Apatosaurus1B

We’ve 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 have much choice: he keeps drawing awesome things and giving us permission to post them. Like this defiantly shaggy Apatosaurus, which was probably the star of the Morrison version of Duck Dynasty. Writes Bob:

On my way home at the airport I did a sketch of your giant Apatosaurus* — see attachment.  My thought was that massive thick necks were probably pretty sexy things to apatosaurs, so maybe sexually mature individuals used simple feathers (stage 1, 2 or 3?) to accentuate the neck profile.  The biggest males would of course have the most impressive growths so in the attached sketch your giant has one of the biggest beards in Earth’s history!  What do you think of this idea?

Well, I think it’s awesome. And entirely plausible, for reasons already explained in this post.

“Now, wait,” you may be thinking, “I thought you guys said that sauropod necks weren’t sexually selected.” Actually we made a slightly different point: that the available evidence does not suggest that sexual selection was the primary driver of sauropod neck elongation. But we also acknowledged that biological structures are almost never single-purpose, and although the long necks of sauropods probably evolved to help them gather more food, there is no reason that long necks couldn’t have been co-opted as social billboards. This seems especially likely in Apatosaurus, where the neck length is unremarkable** but the neck fatness is frankly bizarre (and even inspired a Star Wars starfighter!).

I also love the “mobile ecosystem” of birds, other small dinosaurs, and insects riding on this Apatosaurus or following in its train. It’s a useful reminder that we have no real idea what effect millions of sauropods would have on the landscape. But it’s not hard to imagine that most Mesozoic terrestrial ecosystems were sauropod-driven in a thousand cascading and ramifying chains of cause and effect. I’d love to know how that worked. At heart, I’m still a wannabe chrononaut, and all my noodlings on pneumaticity and sauropod nerves and neural spines and so on are just baby steps toward trying to understand sauropod lives. Safari by way of pedantry: tally-ho!

For other speculative apatosaurs, see:

* “My” giant is the big Oklahoma Apatosaurus, which I gave a talk on at SVPCA a couple of weeks ago. See these posts for more details (123).

** Assuming we can be blasé about a neck that is more than twice as long (5 m) as a world-record giraffe neck (2.4 m), for garden variety Apatosaurus, or three times that length for the giant Oklahoma Apatosaurus (maybe 7 m).

Last Sunday I got to hang out with Brian Engh and some of his friends in LA. You may remember Brian from thisthis, this, this, and, most notoriously, this. We got to drawing dinosaurs, naturally.

Now, for me to try to draw dinosaurs next to Brian is more than a little intimidating. I really felt the need to bring my A-game. So this is what I came up with. I’m posting it not because I think it is particularly likely* but because the blog has been a little sauropod-lite this summer, and heck, it’s Friday.

Engh-ed out brachiosaur

* Although frigatebirds and anoles and such might have some things to say about that.

Trust me, you want to click for the full effect.

Trust me, you want to click for the full effect.

This post is just an excuse for me to show off Brian Engh’s entry for the All Yesterdays contest (book here, contest–now closed–here). The title is a reference to this post, by virtue of which I fancy myself at least a spear-carrier in what I will grandly refer to as the All Yesterdays Movement.

Oddly enough, I don’t have a ton to say about this; I think Brian has already explained the thinking behind the piece sufficiently on his own blog. In the brave new world of integumentarily enhanced ornithodirans, these diamantinasaurs are certainly interesting but not particularly outlandish (Brian’s already done outlandish). And it’s pretty darned hard to argue that sauropods never went into caves, although I can’t off the top of my head think of any previous spelunking sauropods (I’m not counting Baylene in Disney’s Dinosaur; feel free to refresh my memory of others in the comments). The glowworms are not proven, but biogeographically and stratigraphically plausible, which is probably as good as we’re going to get given the fossilization potential of bioluminescence.

I’m much more excited about this as a piece of art. I got to see a lot of the in-progress sketches and they were wonderful, with some very tight, detailed pencil-work. The danger in investing that kind of effort is that then you’re tempted to show it off, and if I had any worry about the finished piece, it was that it would be over-lit to show off all the details. But it isn’t. I can tell you from seeing the pencil sketches that the detail went all the way down, but Brian was brave enough to let some of that go, especially on the animals’ legs, to get the lighting effect right. My favorite touches are the reflections in the water, and the fallen pillar in the foreground–toppled by a previous visitor, perhaps–with new mineral deposits already forming on it.

All in all, it takes me back to the best paleoart from my childhood, which made me think, “Wow, these were not monsters or aliens, they were real animals, as real, and as mundane in their own worlds, as deer and coyotes and jackrabbits.” * **

And that’s pretty cool. What do you think?

———-

* Okay, maybe not  in those exact words. I am translating a feeling I had when I was nine through 28 years of subsequent experience and vocabulary expansion.

** My major discovery in the last two decades is that deer and coyotes and jackrabbits are just as exotic as dinosaurs, if only you learn to really see them. And before Mike jumps me for saying that, I said ‘just as exotic’, not ‘just as awesome‘.

UPDATE the next day

If you thought the glowworms were unrealistic–and at least one commenter did–check these out (borrowed from here, pointed out by Brian):

NZ121877D6

NZ121864D6

That’s game, set, and match on the glowworm issue.

Fuzzy Apato Juvenile by Niroot

Well, this is rad. And adorable. Brian Switek, whom we adore, commissioned a fuzzy juvenile sauropod from Niroot, whom we adore, for his (Brian’s) upcoming book, My Beloved Brontosaurus, which I am gearing up to adore. And here is the result, which I adore, borrowed with permission from Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs.

There is much to like here. Here’s my rundown:

  • Small forefeet that are the correct shape: good. Maybe too small, given that young animals often have big feet. But better too small than too big, given how often people screw this up.
  • Pronounced forelimb-hindlimb disparity: win.
  • Fat neck: pretty good.

In fact, let me interrupt the flow of praise here to put in Brant Bassam’s dorsal view of his mounted Phil Platt model Apatosaurus skeleton. I’ve been meaning to post about this for a while now and haven’t gotten to it, so now’s a good time: just look at how friggin’ FAT that neck is, and how it blends in with the body, and how the tail gets a lot skinnier a lot quicker (and, yeah, caudofemoralis, but not that much).  Now, go look at a bunch of life restorations of Apatosaurus–drawings, paintings, sculptures, toys, whatever–and see how many people get this wrong, by giving Apatosaurus a too-skinny neck. The answer is, damn near everyone.

Apatosaurus lousiae 1/12 scale skeleton in dorsal view, modelled by Phil Platt, assembled and photographed by Brant Bassam. Image courtesy of BrantWorks.com.

Apatosaurus lousiae 1/12 scale skeleton in dorsal view, modelled by Phil Platt, assembled and photographed by Brant Bassam. Image courtesy of BrantWorks.com.

Okay, back to Niroot’s baby:

  • Proportionally shorter neck and tail because it’s a juvenile: win.
  • Neck wrinkles possibly corresponding to vertebrae: okay, just this once.
  • Greenish fuzz possibly functioning as camouflage: We-ell

Yes, it’s true that all of the known sauropod skin impressions show scales, not fuzz. But. We don’t have anything like full-body coverage. And I suspect that there is a collection bias against fuzzy skin impressions. Scaly skin impressions are probably easier to recognize than 3D feathery skin impressions (as opposed to feathers preserved flat as at Liaoning and Solnhofen) because the latter probably just look like wavy patterns on rock, and who is looking for feather impressions when swinging a pickaxe at a sauropod’s back end? And how many sauropods get buried in circumstances delicate enough to preserve dinofuzz anyway? Also, some kind of fuzz is probably primitive for Ornithodira, and scales do not necessarily indicate that feathers were absent because owl legs. So is this speculative? Yes. Is it out of the question? I think not. In the spirit of Mythbusters, I’m calling it ‘plausible’.

Oh, one more thing: Niroot posted this in honor of Brian Switek’s birthday. Happy birthday, Brian! (You owe me a book!)

BrontomerusRoughWeb From field correspondent Brian Engh:

A Brontomerus on the edge of a jumbled forest of partially knocked over trees. While I won’t be finishing this particular drawing I decided I want to develop this idea a bit further – I think it would be cool to show a group of brontomeri rearing and grazing on the edge of a forest where a lot of the trees are leaning and show signs of heavy grazing, particularly by giants who rear up, bear hug them and rip down their branches. I’m talking tore-up bark around hand-claw height, trees that are growing bent, but then straighten up above max-bronto height, and maybe a constellation of camptosaurs and pterosaurs living around the brontos for food and protection… anyway, just an idea. Any thoughts?

Yeah. I judge it rad. And plausible. I love the heavy texturing on Bronto and the way the background is simple and evocative at the same time. I like the idea of a forest modified by sauropods for their use. I would like to see more plants damaged by sauropods (but still surviving)–and vice versa. For the proposed full version, the camptosaurs will have to be replaced by tenontosaurs, this being the Early Cretaceous. But they’re both ornithopods, so probably no one will know or care.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure Brian wants genuine feedback, and not just predictable gushing from yours truly. The comment field is open.

Bonus Engh sketch: a rearing Miragaia. Rearing Miragaia by Brian Engh

A few months ago, Matt and Darren saw a picture someone had done of an Apatosaurus with huge neck-flaps. Since they, they’ve tried to find it again but without success. Then, happily, I stumbled across it in this All Yesterdays review, so here it is:

tumblr_mdqur507GE1rgw4eto1_500

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much about it. I know it’s the work of Emiliano Troco, but I’ve not been able to find his web-site, nor a description of the piece, nor a version in a decent resolution. So all we have to go on at the moment is this thumbnail. If you know more, please leave a comment!

Is it credible? Who’s to say? The one thing we know for certain about Apatosaurus is that it had truly crazy cervical vertebrae, unlike those of any other animal. In our recent arXiv paper, we wrote:

It is difficult to see the benefit in Apatosaurus excelsus of cervical ribs held so far below the centrum – an arrangement that seems to make little sense from any mechanical perspective, and may have to be written off as an inexplicable consequence of sexual selection or species recognition.

It certainly seems to have been doing something weird with its neck. It’s no obvious why big flaps like these would require honking great cervicals ribs to hang down from, but maybe it was swinging them around or something?

[We've featured bizarrely ornamented sauropods here before, notably Brian Engh's pouch-throated Sauroposeidon.]

[Note added in press: Matt published his last post just as I was finishing this one up, so I am posting it without having read his beyond seeing that he also mentions All Yesterdays.]

It was back at the Lyme Regis SVPCA in 2011 that I first saw the material that’s now available as the new palaeoart book All Yesterdays [amazon.comamazon.co.uk]. It was the first talk of the conference, billed as an ice-breaker, and presented by John Conway with typical eccentricity using an old-fashioned slide-projector. In a pub.

In his talk, Conway presented beautiful paintings he had done of extinct animals — mostly dinosaurs — restored in ways very different from what we’re used to seeing.

Conway’s stated goal was to make the animals look as unconventional as possible – consistent with his speculations not actually being contradicted by the evidence. The result was a sequence of strangely beautiful and very memorable images.

You could argue that a pub in a seaside town on the first night of a conference is not the ideal time and place to launch a dozen novel palaeobiological hypotheses, but actually I suspect it worked well. As best I remember, the general response to the presentation was a lot of laughter, and some dismissive head-shaking, but also some thoughtful nodding — people thinking to themsleves “that might not be too far off, actually”.

And so we saw lekking elasmosaurs, their necks extending vertically into the air; we saw camarasaurs rolling in the mud like elephants; we saw tree-climbing goat-mimic protoceratopsids; we saw therizinosaurus looking more like triffids than dinosaurs. Lots of ideas, most of them perfectly reasonable but — it maybe seemed at the time — a little far-fetched.

Having opened SVPCA 2011 with his All Yesterdays presentation, it fell to Conway to close 2012’s meeting with All Todays — a complementary talk in which he showed paintings of modern animals as they might be reconstructed by far-future palaeontologists if they had only fossilised bones to work from.

So we had shrink-wrapped reptilian-looking cats, their jugal arches picked out in dermal scutes; we had hornless rhinos with sails; we had vultures reconstructed not with feathers (who would even come with such an idea, if we didn’t have modern birds as a reference point?) but with a much more obvious wing construction — a simple membrane.

Again, the timing of the talk encouraged delegates to see it as something lighthearted — a dessert to follow all the solid meat of the main sessions. But a few months on, now that the ideas have had time to percolate, they seem to me to be much more powerful. All Todays was an important reframing of All Yesterdays, a demonstration of just how easy it can be to misinterpret fossils — or, rather, to misinterpret live animals when working from fossils. In light of the shrink-wrapped cat, the fat Parasaurolophus from the earlier presentation seemed much more believable. In light of the naked-skinned vulture, the little-ball-of-fluff Leallynosaura didn’t feel like a stretch.

That’s why I am particularly delighted that the new book combines John Conway’s art  from both of these presentations (along with new pieces and text by Memo Kosemen, an introduction by Darren Naish and skeletal reconstructions by Scott Hartman). They belong together, complementing each other and making the whole more than the sum of its parts.

What’s happening here is in fact something much more significant than fodder for beer-fuelled discussions. It’s nothing less than a radical and wholly feasible re-imagining of prehistoric life. The quick, agile dinosaurs illustrated by Bakker and his followers in the late 1960s and 1970s revolutionised the ponderous image that had been perpetuated by Knight, Zallinger and Burian. But Bakkerian dinosaurs quickly became a new orthodoxy, adhered to just as strongly as the old had been. The Jurassic Park raptors of 1993 were direct descendants of Bakker’s 1969 drawing (above). And although details have changed since then — orientation of the hands, the addition of feathers — the general body shape has survived largely unchanged in all nearly all palaeoart.

It takes art as radical as that of All Yesterdays to show us just how locked-in we have all become to the Bakker-and-Paul school of life restoration. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that Conway’s work is the first truly new approach to depicting extinct animals since Bakker’s — which means that All Yesterdays is not only the most beautiful but also the most important palaeoart book of the last four decades. Up to this point in history, we’ve had two dynasties of dinosaur art. I think All Yesterdays is the launch of the third.

And it is beautiful. There are some superb palaeoartists working in the field at the moment — it’s never been more dynamic and, in the best sense, competitive. But while the work even of some excellent practitioners is rather interchangeable, Conway’s work is always instantly recognisable because he is an artist first and a palaeoartist second. Others may be more accomplished or have better technique, but for my money Conway’s palaeoart has an evocative and even poignant quality that is very rare, maybe unique.

Of course, none of this is to say that all the speculation in All Yesterdays is correct. But the crucial point is this: neither is the speculation in all the other palaeoart of the last forty years. It encodes assumptions and speculations just as much as Conway’s does: but those assumptions and speculations have been invisible precisely because they have been so ubiquitous. Part of the value of All Yesterdays is that it gives us a proper perspective, for the first time, on ideas that we’ve accepted too readily through repetition and lack of challenge. So even when All Yesterdays is wrong, it performs a valuable function. Hopefully it will push the second-dynasty artists to raise their games.

Anyone who loves dinosaurs, science or art will find this book intensely rewarding. Anyone who loves all three will find it a necessity. Enthusiasts will probably want a printed copy rather than the e-Book.

The more I think about All Yesterdays, the more I think it’s the book of which, in 20 years’ time, freshly minted Ph.Ds being interviewed on blogs will say “That was the book that got me started as a kid.”
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