Friday, October 28, 2011

Alas, poor Papo

As some of you may already be aware (and if not, then sit up straight and pay attention at the back), I have a certain hobby that involves collecting certain plastic/resin figures and sometimes reviewing them for a certain website based on their aesthetic qualities, anatomical accuracy and so on. It's a fun way to acrue a large collection of colourful tat and fritter away money that, let's face it, I'd probably just be splurging on booze otherwise.

Anyway, one of the most popular manufacturers of dinosaur collectibles is the French company Papo. While they make no claim to scientific authority or accuracy, their models are nevetheless stunningly sculpted and painted, and often pretty decent anatomically anyway (I particularly like their Styracosaurus). There have been some howlers, but in those cases it's easy to see where they've gone wrong - basically, the sculptor has followed popular, but mistaken palaeoart memes.

And then recently, this was announced.

Oh boy.

The question I wish to put to you, o Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs readership, is this - where on Earth do you think the inspiration for this thing came from? This wouldn't be an issue if Papo were just churning out lazy, poorly-made figures - but they're not. In fact, the fine details and immaculate paintwork on most Papos can't really be matched at their price point. Even when they produce anatomically dubious figures, they at least look pretty.

But this one - it looks like a Crystal Palace plesiosaur with a mosasaur head grafted on, Frankenstein-stylee. Some people have excused it on the grounds that it's 'retro', but Charles Knight was painting more accurate Tylosaurus restorations back in 1899.

Naturally, the figure has sparked off a lively discussion among the prehistoric-animal-toy-collecting community (stop laughing), with some even questioning why Papo are bothering to attach scientific names to figures like this.

However, I'd like a little outsider opinion, especially as I know a number of artists read this blog. As always, please do comment.

Finally, I'm sorry for dragging this silly toy nonsense over to Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs. Superior content (from David) will resume shortly.

Thanks to Christophe for acquiring the catalogue scan.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

D-Pro Goes Crypto

TAM 9 Cryptozoology Skeptics
Photo of cryptozoology skeptics from this year's TAM9 conference. From left to right, Sharon Hill, Blake Smith, Ben Radford, Donald Prothero, Joe Nickell, Matt Crowley, Karen Stollznow, Daniel Loxton. Photo by Crowley, via Flickr.

I've shared Donald Prothero interviews here. I've shared MonsterTalk episodes. Today, like creamy peanut butter and the finest chocolate, they come together and we are so much the richer for it. On episode 43 of MonsterTalk, D-Pro and hosts Blake Smith, Karen Stollznow, and Ben Radford talk about stories of living dinosaurs, specifically the Mokele-Mbembe of the Congo Basin, a putative surviving sauropod. It will come as no surprise to readers here that I'm pretty suspicious of these "reports," but when D-Pro lays out just what the evidence is, I was shocked by just its flimsiness, considering the relatively high profile of Mokele-Mbembe in the cryptid menagerie. They also touch on a human trait that likely plays into the continued prominence of cryptid sightings in general: skrilla.
Smith: I've also heard the suggestion that the frequency of modern sightings can be directly tied to the fact that the locals have learned that if people come up the river asking to see Mokele-Mbembe, they'll spend a lot of money and time...
D-Pro: Once people discover that there's money to be made by telling you what you want to hear, they'll tell you what you want to hear.
There's plenty of good discussion of why it's so extremely unlikely that a sauropod could have survived the K-Pg extinction, escaped detection in the fossil record (while their probable competitors for resources, giant mammals, did not), and stayed hidden away in a tiny pocket of the world. There's even a bit of ichnology!

This installment of MonsterTalk was voted in as the podcast's special Halloween episode by listeners. People love dinosaurs! they really do! Also, keep your eyes peeled for Prothero's forthcoming cryptozoology book with Daniel Loxton, due next year.

A baby Apatosaurus in Oklahoma

NewsOK has this video report from the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, about a baby apatosaur specimen which was recently revealed as part of an exhibit called "Clash of the Titans."

Adorable! Thanks to Brian Hathaway for sharing this on the Dinosaur Mailing List.

A morbid little piece of me thinks it would be funny to mount a big theropod with a juvenile's bones in its gut.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Terrible '90s Dromaeosaur Face-Off: THE FINAL

So it's come to this. Let's get on with it, shall we?

In the blue corner: the much loved Neil Lloyd Deinonychus-mummy (or "mutant '80s allosaur") from The Humongous Book of Dinosaurs and the Dinosaurs! magazine series. Perhaps the most remarkable feat achieved by this turd-brown shrivelled aberration in the tournament was seeing off an adorable, orange-hued lookalike in the semi-finals. It's almost certainly down to fond memories of the aforementioned magazine series and, in particular, just how hit-and-miss its illustrations could be.

In the red corner: the croco-Velociraptor from those Dinosaurier trading cards that David discovered. The lively pose and haphazardly assembled body parts have made this Frankenstein's monster of dromaeosaurs a popular contender. But will it be able to hold its own against the powerful nostalgic pull of the prune-o-nychus?

It's all down to you, o readers! Let voting commence! The winner will be announced on the first of November (although Halloween would probably be more appropriate), and I'll make sure I'm suitably inebriated before writing it in order to ensure a fitting send-off for the winning piece of lamentable palaeoart. Hurrah!

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Eocene Birds of the Field Museum

Right now, I am buried in feathers. In my independent study of typography, I've created a project that will use Indiana University's amazing type shop in creating a history of feathers. When I first started learning the letterpress and concocting my projects, I knew I wanted to do something that plays the printing process against the process of fossilization. Weeks of brainstorming and sketching later, I arrived at doing something on the history of feathers.

My reading list has been fun to assemble: I've got the Feathered Dragons volume put out by IU Press, Chiappe's Glorified Dinosaurs, Long and Schouten's Feathered Dinosaurs, Taking Wing by Pat Shipman, The Jehol Fossils, edited by Mee-Mann Chang, our own Brian Switek's Written In Stone, and the brand new book by Thor Hanson, Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle. This last one in particular has been invaluable in providing a good overview of feather form and function in extant species. I already knew that feathers were marvels of evolutionary engineering. I had no idea. I mean, a tiny Golden-Crowned Kinglet looks from the outside like it should just freeze to the branch when it's braving frigid winters in the northern forests of North America. But its downy insulation means that it can be 140 degrees fahrenheit warmer under its feathers than the outside air.

This studying reminded me of the photos I took this spring when I visited the Field Museum again - a visit I've somehow managed to not cover at all here! The Field has a nice variety of fossils from Fossil Lake in Wyoming, including these gorgeous Eocene birds:

Eocene birds

Eocene bird
Unidentified bird

Eocene parrot skull
Parrot skull

Eocene parrot
Parrot, Cyrilavis

Linmofregata azygosternum
The Eocene frigatebird Linmofregata azygosternum

Eocene bird
Another unidentified bird

Yest another reason to make visiting the Field a high priority if you haven't been there already. Forgive the quality of the photos. It's dark in there, so I had to sacrifice resolution to avoid a bunch of blurry pics on my memory card. I'll keep sorting through my photos and share more as I can.

Das Rad

A geological fairy tale. I was reminded of this animation when a friend posted it on Facebook.

Das Rad (The Wheel) from myloo on Vimeo.

Yeah, I know. No friggin' dinosaurs. But it's one of my favorite short films, and its geological themes are relevant to this blog. If you really must have some dinosaur action, I submit the following:

16bit - Dinosaurs (Official Video) 1080p from ljudbilden on Vimeo.

Kind of wish Terra Nova was a little more like that.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

We'll have fun, fun, fun, until daddy takes the dinosaurigami away

It's been a while since I shared origami dinosaurs here. Enough time for a lot of new photos to be posted at the origami groups I follow at Flickr. I've also noticed that origami enthusiasts are doing a better job of telling what designer's models they are working from, if it's not their own personal design.

Dilophosaurus 1.8 (Carillo) (2/2)
Here is a Jurassic Park Dilophosaurus, identifiable as such by that neck frill which was completely a work of Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park screenwriter Matt Groening's imagination. It's folded by Daniel Brown, working from Juanfran Carillo's design. Not a scientifically-accurate dilo for sure, but quite fetching nonetheless.

This set by Joseph Wu is folded from some of origami master Fumiaki Kawahata's early dinosaur designs. There's something endearing about that frog-mouthed theropod.

Origami Dinosaurs
This set reflects Kawahata's later designs, and as you can see, they are much more intricate than the Joseph Wu set above. Shuki Kato folded these, all of which are designed by Kawahata, except for the Spinosaurus, which is Kato's own.

Deinonychus Origami
Stephen O'Hanlon designed this Deinonychus, folded by Xin Yan Yang. The elongated skull looks more like Velociraptor, and its smile makes me think of a certain crocoraptor...

Brian Chan folded this Barosaurus designed by Satoshi Kamiya, and I like the way its drab colors play against the green paper and psychedelic color of the trees on the horizon.

Dinosaur and man - Jeong, Hyeon-Jae
Like the Dilophosaurus above, this is a work of fantasy. I like the monochromatic, oatmeal-colored sculpture against the model landscaping. It's folded by Nicolas Terry based on a Hyeon-Jae Jeong design.

Earlier posts in this occasional series:
More Dinosaurigami
Further Adventures in Dinosaurigami
Deeper Into Dinosaurigami

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Planet Dinosaur, episode six - review

Planet Dinosaur drew to a close tonight with an episode entitled 'DINOGEDDON'. Well no, not really - it was 'The Great Survivors'. Nevertheless, the series ended, inevitably, with the extinction of the nonavian dinosaurs, but we were allowed a little therizinosaur and terrifying pterosaur fun along the way.

Above: "What the hell just happened?" © BBC

The episode began with a look at the dwarf dinosaurs of Hațeg Island, including the titanosaur Magyarosaurus and some unnamed deinonychosaur, but sadly not Balaur (now THAT would've been a cool animal to feature). While the terrifyingly authoritative voice of John Hurt explained island dwarfism, the main stars of this segment were not dinosaurs, but pterosaurs - specifically, the honkin' great Hatzegopteryx, which is the disputed holder of the title of 'biggest pterosaur'. The show might not have been absolutely accurate in its depiction of the animal (not that I would know - there have been mutterings from the experts), but it did a wonderful job making them look like something from your worst nightmare.

I mean, can you imagine? "Hey kids, look at that magnificent soaring beast! I think it's coming in to land...HOLY SHIT RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!" Once again, the giant pterosaurs were depicted picking off juvenile titanosaurs, this time in increasingly grizzly fashions that even topped the previous episode. Low camera angles helped emphasise the intimidating height of the pterosaurs as their creepy, triangular heads came snapping in, gulping down little sauropods whole. To make them extra disturbing, the animators gave their necks marionette-style, herky-jerky movements as they stalked forward. Put these in the next Jurassic Park movie, please - they'd be exactly one hundred times scarier than ridiculous cartoon Pteranodon with teeth.

Returning to the world of, you know, dinosaurs, the episode had a look at the therizinosaurs and Nothronychus in particular. In keeping with the theme of dinosaurs' often extraordinary evolutionary adaptations, much was made of how the therizinosaurs represented an offshoot of a quintessentially carnivorous dinosaur clade turned herbivorous. The therizinosaurs looked good for the most part (fear not - there was protofuzz), as did their primitive tyrannosaur antagonists. There was even time for an enjoyable sojurn into the merry world of mass death by botulism, as once more commendably supported by fossil evidence.

Just as Carcharodontosaurus was recycled in the previous episode, so Gigantoraptor made a comeback here, flapping its arms about and looking ridiculous while battling Alectrosaurus (which was actually one of the better of the usually poorly animated dino-on-dino scraps). The main point of this section was to present the extraordinary brooding oviraptorosaur fossils, and every good dinosaur nerd will have recognised the Citipati specimen 'Big Mama' in the lineup. The programme introduced a little schmaltz (if you'll pardon the Americanism) with a pair of beak-nuzzling lovey-dovey Gigantoraptor, but made up for it by duly burying the male alive under an enormous collapsing sand dune. The repeated use of the term 'oviraptorid' and the incorrect feather placement did niggle, but it was entertaining overall, and did introduce the audience to some of the most amazing fossils to come out of Mongolia.

Finally, then, we came to DINOGEDDON. Sixty-five million years ago, blah blah, asteroid, dust cloud, starvation. The end of the Cretaceous as depicted in Planet Dinosaur didn't quite have the same gravitas as in Walking With Dinosaurs (although maybe I'm a sucker for baby T. rex puppets), and if anything just felt a bit...unnecessary. Unlike Walking With Dinosaurs, the show was not at all in chronological order and did not need wrapping up in the same way - and did we really need to be told all about how the nonavian dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid yet again? Some of the graphics shown were helpful - especially when it came to demonstrating how clades besides the Dinosauria were hugely impacted by the extinction event - but there was an odd separation of 'dinosaurs' and 'birds'. Dinosaurs - 100% gone. Birds - 95% gone. Hey, wait a minute...

Ultimately, what bothered me about the end of the show was that it was not made clear that the pterosaurs and plesiosaurs shown during a montage of footage while John Hurt spoke of the evolutionary success of the 'dinosaurs' weren't dinosaurs. Granted, the show never referred to them as 'dinosaurs', but this sequence certainly implied that they were, and the last thing anyone needs is for that confusion to be perpetuated - never mind the idea that birds are so special that they transcend being dinosaurs. I like birds, I really do, but look at them - they're dinosaurs, one and all.

At the very end of the show, Hurt spoke of the 'end of Planet Dinosaur'. Of course, the truth is it didn't end. Today dinosaurs are represented by over 9,000 species of birds, outnumbering mammal species two to one. Walking With Dinosaurs, to its credit, pointed this out, so it's a shame that Planet Dinosaur, given its excellent adherence to scientific evidence, didn't do the same.

Still, that won't impact too greatly on what was otherwise an excellent series. The animation could be ropey at times, but the makers of this series tried really hard - moreso than anyone before them - to present a show that was both educational and a spectacle. It was a real breath of fresh air to see the fossils, and an absolute joy to think that many people were being introduced to them all for the first time. Bravo Planet Dinosaur.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Terrible '90s Dromaeosaur Face-Off: Semi-Final 2

It's nearly time - just one more semi-final round, and then it's onwards to the final and the chance to crown our king of the badly-drawn dromaeosaurs.

Before that, though, I can reveal that our first entrant into the final will be the "mutant '80s allosaur" (Hadiaz), the "gnarly, wrinkly dude (David), the one that reminded The Defective Brain of a "dessicated corpse" - or in other words, Deinonychus from The Humongous Book of Dinosaurs/Dinosaurs! magazine. Imhotep! Imhotep!

Time to introduce this week's semi-final contenders. In the blue corner, the deformed croc-faced Velociraptor from the Dinosaurier trading cards:

And in the red corner, the bafflingly wrong Velociraptor from Spotter's Guide to Dinosaurs and other Prehistoric Animals:

This should be a tough one! Ladies and gentlemen, cast your votes! And remember - you needn't vote for the worst one (as such), just your favourite. If it's your favourite 'cos it's the worst, then, fair enough...

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Naris, the (wildly profitable) magazine about vultures

One reason for my visit to the Indiana Raptor Center last week was to photograph a Turkey Vulture up close, to have some reference material for a publication design project for school. I completed it and presented it to my seminar yesterday, and I'm pretty happy with how it turned out, and the feedback I received from my classmates. The project began with a one word prompt, selected from an arbitrarily chosen dictionary page given to me by my professor.

I chose "naris." It sounded cool, jargony without being intimidating, and I immediately knew the subject of the periodical.

Naris Cover

Mind you, my professor expressly forbid us from taking any financial considerations into account. Market viability was not an issue. So I lived in a perfect world where a periodical devoted to themed issues about the sense of smell would be a profitable enterprise.

To see the three interior spreads I created, feel free to visit my flickr set. Just don't take any of the content as factual - it was a design project, not a writing assignment, after all, so I made up facts willy-nilly. It felt dirty.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Planet Dinosaur, episode five - review

At long last, Planet Dinosaur brought us sauropods this week - in an episode entitled 'New Giants'. In particular, the episode featured the mighty titanosaurs of South America and Africa, Argentinosaurus and Paralititan, and the huge carcharodontosaurs that lived alongside them.

Above: titanosaurs on parade. Copyright the BBC.

A few dubious facts and figures were bandied about in this episode. Tedious as hyperbole-laden 'my dinosaur's the biggest!' contests tend to be, Argentinosaurus might not have been the heaviest sauropod, and Mapusaurus might have rivalled Tyrannosaurus in size, but was not definitely bigger, as described in the episode. (Admittedly, they may have been talking about Giganotosaurus instead, but that animal was not named.)

Unfortunately, the sauropods continued the tradition of looking a little hollow - especially when it came to their heads - and certain details about them were wrong, but overall the convincing impression was given of just how massive they were. Furthermore, the show did a good job of emphasising just how ridiculously quickly sauropods had to pile on the pounds as they grew up (if only they'd had access to packets of biscuits and the internet), and presenting sauropod breeding strategy as essentially being 'birth fast, most die young' (they were r-strategists, in other words). No sentimental scenes of mummy Argentinosaurus cooing over her hatchlings here, either - most of the poor, abandoned little sods ended up as cutesy-faced morsels for giant pterosaurs (Mark Witton-style) and the abelisaur Skorpiovenator.

Still, all did not go the predators' way. While the interesting theory of 'sauropod grazing' behaviour for charcharodontosaurs was presented, that didn't mean the big old dears were content to sit idly by while their allosauroid neighbours tore chunks from them. In one particularly gruesome scene, an Argentinosaurus killed a Mapusaurus by, well, stepping on it. Squish. I could almost hear the cheering coming from SV-POW.

Once again, the show did an absolutely tip-top job of showing off some wonderful fossil finds. In particular, I was bowled over by the fact that sauropod trackways in South America had been found to contain the bones of numerous other animals. I know I keep saying this in these reviews, but the importance of showing the fossils to the general public cannot be over-emphasised. In fact, having spoken to a few people outside of the wacky world of the dino-blog-o-sphere about Planet Dinosaur, this is definitely the aspect of the show that is most drawing in the general public. From a geek's perspective, this engaging with people using the actual science can only be good thing (and I'm sure my scientist friends will agree). The important thing about this show is that it is clear the makers are often trying really hard to make a highly entertaining, yet educational show, rather than just make something that's "RAR! DINOSAURS IN YOUR FACE!".

Also, that time-lapse segment was a pretty nice idea, don'tcha think? Reminded me of that bit in Life in which a whale carcass is stripped bare by freaky starfish and crustaceans. But with dinosaurs. Excellent. It made up for all those repetitive shots of twitching eyeballs (could they even do that? I didn't think they could, but now I'm not sure).

And, yes, the recycling of Sarcosuchus and Carcharodontosaurus did feel a little cheap. At least we got to see a little more of the former this time, and the scene in which the two partake in a tug-of-war contest using a subadult Paralititan was rather amusing. How awful. (Although it did get away in the end.)

Overall, a few irksome details aside, I enjoyed this episode. It feels churlish to expect every little thing to be perfect in these shows, and this series continues to do a good job of not over-sentimentalising its subject matter and presenting a suitable amount of scientific evidence. Roll on next week.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Terrible '90s Dromaeosaur Face-Off: Semi-Final 1

The first Terrible '90s Dromaeosaur Face-Off tournament - surely the most exciting contest ever to feature ill-informed, misjudged, and/or lazy palaeoart - has finally entered the semi-final stages.

But first, let us applaud the winner of last week's face-off - yes, it's the awful Wrong-o-raptor from Spotter's Guide to Dinosaurs and other Prehistoric Animals. Expect to see this guy again in the second semi-final! After all, it's "evolving into a dinosauroid" (Tomozaurus), "sleazy looking" (tnthielen) and "an abomination" (The Defective Brain).

On to the first semi-final bout. In the blue corner, Velociraptor from Know the World of Dinosaurs:

And in the red corner, Deinonychus from The Humongous Book of Dinosaurs and Dinosaurs! magazine:

Let voting commence! One last thing: while this tournament may have reached the semi-final stages, rest assured that any suggestions you make for future competitors will be taken into consideration for future tournaments. Because I'm definitely not above flogging a dead horse.

Gallimimus by Paul Heaston, revised

On Friday's Mesozoic Miscellany roundup, I included a particularly fetching digital illustration of Gallimimus by Paul Heaston. In the comments on the post, the presence of pennaceous feathers was discussed after Marc inquired as to the reasoning behind their inclusion. Paul had decided to adorn the forearms with pennaceous feathers after seeing that, among other researchers, Dr. Thomas Holtz has classified ornithomimids as maniraptoriformes, and thus it was a plausible move. Seemed so to me, as well. Albertonykus, who has written reams about feathered theropods at Raptormaniacs, had this to say:
Pennaceous wing feathers are known only in aviremigian maniraptors (oviraptorosaurs, deinonychosaurs, and avialians); even therizinosaurs appear to have only had long protofeathers (or plumaceous feathers) on the arms. As ornithomimosaurs weren't maniraptors proper, it looks as though they didn't have pennaceous feathers either, but protofeathers on the arms are deep within the realm of possibility (even probability).

Very nice image regardless; has to be one of my favorite Gallimimus depictions now.

Based on this, here is Paul's revised Gallimimus.

gallimimus revision

This was a little thing, but the kind of little thing that makes me happy. An example of constructive criticism and responsive artistry, an ideal to aim for as science and art proceed into a future made uncertain by the revolution in communication we're living through.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaurs: A Pop-Up Book

Can a dinosaur book ever just be...adorable? Not in a twee, cute-and-cuddly-characters sort of way, but simply through being wonderfully designed and a clear labour of love? Well, I think that, at the very least, this one can.

Firstly, just look at the word 'DINOSAURS' on the cover - it's so evocative of a certain era in dinosaur pop culture (and reminds me of the poster for When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth every time I look at it). The book dates from 1977, and as such features dinosaurs that are decidedly old-fashioned (although still beautifully painted by Dot and Sy Barlowe). Open up the cover, and you're greeted with this:

A pop-up Tyrannosaurus skeleton! And, given the difficulties of creating such a complex object in pop-up paper form, not a bad one. You can certainly see that the artist did their research - check out the carefully detailed Centrosaurus in the background, too. I suspect that that one (if not everything here) was based on a museum mount.

On the above page, pulling the tab on the left causes a baby Protoceratops (I presume) to break out of its egg. Alright, so this is adorable in a slightly twee, cutesy way. But I love it - it's a fantastic idea! It's also a wonderful way of teaching very young children about dinosaur life.

When I first looked through this book, what immediately struck me was the scarcity of theropods. Normally the stars of the show ('cos kids love scary predators with big teeth), they have here been sidelined in favour of their herbivorous bretheren, and it's actually quite refreshing - it lends the book a genteel, relaxed air, which is aided by the high quality of the illustrations. The fact that none of the animals are depicted tearing each other limb-from-limb probably also helps. There are a fair number of clichés (check out the volcanoes in the above picture) but the book finds a number of interesting, inventive ways to introduce kids to new dinosaurs. For example, flipping over the Monoclonius above reveals the closely-related Styracosaurus (below). It's a good way of making clear the similarities between them, without having to spell it out in the text.

It's unfortunate that a rather lizardy-headed Diplodocus is anachronistically on the same spread as the centrosaurs, but there we go. To emphasise its length, the whole animal must be folded out from the page. It may be rather oddly shaped, but at least it's firmly on dry land.

...Which is more than can be said for this Brachiosaurus, bobbing about in the river. Pulling the tab leads to the animal rising up to the surface. Swamp-dwelling sauropods stuck around a long time after their sell-by date. Still, having the tab action reveal more of the animal is a decent trick, and keeps things interesting. I also like the use of additional wildlife to set the scene (notice the small turtle on the rock).

One of the most impressive pop-up pieces in the book is this Stegosaurus (below). Every plate along the animal's back has been individually inserted, which prevents it from looking a little too two-dimensional, and once more it's beautifully painted (if old-fashioned as ever).

The book finishes back where it began - in the museum. This has got to be my favourite pop-up in the book - a 3D museum scene with skeletons, museum workers, curious guests and even a tiny sign reading "BRONTOSAURUS". In addition to showing off the sheer size of the dinosaurs when compared with people, the 'Bronto' skeleton is, again, remarkably well drawn.

In a word - charming. Many thanks to Niroot for letting me borrow it.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Mesozoic Miscellany 46

Serving up a generous slice of what's hot in the dinosaur blogosphere, it's another edition of Mesozoic Miscellany. Tally ho!

If you're in Alaska, or can get there, tonight is the opening of "Dinosaurs and Robots," an art show from friends of LITC Raven Amos and Scott Elyard. Some really cool stuff from both of them, including paleoart that looks like none other you've ever seen. Click their names for more info and to take a look at what they've been working on.

The Paleo Tourist writes about one of his favorite fossils, Microraptor gui, including recollections of his time as a docent for the Field Museum hosting of the AMNH's Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries exhibition in 2007.

At Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week (affectionately known as SV-POW!), Matt Wedel shares his experience this week at the Los Angeles County Museum to examine a special alligator skull fossil. He also has praise for the museum's recent renovation, calling it "frankly phenomenal: spacious, well-lit, loads of actual material on display, skeletons you can walk all the way around, informative but unobtrusive signage, tasteful integration with existing architecture." Cannot wait to see it with my own eyes!

Another newly renovated site I can't wait to see with my own eyes: the visitor center housing the famous quarry wall at Dinosaur National Monument, which Brian Switek calls America's "real Jurassic Park" in his splendid recounting of opening day at Dinosaur Tracking. Dan Chure, who has been telling the story of the monument's visitor's center over the last few years, also writes about the day at the visitor center's blog. I was at DNM about 20 years ago, when on vacation with my dad, one of the experiences that helped make me the hopless dinophile I am. I read Jurassic Park three times during the trip and fell in love with the Rockies and the desert. Congratulations to everyone who worked on this renovation.

I'd also like to visit Triassic Park. Bill Parker writes about a trip to Argentina at Chinleana.

At Paleo Illustrata, Stu writes about one of his treasured books, Mantells' Petrifications and their Meanings, sharing many of its fine illustrations.

Albertonykus reviews the third episode of Dinosaur Revolution, which I sadly have yet to see. It's favorable review, and it sounds like a lot of good stuff to chew on for maniraptor fans.

Also regarding episode three of Dinosaur Revolution, Mike Habib writes about the portrayal of the pterodactlyoid Anhanguera in the program.

Here at LITC, my main man Marc Vincent has been writing terrific reviews of Planet Dinosaur, now airing on BBC. If you haven't checked them out, you really should.

Recently added SciAm blogger David Bressan writes about the history of the kangaroo-dinosaur analogy and the iconic status of T. rex at History of Geology, and does me the very great honor of a citation to one of my posts from last year. Great read, and thanks for the link, David!

I could write a long paragraph about one of Heinrich Mallison's recent posts at Dinosaurpalaeo, but two words will certainly suffice: Plateosaurus butt.

At the new Project Dryptosaurus site, Gary shares a hilarious vocal version of the Jurassic Park theme. One thing: I couldn't help but think of a much smaller scale, potty-mouthed version that's gone around the web. You know the one.

Mark Wildman is teasing us with a detail of a pterosaur fossil. Can't wait to see the full post about it.

72 pages after Jim Lawson began sharing his unpublished tyrant lizard tale, Paleo: Loner is done.

Dave Hone does us the immense favor of collecting all of the links to his long list of interviews with paleontography luminaries at Archosaur Musings. His latest: master Doug Henderson.

Arkansas has produced some exciting dinosaur tracks, and ReBecca Hunt-Foster has the skinny at Dinochick Blogs.

Finally, here's a very nice Gallimimus digital illustration from Paul Heaston. He writes, "I feel like the ornithomimids are being ignored in the dino-media and paleoart these days. They're cool! I gave this guy a confetti streamer tail because I wanted to."
gallimimus digital painting

You know, he has a point (though it must be noted that in the Archosaur Musings link above, Hone shares one of Doug Henderson's beauties which features Struthiomimus). The "bird mimics" don't seem to get an overwhelming amount of love right now. You know what I'd like to see? An ornithomimid triumphant over a tyrannosaur. They deserve some good PR, don't they?

Great Horned Owls in Flight

Another bit from Raptor Sunday:

As a commenter wrote on Flickr, I'm sure Sandy meant to do that! Owls can become pretty strongly attached to humans, and I'm sure it was just Sandy's way of making us feel less jealous about her ability to fly. This video was taken in the Indiana Raptor Center's flight barn, where their Great Horned Owls are becoming accustomed to flying, and where their progress can be monitored. Next year, they'll be adding on to it substantially, in addition to other renovations on their property in Nashville, Indiana.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Planet Dinosaur, episode four - review

This week, Planet Dinosaur served up some plesiosaurs. Now, this creates a problem for me - while I have just enough knowledge of dinosaurs to occasionally convince people that I know what I'm talking about, my knowledge of plesiosaurs amounts to exactly the square root of bugger all cubed. I interviewed Adam Smith once and tended to just sit there dumbfoundedly, nodding and making sure my dictaphone was working. Fortunately a few dinosaurs from the Morrison formation were also included - so don't mind me for focussing on those.

Above: Allosaurus and Camptosaurus from Planet Dinosaur. Copyright the BBC.

Entitled 'Fight for Life', the theme of this episode was predator-prey relationships in the Late Jurassic. The terrestrial star of the show was good old Allosaurus, which (a few too-hollow fenestrae aside) was rendered very well; unlike in Walking With Dinosaurs, the animal's horns were correctly positioned, while its enlarged thumb claw was present and correct. Nice colour scheme, too. Pleasingly, the show drew on research from recent years when talking about Allosaurus' bite, noting that it likely used its head as a sort of 'hatchet' when attacking its prey.

Allosaurus was depicted hunting Stegosaurus and Camptosaurus, which were themselves portrayed as living together for mutual benefit (plausible). Stegosaurus was one of the more poorly rendered dinosaurs in the show, lacking throat ossicles and having 'old-fashioned' hands. Camptosaurus was mostly fine, although it did display a side-to-side chewing motion similar to a mammal, which was something that no dinosaur could do.

Still, it was a thrill to see Allosaurus tracking its prey, and the "incredible" evidence for Stegosaurus-Allosaurus interactions was duly shown to us. We even got a brief glimpse of Saurophaganax, scaring Allosaurus away from its kill. Even if you're of the opinion that Saurophaganax should be lumped into Allosaurus, it was great to see a non-Allosaurus fragilis Morrison predator get a look in.

To the plesiosaurs, then. Ah. Erm. Um. Well. Yes. Naturally, the show lavished attention on 'Predator X', the gigantic pliosaur that has yet to be named (it's a shame that there are only three plesiosaur researchers in the world*). And hey, both it and Kimmerosaurus looked pretty decent. To me. As in, there were no major howlers like swan necks and overly floppy flippers. There were, similar to the Allosaurus, recessed areas of the head that shouldn't have been, but based on my very very limited knowledge of plesiosaurs they looked acceptable.

And blimey, those above-water shots looked stunning, didn't they? Yes they did.

The best parts of these scenes, as is so often the case with this show, were when we were shown various fossils that provided evidence for plesiosaur feeding behaviour and predator-prey relationships. Being not normally so concerned with marine reptiles, most of it was brand new and therefore fascinating to me; it made it easier to appreciate what a good job the show is doing when it comes to educating non-enthusiasts about dinosaurs. In the future, if any documentaries about prehistoric animals don't provide the fossil evidence, they are going to receive howls of derision and a shower of rotten fruit for sure.

Overall, a good episode; while it's unfortunate that the fact that plesiosaurs were not dinosaurs was not explained, enough people hopefully know this by now. Hopefully. The restorations were also pretty good, the Stegosaurus aside. Keep an eye on Adam Smith's Plesiosaur Bites blog, as he may well be reviewing it soon.

*Not literally true.

UPDATE: Adam has now uploaded part 1 of his review of the show's plesiosaurs.

More reflections on Raptor Sunday

Talking with Patti and Laura at the Indiana Raptor Center this week, I couldn't help but reflect on how dinosaur paleontology and bird conservation relate to each other as outreach efforts. I've spent a lot of time over the last couple of months pondering my role as a graphic designer and what I want to do with this fancy degree I'm working for. As I explore ideas for my thesis project, I feel that the core of it must be my dedication to environmental conservation and my desire to communicate the reason it's so vital: the deep, unbreakable tie we have with our fellow earthlings, human, animal, and otherwise. That's where paleontology's relevance is, too. Just read Scott Sampson if you need convincing. It's not the slight hobby of collectors, merely hoping to fill drawers in museums. It's an important way to reveal life's history. I don't think I've hit on any ground-breaking insights, but I've always found that writing helps me distill my thoughts and help direct them into action. When it's relevant, I hope you won't object to me sharing these posts here.

As a schoolboy, I remember learning about Indiana’s prehistory. Being a northerner, I mainly heard stories of the native cultures who hunted and fished before the arrival of European settlers. I heard stories of farmers discovering the bones of Mammoths when digging ponds. I heard of glaciers, the creation of Lake Michigan, the shaping of the land around us, the layers of till that created the farmlands my family drove across when driving southbound through the state. Ever since, I can't help but look into the prehistory of a place before I travel there.

One thing I learned quickly: Indiana is not dinosaur country. No, those bragging rights belonged to Western states where I heard of rocks that every year gave us new dinosaurs to study. It would take years before I matured enough to get over this slight. But eventually I learned to consider the prehistoric tales told by my home state just as fascinating as those coming from Montana, Utah, and other Western states. I especially appreciated the Carboniferous ecosystems evident in the south of the state, where ancient coal forests were mined for electricity and the remains of tropical seas provided world-famous limestone for sculpture and architecture.

Of course, by the time I had a deeper understanding and appreciation of non-dinosaur paleontology, the slight had been mitigated greatly by the realization that even though the great bulk of dinosaurs had perished many millions of years ago, a slim branch of their family tree survived the end-Mesozoic extinction and flourished: birds, of course. When I was dreaming of fantastic Mesozoic tableaus populated by great monstrous tyrants and outlandishly ornamented behemoths, I was simultaneously watching their distant kin at the feeders hanging in my family’s backyard Magnolia tree. I was collecting their feathers, gazing at their exotic relations in magazines and field guides, and learning of the diverse roles they played in their ecosystems. Two seemingly independent interests that had been traveling their separate ways intersected and reinforced each other.

Patrick the American Kestrel
Patrick the American Kestrel, one of the Indiana Raptor Center's residents That's Jennie and me reflected in his eye!.

So these birds - songbirds, shorebirds and raptors, woodpeckers, blackbirds and thrushes - are Indiana’s dinosaurs. And they deserve no less appreciation, no smaller measure of wonder than what we give to the beasts of the Mesozoic who live only in the mists of the dream time, where we can freely imbue them with as much monstrous character as we like. Likewise, looking into the keen eyes of a kestrel to see its peculiar intelligence and observing its finely honed behaviors, we can start to see the mundane beauty of the animal kingdom that must have been the true way the dinosaurs lived. Hadrosaurs are sometimes called the “cows of the Cretaceous.” Ceratopsians are compared to buffalo and rhinoceros. Sauropods to elephants. But these rough and inaccurate comparisons only serve as masks for creatures that we’ll never know.

In birds, however, some strand of the theropod’s nature persists. I believe that the power of that realization can be a potent force for education that brings people face-to-face with the long and surprising journeys evolution has taken over our shared planet’s billions of years orbiting the Sun, and that's what I want to be at the core of my identity as a designer. Thesis ideas, start dropping into my lap any time now...

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Terrible '90s Dromaeosaur Face-Off: Round 4

It's finally time for the last round before the semi-finals. Last week's runaway rinner was Velociraptor from the Dinosaurier trading cards - described as a "Croco-raptor" (Ryan de Luca), "hideous mutant alligator man" (Tomozaurus) and "bipedal crocodile with ostrich legs" (Henrique Niza). Shine on, you crazy diamond!

Both of this week's entries come courtesy of Vrahno, who was able to provide a double helping of spectacularly bad dromaeosaurs in a single comment. It should be a tough one!

In the blue corner - Velociraptor from Spotter's Guide to Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals:

And in the red corner - Velociraptor from 100 Things You Should Know About Dinosaurs:

Which one wins? And on what criteria? You decide! The winner will appear in the second semi-final in two weeks' time. Best of luck.

Extant Theropod Appreciation #9: Raptor Sunday

Patrick the American Kestrel
Patrick, an American Kestrel and stealer of hearts.

This past Sunday, Jennie and I visited the Indiana Raptor Center in Nashville, a small tourist town about a half hour from Bloomington and the IU campus. Situated on a ridge in Indiana woodland, backing up to a ravine, the Raptor Center is home to dozens of species, both local and exotic. The center's president and executive director, Patti Reynolds, along with education director and master falconer Laura Edmunds, showed us around the facilities and introduced us to some of the resident raptors. I think we made friends of both the feathered and non-feathered kind, and I hope that the sentiment is mutual.

Barred Owls
Barred owl with something yummy.

I occasionally get bushwhacked by the beauty of an avian critter and do posts in the Extant Theropod Appreciation series. This week will certainly be in that vein as I share some of my feelings about the visit. I have never really interacted with raptors in this way, save for the odd presentation in grade school or nature centers. This was a whole different ball of wax: learning the animal's names and stories, seeing the relationship they had with their keepers and rehabilitators, dodging them as they flew inches above my head (an experience I commend Jennie for enduring). You look into the eyes of an owl or a falcon, and even though I'm as skeptical and non-spiritual as they come, you can understand how mythologies spring from these animals. You can understand why we might project human qualities onto them, and either aspire to the nobler ones or personify our fears.

Oliver the Peregrine
Oliver the Peregrine Falcon, with a quail for lunch.

Mowgli the Great Horned Owl
Mowgli, a female Great Horned Owl.

To me, though, you must set those poetic and mythic associations aside and focus on the inherent value of an animal. An owl is not wisdom. A bald eagle is not righteousness. They are instead integral parts of their habitats. There is a reason they live where they do: they are living components in ecosystems. Those ecosystems in turn have evolved to become the environments which first sustained our ancestors, and to alter that system is to impact our own lives in ways we can't always predict. The Indiana Raptor Center and related organizations don't just rehabilitate the broken and needy, they help us understand how we can correct broken environments and see just how needy we are.

Ben the Bald Eagle
Thunderin' Ben the Bald Eagle, making that distinctive Bald Eagle cry.

If you have a local raptor rescue center, I'd encourage you to see if tours are available and, if you're looking for some way to contribute, donate time, talent, or money. This was such a huge honor for me, and if you've also had little experience with these animals up close, you owe it to yourself to look them in the eyes, examine their plumage, and see them in flight up close. Thanks to Patti and Laura for being such obliging hosts (extra thanks to Laura for keeping me on my toes - when we first arrived, she said "So, you're here to see the... pickling operation?" and I, gullible dope that I am, fell for it, wondering if I'd come to the wrong address. Even after this, she pulled five or six more fast ones on me before I became more alert). I'll have one or two more posts about this visit, but you can also check out photos and a video in my Flickr set.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Ladybird Dinosaurs

If you've never owned a Ladybird book, then you didn't have a childhood. I'm serious - your childhood memories were probably implanted, and you are in fact the product of a sinister government/corporate experiment a la Deus Ex. Ladybird published a huge range of hardback, conveniently kiddy-sized books, both fictional and factual - everything from simplified versions of Robinson Crusoe to simplified accounts of prehistoric animals. Which'll be what this here book is all about.

Dating from 1988, Dinosaurs features some thoroughly outdated, yet still very beautiful artwork by B H Robinson. The internet reveals his first name to be Bernard. An accomplished animal illustrator, Robinson's work has a very distinctive look and feel, even if he sometimes resorts to ripping off established palaeoartists. His dinosaurs (as with the Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops above) are very reptilian, rather old-fashioned, but wonderfully and impeccably detailed.

Like many dinosaur books aimed at kids, this book skips merrily through time in (mostly) chronological order, detailing quite a few animals besides dinosaurs. The above Permian scene stood out to me simply because, well, the Edaphosaurus. The Edaphosaurus! I know the animal was a pin-head, but this illustration may be taking it a little too far.

Robinson's sauropods are still of the swamp-dwelling variety, with wrinkly skin and a taste for mushy aquatic plants (it's the only thing these pathetic evolutionary failures are equipped to eat, you see). Diplodocus is very recognisable - slender, with a long neck and whip-like tail. Apatosaurus is...less so. This is, it's safe to say, one of the lesser of Robinson's illustrations.

Robinson's theropods are the tail-dragging, cold-blooded lumps of old, and he obviously takes inspiration from lizards when rendering them. His Allosaurus, while as beautifully painted as ever, has a head that owes more to Varanus than the real thing. The Stegosaurus is just predictably old-fashioned, with its sprawled forelimbs, highly arched back and lizardy feet. Still, it should be noted that as cold-blooded animals (that never existed) they do sorta make sense, particularly when it comes to their being somewhat under-muscled. I'll come back to that.

Here's a good example of Robinson ripping off established (if dead) artists. In particular, the Hypsilophodon stage left obviously owes an awful lot to Neave Parker's peculiarly perching interpretation of the animal. The Iguanodon, meanwhile, looks rather similar to a fibreglass model that I've seen in every British attraction featuring life-size fibreglass dinosaurs that I've been to. It seems that for so long this WAS Iguanodon - a tripod with a lizard head and arms notably less robust than they really were. Can't really blame Robinson for going along with the meme, I suppose. (Look, Nessie!)

And now for something completely different: weird ankylosaurs. The Polacanthus pretty much resembles how the animal was commonly depicted for decades, including by the likes of John Sibbick (whose own painting of the animal was ripped off repeatedly). It does at least have straight legs, unlike the freaky no-neck Ankylosaurus, which also has spikes on its tail club. ("Over 4.5m long" - not half! Well, that is about half, actually.) In spite of how strange the Ankylosaurus may look, the award for derpiest animal in this book surely goes to...

...Tyrannosaurus! Poor dear, what have they done to you? The skin texture is beautiful as ever, but the animal itself looks horrendous. Styracosaurus looks embarrassed to be in the same scene (although of course it shouldn't be anyway). Returning to my point about under-muscled dinosaurs - this trait is particularly noticable when it comes to Robinson's tyrannosaurs. Robinson has obviously 'fixed' the animal to appear more reptilian, cold-blooded and, subsequently, weedy. Still, this is not to deride him too much, because, hey...

...His Archaeopteryx is actually pretty good! Check it out - no glue-on mini-hands! As someone accustomed to drawing birds, Robinson naturally delivers a feathered maniraptoran with decent plumage and anatomy that makes sense. Truly, his tyrannosaur-related sins are forgiven.

And that's your lot for now. As always, let me know of your thoughts, especially if you are familiar with this illustrator and his work.