March 2, 2012
One of my favorite dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History is the Styracosaurus. The insanely ornamented creature is presented as if swimming through a wave of plaster, a pose meant to depict the way the dinosaur was found in the field. It is a beautiful mount, but the restored and reconstructed skeleton obscures the fact that the actual specimen is not so complete.
Veteran fossil hunter Barnum Brown discovered the Styracosaurus in 1915. He found the fossil within what is now Canada’s Dinosaur Provincial Park. Most of the dinosaur’s post-cranial skeleton was intact, but as Brown later noted in a 1937 paper he wrote with colleague Erich Schlaikjer, only a few parts of the skull were recovered. That lovely skull on the AMNH mount was mostly reconstructed on the hypothesis that the animal was really a Styracosaurus. Brown believed that the few parts which were collected were enough to name a distinct species of this dinosaur: Styracosaurus parksi.
Brown’s new species was the third flavor of Styracosaurus to be named. Paleontologist Lawrence Lambe named the first species, Styracosaurus albertensis, in 1913, and Charles Gilmore followed with Styracosaurus ovatus in 1930. Both were very spiky dinosaurs distinguished by the prominent spikes jutting out of the parietal bones on their frills. But Brown considered his dinosaur to be a separate species on the basis of slight differences in the few skull elements he had collected. The squamosal bone—another frill element—seemed to be longer and different in shape than the animal Lambe had named Styracosaurus albertensis.
Early 20th century paleontologists had a tendency to over-split dinosaurs on the basis of very slight differences. Naming a new genus or species was easy to justify during the early bone rushes. There were so few specimens, and researchers understood so little about how dinosaurs grew up, that variations among individuals or differences attributable to age were often taken as the hallmarks of distinct species. And traits thought to distinguish between dinosaur genera turned out to be less diagnostic than originally thought. Styracosaurus once seemed to be unique in having spiky parietals, for example, but similar features have since been found in closely related centrosaurine dinosaurs such as Achelousaurus, Einiosaurus, Centrosaurus brinkmani, Pachyrhinosaurus and, the new kid on the block, Spinops. In order to sort out Styracosaurus, in 2007 paleontologists Michael Ryan, Robert Holmes and A.P. Russell reviewed the material attributed to this dinosaur.
Ryan, Holmes and Russell counted only two Styracosaurus species as valid: S. albertensis and S. ovatus. Brown’s specimen, while incomplete, fell within the variation documented for S. albertensis, and so S. parksi was sunk. And at the genus level, Ryan and co-authors distinguished Styracosaurus from similar dinosaurs by the anatomy of the ornaments at each slot on the parietal part of the frill. The first ornament is typically a tiny nub, the second either appears as a small tab or hook, the third is a large spike and the fourth is also a large spike. (The remaining ornaments at positions five through seven vary in size and shape between individuals.)
But the Styracosaurus genus was recently winnowed down even further. Most Styracosaurus specimens belonged to the northern species S. albertensis, but the species S. ovatus was represented by a single specimen found in Montana. This significantly extended the range of Styracosaurus, at least until paleontologists Andrew McDonald and Jack Horner suggested in 2010 that the Montana dinosaur really represented a different genus. On the basis of the partial frill and other skull fragments, they named the dinosaur Rubeosaurus. It was another weird horned dinosaur with a huge nasal horn, and the third parietal horns were directed inward, towards each other, rather than outward like in Styracosaurus. Within just a few years, three species of Styracosaurus were cut down to just one.
Brown, B., Schlaikjer, E. 1937. The skeleton of Styracosaurus with the description of a new species. American Museum Novitates. 955, 1-12
Andrew T. McDonald & John R. Horner, (2010). “New Material of “Styracosaurus” ovatus from the Two Medicine Formation of Montana”. Pages 156–168 in: Michael J. Ryan, Brenda J. Chinnery-Allgeier, and David A. Eberth (eds), New Perspectives on Horned Dinosaurs: The Royal Tyrrell Museum Ceratopsian Symposium, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN.
Ryan, M., Holmes, R., Russell, A. (2007). A revision of the late campanian centrosaurine ceratopsid genus Styracosaurus from the Western Interior of North America
Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 27 (4), 944-962 DOI: 10.1671/0272-4634(2007)27[944:AROTLC]2.0.CO;2
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.
September 8, 2011
I have already said plenty about Discovery’s new prehistoric tribute, Dinosaur Revolution, but my paleo-blogging colleague David Orr recently brought up one aspect of the new program that has been nagging at me since I finished watching the screeners for the miniseries. Like many other programs, the show claims to overthrow the old, outdated image of Apatosaurus and company, but how far behind is the public’s understanding of dinosaurs? As David puts it:
If asked to picture the world of the Mesozoic, does the average person on the street see the vision of Zallinger or Spielberg? We’re now almost twenty years into the Jurassic Park era, and the idea of the “raptor” has ascended to a level of popularity arguably equal to Tyrannosaurus rex. … Are we beating a dead horse when we boldly claim to be killing obsolete ideas about dinosaur life?
In a way, it almost feels as if we sometimes resurrect the drab, lumpy and grossly outdated images of dinosaurs only to have them quickly dispatched by the swift, hot-blooded dinosaurs of the modern era. (Lest I be called a hypocrite, I have been guilty of this, too.) As David points out, Jurassic Park popularized an updated vision of dinosaurs almost twenty years ago, and to pick another benchmark, the acrobatic and active dinosaurs in Robert Bakker’s 1986 book The Dinosaur Heresies no longer look as scientifically sacrilegious as they did when the book initially came out. Not all of Bakker’s ideas are accepted today, but the overall vision he helped promote has become entrenched. Images of slow and stupid dinosaurs were tossed out a long time ago—the last time I can remember seeing a vintage dinosaur on screen was when Peter Jackson effectively brought the “Brontosaurus” back to life for his 2005 remake of King Kong, and even that dinosaur was pretty agile and light on its feet compared to the swamp-dwelling sauropods of old.
But the trouble with dinosaurs is that they are not entirely objects of scientific scrutiny that are constantly being updated according to new research. Dinosaurs are everywhere, and there are so many reconstructions and restorations that we sometimes create conflicting images. Let’s say that a young dinosaur fan watches Dinosaur Revolution and starts incessantly bugging her parents to take her to the museum. When she arrives, she may encounter dinosaurs in their outdated, early 20th century garb. The majority of the dinosaurs in Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History are still static tail-draggers, and a number of the famous mounts in the American Museum of Natural History are sorely out of date because they could not be safely re-posed (just to pick two examples). Even in some of the greatest dinosaur showcases in the world, modern dinosaurs stand right alongside more archaic visions of dinosauriana.
Depictions of dinosaurs in movies, documentaries, books and even museum displays are going to lag behind that latest science. That may say more about the rapid progress of paleontology in recent years more than anything else. Add that to the fact that the dinosaurs we adore during our childhood tend to stick with us. Though I pride myself on trying to keep up with the latest science now, for a time I just could not accept that many dinosaurs were covered in feathers. They looked silly and I had no idea what the state of the evidence was. Given the choice between the mean, scaly Deinonychus I knew and the more bird-like version paleontologists were talking about, I preferred the version I grew up with. (At least until I understood the actual science of the reconstructions that made me initially uneasy.) Even if dinosaurs are not changing as dramatically as they did during the heyday of the “Dinosaur Renaissance” of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, ongoing research continues to alter our perspective on our favorite monsters—the dinosaurs we know from childhood may look unfamiliar to us when we re-encounter them later, be it in a museum or movie theater.
Nevertheless, perhaps we are putting the wrong emphasis on the actual “dinosaur revolution” now underway. The idea that dinosaurs were active, complex creatures and not just big lizards has been established for more than 30 years now. That isn’t new. What is novel about this period in science is that we are gaining a more refined picture of dinosaur lives thanks to numerous fossil discoveries and a variety of new techniques for studying those remnants of the Mesozoic world. The real dinosaur revolution isn’t so much about an image change—it is our ability to begin to answer, or at least approach, long-running questions about how dinosaurs actually lived. Perhaps, rather than beating a dead Camarasaurus, we should focus on how science is refining our picture of dinosaur lives.
May 17, 2011
One century ago, when paleontologists were still just becoming acquainted with the great dinosaurs of the American West, the skilled paleo-illustrator Charles R. Knight created a curious vision of the long-necked dinosaur Diplodocus. The consensus at the time was that the giant dinosaurs were amphibious—spending much of their time wallowing in swamps and straining soft water plants through their peg-like teeth—but in a scene that also contained this typical image, Knight presented one Diplodocus rearing back onto its tail. This seemed like a very active pose for the sauropod, one that would not become popular until decades later when dinosaurs got a major overhaul in the 1970s and 80s. What compelled Knight to give the Diplodocus a more dynamic position?
The answer can be found in an 1899 paper on Diplodocus by the American Museum of Natural History’s Henry Fairfield Osborn. In studying the dinosaur, Osborn was especially struck by the length of the animal’s tail. Clearly the tapering tail of Diplodocus must have been “of immense service as a propeller in enabling it to swim rapidly through the water,” and the naturalist even speculated that the dinosaur may have been equipped with a “vertical fin” near the tail tip to help move it along. But that wasn’t all. On land, the tail would have served a different purpose:
The tail, secondly, functioned as a lever to balance the weight of the dorsals, anterior limbs, neck and head, and to raise the entire forward portion of the body upwards. This power was certainly exerted while the animal was in the water, and possibly also while upon land. Thus the quadrupedal Dinosaurs occasionally assumed the position characteristic of the bipedal Dinosaurs—namely, a tripodal position, the body supported upon the hind feet and the tail.
Osborn based this supposition on what he thought was a change in tailbone anatomy about halfway down the organ’s length. To him, the posterior half of the tail looked well-suited to supporting the weight of Diplodocus when it reared up on its hind legs. That Diplodocus was capable of such activities was made clear by the relatively lightness of its skeleton compared to the more hefty “Brontosaurus.” “There is a traditional view that these animals were ponderous and sluggish,” Osborn wrote. “ In the case of Diplodocus [this view] is certainly unsupported by facts.” If the dinosaur had a relatively light skeleton and looked as if it should have been agile, then why shouldn’t it have been? This sentiment was clearly passed along to Knight, who created many dinosaur paintings for the AMNH and other museums, though Osborn’s idea that some sauropods were graceful was lost in the slew of museum displays and illustrations that showed them as big, slow reptiles. Sauropods remained relegated to the swamp, though it is too bad that Knight never illustrated Osborn’s idea that Diplodocus propelled itself about the Jurassic lakes with a tail fin!
May 4, 2011
Non-avian dinosaurs have been extinct for about 65 million years, but that has not stopped them from showing up on Twitter. Several dinosaurs have been making the most of the social media platform. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History doesn’t have one yet—I would personally love to hear what Nedoceratops thinks—but at least three Twitter dinosaurs act as ambassadors for their home museums. Here’s a short list.
@Giant_Dino: When the American Museum of Natural History opened “World’s Largest Dinosaurs” a few weeks ago, the exhibit’s star—a 60-foot Mamenchisaurus—lumbered onto Twitter. Most of her thoughts seem to revolve around food—Central Park must look like a giant salad bar right around now—but she’s also got the skinny on museum events. Sample tweet:
Happy @arborday! Quite possibly the most delicious day of the year!
@Zhuchmag: Self-described as “massive, bipedal, and carnivorous, but with a heart of gold,” this tyrannosaur popped up after being described last month. Zhuchentyrannus seems a little insecure, though—the dinosaur spends a good deal of its time trash-talking Tyrannosaurus. Sample tweet:
I’m hoping to get Steven Spielberg to put me in a movie, but I’ll settle for @fakemichaelbay. Me vs. the autobots
@NHM_Dippy: No trip to London’s Natural History Museum is complete without a stop to see Dippy—a cast of Diplodocus that has been standing in the museum for over a century—and this famous dinosaur has its own Twitter feed. While Dippy doesn’t have as much personality as Sue (see below), this dinosaur’s tweets will keep you informed about the museum’s special events. Sample tweet:
@SUEtheTrex: The world’s most famous Tyrannosaurus is a Twitter star. Although she does have a mighty appetite—thoughts of eating visitors to Chicago’s Field Museum is a common thread—don’t be afraid to follow Sue. She frequently shares neat dinosaur links and is probably the wittiest dinosaur I know. Sample tweet:
For the curious, here was my #NFLDraft scouting report: “Strengths: Is a T.rex. Weaknesses: Tiny Arms, Dead for 67 million years”
Have we missed some dinosaurs or other prehistoric beasts that are chatting it up on Twitter? Let us know in the comments!