Monday, February 27, 2012

Vintage Hypothetical Dinosaur Art: Dougal Dixon in Dinosaurs!

Yes, it's Dinosaurs! magazine yet again. But you can hardly blame me - I do have the whole anthology, after all, and it's an absolute treasure trove (not to mention a provider of handy filler while I wait for my next eBay-purchased 1980s dino book to arrive).

This week, we'll be paying special attention to one of the more unorthodox features that appeared during the magazine's run. It would seem that Dougal Dixon was quite heavily involved in Dinosaurs! - he is one of the few authors to be name-checked in the final issue - which isn't really surprising. 'Prolific' doesn't even begin to describe this guy, who has heaps of popular dinosaur books to his name - ranging from the quite conventional to the utterly bonkers. This article tends more towards the latter.
















Oh yes - alternate history. Dixon actually produced a book dedicated to these specul-o-saurs, but Dinosaurs! was where I came into contact with them. Positing a world in which the Cretaceous/Palaeogene extinction didn't happen, Dixon tries to imagine how the nonavian dinosaurs would have continued to evolve. The results are...mixed. The bizarre creature above - apparently a hadrosaur descendant - doesn't get things off to a good start. Hadrosaurs relied on their large caudofemoralis muscles to propel themselves away from predators, so why has its tail evolved into a giant quill?






















Still, Dixon does produce some much more plausible hypothetical dinosaurs. A fluffy, arboreal theropod with an elongated finger? Wait - didn't that actually exist? It's amusing now to think that someone's vision of a hypothetical modern-day theropod was essentially real and lived over 100 million years ago. That's palaeontology for you.

Speaking of things that are 'amusing':





















A 'pandasaur' evolved from hypsilophodonts may be taking convergent evolution a little too far - particularly as it looks so much like a panda, binocular vision, stumpy tail and all. "You would almost think that [the pandasaur] was some kind of giant panda," the author notes - apparently unaware of the actual giant panda. The wasp-eater just seems a little pointless, given that the arboreal dinosaur already featured looks considerably more plausible (what's with the tiny hands?), and would almost certainly be just as capable of eating wasps. If it existed. Which it did. Sort of.

















While a nonavian, flamingo-like theropod is plausible enough, it's something that could easily have evolved in the Mesozoic (alongside the filter-feeding pterosaurs) - still a hypothetical dinosaur, but not one that could only ever have existed in the Cenozoic. And, well, even if mammals hadn't become the dominant large land animals, who's to say that flamingoes wouldn't have evolved anyway? One might say that the 'Is it true?' box hints at this very conclusion...












Ah, now this is more like it. Back in the early 1990s, it was still a widely-held belief that tyrannosaurs evolved from allosaurs as part of a 'carnosaur' lineage. As such - and in the context of Tyrannosaurus rex being the largest known theropod - it seemed that as the animals got larger and larger, their forelimbs got smaller and smaller. Hence, here we have a 17-metre long behemoth, shaped like a shoebox, with no arms whatsoever. It's safe to say that it looks pretty ridiculous. The complete loss of the forelimbs is actually quite plausible (it's easy to see abelisaurs losing them given a few more tens of millions of years), but why the stumpy, columnar legs with the retroverted toes? Even the largest theropods had the standard flexed legs, and theropods weighing upwards of five tonnes evolved multiple times in separate lineages. Still, such thinking can probably be explained by the popular lumping of all large theropods as 'carnosaurs' at the time.














And finally...on the left we have an evolved troodont that plays dead in order to lure potential prey items, before striking out with its sickle claw. It doesn't take a lot of thought to discern a slight flaw in that strategy, namely that it would also likely attract any gigantic, box-shaped, toddling predators in the vicinity. Oh well - at least it's not a 'dinosauroid'. Meanwhile, on the right we have a hummingbird as reimagined in someone's terrifying, drug-fuelled waking nightmares. Brrrr.

While some of the thinking behind these creations was a little faulty even for the early '90s, what the nonavian dinosaurs might have been like had they survived into the modern day remains an interesting, if utterly pointless, thought to ponder, and Dixon was quite prescient in that at least one of his creations, it transpires, did really exist. Kinda. One thing seems quite certain - were it not for the end-Cretaceous extinction event, you and I would not be here today. Because Hitler would have won World War II. It's just science.

30 comments:

  1. I remember seeing another series of these 'what if' hypotheses around the same time. I cannot for my life recall where, but I remember the illustrations being highly accomplished. They could almost serve as 'concept art' for some very inventive fantasy beasts.

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    1. Now you mention it, me too...but very vaguely!

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    2. Well, try to jog the memory as I may for other possibilities, you can only be talking about the Speculative Dinosaur Project, http://speculativebiology.wikia.com/wiki/The_Speculative_Dinosaur_Project

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    3. Dracontes: Not that, I'm afraid. That's much more recent, whereas the illustrations I'm thinking of were created in the nineties, more or less around the same time as the Dinosaurs! magazine. They were also traditionally created.

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    4. Apologies for the thread necromancy, but I believe I know where you saw this other series. Dinosaurs! had a rival magazine in early '90s Britain, one of a somewhat decreased brow altitude.

      It focused primarily on light entertainment, with lots of little games, quizzes and toy features, and unlike Dinosaurs! (which somehow maintained a cool indifference while Spielberg made everyone's minds explode) it made a very big deal out of Jurassic Park when that appeared.

      Anyway, alongside the fun and games, they'd add the occasional spot of edutainment, and one such feature was exactly what we're discussing (and quite a while before the Dinosaurs! article if memory serves). I remember one of the hypothetical creatures being a dromaeosaurid covered in thick brown hair, aside from its snout (bear in mind this was before China started exposing its feathery secrets).

      For the life of me I can't remember the exact name of the magazine, and my Google search has turned up a grand total of nothing. I think I may still have a few copies lurking in some long-forgotten crate (imagine the closing shot from Raiders Of The Lost Ark and you may have an idea of my situation) but that'll be one for palaeontologists to dig up in the future.
      (I wonder how they'll speculate we could have evolved if we hadn't had all our eggs eaten by rodents or been eradicated by aliens.)

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  2. I have the book with all of the fully realized illustrations! It is called The New Dinosaurs: An Alternate Evolution. The ISBN is 0449904423. It has been out of print for quite some time but totally worth tracking down. Maybe if I have some time I'll scan some pages and upload them to the vintage dinosaur art page on flickr.

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  3. I had The New Dinosaurs on all-but permanent loan from the library growing up (it was that and Norman and Sibbick's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs). Right now it's the holy grail of my used bookstore trips. I know I could just order it off Amazon or eBay, but I enjoy hunting for it whenever I'm in a used bookstore.

    Of course, compared to Man After Man, Dixon's speculative dinosaurs are completely sane and realistic.

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    1. I forgot to actually comment on the art. Do you know if these illustrations pre or post-date The New Dinosaurs? The creatures are the same, but the illustrations are different. I wonder if these are Dixon's initial sketches for them. The only one that seems drastically different is the Ganeosaurus, which I believe had a different name in the book, and looked a bit more plausible. The body was the same, but it had a shorter neck that looked balanced by the tail. I have no idea how this version does anything without falling over.

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    2. Well, these are from 1994. At least, that's when the relevant issue of Dinosaurs! came out.

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    3. That's even more weird then. These all look like drafts for the book that came out in 1988.

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    4. They could be - he might not have wanted to use the final artwork from the book for various reasons.

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    5. The new Dinosaurs book describes it under the fictional genus "gourmand", but I think the species name Ganeosaurus is in there. In the book, it was shown swallowing a sauropod whole in one gulp, which looked a lot more unnatural than the sketch shown in Dinosaurs!

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    6. The dinosaur that plays dead was called the springe in The New Dinosaurs, and was somewhat less gaudily colored although its feathers looked an awful lot like fur (I remember this being true for most of the feathers in the book). I thought it was adorable, and made up a whole mating ritual for it (would that be fanfiction?) where the males play dead and the females walk around seeing which ones do it best.

      The Gourmand exemplifies a tendency in Dixon's speculative-future books (yes, I read them all) for arm loss. There's more armlessness in New Dinosaurs, as well as in After Man, in which humans die out. I guess it's a good way for something to look alien to us. After Man also features a terrifying carnivorous bat that runs around on its front legs and grabs things with its back legs, which come over its shoulders like arms.

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  4. Due to an odd piece of memory failure, this article has resolved a puzzle I've been trying to figure out for years!
    I used to get Dinosaurs! as a kid, and when I was 3-4 this issue came out. I had the whole series in comic form, until I 'grew up', and got rid of them. Many years later, I had a nostalgia trip, and bought The New Dinosaurs, thinking it was that book that I had seen these speculative Dixon Dinosaurs in. Lo and behold, when the book arrived, the giant armless Tyrannosaur and other stuff I remember so vividly (including the Melexsorbius humming-bird thing, which seriously freaked me out as a kid) wasn't present. A couple of very confused years later where I semi-seriously imagined the 4 year-old me had had strange parallel thoughts with Dixon, I have now found that article/book which got me interested in speculative evolution.
    Thanks for clearing that personal confusion!

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  5. What a fantastic find! I did a review of The New Dinosaurs a while back (http://babbletrish.blogspot.com/2009/05/lets-read-new-dinosaurs.html) and had no idea these other drawing existed. They do almost look like early concept art for the illustrations in the book, so it's weird that this was published later. I will link to this in my review.

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    1. Doh! Thank you for your link, Trish. It still didn't click with me when the others mentioned the book, but now that I can see the illustrations: bingo. This is what I was thinking of. Though I never had the book and am still unable to fathom where I first saw the illustrations. I was also clearly wrong about their being created at the same time as Dinosaurs!; I see they were even earlier.

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    2. You're very welcome!

      You know the more I look at these illustrations from Dinosaurs, the more they resemble either weird fanart of Dixon's creatures or really early concept art from Dixon's own illustrators. I wish there was more information out there.

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    3. Perhaps Marc can tell us whom the Dinosaurs! illustrations were by?

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  6. I think the troodont and the flamingosaur were referenced in the Speculative Dinosaur Project.

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    1. I can't confirm this, but the troodont certainly reminds me of Spec's Davie's nerd of paradise (a contender for my favorite Spec animal), a maniraptor that hunts by lying in a pool of its sticky vomit, which traps small animals that investigate. (Most of the time the vomit is used as a projectile for defense against predators.)

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    2. Oh God, how I love the Nerd of Paradise. Best Speculative Fiction Animal Ever.

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  7. What a coincidence, I was re-reading this a few days ago and thinking that it would be cool if you reviewed it (but then I thought you would prob find it too silly- as I do). One of the funniest chapters of the Humongous book, and not much less plausible than most of the other stuff.

    Not sure if you reviewed too the one about "What if dinosaurs had feathers", featuring many colourful and funky looking maniraptors- including the fellow mohawk Syntarsus.

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  8. "Still, Dixon does produce some much more plausible hypothetical dinosaurs. A fluffy, arboreal theropod with an elongated finger? Wait - didn't that actually exist? It's amusing now to think that someone's vision of a hypothetical modern-day theropod was essentially real and lived over 100 million years ago. That's palaeontology for you."

    Don't forget about the resemblance btwn the Dip ( http://www.scientificamerican.com/slideshow.cfm?id=alternative-evolution-dinosaurs-foresaw-contemporary-paleo ) & unenlagiines (which, like the Dip, probably ate fish).

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  9. @Niroot: The illustrations are all by Dougal Dixon.

    @Hadiaz: I wasn't aware of the Dip - I haven't actually read The New Dinosaurs, just this article.

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    1. In which case, as you said, it is possible that these were his earlier drawings not published in The New Dinosaurs. From Trish's post, it looks as though all the illustrations for that book were done by others in any case.

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  10. I just found this blog post that seems to contain all of the illustrations from The New Dinosaurs.

    http://monsterbrains.blogspot.com/2010/12/dougal-dixon-new-dinosaurs-1988.html

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    1. And that post ends with this link to the entire book:
      http://www.sivatherium.narod.ru/library/Dixon_2/00_en.htm

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    2. Excellent. Thank you, Talcott!

      Ah, I love the sprintosaurs...

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    3. Blimey! Megalosaurus came back from the dead!

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