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.


  1. Interesting! I think another reason why Spinosaurus caused a major upset was because the authors provided little to no justification for their more extreme claims. They only mentioned quadrupedal movement in one sentence and never talked about it again in the paper. They didn't even bother to provide at least one photo of their bones! They also never explained why they thought the sail was shaped that way.

    Contrast that to the Deinocheirus team who provided good justification for their claims, provided photos of their bones and provided actual data rather than telling us to take their word for it and wait (years? decades?) for another paper. Also it is worth noting that the Deinocheirus paper had LESS pages than the Spinosaurus paper yet the former provided more data than the latter.

  2. I hate that you can't edit your own comments on this thing.

    Anyways, it's pretty clear why Deinocheirus received less backlash than Spinosarus from the paleocommunity. The Deinocheirus paper provided clear, reproducible results. The Spinosaurus paper didn't. Not providing your data WILL cause people to get a bad impression of you and your work.

  3. Thanks for your comments and for giving the position for the palaeo community. I didn't want to comment too much on the Spinosaurus paper given that it had received a lot of coverage 'real time' by people better placed to make those comments than me.

    The (non-academic) comments which appeared in social media and which inspired this article unfortunately predated my decision to start blogging, and I couldn't located them in order to use them as real examples. Oh well. But thanks again for your remarks.

  4. Excellent article here. A good summation of probably two of the biggest discoveries of the year. I would caution however, against paleoartists overly marginalizing themselves by overstating how groundbreaking their views and depictions really are. The new evidence concerning Spinosaurus and Deinocheirus are huge finds, no doubt, but I find it hard to believe that anyone, even laypeople, who have followed dinosaurs with any real commitment over the years, found this new evidence all that unexpected. Pleasantly surprising perhaps, but not unexpected. Serious paleontologists and lay followers of paleontology have always guessed that Deinocheirus was some sort of freakish ornithomimid and that Spinosaurus probably ate fish, thereby anticipating the evidence recently unearthed. It's important that we, as both professional and amateur paleontologists, don't overstate the power of these anti-scientific "fanboys" who decry the updated appearance of these creatures. Granted, thought they comprise most of the popular culture surrounding dinosaurs, they nevertheless are Johnny-come-latelies to the party with a minimal investment in the future of how these creatures are perceived. Nostalgia is a depreciating investment, and it is science and truth that always wins out, provided it is properly communicated. Recall that this is part of what made the original Jurassic Park so important for paleontology and pop culture. Prior to 1993, pop culture viewed dinosaurs as sluggish, tail-dragging, stupid, overgrown lizards. They certainly weren't small, and even if they were, the small ones certainly weren't scary. Jurassic Park changed all that in an instant. The nostalgia was forgotten and pop culture was brought up to speed with the science of the time (it's also part of what makes Jurassic World, with its retro dinosaurs, so antithetical to the spirit of the original). It's important for paleoartists to keep that in mind. Though they may have to stave off a bit of overwrought nerdrage over their new depictions, they must understand that they have a corner on the future, on the next generation of dinosaur lovers. Provided they fulfill their vocations as true artists, and portray these animals in not just an accurate, but a compelling way, the truth will always win out.

    1. Hi Editor. Finding an angle on this wasn't easy, given the coverage that Spinosaurus and Deinocheirus have received, but the remarks from you and Alex nicely fill in the (my) gaps. Thanks for taking the time to comment on the article.

  5. I must admit when I saw the new reconstruction of Spinosaurus at first I was a little "wtf have they done to you?" (and yes, my first Spinosaurus was the one from JPIII), but the more I read and looked the more I fell in love with the new one. It’s just a very 'cool' concept that this huge predator has found a niche for itself by becoming aquatic.

    1. There's certainly something very appealing about something like a very-large theropod taking to an aquatic lifestyle as extremely as it appears to have done. Of course, in the grand scheme of secondarily aquatic vertebrates, it's not very extreme. I wonder if future discoveries will reveal close relatives going coastal (good name for a blog article!) and pushing out further - though I wonder if the physiological differences would be demonstrative of this. Just a thought.