Pimp my ‘pod
December 10, 2010
These are happy times for me. Dinosaur rap god and burgeoning paleoartist Brian Engh, AKA The Historian Himself, has finished a new life restoration of Sauroposeidon. Here’s a smallish view, just to give you a taste; for the high resolution awesomeness, check out Brian’s post here. While you’re over there, check out his line of mini-brachiosaur sculptures–the perfect gift for the sauropod-lover in your life (
the a black one is already mine).
As you might guess from the quality of the finished product, this was a project with a long gestation. Brian got in touch with me back in the summer of 2009 and we started swapping ideas on doing life restorations of sauropods. Brian incorporated some of that discussion in his blog post.
Did Sauroposeidon really look like this? Probably not. There’s no direct evidence for inflatable display structures in sauropods or in any other non-avian dinosaurs that I know of. But any life restoration of a dinosaur involves going out on a limb and positing things for which we have little or no direct evidence. So no life restoration is going to show exactly how Sauroposeidon looked. In my view, if you know you’re going to be wrong anyway, you might as well be interestingly wrong, and put in the kinds of plausible-but-not-fossilized structures that extant animals are replete with.
The larger, slightly more serious question then becomes, were big sauropods more likely to be visually flamboyant or big gray pachyderms? I think there is a case to be made for flamboyant sauropods, and I made it in the cover description for this paper (that illustration, by Brian Ford, is below). You can get the PDF for the full argument, but Brian Engh (hmm, just noticed the high correlation between Sauroposeidon life restorations and paleoartists named ‘Brian’) summarized it in eight words: “Brachiosaurs were big. Maybe too big for camouflage.”
The idea of flamboyant sauropods is a hypothesis, and for now a mostly untestable one. I could be wrong. I don’t have a lot invested in it. Flamboyant sauropods would be awesome, and there are already plenty of sauropod life restorations from the Big Gray Pachyderm school, so I’m happy to camp out the other end of the spectrum just for the heck of it. If doing so emboldens those who are trying to kick us in the brainpans with their paleoart, that’s a win-win. I’m not trying to take any credit here–far from it–just happy that the Brians and I have gotten to make common cause.
To make a clean sweep with this post, there is one other Sauroposeidon life restoration that I’ve had the good fortune to be involved with. That one is part of the “Cretaceous Coastal Environment” mural that Karen Carr painted for the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, an excerpt of which appears below (from this paper again, or see the full version on Karen’s website). While she was working on the mural, Karen sent me a draft illustration of Sauroposeidon for comment. My reply was basically, “Looks awesome. How about some spines?” Given the presence of dermal spines in diplodocids and armor in some titanosaurs, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to infer some kind of dermal ornamentation even in those sauropod taxa for which we have no direct evidence of it. I like Karen’s ground-level shot of the distant sauropods (that’s a squirrel-sized Gobiconodon in the foreground) because they look vast, like gods, and I think that’s how they would strike us if we could stand near them today.
Those aren’t all of the Sauroposeidon life restorations out there–Bob Nicholls has done a very sharp one, which unfortunately does not seem to be currently available on his webpage, and there are others–those are just the three I’ve had some small part in. It’s been a thrill, every time, to work with smart, talented, and hardworking people who can do something special that I can’t, which is bring the vanished world to life. When I was a kid, I didn’t want to just learn about dinosaurs, I wanted to see dinosaurs. I wanted to be a chrononaut. I ended up as a paleontologist because that’s the closest you can get to exploring in time.
So, thank you, Brian (and Brian, and Karen, and Bob, and others) for gracing Sauroposeidon with your skill. It’s phenomenal to get to see my favorite dinosaur with fresh eyes. And thanks to all the rest of you paleoartists out there, paid or unpaid, for your service as our eyes and ears in the past, for letting the rest of us get our mental boots muddy in worlds that we often approach only clinically. Keep those dispatches coming–we can’t wait to see where you’re going to take us next.