November 29, 2012
[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.com, amazon.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.
October 18, 2012
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.
October 2, 2012
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 longipes. Zitteliana 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:
September 18, 2012
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.
September 5, 2012
Another recent paper (part 1 is here) with big implications for my line of work: D’Emic and Foreman (2012), “The beginning of the sauropod dinosaur hiatus in North America: insights from the Lower Cretaceous Cloverly Formation of Wyoming.” In it, the authors sink Paluxysaurus into Sauroposeidon and refer a bunch of Cloverly material to Sauroposeidon as well. So in one fell swoop Sauroposeidon goes from being one of the most poorly represented Early Cretaceous North American sauropods, based on just four vertebrae from a single individual, to one of the best-known, most complete, and most widespread, based on at least seven individuals from Texas, Oklahoma, and Wyoming.
The web of connections among the different sets of material is complex, and involves the Sauroposeidon holotype OMNH 53062 from the Antlers Formation of southeastern Oklahoma, the type and referred material of Paluxysaurus from the Twin Mountains Formation of northern Texas described by Rose (2007), sauropod material from the Cloverly Formation of north-central Wyoming described and illustrated by Ostrom (1970), and UM 20800, a scap and coracoid newly excavated from one of Ostrom’s old quarries. D’Emic and Foreman argue that (1) the Cloverly material is referable to Sauroposeidon based on the shared derived characters of a juvenile cervical, YPM 5294, and the Sauroposeidon holotype, and (2) Paluxysaurus is not distinguishable from the Cloverly material and in fact shares several autapomorphies with the Cloverly sauropod. Which means that (3) Paluxysaurus is Sauroposeidon.
But that’s not all! All the new material suggests different phylogenetic affinities for Sauroposeidon. Instead of a brachiosaurid, it is now posited to be a basal somphospondyl. That’s not super-surprising; as we noted back in 2000 (Wedel et al. 2000), if Sauroposeidon was a brachiosaurid it had evolved some features in parallel with titanosaurs, most notably the fully camellate internal structure of the cervical vertebrae. And it also makes sense because other basal somphospondyls include Erketu and Qiaowanlong, the cervicals of which are similar to Sauroposeidon in some features. D’Emic and Foreman (2012) cite a forthcoming paper by Mike D’Emic in the Journal of Systematic Paleontology that contains the cladistic analysis backing all this up, but the case based on comparative anatomy is already pretty strong.
If anyone is unconvinced by all of these referrals, please bear in mind that we haven’t heard the whole story yet, quite probably for reasons that are outside of the authors’ control. I am inclined to be patient because I have been in that situation myself: Wedel (2003a) was intended to stand on the foundation of evidence laid down by Wedel (2003b), but because of the vagaries of publication schedules at two different journals, the interpretive paper beat the descriptive one into press by a couple of months.
Anyway, if anyone wants my opinion as “Mr. Sauroposeidon“, I think the work of D’Emic and Foreman (2012) is solid and the hypothesis that Paluxysaurus is Sauroposeidon is reasonable. So, if I think it’s reasonable now, why didn’t I synonymize the two myself? Partly because I thought there was a pretty good chance the two were not the same, based mostly on FWMSH 93B-10-8 (which I referred to as FWMSH “A” in Wedel 2003b, since I had only seen in on display without a specimen number), which I thought looked a lot more like a titanosaur cervical than a brachiosaur cervical. But of course I thought Sauroposeidon was a brachiosaur until a couple of months ago, and if it ain’t, and if brachiosaurs and basal somphospondyls have similar cervicals, that objection is considerably diminished. And partly because I’ve had other things to be getting on with, and stopping everything else to spend what would realistically be a few months looking into a possible synonymy (that I didn’t strongly suspect) wasn’t feasible in terms of time or geography. So I’m glad that D’Emic and Foreman have done that work, and I’m excited about the new things they’ve uncovered.
And I’m honored to bring you a new life restoration of Sauroposeidon by uber-talented Bob Nicholls, which we think is the first to show Sauroposeidon in its new guise as a basal somphospondyl. Click through for the mega-awesome version.
Same critter, different views. If anyone wants to GDI this baby, you now have everything you need. Many thanks to Bob for permission to post these and the following making-of images. Please visit him at Paleocreations.com to see a ton of awesome stuff, and give him some love–or at least a few thousand “likes”–on Facebook.
This is Bob’s first foray into 3D modeling, but you’d never know from the quality of his virtual sculpt. And let me tell you, that dude works fast. He sent this initial version, showing Sauroposeidon as an attenuated brachiosaur (sorta like this) on August 23, to solicit comments from Mike and me.
I wrote back and let Bob know about the new work of D’Emic and Foreman, and suggested that he could probably be the first to restore Sauroposeidon as a somphospondyl. Mike and I also voiced our opposition to the starvation-thinned neck, and Mike suggested that the forelimb was too lightly muscled and that the ‘fingers’ were probably too prominent. The very next day, this was in our inboxes:
I wrote back:
Whatever Sauroposeidon was, its neck was fairly tall and skinny in cross-section. It looks like the neck on your model sort of tapers smoothly from the front of the body to the head. I think it would be much narrower, side-to-side, along most of its length, and would have a more pronounced shoulder-step where it met the body.The bottom view is very useful. It shows the forefeet as being about the same size as the hindfeet. AFAIK all or nearly all known sauropod tracks have much bigger hindfeet than forefeet. Certainly that is the case with Brontopodus birdi, the big Early Cretaceous sauropod tracks from Texas that were probably made by Sauroposeidon. The forefeet should be about 75-80% the width of the hindfeet, and only about half a long front-to-back. Even if you don’t quite get to those numbers, shrinking the forefeet a bit and subtly up-sizing the hindfeet would make the model more accurate.
I like how freaky it looks. It looks WRONG, but in a good way.
I had one more change to recommend:
I’m sorry I didn’t suggest this sooner, but it only just now occurred to me. With the referral of Paluxysaurus and the Cloverly material to Sauroposeidon, we now have dorsal vertebrae, and they are loooong, much more similar in proportion to the dorsals of Brachiosaurus altithorax than those of Giraffatitan brancai. So, as much as I like the compact little body on your Sauroposeidon, I think it was probably fairly long in the torso. You probably already have Mike’s Brachiosaurus paper [Taylor 2009] with the skeletal recon showing the long torso–in the absence of an updated skeletal recon for Sauroposeidon, I’d use Mike’s Figure 7 as a guide for reconstructing the general body proportions.
Bob lengthened the torso to produce the final version, which is the first one I showed above. He sent that over on August 29–the delay in getting this post up rests entirely with me.
So. It is still very weird to think of “my” dinosaur as a somphospondyl rather than a brachiosaur. I had 15 years to get used to the latter idea. But suddenly having a lot more material–essentially the whole skeleton, minus some stinkin’ skull bits–is pretty darned exciting, and the badass new life restoration doesn’t hurt, either.
Now, would it be too much to wish for some more Brontomerus?
- D’Emic, M.D., and B.Z. Foreman. 2012. The beginning of the sauropod dinosaur hiatus in North America: insights from the Lower Cretaceous Cloverly Formation of Wyoming. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 32(4): 883-902.
- Ostrom, J.H. 1970. Stratigraphy and paleontology of the Cloverly Formation (Lower Cretaceous) of the Bighorn Basin area, Wyoming and Montana. Peabody Museum Bulletin 35: 1-234.
- Rose, Peter J. 2007. A new titanosauriform sauropod (Dinosauria: Saurischia) from the Early Cretaceous of central Texas and its phylogenetic relationships. Palaeontologia Electronica 10(2): 8A (65 pp.)
- Taylor, Michael P. 2009. A re-evaluation of Brachiosaurus altithorax Riggs 1903 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) and its generic separation from Giraffatitan brancai (Janensch 1914). Journal of Vertebrae Paleontology 29(3): 787-806.
- Wedel, M.J. 2003a. Vertebral pneumaticity, air sacs, and the physiology of sauropod dinosaurs. Paleobiology 29: 243-255.
- Wedel, M.J. 2003b. The evolution of vertebral pneumaticity in sauropod dinosaurs. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 23: 344-357.
- Wedel, M.J., R.L. Cifelli and R.K. Sanders. 2000. Osteology, paleobiology, and relationships of the sauropod dinosaur Sauroposeidon. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 45(4): 343-388.
February 3, 2012
I’m very aware that I’ve been whining incessantly on this blog recently: RWA this, Elsevier that, moan whine complain. So I’m delighted to be able to bring some good news. Mike Keesey’s site PhyloPic.org is back up, in new and improved form, and providing free silhouettes of organisms extincts and extant. To quote the site’s FAQ:
PhyloPic‘s database stores reusable silhouette images of organisms. Each image is associated with one or more taxonomic names and indicates roughly what the ancestral member(s) of each taxon looked like.
PhyloPic also stores a phylogenetic taxonomy of all organisms. This means that you can perform phylogenetic searches. For example, if you need an image for a certain taxon, but there is no exact match in the database, you can easily search that taxon’s supertaxa, subtaxa, and related taxa for an image that may work as well.
For example, there is a page about Giraffatitan brancai, which includes a link to a silhouette by Scott Hartman; and a page about Brachiosaurus altithorax, which has two silhouettes — one by Scott and one by me.
More interestingly, for each taxon, you can ask for an illustrated lineage. For example, the illustrated lineage of Giraffatitan brancai starts with that animal, then works its way up via images for Brachiosauridae, Titanosauriformes, Camarasauromorpha, and continues up through a total of 36 images, finishing up with Holozoa, Cytota and Panbiota.
Better still, because all the images are available to re-use (subject to some restrictions which I’ll discuss below), you’re free to use them to make collages like this one, which Mike Keesey did for our friend Giraffatitan brancai:
One of the great things about this site is that it’s a community effort: Mike built the site and has prepared a good chunk of the artwork so far, but PhyloPic is open to submissions from anyone who cares to register (or to login via Google, Twitter, etc.)
Mike has allowed some latitude in the licences that can be used when images are added. You can currently choose from any of:
- Public Domain Mark 1.0 [for declaring that an image is already PD]
- Public Domain Dedication 1.0 [for putting an image into the PD]
- Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported
- Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported
- Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported
- Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported
That choice is nice for contributing artists, but makes life a bit more awkward for users because any composite artwork has to be licenced under the most restrictive combination of the licences of its parts. In the case of the collage above, because Scott’s Giraffatitan brancai was uploaded as CC-BY-NC-SA, that’s how the whole image ends up, too. This means that if, say, you want to make T-shirts on Cafe Press with this image on them, you’ll have a bit of nightmare figuring out exactly who you need to get permission from.
Mike has to walk a fine line with this. The images would be most useful to the world if they were all public domain and could be remixed, reused and reproduced with no restrictions whatsoever; but you can’t blame artists for wanting to put some limits on this. Yet even when the most permissive non-public domain licence is used (CC-BY), the light requirement that the image must be credited ends up as a heavy requirement when, as with the collage above, you use thirty images that all need to be acknowledged.
Anyway, these are wrinkles. The point is: free, re-usable art! Go and use it; and add to it!
December 2, 2011
- Part 1: intro
- Part 2: the head
- Part 3: the neck
- Part 4: body, tail, limbs, base, and skull
- Part 5: posture
- Part 6: texture and color
First, the objective verdict.
The head has the right shape, shows some underlying structure without being shrink-wrapped, has plenty of soft tissue without being a meat bullet, and is nicely detailed. The same comments apply for the rest of the sculpt, except as noted below. There are lots of nice little touches that show careful attention to the evidence we have for the life appearance of sauropods, as detailed in the previous posts. The base is cool.
The problems are few, and most will escape the attention of all but the most hardcore dino anatomy fiends (OTOH, the most hardcore dino anatomy fiends are probably a big chunk of the target market). The lips or marginal scales covering the teeth are not supported by our current understanding of the available evidence. The number of visible bumps for vertebrae does not add up to the correct presacral count for Apatosaurus–it’s off by probably 2, out of a presacral count of 25. The anterior margin of the thigh does not blend with the ilium as it should. The flipped-back forefoot bothers some paleobiologists but not all. The pose is otherwise fairly orthodox–which might be pro or a con, depending on your point of view. The skull accessory is not as detailed as the maquette and suffers from the comparison, but it’s still decent and a good value for the small additional outlay.
I’ve seen a lot of dinosaur sculptures advertised as ‘museum quality’. This one actually is. In fact–and I am being completely honest here, as I have been throughout–I doubt if I’ve ever seen a scale model of a dinosaur in a museum that could compare to this. My compliments to the artists, sculptor Jorge Blanco and painter Steve Riojas, for an amazing job.
I remember when I first saw Jurassic Park thinking, “Okay, that whole pesky restoring T. rex problem is licked. This is what they looked like.” Eighteen years later–can it really be that long?–I still feel that way. Sure, it’s cool to dress up a rex in wattles and feathers and what have you, maybe tack on a fatter tail, but any such bodywork had better start from the chassis of a JP-style rex. Because the JP rex is built on the real bones, especially the skull. I am familiar with those bones and those skulls, from a lifetime of dino-geekery in general, and six years in the Valley Life Sciences Building at Berkeley in particular. So the JP rexes look like T. rex to me, and all other rexes just look less…real.
In the same way that Jurassic Park fixed my idea of what T. rex looked like, this sculpture crystalizes Apatosaurus for me. As far as I’m concerned, and aside from the relatively minor and unintrusive problems listed above, this is what Apatosaurus looked like, and this maquette is the Apatosaurus representation by which all others should be judged.
Have you ever wished you could give yourself a limited memory wipe and see your favorite movie again for the first time? Or read your favorite book? We value that frisson of surprise so much that we have a word for anything that preempts it: spoiler. It would be nice to be able to revisit some of our favorite things again for the first time, unspoiled.
I have been working on sauropods for a decade and a half. I am still blown away when I stand in front of a big mounted skeleton and think about what such an animal must have been like in life. I cannot help but visualize the organs that filled those immense torsos, and the muscles, vessels, and nerves that moved, plumbed, and wired their bodies. That has not ceased to be a moving experience. But I thought was beyond being surprised by the gross form of sauropods, by their bauplan. I am surrounded by sauropod representations, both 2D and 3D, including those made by others and a few that I have generated myself. How could I possibly be surprised anymore?
And yet, when I look at this sculpture, I am forcibly struck by just how friggin’ weird sauropods are. Mostly it’s the long, fat neck and tiny head, which I know are maximally exaggerated in Apatosaurus. But it just looks wrong. Some primitive mammalian circuit in me rebels at the idea that any animal could need such an immense tube of flesh to serve such a ridiculously small head. I think part of it is the faint ribbing created by the cervical ribs; it makes me think of tentacles, leeches, elephant trunks. I have to consciously remind myself that it was the neck–the neck, with vertebrae and muscles and diverticula and the rest–of a real animal, and not something outlandish invented by a sci-fi author, or moviemaker, or other artist.
And then I think, this must be what other people feel like all the time. And probably how I felt when I was four or five and really grokking sauropods for the first time. I didn’t think I’d feel anything like that about sauropods ever again. So it’s hard for me to be objective about this maquette, because it has reconnected me with the great love of my scientific life, in the most delightfully unexpected way.
I love it. I’m keeping it. Go get your own!