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"

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.

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.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Stuck For A Palaeo Gift? Decision-Making Just Got Easier...

Picky Palaeo People

This is shameless self-promotion whereby I suggest you buy my art on t-shirts, mugs, hoodies, and whatever else Redbubble keeps in stock, and as such, I'll not be spamming the Facebook groups (just the Twitter hashtags). If you're one of those people who is lucky enough to count a palaeontologist amongst the inhabitants of your Christmas gift list, then you could do far worse (I think!) than take a look at my Redbubble gallery and peruse the palaeo-themed graphics and doodles which populate its pages.

An ichthyosaur, plesiosaur and pterosaur, in the style of Pacific Northwest Amerindians, plus Yi qi in the style of the crows from Disney's Dumbo. (Copyright © Gareth Monger.)

Is there an ichthyosaur nerd in your life? Sorted! Do you know of a plesiosaur fancier out there who's still wearing the shoddy transfer t-shirt they made at college in 1990? Upgrade them! Are you sick to death of hearing your neighbours argue because one of them is perpetually frustrated by the lack of Yi qi apparel in the palaeoverse? This might be the fly-remover for their ointment!

(L-R) The Palaeoplushies Queen, Rebecca Groom, wearing the Haida ichthyosaur; 'How Train Your Velociraptor'; a road sign we'd all like to see more of; 'tyrant teen', Tristan Stock, looking buff whilst wearing 'The Membraned Crusader'. 

So pop along to the 'GaffaMondo' gallery at Redbubble and take a peek. There you will find a good chunk of the supporting graphics, doodles and cartoons which I generated over the last twelve months, which is, coincidently, Pteroformer's first year online. With luck, I'll be able to add to this collection over the next twelve months, perhaps producing images to commemorate further new discoveries, as I did for Yi qi. Needless to say, Pteroformer isn't a commercial site (in the sense that I'm not paid to write it) so any money made on the back of it is very gratefully received - plus it means I can keep it ad-free. And don't forget, you'll be supporting original palaeoart, which means that you're joining the good fight against shitty broken-wristed raptors clad in ill-fitting snakeskin pyjamas. Not so good if you have a feather allergy, but it's a small price to pay to get away from 1990s shrink-wrap hell.

Support Original Palaeoart

You'll notice the Support Original Palaeoart graphic - it doesn't mean I'm endorsed, just that I'm one of many supporting the movement, spearheaded by Mark Witton, John Conway and Darren Naish. You can read all about it over at Mark's blog, here.

Late Announcement!

David Orr has just published an article at Love In The Time Of Chasmosaurs, giving a brief run-down of some of the palaeontology-themed artwork, books and other bits you can buy, including work by Ricardo Delgado, Fred Wierum, Levi Hastings, Jon Davies, Juan Carlos Alonso, Matt Martyniuk, Brynn Metheney and Angela Connor. Happily, I got a mention too - as did David's, and his wife Jennie's, great early learner's book, Mammoth Is Mopey. I've got a copy; one day I might let my kids look at it.

Next up: Celebrating 20,000 page views with pterosaur papercraft!

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Skimming Rhamphorhynchus (or Rynchops For The Win)

Tropy Palaeo-Cliché

There are plenty of palaeoart examples of Rhamphorhynchus skim-feeding in the style of the extant tern-like bird, Rynchops. It's understandable - after all, Rhamphorhynchus is a seagoing pterosaur with a mouthful of forward-pointing teeth, occasionally preserved with the remains of its fishy meals within it. Factor that stuff together, and it's easy to imagine Rhamphorhynchus zipping along just above the surface of some shallow Jurassic sea, thrusting forward with its mandible slicing the water's surface, and snatching morsels of food as it finds them.

Humphries and Chums' 'Just Say No!' Campaign

In a 2007 paper investigating the possibilities of pterosaurs engaging in skim-feeding, Humphries et al found few adaptations towards this method of prey-capture, with the skull lacking the types of reinforcement seen in Rynchops. Read the paper here. Despite the refutation of the idea, it's a persistent one in palaeoart, probably in part because it makes for attractive images. Thanks to Humphries et al, this is probably as close as I dare get to showing a rhamph skimming:

Rhamphorhynchus experiments with skim-feeding, remembers why it doesn't. (Copyright © 2015 Gareth Monger)

Anyway, none of that is what you'd call new news - I just wanted to draw a cartoon of a pterosaur.


Humphries S, Bonser RHC, Witton MP, Martill DM (2007) Did Pterosaurs Feed by Skimming? Physical Modelling and Anatomical Evaluation of an Unusual Feeding Method. PLoS Biol 5(8): e204. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050204

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Groovy Swan Beaks

Blogged out

Here's a drive-by blogging, just to get things warmed up after a few quiet weeks. Truth is, the art retail company I work for got wind of my non-day-job blogging and the inevitable happened: yup, I'm now blogging for them, too. Not that that's a problem, you understand; it's all in work's hours and there's no overlap in subject matter, so I'm not repeating myself. Despite having had two or three Pteroformer articles pretty much ready to go for some time, I have felt somewhat 'blogged out'.

TetZoo Time! and Beware! the Zine

That's not to say I've done nothing else. I shot out a brief TetZoo Time! strip to keep things fresh there, whilst Alberta Claw and John Turmelle were between academic years and I also continued work on another blog, Beware! the Zine, which I run with longtime co-conspirator, Andy Brain. Keep an eye out for TetZoo Podcats references (hint: they're here and here). There are also a couple of books in the works, which I'll come back to nearer to the times of their respective completions - if only because I find estimating end dates for such projects rather difficult! On top of all that frantic activity and inactivity, I was happy to notice a couple of my diagrams used in an article at an infamous fringe paleo site (even if it was just to point out how silly they are) but not so pleased to see that attribution seemed too difficult a step.

Got close to swan; arms not broken

Despite the considerable risk to my personal safety, I recently baited a rock with bird seed and photographed Britain's most dangerous extant theropod feeding, up close. Forget cassowaries, even maximum ones. I don't know what kids are taught in the rest of the world, but in '70s and '80s Britain, children found themselves herded into school sports halls so that government-sponsored liaison officers could expound the dangers of getting too close to swans with families. "A fully-grown swan can break a man's arm with its wing!" was what we were all told, without a hint of irony. The girls were safe, seemingly. So too were the boys, at least until they had got puberty out of the way. Swans only target men's arms.

During the '80s and '90s, I attended a local branch of the Scouts, and we would visit the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust in Welney, Cambridgeshire, where thousands of waterbirds would overwinter during the seasonal floods. WWT staff were mostly female in those days, owing to the disproportionate number of men injured in horrifying attacks by mute swans. We can only speculate that they never heard them coming. In fact, archaeological evidence has shown that over half of the adult male skeletons in Romano-British cemeteries for the Fens had healed or healing fractures of their humeri, radii and ulnae, some still with the imprints of swan feathers on their surfaces.

The business end of the swan

Leaving fantasy aside for a moment, one particular photo of a mute swan is worth a share. St. Anne's-on-the-Sea in Lancashire has a biggish ornamental pond situated in Ashton Gardens, its main park. Several species of a wetland bird call it home, including swans, mallards, moorhens and canadian geese. Excepting the moorhens none of them are particularly skittish, which is a shame since it's not too long since an unleashed terrier took the head off one of the swans. On the plus side, it makes getting close to them a bit easier, and they'll readily take food, with younger ducks happy enough to take it from your hands.

A swan. A swan and its pigeon prey. (Copyright © Gareth Monger.)

Now, I've not spent much time staring down the barrel of a swan, basically for the reasons mentioned above. A lot of people are familiar with the 'teeth' of ducks, geese and swans, and a good chunk of those people are aware that they're not true teeth.

Mute swan (Cygnus olor) displaying lamella and corresponding grooves (unless the corresponding grooves are also called lamellae - available diagrams didn't seem to agree). (Copyright © Gareth Monger.)

Mute swans (Cygnus olor), like the one in this photo, are generally herbivorous, and use an array of lamellae in their beaks to gather aquatic plants and separate inedible material from the mix. These rib-like projections in the upper and lowers beaks interlock neatly, though they're not always obvious from the outside. After all, unlike Hollywood's dinosaurs, extant dinosaurs don't spend every waking hour with the mouths hanging open, screaming at stuff.

Highly-detailed and extremely serious scientific diagram, showing a duck's head with lamellae exposed. Note fleshy projections forming a fringe on the lateral margins of the tongue. (Copyright © Gareth Monger.)

So there you are. Swans, geese, ducks, and a bunch of other birds, have weird rib-like features lining their beaks, improving their ability to grip food and separate out the nice bits from sediment and other, less interesting, items. Some birds take it further than others, such as flamingos, which have an arrangement which allows them to filter small invertebrates from the water. A bit of a long blog when all I wanted to do was wave a photo under your noses, but hey, it's been a while. See you soon.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Hallucigenia Gets (Slightly) New Make-Over, Still Weird

Weirdo Cambrian multi-tuby worm thingy, Hallucigenia, has had an overhaul, thanks to Martin R. Smith and Jean-Bernard Caron (read it here). You can now confidently draw it with eyes and a cake-hole now that Smith and Caron have determined which is the front. It's a big deal for Cambrian workers and demonstrates how much work sometimes has to go into reconstructing these ancient invertebrates. Bear in mind that many of the Cambrian's organisms are known from scrappy or disassociated remains, or good(ish) remains of animals which are so different from any extant creatures that they appear to defy logic. Anyway, it's cool and you should all buy this t-shirt.

Hallucigenia (reduced, as is the law for cartoons). And it's on a t-shirt! (Copyright © 2015 Gareth Monger.)