Monday, 29 December 2014

Mesozoic Reptiles In The Style Of Pacific Northwest Tribal Art

In 1975 the BBC continued its tradition of broadcasting excellent educational documentaries by airing the seven-part series The Tribal Eye. Written and presented by the then-popular-and-now-legendary David Attenborough, the series explored tribal art and customs, focusing on, among others, the Haida and Kwakwaka'wakw of the Pacific Northwest, the Aztecs and Incas of South America and the Qashqai of Iran.

A few years ago, I came into possession of a bunch of free DVDs, each one bearing a single episode from Attenborough's myriad documentaries.  For The Tribal Eye, 'Crooked Beak Of Heaven' was chosen for inclusion in the set, and it was this episode which looked at the Haida and Kwakwaka'wakw, their customs and their art. Being a lifelong Attenborough fan, sitting through the lot of them end-to-end was no real chore, and I'd seen many of them before. That said, The Tribal Eye is one which had totally bypassed me. I wasn't at all familiar with indigenous American culture but I could listen to three hours of football scores so long as Attenborough was reading them, so I had no qualms about The Tribal Eye.

Sir David Attenborough, before the Queen went at him with a sword. (© BBC)
The Pacific Northwest is home to several indigenous tribes, all with their distinctive artistic styles. 'Crooked Beak of Heaven', named after the cannibal bird in Haida folklore, begins with obligatory background gen on the Haida, set against a backdrop of old and new photography of their tribal totem poles and villages. It's not the happiest of beginnings and, whether intentional or not, effectively describes a scene of widespread cultural devastation as a consequence of Western settlers' oppressive governance. Wrecked communal houses and collapsed totems convey a sense of abandonment, a people pressured to the point that their cultural identity had simply lost priority. It makes for depressing viewing.

Weathered and decayed Haida totem poles. Stills from The Tribal Eye - Crooked Beak of Heaven (© BBC)
According to my documentary and anecdotal sources (I don't have any direct experience of Amerindian tribes), the situation has improved somewhat, and continues to do so - though I'm sure there are exceptions which those in-the-know can add in the comments. Tribal identity is not now just important to indigenous culture but is also a highly valuable commodity protected under US law (thanks Raven for the heads-up).

A common theme in Haida art is their representations of animals. Commonly encountered animals form the vast majority of the animals featured in their carvings and paintings and comprise orca, beluga whales, beavers, bears, frogs and birds. They appear on totem poles (see above), on textile screens and as ritualistic masks.
The "Crooked Beak Of Heaven" as shown in this tribal ritual mask. Described as a 'cannibal bird', it holds a man's head in its jaws. (© BBC)
For a palaeoillustrator, it's hard not to imagine Mesozoic animals rendered in the style of the Haida and the Kwakwaka'wakw - especially their interpretations of cetaceans, which are already halfway to being ichthyosaurs. And so I thought I'd give it a go and see where it went. Here are the results of several hours' intense faffing.

Generalised ichthyosaur, based on the Haida orca (© 2014 Gareth Monger)

Of course, when one takes an animal and re-imagines it in the style of the Haida or Kwakwaka'wakw, it loses a lot of its biological identity. I found that when any attempt was made to retain features which could be used to identify a particular species, the illustration moved too far from looking 'Haida'. For this reason, I only sketched up generalised animals, though the pterosaur remained stubbornly accurate. There are certain stylistic traits which appear to be common to many examples of tribal animal art, for example, hooked tips to fins and exaggerated teeth. I haven't come across any depictions of dead animals, but a dead plesiosaur with its neck pulled back over its body is far easier to fit into a square format.

An elasmosaur, looking 'all washed up'. I figured this is how most people would expect to see a plesiosaur. Cue comments about dorsoventral preservation. (© 2014 Gareth Monger)
Unlike imitators like me, true tribal members will follow certain rules whereby certain types of space-filling patterns convey certain meanings. Faces placed in areas of key organs, such as the stomach, may represent gods, so I placed one in the azhdarchid's shoulder girdle, emphasising its importance in quadrupedal launching. Other than that, I played it safe. After all, they're not my gods.

An azhdarchid pterosaur. Dead. (© 2014 Gareth Monger)

Rebecca Groom, of PalaeoPlushies fame, expertly models an ichthyosaur. Note sneaky Natee product placement on sofa. (Used with permission.)
So, now I've tenuously linked Amerindian tribal art with Mesozoic reptiles, all that's left is to point you in the direction of where you can buy it on stuff. If you want to be like Rebecca and wear a rampant ichthyosaur (or even dead pterosaurs and plesiosaurs) go here, where you'll find my Redbubble page and, specifically, my Palaeoart collection. If, unlike Rebecca, you've still not come out about your unhealthy palaeo thoughts, you may simply wish to purchase some stationery with which to converse with other similarly-sick individuals - in which case a set of three greetings cards is available here. All proceeds prevent me from cannibalising my children.

That just leaves me to say thanks very much for all the page visits since I started this at the beginning of December, and for all the shares and comments, both on and off the blog. Happy New Year and I hope 2015 treats you well.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Learn To Let Go: The Ever-Changing Look Of Dinosaurs

I recall several occasions from my college days when tutors advised students not to get too precious about their work. This wasn't just a sly put-down; it was practical advice. Colossal (but avoidable) balls-ups, ranging from illustrating a tortoiseshell butterfly with incorrectly-arranged leg segments, to dropping a cup of hot chocolate on a near-complete painting could be soul-destroying, severely limiting your options for correction. Often, there's only one option: start again. Illustrating in college was very different to illustrating commercially. The most noticeable difference was that a college assignment would give up an entire term to one brief, whereas commercial briefs were rarely so generous. During my briefest of flirtations with Dorling Kindersley, I'd get a call in 5pm with a couple of details for a required illustration, and my deadline would be 10am the next day. I guess that's not typical, but it does serve to demonstrate that there's not always enough to time to sit back and bask in your illustrative awesomeness when you've only had about three hours to throw something together. In short, it taught me not to be too precious about my work. (Even if it survives the production process long enough to be seen by its target audience, it's then got to run the gauntlet of critics and trolls...)

Few people would argue that 2014 has been anything other than a cracking year for palaeontology. More specifically, dinosaur fans got to open their Christmas presents early, with the release of new reconstructions of Deinocheirus and Spinosaurus. The latter has been a mainstay of popular palaeontology literature for over half a century, with many dinofans relatively confident of the animal's real-life appearance. On the other hand, Deinocheirus has often featured in those very same books for the opposite reason (explained here simply for those weary blogonauts who may have stumbled across Pteroformer by accident). Deinocheirus mirificus was discovered in the mid-'60s by Professor Zofia Kielan-Jaworoska, during a Polish-Mongolian expedition to the Gobi desert. The mostly-scattered skeleton of D. mirificus comprised some vertebrae, ribs and two enormous arms and scapulae. In spite of a few peculiarities, the arms resembled those of other ornithomimids. The key is in the 'enormous' bit: 2.4 metres is a lot of arm. And it's easy to see why that would cause excitement. Deinocheirus is a theropod and theropods are traditionally murderers. Enormous heads full of lots of teeth, which themselves are always compared to steak knives - well, at least in '80s dinosaur books. But it's their arms which this is all about, and when someone finds what is, at the time, the biggest set of theropod arms ever, well, they must belong to the biggest theropodan murderer ever.

Deinocheirus mirificus: Reaper-saurus or nay? Speculative reconstructions of this animal depicted it as everything from a giant dromaeosaur to a tyrannosaur. It's as if people wanted it to have been a killer. Available on a t-shirt here! (Copyright © Gareth Monger)
Spinosaurus aegyptiacus was also initially known from similarly-scrappy remains, though enough was recovered for a tentative reconstruction on which palaeoartists would base their illustrations and sculptures for years to come. Spinosaurus's exact relationships with other theropods were largely unknown, allowing artists a certain amount of leeway regarding which better-known theropods they stuck a sail on the back of. Before 2014, reconstructions of Spinosaurus rarely moved it away being the top predator of its time - perhaps of all time - and the much-loved oft-maligned Jurassic Park III did nothing to change this. It did, however, hammer home the long, slow snout for which spinosaurs are now so-well known. It had already featured in many '90s images, but there's nothing like a Jurassic Park film to shoehorn a dinosaur's image into popular culture.

And so 2014 happened. Papers were released and rumours confirmed. Museums and dinosaur parks alike bulldozed their now-redundant mounts and fibreglass monstrosities and Dorling Kindersley deleted its back catalogue. I exaggerate, of course. But of the two animals, Spinosaurus was the major upset. Its new look rendered nearly all previous reconstructions inaccurate, but also caused a bit of a stink among fanboys, many of whom didn't like the new 'design'. The paper written by Ibrahim, et al (2014) showed Spinosaurus to be heavily modified towards a largely-aquatic lifestyle, its hindlimbs reduced to the extent that running around on land was unlikely. It didn't take long before people took to social media to complain about the new reconstruction, and that's understandable - it's awkward. It doesn't fit with people's preconceptions of how theropod dinosaurs should look. Even some dinosaur workers remained unconvinced (see here and here for initial responses from Mark Witton and Scott Hartman). It's worth noting that, as an aquatic non-avian theropod, it represents something of a first, so there's nothing to compare it to. In case you missed it, here's Davide Bonadonna's illustration for National Geographic:

Two Spinosaurus aegyptiacus swim for their food in Davide Bonadonna's dynamic illustration. (Copyright © National Geographic. Used with permission.)
It was interesting to note so much nostalgia for the older, inaccurate, versions of Spinosaurus. Of course, Deinocheirus didn't attract much of that, for its own, older reconstruction(s), was a far-from-settled affair. But it did serve to remind us that we must not take for granted the reconstructions of extinct animals. For me, an illustrator, these updated versions are exciting; they break rules and challenge our ideas. But some people reacted as if this represented something wrong with palaeontology. Questions were posted in social media palaeontology groups, such as, "What do you think is cooler, spinosaurus [sic] with long legs or short legs?" Responses ranged from those directly answering the question, to those querying what 'cool' had to do with anything. Could it be that there are people who think that this will boil down to a popularity contest between old and new restorations? Or maybe a whole generation of Jurassic Park III fans is upset that there is no longer any point in asking palaeontologists who would win in a fight between a Tyrannosaurus and a Spinosaurus.

Deinocheirus mirificus wades out into the shallow waters of a Late Cretaceous Mongolian landscape. (Copyright © Andrey Atuchin. Used with permission.)
For many, first contact with extinct dinosaurs is made through illustrated books on the subject. Naturally, these animals' life restorations may be remembered into adult life and may continue to represent a strong connection to childhood. The nuances of a particular illustration or sculpture or animation might leave a mark which never fades. But it seems many people - perhaps those who have maintained only a passing interest - regard their personal nostalgic response as more important than the science. It might seem trivial, but it soon becomes an issue with which palaeontologists must contend when inexplicably popular media portrayals fail to keep up with science. By its very nature, palaeontology is constantly evolving. It follows that its pictorial representations will evolve too - whether you like it or not.

Big, big thanks must go to Andrey Atuchin and Davide Bonadonna, both of whom supplied digital versions of their excellent illustrations at very short notice, allowing me to use them in this article. Click their names to visit their websites.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Historic Image Problems: Stegosaurus

To the untrained eye it would easy to think of Stegosaurus as one of those dinosaurs which the palaeo crowd thinks it's got right.  What is there to get wrong?  It's an obligate quadruped with a tiny head. Its brain - the front one, obviously (duh!) - was the inspiration for the humble walnut. It was a design so successful that even modern domestic mammals stole it: "Stegosaurus's brain was the same size as that of a kitten." And what of its array of fancy dorsal plates? Two rows of huge, bony diamonds, which chipped Allosaurus's teeth, and warmed the animal on those slow-go mornings. Slow and stupid and lumbering, with an entrance for plants at one end and Gary Larson's greatest achievement at the other. This dated and stagnant image of Stegosaurus is one that it's struggled to shake off.

It's nineteen eighty-something, and this particular less-than-ten-year-old is moping around the house, cursing the extinction event that robbed him of the full-scale versions of the plastic figures he plays with every day.  Feathered (non-avian) dinosaurs aren't being harvested by Chinese farmers yet and speculation about a dinosaurian origin for birds is hardly ever mentioned in the books available to children. (To make matters worse, most of my books are hand-me-downs from well-meaning family and friends and are even more out-of-date than the brand-new ones that my parents occasionally get for me.) The local font of historical knowledge and artifacts, Wisbech Museum, holds a few scrappy dinosaur remains (though some much better marine reptile fossils), but its most important collection, for me, was a tray of Inpro dinosaur toys.

Hideous green blob, driving forwards with its head in the mud.
Not sure of the manufacturer. (Photograph: Gareth Monger)
Stegosaurus by Inpro. Smile, for gawdsake - there are children watching! (Photograph: Gareth Monger

It's fair to say that my earliest exposure to three-dimensional dinosaurs was through Inpro's toys. Anatomically they're what you'd expect of a small, inexpensive museum souvenir. Indeed, I've only ever seen the range available in museum gift shops. The range is a strange mix of static-posed, goofy-looking creatures, and slightly-more-dynamic animals, as if Inpro employed two sculptors - one who already liked dinosaurs and one who didn't know what they were until he clocked in or work that morning. Inpro's Stegosaurus sits neatly in the latter camp. Early film appearances, such as in 1933's King Kong, helped cement the animal's image in the public psyche; why would Inpro not meet the expectations of its customers?

Stegosaurus meets Westerners for the first time, quickly assumes the horizontal position. A scene from the ground-breaking King Kong, 1933. (Photograph: © Warner Bros.)

Stegosaurus does get better coverage in the popular palaeontology literature, but this rarely seems to have filtered back into pre-'90s toys or kids' books, or else we'd have seen more of those toys with alternative plate arrangements or speculative bipedality. It might ultimately have been proven wrong, but it would have at least shown less of a reliance on popular cultural examples which are themselves not necessarily the product of up-to-date scientific process. That's not to say it never happens, but examples are hard to find. (Suggested examples will be added!)

More-recent high profile media appearances include the original Walking With Dinosaurs series and Primeval but, oddly, film fans had to wait until the second installment of the Jurassic Park franchise before they were treated to an ILM Stegosaurus. I find that unusual if only because, when one asks just about anyone to list some dinosaurs, there are a handful of dinosaurian poster boys which nearly always get mentioned - and Stegosaurus is one of them. A minor deviation from the novel gave Triceratops some screen time instead. Inevitably, The Lost Word did show Stegosaurus doing the only thing it knew how to do, other than eating - attempting to thagomize another creature out of existence. To be fair, King Kong, Fantasia and Walking With Dinosaurs all featured angry stegs, too. Angry, angry stegs. 'Death Stegs'.

Left: A Stegosaurus takes on a generic Hollywood theropod, in this case an allosaur seemingly modeled on a tyrannosaur, in Fantasia (© Disney); Right: An Allosaurus interrupts a Stegosaurus in Walking With Dinosaurs, which subsequently murders a young Diplodocus (© BBC)

As far as dinosaurs go, Stegosaurus is pretty well known, from numerous remains representing several species from multiple localities. Despite this, many aspects of Stegosaurus's behaviour and biology remain poorly understood. When one considers how extant organisms possess structures which exhibit multifunctionality, it's easy to see why the dorsal plates and thagomizer may be hard to nail down to a single use. For example, feathers are insulatory, aerodynamic and display structures though one of more of those functions were probably secondary. Common suggestions for Stegosaurus's bizarre array of kite and spike-shaped osteoderms include armour, sexual displays, as warnings to would-be predators and deceptive displays where the individual appears much larger. Palaeontologists are yet to suggest that the plates make Stegosaurus harder for an Allosaurus to swallow.

Hard to swallow: The dangers of not growing massive, inflexible plating.
(Image: © Gareth Monger. NB: This is shoestring palaeoart. At eight quid an illustration, Mike Taylor was outside my budget.)

This week it was announced that a well-preserved Stegosaurus, nicknamed 'Sophie', was going to be the subject of an intensive study in order to improve palaeontology's understanding of the strange, platey beast. Prof. Paul Barrett at the Natural History Museum is leading a team which, having scanned the 80%-complete skeleton, will examine it digitally in order reveal some important aspects of the animal in life, such as its posture, feeding, nutritional demands, locomotion and how it may have used those crazy osteoderms. With luck, the new data will filter quickly into the palaeoart community and new, improved restorations will be seen in books and in the form of children's toys. If any dinosaur deserves that, surely it's Stegosaurus.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Jurassic Park 4: Age of Creative, Integrital and Scientific Extinction

Gawd almighty, what is there to say about Jurassic World which hasn't already been said?  Probably not much, but it never hurts to summarise - especially if you're blogging.  Jurassic World is the subject of much scrutiny, owing mainly to speculation about how the film's designers would render their genetically recovered dinosaurs.  Jurassic Park, in 1993, was perhaps the only occasion the franchise could get away with bald raptors.  Subsequent discoveries set in stone the idea that many, many dinosaurs were feathered. Much was made of the film's reliance on advancements in palaeontlogy. Indeed, they even hired palaeo heavyweight John R. Horner to advise on their appearance (Horner answers some questions about JW here - warning: it's brief). Could dinosaurs receive the Hollywood treatment AND stay true to the ever-shifting science of dinosaurology?  'Would they?' is perhaps a more appropriate question, and one which the JP franchise would answer several times over.

Jurassic Park's Velociraptor: demonic kangaroo lizards.
(Copyright: Universal Pictures)

And so, a few years later, Spielberg served up another monster movie, and aside from throwing in some different dinosaurs and upping the on-screen death toll, nothing really changed.  And that's the snag.  Nothing really changes.  At all.  And not just in Jurassic Park's universe, but in many other films which featured dinosaurs.  Such was Jurassic Park's impact that many other filmmakers simply try to emulate it: "If it's good enough for Jurassic Park, it's good enough for us" or simply, "Well, they must know best". It was as if Jurassic Park's legacy was simply to raise the bar for accurate lighting of scaly hides. With its release, Spielberg, Crichton and Winston were elevated to the heady heights of deities and Industrial Light and Magic became the only name in CGI special effects. A flurry of CGI-heavy films followed, including Jumanji, Twister and Casper. Lots and lots of style over substance. Many, many subsequent television and film dinosaurs were similarly afflicted by this SFX approach.

A fully-feathered Velociraptor mongoliensis, produced for Oxford University Museum in 2003. Still too skinny, though, and the feather arrangement on the 'wings' is inaccurate.
(Copyright: OUMNH/Gareth Monger)

The dominance of the 'JP dinosaur' style was such that it became the preferred look. Even high profile documentaries such as the BBC's Walking With Dinosaurs failed to take that step and feather their theropods, despite coming several years later, and if ever there was an opportunity to do something special, Hobbit-fancying Whovian Peter Jackson missed the mark by about a third of a parsec and delivered an ecosystem crammed with relics hellbent on going extinct by whatever means possible (but mostly just by getting squashed by wobbly sauropods or running off cliffs).  And Jurassic Park's influence here cannot be denied.  C'mon, giant tyrannosaurs and dromaeosaurs? The only thing missing was a giant Jeff Goldblum.  No, wait... the titular character had that covered.

Of course, time's a great healer, and several documentaries did get it right. Although not the first to do so, 2013's Walking With Dinosaurs film certainly put forward some of the best feathered theropods out there. It stopped short of extending this feathery integument to its Gorgosaurus, and it left its ceratopsians similarly in need of insulation. And this may very well be viewed in the future in the same way that Jurassic Park is now, i.e., they could very well have taken that leap, and future discoveries would probably have proven them right. But, unlike Jurassic Park, the Walking With Dinosaurs film did at least move things along from its initial series fifteen years earlier, so much so that its 2013 troodontids bare little resemblance to their 1999 dromaeosaur cousins.

Troodon from Walking With Dinosaurs
(Copyright: 20th Century Fox)
So, bearing that in mind, Jurassic World might appear to be an odd leap backwards. People might be forgiven for thinking that palaeontology is a rather schizophrenic science. Sure, no one expects scientists to agree all the time, but on one hand we've had ten years of increasingly-feathered dinosaur restorations in magazines and on television, and on the other Jack Horner is putting his name to the advisory role of the fourth film in a series which refuses to acknowledge a tsunami of fossil evidence. But if the mob needs someone to hang, they shouldn't turn the pitchforks towards Horner.  I saw him in a lecture, aimed mainly at children, at OUM, back in the late '90s, and he was almost despairing of the film makers' decisions to ignore so much science. He listed palaeontological fact after palaeontological fact, all cast aside in favour of, well, whatever it is that film makers prefer to good, solid palaeontology.  Maybe this was a man, failed by Spielberg and co., trying to limit the damage done by JP's skinny monsters to those kids' understanding of 'dinosaurology'. Unfortunately, come June, it seems that he'll have to do it all over again.

The outmoded image of dinosaurs as 'terrible lizards' may have been knocked over with a fossil feather, but the Jurassic Park monster is standing fast.

Jurassic World will be released in cinemas June 12th, 2015.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

A new blog necessitates an introduction

Hi, and thanks for checking in on my blog. I daren't say anything too earth-shattering here, as this is my first post, but I'll say enough so as to introduce myself and let you know my master plan or, as homage to recent Doctor Who developments, 'Mistress Plan'.

I graduated in BA (Hons) Scientific & Natural History Illustration in 2002, having spent a good deal of it drawing, painting and modelling Mesozoic reptiles. It was during this time that I also began illustrating commercially, but I'll save those details for a CV page in the near future. Suffice to say that I've continued to illustrate, occasionally for money, but recent months have seen me change direction slightly. Whilst straightforward one-offs, or occasionally batches for publishers, are great, there simply isn't that much work out there for the would-be full-time palaeoartist and it is for that reason that I'm going the self-publishing route. And this time I'm not jacking in the day job. I've done that before. It didn't end well.

So, I'm writing a book, doing it all myself. I don't have to hunt down that rarest of things: a palaeontology book project without an illustrator. This is actually my second book. The first was a compilation of email correspondence between me and a real-life email scammer. It came about by accident, after I sent a throw-away reply from a redundant email account to one of those dodgy emails from someone in Burkina Faso. Inexplicably, the exchange continued for several weeks and, at the suggestion of a couple of people following the updates on Facebook, I threw it together and uploaded it to a print-on-demand service, here.

It was one of those annoying little distractions, but it was a good learning experience. As far as books go, it won't share shelf space with Dickens, but you might find it next to The Heart Felt Letters. My current project is palaeontologically themed, focusing on those famous cousins of the dinosaurs, the pterosaurs - hence the name of this blog. Now, there are many excellent overview-style books, such as the slightly-dated Wellnhofer's Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Pterosaurs or Mark Witton's must-have Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy, and I am keen not to repeat that format. So I can't cover pterosaurs as a whole, but I can pick one and tell its story.

And tell its story I will, literally. And graphically. Imagine a wildlife documentary, set in the Late Cretaceous but storyboarded as per a graphic novel. That's what I'm aiming for. And the star? Nyctosaurus gracilis, which is a smallish pterosaur, closely related to the giant Pteranodon. Like Pteranodon, it possessed a crest, though Nyctosaurus's crest is proportionally much larger; the distance from its beak tip to the top of the crest is approximately equal to the length of one of its wings. It looks weird. Weird and magnificent and perfectly adapted to a life on the wing. Uniquely (as far as we know) it had lost manual digits I, II and III, retaining only the long wing finger, and even this was reduced to three phalanges. Crazy head gear and crazy wings. Surely the perfect candidate for a graphic novel about the life story of a pterosaur?

The book's already well underway, suffering the usual bumps in the road which life likes to throw at worthwhile projects. The next stage is the tough bit: getting on with it.

Nyctosaurus: Life and Death of a Late Cretaceous Pterosaur is scheduled for release some time in 2014, and hopefully before Flugsaurier '15.  It will be published by Ecen Books.