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):



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:


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 that 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.”

Another blast from the past:

Like the recent Compsognathus, this is a card from the “Flesh” card-game that was printed across several progs (issues) of the comic 2000 AD in 1977. This one is from the back cover of Prog 10. (Click through the picture for the whole back cover.)

What’s interesting about this one is how very flagrant a rip-off it is of Rudolph Zallinger’s 1960 painting of Brontosaurus being attacked by Allosaurus:

I know this painting best from Dinosaurs and other Prehistoric Reptiles, a 1966 book that I had as a boy, and which I believe is the same thing as the Giant Golden Book of Dinosaurs. Here is a high-resolution scan of my copy of that book, pages 24-25. (Click through for 5472 by 3669 version.)

And while I’m here, I may as well throw in my scan of the “Brachiosaurus” (i.e. Giraffatitan)on pages 20-21. (Click through for 5431 by 3162 version.)

I will leave it to others to point out which other classic piece of sauropod art this one plagiarises.

Here’s a blast from the past:

This alleged Compsognathus is a card from the “Flesh” card-game that was printed across several progs (issues) of the comic 2000 AD in 1977. This one is from the back cover of Prog 9. (Click through the picture for the whole back cover.)

“Flesh” was one of the half-dozen or so stories that appeared each week in those early months of 2000 AD. It was the story of how cowboys of the future travelled back to the Mesozoic to harvest dinosaurs for their meat, and was the subject of Jeff Liston’s chapter in the recentish Geological Society volume on the history of dinosaur research.

Compsognathus made another pop-culture appearance in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, of course, as the cute little “compys” that tear one of the nastier human characters to pieces.

Why does the 2000 AD Compsognathus have actinopterygian-like fins for arms? According to Wikipedia, The idea comes from Bidar et al. (1972), who supposed that the French specimen had webbed forefeet, which would look like flippers in life — an idea illustrated as part of a larger scene by Halstead (1975):

John Ostrom’s (1978) Compsognathus monograph showed that this was nonsense, but of course that was too late for the early issues of 2000 AD.


Bidar, A.; Demay L., Thomel G. 1972. Compsognathus corallestris, une nouvelle espèce de dinosaurien théropode du Portlandien de Canjuers (Sud-Est de la France). Annales du Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle de Nice 1:9–40.

Halstead L.B. 1975. The evolution and ecology of the dinosaurs. Eurobook. ISBN 0-85654-018-8.

Ostrom, J.H. 1978. The osteology of Compsognathus longipesZitteliana 4:73–118.

Update 1 (the next day)

In a comment below, Andrea Cau points to this post on his blog Theropoda (“the most inclusive blog containing Allosaurus fragilis but not Saltasaurus loricatus) which contains two more flippered-Compsognathus illustrations. Here they are: one from David Lambert’s book Dinosaur! …

… and one from David Norman’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs.

Update 2 (two days later)

Silly me, I should of course have posted Bidar et al.’s (1972) own life restoration of Compsognathus. It’s not great art, but it’s … actually, I’m not sure what it is. But anyway, here it is:

Attempted reconstruction of attitudes of Compsognathus corallestris nov. sp. A, erect stance (walking); B, sitting (inspired by O. Abel); C, Swimming; D, Diving. (Bidar et al. 1972:figure 21)


Friday evening I was in a pub with Mike, Darren, John Conway, and Emma Lawlor. We were killing time waiting for the Pink Giraffe Chinese restaurant down the street to open. I was chatting with John about “All Todays”, his speculative presentation with Cevdet Kosemen (a.k.a. Nemo Ramjet) on how future sentients might reconstruct Holocene animals if they were known only from fossils. Like his “All Yesterdays” presentation last year, John’s flights of scientific fancy had fired my imagination and gotten me thinking about how paleontology forms sort of a skin or membrane between the bubble of what we know and the surrounding ocean of what we don’t. I decided that we should pass a pad around and each sketch a speculative sauropod.

My own entry is based on the holotype of Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis, which was found almost complete except for the skull (naturally) and forelimbs. I have often joked that diplodocids were basically bipeds whose forelimbs happened to reach the ground. Mamenchisaurs were probably not that back-heavy, but their presacral vertebrae were extremely pneumatic and if our hypothetical future paleontologists had no other sauropod material to work with, I think it’s possible that they would reconstruct the M. hochuanensis holotype as a biped.

I’m not sure there’s much to say about Mike’s brachiosaur, beyond the Ebert-like observation that if a brachiosaur dressed up in a coat and top hat and went cruising for dames, this, I am forced to conclude, is more or less how it would look.

John Conway also drew a mamenchisaur, this time Mamenchisaurus youngi with its bizarrely bent-back sacrum. John’s explanation for the weird sacrum brings to mind ground sloths and–for those who saw “All Yesterdays” at SVPCA 2011–a certain black-feathered therizinosaur. I’d also like to note that he knocked this out in about 5 minutes, thus demonstrating the difference between a professional artist and a mere doodler like myself.

Darren’s hindlimb-less sauropod complements my bipedal Mamenchisaurus. Here the animal, evidently known from only the front half of the skeleton, has been restored as a giant bird. Dig the giant thumb claws and spreading metapodials. Surely, you say, future paleontologists of any species or machine culture would know a pectoral girdle when they saw one. But I’ll bet a sauropod scapulocoracoid could pass for an ilium, if said future paleontologists were still in the early stages of understanding the morphology and diversity of vertebrates. Remember that Seeley described the sauropod Ornithopsis as “a gigantic animal of the pterodactyle kind” based on its pneumatic vertebrae. There is also a long and honorable (?) tradition of mistaking sauropods for hadrosaurs (Sonorasaurus), theropods (Bruhathkayosaurus), and tree trunks (Sauroposeidon), so don’t be too quick to rule this out.

What I want to see next is a skeletal reconstruction of Darren’s sauro-bird, using only elements from the front half of a sauropod skeleton. Anyone want to give it a shot?

Our penultimate entry is Emma’s rendering of an evil bastard snake devouring an innocent baby sauropod. Tragically this one is not speculative–we have very good fossil evidence that the scene shown here really happened, probably a lot. She tried to make it up to us with a smiley face on the next page, but it was too late. We were so depressed after this that we could barely choke down four courses of excellent Chinese food.

One more for the road: a totally new depiction of the enigmatic sauropod Xenoposeidon by yours truly. I expect to see this incorporated into future talks and papers dealing with European sauropod diversity in the Early Cretaceous. Just credit me as you normally would.

That’s all, folks. I hope that speculative sauropod sketches get to be a Thing, and that we see lots more of them from future conferences.


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