Greatest. Palaeoart. Ever.

September 15, 2012

Just over a year ago, I described Niroot Puttapipat’s “Giraffatitan just being awesome while wave after wave of Incisivosaurus perish in its glorious presence” as the most awesome piece of art EVER. That may have been true at the time. But now it’s been eclipsed by this Bob Nicholls original:

Entitled “failed ambush”, it realistically depicts a sauropod (Dipodocus?) trashing no fewer than five theropods simultaneously: pulling one apart with its mouth, slicing the head off another with its whiplash tail, crushing one under a tree, stomping one with its forefoot, and — perhaps the highlight — pooping on the last.

Bob dashed this off in half an hour during a session of mammal talks at SVPCA 2012. I like to read it as an atonement, of sorts, for this earlier piece, “Double Death”:

which I admire hugely as a piece of art, but can’t approve of.

It would be great if Bob were to work “Failed Ambush” up into a complete piece some day. I’d like to see that. But I especially love sketches, which often have a spontaneity and life about them that more carefully constructed pieces find hard to match. I have the biro-on-notepaper  original in my safekeeping, and it will go up on the wall of my office tomorrow.

24 Responses to “Greatest. Palaeoart. Ever.”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Two quick questions. First, is the Diplodocus killing the last Allosaurus via the sheer force and weight of its poop? Because one could see that given how sauropods were likely hind-gut fermenter. The second question is is there any evidence diplodocid sauropods could use their tails like razor wire like that? I don’t mean in terms of decapitated allosaurs, but in terms of the tail spines being sharp and strong enough to do it.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Like you, Anonymous, I have to concede that the idea of violent pooping as a weapon is … on the less parsimonious side. But the ability to cut rather than just strike with the whiplash tail? It hadn’t occurred to me before seeing Bob’s picture, but maybe it does make sense. We know that some dinosaurs had keratinous blunt clubs on the ends of their tails: why not keratinous blades on others?

  3. Nathan Myers Says:

    If a hurricane can drive a piece of straw clean through a 2×6, what couldn’t a diplodocus do to an allosaur with its tail? That’s what I say.

  4. I’m sensing an obvious bias towards a particular clade of amniotes in this blog….

    I highly doubt any sauropod could lift a theropod of even 1/5th the size shown that way that sauropod is doing. The art is great, but I think bias is at play here ;)

  5. Oh, a comment on tail function; at least for tail clubs:

    Keratin coverage, in the form of sheaths or cornified skin or pads, leave traces on the surface of the bone, due to the interaction of the underlying dermal tissues, a thorough discussion of which is covered in Hieronymous et al., 2009 and Hieronymous & Witmer, 2010 — and, incidentally, my blog. At least the “tail club” of ZDM 0126 (Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis; Xing et al., 2009) shows some evidence of plastic deformation, but lacks the smooth surface one might expect for sheets of keratin as would be expected for a sheathing structure, like a “blade” of some sort, or a “horn,” as in the spikes of some shunosaur tail clubs (which are of course separate from the underlying vertebral structures, implying dermal rather than endochondral bone). Photos posted to this blog do not seem to support the spicule and rugose structure of pads, or the presence of a smooth, vessel-embedded surface of keratin sheaths (claws, beaks) — but then, they are from the papers and poorly reproduced. They certainly need to be better studied, as we both said in those posts!

    Hieronymus, T. L. & Witmer, L. M. 2010. Homology and evolution of avian compound rhamphothecae. The Auk 127:590–604.
    Hieronymus, T. L., Witmer, L. M., Tanke, D. H. & Currie, P. J. 2009. The facial integument of centrosaurine ceratopsids: morphological and histological correlates of novel skin structures. The Anatomical Record 292:1370–1396.
    Xing L.-d., Ye Y., Shu C.-k., Peng G.-z. & You H.-l. 2009. Structure, orientation and finite element analysis of the tail club of Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis. Acta Geologica Sinica (English) 83(6):1031-1040.

  6. Alessio Says:

    Though i don’t like when theropods (or predators in general, for that matter) lose against their prey, well, this sketch kicks a serious amount of ass!
    About the plausibility of said scenario, well… Why not?

  7. Dean Says:

    Yes, yes, yes, and more yes! This does need to be worked into a complete piece!

  8. Anonymous Says:

    Keratin spines have been reported on Diplodocus, but I don’t know of any studies that really looked into them beyond the initial report by Czerkas. I was just wondering if anyone had looked at the specimen in question and was able to determine if the spines were stiff or limp.

  9. You mean, as in midline frilly-scales (“soft,” essentially just a modified midline scale) or ossicones (stiff, bony core, secondary ossification within squamation)? My understanding is that the diplodocoid “spines” are impressions, and no ossicones have been found… yet. Depending on their size, they may have the structure to resist moderate bending forces. Their extend down the tail is also unknown, if present.

  10. himmapaan Says:

    Aww, I have been supplanted. *Sobs* ;) But quite rightly too, and by none better!

    I have often longed to draw such a scene myself, but as always, I’m late for everything. In the meantime, however, there is this and this. Not theropods being targeted, but still proving the awesomeness of sauropods nevertheless…

  11. Mike Taylor Says:

    Not to worry, having produced the second greatest ever piece of palaeoart is nothing to be ashamed of! Nice work in the two linked pieces, BTW.

  12. Nice picture that raises some interesting questions. First of all – Diplodocus’ neck.

    Steven’s reconstructions of a stiff neck due to the interlocking neck vertebrae would seem to be at odds with the dynamic reconstruction shown here. I could easily imagine that theropods could run up to a stiff-necked Diplodocus, lock it’s jaws around the neck, and choke it until it suffocated. Since Diplodocus couldn’t raise its stiff neck high off the ground it wouldn’t be able to avoid this fate. So I’d suggest that Diplodocus’ neck was highly flexible based on this argument alone. Certainly flexible enough to avoid the theropods snapping jaws anyway.

  13. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hi, Stephen, thanks for your comments.

    First of all, I should note that I only speculated that this is Diplodocus. Bob didn’t specify. Maybe he’ll comment on here and clarify.

    Second, it’s true that “Stevens’s reconstructions of a stiff neck due to the interlocking neck vertebrae would seem to be at odds with the dynamic reconstruction shown here”, but as you may know from older articles, we at SV-POW! Towers absolutely do not accept the Stevens and Parrish horizontal-stiff-neck model. I think you will find that among palaeontologists in general, there is at least a healthy degree of skepticism about it.

  14. Stevens&Parrish did not argue the neck was stiff, but that it was, in fact, flexible. It seems an odd thing to be touting that, when Stevens work shows constantly range of motion analyses based on the proscribed maximum limit of overlap. Like as not that Stevens’ work is predicated on assumptions of rib and scapula orientation and placement, as well as the inclination of the dorsal series, Stevens and Parrish are also one of the few groups to base their conclusions at least MOSTLY on explicit data; contrary arguments, that published by the SV-POW! and Naish, did not seek to use biomechanical models to base their arguments upon.

    Indeed, work by Christian on the biomechanical properties of the joints between vertebrae suggest that Euhelopus zdanskyi wouldn’t have reasonably lifted its neck above 30 degrees, due to excessive intervertebral loading. Strain increasing above tolerance woudl result in a very, very painful neck, and indicates the limit described by Christian suggests “natural” posture was lower, not higher. Despite that Dzemski and Christian also work on ostriches, and found using this methodology a natural neck posture seen in life, it stands to reason their mechanical studies are more than just a little possible; especially since it contradicts the “swan-neck” currently mounted in München, and rampant in paleoart.

    I should note that I continue to have NO BEEF about an explicit neck posture, but when it comes to extinct taxa I will put more weight behind biomechanical analysis than any other form.

  15. Mike Taylor Says:


    Do I really have to do this?

    Jaime writes:

    Stevens&Parrish did not argue the neck was stiff, but that it was, in fact, flexible.

    As a simple matter of fact, you are wrong. Stevens and Parrish (1999:798), wrote “Both necks were less flexible than conventionally depicted, and Diplodocus was less capable of lateral and dorsal curvature than Apatosaurus.”

    Jaime also writes:

    Work by Christian on the biomechanical properties of the joints between vertebrae suggest that Euhelopus zdanskyi wouldn’t have reasonably lifted its neck above 30 degrees.

    As a simple matter of fact, you are wrong. Christian (2010:1), wrote “For the sauropod Euhelopus zdanskyi biomechanical evidence clearly indicates high browsing […] Nearly constant stress values in the intervertebral cartilage along the neck were only obtained in nearly straight neck poses with an angle between the neck and the horizontal of between 40 and 50 degrees.”


    Christian, Andreas. 2010. Some sauropods raised their necks — evidence for high browsing in Euhelopus zdanskyi. Biology Letters, published online 2 June 2010. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2010.0359

    Stevens, Kent A., and J. Michael Parrish. 1999. Neck posture and feeding habits of two Jurassic sauropod dinosaurs. Science 284:798-800.

  16. Andy Farke Says:

    Stevens & Parrish’s models are less than ideal, because they are not reproducible as of yet. The DinoMorph software used for the conclusions is not easily available (as far as I know), nor are the algorithms transparently explained anywhere. Until this happens, the models should not be considered as testable hypotheses based on explicit data.

  17. Mike Taylor Says:

    Andy is precisely right. The DinoMorph approach gives the illusion of precision, but the software is unavailable, the assumptions are unstated and the foundational data is unpublished.

  18. […] horribly dispiriting, horribly retarding for science. For example, a couple of weeks ago in his SVPCA talk, David Norman was lamenting again that he never got around to publishing the iguanodont […]

  19. […] fairness, I should say that I watched this episode on my laptop, alone in my room late one night at a conference, so it probably didn't get a fair trial. Small screen, tinny audio, and I was mentally and […]

  20. […] and Darren and paleoartist Bob Nicholls, who is famous around these parts as the creator of the Greatest. Paleoart. Ever. I did a goofy sketch in my notebook illustrating the “defensive vomit” hypothesis, […]

  21. […] blogged a lot of Bob Nicholls‘ art (here, here, and here) and we’ll probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future. We don’t […]

  22. […] by Bob Nicholl’s brilliant sketch Failed Ambush, my son Matthew reinterpreted it in this video — also titled Failed […]

  23. […] Now, one could argue that if the whip-lash doesn’t do any serious damage, predators will learn to blow them off as dishonest signals (we’re assuming here that having your eye possibly knocked out doesn’t count as ‘serious damage’ to an allosaur). But it’s not like the whiplash was the only weapon a diplodocid could bring to bear: the proximal tail could probably deliver a respectable clobberin’, and then there’s the zero fun of being stomped on by an adversary massing a dozen tons or more. In that sense, the whip-lash is writing checks the rest of the body can certainly cash. It’s saying, “Getting hit with this will be no fun, and if that isn’t enough, there’s plenty more coming.” […]

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