Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Are We Shrink-Wrapping Ichthyosaur Tails?

(Don't start with a disclaimer... DON'T START WITH A DISCLAIMER!)

DisclaimerI'm not trained in palaeontology or fluid mechanics, but after recently illustrating a few ichthyosaurs for a project, I wondered if I was reconstructing their tails too conservatively. I had a poke around the internet and tried to translate it into some coherent thoughts. A water tunnel, tame engineer, and unlimited access to ichthyosaurs would have been useful, but in the absence of all of that, I just had fudge it. And fudge it I did.

The Current Popular Look For Ichthyosaur Tails

If you look at palaeoart depicting ichthyosaurs (including six of the seven I just did... pfft!), a good chunk of it shows animals with tails which are more-or-less cylindrical, following the form of the vertebral column under the surface, skimmed with some muscle and skin, and terminating in a thunniform ('tuna-esque') caudal fin, the lower lobe of which displays a prominent ridge where the vertebrae continue beneath the fin's surface. The top lobe is generally depicted as skinnier than the bottom. But is this the most likely look for ichthyosaurs, and is it worth taking a peak at modern aquatic vertebrates to see how they're doing it?

A horribly-shrink-wrapped Ophthalmosaurus, with a stupidly-long tail. By me. Illustration: copyright © 2003 OUMNH/Gareth Monger

Caudal Fins

The caudal fins of aquatic vertebrates vary greatly in form, reflecting the locomotive styles and ecological niches of their owners. Ocean-going predators, including cetaceans, sharks, and billfish (sailfish, marlins, etc.) have evolved caudal fin shapes which allow them to reach the speeds necessary to run down swift prey and there are broad similarities brought about by convergence. The differences in the orientation of the caudal fin of fishes and reptiles, and mammals, reflect the evolutionary origins of those fins. The ancestors of aquatic reptiles presumably walked with a sprawling gait, their vertebral columns flexing from side to side, resulting in the same undulating motion in water and, therefore, a vertically oriented caudal fin. Cetaceans' terrestrial ancestors walked with an erect gait and cetaceans swim with a vertical undulation and developed a horizontally oriented caudal fin.

Predatory marine vertebrates: A. Atlantic sailfish (Istiophorus albicans); B. tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier); C. harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena); D. the Jurassic ichthyosaur, Opthalmosaurus. Image: Gareth Monger.

Streamlining Peduncles

Some of these animals also bear modified structures which improve the efficiency of their stroke. The part of the body after the anal fin (broadly speaking, the tail) is called the caudal peduncle, and contains the muscles which drive the caudal fin. It also includes the bony or cartilaginous skeleton, depending on the group to which it belongs. (In cetaceans, the peduncle is also called the tail stock.) In order to generate forward thrust, the caudal fin beats laterally in fish and reptiles, and vertically in mammals. The peduncle must also displace water during the stroke, but pushing the peduncle through water can reduce the efficiency of the caudal fin. Drag created by the peduncle during the stroke is energy wasted which could be converted to forward thrust by the caudal fin. In addition to this, water made turbulent having passed over the animal's body and fins then flows to the caudal fin. The caudal fin is less efficient in this disturbed, turbulent water than in smooth, laminar water.

Many species improve upon these inefficiencies by having peduncles which are streamlined to cut down hydrodynamic drag during the swimming stroke. For example, many sharks' peduncles are dorsoventrally-flattened to ovals when viewed in cross-section, which might be expected anyway because the muscles are grouped either side of the vertebral column – though the overlying tissues produce more-angular apexes to the oval than is achieved by the muscle mass alone.  This produces a lower profile that cuts through the water more easily during lateral beating of the tail. If the stroke generates less turbulence, the animal can transfer more of its energy to the caudal fin to be turned into forward thrust. The cross-section of the cetacean peduncle is similar, except that its oval is oriented vertically.

The peduncle and caudal fin of the harbour porpoise. The cross-section through the peduncle shows the streamlined dorsal and ventral surfaces. Image: Gareth Monger.

Caudal Keels as Laminar Flow Generators

Caudal keel as a possible laminar flow generator.
Image: Gareth Monger.
An additional feature of some fish peduncles is a 'caudal keel' situated on the outermost margins. This is sometimes formed by harder structures such as scales in animals which possess scales – a bit like ridge tiles on a roof. The keels' locations towards the distal end of the peduncle may also partially stabilise the flow of turbulent water as it passes from the animal's body and over its caudal fin. It's less efficient for the caudal fin to push against turbulent water during its stroke, but a longer caudal keel, as seen in some sharks, might convert some of the turbulence to laminar flow. This presumes that a given ichthyosaur's integument didn't sufficiently produce laminar flow on its own.

Caudal Keels as Boundary Layer Fences

The keels might also function as 'boundary layer fences', which serve to reduce slippage of water passing across the caudal fin towards the lobes of the fins. In other words, if the water flows in any other direction not associated with the forward thrust, thrust is lost and the animal must work harder. Imagine balancing a tray on one hand. If the tray is loaded with marbles and it leans slightly, it's fairly easy for all of the marbles to roll together, and the tray will tip, spilling all of the marbles at one end. If there's a small ridge at the centre, it will help to prevent each half of the tray's marbles from slipping to the other side, and it will be easier to control the tray.

Locations of caudal keels for the Atlantic sailfish (Istiophorus albicans) and the porbeagle shark (Lamna nasus). NB: The cross-section for the sailfish is an extrapolated from available photos of live animals. Image: Gareth Monger.

It's entirely possible that ichthyosaurs employed a similar system, combining a dorsoventrally-compressed peduncle and some sort of keel, to improve stroke efficiency. After two weeks of looking over literature and images online, I stumbled over a paper by Theagarten Lingham-Soliar (2016), which I wish I had a fortnight ago. Lingham-Soliar looked at convergence in lamnid sharks and Jurassic ichthyosaurs, and interpreted the soft-tissue remains in a particular ichthyosaur fossil (funnily enough, the photo later on in this article) as the impression of the animal's twisted-over peduncle. It's sometimes hard to interpret these soft tissue remains, not least because some earlier examples may have been enhanced, but if the fossil remains are suggesting chunky peduncles, it would make sense for them to find their way into artistic reconstructions.

Speculative diagram showing sections through the tail of Ophthalmosaurus. Vertebral column is shown in white, against body outline. Positions for possible keel-like structure indicated by arrows and pink dashed line. Image: Gareth Monger

So if peduncles are in, what of the ridge in the lower lobe, as defined by the distal vertebrae within the caudal fin? I can only approximate since I don't have ready access to an ichthyosaur skeleton, and I haven't yet found a detailed diagram of ichthyosaur musculature. That ridge has always been a feature of my ichthyosaur reconstructions, but those vertebrae are relatively small – they're only half the diameter of the smaller vertebrae in the peduncle, just in front of the caudal fin, forming a fairly narrow column. The majority of the caudal fin comprises soft tissue, presumably including some muscle which would be necessary to perform the adjustments to the fin's form during the stroke, i.e., preventing too much flexing which might negate the improvements brought about by the keel (re: boundary layer fence). Cetaceans do this, and their caudal fins are not especially skinny structures. It's feasible that an ichthyosaur's caudal fin vertebrae would have been bound in enough connective fibres, muscle and other tissues that they might not have been discernible in a healthy individual, and the upper lobe might not look too different to the lower.

Two highlighted caudal vertebrae, one just inside, and one just outside, the caudal fin. Note the those in the fin are approximately half the diameter of some of their nearest neighbours in the peduncle. Photo: Daderot. CC0 1.0; Digital overlays: Gareth Monger

So, considering that ichthyosaurs' forms shows them to be powerful, efficient swimmers, it's not totally unreasonable to at least consider that they might have evolved the anatomy to allow them to live as active, effective predators. And whilst the wider, flattened peduncle is likely, it doesn't automatically follow that they would have had keels as sharply defined as those found in sharks and other fish. Without knowing much about the sorts of integuments that various ichthyosaurs possessed, we can't know if specialised integument was used in a similar manner to the scutes of sailfish and their kin. I'm inclined to think scuted/scaled keels are a bit of a stretch. But a bit of definition to the peduncle might be likely.

Different ichthyosaur species were subjected to different selective pressures and, as with extant aquatic vertebrates, we should expect some variation in the external appearances of the myriad ichthyosaur species.

Lateral view of the chunky Ophthalmosaurus (based on Sander 2000), and a dorsal view extrapolated (well, fudged) from an anterior skeletal (McGowan & Motani 2003), and various pics of the great mount at Peterborough Museum. This dorsal view shows off the wider peduncle, but this still might be a tad skinny. Gotta find a decent ichthyosaur muscle reconstruction! Image: Gareth Monger.

Generalised ichthyosaurs, shown from different angles and displaying their chunky peduncles. 'Pedunkies'? Illustration: Gareth Monger).

The ophthalmosaurid ichthyosaur, Nannopterygius, reconstructed with a keeled peduncle. Illustration: Gareth Monger.


Bernvi, D. 2016. Ontogenetic Influences on Endothermy in the Great White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias). 10.13140/RG.2.1.2888.5367

Fish, F. E. (<-- seriously?). Biomechanical Perspective on the Origin of Cetacean Flukes. research.net

Lingham-Solia, T. 1999. Rare Soft Tissue Preservation Showing Fibrous Structures in an Ichthyosaur From the Lower Lias (Jurassic) of England. The Royal Society, 266, 2367–2373.

Lingham-Solia, T. 2016. Convergence in Thunniform Anatomy in Lamnid Sharks and Jurassic Ichthyosaurs. Integrative and Comparative Biology, Volume 56, Issue 6, 1 December 2016, Pages 1323–1336, https://doi.org/10.1093/icb/icw125

Martill, D. N. 1995. An Ichthyosaur With Preserved Soft Tissue From the Sinemurian of Southern England. Palaeontology, Vol. 38, Part 4, 1995, pp. 897–903, 1 p1.

Motani, R. 2005. Evolution of Fish-Shaped Reptiles (Reptilia: Ichthyopterygia) in their Physical Environments and Constraints. arjournals.annualreviews.org

Naish, D. 2008. Ichthyosaur Skin Impressions. http://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/

Sagong, W., Jeon W-P., Choi H. 2013. Hydrodynamic Characteristics of the Sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus) and Swordfish (Xiphias gladius) in Gliding Postures at Their Cruise Speeds. PLoS ONE 8(12): e81223. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081323

Veterian Key: Cetaceans. https://veteriankey.com/cetaceans/

Walters, V. 1962. Body Form and Swimming Performance in the Sogmbroid Fishes. Zoologist, 2:143-149.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

#FordVNaish Cartoon Follow-Up

#FordVNaish cartoon follow-up

So the talk was talked, the tweet-storm rained itself out and the write-ups were written (see here, here and here). Several people produced some nice memes and cartoons commenting on, and parodying, the aquatic dinosaur theory, which will hopefully continue to circulate for as long as the book does. I knocked out a few single-framers which are dumped here for the sake of posterity.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Ford vs. Naish - 'Too Big To Walk'

Too Big To Walk

Tuesday night saw the much anticipated head-to-head between aquatic dinosaur proponent, Brian J Ford, and British palaeo sense speaker, Darren Naish.

To get you up to speed, Ford has a written a pretty hefty book, published by HarperCollins, which outlines his theory that ALL non-avian dinosaurs were necessarily aquatic, as demonstrated by numerous anatomical details across the whole non-avian group. To promote his book, Ford has embarked on an informal lecture tour, giving talks at institutions and on cruises.

#FordVNaish: a well-attended event. (Photo: G. Monger.)

Ford is very much a lone wolf in respect of this theory, and one might wonder what harm there is in an individual pushing his ideas against the immense weight of established palaeontology. He’s one guy and if his ideas are bat shit crazy, what’s the problem?

Fringe Theory

The problem is basically two-fold:

First of all, Ford is taking his theory directly to his audience, which most of the time won't comprise individuals with any kind of working knowledge of biological or palaeontological principles. A critical and enquiring mind will almost certainly enable an audience member to identify some sweeping and unsubstantiated claims, but many people will take Ford’s claims at face value. After all, palaeontology is not that new a science, and it sounds reasonable that Ford has the benefit of all that available knowledge. In short, there must be something already in the myriad studies to support his claims.

Secondly, Ford’s theory is legitimised by the mainstream coverage it receives. HarperCollins gave him a book deal, fergawdsake! They’re not some loony creationist publishing outfit that only ever publishes anti-science. They’re a big deal. They have standards.

Even the BBC provided him with a platform, much to the consternation of many scientists. Whack-job pseudoscientists touting fringe theories don’t seem so oddball to the general public when an organisation like the BBC helps increase their audience size – or when a publishing house like HarperCollins is happy to associate with them.


So Ford came to London to plug his book at a new regular event dubbed New Lands, held at Conway Hall. In the interest of maintaining some semblance of balance (and, presumably, integrity) the organisers pushed for another speaker to attend in order to defend the ‘dinosaurs are not obligate water dwellers’ position of modern palaeontology. The format was simple and digestible. Ford made his claims and then Dr Darren Naish answered those claims. After a few minutes’ break, the audience and speakers reconvened, and a Q&A session was held.

Thanks in part to Darren Naish’s prevalence on social media, the event was well-publicised, especially among palaeontology workers and enthusiasts, and it seemed (to me, anyway) that it was those people who comprised the majority of the audience. Indeed, many of those in attendance knew each other, and as @scyrene tweeted, it resembled a mini TetZooCon.

Brian J Ford's Presentation

So after Scott Wood's introduction, Ford opened straight away with what boiled down to, “All modern palaeoart is wrong and silly, and palaeontologists hate me and are petty and small-minded, and also wrong.” A more-gentle approach might have helped his cause – and would have been more friendly! – since it’s impossible to denigrate scientific consensus on so basic a level without also seeming to have a pop those people, however informal their interest, who subscribe to those theories. It’s probably fair to say that Ford put a lot of backs up with his opening comments, and it said as much about his attitude towards the scientific community as it did about what he thought of the  model for dinosaurian lifestyles.

Ford adheres to the Greek pronunciation for Triceratops, pronouncing it with a hard ‘c’ throughout. His dedication to classical Greek fell short of dressing like Theophrastus and stalking up and down the lecture theatre making pronouncements from a scroll. (Er, what? - Ed) Ford proceeded to argue that dinosaurs were not dynamic, and the ideas perpetuated in modern palaeoart were ridiculous. Examples were provided, but all I got from that was that he's never seen a large mammal, like a rhino or a hippo, throwing its weight around. Also used as examples were numerous video clips of CG dinosaurs and their relatives, generally used as poor examples of palaeo restoration, in support of Ford's position. However, many of these, such as the WWD clips, are pushing twenty years old. There was a lot of cherry-picking going on, but picking holes in old, or even new, palaeoart is not the same as scientifically disproving a theory.

Edmontosaurus was selected as an animal which definitely lived an aquatic lifestyle, on account of its footprints' proximity to water, and the recovery of its fossils from petrified swamp beds. Also, sauropods didn’t need tails to balance; tails are dead weights, don't you know?! And gigantism always favours an aquatic lifestyle, never mind that sauropod skeletons are nothing like extant giant aquatic vertebrates' skeletons.

Curiously, Ford ignored the vastly disparate nature of the various dinosaur groups. Sure, it must help him make his point if he can ignore as many uncomfortable truths as possible, but ten year olds watching his talk on some Cunard cruise are going to wonder if he really knows his stuff. Some of Ford's anti-terrestriality arguments were based on out-dated reconstruction of Spinosaurus. He then moved to the newer Ibrahim et al reconstruction to point out that he was right all along, but then trashed it when it didn't agree with him.

Take-home: Non-Avian dinosaurs were too big to live on land, and inhabited bodies of water sufficiently deep to support their bodies. And suggestion to the contrary is absurd, and all palaeontologists are silly and small-minded.

Darren Naish's Presentation

Darren's main line of attack was to go through Ford's arguments, and offer some science – which had been sorely lacking for the previous thirty-or-so minutes. He started by giving a very brief overview of the main dinosaur groups and pointing out that the aquatic dinosaur theory is misinformation; the aquatic dinosaur claim is old, familiar, and robustly discredited. Ford cherrypicks his data. (He does; we all sat through him doing it!)

Contrary to Ford's assertions, Tyrannosaurus fossils, their trace fossils, coprolites, and fossils found in association with them, all support terrestriality. Darren pointed out that non-bird dinosaurs lacked aquatic specialisation, with the exception of a couple of weirdo theropods such as Spinosaurus and Halszkaraptor, and we were shown slides showing the evolutionary changes seen in animals which are aquatic.

Despite Ford's claims, aquatic animals do not want pneumatised bodies. They want dense bones. Also, buoyancy studies of dinosaurs support terrestriality. As mentioned, Darren acknowledged that some dinosaurs were likely semi-aquatic. Ford frequently referred to Spinosaurus's sail as a fin, but Darren pointed out that its sail is unlike those in fish. Despite the presence of a sail in chameleons, they're not aquatic either.

Are sauropods too heavy to walk? No - bones and soft tissue support life on land. Were those tails too big for living on land? Their anatomy says no; the tail is not a dead counterweight. it anchors the caudofemoralis muscles for pulling the femur back and powering locomotion.

In order to support his claims, Ford is dismissive of geology - like creationists! The Mesozoic was not a hothouse environment full of deep, warm swamps. The vast majority of dinosaur footprints were made on land and those thought to be made in water are highly questionable.

Critically, the isotopic signature in dinosaur bones supports a terrestrial lifestyle – but not for Spinosaurus.

Take-home: Decades of evidence and studies support a terrestrial lifestyle for non-avian dinosaurs, although a couple of known species show evidence for being semi-aquatic. Aside from those exceptions, no non-avian dinosaurs show any specialisation towards an aquatic lifestyle.

Q&A/Who Won?

The bar was shut during the break, which resulted in the sort of wailing and gnashing of teeth that you would expect from a bunch of scientists. People started sweating and panicking, but then John Conway remembered he’d seen a pub only a hundred yards away, and everybody pulled themselves together.

After the break, a Q&A session provided the speakers with the opportunity to address some of their differences through answering questions from the audience, and New Lands’ organiser, Scott Wood, refereed the responses and kept things on track. Among the many excellent questions were, “Would dinosaurs with heavy bone structures, such as Triceratops and Ankylosaurus, sink in water?” and “If Darren was more outrageous and sweary, would he have a HarperCollins publishing deal?”

Darren Naish and Brian J Ford (Photograph: G. Monger.)
Unfortunately I was still busy live-tweeting, and the faster pace of the Q&A session meant that I didn’t manage to tweet all of the questions, and I didn’t record any of the replies. But it’s fair to say that the speakers’ answers were in line with their presentations, and there were no surprises. That said, there was a fraction of what felt like ‘rolling back’ by Ford, where he made it clear that he wasn’t saying that even the biggest sauropods didn’t migrate to land in order to carry out certain activities, such as egg-laying. This was certainly at odds with his overall tone regarding the preposterousness of dinosaurs living out of water. He worked hard to convince us that these animals simply couldn’t do it, and then, almost flippantly, remarked, “Well, I’m not saying they couldn’t come out to lay their eggs!”

For me, this rather summed up Ford’s theory – and maybe Ford himself. Despite the Boris-eque bluster and theatrics, Ford simply didn’t speak with conviction. Certainly not the conviction of a scientist who has put his ideas to the test. Not even the conviction of the weirdo in the pub who genuinely, genuinely believes that David Icke is right about the Royal Family. Unlike the weirdo in the pub who can quote his subject chapter and verse, Ford cannot. There’s nothing to quote. We were provided with a string of barely-relevant anecdotes, insults and easily-refutable observations.

On that point, I’m not suggesting that all Darren had to do was turn up and list the studies that refuted Ford’s claims whilst trying not be rude, but in many ways, that was all that was required. Ford hadn’t undone any accepted principles. There was no palaeontology-shattering peer-reviewed paper which Ford could roll up and bop Darren on the nose with and say, “Toddle off home, Naish – you’re finished!” We were just subjected to his unsubstantiated ideas, punctuated with playground-style verbal attacks on palaeo workers. Saying somebody else's theory is silly does not substantiate your own.

But Darren did provide as much information as the time and format would allow and was very well prepared, which is to be expected from someone who is an expert in their subject and has already challenged Ford's claims on several occasions. Who won the debate is largely moot, since Ford is promoting a book, the release of which is imminent, and HarperCollins is hardly going to pull it on the strength of Ford's thrashing at the hands of Darren. A win for Darren would be to see the buzz surrounding the debate help inform people before they accept Ford's theories wholesale. Tuesday was about countering Ford in the hope that it will go some way to mitigating the damage that Ford and his book will do to the public's understanding of palaeontology. Hopefully Ford's book will simply be remembered as one of those weird little blips, like Hoyle's and Wickramasinghe's Archaeopteryx, the Primordial Bird: A Case of Fossil Forgery. They enjoy their fifteen minutes but ultimately, no one takes the seriously.

When all is said and done, Ford’s negativity towards the science community is telling. If he isn’t interested in winning over scientists, he’s trying to win over the public. And if he isn’t doing it for science, he’s doing it for money. Too Big To Walk is Brian J Ford’s snake oil.

(Illustration: Gareth Monger.)

After the event, Darren Naish posted supplemental information here. The opening paragraph: "This document corrects various additional claims made by Brian J. Ford and is intended as a supplement to my talk given at Conway Hall on Tuesday 15th May 2018. Needless to say, there was insufficient time in the talk to fit in all of these additional corrections and comments."

For those who couldn't attend, I filmed the event with my co-author, Andy Brain, from my other blog, Beware! The Zine. TetZoo now has the files, and barring a couple of minutes clipped from the end of the Q&A, we hope we got some usable video/audio.

(The details recorded throughout this write-up were hastily posted to Twitter during the event itself, before being presented here. Although I've taken care to post accurately, there remains the possibility that paraphrasing and abbreviating for the live tweeting has introduced slight errors.)

Monday, 28 August 2017

Prehistoric Life, As Rendered In Lego

Lego: The Building Blocks Of Simulated Life

An introduction to Lego might seem totally unnecessary, but in the event that this blog outlives the famous brick system, here's a tweet's worth of description for future readers:

@Lego is a line of plastic construction #toys consisting of colourful interlocking plastic bricks, gears, figurines and various other parts.

There you go. A description so concise, even a world leader couldn't fail to stick with it to the end. But Lego is more than that. Lego is manufactured by real Vikings and for a good few years it barely sported any English on its packaging. Even so, it's taken a surprisingly strong hold in English-speaking countries, eventually shedding the remnants of its continental look, and making every third set a Disney-controlled-Hollywood-movie tie-in (and then there's all the DC stuff). Old duffers like me yearn for a time when there were fewer unique pieces, but you can't fight evolution, and Lego doesn't fight market changes.

Luckily, Lego whizz, Warren Elsmore, was on hand to remind us that Lego can still be more than just Star Wars and lazy, gender-specific faux pas.

Dinosaurs: The Universal Language For Cool

Before a chance visit to Preston's Harris Museum & Art Gallery last week, I'd not heard of Warren Elsmore (he tweets here). Everything I now know has been gleaned from the web, and it's clear that he's not built (BUILT!) his Lego career just so he can fill the world with dinosaurs. And that's okay. Dinosaurs aren't everybody's cup of stuff, and making a living out of them is hard work. Warren has turned his engineery talents to several disparate areas, which are all incredible and covered in detail at his site, but what got my palaeosenses tingling is his current touring exhibition, 'Brick Dinos'.

The Dinosaurs Take Preston

Now, it's almost a given that something with dinosaur in the title, and intended for general consumption, will actually feature a fairly broad array of dinosaur and non-dinosaur palaeontological critters. Practically nothing else rolls off the tongue, and as any marketing consultant will tell you, buzz words work (even if they make experts twitch).

Ammonite. A good fossil is worth its weight in Lego. (Copyright © Warren Elsmore; photo: Gareth Monger)

Warren's 'palaeoLego' displays themselves were placed within a couple of decent-sized galleries, and could be divided, broadly, into two types. A dozen or more glass cases held dioramas and replica specimens, such as plant and ammonite fossils. The dioramas resembled regular kits in terms of scale. I could almost have imagined that these were off-the-shelf Lego kits - and that's not to suggest that there was anything run-of-the-mill about them, simply that were very-well conceived and honestly looked as if Lego's designers had signed them off. And that should come as no surprise, since Lego bricks is what Warren's famous for.

A pair of seagoing "pterosaurs" - presumably Pteranodon. Honestly, those two kids' smiles were totally genuine! (Copyright © Warren Elsmore; photo: Gareth Monger)

Naturally, there's a resolution issue here. There's a bottom end to the scale, and the only real way to introduce palaeontologist-pleasing detail is to go big. You don't really get to include integumentary structures such as feathers when you're working in Lego. That doesn't mean Warren doesn't try. His ornithomimid - I think it was Struthiomimus - certainly had some attractive downy fluff cascading down its sides.

Struthio-/Galli- + mimus(Copyright © Warren Elsmore; photo: Gareth Monger)

As this was a flying visit and I didn't know the exhibition was happening, I didn't take many notes, so I honestly don't recall whether this was Struthiomimus or Gallimimus. And that illustrates the resolution issue. The level of detail attainable at this size is limited, so this could be any ornithomimid. On the other hand, this isn't an exercise in scientific accuracy, so who cares? And it is nice to see a non-avian theropod, as part of a pop culture exhibit, adorned with feathers.

(Speaking of feathers, there was also an Archaeopteryx, but it wasn't very convincing, even bearing in mind it was made in Lego - so I didn't bother to photograph it. Again, it's a resolution issue. Bricks are just too, well, bricky to convincingly depict an animal famous for its avian-esque qualities. Also, it seemed to have a short tail.)

Tyrannosaurus(Copyright © Warren Elsmore; photo: Gareth Monger)

It would be weird if there wasn't a hulking great Tyrannosaurus in this display, so it was no great surprise to find one skulking around in the Lego scrubland of one of the glass cases. This one raised smiles with its bloodied kill's remains strewn across the ground. Oh, and look those manus! No bunny hands here! Hats off to them for getting that right.

Ankylosaurus grazes next to a seasonally-dry riverbed. (Oops - it's not dry.) (Copyright © Warren Elsmore; photo: Gareth Monger)

It's worth drawing attention to the landscapes in Warren's sets. There's no Cretaceous hothouse tropiness going on. No baked deserts with an obligatory backdrop of lava-spewing volcanoes. The leaflet boasts that Warren worked closely with a palaeontologist, and that's evident. These are Lego renderings of living animals and it shows. These are not '60s caricatures of cold-blooded, tail-dragging lizards, smashing their heads into rocks and fighting each other because they don't know how to do anything else. I walked in vaguely curious, but ultimately not expecting much, and I came out wanting to blog about it.

Sauropods (Diplodocus?) drink at, perhaps, the edge of a lake. (Copyright © Warren Elsmore; photo: Gareth Monger)

The Big Stuff

The second type of display, after the dioramas, is the full-scale sculpture. Understandably, there weren't as many of these, and how do you decide which dinosaur to tackle? And, importantly, where do you draw the line when it comes to size? Cleverly, a large diorama into which one places a medium-sized dinosaur is still an imposing sculpture! Masiakasaurus is an interesting theropod from Madagascar with weird, sticky-outy teeth which suggest that it may have gone after fish and other small animals.

Not everybody wants to get to know Masiakasaurus. (Copyright © Warren Elsmore; photo: Gareth Monger.)

Most palaeo workers agree that too small a selection of palaeontological animals get too big a share of the attention. That most of those animals are dinosaurs is also a massive bugbear for palaeo workers. Dinosaurs are the 1%. If you asked a hundred different palaeontologists to nominate an extinct animal to feature in this diorama, you'd receive a thousand different nominations - and you might get a dinosaur among the mammal teeth. But this isn't SVPCA, it's the Harris in Preston, and its target audience includes an enormous number of kids, all desperate to rattle off every dinosaur name they know in front of proud parents.

Despite this, it's still fun to see something a little more 'out there' than the usual 'T-REX', or mis-scaled Velociraptor, even if it is another theropod. Masiakasaurus isn't your usual theropod, at least not at the sharp end, and it's nice to see that extra effort went into avoiding a dinosaurian cliche.

Given that this was the only full-size Lego model of a theropod in the display, I would have loved to have seen an attempt to add some sort of feathery coat, perhaps not fully-veined feathers given its position on the theropod family tree relative to those more closely related to birds, but some hint. Or maybe, given that Warren clearly isn't adverse to the idea of feathered dinosaurs, his consultant nudged him away from that headache.

Another "pterosaur", presumably a female Pteranodon. Seriously, why don't the pterosaurs get to use their generic names? That happened in the WWD movie, too. (Copyright © Warren Elsmore; photo: Gareth Monger.)

Again, I feel like I'm nitpicking. An important aspect to displaying dinosaurs is conveying their size - especially the larger examples - and this is something you don't necessarily get from their skeletons, since they are reduced to hollow, lightweight frameworks, with museum lighting reaching through a complex of negative space. A solid, fleshed reconstruction takes us that bit further, and we can appreciate the mass of an animal, even if it is demonstrated in Lego, minus a bit of fluff.

During my short visit, I saw children awed, and occasionally scared, by Warren's incredible models. Interactive displays and activities enabled visitors to fully engage, and an art competition will extend the enjoyment that bit longer for one lucky visitor. If you're in the Northwest, you've got 'til September 17th (2017) to see this exhibition, after which it goes extinct, though perhaps not forever. For more information, go here or here.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Conodonts: 520 Million Years Long in the Tooth

Decent conodont fossils are frustratingly rare. Sure, their 'teeth' are so well known they're used as index fossils, id est, the distributions of particular types are used to gauge the age of the rocks in which they're found. Lacking the hard, bony skeletons of 'vertebrates proper', they don't leave so much to fossilise; ergo, only a handful of not-teeth-fossils are known. It's hardly surprising, then, that the arrangement of the hard elements within the head isn't fully understood. The animals are generally pretty small, ranging from 10mm to 400mm, and the teeth are only rarely found associated with the animal which used them. It's not even clear from the remains themselves how they were used, with a variety of feeding methods proposed, including filtration, crushing and actively grabbing hold of small prey. It's not hard to imagine conodonts as analogous to extant eels, and eel-like lampreys and hagfish - after all, they share a broadly similar form - but the feeding methods employed by those animals are disparate to say the least.

Given the poor preservation of the soft tissue elements of conodonts, many reconstructions are understandably pretty basic represented by little more than line art (and there's nothing wrong with that). However, Davide Bonadonna has put together this incredible image, which is probably the nearest anyone is going to get to a face-to-face encounter with our fishy (fishesque? fishish?) friend. Mercilessly terrifying, mercifully small.

Rocking the 'someone stepped on my tail' look: Clydagnathus. (Copyright © Davide Bonadonna.)

So Davide's pop-eyed conodont inspired something a little less scientific from me, in the form of this Alien3-Clydagnathus mash-up, and is available on products at my Redbubble store, here. And if you prefer something a little more scientific, you can buy Jaime Headden's instead.

The conodont Clydagnathus, which, were it alive today, would gestate in your chest and eventually smash through your ribcage. Why? Because pop culture. (Copyright © 2016 Gareth Monger)

Big thanks to Davide Bonadonna for allowing the use of his work in this glorified advert. If you're unfamiliar with his incredible work, correct that immediately!

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Blackpool's Place In Illustration History, The Passing Of Wildlife Artist David Johnston And Grabbing Your Reference When You Can

The seaside town they forgot to close down...

BA (Hons) Scientific and Natural History Illustration was a successful degree course with an international reputation and was run at Blackpool and the Fylde College of Art and Design until only a few years ago, when short-sighted management decided to turn an important college with students from all over the world into a very average one which tends only to the needs of the local populace. People hardly need a reason to avoid Blackpool; after all, it's an end-of-the-line seaside town with no pre-tourism industry to speak of (and precious little pre-tourism history), and a local government which has no firm long-term plans. It also finds itself high up in national rankings for deprivation, suicide and low life expectancy.

Two shoppers wait for Primark to open against the stunning backdrop of Blackpool Tower and the Fylde coast. (© Twentieth Century Fox.)

A marriage of science and art

The degree, which we used to refer to as 'Sci Ill', was initially taught by a former Technical Illustration student, Dave Johnston, who would become a world-renowned wildlife artist. Although he left the college the year before I started, I would get to know him at the print shop where I work, printing for him hundreds of reference images of myriad extant dinosaurs, but mainly corvids, larids and sternids. Though in his sixties, Dave still valued fresh reference material, though I was always a little surprised that, given his insatiable appetite for photography, there was still any photographic reference left for him to collect.

Die-hard Dougal Dixon fans may remember Dave as one of the two illustrators (the other being Andrew Robinson) who provided images for Dixon's The Illustrated Dinosaur Encyclopedia which was published by Hamlyn in the late '80s. Although I doubt the artwork blew anybody away, the treatment of many of the dinosaurs, especially the ceratopsians, did make them look 'fuzzy', albeit unintentionally, a long time before most palaeoartists were feathering anything other than Archaeopteryx and the odd segnosaur.

The Illustrated Dinosaur Encyclopedia by Dougal Dixon, illustrated by Dave Johnston and Andrew Robinson. (Not to be confused with The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Dinosaurs, by David Norman). Section of stolen blue pallet for scale.

Dave Johnston died unexpectedly last month, which ended one chapter in Blackpool's part in the story of British wildlife art - and it was quite a colourful chapter. His humanist service certainly had a 'rock star' vibe and many of those in attendance had that 'lived in' look. Blackpool has its characters; I think most of them were at Dave's funeral.

Sci Ill was set apart from similar courses in that it employed a full-time biologist (Mike Clapham) who was on-hand to tutor students in biological processes, but his main role was to level the playing field by teaching everybody how to effectively research their subject matter. This was combined with photography tuition; the theory went that your illustrations could only be as good as your reference.
This was a time when digital photography hadn't quite kicked film of its perch, so the entire class went out and purchased a tonne of 35mm camera gear. Every photoshoot ended with a trip to the local film developer, and if you didn't get it right, you had to do it all over again. Not really a problem if you're making clay dinosaurs, but if you're shooting something that's more time and location-sensitive, like the annual Fen tiger migration, it can be a real pain in the wallet. You kids don't know how good you've got it.

Cameras, cameras everywhere...

...and still no convincing thylacines or yetis. In 2016, of course, many of us don't go anywhere without at least a basic camera. Most mobile phones come with cameras as standard, and the quality of these has increased dramatically since they became commonplace some time in the '00s. Better lenses, better resolution and camera apps have between them provided people with the digital equivalent of the Instamatic. You don't really need a dedicated point-and-click camera if you own a mobile.

For artists, mobile phone cameras are pretty handy in that should you come across a scene or plant or something else not so easily or ethically brought back into the studio, you can photograph it with minimal fuss and add it to your reference library. You can record compositions and colours, organisms which you may wish to identify later, and, as was suggested to us during a field trip, evidence of illegal poaching and landscape destruction.

The highlight of my day: a dead bird. (Copyright © 2016 Gareth Monger.)

Whilst out on the school run, I noticed this unfortunate infant theropod in the middle of the pavement, tens of metres away from any obvious nest sites.  We can only speculate about how this animal found its way here. It certainly didn't fly itself there. But whilst I did have my trusty phone with me, I didn't have any means to transport the corpse back to my lab open-plan kitchen/lounge where I could take a better set of reference photos, and maybe ID it. From now on I carry a few plastic sandwich bags - just in case.

(I was going to offer a paragraph or two on the possible reasons for the liberal scattering of dead baby birds upon pavements, parks and gardens, but of course the second I searched the net, I see Darren Naish has already done it! - see here.)

Sunday, 20 March 2016

The Rocky Transition From Paint To Pixels

Orca flies the flag

Last March, noted zoologist and living-encyclopaedia-on-tetrapods-and-selected-fish, Darren Naish, sent me some outlines to colour for Tetrapod Zoology's April Fools article. Cetacean Heresies detailed the bright colouration of extant cetaceans, and how those colours go undetected by the pitifully inadequate human eye. That black-and-white orca in your ornamental pond? Fringewhiner's Chromatic Truthometer shows it for what it really is: a gay rights poster boy. It's rainbows all the way. Rainbows are good.

Peponocephala and killer whale pod. (By Darren Naish and Gareth Monger; CC-NC-SA 2.0)

Special offers on piss-taking

The article was good fun, and was a veritable 2-for-1 deal; it parodied both a well-known fringe science blog, and one of those inexplicably popular (and subsequently internationally famous) internet memes - a photo of a blue-and-black dress which appeared to some internet users as a white-and-gold dress. In one of those bizarre twists, the woman who originally photographed the dress then came into the printshop where I work to run off a few copies of the photo, and STILL wasn't sick of talking about it.

Skamps (I think that's what we called these at uni) of generalised mosasaurs in different poses and angles. Pencil on paper. (Copyright © 2016 Gareth Monger.)

So why am I milking whales, ten months on? In short, it was the first time I'd used a digital package to put together a full-colour illustration, albeit in a rather rushed manner. At the time, nearly all of my work was coloured by hand, using gouache. (If you're not sure what that is, read my article on gouache at ArtDiscount.) If you are an experienced gouache user, you'll know it's no slower a medium to paint with than anything else, the main limitation to speed being how much detail you want to put into your image. It's considerably quicker to work with than oils, it dries reasonably quickly, and can be forgiving. However, there's a basic set-up time associated with it, namely the time taken to stretch paper, which can, if you're lucky, be as short as a couple of hours. There's nothing better than seeing a perfectly stretched sheet of 140lb Arches watercolour paper, ready to receive its first pencil mark. Conversely, there's nothing worse than seeing that your adhesive tape has failed on one side of your paper, and you've got to redo the whole damn thing. (For hints on paper stretching, see my dA post, here.)

Preliminary sketch (top) of a pair of Platecarpus, with soft tissue outline based on Lindgren et at, 2010. Revised outline (bottom) tweaked to reflect social media comments by palaeontologist Nathan Van Vranken. Note the shorter intermediate caudals' section. Pencil on paper. (Copyright © 2016 Gareth Monger.)

Material costs

This time, however, I heeded advice regarding digital illustration, and figured that these kinds of non-commercial, tight-deadline jobs would benefit from employing a more-speedy process. Material costs are also a consideration, and when a single sheet of paper costs upwards of five pounds, digital art offers a cost-effective alternative. That's not to say I've fallen out of love with toxic pigments and plant-based substrates, it's just that digital painting is very, very convenient. Also, I may go a couple of months without breaking out my paints and, inevitably, they dry out. Yes, they're water-based, but they're also awkward to rehydrate whilst in the tubes. The easiest way to get any use out of dried gouache is to slit open the metal tube and use it in the same way you would a watercolour pan. Of course, you're not really using it as gouache, but it eases the pain of seeing expensive paint dry out.

Pencil outline after some clean-up, and an initial pass through Photoshop to add some body-forming shading. Pencil on paper/digital. (Copyright © 2016 Gareth Monger.)

Going Digital, Sorta...

And so, with last year's April 1st in mind, and probably also inspired by seeing Amin something-or-other's passive-aggressive, and generally unwarranted, comments about Nic Grabow's (I think) deviatART mosasaur, I decided to knock out a quick full-colour render of a mosasaur, complete with background. Google's luck-of-the-draw-type results would determine the genus, which ended up being Platecarpus. Back in 2010, Johan Lindgren, Michael W. Caldwell, Takuya Konishi and Luis M. Chiappe published in PLOS ONE a paper on convergent evolution in aquatic tetrapods, focussing on a specimen of Platecarpus which displayed some excellent soft tissue preservation, and which suggested that a crescent-shaped caudal fin was present in life.

 Lindgren, et al (2010). CC-BY-2.5

A reconstruction in Lindgren et al (2010) (left) suggested a possible soft tissue outline for Platecarpus, based on the specimen discussed in the paper. The dorsal portion of the fluke is only tentatively restored, as implied by the fuzzy margins, but it's enough to offer a hint on how to progress with an illustration for a palaeoartist. Scott Hartman also writes about this at Skeletal Drawing, in the article 'Mosasaur Tails - Teaching the Controversy', and offers a handful of likely shapes which a palaeoartist may wish to adopt. Whatever the case, the traditional view of mosasaurs as having essentially lizard-like tails, albeit laterally compressed and ribbon-like, is out of vogue, especially for later genera, and shows that a more (superficially) traditionally-fish-like fluke was adopted by secondarily aquatic reptiles in several disparate groups. Oh, and dorsal frills are out too, having been mercilessly copied from Charles Knight's Tylosaurus for decades. Hey, I did it (over a decade ago, mind).

A pair of Platecarpus, lured into posing for this image by the promise of a David Attenborough voice-over. Digital. (Copyright © 2016 Gareth Monger.)

So here's my full-colour illustration of two Platecarpus, swimming around calmly like obedient Seaworld killer whales. The original layout was an evening's work; the colour work took a second evening. On the whole, I'm pretty pleased, and yes, of course, there are things I would change/add. Integumentary structures, for example, aren't evident, but then they might not be at this distance. The foreshortening on the caudal fin caused some confusion, with some commenting that the fluke angles were incorrect. They weren't, or, at least, they were based on the aforementioned reference, and it was the foreshortening causing them to appear unfamiliar. But that's to be expected when most pictorial reference is in diagrammatic, lateral view. One noted mosasaur expert didn't like the blubbery look; another palaeontologist figured it simply denoted healthy individuals. There was a speculative angle to this, which was to show a more fluid outline in an animal which spends its entire life in fluid.

But on the whole, not so bad for a couple of evenings' work.


Hartman, S (2016) Mosasaur Tails - "Teaching the Controversy" www.skeletaldrawing.com/home/mosasaurs-teaching-the-controversy

Lindgren J, Caldwell MW, Konishi T, Chiappe LM (2010) Convergent Evolution in Aquatic Tetrapods: Insights from an Exceptional Fossil Mosasaur. PLoS ONE 5(8): e11998. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0011998

Naish, D (2015) Cetacean Heresies: How The Chromatic Truthometer Busts The Monochromatic Paradigm. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/tetrapod-zoology/cetacean-heresies-how-the-chromatic-truthometer-busts-the-monochromatic-paradigm/

Want to support me?

If you like what you're reading and you want to help me keep this going, maybe take a look at my Redbubble page? Here's a mostly-relevant mosasaur (Globidens, not Platecarpus, but who cares?):

Globidens, Haida-style, available on t-shirts, mugs, and a butt-load of other stuff, via Redbubble.