Old drawings (of heads)

June 25, 2017

I was organizing my files in DropBox and I found a folder of old drawings I’d almost forgotten about. I drew this back in the late 90s. It was used on a t-shirt by the OU Zoology Department. I got the general idea of making a head out of animals, and the specific idea of using a butterfly wing for the ear, from Wayne Douglas Barlowe’s cover for the novel Wild Seed by Octavia Butler. The snake I stole from ancient Egypt. I think everything else is in there just because I thought it was cool. Note that inverts, fish, herps, birds, and mammals are all represented, with a good balance of aquatic, terrestrial, and volant forms. It looks awfully hippie-dippie from 20 years out, but heck, what doesn’t?

“Solitude” by Mathew Wedel. CC BY-NC 4.0.

Well, this, I suppose.

I drew this about the same time. I was reading The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels and lots of stuff about ancient monastic traditions and thinking that if the world is an illusion that must be penetrated, then the evidence of one’s senses can only mislead. Also, Vicki was working for the state medical examiner in Oklahoma City and they used wooden dowels to represent the paths of bullets when reconstructing the skulls of those killed by gunfire. So here’s the skull of a monk, with all of the lethal pathways of distraction and temptation clearly marked as such. At last he can contemplate the eternal mysteries in perfect solitude.

Obviously I didn’t get on board the world-is-an-illusion, sensation-is-bad train – skewed pretty hard in the opposite direction, in fact. Possibly because years earlier the Chessmen of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs had shown me that pursuing ‘pure’ intellectual and spiritual inquiry would ultimately lead one to a pathetic existence as a disembodied head living in a cave (high culture, meet low culture). Anyway, whatever interest I might have had in that philosophy I exorcised through this drawing. Stripped of any art-making-a-point baggage, I still think it’s pretty bitchin’. I should make t-shirts.

Actually, I probably will make t-shirts of this one if there’s any interest. Hence the CC BY-NC license I put on it, as opposed to the normal CC BY for almost everything else on this site. Look at me, boldly experimenting with new licenses.

This, obviously, is a lot more recent. I was collating all of my scanned drawings and I realized that I’d gone to the trouble of drawing the cranium and lower jaw of Aquilops separately, but I’d never posted the version from before I composited them back into articulation. It is very unlike me to do work and then hide it, so here it is.

It wasn’t until I the post mostly written that I realized that all three drawings are of heads, none of them are saurischians (although the first includes a saurischian, but not the cool kind), and two are stinkin’ mammals (and not the cool kind). I stand ready for your slings and arrows.

For previous posts on my drawings, see:

A friend’s daughter owned a pet corn snake, and a hamster. About a month ago, the former got into the latter’s cage — and in a reversal of the usual course of such events, sustained some nasty injuries. As snakes often do, it struggled to recover, and the wound seems to have necrotised.

This morning I got an email from the friend saying that the snake had died, and asking whether I would like it. I managed to restrain my enthusiasm for long enough to express condolences to the daughter; and an hour later, the snake was delivered!


Here it is — as with all these images, click through for the full resolution. I’ve learned that it’s difficult to measure the length of a snake — they don’t lay out straight in the way that you’d like, even when they’re dead — but as best I can make out, it’s 120 cm long. It weighs 225 g, but don’t tell Fiona I used the kitchen scales.

The hamster wound is very apparent, just behind the neck, on the left hand side. Here’s the head and neck in close-up:


Ouch — very nasty. It can’t have been pleasant watching a pet linger on with a wound like that.

He (or she? How do you sex a snake?) was a handsome beast, too. Here’s the head. You can easily make out the individual large scales covering it, and make out some of the shape of the skull.


The skulls of snakes are beyond weird. Here is one from an unspecified non-venomous snake at Skulls Unlimited (i.e. probably not a corn snake):


Hopefully at some point I’ll be able to show you my own snake’s skull. In the mean time, this guy says he has a corn-snake skull, but the photography’s not very good.

Finally, here is my snake, mouth open, showing the pterygoid teeth on the roof of the mouth:


What next? It seems clear that bugging is the only realistic way to free up the skeleton, and this may be the specimen that persuades me to invest in a proper colony of dermestids rather than just relying on whatever inverts happen to wander past.

It might be worth trying to skin and gut the snake first. Gutting will be easy; skinning might be very difficult. I think that removing the skin from the skull without damaging the very delicate bones might be impossible. Can dermestids cope with snake skin?

I’m taking advice!


Gila Bend roadside sauropod

Well, I see that our ‘roadside dinos‘ category is in a sad state. Not from lack of posts, but because most of the so-called roadside dinos found therein are entirely too polished. Real roadside dinos are assembled by non-paleontologists armed only with scrap metal, welding equipment, The Giant Golden Book of Dinosaurs (again, the real one), and a dream. Take this beauty, which stands proudly outside of a gas station in the little ol’ town of Gila Bend, Arizona. It’s covered in graffiti and you can see through the gaps in its metal hide–right into the acetylene-powered heart of roadside Americana.

Plus, it has its neck in the right place. Who could pass that up?

Gila Bend roadside rattlesnake

It shares space with this somewhat less convincing rattlesnake. I note that the snake is leaning away from the road, and the kink in its spine is at about bumper-height. In situations like these, one can only say a silent thank-you that whatever poor drunk fool did this at least had the good taste to miss the sauropod.

If you make it to Gila Bend, you’ll be roughly half a time zone away from everywhere else, so you’ll probably be hungry. After you gas up, look for this sign:

Gila Bend Space Age Restaurant - sign

next to this restaurant:

Gila Bend Space Age Restaurant

where you can sit at this table (maybe):

Gila Bend Space Age Restaurant - mural

and eat some freakin’ awesome pancakes while revelling in the glories of the Space Race. Or, you know, a burger or something. We hit the Space Age Restaurant twice on our trip to Tucson last November, once each way, and it was excellent both times. There’s even a gift shop, says so right on the sign.

You’re welcome!

MoO 2013 - humpback head-on

Well, I’m back. Been on the road a lot–to Flagstaff for a few days around Memorial Day, and in Oklahoma to visit family in the first half of June. Now I’m busy with the summer anatomy course, but I finally found time to post some pictures.

One of my favorite museums in the world is the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City. It hits all the right notes for me: just shedloads of stuff on display, mounts you can walk all around and even touch (all they ask is that you don’t climb on them), and nary an interactive gizmo in sight. Plus a gift shop at the end where I could easily spend an hour (and several thousand dollars, if I had that much disposable  dough and someplace to put all the loot). This was my second visit, but I never got around to posting the photos from my last visit, so maybe I can make up for that this summer. This post just has some highlights–I’ll try to get more photos up before another month goes by.

MoO 2013 - 3-banded armadillo

One of my favorite things in the museum is this awesome and appropriate triple display of the three-banded armadillo.

MoO 2013 - giraffe face to face

And old friend, from a new perspective.

MoO 2013 - two-headed calves

In my experience, in the Great Plains states it is a rare museum indeed that does not have a two-headed calf. Not just natural history museums, either–historical museums and roadside attractions usually have at least one. The first I ever encountered was at the Dalton Gang Hideout in Meade, Kansas–maybe someone knows if it is still there? Even as a kid, I understood that the link between bovine developmental anomalies and Old West outlaws was pretty tenuous–basically, both crop up in Kansas–but I didn’t mind then and I don’t mind now. IMHO, finding two-headed calves on display in unexpected places only reinforces the concept of museums as cabinets of wonder.

Of course, it is entirely appropriate to find two-headed calves in an osteology museum, and the Museum of Osteology has more specimens than I’ve ever seen in one place.

MoO 2013 - herp display

The herp case is rad: the anaconda in the middle is a 14-footer, and the king cobra at lower right is 13’7″. And check out the super-fat Gaboon viper below the anaconda. If you’re wondering about turtles and crocs, they’re in the next case over.

MoO 2013 - Mata Mata

As anyone who followed Darren’s multi-part series on matamatas (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) knows, they are fabulously weird. As I conceive it, there are two kinds of turtles: matamatas, and “regular-ass turtles”, the latter being the paraphyletic group that includes all non-matamata turtles.

MoO 2013 - ruby-throated hummingbird perched

My favorite mounts in the Museum of Osteology are the smallest: a pair of impossibly tiny ruby-throated hummingbirds.

MoO 2013 - ruby-throated hummingbird flying

I spend a lot of time with vertebrate bodies and skeletons, both taking them apart and putting them back together, and I am not exaggerating when I say that these are the most astonishing skeletal mounts I have ever seen. Unfortunately there aren’t any external indicators of scale with these skeletons, and perspective effects would defeat any attempt to put a scale bar up against the glass. These ruby-throated hummingbirds are slightly longer-billed than the Anna’s hummingbird mentioned in this post, but even so the skulls are probably no more than 30mm long. I recently helped London clean up a rat skull (yet another thing I need to blog about), and that skull was about as big as one of these skeletons minus the bill.

That’s all for now. If you’re ever in Oklahoma City, go check out the Museum of Osteology. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in bones, anatomy, animals, nature, or even, like, things.

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.

This is so unspeakably cool. Today in PLoS Biology (yay, free reprints for everybody!), Wilson et al. (2010) describe a new snake, Sanajeh indicus, based on multiple specimens from multiple sauropod nests where they were apparently eating baby sauropods! This is sweet for loads of reasons. There aren’t that many well-documented cases of predation in the fossil record in the first place. Predation on dinosaurs by non-dinosaurs is especially cool–you may remember the announcement of Repenomamus by Hu et al. (2005), a giant (for its time and clade) badger-sized mammal from China that was found with a gut full of baby Psittacosaurus. And as Wilson et al. note, this is only the second secure association of sauropod bones with eggs; the other is the Auca Mahuevo site in Patagonia that produced the first definitive sauropod eggs and embryos. If we learn half as much about sauropod biology from these Indian nests as we have from the Patagonian ones, it’s going to be an exciting decade.

Fossils of the new snake (left), sauropod egg (upper right), and sauropod hatchling (lower right), Wilson et al. 2010, fig 1.

The best bit, though, is the window this gives us into Mesozoic ecosystems. Dinosaurs made lots of offspring, and sauropods seem to have been particularly R-selected. With loads of multiton animals producing zillions of defenseless babies for most of the Mesozoic, it would be weird if other critters, dinosaurian and otherwise, didn’t take advantage of that seasonally abundant food source. It’s great to get some direct evidence.

This is like a swamp full of radioactive awesome. Go roll around in it and let it mutate you.


Addendum (from Mike)

Let’s not miss the opportunity to reproduce this classic, uh, life restoration, executed pre-emptively by William Stout decades before this fossil was even found!  It’s from his 1981 book The Dinosaurs: a fantastic new view of a lost era.

Madtsoia crushes a young Laplatasaurus. By William Stout.