Monday, September 28, 2015

Mad-packed with all nine essential nutrimites to fortify your X-Zone!

So extreme! X-treme! Even more extreme than Extreme Blu!

I might find the name a little 90s for my liking (although I guess that Clone High reference I just made is circa 2002), but this is a must-see exhibit that shows off a whole lot of cool animals you probably haven't heard of before. It's an awesome mix of fossils, casts, life restorations of extinct mammals, skeletons and taxidermy mounts of unusual modern mammals, nice graphics, and fun interactive stations. Here's a slice of highlights from the opening party I attended last Friday!

Giant rhino relative Indricotherium (Paraceratherium?) greets you as you enter the exhibit. Ancient rhino relatives are really cool and don't get enough love!

Uintatherium, a weirdly ornamented archaic Palaeocene mammal, and not one you see in too many museum exhibits.

And check out this sivathere skull - this is a giraffe relative!

The exhibit includes a nice diagram showing the changes that occurred between the earliest synapsids, like Dimetrodon, to modern mammals, and even talks about the concept of 'crown groups'.

This floofular Macrauchenia looks like something straight of Jim Henson's workshop. Macrauchenia is a South American hoofed mammal that's part of a larger group of hoofed mammals from that continent of confusing and uncertain ancestry - we'll see a few more later.

Lots of exhibits showcased particular features of mammal anatomy and showed convergences across clades. Here's Thylacoleo, the marsupial lion, with Thylacosmilus, the marsupial sabre-tooth in the background.

Speaking of teeth, this exhibit showcased extreme incisors - that's a narwhal skull in the back, and an extinct elephant called Platybelodon in the front.

And more weird teeth: the extinct giant marsupial Diprotodon.

Real mammoth hair!!!

Way back in the Eocene, things were a bit toastier than today, and Arctic Canada was a lush forest inhabited by Coryphodon. This guy is one of the earliest really big mammals that evolved after the K-Pg extinction, but doesn't have any close living relatives despite its hippo-like appearance.

One of the most spectacular specimens in the exhibit, this Scarrittia is a notoungulate, another of those weird South American hoofed mammals. It probably would have looked somewhat rhino-like when alive, but I'm always weirded out by the lack of a gap between the front teeth and the molars, like you see in things like cows and horses.

Bonus alive mammals! We got to meet several living animals during the opening festivities, including...

Jerry the binturong, from the Conservators Center.

Plus this shy armadillo...

...hungry sloth....

and curious bat-eared fox from the Flying Fox Conservation Fund!

Extreme Mammals is at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences until March 27, 2016, and is well worth a couple of visits! Have you seen Extreme Mammals on its tour? Tell me about it in the comments!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Burgers and Hot Dogs

Sydney Mohr is a friend and colleague of mine whose art you will have seen in the news lately, if you are inclined to read about ankylosaurs. She's done amazing reconstructions of two ankylosaurs for me in the last year - Ziapelta and Gobisaurus - and so I asked her to take a few minutes and tell us about her process for creating her palaeoart. Also this way I get to show off more of her drawings, so yay!

Sydney decided that this Gobisaurus was named Burger, and that seemed fine with me.

Once we got started on Gobisaurus, I sent Sydney a pile of photos of both Gobisaurus and its close relative Shamosaurus, and some of my own very rough sketches of what the osteoderms might have looked like. Gobisaurus isn't completely known, so we're guessing a bit on the osteoderm arrangement in the final version and using Shamosaurus for the cervical armour. Here are the earliest sketches Sydney sent me - so many great poses and personality. Also, here's a Sydney in her natural habitat (thanks John Acorn for the photo!).

One of the things I really like about your art is that it's obvious you are very familiar with animal anatomy and behaviour – your dinosaurs have real animal personalities. Can you tell us about some of your inspirations for your palaeoart? 

The best inspiration any artist can have when reconstructing extinct animals animals! In most cases that's the best if not the only source of reference we have, at least when it comes to external appearances. Depending on what type of fossil I'm drawing, I'll try to find an extant analogue/s that may share some characteristics, like habitat and environment, diet, colour scheme, etc. For colour in particular I often mix and modify schemes from two or more animals, all the while keeping the fossil's apparent paleobiology and habitat in mind. I'll peruse images of modern animals on the web to get an idea of the posture and stance I want the fossil animal to be in, as well as the lighting and angle. A lot of a creature's emotion comes from the face, so I really like to focus on eyes. Getting the shape, depth, colour, and light just so can make a huge difference in terms of giving a drawing personality. It also isn't a bad idea to look at other artist's work, obviously not to copy directly, but you might get ideas for new methods or techniques that you can adopt and fit into your own style. 

Mr Iridescent - a beautiful take on Microraptor. So shiny and chrome.

This reminds me, I think you said the Ziapelta reconstruction you did for our paper was inspired by a photo of a bird that you took! And that in turn reminds me that you are also a pretty great bird photographer - do you find that you get a better sense for conveying personality and movement in your dinosaurs by observing birds in the wild yourself?

So I did! The proudest grackle ever! 

I can see the family resemblence! Also, when I found out the Gobisaurus was named Burger, I asked if the Ziapelta had a name. Naturally, it was Hot Dog.

And definitely, seeing any animal in their habitat first hand can create a narrative in your mind that you can translate to paper. Birds are great to watch because a lot of the time they're always on the move and engaging in a variety of behaviours that are both interesting and fun to watch, as well as perfect fodder for a dinosaur reconstruction.  

You are also working on a Masters with Phil Currie at the University of Alberta! Would you like to tell us about what you're working on?

The thought of Mesozoic birds with bonafide teeth has really interested me for a while, so the plan is to explore the evolution of tooth loss in birds by comparing the implantation and replacement rates of small theropod (like dromaeosaurids and troodontids) and bird teeth. Looking into the anatomy of the jaw and the inner structures of the teeth of these closely related groups will hopefully yield some informative results. It's not easy because the stuff I need is comparatively rare and pretty darn tiny! I'm working entirely with Alberta material at the moment, and doing so has led me in other directions in terms of understanding the province's Cretaceous avian fauna, which is most represented in terms of numbers by, you guessed it, teeth!

Pygostylia Panoply: at the bottom, the toothy Early Cretaceous enantiornthine Rapaxavis, and up top, the duck-like (and toothless) Presbyornis.

Do you have a favourite taxon to illustrate?

Birds and feathered theropods are definitely up there.The more I do ankylosaurs though the more I enjoy drawing them. [YES FOLKS, YOU HEARD IT HERE: ANKYLOSAURS > THEROPODS.] They're so unique compared to anything else around today! I also enjoy doing mammals as well, like ungulates and carnivores (fossil or modern) and primitive examples from the Mesozoic. 
I am but a young'un: a perfectly floofular dromaeosaur chick. 

What medium/media do you like to work in?

I stick almost exclusively to traditional media; mainly pencil work, both black and white and colour, although I occasionally work in acrylic or watercolour. I prefer to work with fine tooth paper so I can vary my pencil strokes, blend more easily, and just have an overall smoother surface to work on. Coloured paper is also really fun to work with, like blue or black, because it makes drawing ocean scenes with pencil pretty simple. I've also dabbled in digital art via photoshop, but most of the time I only use it to fix mistakes and touch up scanned pencil drawings. In my case I find I have much more control with pencil and paper, and the results seem to be a bit more realistic, at least to my eyes. 

Ichthyornis dispar: a classic fossil bird, brought to life!

Do you have any advice for other people who are interested in creating their own palaeoart? Any common pitfalls to avoid, or things to think about when they are recreating an extinct animal?

I think one of the most important aspects of reconstruction is attention to detail, such as the dot of light and reflections in an eye, or the wind disturbing and ruffling fur or feathers, or the bulge of a muscle as a limb is flexed, or the crumpling of skin as it moves in a certain direction or shifts under the weight of the animal. Light, movement, and substance. Those kinds of little and almost unnoticeable features can take a simple reconstruction of a fossil to something that feels tangible and alive. In terms of pitfalls to avoid, I would say there isn't too much to worry about if you're just playing around and having fun, because hey, it's just art! That being said, if you're going for a publishable, as-accurate-as-possible, realistic style of depiction, then it's a good idea to become familiar with your subject, especially anatomy. If you can read up and get as close as possible to the original source material, like scientific papers, then you're that much closer to getting your skeletal anatomy down pat. Knowing some anatomy of modern animals is extremely helpful as well, as it informs how muscle and skin attaches to the bone and changes the outline of the body.

Thanks Sydney! You can check out more of Sydney's amazing art and photography at her website, DeviantArt gallery, and Flickr gallery.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Evolving Planet

Today we embark on an adventure, an adventure through time and space (but not outer space or inner space, just regular space). Welcome, to the Evolving Planet.

This is the Field Museum's fossil hall, and it's a great exhibit with tons of interesting fossils presented in a really accessible and immersive way.

We travel through the Big 5 mass extinctions, with each clearly marked with a discussion about how life on earth changed at each event. I'm skipping through the first couple of eras here because I'm a stinkin' amniote worker and also I wasn't very good at photographing some of the stuff in low-light settings, but rest assured there was an awesome shark fossil and many cool things in the Palaeozoic.

I have a secret love for the Permian, so imagine my delight when I stumbled upon a room full of pareiasaur skeletons (like this Bradysaurus) and Eryops and captorhinids. A bounty!

Also, hooray for non-Dimetrodon sphenacodontids! We got Dimetrodon AND Ophiacodon AND Sphenacodon! Whoa!

On to the dinosaur hall, there are some cool dinosaurs that you won't see in every museum. Here's Parasaurolophus cyrtocristatus, a species of Parasaurolophus with a shorter and more rounded crest compared to the species more often illustrated in books, P. walkeri.

And dwarfed by the giant Apatosaurus (?) is this comparatively little Rapetosaurus, a titanosaur from Madagascar.

Hey look, it's a vintage-y Archaeopteryx reconstruction! Love the Victorian fancy pigeon look that's happening here.

PALAEOSCINCUS SPOTTED. One thing that I really love is that a bunch of old Charles Knight paintings are still displayed with pride throughout the exhibit, with interpretive signage putting them into context for what we've learned since they were painted. Here we can see a classic 'Palaeoscincus', an old interpretation of what Late Cretaceous ankylosaurs looked like back when we didn't have as much information about nodosaurids vs. ankylosaurids. This fellow has the long, relatively unornamented snout and large shoulder spines of Edmontonia (a nodosaurid), and the tail club of Ankylosaurus (an ankylosaurid).

Let's finish off with a quick peek into the Palaeocene! And what's this, not one but TWO pantodonts? (Also, whoa, Coryphodon is really big.)

Bonus photo! In the fishbowl prep lab, they are working on Cryolophosaurus bones collected during the last expedition in 2011!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Snapshots from the Field Museum

Last week I got a chance to visit the Field Museum in Chicago for the first time! It's a great big museum with lots of cool stuff, so I figured I'd share a few impressions from my lunchtime jaunts through the exhibits. Let's get started with all the fossil exhibits outside of the main fossil hall (there are several, but some of them are kind of hidden away!).


Sue the Tyrannosaurus is most definitely not hidden away, and occupies a place of pride in the museum's main entrance hall. Sue is undeniably a great fossil, although I (and I suspect probably some other palaeontologists as well) have mixed feelings about this fossil: it's incredibly well preserved, but the intense backstory to Sue's acquisition is filled with several unpleasant twists and turns. I'm glad Sue found a home in a museum, but I wish it hadn't been placed up for auction - Sue's auctioning may not have directly led to the trend of putting dinosaurs up for auction for millions of dollars, but I feel like it set a bad precedent all the same.

One thing that's particularly enjoyable about this specific Tyrannosaurus skeleton are the abundant pathologies to be found. Sue has a busted/infected shin, holes in its jaw, and rough bumpy spots on its vertebrae. These vertebrae near the end of the tail have a big mass of crinkly bone around them. It's obvious Sue got up to some trouble during its life, and it's interesting to speculate on the causes of the various oddities in the skeleton (and indeed, others have!).

 Extinct Madagascar

Sadly, this exhibit is tucked so far out of the way that basically nobody had wandered back there besides me (you need to go through the conservation gallery to reach it). It's also a little bit specimen-sparse, a trend I've noticed recently in many museums and which I find somewhat concerning. However, I feel like it makes up for the lack of 3D objects in its cool and unusual subject matter - the extinct fauna of Madagascar. The main point to the gallery was showcasing the social media response to new images of Madagascar's prehistory, and the scientific process that went into those images. It was an interesting way to approach the topic, but might have been more compelling with video, audio, or more fossils.

It was pretty cool to see an Aepyornis (elephant bird) egg and life-size silhouette. They really were terrifyingly large and strange birds.

A highlight for me was this Palaeopropithecus skeleton - a lemur that lived and looked like a sloth.

Tracking the Reptiles of Pangea

Tucked away in the African mammals area was a room devoted to palaeontological fieldwork in Tanzania, featuring the newly described silesaurid Asilisaurus! This isn't a skeleton you're going to see in most museums - I only wish more people had been stepping into this little exhibit room to check it out.

A nice touch was showing the original fossil material in its cabinet-ready storage foam. Those are some nice fossils.

And one last fossil....

Seriously, how were these machines not in constant use? They're in the hallway leading towards the bottom-floor cafeteria, and you can get yourself a freshly-made retro Triceratops, Brontosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, or Stegosaurus. I made a Brontosaurus and consider it $2 extremely well spent, especially since it meant I got rid of a bunch of dimes and nickels I didn't know what to do with:

Next time: Evolving Planet!