Pimp my ‘pod 2: haids

December 13, 2010

Here’s another dual-purpose post (part 1 is here), wherein I use some of Brian Engh’s cool art to riff on a related topic (with kind permission–thanks, Brian!). Back when he was first planning his awesome Sauroposeidon life restoration, Brian sent these head studies:

(Note that Brian’s ideas were still evolving at this point, and he roofed the nasal chamber with a keratinous resonating chamber instead of the inflatable sac seen in the finished product. I think both are plausible [not likely, just plausible] and look pretty rad, although the latter is obviously a lot more metal.)

I think these are dynamite, because they show that you can avoid “shrink-wrapped dinosaur syndrome” (SWDS) and still make an anatomically detailed, realistic-looking life restoration. SWDS is what I call the common convention in paleo-art of simply draping the skeleton–and especially the skull–in Spandex and calling that a life restoration. I think it’s a popular technique because you can show off the skeleton inside the animal and thereby demonstrate that you’ve done your homework (especially to an audience that already knows the skeletons*). It gives artists an easy way to add detail to their critters; if you actually slab on realistic soft tissues and lose most of those skeletal and cranial landmarks, you have to come up with something else to make your animals look detailed and visually interesting. And by now it’s been going strong for several decades, so people expect it.

* Without harshing on anyone, I suspect that a lot of consumers of paleo-art have spent more time looking at dinosaur skeletons than looking at live animals and thinking about how much or little of their skeletal structure is visible in life, which may make them susceptible to mistaking “shows a lot of the bony structure” for “biologically realistic”. I suspect that because it was true of me for a good chunk of my life; as usual, the one ranting is ranting mostly at his former self. What cured me was dissecting animals and reading TetZoo–happily, two avenues of self-improvement that are open to everyone.

In the second image above (the one showing the innards) Brian kindly credited me for lending a little assistance. That assistance was mainly in forwarding him my full cranio-centric anti-SWDS rant, which I originally put together for a certain documentary that ended up using almost none of my ideas. I’ve been meaning to recycle it here for ages, and Brian’s new art is just the kick in the pants I needed. Without further ado:

“Sauroposeidon head suggestions no labels.jpg” [above] shows a mock-up of the skull, a traditional restoration of the head, the skull with accurate soft tissues, and an updated restoration. The traditional restoration looks like a lot of paleoart from the past two decades–it looks like someone shrink-wrapped the skull. But this is not what the heads of real animals look like at all. If you look at almost any animal, whether it is a lizard, croc,* turtle, snake, bird, cow, horse, rodent, or human, you can’t see the holes in the skull because they are filled with muscles or air sacs and smoothed over with skin. Here are the 8 specific features I fixed in the updated restoration:

* I got a little carried away here–some of the holes in croc skulls are not hard to make out, because their skin is unusually tightly bound to the very rugose skull. Most dinosaurs didn’t have that same skull texture, and there is little reason to think that their heads were similarly shrink-wrapped. Abelisaurs, maybe. Sauropods, not so much.

(1) the profile of the top of the head and start of the neck would have been smoothed out by jaw muscles bulging through holes in the top of the head (strange but true), and by neck muscles coming up onto the back of the skull.

(2) The fleshy nostril should be down on the snout at the end of the nasal troughs. The bony nostrils make that huge hump on top of the head, but they are continuous with these two grooves that run down the front of the face, and almost certainly the whole bony-nostril-plus-groove setup was covered by soft tissues and the actual air holes were down on the snout. That fleshy covering would have been propped up and not sucked down tight to the skull, so you wouldn’t be able to see the boundaries of bony nostrils from the outside. The fleshy nostril should also be fairly big; it is unlikely that a 50-ton animal with a head a yard long had nostrils the size of a horse’s.

(3) The holes in the skull should not be visible. The habit of drawing and painting dinosaurs with shrink-wrapped heads is so entrenched that smooth heads look undetailed and a little fake, but smooth heads are undoubtedly more accurate. The head wasn’t necessarily a completely smooth bullet–it probably had decorative scales and patches of color–but we can be fairly certain that the holes in the skull were not visible through the skin.

(4) The jaw joint is all the way at the back of the head, but past the tooth row the upper and lower jaws were bound together by jaw muscles.  When the jaws opened, as shown in the lower images, the muscles were covered by skin. This skin might have been outside the jaws and stretchy, as shown in the attached image “bird cheeks.jpg”, or it might have been tucked in between the jaws as shown in “croc cheeks.jpg” [below].

Another caveat in my own defense: I know that condors do not have muscular, mammal-style cheeks, so the “cheek” skin here is doing more than just covering jaw muscles (farther back on the  jaw the skin is covering jaw muscles). Remember that I was writing quick art suggestions for a less technically sophisticated audience, not a dissertation on condor heads. The take home point is that you can’t tell from looking at the condor below where the jaw muscles start or where the jaw joint is located (unless you already know something about bird skulls). Other than the  gross outline, there simply isn’t much osteology on display–and this is a naked head!

(5) The eyes are usually reconstructed as small, dull, and centered in the vertical middle of the eye socket. In fact the eyes were probably located toward the top end of the eye socket, they were probably colorful as in most reptiles and birds, and they may have been pretty big. [But not that big; see Mickey's comment below, and note that Brian got it right anyway.]

(6) The external ear hole is usually left out. It should be behind the back of the skull and in front of the hindmost jaw muscles.

(7) The profile of the back of the head follows jaw muscles, not the boundaries of the skull bones.

(8) Sauropods had true flip-top heads. The skull of Giraffatitan looks like nothing so much as an upside down toilet bowl, with the toilet seat for the lower jaw. Sauropods probably used that big gape to shove in as much plant material as possible per unit time. Crocodiles and many birds have an extensible throat pouch that allows them to bolt larger bites than you’d think, and the same was probably true of most dinosaurs, especially sauropods. There may have been a visible division between the muscular neck and this fleshy “gullet”. See “croc throat.jpg” and “bird throat.jpg” [below].

After seeing one of the preliminary designs for the documentary Sauroposeidon–which sadly ended up being a Big Gray Pachyderm in the show–I sent the following. Even though they ignored it, and even though it appears here as a rehash of an argument I’ve made several times already, I’m still proud of it. Especially the concluding advice–potential artistic collaborators take note!
I think you could safely put on a lot more color. People are used to big animals being dull, but that’s because most big animals are mammals and, except for primates, all mammals are effectively colorblind. So big mammals are a horrible guide to how colorful other big animals might be. Komodo dragons and crocs are both fairly dull, but they’re all ambush predators and they have to be dull or they don’t eat. If I get inspired I might take your Sauroposeidon into Photoshop and color it up; otherwise maybe have your artists look at tropical birds, toss back a couple of stiff drinks, and throw caution to the wind.
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53 Responses to “Pimp my ‘pod 2: haids”


  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Chris Rowan, JP – Research Lab. JP – Research Lab said: Pimp my ‘pod 2: haids: Here’s another dual-purpose post (part 1 is here), wherein I use some of Brian Engh’s coo… http://bit.ly/hLv1uD [...]


  2. Great advice in general, but the eyeball wouldn’t fit inside the orbit if the externally visible part is as big as in your sketch.

  3. Matt Wedel Says:

    Good point. I intended that to be the whole eyeball, not just the externally visible part, but then I forgot to put on eyelids. So much for Mr. Soft Tissue!

  4. Matt Wedel Says:

    …also, happily, I note that Brian got it right in his head study.

  5. David Orr Says:

    I really appreciate posts like this. Soft tissue may be speculative, but playing it too safe is a real trap. Dinosaurs are a great way to teach people about how living animals work, which is a much better goal than unobtainable “accuracy.” Thanks for consulting Brian on these guys!

  6. Marc Vincent Says:

    Fantastic post. It made me think of Luis Rey’s vulture-like renditions of Deinonychus, another great example of how a little speculation can add so much interest and (arguably) believability.


  7. [...] me reposting cool stuff from Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week, I am in total agreement with today’s rant concerning speculative soft tissue in dinosaur reconstructions. To artlessly paraphrase Matt [...]


  8. [...] Pimp my ‘pod 2: haids [...]

  9. Michael Says:

    What do we know about the size of the sclerotic rings of sauropods? If we know anything, it should be remembered that, as in birds, the visible part of the eye shouldn’t extend beyond the inner ring.

  10. Mark Robinson Says:

    Excellent post. I’ve always found it weird how otherwise seemingly realistic depictions of dinos are spoiled by having SWH (shrink-wrapped heads). This is particularly true of stinkin’ theropods where sometimes the skin/flesh appears to be depressed into the antorbital fenestrae.

    While some dinos were almost undoubtedly very colouful, I don’t imagine that all sauropods were like giant snake-necked parrots. Not saying they were dull pachyderm grey either, and I’m sure that there would’ve been some species that would have employed brightly coloured display structures, at least during mating season.

    However, animals that are brightly coloured not only usually possess excellent colour vision, but also tend to live in busy habitats like forests and jungles. We can’t tell whether sauropods had colour vision or not but my understanding is that it is often associated with animals that need to determine whether certain foods (eg fruits) are edible or not.

    If sauropods inhabited more open environments and ate foliage would they perhaps have only dichromatic vision, say blue/green? All very speculative, I know but, if they did have display sacs, they might have favoured blues and greens as Brian has depicted!

    Just the thoughts of an interested lay person…

  11. Albertonykus Says:

    Very good points. I find that the most believable renditions of feathered dinosaurs I’ve seen tend to obscure a lot of skeletal features under the feathers (no visible S curve in the neck, upper legs and arms hidden in body feathers, fingers supporting the remiges), but as this shows even dinosaurs that didn’t have feathers wouldn’t have appeared shrink wrapped, either.

  12. Heteromeles Says:

    I was going to comment on the colors in this and the previous one. It’s a question: where are the sauropods getting the pigments to make all that color? Birds certainly get many of their pigment precursors from their diets. Conifers, cycads, and ferns are certainly chemical powerhouses, but the chemicals seem to be more primary defense compounds than pigments. No anthocyanins that I’m aware of.

    A second issue with colors is thermoregulation. They’ve got these tiny little, hard-working heads sitting out in the hot sun all day, and they’ve got the mother of all biological fermentation vessels walking along behind. I’m wondering how they keep from overheating, and it makes me wonder whether their heads weren’t gleaming white, whatever color the rest of their bodies were.

    While I love Brian Engh’s picture on its artistic merits, I’m also bugged by the forest. I mean really. Where’s the browse line on those trees? He’s got them self-pruning branches in the shade, but the branches are popping out at mouth level like nothing’s eating them, and in fact, they’re so dense that Sauroposeidon is kicking one out of the way.

    Does this make sense for a woodland that’s getting hammered for millions of years by the biggest herbivores in history?

    A slightly better model for the trees is the Araucarias from New Caledonia (e.g. http://rbg-web2.rbge.org.uk/Araucaria/ ). There are other conifers that also show that shape, such as italian cypresses.

    Artists could really have some fun imagining a) how sauropod activity would reshape the landscape, and b) how the trees and cycadeoids would grow so as to keep their growing tips out of the range of those mouths.

    If one looks at prairies and other grazer dominated systems, keeping meristems away from teeth is one of the primary determinants of the plants’ shapes, and in the Jurassic, the problem could only have been worse.

  13. Matt Wedel Says:

    where are the sauropods getting the pigments to make all that color? Birds certainly get many of their pigment precursors from their diets.

    Beats me. Where do lizards, turtles, and snakes get their pigments? Not to mention fish. I’m not being snotty, I honestly don’t know.

    A second issue with colors is thermoregulation. They’ve got these tiny little, hard-working heads sitting out in the hot sun all day, and they’ve got the mother of all biological fermentation vessels walking along behind.

    …and the mother of all necks connecting them, with a consequently high surface-to-volume ratio. I would think that would give them plenty of space to dump heat before it cooked the head, sort of like a 20- to 40-foot scrotum for the brain.

    Overheating in the body might be more of an issue, but so far _none_ of the modeling studies of sauropod thermodynamics have taken the air sacs into account. Even if sauropods couldn’t dump heat through the air sacs, including the air sacs in the models would decrease the effective size of the constituent cylinders. It would also be nice to see a thermal model of a sauropod that included a circulatory system, and the attendant possibility of dumping core heat through peripheral circulation. I know there has been some success modeling the thermal properties of lizards as if they were simple tubes of meat with no lungs or blood vessels, but lizards are tiny. Taking a modeling technique that works on microvertebrates and applying it at the other end of the scale of terrestrial life–with no validation studies in between–seems hopeful at best. Why should we put any faith in the results until the method has been tested against things like cows and elephants, and shown to work?

    In short, the published models of sauropod heat production and retention suck. If anyone out there knows anything about modeling thermal properties, this seems like an area where it would be straightforward to do novel and useful research.

    While I love Brian Engh’s picture on its artistic merits, I’m also bugged by the forest. I mean really. Where’s the browse line on those trees?

    I have seen loads of photos and footage of elephants moving through dense brush, especially in riparian areas, that doesn’t have a browse line. Surely you’re not suggesting that the entire depositional basin of the Antlers formation was devoid of vegetation below 60ft? What did the hordes of tenontosaurs eat, not to mention all of the juvenile and subadult sauropods? Never mind that Sauroposeidon is so far the rarest element in the fauna, not the most common (that would be Tenontosaurus again). I’m sorry, but this criticism seems to be based on a simplistic application of giraffe-browsed Serengeti acacias to an entire landscape. But feel free to set me straight.

  14. Heteromeles Says:

    Thanks Matt.

    As for color, my unscientific impression is that strictly herbivorous reptiles are less colorful than omnivores and carnivores, and I know that birds (think cardinals and flamingos) get some of their colors from their diets–carotenoids, stuff like that. I’m playing with the idea that an artist could use biochemistry to check whether something like electric blue was even possible. Probably black and white neck rings (like a ring-tailed lemur’s tail) would be possible, and if you paired it with a bubblegum pink air sac, the effect would be rather loud. But I don’t know.

    As for the plants, what Brian showed was a closed canopy forest, where the lower branches weren’t being eaten off, they were being self-pruned by the plants due to the shading of the canopy above them. That’s a modern picture, and it doesn’t make sense for the Jurassic.

    If you’ve got an enormous herbivore community, there’s got to be a lot of energy flow-through from sun through plants into herbivores. If you’ve got a closed canopy forest, the productive tissue is mostly up in the canopy, and most of the carbohydrates at the ground level are bound up in inedible wood. That leads to starving animals. If you look at forest animals all over the world, they tend to be smaller than their open-ground counterparts. And dinosaurs weren’t generally small.

    To me, this suggests that the environment was more like a savanna. Off-hand, I can think of a couple of strategies the plants employed in such an environment. If they were in riparian areas, they could pull the redwood trick of simply overtopping all of the grazers (by growing up to 100 meters tall), but they need huge amounts of water for that to work. Or they can use the trick of modern cycads and bracken, and become too poisonous to eat. Or they can go the modern grass route, which is to tolerate browsing better than anything else around them. This is what prairie grasses do: they can tolerate getting eaten, while many of their competitors cannot. Certainly they’d grow taller without the grazers, but grass ultimately gets shaded out by trees.

    I’m guessing that there was a whole group of Jurassic plants that tolerated grazing and browsing better than their competitors did, and they probably dominated a landscape that did look a bit like the Serengeti (or more precisely, like the fern and redwood savanna of late Cretaceous Wyoming). Modern examples of grazer-proof plants might include bracken fern (where the buds are hidden two feet underground). Also, modern redwoods grow fast and root-sprout readily, almost as if they originally evolved to deal with sauropod browsers.

    That’s off the top of my head. I’ll think about it some more and post some ideas on my own blog later on. Thanks for inspiring this.

  15. brian engh Says:

    Heromeles,
    I tried to make it look as though there was a defined browse line, but I made it much lower than the big guys in the image. My thinking was that we really don’t have much evidence of there being an abundance of super giants like sauroposeidon, and so I thought it was fair not to depict a woodland that had been ‘hammered’ by a population of full grown animals. Besides, I’ve already done that… http://dontmesswithdinosaurs.com/?p=363
    I was thinking that if sauroposeidon’s populations work anything like living reptiles, only a small percent would have made it to the sixty foot size-range. I imagine the base of the population would’ve been substantially shorter and less massive, with only a few huge successful bulls roaming a broad territory in search of mates and food (like modern crocodilians). My illustration attempts to depict the meeting of two such bulls.

    As far as brilliant blue/purple pigments, I have no idea how pigment synthesis works. I chose these colors because they aren’t used often for extinct dinosaurs, yet birds and lizards seem to have no problems making blue. Bluebirds, macaws, peacocks, hummingbirds, emus, cassowaries, blue-footed boobies, skinks with blue tails and/or tongues, Figian blue iguanas, blue-headed agamas, tokay geckos, seasnakes, cayman island iguanas… just to name a few off the top of my head. Sure, some are carnivorous or omnivorous, but many are primarily herbivorous.

  16. brian engh Says:

    oops, just noticed i misspelled Heteromeles. Sorry Toyon!

  17. Mike Taylor Says:

    Matt Wedel wrote:

    … sort of like a 20- to 40-foot scrotum for the brain.

    No.

  18. Matt Says:

    Brian Engh’s restoration of sauroposeidon is very thought provoking. This topic should be looked at by paleo-artist in general. As mentioned dinosaur reconstructions should no longer be “shrink-wrapped” as shown by the tissues on living animals today. As far as paleo restorations go I think many dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals are depicted as far “to-clean” looking. Theropods need to be “nastier” looking, maybe theropds like Allosaurus, Acrocanthosaurs (carnosaurus in general). Should be shown with some drool hanging from the mouths like the Komodo monitor. Which as some artists think may have had lizard like lips. They also should have battle scars like most big predators have, think big cats and crocodilians.
    Sauropod heads defentily as shown from this post need some major revisions, secondly their bodies need to be coverd in either dust or mud like African elephants, the enviornments most sauropods lived in appears to by dry so a coating of dust may have been useful.
    Ceratopsians, notably the chasmosaurines need to be shown with kertain covering most of the head and face with the expection of the eyes and nostrils. Horner has shown this to be possible if not likely reconstruction of the triceratops face. In comparison with the fossil groves of ground sloth claws and hornbills, toucans, and macaws. The ceratopsians also need to be shown as “dirtier” they also need to have a part of their bodies covered in either wet or dried mud and dust. Much like rhinos living in Africa and Asia today, and bison which also get dusty. The chasmosaurines environment seems to be lowland areas much like the American southeast. Which brings up a another topic going on ceratopsian studies are some “semi aquatic”? Sorry to rant on, the main point is that dinosaurs and prehistoric animal restorations need to shown looking more natural. Mr. Engh your resoration of sauroposeidon is fantastic keep up the wonderful thought provoking work!

  19. Heteromeles Says:

    Interesting idea Brian, thanks for pointing it out. Having gone to school in redwood country, I can only point out that all the downed trunks are missing. This is not a small detail: the first explorers in California hated the redwoods, because they couldn’t get their horses through them. Rotting logs 3 meters in diameter can do that. I myself have fallen up to my waist in a rotting log. While the big trees do tend to shatter on impact, I’m not sure that most dinosaurs could negotiate a downed tree. It’s a challenge for humans, and we can climb.

    I’ll stick with the fern savanna, and we can happily agree to disagree until I get that time machine built.

    As for the blue pigments, while I think it’s weird, you may well be right. And as you point out, why not? It gets people thinking, and you could always argue that male sauropod skin was iridescent.

    Besides, if someone shakes the tree hard enough, the herpeto-pigmentologists will wake up and tell us what is and isn’t possible.

  20. Matt Wedel Says:

    As for the plants, what Brian showed was a closed canopy forest, where the lower branches weren’t being eaten off, they were being self-pruned by the plants due to the shading of the canopy above them. That’s a modern picture, and it doesn’t make sense for the Jurassic.

    Okay, first of all, Sauroposeidon didn’t live in the Jurassic, it lived in the Early Cretaceous. That’s not a minor point of pedantry. The Morrison was a big semi-arid or at least seasonally dry environment, and a more open fern savanna might make sense (I’ll leave that to the paleobotanists). But the Antlers Formation was a lower, wetter, coastal environment, probably a lot more similar to the Mississippi delta or the Congo.

    Also, I’m sorry to keep harping on this, but where did you get the idea that animals are only found in one environment? Elephants have been observed in closed canopy forests, open canopy forests, scrub forests, wetlands, mixed woodland and grassland, savanna, open desert, mountains, and the ocean at some point. Big animals are mobile and tend to have big ranges and to turn up in places where you wouldn’t expect them, and they don’t spend their entire lives in one place, and not every environment they travel through is visibly affected by their presence. So to keep criticizing Brian’s picture for not having a browse line seems as ridiculous to me as knocking someone’s painting of an elephant because Mt Kilimanjaro is not visible in the background. I submit that the idea that there were no closed-canopy, no-browse-line-having forests anywhere in the temporal and geographic range of Sauroposeidon is pure tosh. It’s an extremely simplistic and biologically unrealistic take on the problem. But feel free to rebut.

  21. brian engh Says:

    My old apatosaur illustration is certainly less than plausible for a variety of reasons, but it was fun to explore how a stripped out forest might look. As a result of doing that illustration (and thinking about this kind of environment) I came the the same conclusion as Matt; it is overly simplistic (for a huge variety of reasons) to apply the ‘chewed down’ look of modern forested grasslands overrun by modern ruminants to the very different paleoenvironments inhabited by sauropods and giant ornithopods. The animals, plant communities, and global atmospheric conditions are just too different.

    I do definitely agree that virgin redwood forests are gnarly (i’ve been stuck in rotting vegetation myself! FUN! :D), and it seems more than reasonable to speculate that the largest dinosaurs may have avoided these denser systems. That said, large tortoises navigate cluttered rock outcrops, and snapping turtles can climb 7 foot chain-link fences. Don’t assume that sauropods couldn’t work their way over or around big logs just because they’re quadrupedal and bulky. Also, being bred from steppe-roaming wild horses, domestic horses are definitely ill-adapted for a forest environment, both mentally and physically (especially when carrying a rider or pulling a wagon). I don’t think they’re a very good measure of large animals ability to navigate dense forest thick with woodfall. Elephants find their way through extremely gnarly forest all the time. They love it too.

    With regards to my sauroposeidon picture we’re talking about a different kind of forest. The antlers formation and related strata reflect an environment nothing like a redwood forest, and I was trying to illustrate a much dryer open forest populated by species related to modern araucarias and cyprus. If you are familiar with the forests of California, you have no doubt hiked in the Sierras, or the conifer woodlands of the Angeles range. These forests are much drier and more open than the temperate moist redwood and doug fir forests and from everything I was able to find on the types of wood and plant fossils coming from sauroposeidon’s environment, these dryer more open forests were a better reference by which to style my speculative paleo-forest.

    Also, I agree that dinosaurs need to be dirtier and rougher around the edges than they are traditionally depicted, but I don’t think it’s as simple as evenly applying a layer of mud and dust to sauropods and ceratopsians like we see in modern elephants. First of all, elephants love to take mud and dust baths. Love it. And they have nice big trunks to distribute that cooling soil all over their relatively porous mamalian hides. Reptiles are different. Have you ever seen a dirty lizard? Komodos can look a bit crusty, but I think that has more to do with their coloration and always having bits of shed skin clinging to them, than it has anything to do with actual dirt sticking to their scales. Even crocodiles who slop around in the mud on the regular look relatively clean shortly after the mud dries and pops off. Dirt and dust just don’t cling to reptiles and birds like they do mammal hide… I’ve seen a few crusty tortoises, but it’s usually just around their stompin feet and plastron, which are pretty much down in the dirt all day.

    whew! Sorry if that was too big of a comment! Discourse is fun!

  22. Heteromeles Says:

    Thanks for clarifying Matt. I’m a botanist, not a paleontologist, and I didn’t realize the Antlers formation was lower Cretaceous.

    That said, I’d direct you to forest elephants vs. savanna elephants, both of which are smaller than Sauroposeidon. Forest elephants are smaller than their open space cousins, and both are smaller than Sauroposeidon and their ilk. I’m skeptical that something the size of Sauroposeidon would find enough to eat in the coniferous equivalent of a rain forest. The stuff it could eat would be mostly out of reach.

    As I noted above, the simplest (albeit hypothetical) solution is to posit a guild of plants that were adapted to dinosaur browsing. This is what grasses do with modern grazers: the grass gets eaten, but its competitors get killed, and the grass can regrow. In the Antler formation and elsewhere, I’m suggesting that the guild was dominated by fast growing trees, ferns, and who knows what else, and yes, it would probably have browse lines on the tops, bottoms, and sides.

    As for maneuverability, that does get tricky. Elephants live on Mt. Kilimanjaro, but that doesn’t mean that they can go everywhere on that or any other mountain. Sauropods are much bigger and less intelligent, so I would be surprised to find an adult on a forested slope. I’d also expect them to have trouble getting through an old growth redwood forest. They’d probably clear all the forest edges, but a large fallen tree could block their path until it rotted.

    Neat conversation! I know a little paleobotany, simply because I was trying to figure out how ectomycorrhizal plants evolved. Nothing like having a syndrome that evolved convergently >12 separate times to pique one’s curiosity. Unfortunately, it didn’t involve sauropods, so it’s not relevant here.

  23. Matt Wedel Says:

    That said, I’d direct you to forest elephants vs. savanna elephants, both of which are smaller than Sauroposeidon. Forest elephants are smaller than their open space cousins, and both are smaller than Sauroposeidon and their ilk. I’m skeptical that something the size of Sauroposeidon would find enough to eat in the coniferous equivalent of a rain forest. The stuff it could eat would be mostly out of reach.

    Hey, this looks like a fun game! My turn:

    – I’m skeptical that an elephant would find enough to eat in the Namib desert.
    – I’m skeptical that an elephant would find enough to eat on a snowpack at 15,000 feet.
    – I’m skeptical than an elephant would find enough to eat 5 miles out to sea.

    And yet, despite my incredulity, elephants (or their tracks) have been sighted in all of those places, alive, and apparently in no distress. Just big animals going about their business, even when–gasp!–there might not be any food from one horizon to another. Animals don’t spend all their time where the food is, especially big animals that can travel long distances in search of food. Or they might go where there is plenty of food but not what they prefer. I find it extremely unlikely that across the entire Antlers formation for millions of years there was never a forest of the kind Brian drew where two big sauropods could have met up.

    As I noted above, the simplest (albeit hypothetical) solution is to posit a guild of plants that were adapted to dinosaur browsing. This is what grasses do with modern grazers: the grass gets eaten, but its competitors get killed, and the grass can regrow. In the Antler formation and elsewhere, I’m suggesting that the guild was dominated by fast growing trees, ferns, and who knows what else, and yes, it would probably have browse lines on the tops, bottoms, and sides.

    Let’s leave aside the graze line argument for a second. There is no rule of paleoart that says that you always have to show the animal in its most likely habitat, doing its most likely behavior. Animals get around, and do weird things, and I think it’s messed up to criticize someone else’s work for not showing only “the most likely” setting or behavior when no such promise was inherent in the work.

    In short, your criticism boils down to, “but most of the Antlers probably didn’t look like that”, and my response is, “Who ever said that it did?” It’s not an argument about what the Antlers did or didn’t look like; it’s an argument about what ought to be acceptable in paleoart. If Brian had drawn Sauroposeidon frolicking on a grassy lawn flecked with daisies, or in a Carboniferous coal swamp, that would be clearly and scientifically incorrect. But he showed a couple of them with entirely plausible scenery–without suggesting even obliquely that that scenery is all there was in the Antlers Formation. I just don’t see the problem, or understand why you would feel justified in calling him out about it.

  24. Heteromeles Says:

    Actually, this reminds me of one reason I switched to botany: the plants are 95% of the scenery, and most people ignore them. Botany really is the science of seeing the obvious.

    As for elephants: of course something with a better memory than a human can do well in places that humans also survive in. They keep sophisticated mental maps so that they can find patchy resources in unforgiving environments.

    Sauropods obviously have the same mental resources as an elephant, and they obviously need, oh, not so much food really, especially if you scale energy on a per kilo basis and assume they have some sort of passive homeothermy. So elephants are an excellent model of how sauropods would find food. No?

  25. Juan Yu Says:

    Amazing post Matt, especially on the Sauropod “cheeks” part. I’d say all sauropods (including Sauroposeidon) have bird-like cheeks, since they are closely related to theropods, and birds are theropods.

  26. brian engh Says:

    “Actually, this reminds me of one reason I switched to botany: the plants are 95% of the scenery, and most people ignore them.”

    Hey Toyon, I don’t ignore the plants. I tried to dig up as much literature as I could on the plant fossils from the stratigraphic region that sauroposeidon probably roamed. This was the best paper I could find and I referenced it heavily when illustrating the habitat:

    http://cactus.dixie.edu/jharris/Winkler%26Rose_Jones_Ranch.pdf

    To anyone: please let me know if I have interpreted any of the above paper wrong, or if the Jones Ranch wasn’t really in range or whatever. I’m no scientist, I’m just amped about monsters.

    I don’t think the simplest solution to explain how conifers could sustain such giant monsters is to suggest that the dominant plant groups in the environment (many of which have remarkably similar living relatives) would’ve been any better adapted to withstand grazing than their modern counterparts. Grazing hasn’t slowed down at all since the huge non-avian dinosaurs roamed the earth. Big mammalian grazers filled their place in great numbers as soon as the land could sustain them. Not only that, they adapted to be so good at grazing that they were able to heat warm bodies through several punishing ice ages. Meanwhile, many of the plant groups persisted, so don’t think it’s logical to assume that the many surviving plant groups would’ve lost their awesome graze-resistant qualities… And yet what appear to be fossilized sauropod poops contain primarily conifer leaves.

    I think the truly simpler answer is 1) the bigger dinosaurs were considerably less abundant than the smaller species 2) increased atmospheric CO2 promoted plant growth and created a warmer climate with long growing seasons and 3) big hungry predators were keeping them moving, which would’ve helped prevent over-browsing (just as the reintroduction of wolves in yellowstone has kept the herds moving, thus resulting in a recent reemergence of plant life that was previously thought to have been extinct! Neat!)

  27. hollidaylab Says:

    Can we move to back to the head?
    I like “shrink-wrapped” head. Larry called it the “hungry dinosaur” look. regardless it’s time it went away.

    The picture of the crocodile with “cheek” skin is weird, like its a sculpture or taxidermy mount. The shelves on the jugal and surangular are way too pronounced. Maybe it was a hungry crocodile. The gator picture has a better representation of how the jaw muscles fill most of that space. Crocs too have a corner of the mouth that extends out towards the tooth margin, its small though and not well illustrated in the two pics.

    Regardless, that long thin skin on the vulture is the rictus, or mundplatte, a specialized bunch of skin that’s highly sensitive (carrying trigeminal, not facial nerves) and highly vascular and probably oozes some spit. Mammals have a rictus and a “cheek” (with buccinator, facial nerve etc). you can pinch the edge of the the corner of the mouth, that’s the rictus. If I recall, the rictus holds venom glands in some snakes. McDowell ’85 maybe…

    You can see where the jaw muscles are in the vulture, the band of tissue under the eye is the postorbital ligament/tendon marking the passage of the muscles diagonally towards the coronoid, which would be just at the rostral plane of the orbit. the rest is rictus. Flamingos do something really similar with the rictus/cheek migrating way out under the antorbital cavity. I have a dissected flamingo pic at FB of all places:

    it is my charge to always chime in on the corner of the mouth. Its one of my favorite places. that and the Caribbean.

    The eye is of ok size i think. The orbital cavities (and outer orbital margin) of sauropods are fairly spherical and better representations of the eyeball than those of other dinos that have big suborbital pterygoid muscles, or maybe air sacs. Aside from Crocs, seems that most eyeballs are not constrained by the eyelids so don’t necessarily let those impact your size estimation.

    I think you should have the eyelids reconstructed as opening/closing rostrocaudally rather than dorsoventrally. That would be awesome. :)

  28. Tor Bertin Says:

    “(just as the reintroduction of wolves in yellowstone has kept the herds moving, thus resulting in a recent reemergence of plant life that was previously thought to have been extinct! Neat!)”

    Sorta!

    The willow communities were still there before wolf reintroduction, but they were under heavy amounts of browsing pressure by elk. With the elk being easy targets for wolves when they hang out in those riparian systems, they began to move into less dangerous areas, allowing the willow communities to recover. Recovery, in turn, allowed beavers to repopulate the area. There was also a pretty major boost to the song bird community. There may have been a few other factors at work as well, but I think the general consensus is that wolves caused a trophic cascade to allow willow recovery.

    But the overall point holds true–trophic cascades are the shit. ;-)

  29. Heteromeles Says:

    Actually, I’m going to take the plant portion over to my blog at http://heteromeles.wordpress.com/.

    And to answer Brian’s question, yes plants do change quite rapidly to become more susceptible to grazing.

    My favorite recent example are the toyons (Heteromeles arbutifolia) on Santa Catalina Island. Deer were introduced to the island in the 1920s, and there was a big fire there in 2007. The toyons are attempting to regenerate after the fire, but they are getting killed by the deer. Analysis has shown that they don’t have the levels of defensive compounds found in their mainland conspecifics, and they get browsed far more harshly than the mainland plants do. This is the first demonstration I’ve ever seen of a plant starving to death due to a negative carbon balance, and it wasn’t fun.

    So to answer the question of whether plants change as herbivory pressures change, I think the answer is a) yes, and b) quickly.

    Therefore, I’m not sure that we can use modern redwoods as a reliable guide to Jurassic conifers. As Brian notes, it’s the best we have (and thanks for the article link), but I think we need to go further.

    As for the rest, I think there’s a neat question here about the interplay between dinosaurs and the plants they ate, and today I’ll post a blog entry on it.


  30. [...] this comes from a blog discussion I got sucked into on at SVPOW, on a really interesting Sauropod reconstruction by Brian Engh. As I noted over there, I’m posting some first thoughts on dinosaur-plant interactions over [...]

  31. brian engh Says:

    Heteromeles,
    I didn’t know that about Toyons. That’s really interesting. I suppose then it is reasonable to speculate that modern conifers and ferns might’ve lost some of their graze-resistant properties as mammalian grazers took over and began favoring new groups of plants… Any ideas on how this could be studied from fossil evidence?

    Holidaylab,
    Thanks for sharing those dissection images. Nice. I know nictitating membranes tend to move across the eye rostrocaudally, but don’t the eyelids of most birds and reptiles close dorsoventrally? Often from bottom to top, right? I’m all for drawing the weirdest looking monsters, and I’m definitely fine with my only justification being just because it ‘would be awesome’, i’d just like you to clarify if there’s some scientific rationale behind this suggestion…

    Thanks for the feedback, everybody!

  32. dmaas Says:

    holidaylab said: “The picture of the crocodile with “cheek” skin is weird”

    Judging from the shadows beneath the head, the orientation of the skin and the depth blur I’d tip to a modeled and mapped 3D render.

  33. Allen Hazen Says:

    One(*) of Robertson Davies’s novels — this really is relevant — has a character who is a graduate student in music, specifically composition. Her dissertation project is to complete the score of an opera that had been left unfinished at the original composer’s death. The dissertation defense is a traumatic scene: one of the external examiners complains that the musical decoration the student has composed is in no way suggested in the (sketchy) draft the original composer completed. The student’s response is that the original composer, had he lived to complete the work, would have incorporated some such decoration (as evidenced, perhaps, by the decoration in scores he DID complete). External examiner anally insists that there is no evidence for the ACTUAL decoration she has written, and the student leaves the examination room physically ill. (But gets her degree in the end, I think, and her opera is successfully produced.)

    O.k. Analogy: fossil bones:life restoration::sketchy score by deceased composer:student’s reconstruction. There are two possible principles: the examiner’s, that no soft parts should be reconstructed conjecturally, and the student’s (which Matt praises when palaeo-artists act on it) that details make a reconstructed dinosaur/opera more “realistic” EVEN THOUGH the particular details chosen are purely conjectural.

    (*) I can’t remember the title: anyway, it’s the second in his “Cornish trilogy,” the sequel to “The Rebel Angels.”

  34. Matt Wedel Says:

    As for elephants: of course something with a better memory than a human can do well in places that humans also survive in. They keep sophisticated mental maps so that they can find patchy resources in unforgiving environments.

    Sauropods obviously have the same mental resources as an elephant, and they obviously need, oh, not so much food really, especially if you scale energy on a per kilo basis and assume they have some sort of passive homeothermy. So elephants are an excellent model of how sauropods would find food. No?

    Sigh. I am starting to feel like you are going out of your way to miss my point. I am not arguing that sauropods are like elephants in any way other than being big and mobile. My points are (1) that almost all animals occasionally end up in environments other than their normal habitats, and (2) a piece of artwork isn’t wrong if it shows an animal in one of those situations. The elephant miles out to sea was not swimming to some long-remembered oceanic food cache. Presumably he was swimming around in the ocean because he liked it and there was nothing to stop him. Big animals don’t have to be super-smart to temporarily pass through an environment that contains no food for them.

    Look, this all started with you criticizing Brian’s painting for not showing a browse line, and me arguing (then and now) that it is profoundly unrealistic to expect the entire Antlers formation to have a Sauroposeidon-induced browse line, even if Sauroposeidon and other dinosaurs typically did inflict browse lines on the vegetation in their home territories. The real world is more varied than that. So I call BS on your criticism.

  35. heteromeles Says:

    Sorry Matt,

    It’s not just the browse line. At the risk of annoying Brian again (apologies in advance) that forest looks like a typical, modern coniferous forest at the stage of canopy closure. There bull is even kicking over a tree, and the branches below look self-pruned, not browsed.

    You really only get that kind of dense stand if the browsing pressure has been totally removed for a couple of decades, and that’s the issue. It’s not just Sauroposeidon, it’s all those hungry, large dinosaur mouths. They would go after the seedlings and saplings, and the result would be a more open, patchy, savanna-like structure.

    There are two ways to get that kind of forest Brian portrayed. One is that predators use dense stands as ambush cover, and so the herbivores learn to avoid them (see comments above about willows in Yellowstone). A second way is that the conifers were so unpalatable/poisonous that they could grow undisturbed.

    If you go with the first idea (trees as cover) the bulls wouldn’t be displaying in it.

    This second one is hard to swallow (sorry) because the dinosaurs flourished on a diet of conifers, cycads, and ferns, things which don’t support huge numbers of mammalian herbivores today. If there was something that was even more dinosaur proof dominating those forests (Cheirolepidiaceae?) where is it today?

    Note that I’m not objecting to the central point about sauropod display, just the environment that they are displaying in.

  36. Mathew Wedel Says:

    You really only get that kind of dense stand if the browsing pressure has been totally removed for a couple of decades, and that’s the issue. It’s not just Sauroposeidon, it’s all those hungry, large dinosaur mouths. They would go after the seedlings and saplings, and the result would be a more open, patchy, savanna-like structure.

    I have no idea how you can be so certain about this. In the extant world, there are areas that are chock-full of big herbivores and still have the occasional stand of dense woods. The entire landscape isn’t dense woods, but they are present here and there. Turning to the Antlers, beyond the fact that it was a lowland environment dominated by non-angiosperms, neither of us has any idea of what the landscape looked like, or of how the herbivores used it. We can hypothesize all day, but you seem to be a lot more certain about what the entire Antlers depositional environment must have looked like–i.e., no dense stands of trees whatsoever, over the whole basin for millions of years–than I am, and I’ve worked on it and in it for over a decade. If you can back up that certainty with compelling evidence–as opposed to, say, analogies from not-really-comparable modern forests in which you’ve worked–you should be publishing your butt off and revolutionizing paleobiology. Or, just possibly, you should have a little more humility about the mountain of things that you don’t know–and that perhaps nobody knows–about what you’re talking about.

    If you go with the first idea (trees as cover) the bulls wouldn’t be displaying in it.

    Okay, so now you admit that the scenery is at lest plausible, but you claim the behavior is not. But isn’t it just barely possible that 40-50 ton bulls had nothing to fear from 3-5 ton acrocanthosaurs, and would therefore wander into dense forests with impunity? Also, I suppose if any male animal has ever put on a sexual display in dangerous circumstances, that would also invalidate your argument, in which case I direct your attention to the voluminous literature of natural history.

  37. brian engh Says:

    Back to the paper on the ghost ranch formation – it reads like there was a lot of trees in at least that area yes? did i read it wrong? is that formation not representative of possible sauroposeidon habitat? Can we at least criticise my environmental reconstruction based on fossil evidence?

    I’m alright with the fact that my conjecture is almost certainly not accurate to what really happened, but I’d hate to have overlooked something obvious in the hard evidence.

  38. David Krentz Says:

    I’ve always been curious about the shrink wrapped dinosaur look. I’ve done restorations in the past where I’ve left out showing off the fenestra in the skull and I’ve done plenty with all the anatomy shown. My concern is always about the thickness of the skin and how it hangs, and to another extent how thin or thick dinosaur skin would hang on a great big head. I imagine the closest thing we have these days is a Komodo or large birds ( alligators and crocs too…I know but lets go with the pebbly skin look for now) . How thick could the underlying dermal layers have been?
    The post-orbital fenestra on T.rex really bulges out, and muscles that run inside of it would not puff out like a muffin in a pan, even if it were really clenching its jaw. The antorbital opening would probably not be too visible, but I assume it might appear to inflate a little bit during respiration. Also, If the animal opened its mouth wouldn’t it depress a little? If I’m wrong let me know…and I have a feeling you will.
    The fleshy nostril that all is all the rage with the kids these days does make sense and is well supported…but I’m sticking to the fact that it still looks stupid. Lips in theropods? Totally buying it, even though it does make them look stupid as well ;-) Ive been doing lots of CG models with lipped theropods and it’s not as hard to ‘make work’ as one might suspect, even in the long toothed theros.
    These next few years are truly going to be the soft tissue revolution.

    D

  39. scidog Says:

    i’ve been looking at gray dinosaurs in art work since i was a kid,1950’s,and thought that it was done that way for the same reason planets were just shown as single colored blobs.we did not know what they really looked like and until we do this is the best we can come up with.

  40. Dwight E. Howell Says:

    The one thing about reconstructions of sauropod heads that I loath is that artists always stick tiny nostrils sized for a much smaller animal than the bodies these animals had on the heads.

    The animals had huge nasal openings which had to be open to prevent suffocation of these huge animals and for some reason the artists always cover them over.

    Based on the nasal openings the artist thinks this is at most a two or three hundred pound cold blooded animal. You could ram both arms down the airway he sealed off. There is no way the pathetic openings he left could adequately ventilate the huge lungs this animal had.

  41. brian engh Says:

    That’s an interesting thought, but I really don’t see much of a correlation between lung size and naris opening… Whales are huge and warm blooded and have GIANT lung capacities, but don’t strike me as having proportionately large dilated naris. Elephants too, are large warm blooded animals and their lengthy trunks have relatively small nostrils at the end. Furthermore, living avian dinosaurs (birds) don’t appear to have disproportionately large nostrils, despite having respiratory systems which account for more of their body volume than any other living vertebrates.

    Also, I just don’t think it would be very practical for an animal that browsed in the treetops to have exceptionally large, open nostrils. It would seem to me that it would be easy for bits of twigs and bark and lichen to get snorted up. And that would be bad.

  42. Michael O. Erickson Says:

    I know this post is kind of old, but I just now saw it and Brian’s head studies are very nice! It looks appropiately “reptilian”, wheras many sauropod restorations look like way too much like mammals (specially when artists ignore the scales and give them smooth, wrinkly skin as if they were elephants). I wonder about the fleshy nostrils though – should they be a bit further down? Fig. 1. (A) in Witmer’s paper seems to show them nearer to the end of the snout, but then again, Brian seems to have restored Sauroposiedon‘s nasal fossa as less extensive than in Giraffatitan.

    The iguanid-like lips are interisting too, did sauropods have them? I used to be of the opinion that theropods did, but these days I’m not so sure… Inferring soft tissues in extinct taxa that we don’t know a whole heck of a lot about can be a real pain in the butt sometimes! ;)

  43. Michael O. Erickson Says:

    Whoops, forgot the link to Witmer’s paper:

    http://bill.srnr.arizona.edu/classes/182h/vertebrate%20evolution/DinosaurNoses.pdf


  44. Aha, at last, proof of a living animal where the fenestra show through the skin, the Indian Gharial Gavialis gangeticus!

    You can quite clearly see ton the dorsal surface of the skull the supratemporal fenestra showing through the skin.

  45. brian engh Says:

    oh cool! That’s certainly a detail i hadn’t noticed before…

    but take a look at it’s skull:

    it it were reconstructed according to the current norm in paleo art, the nose would’ve been little more than two holes in a thin layer of skin stretched between the visible naris, the eyes would’ve been sunken within the eye sockets, and the jaw muscles running behind the eyes would hardly fill the cavity, let alone bulge outside of it as they do in the living animal. also it would probably be drawn with longer, more gracile legs, mouth agape, in a full sprint next to a human silhouette that scales the animal to the largest possible size according to outdated projections based on incomplete skeletal material or possibly even deceiving photos of mounts (which may or may not be well reconstructed)…

    I wonder if the supratemporal fenestra are visible in the gharial pictured because the animal has its mouth open slightly…? i would be willing to wager that when the beast chomps down, the jaw muscles bulge up and fill out that cavity nicely…


  46. You’re right that if we hadn’t seen a living gharial, it is unlikely any paleoartist would have reconstructed the bulbous nasal “ghara”, but that wasn’t my point. My point was to show that sometimes the fenestra show through the skin.

    And even though the eyes are not “sunken” in the orbits (and I wouldn’t reconstruct a dinosaur’s eyes as such), it is interesting that in the original photo I linked too, you can see the boney edge of the rim of the orbits surrounding the protruding eyes. You can also see below the eyes the edge of the jugal bone apparent from under the skin, too, where it connects the bones around the orbit.

    I agree that the GSP format of portraying extinct animals is worn out, but that doesn’t mean every aspect of his reconstructions of the living animals were wrong (although I do disagree with many aspects of his life reconstructions).

    You’re right that the muscles to bulge up when biting down on something, see here, but notice that the supratemporal fenestra are still clearly visible.

    Even with the mouths shut, you can still see the fenestra, see here and here.

    I also want to make it clear I wasn’t criticizing your reconstruction, as it is definitely plausible. I just wanted to point out that showing the fenestra either bulging out or sinking in a little is not unheard of and is also plausible. Personally, when I do show the fenestra as “visible” it is generally because soft tissues are bulging out, not sinking in.

  47. brian engh Says:

    Just to clarify, what Matt and I are suggesting isn’t that fenestra should be ignored, or always completely filled with soft tissue, rather we are arguing that soft tissue is much more complex than paleo art typically reflects.

    …in fact i think you too are arguing basically the same point: that there is no one rule of thumb for reconstructing soft tissue around the fenestra, and whether or not a skeletal feature is clearly visible beneath the meat ‘n’ stuff is the result of complex interactions of material, form, and function.

    Also, I would like to make it clear that I didn’t take your comment as criticism and I hope my reply didn’t seem like defense or rebuttal. I was just reiterating that real life monsters are super weird and that sunken fenestra are definitely the exception, not the norm. I was, and always am, amped to have a new creature detail pointed out to me.

    and gharials are awesome and strangely adorable (as far as crocs go).

    That being said, I love criticism. So please don’t hold back if you got some of that. Not only does it help me improve creatively, but I think one of the key reasons to make paleo art is because it stimulates discourse about the subjects, which very often begins with that feeling of “hrm… that doesn’t look right…”

    And thanks to this little bit of discourse I got to look at a Gharial chomping an eel!

    That picture is awesome.


  48. [...] I’m happy to say that the head avoids shrink-wrapped dinosaur syndrome. There’s enough underlying anatomy to show that It’s built up from the skull of [...]


  49. [...] who have used this style of restoration are good friends of mine. But it’s a fine example of shrink-wrapped dinosaur syndrome, and it simply cannot be [...]


  50. [...] is achieved. Visible anatomy is fun to look at, which I suspect is one of the drivers behind shrink-wrapped dinosaur syndrome–even though it’s usually incorrect, and this maquette doesn’t suffer from it [...]


  51. [...] I am typically an ardent proponent of flamboyant dinosaurs (see here and here). If someone had asked me to design an Apatosaurus maquette, I would have done things differently. [...]


  52. […] I got to hang out with Brian Engh and some of his friends in LA. You may remember Brian from this, this, this, this, and, most notoriously, this. We got to drawing dinosaurs, […]


  53. […] on the muzzle and not well up and back in the bony nostril opening [adjacent illustration take from this SV-POW! article on the life appearance of sauropods]. The notion that sauropods might have had tapir- or elephant-like trunks has been suggested a few […]


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