Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Return to Evolving Planet

A line of people snakes through the north entryway, populated mostly by locals taking advantage of a promotion offering free entry for state residents. From the middle of a group of twentysomethings, I hear a man's voice express mild disappointment as he peers past the ticket counters at the famous tyrant dinosaur beyond.

"I thought she'd be bigger."

"Just wait 'til you're below her," I respond.

Queen Sue. Photo by David Orr.

After attending the Wild Things conference this weekend, conversing with all sorts of people about conservation and urban ecology in the Midwest US, I grabbed the chance to visit the Field Museum.

The Field is one of my favorite places to spend a day indoors. In a previous post, I did a walkthrough of the Field's dinosaur hall (with more photos here). I thought that this time, I might aim a more critical eye at the exhibit, especially concerning the role of paleoart. Due to the heavy weekend crowd, I didn't even try for exhaustive documentation, but I think I got enough to be worth sharing here, and I'll supplement with some of my older photos. I'd also recommend Ben Miller's thoughtful walkthrough and review of the entire Evolving Planet exhibit at Extinct Monsters.

A Pteranodon model with the John Gurche "Sue" mural in the background.

The most visible pieces of 2-D paleoart in the Field are the Charles R. Knight murals, mounted high around the perimeter of the dinosaur hall as well as select positions along the exhibit's length. They surely deserve prominent display (the first paleoart visitors encounter would be Gurche's Sue mural overlooking the queen herself). I would love to see more contemporary artists given more prominence. Perhaps a revisit of classic Knight scenarios and compositions, with information given about the evolution of ideas in the last century of paleontological study.

Daspletosaurus mount with classic Knight Tyrannosaurus v. Triceratops in the background.
A mount of Parasaurolophus with retro Knight hadrosaurs in the background.
Pteranodon skeletal model with retro Tylosaurus and Archelon in the background.

Is that sacrilege? Maybe it is, but for the collection's importance to the history of paleoart, these pieces arguably work at cross-purposes to the content of the exhibit. In Evolving Planet, aside from "how do we know this?" passages on informational panels intended to counter creationist prejudices visitors may bring with them, the story of the science isn't foregrounded.* So it's a bit counterproductive to have so much antiquated scientific illustration present, without equally prominent discussion of how the science has progressed. In a museum where space is at a premium, it may be a pipe dream, but it's a pipe dream I like.

This is not to say that the art's vintage is entirely unremarked upon: for instance, Knight's place in the history of the science is called out in one of the informational panels, opposite the Stegosaurus mount.

Charles R. Knight's Stegosaurus

The exhibit isn't entirely devoid of newer art. The didactic panels accompanying fossil mounts include serviceable, if sometimes shrink-wrappy, occasionally GSP-posed, illustrations of the animals.

Illustration of Edmontonia, in a familiar pose.
Illustration of a skinny-necked Rapetosaurus juvenile.

There's no information on the artist. The style is sometimes too airbrushy, which doesn't do much for me personally.

Illustration of Stegoceras
Majungatholus, er, Majungasaurus illustration.

Some of the panels also include cladistic diagrams, which are helpful to ground the animals in their evolutionary context. There's even an explanation of what a cladogram is, and tough words like "Marginocephalians." Contrast this with a panel earlier in the exhibit, in which the Ediacaran biota is referred to simply as the "earliest animals." Such concision is understandable. But the amount of fine-grain information provided in the dinosaur hall implicitly confirms a visitor's idea that these animals are of the utmost importance.

Sauropod cladogram, with a scrawny-necked Apatosaurus in the middle.
Marginocephalian cladogram, featuring Triceratops. Protoceratops, and Anchiceratops illustrations. No pachycephalosaurs for you!.

In the small pocket of the hall dedicated to the evolution of birds, casts of Archaeopteryx and Sinornis fossils are accompanied by fully feathered models, as well as illustrations of Deinonychus and Sinornithosaurus in the old-school, grudgingly feathered mode.

A lightly feathered Sinornithosaurus illustration.
A similarly lightly feathered Deinonychus illustration.
The Archaeopteryx model.
The grumpy Sinornis model.

The theropods aren't the only 3-D work on display. The Parasaurolophus vocalization model is pretty great, and after visitors meet the iconic Herrerasaurus model upon entry to the dinosaur hall, they even get the chance to breeze by a big model of a plant.

Hey, look! A bennettitales model!

"Evolving Planet" is a great exhibit, and one I recommend to anyone visiting Chicago. Attentive visitors will definitely walk out of it with new knowledge of and appreciation for evolutionary history. Though this post may seem a bit nit-picky, it was valuable for me to visit with the intention of doing more than ogling the mounts one more time. After all, the exhibit turns 11 this year. It's reached the age of the exhibit it replaced, "Life Through Time." So it's only natural that it is starting to show its age. I think it's a good time to imagine the next form a paleontological exhibit may take at the Field. My wishlist? More on bird evolution in the dinosaur hall. And throughout, more contemporary paleoart integrated with displayed fossil specimens, more on the stories of how discoveries have been made and how they've enriched our understanding of life's history.

But hey, you can't complain too much when Tiktaalik is at the party.

Model of Tiktaalik roseae at the Field Museum.

* To see an exhibit at the Field that explicitly brings the scientific process into its narrative (see their compact-but-wonderful Lichens exhibit).

Friday, February 17, 2017

Guest Post: The Music of Walking with Dinosaurs

Once again, we welcome Rohan Long to the blog for a guest post. Rohan is a zoology teaching guy at University of Melbourne. You can find him on Twitter @zoologyrohan and listen to his new musical project, Bronzewing, at bronzewing.bandcamp.com. You may recall his post last year almost a year ago, reviewing Crichton's The Lost World. This time, Rohan came to us with the idea of discussing the music of 1999's seminal CG documentary Walking with Dinosaurs, and we happily accepted the offer.


When you start to unpack it, Walking With Dinosaurs is a strange beast; a fictional animated series earnestly presenting itself as a nature documentary. The series’ aesthetic cues are drawn foremost from the BBC school of classic documentaries – and with good reason; if the creators strayed too far from the genre as it’s traditionally presented, the spell would be broken, and the audience may well ask itself why Kenneth Branagh is playing Attenborough over a bunch of puppets and primitive CGI. Unsurprisingly, the first incarnation of the show, released in 1999, was also aesthetically and musically influenced by cultural juggernaut Jurassic Park which was released six years earlier.

Ornitholestes from 1999's Walking With Dinosaurs. Somehow, Benjamin Bartlett avoided the obvious choice of producing a punk theme for this critter.

When it comes to establishing the feel of a real nature documentary, the soundtrack must surely be one of the most crucial elements. The score by Benjamin Bartlett draws from similar stylistic touchstones to the show’s visual aesthetic – a little John Williams here, a touch of Edward William’s 1979 score to Life On Earth there. It must have been an interesting brief for a composer as most importantly, the soundtrack was required to sound like a nature documentary soundtrack. As with the overall look of the show, if the soundtrack didn’t fit the established expectations of what a nature documentary should sound like, the illusion of authenticity would be shattered. So in a sense, this soundtrack can be thought of as a work of pastiche.

I bought the soundtrack CD in the early 2000s but didn’t actually listen to it until much later. Let me set the scene: I was working on a dinosaur dig with which I have a long association and was relaxing at the end of a very hard day. For the second time in as many days I had been working “in the hole” – manually extracting big chunks of rock from the fossil layer with sledge hammers and chisels so the rest of the crew could break them down, looking for fossils. That night, a combination of very strenuous work and a couple of quality Australian lagers had brought about an almost zen-like state of calm stillness in me. The crew was watching the WWD episode that features the dinosaurs from our site (because of course that’s what you’d do after looking for dinosaur fossils all day). I’d seen this episode quite a few times by this point, but this time something clicked. The music cut through to my receptive mind and I appreciated it for the first time.

The music that first captivated me that evening was from the episode Spirits of the Ice Forest about the polar dinosaurs of south-eastern Australia with which I have a warm familiarity. The main motif comprises a sweeping middle-eastern section which then gives way to some icy, atmospheric textures. The follow-on track Antarctic Spring develops this theme and the incorporation of some delay-affected tuned percussion makes it sound a bit modern and cool.

I think Bartlett is using a stereotypically middle-eastern sounding scale on these pieces as musical shorthand to symbolise a generic “other” – you know, because Australia is weird because it’s different to the northern hemisphere! Perhaps it would have made more sense for these themes to have incorporated elements of our actual indigenous music. It’s kind of lazy and very Eurocentric, but I enjoy the music on its own merits so I mostly forgive Bartlett for this.

One thing Bartlett does very well is huge, affecting pieces that make full use of the orchestra. Islands of Green for example, uses slow-building swells of strings interspersed with steady, rhythmic bass notes and a shimmering celesta to illustrate the hardships of marine reptiles in the late Jurassic. Cruel Sea from the same episode is more stripped back but has a similar feel, this time with strings, orchestral harp and brass forming a slow, melancholy waltz. These pieces work very well as standalone songs, as opposed to tracks like say, Torosaurus Locks Horns or Canyon Of Terror which are purely dramatic tension delivery devices.

I think Bartlett does a great job on this unique project, but there are weak spots. On the Time Of The Titans episode he seems to be trying to emulate the feel of William’s themes for Jurassic Park and like Williams, lapses into obvious grandiosity and unnecessary whimsy when scoring the sauropod scenes. Minor complaints aside, the soundtrack works as a very listenable album of music in addition to scoring the series very effectively.

You might notice that the first track mentions in parentheses that it is narrated by Kenneth Branagh. Happily (or disappointingly, depending on your view), Branagh only appears on that first track, the rest is unspoiled by narration. Mind you, although I think that track clashes somewhat with the rest of the album, I’ve got to admit that it does make a great opener for mix CDs – *orchestra swell* Imagine you can travel back in time, to a time long before man...

Postscript: If you’re interested in this music or soundtrack composition in general, have a read of this in-depth interview from 2000 with Bartlett on the process of composing and recording the music for WWD.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaurs (Herbert S Zim) - Part 2

As you'll no doubt recall, the last time I posted on LITC, it was to share my #cleaneating cooking tips and various photographs of myself flashing my pristinely white teeth while preparing cabbage-based dishes in a mysteriously desaturated, blandly rustic-looking netherworld. Nah, only joking - it was all about an old dinosaur book from the 1950s, written by Herbert Zim and illustrated by James Gordon Irving. Here are some more intriguing excerpts from said book, ranging from your usual Knightian hadrosaurs to a 5' 8" American. I should also point out that my teeth are far from perfect. I am British, after all. Oh, and thanks again to Charles Leon for sending me the scans!


Thursday, February 9, 2017

Vintage Dinosaur Art: All New Dinosaurs and their friends


Hello LITC readers! Today we’re taking a look at All new dinosaurs and their friends from the great recent discoveries! Don't let the featherless Deinonychus fool you, this is a great book with tons of personality and great art. Onwards!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Lost World of Appalachia

For those who don't know me (or happened to miss the time when I posted regularly) I'm a professional writer and journalist, who occasionally is lucky enough to write about paleontology. I'm also an artist. So last year, I approached The Bitter Southerner with a weird idea: an article that would act as a nature documentary to the vanished world of the Cretaceous deep south, with my illustrations and prose acting as a camera. The editor gave me a pretty quizzical expression, but since I'd done a lot of work for them before, he threw caution to the wind and told me to go for it.

I spent the next several months researching, talking to people, and sketching, sketching, sketching. Then erasing. Then sketching some more. Then painting and cursing at the screen. All during SVP, I was hunting down paleontologists and painting in the corner of the lecture halls. Then it was time to write, and figure out how, exactly to create a nature documentary in prose. More cursing. More cursing at the screen. But after lots of blood, sweat, and tears, it's finished and published and now, finally, I can share it.

So what is it? Well, picture a David Attenborough documentary, captured wholly in text and image, with its subject landscapes no human has ever seen. Imagine an article building on the ideas of Robert Bakker's Raptor Red. Imagine a narrative that leaps from animal to animal across a world poorly understood even by paleontological standards.

Or hell, maybe I'd better just show you. The following is an excerpt from The Lost Continent of Appalachia. Please do enjoy it!

Morning on the Alabama sea. Waves lap in under blue skies. Miles out from shore, sunlight drifts in gentle curtains through clear waters, caressing the sides of a high, jagged reef. The waters are too hot for corals; instead, walls of bivalve mollusks sit in scaffolds dozens of feet high, their shell surfaces encrusted with barnacles and long strands of algae. Marches of immense clams gape into the currents. Shoals of fish dart and swirl, chasing tiny shrimp. An octopus-like ammonite creeps from outcrop to outcrop, tentacles probing, stalk eyes bulging, its coiled shell shining in brilliant colors. A muffled chorus of clicks, squeaks, and croaks echoes along the reef.

Diving into these waters as a human would be like slipping into a warm bath. Even this far from the equator, seawater temperatures hover at a year-round average of 90 degrees or higher. Hot oceans lead to low currents and frequently stagnant waters — the lower reaches of the inland sea suffer frequent drops in oxygen, fueling vast dead zones. Fueled by the heat, massive hurricanes sweep along the coasts, churning up the bottom and carrying tracts of organic material out to sea. But the turbulent ocean supports riches, too: The combination of shallow waters, abundant sunlight, and upwelling nutrients feed a variety of monsters. An immense shadow slides over the mollusk reef. The fish panic, contracting into mirrored walls or exploding into dizzying clouds. With a squirt of sea water, the ammonite pulls inside its shell. Sculling overhead is a 40-foot Tylosaurus, her flippers tucked against her sides, keeled tail moving in slow, sinuous strokes. She’s a mosasaur, a descendant of small monitor lizards that colonized the sea in the earliest Cretaceous. As competing families vanished or turned to specialized fish-eating, the mosasaurs exploded in size and colonized every ocean in the world. The waters of Alabama alone play host to the portly, clam-crushing Globidens, the swift Platecarpus, shy Clidastes, and Tylosaurus, ruler of them all.

This mosasaur is formidable, with long, heavy jaws and a crushing bite. She moves through the water with the lazy assurance of an apex predator. Years ago, she claimed a stretch of the surrounding sea with access to both deep water and high reefs, and now she knows it by heart: the best spots to settle in for a nap, where the cleaner fish gather to nibble at parasites and flakes of dead scales, and most importantly the spots where she can lurk undetected, waiting to seize anything — fish, diving bird, or smaller sea-lizard — outlined against the surface. Her black eyes scan the riot of colors. Most of the time she guards her territory jealously. But once a year, she makes an exception — for her mate.

He’s coming now: a 46-foot titan, his scarred, barnacle-encrusted head swiveling. A broad tongue laps out, checking her scent trail, trying to assess whether she’s receptive. She circles around, investigating him in turn. She knows him well: Like her distant kin, the modern Komodo dragon, Tylosaurus sometimes form loose but long-lasting relationships, splitting for much of the year before coming together in the breeding season. Despite their familiarity, both are cautious. Mosasaur courtship can swing from tender to violent in a heartbeat, and both bear literal scars from past failed romances. A reintroduction is called for.

As the fish shift and scatter around them, the two leviathans begin to dance, sliding and spiraling slowly through the water, tongues flicking gently against each other’s sides. Their pebbled flanks brush together, rasping in the water. Once or twice she breaks off when he presses too close, throat inflated in warning, bubbles curling from her open jaws. The male swerves off each time. Then, he returns, and the dance continues. They’ll keep up like this for an hour, breaking occasionally to gulp air, before the male twines around her in a quick embrace. After a few weeks of mating, he’ll be gone; after seven months, she’ll deliver a litter of four tiny pups in open water, a hundred miles from land...

Want more? Check out The Lost Continent of Appalachia over at the Bitter Southerner. I'll be posting bonus content--including some deleted scenes and art that didn't make the final cut--here in a few days. Keep an eye out!

Monday, February 6, 2017

Sauropoda Coat of Arms

Long-time readers may remember that five years or so ago, I created a collection of dinosaur family crests. They proved to be a decent seller in my shop. Eventually, I decided to retire them, along with some other design collections, to keep the designs in my shop more current. But I always intended to revisit the idea, and now I am.

The first of the new line is dedicated to the great thunder beasts of Sauropoda, featuring Brontosaurus rampant. It's available in my shop on a wide variety of merch. Purchases are always appreciated, of course, but at this time they'll be especially helpful in our efforts to move to WordPress.

Sauropoda Coat of Arms © David Orr

I'm pretty happy with how it turned out and look forward to filling up the collection. I've begun figuring out Thyreophora, and after that will likely be Ornithopoda. And I suppose Theropoda will be coming down the pike. Stinkin' theropods. They'll be added to the collection at Redbubble, which can be accessed by this direct link.

One last thing: I would be remiss not to mention that Rebecca Groom does some absolutely delightful heraldic designs, including her Yi qi, currently available.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

This Mesozoic Month: January 2017

In the News

Living on an island devoid of giant theropods, Hatzegopteryx was an azhdarchid pterosaur that acheived a status few of its brethren could hope for: top terrestrial predator. Read more about this "shoebill-hornbill-terminator" from Mark Witton and Brian Switek.

This year's edition of PaleoFest, held at the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford, IL is coming up in one month. Head to the museum's site to download the registration form. LITC's own Victoria Arbour will be speaking there! And I *miiiiiight* be able to go.

Illustration by Danielle Dufault/© Royal Ontario Museum
One of the more obscure casualties of the Permian-Triassic "Great Dying" was the mysterious hyolith. Now, it's been given a place on the great tree of life: as a member of Lophophora, along with the relatively more famous brachiopods. Read more about the "tentacled ice cream cone" from Everything Dinosaur and NPR, Live Science, and the NYT. Danielle Dufault's illustration, above, is another wonderful example of how a good piece of paleoart makes the alien approachable.

It got pretty darned cold after the Chicxulub impact. Fernanda Castano writes about new research modeling the post-KT global climate.

The US state of Arkansas is one step closer to naming its own state dinosaur, the undescribed coeleruosaur foot known as "Arkansaurus." For her part, Rebecca Hunt-Foster, who initially examined the fossils in the early 2000's, is working on getting the critter described. Check out that link to see loveable rouser of rabble Brian Engh's illustration, too.

How long did non-avian dinosaurs incubate? New research looks into the question by studying growth lines in the teeth of Protoceratops and Hypacrosaurus embryos, among other methods. Their conclusion is that it's likely that the rapid incubation we see in living dinosaurs is a later development, and most Mesozoic dinosaurs developed slowly. Read more from Carolyn Gramling for Science and NPR.

Around the Dinoblogosphere

At Aeon, Alex Riley writes about recent efforts to understand what prehistoric worlds sounded like, touching on Vegavis, Parasaurolophus, and the bush cricket Archaboilus musicus.

At SV-POW, Mike Taylor cautions us not to rely on a photo to interpret a fossil.

Rebor has released three Deinonychus replicas as part of a larger Acrocanthosaurus and Tenontosaurus diorama, and they are quite lovely. Check out Everything Dinosaur's post on the set. Now, I look forward to the alternate universe version, in which a Tenontosaurus triumphantly bellows a victory song atop a heap of fallen theropods it has bested.

Lisa Buckley, inspired by some proselytizing door-knockers, decided to start making science-oriented pamphlets to hand out when the need arises, starting her "Science Tracks" series with OMFG Birds are Great!

How does one keep up with the ever-increasing amount of paleontological research? At the SVP blog, Dr. Darin Croft has some advice.

At Quartz India, Pranay Lal writes about the dinosaurs of Cretaceous greater India.

At Paleo-King, Nima brings our attention to an article from 2015 that reports the results of a paleoart survey of 115 paleontologists (of whom 100 responded). The article, published in Current Trends in Paleontology and Evolution, had the goal of creating a working definition of paleoart. One question was for respondents to identify paleoartists whose work they recognized, with interesting results (Doug Henderson and Greg Paul each had only 5 mentions apiece). It would be interesting to see this performed with a larger sample size and with more international participation: Spain accounted for 70% of the respondents. Direct PDF link here.

Sometimes a fossil in prep confounds one's expectations: so writes Anthony Maltese about a spectacular, unexpected Ichthyornis fossil he's currently working on.

If you're into turtles and you're into latitudinal diversity gradients, Jon Tennant has you covered, sweetheart.

Susie Maidment ran through hypotheses about the function of stegosaurian plates and spikes for the website Know it Wall.

Duane Nash wades into the great feathers vs. scales fracas at Antediluvian Salad.

We'll end with a little field trip to Mongolia, starting at Extinct, where Leonard Finkelman writes a metaphysical musing on the "ownership" of fossils, stemming from the debate over repatriating fossils from the American Museum of Natural History back to Mongolia. Also read the statment from Bolortsetseg Minjin, president of the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs, on the complicated matter. She also spoke to Palaeocast about it last year. While we're on the topic, head over to Prehistoric Beast of the Week and check out Chris DiPiazza's recent post featuring great illustrations of Mongolian dinosaurs..

Crowdfunding Spotlight

Plenty going on this month! If you're not able to donate to these campaigns, help spread the word. It really does help, and folks running campaigns do appreciate every share. A couple of campaigns are closing soon at Experiment, a science crowdfunding site.

First is The end of an Era: Resolving the dinosaur extinction and the beginning of the 'age of mammals' in northwest Argentina. Ending in less than a week, a University College London team led by Anjali Goswami and Agustin Scanferla "will intensively explore new fossil sites in Northwest Argentina, where we have recently discovered dinosaur, crocodile, and other fossils from this period."

Next up is Geology of the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation of central Montana. A team from the University of Oklahoma led by Dean R. Richmond hopes to "describe the stratigraphy, sedimentology, and depositional facies of the Morrison Formation in central Montana." The crowdfunding effort will help cover the costs of analyzing a wealth of material that was collected in quarries last summer, including sauropod fossils, petrified wood, and freshwater and marine organisms.

Moment of Paleoart Zen

Artists Raven Amos and Scott Elyard, who run the excellent art and design firm Cubelight Graphics, are holding their ninth art show soon, taking place at Espresso Cafe in Wasilla, AK. They've held a successful Indiegogo campaign to fund printing of their art for the show, but it's still worth chipping in to help meet stretch goals - as well as to get some great perks, natch. So, I'll be sharing one of Raven's featured pieces, the wonderful Styracosarus Jungle. I'm not alone in my love for Raven's work, which often hearkens back to pop art and art deco.

Illustration of the ceratopsian dinosaur Styracosaurus by Raven Amos
Styracosaurus Jungle, © Raven Amos. Shared with the artist's permission.

Also check out the promotional video for the show shared below. Congratulations on the successful campaign and best of luck at the show, Raven and Scott!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaurs (Herbert S Zim)

Yet another book scanned and sent over to me by Charles Leon (thank you!), Dinosaurs (by Herbert S Zim) dates from 1954, making it the oldest book featured in quite some time. It's essentially a product of the era, with grey, tail-dragging, fern-munching beasties hanging around swamps and hoping that it doesn't start getting too cold. Of course, there's always nifty stuff to be found if you look hard enough...


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Postcards from my childhood

Who doesn't adore a load of loveable lizardy dinosaurs dragging their tails through a bland, generic desertscape - especially when said dinosaurs are endearingly retro, carefully sculpted models? Back in the day, Toyway (known now for filling the Natural History Museum gift shop with awful tat) produced a range of postcards with just such a subject matter...and here are some of them.


Monday, January 9, 2017

Lady with an Archaeoceratops

Lady with an Archaeoceratops ~ Watercolour with touches of gouache, approx. 138 mm. diameter

Happy New Year! May 2017 be kinder to us all.

I promised our regular reader, Andrew Stück, that I would post this piece, after he commented that it's been a while since my saurian incongruities were last seen on the blog. So here we are!