This past weekend I was camping up the coast at Hearst San Simeon State Park, with my son, London, and Brian Engh.

We went to see the elephant seal colony at Piedras Blancas. It was my first time seeing elephant seals in the wild. Not having done any research in advance, I was expecting something like this:

In other words, a small number of elephant seals, not doing much, basically at binocular distance from the viewing area. Obviously we did get some of that, since I have a picture of it. But that was up the coast a bit, at the start of Boucher Trail near the Piedras Blancas lighthouse.

We spent most of our time at the main Piedras Blancas rookery, where just the southeastern half of the viewing area looked – and sounded – like this:

We also saw a lot of this (semi-groady iPhone-through-binocular shot by me):

and even some of this (much nicer photo courtesy of Brian Engh):

I’ll have a lot more to say about this real soon, including more video, but it’s late and I need sleep. Stay tuned!


When I was nine, a copy of Don Glut’s The New Dinosaur Dictionary turned up in my local Waldenbooks. It wasn’t my first dinosaur book, by far – I’d been a dinosaurophile since the age of three. But The New Dinosaur Dictionary was different.

Up to that point, I had subsisted on a heavy diet of kids’ dino books and the occasional article in National Geographic and Ranger Rick. The kids’ books were aimed at kids and the magazine articles were pitched at an engagingly popular level. I didn’t understand every word, but they were clearly written for curious layfolk, not specialists.

A typical spread from The New Dinosaur Dictionary (Glut, 1982). The armored sauropod blew my young mind.

The New Dinosaur Dictionary was something else entirely. It had photos of actual dinosaur bones and illustrations of skeletons with cryptic captions like, “Skeleton of Daspletosaurus torosus. (After Russell)”. Okay, clearly this Russell cove was out there drawing dinosaur skeletons and this book had reproduced some of them. But nobody I knew talked like that, and the books I had access to up to that point held no comparable language.

The New Dinosaur Dictionary (Glut, 1982: p. 271)

Then there was stuff like this: “The so-called Von Hughenden sauropod restored as a brachiosaurid by Mark Hallett”. A chain of fascinating and pleasurable ideas detonated in my brain. “The so-called” – say what now? Nobody even knew what to call this thing? Somehow I had inadvertently sailed right to the edge of human knowledge of dinosaurs, and was peering out into taxa incognita. “Restored as a brachiosaurid” – so this was just one of several possible ways that the animal might have looked. Even the scientists weren’t sure. This was a far cry from the bland assurances and blithely patronizing tones of all my previous dinosaur books.

“By Mark Hallett.” I didn’t know who this Hallett guy was, but his art was all over the book, along with William Stout and some guy named Robert T. Bakker and a host of others who were exploding my conception of what paleo art could even be. Anyway, this Mark Hallett was someone to watch, not only because he got mentioned by name a lot, but because his art had a crisp quality that teetered on some hypercanny ridge between photorealism and scribbling. His sketches looked like they might just walk off the page.

In case that line about scribbling sounds dismissive: I have always preferred sketches by my favorite artists to their finished products. The polished works are frequently inhumanly good. They seem to have descended in a state of completed perfection from some divine realm, unattainable by mere mortals. Whereas sketches give us a look under the hood, and show how a good artist can conjure light, shadow, form, weight, and texture from a few pencil strokes. Put it this way: I am anatomist by temperament first, and by training and occupation second. Of course I want to see how things are put together.

The New Dinosaur Dictionary (Glut, 1982: p. 75)

Anyway, The New Dinosaur Dictionary was something completely new in my experience. It wasn’t aimed at kids and written as if by kids, like lots of kids’ books. It wasn’t even written by adults talking down (deliberately or inadvertently) to kids, or trying to reach a wide audience that might include kids. It was written by an adult, aiming at other adults. And it was admitting in plain language that we didn’t know everything yet, that there were lots of animals trembling on the outer threshold of scientific knowledge. I didn’t understand half of it – I was down in an ontogenetic trench, looking up as these packets of information exploded like fireworks over my head.

In Seeing In the Dark, the best book about why you should go out stargazing for yourself, Timothy Ferris writes about growing up on Florida’s Space Coast in the early 1960s, and watching the first generation of artificial satellites pass overhead:

I felt like an ancient lungfish contemplating the land from the sea. We could get up there.

That’s precisely the effect that The New Dinosaur Dictionary had on me: I could get up there. Maybe not immediately. But there were steps, bodies of knowledge that could be mastered piecemeal, and most of all, mysteries to be resolved. The book itself was like a sketch, showing how from isolated and broken bones and incomplete skeletons, scientists and artists reconstructed the world of the past, one hypothesis at a time. Now I take it for granted, because I’ve been behind the curtain for a couple of decades. But to my 9-year-old self, it was revolutionary.

This has all come roaring back because of something that came in the mail this week. Or rather, something that had been waiting in the mailroom for a while, that I finally picked up this week: a package from Mark Hallett, enclosing a copy of his 2018 dinosaur calendar. And also this:


An original sketch, which he gave to me as a Christmas present. The published version appears on one of the final pages of our book, where we discuss the boundaries between the known – the emerging synthesis of sauropod biology that we hoped to bring to a broader audience by writing the book in the first place – and the unknown – the enduring mysteries that Mark and I think will drive research in sauropod paleobiology for the next few decades. Presented without a caption or commentary, the sketch embodies sauropods as we see them: emerging from uncertainty and ignorance one hard-won line at a time, with ever-increasing solidity.

Thank you, Mark, sincerely. That sketch, what it evokes, both for me now and for my inner 9-year-old – you couldn’t have chosen a better gift. And I couldn’t be happier. Except perhaps to someday learn that our book exploded in the mind of a curious kid the way that The New Dinosaur Dictionary did for me 34 years ago, a time that now seems as distant and romantic as the primeval forests of the Mesozoic.

Matt just commented to me: “One thing I am realizing is that I have loads(*) of cleaned-up, ready-to-post photos in old talks, that I’ve never posted.”

I too have that experience. The problem is, they tend to be sized for a 1280×960 projector screen, which is not really good enough for modern illustrations. A useful rule of thumb is that if you want to be able to print at 300 dpi across the active area of a sheet of A4 — (which is 8.27 inches minus 2-cm margins each side, for a usable width of 6.69 inches), you need horizontal resolution of at least 2007 pixels. But you really want to go much bigger than that, since online journals can provide much better resolution than even the best printed journals.

Now, whenever I create an image for a talk or poster, I consider up front if I will one day want to publish it. If so, I make it at full-size, and only shrink the render.

One of our problems in the sciences is that we work in five different media (at least, I do): in roughly ascending order of formality:

  1. Blogs
  2. Talks
  3. Posters
  4. Preprints
  5. Papers

Not everything moves well between those forms. We learned from experience that translating the text of even quite formal blog-posts into prose for a paper is a serious piece of work. The good news is that illustrations are largely identical between all these forms: the hard work of preparing clean multiviews from photos need be done only once, and the later more formal versions need only the additions of scalebars and suchlike.

The moral of this story is very simple: always prepare illustrations in the highest resolution you will ever need, and in full colour. You can reduce resolution later, or reduce to greyscale; but if you prepare at low resolution or in greyscale, you can’t increase resolution later or add colour.


(*) He actually said “assloads”, but I censored it for this blog.

Hey sports fans, as the year winds down I bring you another podcast appearance. This time out I’m rolling with Mark Hallett, and we’re talking about sauropods through the lens of our still-plausibly-somewhat-newish book, The Sauropod Dinosaurs: Life in the Age of Giants, on the I Know Dino podcast. Many thanks to Sabrina and Garret for having us on the show. While you’re on that page, check out the nice preview of Mark’s 2018 dinosaur calendar, which is available at Pomegranate and Amazon.

The photo shows the Diplodocus carnegii cast mounted in the natural history museum in Vienna, one of Andrew Carnegie’s gifts to the world. A happy seasonal metaphor, sez me. Hope your new year is equally happy!

Here’s a bunch of cool stuff that is either available now or happening soon:

Sauropod Dinosaurs book excerpt in Prehistoric Times

Been on the fence about the sauropod book Mark Hallett and I wrote? Now you can try before you buy – our chapter on titanosaurs is reprinted in the new issue of Prehistoric Times magazine. I know it’s on newsstands because I picked it up at the local Barnes & Noble yesterday. You can also buy the issue from the PT website, physically or in digital form, solo or as part of a subscription. Many thanks to PT editor and publisher Mike Fredericks for the visibility, the staff at Johns Hopkins University Press for permission, and most of all to Mark Hallett for making it happen. We hope you enjoy it.

Get more sauropods in Mark Hallett’s 2018 dinosaur calendar

Mark has a dinosaur calendar out from Pomegranate, and I’m happy to say that sauropods are featured 5 out of 12 months. The calendar has a nice mix of Hallett classics and some newer works, including the cover art from our book, as shown above. Get it direct from Pomegranate or from Amazon.

Vicki’s public talk on forensic anthropology in December

My better half, anthropologist and author Vicki Wedel, is giving a public talk about her work on the evening of Thursday, December 14, at the Western Science Center in Hemet, California. Her title will be, “Bones, ballistics, and blunt force trauma.” I assume the talk will start at 6:00, but check the WSC website for details. The painted skull above is from the natural history museum in Vienna, and it doesn’t have any connection to the talk other than Vicki thought it was rad and I needed a skull to illustrate the post. For more on Vicki and her work, see these posts: cold case, book.


UPDATE: Final details on Vicki’s talk are out. It will start at 6:00, she’ll be signing copies of her book, Broken Bones: Anthropological Analysis of Blunt Force Trauma, and admission is $5.

My public talk on sauropods and whales in January

In January it will be my turn to give a talk at the Western Science Center. I’m on for the evening of Thursday, January 18. Title is not quite finalized but it will probably something along the lines of, “Dinosaurs versus whales: what is the largest animal of all time, and how do we know?” That’s me with the gray whale skeleton at Long Marine Lab in Santa Cruz, back in 2006. I was helping Nick Pyenson measure whales, back when we were both grad students. Ancient blog posts about that here: gray, blue.

See me in Seattle at Norwescon over Easter weekend

If you want to see me star-struck, come to Norwescon, home of the Philip K. Dick Award, next spring, where I’ll be rubbing shoulders with some vastly more famous people. Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award winner Ken Liu will be the Writer Guest of Honor, legendary SF&F visionary Wayne Douglas Barlowe Hugo- and World Fantasy Award-winning artist Galen Dara will be the Artist Guest of Honor, Green Ronin is the Spotlight Publisher, and, er, I will be the Science Guest of Honor. Yes, I’m alert to both the honor and the incongruity of the thing. When I’m not Freaking. Out. about hanging with two of my favorite creators, I’ll probably be giving talks on dinosaurs and astronomy (my other thing) and participating on some panels and signing books. I’ll try not to disappoint.

In writing the recent preprint “Xenoposeidon is the earliest known rebbachisaurid sauropod dinosaur” (Taylor 2017), it was invaluable to have a 3D model of the Xenoposeidon vertebra available. Here’s a short clip of viewing the model in the free MeshLab program. (It’s well worth full-screening to get the full impact.)

As I pan around, I look first at the upper margin of the posterior articular facet of the centrum, showing how the posterior margin of the neural arch shades into it — something that is not really apparent from photos, but needs the shifting perspectives that 3D offers to eliminate the interpretation that this contiguous border is due to damage.

Then I zoom in on the complex of laminae at the top of the left side of the neural arch, and explore the shapes of the intersections (ACPL with lateral CPRL, and PCDL with CPOL).

Finally I look at the distinctive sets of laminae on the anterior face of the vertebra which enclose the big, teardrop shaped centroparapophyseal fossa: lateral CPOL coming in from the lateral face of the arch, medial CPOL emerging from the pedicels, and the additional arched laminae that bound the space.

It’s just great to be able to do this. Time and again as I was preparing that manuscript, I went back to the model to check some detail — much as, twenty years earlier, Matt kept driving into the OMNH late at night to look at the Sauroposeidon holotype, to check out some idea he’d had as he worked on the description. The difference is, I didn’t need to drive into Norman, Oklahoma — or even London, England. The idea now of going back to trying to understand fossils from photos seems ridiculous.

A few years back, Matt wrote:

The idea of superseding photographs with 3D photogrammetric models is not original. I got religion last week while I was having beers with Martin Sander and he was showing me some of the models he’s made. He said that going forward, he was going to forbid his students to illustrate their specimens only with photographs; as far as he was concerned, now that 3D models could be cheaply and easily produced by just about everyone, they should be the new standard.

I’m totally on board with that, and said as much in the concluding paragraph of the new preprint.

The last thing I want to say here is to acknowledge the enormous amount of help I’ve had from Heinrich Mallison, digitizer extraordinaire at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. He’s invested many, many hours building models for me from my photos, pointing me to programs that I can use to view them, and helping me get started on making my own models. The greatest regret of my palaeontological life is that, when I happened to be in Berlin on 19th November 2008 and Heinrich invited me to come and watch the Germany-England friendly at his place, I couldn’t do it, and missed out on a pretty unique chance to see England beat Germany, in Germany, with a German. I doubt that chance will come up again any time soon.

I leave you with EmperorDinobot‘s life restoration of Xenoposeidon, which I stumbled across a few days ago. Obviously it’s wildly speculative, but I’m cool with that.


  • Taylor, Michael P. 2017. Xenoposeidon is the earliest known rebbachisaurid sauropod dinosaur. PeerJ PrePrints 5:e3415. doi: 10.7287/peerj.preprints.3415 [PDF] [PeerJ page]


(c) Brian Engh and the Western Science Center

Quick hit here: all this week there are mastodon-themed events going on at the Western Science Center in Hemet, including talks from paleontologists and an opening reception this Friday evening, August 4, before the exhibit formally opens to the public on Saturday. There’s a good overview of events at the WSC website here, and a nice post about the science and scientists behind the mastodon-fest at the PLOS Paleo Community blog here.

(c) Brian Engh and the Western Science Center

I’m slapping Brian Engh’s art all over this post because one of the coolest things going this week will be the unveiling of Brian’s life-size painting of two fighting mastodons, which will cover one wall of the main paleo exhibit area at WSC (see also: Brian’s blog, Patreon page, and paleoart YouTube channel). Modern elephants use their tusks to do battle, and we have compelling evidence that fossil proboscideans did so as well, like the famous fighting mammoths of Crawford, Nebraska. One of the WSC mastodons, nicknamed Max, has several partially healed pathologies on his jaw that might be wounds from combat.

(c) Brian Engh and the Western Science Center

There are loads of other mastodons at the Western Science Center, and there’s going to be a lot of mastodon science going on this week, so head on out if you are in the area and interested in big dead things. I’ll be there myself, at least on Friday evening, not as a professional paleontologist but as a fan of proboscideans, Ice Age megafauna, Inland Empire science, and awesome paleo-art. I hope to see you there.

(c) Brian Engh and the Western Science Center