November 30, 2012
The dinosaurs I grew up with were both intensely exciting and incredibly dull. They were creatures unlike anything I had ever seen, but their drab, scaly flesh was always fit snugly to their bones with little embellishment. For decades, this has been the paradox of prehistoric restorations. Reconstructed skeletons are gloriously magnificent and introduce us to strange creatures that we never could imagined if we did not already know they existed. Yet the art of reviving these organisms has often been incredibly conservative. Dinosaurs, in particular, have often been “shrink-wrapped”–their skin tightly pulled around a minimalist layer of muscle distributed over the skeleton. This may be part of why dinosaur restorations look so weird. As John Conway, C.M. Kosemen, Darren Naish and Scott Harman argue in their new book All Yesterdays, no living lizard, fish, bird or mammal adheres to such a limited “skin on the bones” fashion. Dinosaurs were not only skeletally distinctive, but they undoubtedly looked stranger and behaved more bizarrely than we have ever imagined. The recently-published Dinosaur Art started to realize these possibilities, but All Yesterdays goes even further in melding science and speculation about dinosaur biology.
On a superficial level, All Yesterdays is a gorgeous collection of speculative artwork. Divided into two sections–the first featuring Mesozoic life in new or little-seen vignettes, and the second imagining how we would restore modern animals if we only had partial skeletons to work from–the book features some of the most wonderful paleoart I’ve ever seen. Scott Hartman’s crisp skeletal reconstructions form the framework from which Conway and Kosemen play with muscle, fat and flesh, and, following Naish’s introductory comments, Kosemen provides scientific commentary about how each illustration is not quite so outlandish as it seems. A curious Camptosaurus approaching an Allosaurus at rest is a reminder that, much like modern animals, prey and predators were not constantly grappling with each other, just as a snoozing rendition of the Tyrannosaurus “Stan” shows that even the scariest dinosaurs had to snooze. The gallery’s feathered dinosaurs are especially effective at demonstrating the fluffy weirdness of the Mesozoic. Conway’s peaceful scene of feather draped Therizinosaurus browsing in a tree grove is the best rendition of the giant herbivore I’ve ever seen, and his fluffy, snowbound Leaellynasaura are unabashedly adorable.
The second half of the book continues the same theme, but in reverse. How would artists draw a cat, an elephant or a baboon if we only had skeletons or bone fragments? And what would those scraps suggest about the biology of long-lost animals? If there are paleontologists in the future, and they have no other source of information about our world, how will they restore the animals alive today? They might have no knowledge of the fur, fat, feathers and other structures that flesh out modern species, creating demonic visions of reptilian cats, eel-like whales and vampire hummingbirds.
Working in concert, the two sections will give casual readers and paleoartists a jolt. While some might gripe about Todd Marshall adding too many spikes and dewlaps to his dinosaurs, or Luis Rey envisioning deinonychosaurs at play, the fact of the matter is that dinosaurs probably had an array of soft tissue structures that made them look far stranger than the toned-down restorations we’re used to. As All Yesterdays presents in various scenes, maybe sauropods liked to play in the mud, perhaps hadrosaurs were chubbier than we ever imagined and, as depicted in one nightmare-inducing panel, Stegosaurus could have had monstrous genitals. None of these scenarios are supported by direct evidence, but they are all within the realm of possibility.
More than a gallery of speculative art, All Yesterdays is an essential, inspirational guide to any aspiring paleoartist. Those who restore prehistoric life are limited by the evidence at hand, this is true, but “more conservative” does not mean “more accurate.” Using comparisons with modern animals, artists have far more leeway than they have ever exercised in imagining what prehistoric life was like. We’ve seen enough Deinonychus packs tearing apart Tenontosaurus, and far too many malnourished dinosaurs. We need more fat, feathers, accessory adornments and scenes from quieter moments in dinosaur lives that do not involve blood and spilled viscera. Professional paleoartists are beginning to embrace these ideas–Jason Brougham’s recent restoration of Microraptor is an appropriately fluffy, bird-like animal rather than the flying monster Naish and collaborators decry–but All Yesterdays is a concentrated dose of prehistoric possibilities that are being artistically explored.
Some of the book’s restorations may turn out to look quite silly. As lovely as Conway’s rendition is, I still don’t buy the “bison-back” idea for high-spined dinosaurs such as Ouranosaurus. Then again, depending on what we discover in the future, some of the illustrations might seem quite prescient. The important thing is that All Yesterdays demonstrates how to push the boundaries of what we imagine while still drawing on scientific evidence. The book is a rare treat in that each section explicitly lays the inspiration for each speculative vision, providing references for those who want to dig deeper.
If anything, All Yesterdays shows that we should not be afraid of imagination in science. Even though we know far more about dinosaur biology and anatomy than ever before, there are still substantial gaps in our understanding. In these places, where bones might not have much to tell us, science meets speculation. The result is not anything-goes garishness, but an exploration of possibilities. Somewhere within that murky range of alternatives, we may start to approach what dinosaurs were truly like.
You can purchase All Yesterdays in any of its various formats here.
September 27, 2012
Seeing a hadrosaur alive would be a fantastic sight. Or any non-avian dinosaur, for that matter. As lovely as today’s avian dinosaurs are, it’s their distant, extinct cousins that fire my imagination. Sadly, despite the speculations of theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, I don’t think my dinosaur dreams are going to come true.
In a Big Think video posted last week, Kaku rhapsodized about the possibility of resurrecting extinct species through genetic techniques. I’m not as optimistic as he is, especially since Kaku glosses over some essential steps in his confused editorial.
Kaku spends most of the video talking about Neanderthals and woolly mammoths. These species went extinct so recently that, in some cases, researchers can extract DNA from their remains and go about reconstructing their genomes. Pretty cool science. Whether I’ll ever be able to cuddle a fuzzy baby woolly mammoth is another matter. (I’ve heard promises ever since I was a child. I’m still waiting.) But non-avian dinosaurs obviously present a different problem. They went extinct about 66 million years ago, and, given the circumstances required for genetic preservation, there’s no hope of ever obtaining Mesozoic dinosaur DNA.
But, Kaku says, “we have soft tissue from the dinosaurs.” He makes it sound as if dinosaur skeletons are saturated with bits of prehistoric flesh. “If you take a hadrosaur and crack open the thigh bones, bingo,” he says, “You find soft tissue right there in the bone marrow.”
Kaku’s going far afield from what science has actually revealed. Since 2007, paleontologists and molecular biologists have been tussling over the possibility that some non-avian dinosaur fossils might preserved the degraded remnants of soft tissue structures such as blood vessels. A Tyrannosaurus femur kicked off the debate, which has since extended to the hadrosaur Brachylophosaurus, as well.
Even though researchers Mary Schweitzer, John Asara and colleagues have hypothesized that they’ve detected preserved proteins from remnants of dinosaur soft tissues, their results have been heavily criticized. The supposed dinosaur leftovers may be microfossils created by bacterial biofilms that broke down the creature’s bodies, and the protein analysis–which placed the supposed T. rex protein close to bird protein–might have suffered from contamination. As yet, there’s no definitive proof that non-avian dinosaur soft tissues or proteins have actually been recovered, and the debate is set to go on for years to come. Contrary to what Kaku says, you can’t simply break open a dinosaur skeleton and start scooping out marrow.
Not that preserved protein would bring us closer to resurrecting Tyrannosaurus or Brachylophosaurus, anyway. The biomolecules could tell us a bit about dinosaur biology, and possibly become another way to test evolutionary relationships, but we’d still lack dinosaur DNA. And even if we could reconstruct a dinosaur’s genome, that doesn’t mean that we could easily clone one. Much like Michael Crichton before him, Kaku skips over an essential and complicated step–the development of the embryo inside the mother. How do you go from a genetic map to a viable embryo? And how can we account for interactions between the embryo and the surrogate mother–a member of a different, living species–that could influence the experimental animal’s development?
Studying the genetics and biomolecular makeup of prehistoric organisms is a fascinating area of research. And even though the dinosaur protein issue remains contentious, the debate has the potential to refine a new way to look at dinosaurs. That’s where the real value of this science is. Non-avian dinosaurs are long gone, and I don’t believe that we’ll ever be able to bring them back to life. But the more we understand about their biology, the better we can reconstruct dinosaurs in our scientific imagination.
January 6, 2012
There has never been a more influential paleoartist than Charles R. Knight. He wasn’t the first to illustrate prehistoric life, and he certainly was not the last to do so with great skill, but, for a time, he envisioned dinosaurs and other ancient creatures with such loving detail that he seemed to be sending back snapshots from lost eras only he could visit.
Science writer Richard Milner recounted Knight’s story in his visual and textual mix-tape of the artist’s work, Charles R. Knight: The Artist Who Saw Through Time. The book is not a straight biography. Even though Milner composed a detailed summary of Knight’s life for the book’s introductory section, the bulk of the glossy volume is a showroom of Knight’s art and quotes from his books and articles. A set of closing chapters covers Knight’s legacy, from efforts to restore cracking murals to the artist’s dream of a scientifically accurate dinosaur theme park, but the greater portion of the volume is a portfolio of Knight’s range and skill.
I did not know much about Knight before reading Milner’s biographical section. I imagined that Knight was simply a passionate observer of nature who committed his imagination to canvas and paper. As Milner ably demonstrates, Knight’s cherished body of work is the fruit of multiple struggles, both physical and vocational, from the time of his birth in 1874. Born with severe nearsightedness, a playtime accident when Knight was a young boy virtually robbed him of sight in his right eye. His vision continued to deteriorate during his entire life. Knight was legally blind by the end of his career, and he had to hold his face only inches from the canvas to see what he was painting.
Knight was also a finicky and often cantankerous artist who had a difficult relationship with his primary sponsor, the American Museum of Natural History. Although Knight’s initial love was illustrating living animals—he designed a bison for a 30 cent stamp and created sculptured visages of animals for the Bronx Zoo that can still be seen on some of the old buildings—in 1894 he was asked to restore the fossil mammal Entelodon for AMNH scientist Jacob Wortman. Wortman and his colleagues were thrilled with the result. It was a triumph for Knight, who had learned a great deal of anatomy from taxidermists at the museum, and paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn desperately wanted Knight to be the museum’s chief restorer of prehistoric creatures.
Neither Knight nor Osborn were easy men to work with. Knight refused to have collaborators and rejected almost all criticism. He wanted to hear only scientific corrections from Osborn, and he frequently argued with Osborn about critiques others made of his paintings. And, despite Osborn’s wishes, Knight repeatedly refused to become a museum employee. He wanted to stay a freelance artist, and this created new problems. Osborn had to raise additional funding for Knight’s work, and to do this he often wanted sketches or samples to convince patrons. Knight, however, would not budge on the work until funding was secured and his terms regarding criticism were agreed upon. Knight needed Osborn because the artist was almost perpetually broke or in debt due to poor money handling, and Osborn needed Knight because there was no finer animal artist anywhere. This was a tense alliance that almost completely broke down when Knight created a series of prehistoric murals for the better-funded Field Museum—a project similar to one Osborn had been planning to execute with Knight for the AMNH dinosaur halls. Still, the two eventually overcome their pride and remained friends, albeit ones frequently frustrated by each other.
Knight also showed off his cantankerous nature in numerous editorials. He hated news and magazine articles that made animals seem overly cute or especially vicious, although Knight probably reserved most of his hatred for modern art. Knight loathed the popularity of artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Knight thought their works were “monstrous and inexplicable creations masquerading in the name of art.” Matisse, according to Knight, couldn’t even accurately draw a bird. Knight believed that the modern art movement was primarily the product of savvy art dealers and advertisers. There was a bit of sour grapes about this. As modern art gained in popularity, Knight had an increasingly difficult time selling his own work. People were just not interested in realistic paintings of animals.
Knight’s successes were hard-won, but, as Milner’s biography illustrates, the artist could not have done anything else. Knight’s undeniable passion was painting prehistory into life. A few snippets in the book provide some insights into Knight’s process. For dinosaurs, at least, Knight would often study the mounted skeletons of the animals and then, on the basis of this framework, create a sculpture. He could then study this three-dimensional representation for the play of shadow across the body under different conditions, and from this model Knight would then begin painting. In the case of his murals, though, Knight designed the art but did not paint the actual, full-size pieces himself as Rudolph Zallinger did with the Age of Reptiles. Instead, Knight created a smaller version of the mural which was then expanded according to a grid system by painters. Knight added only touch-up details to the murals.
Those murals and various other paintings continued to inspire artists and scientists after Knight’s death in 1953. After seeing images of absolutely atrocious, cut-rate dinosaur sculptures at a park in South Dakota, Knight wanted to create his own, scientifically accurate garden of dinosaurs and appropriate, Mesozoic-type flora somewhere in Florida. Knight never attracted the investors necessary to create the park, but the idea was carried on by his friend Louis Paul Jones in the form of Sinclair Dinoland at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Likewise, Knight’s cutting comments about prehistoric mammal sculptures at the La Brea asphalt seeps in Los Angeles led the institution to eventually commission new, better sculptures after Knight’s style. Even ripoffs of Knight’s work influenced culture. When Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World initially ran in serial form, illustrations based heavily on Knight’s paintings accompanied the text, and the film version of the story featured a now-defunct horned dinosaur genus, Agathaumas, that was clearly based on a painting Knight created with some tips from an ailing Edward Drinker Cope.
Knight was a brilliant and taciturn artist. He constantly battled his boss, artistic society and his own eyesight to create intricate scenes inspired by old bones. In doing so, he elevated realistic, scientific representations of life through the ages into a lovely artistic hybrid. Even as new discoveries about dinosaurs, prehistoric mammals, and other creatures make some of Knight’s illustrations seem dated, his paintings still carry the reflection of someone who joyfully reveled in the story of life.
October 6, 2011
Two summers ago, I visited Dinosaur National Monument for the first time. The park was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen, but, I have to admit, I left a little disappointed. Ever since I was a dinosaur-crazed kid I wanted to see the famous quarry wall strewn with hundreds of bones representing some of the most famous Late Jurassic dinosaurs. But when I arrived, the building that housed the bones had already been closed for three years. The geology of the site worked against the edifice by expanding and contracting by minute amounts over and over again—so much so that parts of the building had shifted dramatically and put the entire structure at risk of collapse.
Not long before my initial visit, though, it was announced that the park would receive more than $13 million to restore the building and welcome visitors once more. I couldn’t wait for the grand re-opening, especially after I spent more than a week and a half looking for new fossils at the monument with the Natural History Museum of Utah field crew this past summer. I saw the quarry building from the road every day I was in the field, but I had to wait until October 4, 2011 for the doors of the quarry to once again open to the public.
As it stands now, the famous quarry wall is only a portion of what once was. The site once extended about 100 feet to either side of the current quarry face, and the bonebed also extended upwards to a higher hill that paleontologist Earl Douglass and his co-workers removed during the early 20th century. Many of the fossils they discovered in those parts of the quarry can now be seen at museums such as the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. (Those old bones were recently refurbished in a new dinosaurs exhibit I got to see during last year’s SVP conference.) Nevertheless, the quarry face is still a beautiful site. Partially articulated limbs, a sauropod skull situated on the end of a vertebral string, parts of various spinal columns and numerous isolated bones can be seen poking out all over the rock face. That’s how they will remain—prep work has stopped on the fossils, and they will stay in their place as a lesson about life and death 149 million years ago.
The bones are the main draw, of course, but the new museum also boasts some impressive extras. Several skeleton casts on the lower level introduce visitors to some of the charismatic creatures seen scattered over the quarry wall, and a beautiful mural by artists Bob Walters and Tess Kissinger fleshes out Late Jurassic dinosaurs such as Stegosaurus, Torvosaurus, Dryosaurus and Apatosaurus, in addition to the many small mammals and reptiles that lived alongside them. Make sure you turn around to look at the mural behind the baby Stegosaurus cast when leaving the building—I don’t think I have ever seen an illustration of an Allosaurus chomping down on a baby Stegosaurus before.
More updates and improvements are scheduled but were not ready at the time of the big unveiling. The museum will include virtual displays that will explain how so many dinosaurs came to be accumulated in one spot, as well as what bones on the quarry wall correspond to which dinosaurs. Even without those extras, though, the new quarry wall is a fantastic testament to deep time, evolution and a lost world we are still striving to understand.
For more details about Dinosaur National Monument, see the Dinosaur National Monument Quarry Visitor Center Project blog. The blog is written by Dan Chure, the park’s paleontologist.
August 13, 2010
Many visitors to natural history museums—especially children—come to see just one thing: dinosaurs. No major institution can be without a hall of enormous Jurassic and Cretaceous animals (with the smaller, lesser-known Triassic dinosaurs taking their places along the margins), but the American occupation with the biggest and baddest Mesozoic creatures is relatively new. Even though dinosaurs captured the public’s imagination relatively early on —appearing in cartoons, poetry and other bits of pop culture in the 1820′s—they were still almost entirely absent from American museums at the close of the 19th century. Even at the height of the infamous “Bone Wars” between the academics O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope, public museum displays typically boasted little more than a few teeth and a limb bone or two.
As historian and paleontologist Paul Brinkman illustrates in his new book, The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush, today’s spectacular dinosaur displays have their roots in the turn-of-the-20th-century contest to see who could obtain the most impressive sauropod dinosaur. The American Museum of Natural History, the Carnegie Museum and the Field Museum competed to find the most complete Jurassic dinosaur specimens possible (skeletons that are still prominently on display in each institution to this day), yet this second “dinosaur rush” was a bit different from the rough-and-tumble expeditions of Cope and Marsh. Rather than actively try to savage one another’s reputation, teams from each of the institutions tried to lure away members of opposing groups and kept a watchful eye on what their competitors were doing, with whatever controversies erupted being a result of museum politics instead of Wild West antics. They did not always get along, but they had common goals, and so many of the paleontologists working at that time hated Marsh that each team was trying to find its own way of showing that America’s former leading paleontologist was not as brilliant as he thought he was.
Much of Brinkman’s book records the movements and activities of the paleontologists employed by the various museums as they scouted Jurassic-age dinosaur sites in the American West. There are quite a few famous names to keep track of —H.F. Osborn, John Bell Hatcher, William Diller Matthew, Barnum Brown, Elmer Riggs, Olaf Peterson, J.L. Wortman and others—and a number of them switched institutions during the period in question. At times it is easy to get confused about who was working for whom, but this is less the fault of Brinkman’s clear prose than of the politics and dealings of early-20th-century paleontologists.
Although I would have preferred a little more analysis of how discoveries in the field were translated into academic and popular images of dinosaurs—something discussed primarily in the conclusion, in relation to the role of paleontology in large museums—Brinkman’s work fills in a considerable gap in our understanding of the history of paleontology. Every paleontologist worth his or her salt is familiar with the names Osborn, Hatcher, Riggs and the like, but few have paid much attention to the details of how these researchers collected specimens and kept paleontology thriving during a time when their discipline was being superseded by genetics and other biological sciences in universities. Had large museums not been so interested in fostering their paleontology programs—programs with great potential to collect specimens that would bring in hordes of patrons—the science may very well have stagnated. Although paleontologists sometimes found themselves caught up in red tape or working for finicky institutional administrators, both museums and paleontology benefited from the close collaboration.
If I have any significant criticism of Brinkman’s work, it is that the book should have included a glossary or appendix explaining the present nomenclature for many of the dinosaurs discussed in the book. Frequent references are made to the sauropod Morosaurus, for example, which was considered a valid name at the turn of the 20th century but has since been synonymized with Camarasaurus. Those steeped in the esoterica of dinosaur paleontology will have no problem with such details, but other readers may be puzzled to see so many unfamiliar dinosaur names.
[Editor's Note: We have been informed by the author that an appendix on dinosaur classification IS included in the final copy. Our apologies for the mix-up and confusion.]
There are a few major gaps in the history of paleontology that, for one reason or another, have not yet merited a major investigation. Brinkman’s The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush has now filled in one of those gaps in a comprehensive and accessible manner. From daily camp life to museum politics, Brinkman has ably documented a time of major change in dinosaur science, one that provides the context for paleontology as we know it today.