Awesome things, that’s what. In a previous post I asked people to make cool things with Aquilops. And you have. In spades. Here’s a compilation of the best things so far.

Aquilops sketch by Mike Keesey

First, a blast from the past. As far as I know, the first life restoration of Aquilops was actually this sketch by Mike Keesey, which he executed while sitting in the audience for Andy Farke’s talk on our not-yet-named ceratopsian at SVP 2013. Mike kindly sat on it for over a year, and then posted it to his Flickr stream after the paper came out last month. A small adventure ensued – a site called News Maine (which I refuse to link to) used Mike’s image without his knowledge or permission in their Aquilops article. When he wrote to them and pointed out their breach, they swapped his image for one of Brian Engh’s, but still did not provide an image credit! Now their Aquilops article appears to have been taken down entirely. Good riddance.

Mike says of his Aquilops, “I’d like to make it clear that it was done from looking at a slide during a talk and not meant to be rigorous or accurate.” But I dig it (and I did get his permission to repost it!). It has character – it looks weary, maybe a little grumpy, like a pint-size curmudgeon. And it definitely wants you kids to get off its damn lawn. If you want to see more of Mike’s sketches in this style from SVP 2013 – and you should, they’re very good – go here.

Extreme Aquilops papercraft skull by Gareth Monger

Dinosaur skull or starfighter? You decide!

Second, people have taken the paper skull I posted before and used it as the raw material for significantly more awesome versions. Gareth Monger made the more-fully-3D version shown here, and posted about it at his Pteroformer blog. I think it’s totally wicked, and I’d make my own if I had the patience and skill.

Aquilops puppet - Alf museum

But I don’t. Fortunately, there is help for me: Kathy Sanders, the Director of Outreach at the Raymond M. Alf Museum here in Claremont (where Aquilops lead author Andy Farke is based), took my skull drawings and turned them into a papercraft finger puppet suitable for all ages. I know it’s suitable for all ages because at the Alf Museum’s Family Science Discovery Day last Saturday, almost every one of many children going through the museum had an Aquilops puppet on one hand. London and I each made one, and we spent a lot of time Saturday evening goofing off with them.


Alas, poor Aquilops! I knew him, readers; a fellow of minuscule crest, of most excellent beak; he hath borne my career on his head a whole month; and now, how adored in my imagination he is!

You can see a little video of the puppet in action on Ashley Hall’s Tumblr, Lady Naturalist. And you can get the files to make your own from the Alf Museum website, here. You’ll also need a couple of brads to make the jaw hinge joints, and a smaller-than-normal hole punch is handy for making the holes, but ultimately any method that produces a small, round hole will work.

Finished-Aquilops-2 by James Appleby

Heads not enough for you? Want a complete Aquilops to call your own? You are in luck – not one but two such critters have emerged from the virtual undergrowth. James Appleby, a 16-year-old who blogs at, did something that would not have occurred to me in a million years: he took the baby Aquilops (Aquilopses?) from Brian Engh’s awesomely detailed Cloverly environment scene and made a paper model. It’s a great example of how releasing something under an open license – in this case CC-BY – encourages people to do cool new things with your work. You can get the parts here.

Aquilops paper toy by Gareth Monger

Want something cuter? Try this papercraft Aquilops toy, another creation of the apparently indefatigable Gareth Monger. Post and parts here. I love Gareth’s concluding exhortation: “Edit it, share it, distribute it. Keep it fun and keep it free.” That’s practically the Aquilops motto.

I’m probably just scratching the surface here. I know there has been a flowering of awesome Aquilops restorations on DeviantART. David Orr has an adorkable ‘Pixel Aquilops t-shirt on Redbubble. Tell me what else is out there, and keep making new stuff. Let’s keep this thing rolling.

And a big thank you to Mike, Gareth, Kathy, Ashley, and James for making cool Aquilops stuff and posting it for people to see and build. You all rock.


Check out this beautiful Lego Diplodocus:


(Click through for the full image at full size.)

I particularly like the little touch of having of bunch of Lego Victorian gentleman scientists clustered around it, though they’re probably a bit too big for the skeleton.

This is the work of MolochBaal, and all rights are reserved. You can see five more views of this model in his Flickr gallery. I especially admire how he’s managed to get the vertebral transitions pretty smooth, the careful use of separate radius/ulna and tibia/fibula, and the use of a transparent brick in the skull to represent the antorbital fenestra.

The forefeet are wrong — their toes should not be splayed out — but you can’t blame MolochBaal for that, as he was copying the mounted CM 84/94 cast in the Madrid museum.


We feature a lot of Brian Engh’s stuff here–enough that he has his own category. But lately he has really been outdoing himself.

The wave of awesome started last year, when Brian started posting videos showing builds and suit tests for monsters–monster suits, monster puppets, monster you-name-its. Like this monster-sculpting timelapse from last August:

And this suit test from last October:

Brian even wrote a blog post about how he builds monsters.

Things really ramped up this May with the release of “In Mountains”, the first video in a three-part series from Brian’s Earth Beasts Awaken album (which is badass, and available for free here).

If you’re thinking that the Mountain Monster has some Estemmenosuchus in its background, you are correct–that astonishing real-world critter was one of Brian’s inspirations, among many others.

More awesomeness is coming in July, when the next video, “Call to Awaken”, is slated to be released. Here’s a teaser:

I have even more exciting Brian-Engh-related news, but I am not at liberty to discuss that just yet. Hopefully sometime this fall. Stay tuned, true believers. UPDATE: Now I’m at liberty to discuss it!


It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to regular readers that PeerJ is Matt’s and my favourite journal. Reasons include its super-fast turnaround, beautiful formatting that doesn’t look like a facsimile of 1980s printed journals, and its responsiveness to authors and readers. But the top reason is undoubtedly its openness: not only are the article open access, but the peer-review process is also (optionally) open, and of course PeerJ preprints are inherently open science.

During open access week, PeerJ now publishes this paper (Farke et al. 2013), describing the most open-access dinosaur in the world.


It’s a baby Parasaurolophus, but despite being a stinkin’ ornithopod it’s a fascinating specimen for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it’s the most complete known Parasaurolophus. For another, its young age enables new insights into hadrosaur ontogeny. It’s really nicely preserved, with soft-tissue preservation of both the skin and the beak. The most important aspect of the preservation may be that C-scanning shows the cranial airways clearly:


This makes it possible for the new specimen to show us the ontogenetic trajectory of Parasaurolophus — specifically to see how its distinctive tubular crest grew.


But none of this goodness is the reason that we at SV-POW! Towers are excited about this paper. The special sauce is the ground-breaking degree of openness in how the specimen is presented. Not only is the paper itself open access (and the 28 beautiful illustrations correspondingly open, and available in high-resolution versions). But best of all, CT scan data, surface models and segmentation data are freely available on FigShare. That’s all the 3d data that the team produced: everything they used in writing the paper is free for us all. We can use it to verify or falsify their conclusions; we can use it to make new mechanical models; we can use it to make replicas of the bones on 3d printers. In short: we can do science on this specimen, to a degree that’s never been possible with any previously published dinosaur.

This is great, and it shows a generosity of spirit from Andy Farke and his co-authors.

But more than that: I think it’s a great career move. Not so long ago, I might have answered the question “should we release our data?” with a snarky answer: “it depends on why you have a science career: to advance science, or to advance your career”. I don’t see it that way any more. By giving away their data, Farke’s team are certainly not precluding using it themselves as the basis for more papers — and if others use it in their work, then Farke et al. will get cited more. Everyone wins.

Open it up, folks. Do work worthy of giants, and then let others stand freely on your shoulders. They won’t weigh you down; if anything, they’ll lift you up.


Farke, Andrew A., Derek J. Chok, Annisa Herrero, Brandon Scolieri, and Sarah Werning. 2013. Ontogeny in the tube-crested dinosaur Parasaurolophus (Hadrosauridae) and heterochrony in hadrosaurids. PeerJ 1:e182.

Sculpey allosaur claws

A few weeks ago I threw this picture into the “Night at the Museum” post and promised to say more later. Later is now.

I started sculpting dinosaur claws because of the coincidental arrival of two things in my life. One was a cast of OMNH 780, the horrifically awesome thumb claw of Jurassic megapredator Saurophaganax maximus, which I blogged about here. (If you’re curious, I’m using it to amaze people at public talks, so it is serving a semi-legit educational purpose.)

The other is this video of Adam Savage’s TED talk on how he got into sculpting two very different birds. I’ve watched it about a zillion times and shown it to loads of friends, because Savage so nicely captures what it’s like to be obsessed by interesting things. We have different objects of desire, and, okay, I don’t have 20 gigs of photos of anything, but when I’m having a lousy day, watching that video reminds me why I do what I do. You should blow off the rest of this post and go watch it right now.

Back so soon? So, I am a little obsessed with theropod claws right now (aesthetically and fanboyishly, not scientifically), and I thought it would be cool to try my hand at making them. Also, I’ve been wanting to do some molding and casting, and I wanted to be able to practice on cool stuff without having any ethical concerns about trading in fossils or replicating someone else’s specimen. More on the molding and casting in a future post.

A final boring note before the actual instructions: I have no idea what I’m doing. Those two claws in the photo above? The little one on the right is the first thing I’ve sculpted out of anything more serious than Play-Doh, and the big one on the left–the subject of this post–is the second. If I can do this, you can do this.

On to the  how.

1 - raw sculpey

Sculpey isn’t really clay in the traditional sense. It’s slightly oily plastic that polymerizes when baked. When it first comes out of the package, it’s surprisingly brittle and crumbly. You have to knead it for a while before you can do anything useful with it.

2 - kneaded sculpey

Here’s a lump after some kneading. My work surface here is a dinner plate covered with aluminum foil.

3 - rough sculpting with fingers

At the local hobby store you can buy a set of clay sculpting tools, in plastic for about five bucks or in wood for up to thirty. But unless you’re a professional sculptor you can skip all that folderol and just use your fingers and crap you find around the house.

The main thing I learned during this stage? You can achieve just about any shape you want, depending on how much time you’re willing to invest. I worked iteratively, smoothing and resmoothing and smoothing some more.

4 - sculpting with popsicle sticks

Cheap tools in action: using popsicle sticks to smooth the edges of the claw. You can get a bag of 100 of these suckers at the dollar store. If you don’t already have a decent pair of wire cutters, you can get them at the dollar store, too, and you can use the wire cutters to cut all kinds of edges into the popsicle sticks. So that’s like 100 clay tools for a buck or two.

If it seems like I’m hating on fancy clay tools, it’s because IME real artists just get on with making art and don’t get too precious about it. Here’s Zak Smith on painting (warning–nothing bad in that post, but there is some NSFW stuff elsewhere on that site):

the process is as follows:  I take a very small paint brush with wet paint on it, put it on the paper, and move my hand around.  There is no magic or machinery involved and it is done freehand.  Sometimes I look at a real thing or person and paint it, sometimes its a picture i took, and sometimes i just make it up.  How to tell?  If its a picture with a title like “Lisa” then probably that’s from real life, if it’s, say, a zebra-man with two samurai next to it, then that’s made up.

“What kind of paint?”  The cheapest kind they have at whatever store I am at.

So it drives me crazy when I see wannabe artists shelling out thirty bucks for tools they could make or emulate for less than a tenth of that. (If you’re serious enough to have actual fancy tools, holster the angry comments, I don’t think you’re keeping the local Hobby Lobby in business buying the faux-fancy tools.)

5 - sculpting with floss pick

Need a clay knife? Floss picks work pretty well. I used this one a LOT. Here I’m angling the articular facet for the next phalanx.

6 - blood vessel grooves

Blood vessel grooves. I think I used the blunt end of a bamboo kabob skewer to install these, with some follow-up shaping with popsicle sticks. I also straightened and shortened the claw tip a bit from the previous photo.

Funny story: a few years ago I was going through the public exhibits at a certain nameless museum and at the “touch a fossil” table an excited young docent started to explain how the “blood groove” was there to let the blood flow out of the wound so the claw wouldn’t get trapped by suction. I tried to explain that it was really there to hold the vessels that nourished the keratin sheath that covered the bony claw in life, but he was unpersuaded. I wished, for the first and only time, that I had a cast Tenontosaurus claw with me so he could explain why herbivores needed “blood grooves” on their claws, too…

7 - this is distressing

Now: detailing. I didn’t want to sculpt the claw as it was in life, I wanted a fossil claw, something that looked like it might have been left out in the rain for 145 million years. The bone I picked up on the beach, and the exposed spongiosa is just perfect for putting a realistic bone texture on stuff. The rock is a rock. I used it for nicks and gouges.

8 - all cracked up

I carve cracks with a straight pin. I carve them fairly deep, a couple of mm, so if I accidentally smudge some clay over a crack I can cut or sand it off, post-baking, and get the crack back. I don’t worry about raised edges along the edges of the cracks–these sand off in a heartbeat after baking. Just carve away.

Right after the above photo was taken, I popped the whole plate in the oven for about 45 minutes at 295 F to bake the Sculpey. There are lots of different kinds of Sculpey and other polymer clays on the market, so read the instructions on the box before you bake. Also, the baking drives off the oils that made the stuff kneadable, so save your baking for a nice day when you can have the windows open. If you’re going to bake a lot of Sculpey, you might want a separate oven for it. The vapors from the baking Sculpey do make me feel a little ill, so I get some good airflow through the house and limit my exposure. Caveat sculptor.

9 - back after baking

Here’s the claw right after baking. Some areas are smooth and shiny from being in more intimate contact with the foil. If you’re not going to sculpt the other side of something and you want a perfectly flat, smooth surface, watch out for this.

10 - droopy

The only point of this photo is to show that the baked Sculpey is not rock-hard. The tip of the claw is drooping under its own weight here. For my first, smaller claw, I carved a groove in the flat side with a Dremel and put in a section of bent hanger wire to help it maintain its shape. For this second one, I figured the other half of the claw would give it sufficient thickness to hold its shape after baking, and I was right.

11 - second side sculpt

Here’s the reverse side, sculpted using the same techniques as I used for the first side, but not baked yet. I suppose there might be some kind of Sculpey Einstein out there who can do a whole claw in one go, but I couldn’t figure out how to do both sides without leaving fingerprints everywhere, or how to support the thing while it baked, so I did the two sides sequentially. If you think of a better solution, let me know, although really this is not much extra work–about an hour, max, while I was watching Mythbusters.

12 - macrophage choking on asbestos

Now we gotta talk about asbestos for a while (this is relevant, I promise). Here’s a photomicrograph of a macrophage (a kind of white blood cell) self-impaled on some asbestos fibers, in what started out as attempted consumption of foreign material by the macrophage, and ended up closer to a crucifixion.

Here’s the deal: you have macrophages roaming around in your lungs, and when they find stuff that isn’t supposed to be there–which is pretty much everything other than your own living cells–they eat the offending material. And by “eat” I mean “engulf and try to chemically destroy”, using all kinds of profoundly noxious stuff–hydrochloric acid, hydrogen peroxide, chlorine gas. And if the offending material is extremely resistant to such treatment, as is the case with asbestos, the macrophages just keep unleashing hell. Forever. Which doesn’t dissolve the asbestos, but does eventually dissolve your lungs. Asbestos by itself doesn’t hurt you much–it’s what you do to yourself trying to get rid of it that kills you.

Why am I bringing up this depressing stuff? Partly because you are in command of a human body and you should know something about how it works. And partly because, if you have been following this little how-to, very soon you are going to be sanding your Sculpey dinosaur claw. Which is made out of plastic. Which is going to shed tiny particles of plastic into the air while you sand it. Which you are going to inhale unless you are wearing a mask. Now, I don’t know the actual resilience of baked Sculpey particles under the chemical assault your macrophages are prepared to light them up with, and I don’t recommend that you perform the experiment on yourself. I got a pack of five of these:

13 - dust mask

for two bucks at the hardware store. If you can afford ten bucks for a block of Sculpey, you can afford to spend two more to save your lungs.

This goes for sanding just about everything, by the way. It’s like germs or radiation, just because you can’t see or feel the damage doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening. Also like germs and radiation, some simple precautions are all you need to avoid the vast majority of the problems. Or you can skip them, and someday someone like me may be using your corpse to teach people about how not to care for a human body. Your pick!

14 - sanding

Sanding. I only do one pass, with 220 grit. If you start with 60 grit, you can say goodbye to all the details you put in, because they are going to be gone very quickly. Basically I’m just trying to knock off the most egregious of the rough edges. I’m not trying to get a very smooth surface–that comes next.

I didn’t take any pictures of this, but after the sandpaper I scrubbed the whole claw with 000 steel wool. I had never used this stuff before–I only learned about it from that Adam Savage TED talk–and it is pretty amazing. For one thing, it will give whatever you are sanding a shockingly smooth finish. For another, it actually goes away as you use it. You’ll start out with a full-sized bundle and after sanding for 10 minutes you’ll be down to a half-size bundle. If you’re slouching in front of the TV, it will look like a metal cat shed all over your t-shirt. The chances of actually inhaling a tiny sliver of steel and having it get all the way down into your lungs are probably pretty slim, but I masked up anyway (there are still microscopic Sculpey shards coming off at this stage). Anyway, the steel wool gives a very even appearance to the surface, so you can’t tell what areas got really hit by the sandpaper, and for me it was one of the most satisfying parts of the whole process.

15 - finished claw

And here’s the final result. On the right the tip is a little blackened from over-baking, since the right side went through the oven twice, but it’s not bad. At this point you can paint or do whatever. I haven’t experimented with painting Sculpey yet, and online sources are mixed about what works best. You don’t want to use anything thick for a primer or you’ll lose the fine details. When I do finally get around to painting, I’m going to start with flat black auto primer, just like Adam Savage used on his Maltese Falcon (which I know was resin, not Sculpey, but still), and see if that doesn’t do the trick. If you know of something better, please tell us in a comment.

Next up in this series: molding and casting.

Rexy skeleton

Earlier this spring London and I got on a building dinosaurs kick, inspired by this post at Tumblehome Learning. I used a few of these photos as filler in this post, but I haven’t talked much about what we did and what we learned.

Above is my first attempt at a wire skeleton for a papier mache dinosaur. Yes, despite being a dino-geek from the age of three on, I had never made a papier mache dinosaur before this spring. The thicker white wires are from a hanger, and the thin ones are from a reel of wire I found in the hardware section at Wal-Mart. It’s held together with masking tape, and the thick wires running down the legs of the dino are going into holes I drilled in that piece of scrap wood.

Wire jaw

Here’s part of the wireframe for my first skull. At this point I was still thinking of Alioramus. Notice the sections of drinking straw, split and popped onto the wires to bulk out the wireframe and give the papier mache more than a 2D plane to bite on.

Wire skull

Here’s that lower jaw with the rest, a skull of some kind of predatory coelurosaur. Fairly early on I abandoned the strict Alioramus plan and followed in the footsteps in Barnas Monteith at Tumblehome Learning (who posted the instructions linked above) in going for a sort of generic critter instead of any particular real-life taxon. Therefore, I was free to freewheel without having to worry too much about accuracy (Robert Frost would have said I was playing tennis with the net down). As you can see here, this is another wire job held together with duck tape, and the lower jaw already has the first layer of papier mache on.

Papier mache is pretty hard to screw up: put some water in a bowl, add flour until it gets thick, stick pieces of torn-up newspaper in the mix and put them on whatever you’re making. Anything more than that, you should learn on your own by experimentation.

Raptor skull in cardboard

Progress on “Rexy” and my skull was going too slow for London, so I knocked out a crude Velociraptor skull in cardboard for him to work on at his own pace. This became “Rapty”.

The Three Machesketeers

An early family portrait: “Rapty”, “Rexy”, and my “Uglioramus” skull. You can see the Wedel method for not messing up the dining room table: first, put down a layer of plastic trash bags taped together, then a layer of newspapers taped together. For Rexy, we put down a layer of cling wrap to keep the papier mache drips off the wood base, which was a huge win in the long run. Rapty and Ulgioramus are sitting on foil-covered pizza-baking sheets. Those turned out to be useful for…

Baking theropods

…baking skulls. Papier mache dries  s  l  o  w  l  y  in cool, wet weather. But if it will fit, you can pop your thing in the oven on low heat for 15-20 minutes and get’er done quickly. This worked for both skulls, but it worked better for Rapty. On Uglioramus, the metal expanded enough to keep poking its way out of the papier mache, so I did a lot of patching. Still probably faster than waiting for the whole thing to air-dry.

Putting in teeth

Teeth. I went a little nuts with these in terms of size (I know, those teeth won’t fit into that maxilla, but it looks rad if you switch your brain off, kind of like Jurassic Park). They’re made up of flat cardboard from a cheap box (not corrugated) layered together with wood glue to give them some thickness, and coated with more wood glue and papier mache goo to soften the contour lines.

Sealing with Titebond

Before painting I sealed the whole thing with a thin layer of Titebond wood glue. That probably wasn’t 100% necessary, given what went on next, but I knew it would get the job done and strengthen the structure.

London and Rapty

Back to “Rapty”: he got a set of teeth–one layer of thin cardboard this time–entirely speculative nasal and parietal horns courtesy of London, and a couple of coats of Kilz2 white latex primer left over from a telescope-making project. Then he was off to school for show-and-tell. Since then he’s gotten one thin coat of brown watercolor paint. Some of the holes in the skull just about closed up during papier-macheing, but since the impetus for the project was to have fun, it doesn’t trouble me.

Uglioramus in paint box

Here’s Uglioramus, also dressed in Kilz, awaiting his first coat of paint in my expensive, professional paint box. Leaving a freshly-painted object without overhead protection in this neighborhood is just asking for it to be hit by falling vegetation.

Uglioramus first coat

And here we are after the first coat. I use Krylon because it’s cheap, tough, and dries fast, but with the Kilz on I could probably use just about anything.

And that brings us up to the present. I have some ideas on how to finish Uglioramus to make it look more like a fossil skull and less like some cast-off from a flea market, but those will have to wait for another post.

The upshot of all of this is that I am not an expert on either theropod skulls or papier mache, and if a doofus like me can do this well the first time out, you can probably do as well or better yourself. And it’s cheap, messy fun. Highly recommended.