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.)

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

National Geographic's Antidote To Terminal Monster Saturation

The palaeontology community's members are all in therapy, thanks to Jurassic World's insistence on filling a(n ENORMOUS) fictional theme park with some of the worst reconstructions of Mesozoic reptiles known to man. The TetZoo guys didn't even make it to the end of their own review*, with Darren Naish weeping uncontrollably after only fifteen minutes, and transmission being cut seconds after what can only be described as a muffled thud. Listeners were left to make up their own minds as to what had transpired, with many speculating that they'd just heard Naish's mercy killing at the hands of John Conway. The Love In The Time Of Chasmosaurs blog clearly comprises a masochistic crew, who offered up not one but two reviews on JW. (And they just added a third about an hour ago.)

The point is, you don't have to look too far to find a palaeo community review for this year's main Summer blockbuster. Jurassic World has attracted much attention since people began speculating as to how they might depict some of the film's key creatures. It's nearly two decades since John Hammond demonstrated how you should NEVER EVER run a zoo and, in that time, dinosaur reconstruction has evolved at an unimaginable rate. Would Jurassic World reflect this? Would we get feathered 'raptors'? Would they possess the correct wrists described by Dr Alan Grant RIGHT AT THE BEGINNING OF THE FIRST MOVIE? And, most importantly, would their T. rex still move around the park, one earthquake-causing footstep at a time, taken every thirty seconds? ("T. rex doesn't want to be fed, it wants to hunt!" Not gonna happen. Not when everything within a couple of miles knows you're coming.)

Chris Pratt's character taunts Jurassic World's Velociraptors by demonstrating the range of motion they should be able to achieve with their arms. (Copyright © 2015 Universal Pictures.)
By now you already know the answers. You've either seen the film or read the reviews, so in the interest of avoiding repetition, I'll spare you a long and damning run-through of how bad they got it. Jurassic World was, for me, an enjoyable monster romp - a worthy sequel to Jurassic Park. I got giddy sat at home, waiting to leave for the cinema. I got chills hearing the music. And I nearly wet myself during the tag-team end battle. But it's not a film about dinosaurs. It is, however, a love letter to the first film, as demonstrated by numerous references and nods to Jurassic Park. It also flicks the Vs at the less-well-loved Jurassic Park III, if only by having the first film's T. rex smash through a mounted Spinosaurus skeleton during the final reel. And remember how the JP3 promo art made use of a triple claw-gash to form the III? The only reason I could see for Improbable Indominus rex having four manual digits was so that Universal could use the same trick for this fourth instalment. Pfft.  Yes, it's daft, overblown, and it makes scientists cry. But it's fun and noisy and holds children's attention for the duration.

These are the take-home points of the Jurassic Park series:
  • Revived Mesozoic animals will, upon their release, always, ALWAYS go bat-shit crazy and attack every human in sight, irrespective of their general temperament when confined, or whether they're piscivorous, carnivorous or veggie-saurus, Lex, veggie-saurus!
  • Large theropods will announce their approach with impact-tremor footsteps. They will then stand and roar, I guess because they're sporting types, and think it fair to offer their intended prey a chance of escape.
  • A hunting dinosaur has no concern for its own wellbeing. It will happily smash through buildings, walls, perimeter fences and steel doors in order to catch prey. It will go to any and all lengths to catch a person, inconvenience be damned. It has no concept of 'too much effort'. (Extinction hypothesis?)
  • Indominus rex was originally engineered as a means to retrieve broken-down gyrospheres, hence its enormous gape. Probably.
  • Jurassic Park films would all end after only ten minutes if ANYBODY had conducted a decent risk assessment analysis. Ergo, in the JP universe, people are really, really stupid.
So will the Summer of 2015 go down in history as the moment when film & television decided that palaeontology  sexy? Not quite.

Before they took a blood shower: Dr. Luke Gamble at front and, left to right, Matthew T. Mossbrucker, Dr. Steve Brusatte and Dr. Tori Herridge. (Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Channel.)
Thank the flips for National Geographic's 'T. rex Autopsy'. If you've not seen it, the premise is a straight-forward one: make a fully-furnished Tyrannosaurus rex corpse, hire a team of palaeontologists and vets, and set them to work dissecting it. Obviously turning that into a reality was anything but simple, as palaeontologist and adviser-to-the-show Dave Hone explains (here). And they do a brilliant job. The dissection team does not behave as if its members are crawling over a special effect. They do their level best to convince the viewers - and themselves - that the animal is real. For the most part they pull it off, too. Excepting the odd, faked, reflexive cough at smells we know aren't there, their reactions at having been presented with a 'real' non-avian dinosaur are a joy to watch. My seventeen-year-old daughter arrived home partway through the programme; gawping confusedly at the television screen, she enquired as to where on earth the makers got hold of a fully-fleshed dinosaur. That's how good it is. Of course, if you're looking for the tells which betray the animal's synthetic construction, they're there, well hidden. But who cares? Disbelief is easily - and wilfully - suspended.  Hats are tipped at those who conceived, designed, and executed this remarkable piece of television. It more than makes up for those well-documented missed opportunities of Jurassic World.

A few weeks ago LITC announced the Jurassic World challenge. In order to try to increase awareness of real palaentology, and perhaps direct some funds back towards it, LITC suggested that if you go to see the film you could spend at least the equivalent amount on something which will benefit palaeontologists, research institutions, palaeoartists and museums. You could buy a book, or a piece of palaeoart, or donate to a museum or crowd-fund someone. There's loads to choose from if you look around.

Since I have bills like everyone else, it would help me enormously if people bought a t-shirt from my Redbubble page. You can show off your pop-culture-savviness with a hyper-daft Guardians-Jurassic-World-How-To-Train-Your-Dragon mash-up, or keep reminding everyone that T. rex Autopsy was the best thing on telly since sliced tyrannosaur.

Juraasic World and T. rex Autopsy fan art t-shirts, available at my Redbubble page, here.

It's good to get that JW stuff off my chest. Normal service will resume soon. There's a stack of stuff sat there in draft, including more wandering sauropod ecosystems, more Yi qi, and more pterosaur quad-launching. Laters!

*Of course TetZoo did the whole interview. Listen to it - its very entertaining.