially tell us a lot about the skin on the side of the upper jaw. The typical maxillary rugosity for carcharodontosaurids is well documented across several species, especially Carcharodontosaurus saharicus, Eocarcharia, Mapusaurus and Meraxes. It comprises a series of sub-vertical grooves and pits (Stromer 1936; Sereno et al. 1996; Coria and Currie 2006; Brusatte and Sereno 2007; Sereno and Brusatte 2008; Canale et al. 2022) and some species (e.g. C. saharicus, Eocarcharia, Mapusaurus) supplement these with prominent ridges extending along the base of the antorbital region. These bars separate the rugose maxillary body from the smoother bone of the antorbital fossa: that slightly impressed region of bone surrounding the antorbital fenestra.

The maxilla of Eocarcharia dinops, as illustrated by Brusatte and Sereno (2008), shows the texturing typical of carcharodontosaurid snouts. Note the ridge dividing the textured region from the smoother antorbital fossa: this feature isn't seen in all carcharodontosaurids but might tell us something about skin types all the same. The fossa region is particularly big in this species.

The texturing characterising carcharodontosaurid maxillae may be somewhat less pronounced in Giganotosaurus and thus, perhaps like Acrocanthosaurus, its maxillae may have been on the smoother end of the rugosity scale (Coria and Currie 2006; Eddy and Clarke 2011; Novas et al. 2013). All else being equal, this might imply differences in facial anatomy within Carcharodontosauridae: whatever those grooves and pits signify may not have been as exaggerated in some species as others. A caveat here is that, as is often the case with skin-altered bones, larger carcharodontosaurid individuals tend to have more exaggerated rugosity profiles than smaller ones (Coria and Currie 2006; Canale et al. 2014), suggesting a link with body size or age as well as differences between species. We probably want a number of maxillae from a range of differently aged individuals to establish whether a species has consistently smoother jawbones than its relatives.

Comparing these maxillary features with existing interpretations of dinosaur epidermal correlates provides potential insights into their significance. The textures in question are often likened to those adorning the lateral surfaces of abelisaur skulls and, if so, we might follow Delcourt (2018) in inferring that they represent scale correlates. This seems sensible to me, certainly more than other possible jaw coverings. Carcharodontosaurid maxillae lack the projecting rugosities consistent with armoured dermis or the branching neurovascular channels and oblique foramina found under beak or horn tissues (Hieronymus et al. 2009). Furthermore, the ridges bordering the antorbital regions in some carcharodontosaurids are inconsistent with beaks: cornified sheath tissues tend to terminate with obvious steps downwards into smoother neighbouring bone, not upwards to ridges of rugose bone (Hieronymus et al. 2009).

The skull of a common snapping turtle Chelydra serpentina. The more rugose parts of this skull correspond to regions covered in large scales, while the slightly finer rugosity around the jaws demark the distribution of the beak (also note the stepped topography at the beak/scale transition). Prominent ridges occur around the eyes and nose where large scales meet softer tissues: perhaps this is analogous to what we're seeing in those ridged carcharodontosaurid maxillae?

Raised bony ridges are seen, however, around the skull openings of reptiles with tough, tightly-adhering facial skin like crocodylians and certain turtles, marking some boundaries between thick, relatively immobile skin and softer, more flexible regions. We might expect the antorbital skin of theropods to flex slightly during breathing, as it does in birds, and I wonder if we're picking up some evidence of that in carcharodontosaurids? The notion that carcharodontosaurid maxillary skin might be tough and immobile is not without precedent, as early members of the broader Carcharodontosauria clade are thought to have had maxillary skin of this nature (Barker et al. 2019). If there really was a distinction in skin flexibility in the snouts of these animals it may have been obvious in life, as it is in crocodylians and turtles (I realise this sounds like advocating some form of shrinkwrapping — lightning flashes in the distance, thunder rumbles — but we can't overlook the fact that osteological features do, sometimes, correlate with skin types in living animals). I took these reptiles as inspiration in my reconstruction, giving Giganotosaurus a series of large, thick scales over the side of its upper jaw that terminate sharply around the antorbital region. I retained a full set of lips for reasons that have been thrashed out too many times to bear repeating here, except to mention that — like those of tyrannosaurs — carcharodontosaurid maxillae seem to constrain their rugosity to regions above the toothrow, suggesting whatever skin anchored above the labial foramina (the row of perforations along the jaw) was not so tightly anchored next to the teeth.

Immediately above the maxillae are another set of sculpted bones: the nasals and lacrimals. Collectively, these bones form the various fins and crests that line the top of the snouts in many allosauroids (see Chure and Loewen 2020 for a great visual of these), but the carcharodontosaurid condition is not typical of this wider clade. Nasal material is known for Giganotosaurus but it was not featured in its original description, nor (to my knowledge) has it been illustrated elsewhere. What’s hinted at in various reconstructions and papers is that Giganotosaurus joins Mapusaurus, Meraxes and Carcharodontosaurus in having especially sculpted nasal bones over the maxillary region, specifically bearing deep, generally parallel-sided grooves crossing transversely over the dorsal surface and vertically on the lateral face (Coria and Currie 2006).

The right nasal of Mapusaurus rosae, one of the better-illustrated examples of the crazy rugosities developed on these bones by some carcharodontosaurids. A shows the lateral view, B is dorsal, from Coria and Currie (2006).

These bones cannot be described as forming narrow crests as they can for Allosaurus and kin because their texturing meets in the middle of the skull and they are not pinched into long, narrow fins (Sereno et al. 1996; Coria and Currie 2006). Accordingly, some common artistic interpretations of these structures as supporting crests or a series of hornets over carcharodontosaurid faces (which I first assumed when embarking on this painting project, I think incorrectly: see below) may be erroneous: whatever skin made these features extended over the entire dorsal surface of the nasals as well as across the upper lateral region of the snout. Exactly what’s happening here is unusual among theropods, but the rugosity depth almost certainly implies some extensive cornificiation. I'll go further to say that, to the best of my knowledge, deep, subparallel grooves are uniquely associated with cornified pads growing at shallow angles to the underlying bone (Hieronymus et al. 2009). If correct, might we infer that heavy, thick bars of densely keratinised tissue adorned the top of carcharodontosaurid skulls? Cornified pads are predicted in this region elsewhere within Theropoda (e.g. within abelisaurids: Delcourt 2018) so such a suggestion isn’t entirely without precedent, but I'm not sure we've viewed carcharodontosaurids with such heavy ornament before. It would be great to see some actual research on this to investigate what’s really going on with these bones. Giganotosaurus striding around with fat cornified pads atop its face would be all sorts of awesome, especially given that we already think other regions of carcharodontosaurid faces might be adapted for headbutting (e.g. Sereno and Brusatte 2008; Cau et al. 2013).

An earlier version of my Giganotosaurus reconstruction with individual hornlets above the snout: thinking again on this topic, I probably got this wrong as the nasal texturing isn't consistent with the bones that underly hornlets in living species. I've already sent myself to bed without dinner as punishment.

The corrugated nasals are bordered posteriorly by further rugosities around the orbit. This is actually one of the better-known parts of the Giganotosaurus skull and it has been illustrated (Coria and Salgado 1995) so we can be pretty confident about what this region generally looked like, even if a lack of a comprehensive description means it’s difficult to know exactly what sort of rugosities it bears. In terms of basic structure, a rounded, horn-shaped process sits atop the lacrimal (the bone in front of the orbit) and a prominent boss projects above and somewhat laterally from the postorbital (the bone behind the eye). As seems typical for carcharodontosaurids and, indeed, for carcharodontosaurians in general, the latter slopes back and downward somewhat such that Giganotosaurus and kin probably looked perpetually worried, their postorbital bosses creating the appearance of a furrowed brow. 

From what I can gather, the ultra-rugosity of the nasal bones doesn’t extend fully over the eyes in Giganotosaurus or its relatives. I suspect, based on what we see in better-illustrated carcharodontosaurids, that this reflects adornment of the lacrimal process with a cornified sheath rather than a pad. This creates the potential for a sharper horn than implied by the underlying bone shape, although it just as easily could be an exaggeration of the relatively blunt underlying bone structure. As is widely known in palaeoart circles, it can be difficult to predict the exact shapes cornified sheaths will take, even in modern species (Angst et al. 2020).

The postorbital boss variation of carcharodontosaurids, as illustrated by Sereno and Brusatte (2008): A shows the simpler morphology of Eocarcharia dinops; B shows Carcharodontosaurus saharicus.

Similar textures seem to have extended continuously onto the postorbital boss in derived carcharodontosaurids, such that we might imagine a continuation of the sheathed skin of the lacrimal onto this region (Coria and Currie 2006; Sereno and Brusatte 2008; Canale et al. 2022). There is, however, some variation of boss morphology within the clade in that some species have relatively smooth, rounded bosses (e.g. Sereno and Brusatte 2008; Cau et al. 2012): this is another area where more information specifically on Giganotosaurus would be welcome. For those species lacking pronounced texturing, I wonder if we’re dealing with big scale correlates rather than a surface covered with thick, densely keratinised tissue? These skin types may not be mutually exclusive however, as there is precedent for scale correlates showing signs of cornification in some dinosaurs (Hieronymus et al. 2009). A scaly postorbital boss in a young animal could well develop into a more cornified, horny structure in an adult. Again, more specimens of different growth stages might be needed here to be certain of true differences between species.

The result of all this noodling: Giganotosaurus looking a little more knobbly than usual, and also a bit world-weary thanks to that postorbital boss. Maybe the pressure of the "who's the biggest theropod" competition is pretty intense for these guys.

Putting all this together resulted in the image of Giganotosaurus that accompanies this post. Thanks especially to the big cornified pad bridging the middle of the skull, this is a face that looks more heavy-duty than we’re used to and maybe less generically “allosaurian”. But unfamiliar as it is, I’m happy with this outcome because following evidence to unexpected results is one of the great joys of palaeoart, and I always enjoy rationalising an unusual reconstruction from a foundation in science rather than mere speculation. But, again, I want to stress that this is just my interpretation of information gleaned from a less-than-ideal representation of Giganotosaurus in technical literature. This means I may have made errors obvious to those more experienced with these fossils and, moreover, when the structures discussed here are finally studied for their soft-tissue significance, the outcomes may be very different.

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