Why Jurassic Park III is objectively* the best of the franchise

Every film in the Jurassic Park / World franchise has plenty of problems, but it is actually quite simple to work out which is the best of the four films to date.

Do you know what I want to see in a dinosaur film like Jurassic Park? Dinosaurs.

Do you know what I don’t want to see in a dinosaur film? Annoying children.

So, which of the films has the the most amount of dinosaur footage (absolute, and especially relative to run time) and the least amount of annoying children? Yes, Jurassic Park III is in fact quite clearly the best film to date. Simple. Case closed.

* For a given value of ‘objectively’

Guest Post: Producing Protoceratops art

The little ceratopsian Protoceratops (and indeed art on Protoceratops) has been a big thing for me in recent years as I’ve been lucky enough to work on some very special specimens and have them illustrated in life.  As is so often the case though, one new specimen begets some new opportunities and today sees the publication of a new paper on the ongoing issue of sexual selection and social dominance signals using some of these specimens in the dataset. The paper is freely available online here and I’ve also written about it here, but the paper also contains some lovely new palaeoart of signaling dinosaurs by Rebecca Gelernter who has kindly agreed to talk about her work here.

f562b2_db49eb61b6584d3ea4eaab1802ab836f

When I plan a piece of paleoart, I try to make the animal I’m restoring as complete as possible. I want to make it look like a real, tangible creature with adaptations that make sense for its life history. I particularly enjoy showing behavior, which made this a really intriguing project to work on.

First off, I had to figure out what my Protoceratops should look like. Anatomically, this was pretty straightforward, thanks to the wealth of fossil photos, papers, and books Dave had on hand. Factor in his enthusiastic feedback and that’s all the background you could ever need. At Dave’s request, I was depicting the animals without any filaments or other non-scale integument, so after familiarizing myself with the fine points of ceratopsian feet and beaks, all that remained was to design the color scheme.

Proto Sketches

I decided that the facial markings should be only part of the body with elaborate markings, as the frill and jugal bosses were proposed display structures. When designing markings for extinct animals, I like to thumbnail several different possibilities based closely on living creatures and remix them into something new. For Protoceratops, I mostly looked at antelope facial markings, and the final design features elements of bongo and sable. The jugal bosses are an eye-catching white, and the all-important frill is a splash of those ever-popular display colors, orange and red. I imagine that the animal would flush the frill with blood during an encounter with a potential mate or rival for flashier color. I used a camouflage-friendly beige for the animal’s base color, broken up by a line of darker splotches down each side that become bolder and more regular on the tail, another potential display structure. I used white again on the tip and ventral side of the tail to create a starker contrast, with more orange to draw attention to the ridge formed by the tall neural spines.

Proto-Color

Dave asked for the piece to show two adult Protoceratops having a confrontation, while a group of less flashy subadults goes about its business in the background. I selected a pose that showed off the display structures: tail up, frill angled toward the other individual. I angled one adult’s head toward the viewer and one away to show that the display colors are limited to the front – no point wasting resources to color the side of your head that you can’t show off. I wanted the piece to be taller and narrower than your standard portrait orientation, so I raised the point of view above the two main animals and arranged the background players some distance away on another dune. Dave suggested adding the crisscrossing footprints in the staging area to suggest that this type of interaction has happened there before. I placed the animals in a particularly empty bit of desert, with just a few small, scrubby plants in the background.

I’d recently gotten good results from painting over a graphite drawing in Photoshop, so I was eager to try that again. There are different ways of doing this, but the technique I usually use is to set the graphite original to “multiply” and leave that layer on top, painting on a few different layers stacked underneath it. It’s an interesting change from using purely traditional media, and I’m looking forward to trying new things with it.

So there you have it: my process for making (definitely) accurate, (hopefully) interesting paleoart. If you’d like to see more of my work, I’m on all the usual sites under the name Near Bird Studios.

Archosaur Musings 2015 Roundup

For the first time I’m breaking away from the previous annual awards and I’m writing something that is more of a general roundup of the year. I already had found I needed to heavily alter my previous series of awards last year with my changing interests and responsibilities and finding that I’d need to make even more drastic edits this year I though it time to finally shelve the awards and move to a more general summary of the year.

As with last year my blogging has been even more sparse. In part this is down t having less and less time available and also the fact that I have now written close to 2000 pieces between the Musings, the very old (and now apparently no longer online) Dinosaur index on Bristol University’s system, my Guardian blog and various other outlets. That’s on top of the 1000+ questions I’ve answered on Ask A Biologist as well and it all means that I’m somewhat worn down by blogs. Not that I don’t have a desire to continue, but it’s hard not to rehash existing issues and the most popular areas (bird origins, new species) are very well covered and I struggle to bring anything new or find the enthusiasm a lot of the time.

Still, things are continuing. People might have noticed that the Guardian blog in particular has been in hibernation for around 6 months now. It was originally my intention to quit as while I liked it, there were ever increasing pressures to cover the very areas I had least interest in but a solution was stumbled upon – to draw in additional bloggers and expand this from just dinosaurs to all palaeontology. As such there was a call out for people to apply and the editors are close to making a decision on who will be asked to join me and the whole thing should restart in the new year – stay tuned.

My own new year for 2015 saw me taking a trip to LA for a long overdue break, to see the LACM and its collections, visit La Brea and its tar pits and in particular catch up with Mike Habib and try to finish off some papers. Our work on a new and exceptional Rhamphorhynchus held in Canada is now out, as is out collaboration with artist Matt van Rooijen on wingtip curvature and what that means both ecologically and perhaps systematically for pterosaurs.

Sadly for me this summer lacked any meaningful trips – I’ve been out of the field far too long, and I desperately need to get back to China to finish several projects, but the late summer saw a flurry of activity. First off, rising artist Rebecca Gelernter joined me in London for several months to work on a series of projects as part of her scientific illustration degree. Some of her work (both life reconstructions and skeletal work) will be appearing very shortly in a number of papers for me and John Hutchinson has also put her nose to the grindstone for some illustrations too. If you’ve not seen her stuff before, do take a look at her website and she recently joined Twitter too.

Next was an obvious highlight of back to back conferences: Flugsaurier in Portsmouth and SVPCA in Southampton. The former was the latest in the running series of pterosaurs conferences and saw a superb collection of talks as well as the obvious benefit of getting together people from all over the world to talk pterosaurs. Seeing colleagues and experts you may only otherwise rarely or never see makes it an extremely valuable gathering, even if there were no talks and posters. Still, much was exchanged and much got done and a great time was had by most who survived the weather. As is also becoming a pattern, a volume of papers will also be published from this meeting, and well follow the link if you want more.

SVPCA was a bit more cosmopolitan than usual as several pterosaur delegates stayed on for the second meeting (as had been hoped, each meeting encouraged some people to the other when they would not normally attend) but was also an excellent meeting and gathering of vertebrate palaeontologists. There were some format changes (with more to come) but none the worse for it, and for me it is probably the best annual meeting out there and I love it. Long may it continue, though sadly I look set to miss the 2016 meeting owing to being in Canada.

One other thing that needs a mention for 2015 is the Daspletosaurus paper. This started as a crowdfunded platform that took me to Alberta to work on a very chewed-up skull with Darren Tanke. It took a while but the paper was eventually completed and published and I’m very pleased with the final, detailed study. A lot of people contributed their time as well as cold, hard cash and I’m extremely grateful for all the help that allowed me to complete this research.

Looking ahead, I’m working on what are hopefully the final edits on the Tyrannosaur Chronicles that will be my first book, and there’s a paper on sexual selection in dinosaurs now in press that should be out in the next few weeks. There’s a couple of other works in submission and I’m contributing to the Flugsaurier volume too, so fingers crossed that I’ll have a couple more pieces out next year. That pretty much wraps it up for now. This blog will continue sporadically I’m sure so keep an eye out for new posts.

Flugsaurier 2015 Volume of Papers announced

I’m putting this up here as I do still get a fair number of visitors and obviously this site is still very pterosaur centric. Pterosaur enthusiasts will know there have been a series of volumes of pterosaur reseach stemming from the various conferences in the last decade or so. First and foremost among them has been the Geological Society’s special volume from 2003 that came from the meeting in France. Happily the same venue have agreed to publish the next in the series which is based on the the recent conference in Portsmouth. Potential authors should read on!


 

Dear Authors,

We have now had confirmation that the Geological Society will be publishing a special volume of papers centred around the 2015 Flugsaurier conference that was recently held in Portsmouth, UK. This volume will be edited by Dave Hone, David Martill and Mark Witton.

The Society have set a deadline of the 31st of January 2016 (a Sunday) for the first submission of manuscripts. This is relatively short notice, but includes the Christmas and New Year periods when traditionally teaching commitments are relatively low. At nearly 3 months away, hopefully this not too onerous a deadline. Formatting and submission instructions can be found here: www.geolsoc.org.uk/sp_authorinfo

Manuscripts will be taken through a full editorial process and subjected to peer review. Manuscripts may be rejected or subjected to multiple rounds of review if their content is not endorsed by referees. Unlike the very successful 2003 Geological Society pterosaur volume, accepted manuscripts will be published online immediately after review and corrections. Volume contents will therefore not be held up by any delays surrounding single manuscripts. A hard copy volume will be printed once all manuscripts are accepted, the deadline for which is 2017.

The volume has capacity for a large number of manuscripts and we encourage submissions. If space does become an issue, we will prioritise content related to material presented at Flugsaurier 2015, and authors who have already announced an intention to submit to the collection.

Please do contact us if you have any questions or queries. We look forwards to reading you research.

Yours,

Dave, David and Mark

 

 

Pterosaur wingtips – not on the straight and narrow

Take a look at almost any illustration of a pterosaur, be it in a research piece or a life reconstruction and the wing finger is generally depicted as being some kind of straight spar. Each of the four wing finger bones is a dead straight element and the leading edge is therefore basically just a line drawn with a ruler). However, take a look at the actual specimens of pterosaurs and it’s actually quite clear that for lots of them, the last (distal) element is often curved, if only a little, but sometimes quite a lot.

This is really obvious in something like Pteranodon for example (and indeed it’s been noted before that this genus has curved distal phalanges) and yet illustrations of this animal, even in the technical literature, will give it a straight distal phalanx. I’d noted for a while that actually there were quite a few pterosaurs with curved phalanges in particular having looked at Bellubrunnus and its bizarre forward swept wingtips. I’d realised that even the posterior curve might actually have some major flight implications – the shape and position of the very distal part of the wing can have a big impact on vortex shedding and other issues even in static glides and anything like a twist or elevation to the tip can make a huge difference to how it performs.

Knowing this would be an issue and working out what it would be and why are two very different areas and I know enough mechanics for the first and not enough to even begin to think about the second. Enter, somewhat inevitably, Mike Habib and he started looking at this issue and working towards what such a curve would mean both in Bellubrunnus but also those pterosaurs with posterior curves on the distal phalanges. We still needed a good dataset and some actual numbers though and so while I trawled the literature and my photographic archives for examples, any I found I passed onto Matt Van Rooijen who had volunteered to produce both the figures for the paper but also do the detailed digital measuring of the curvature of the phalanges.

The resultant paper is rather light on in depth analysis and numbers because there are potentially some severe issues of taphonomy that can distort the apparent curvature of these bones (in particular reducing a curved bone to look straight) but given the strong consistency of at least some results, there do appear to be some major and genuine signals in the data. There’s some fair consistency within and between clades therefore (and to a degree within and between species of a single genus) so despite the taphonomic issue, it’s perhaps not too bad (though still very hard to estimate or account for).

A number of specimens of multiple genera show that scaphognathines and tapejarids have relatively strong curvature to the distal phalanges and so to do various pteranodontids. In other words, two groups often considered to be highly terrestrial, and another than is highly pelagic both seem to go more for this curvature and others show lesser or no curvature. This might seem rather odd with the two extremes of flying environment / style coming together in morphology but it actually makes a fair bit of sense.

Curvature in the pteranodontids would potentially correspond to an expanded wingtip which aligns with existing hypotheses of the forward swept wing position of these animals in flight. A curved wingtip can also increase the chord of the wing which would be good for terrestrial-based fliers, and also might help protect the wingtip from damage from impact which could be important for animals flying in cluttered environments.

An additional issue comes in here of compliance, a compliant phalanx could potentially also help reduce injuries from impact with things like twigs or even the ground when taking off. Bat phalanges are highly compliant (i.e. bendy) under loads but eyeballing bat fossils at least, there’s no obvious difference between the bones of the phalanges and other elements of the skeleton that are less compliant, so perhaps at least some pterosaur phalanges were highly compliant. In that case under loading in flight they could be considerably more curved, and those of Bellubrunnus might actually be straight in flight!

Overall then this paper has a bit of something for everyone (hopefully). There is likely to be some kind of taxonomic and systematic signal in the presence of curved wingtips though it would have to be treated with caution as a potential character, but that’s also true of lots of other things too, it should not be overlooked. Second, there really does seem to be an ecological signal there which helps potentially restore the ecological habits and habitats of various taxa. There is very much some aerodynamic ideas in here which can be explore further in terms of wingtip shape, and the implications for thing like chord, stall speeds and how this might relate to wing position in flight. Out hypothesis about compliant bone can potentially be tested with histological sampling and finally this should provide a bit more information for those of the artistic persuasion who like drawing pterosaurs. Enjoy!

Hone, D.W.E., van Rooijen, M.K., & Habib, M.B. 2015. The wingtips of pterosaurs: anatomy, aeronautical function and ecological implications. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 440: 431-439.

The Tyrannosaur Chronicles

Chronicles cover

So I’ve been keep this quiet for a while, but for the last year or so I’ve been writing what will become my first (and hopefully not only) book. It’s a popular science book with Bloomsbury Press and their new Sigma range of titles, all of which are science / natural history and it’s due out in early 2016. Obviously it’s a dinosaur effort and this is focused squarely on the tyrannosaurs. It tries to cover everything from their origin to extinction and that means evolution, taxonomy, anatomy, physiology and mechanics, and in particular my areas of special interest in ecology and behaviour. It’s not quite wall-to-wall dinosaurs since there’s the context of their environments, competing carnivores and potential prey and that means some other things do at least get a look it.

As will be obvious from the cover, Scott Hartman has been involved and in addition to the skeletals adorning it, there’s a bunch of his renditions inside too. (Those who read his blog might have spotted the recent plethora of tyrannosaurs and this book is part of the reason for his push on them). So that means at least some bits of the book will be accurate and in a desperate attempt to make sure the text isn’t too littered with errors, Tom Holtz has been good enough to plow through the entire thing for me (so I’ll blame any remaining mistakes on him going too fast). More seriously, I really can’t thank them both enough.

Right, that’s enough shameless self-promotion for now, so I’ll return to editing the thing and watching the Mexican standoff between my geckos. Thanks for reading the blog, and hope you might read the book.

 

Edit: it’s available for preorder at Bloomsbury here, assuming anyone is desperate / foolish enough to order it sight unseen. :)

Jurassic World and Science in the Cinema

This post is pretty much just an appeal. With a colleague of mine in the Queen Mary psychology department I’ve designed a survey about attitudes to science in sci-fi and other fiction films. The survey takes about 5 mins to complete and as an incentive there’s Amazon vouchers to be won (you can also complete the survey anonymously, though naturally then, you don’t get to be in the draw).

Please do go HERE and fill it in, and also please do share this as widely as possible and ping it to people who have seen the film. Obviously promoting it around I’m hitting lots of dino-fans and palaeo people and while there’s nothing wrong with that, I’m keen to reach a) more people generally, and b) more ‘non-experts’ / ‘general public’, so passing this on to friends, family, colleagues etc. is a huge deal for me.

Thanks a bunch!

 

 

Combat and cannibalism in tyrannosaurs

skull lat7_nIn recent years, it has become clear that at least some large theropods (and notably tyrannosaurs) engaged in some form of intraspecific conflict that can be identified by the numerous injuries inflicted on various skulls. Unlike predation attempts which would expect to strike to areas like the hindlimbs and tail, these are very localised to the face and imply animals stood head-to-head or side-by-side while doing this. Furthermore, at least a couple of records suggest cannibalism of conspecifics and this too has been seen in tyrannosaurs. Wading in myself, I have new paper out with Darren Tanke which describes a series of injuries to what is a fairly battered Daspeltosaurus skull that gives support to both of these areas, since it has both pre- and post-mortem bites on it from other tyrannosaurs.

First off, I must thank a number of people for getting this research to happen at all. The project started while I was unemployed and obviously short of research funding. My trip to Canada to examine the material was supported by a crowd-sourced campaign run through Experiment.com. Numerous people at Experiment and huge numbers of friends and colleagues contributed (and I’m sure, plenty of regular Musings readers) and they need my thanks. First among equals was the palaeoart community with Julius Csotonyi, Luis Rey and especially Brett Booth donating artwork or sales to support the work, but many people are gratefully acknowledged. Don Henderson put me up while I was in Canada, and Darren Tanke obviously invited me to write up the specimen. While naturally a lot of work has gone into this paper, the essentials of the marks and interpretations were things Darren himself had identified years ago so much credit needs to go his way there too.

IMG_3317

Right, onto the paper. It’s freely available through PeerJ and with 17 figures, so there should be more than enough info there for those who want to delve into the details, and thus I’ll try to keep things relatively brief here. The specimen is of something close to a sub-adult animal and there were plenty of the bones in the quarry (importantly these are in superb condition and there’s basically no evidence of transport or wear). There are numerous injuries across the skull (though absent elsewhere) and these consist primarily of healed injuries on the cranium. Not all of these can be directly attributed to bites, and some could have come from a number of sources.

However, a few healed marks can be interpreted as bites. There are some circular marks and punctures on various locations (including on the snout) and damage to bones that appear to represent some heavy impacts (deviated bones, pieces that have broken off and then fused back to the bone slightly out of position) and the like. Quite incredibly, both sides of the occipital region show some serious damage. On the left a piece appears to have been entirely removed (there’s healing round the remaining edge) and on the right, there’s a healed but circular puncture through the bone. In short, at least one and probably two separate bites came in to the back of the skull and snapped through the bones, though the animal survived and the injuries healed.

occiThis animal, despite not even having reached adulthood, clearly got into at least one big dustup and I would imagine, probably several, to have got so many hits to the head. Although there are a number of theropods showing injuries to the head that are interpreted as coming from other conspecifics, this is more extensive and serious than I’ve seen before. As to assigning it to a conspecific, this is tricky as there are other large tyrannosaurs in the formation (Gorgosaurus) and though these animals might well have come into conflict with one another, one can expect that conspecifics would likely come into contact more often (competition for similar niches, living in more similar habitats or direct interactions from being in groups perhaps). Thus it’s reasonable to infer this was a more likely source of such injuries.

Even so, the post-mortem damage is perhaps more interesting still. There’s one series of score marks along the inside and rear of the right dentary that well match similar bite marks from large theropods. A piece of bone has also broken off between two alveoli and been jammed down in between them and the score marks are coincident with some damage to other parts of the posterior mandible, so it looks a lot like there was a big bite here that took apart the back of the jaw. Given the position of this and the lack of healing, it’s reasonable to infer this as being post-mortem, but things get more interesting when you look at the taphonomy.

surang

When discovered, the dentary was more anterior than would be expected if the specimen had decayed in situ (the skull was lying with the palate uppermost). However, a number of dentary teeth (including those that must have come from the missing right dentary) were lying in the palate below where they should have been if the dentaries were in a natural position. Given the lack of evidence for fluvial action generally, this implies that the jaws were originally in place, decayed sufficiently to shed their teeth, and then the dentaries were moved. One has vanished and the other is in a more anterior position than if the specimen had simply decayed in situ (and the teeth have been dragged along somehow). It’s hard to imagine the tooth ligaments coming apart within hours of death, and the lack of bites to other parts of the specimen that would have been a more obvious target for feeding suggest this was probably scavenging.

This may or may not have been cannibalistic as it is not possible to tell apart Gorgosaurus from Daspletosaurus based on the bite marks alone. Still, it is very much a record of a scavenging interaction between two large tyrannosaurs and that is a nice addition to the available information on interactions between large theropods. Getting an idea of how these kinds of things worked in past environments really is a case of building up data from the rare occasions when such interactions are preserved, so while interesting in its own right, this really does help produce a more rounded picture of interactions between large carnivores both before and after their deaths.

 

Hone, D.W.E., & Tanke, D.H. 2015. Pre- and postmortem tyrannosaurid bite marks on the remains of Daspletosaurus (Tyrannosaurinae: Theropoda) from Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, Canada. PeerJ, 3 e885.

 

Finally, while I’m talking about crowdfunding stuff, do check out David Orr’s appeal for his kids book on palaeontology. David designed the snazzy logo that I used for this project as modeled by myself and Darren above, so you can see how good his stuff is. Oh yes, and here’s an interview with myself and Darren Tanke on the new paper.

Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach

1 clowns

Lying on the waterfront at long beach is the actually rather well hidden Aquarium of the Pacific. Exactly as with the LA Zoo, for me the great thing here was the quality of the exhibits and in particular the combination of rare species I’d not seen before, and those I’d come across at various times but never seen properly, or got good photographs. As a result, the collections here were superb and coupled with a few impressive outdoor tanks (again, the local weather means you can keep tropical species in the open air) made for an interesting collection.

1040

In part I did well here because the lighting seemed to be superb. Even the very dark tanks provided sufficient light I could get decent pictures (and just generally see) the species on display. In most aquariums, even the well-lit tropical tanks can be dark, so this was refreshing, but nothing was too bright, and the animals and plants did seem to be doing well, so it wasn’t any kind of negative on the welfare front.

1 leafy

As with a couple of other aquariums, it really did need a few places to sit and take a breather which would have helped and later in the day it was rammed with people making it a bit awkward. Indeed this was the one thing that I had an issue with, as with any number of places, there were a couple of large touch-tanks, where small sharks, rays and some other fish roamed in shallow waters and people could interact. There were a host of staff on hand to control these and keep things gentle, but at peak times there were so many people I can’t help think the animals were stressed and at least on shark had some damage to the dorsal fin that I can imagine came from too many people stroking it as it went past.

1 ctenophores

This really was my only issue, and at least some animals very obviously enjoyed the experience (one ray made a beeline for people every time anyone appeared at the tank) and in every case there were some out-of-bounds areas the animals could use to get away and none seemed to take advantage. Still, cutting down on the numbers at peak times would probably help a lot here.

1 anen

On to the actual exhibits though. Inside there were the usual mix of a few giant tanks with larger species and hosts of small ones and then lots of smaller dedicated selections. There was a superb deep-water area with low lighting with some great novelties – hagfish (my first), giant isopods (only seen once, partially hidden and with no good photos before), lantern fish, tons of interesting crabs, chimera, and various other oddballs and with a great mock-up of a decaying whale for them to clamber over.

1 isopod

The big Pacific tanks were also superb and accessible from multiple angles and again had lots of species that were new to me. Overall there was a nice emphasis in places on invertebrates (and not just crabs) with selections of jellyfish, tunicates, ctenophores (always a highlight for me), giant sponges, various molluscs and others. There were some large animals too (sealions and seals, sea otters, penguins) and one outdoor tank had the largest sawfish and stingrays I’ve ever seen, and by some margin. There were also some more terrestrial species, as well as crested auklets (my first ones, and something I’ve long wanted to see thanks to mentioning them in my sexual selection papers), puffins, and indeed non-marine animals with various birds including in particular the super rare Guam kingfisher.

1 piper

The highlights for me were some rarely seen favourites – leafy and weedy seadragons, both present in large numbers in superb settings, and then to top it all off, a krait. Despite having been to some major collections all over the world, this was the kind of thing I never expected to see and so to have one at all (and then I was lucky enough that it sat alongside the glass for a good time) was incredible.

1 krait

The place as a whole lacks the raw impressiveness of the giant tanks of somewhere like Osaka, but more than makes up for it with the setting and arrangement of tanks, as well as the variety of species and real rarities and very special animals. It was an instant classic for me, and something I absolutely loved visiting. I could easily have gone back the next day, not because I’d missed anything, but some many species were out and active and behaving naturally, a second visit would not have been anything like a repeat or dull. I can only hope I get another chance to go again in the not too distant future.

1 blue spot

LA Zoo

tapirFollowing a recent trip to LA and the surrounding areas I’ve got a stack of photos and local reviews to get through. In addition to the local Museum of Natural History, I made it to the zoo, aquarium, the La Brea tarpits and across to the Raymond Alf Museum, home of palaeoblogger Andy Farke. Typically for a zoo review, I’ll try to sit back and let the photos do the talking, though there were some more things to comment on here than usual which makes a change.

harpy

The most striking thing for me was simply the number of animals that are basically permanently outside. Thanks to the local climate, tropical species that in the UK (or indeed most collections) and would need an indoor area were year-round species. Thus alligators, false gharial, koalas, and a number of others had large outdoor areas and nary a heated room or glass panel was to be seen which was really nice and very refreshing.

koala

Overall the zoo was huge in area and it’s a good long hike around it and especially up the numerous hills. This was compounded by some poor signage and the fact that a number of areas are being redeveloped. It’s annoying enough that quite a few large enclosures were shut and off limits, but still more annoying that it often took me quite a long walk to get to the right are, longer to find it because of the maps, and then fit it was closed was very irritating.

gerenuk

The new reptile house was absolutely superb, one of the best I have ever come across and was enhanced by the careful use of natural light for much of it (again, something that is facilitated by the location, not many places could copy this if they wanted to) and the snake collection in particular was superb. The enclosures generally were very well structured and huge (the elephant paddock is truly colossal) and there was some clever integration of them into the environments, with the aviaries on the hillsides working well.

colobus

For me though, the best thing was the huge number of species I had not seen before. Two duikers (my first ever), gerenuk, a number of snakes, less kudu, chaco peccary, both mountain and Barid’s tapirs, and red headed uakaris. On top of that, there were a number of things I had seen before but never got a good look at, or decent photos, including giant otters, harpy eagles, giant salamanders, black and white colobus, Prevost’s squirrel and servals. Generally the zoo was a superb mix of ‘classics’ (giraffe, tiger, gorilla, elephant) and real exotics and rarities, and all superbly curated. The only real frustration was the closed areas and I’d love to go back when it is in its full splendour, but it was a superb visit and ticked a ton of boxes for me, especially on the new species front.

duiker

Interview with Jez Gibson-Harris

Big Al 1

To those interested in palaeoart and the world of dinosaur reconstructions, the name Jez Gibson-Harris might not be familiar at all, and yet I can guarantee that almost everyone reading this has seen a number of his models and puppets since he and his crew put together all the live-action animals used in Walking with Dinosaurs and various subsequent sequels (and you’ll also know his work from the Dark Crystal not to mention Star Wars). Jez was kind enough to answer some questions about building model dinosaurs and getting them on screen, and he also handed over a nice pile of photos of various creations for me to share (though as ever, please don’t use these without his permission).

 

What is your background in model making?

I always made stuff when I was young, kits, sculptures, toys, jewellery then at College in Richmond in the late 1970’s I did a one year Art foundation course: so much fun, so many different techniques to experiment with. I then started a Jewellery and Silver Smithing course which I left after a couple of terms and joined a special effects makeup company that had just finished working on The Empire Strikes Back. I worked on The Dark Crystal and Return of the Jedi, building the famous Jabba the Hutt and later worked on Greystoke the Legend of Tarzan, The Never Ending Story 1 & 2, Willow, Tomorrow Never Dies and many more.

In 1986 I set up Crawley Creatures Ltd. in the Oxfordshire village of Crawley near Witney with a partner, Nigel Trevessey. We worked closely with Oxford Scientific Films working on Natural History films, documentaries and commercials and made models and animatronics for commercials and TV shows all over Europe. Nigel returned to freelancing in 1992 and went on to supervise the fantastic model build of Hogwarts for the Harry Potter films.

Lost World Iguanadon

How did you get into recreating dinosaurs and prehistoric animals?

In 1996 I was approached by a BBC researcher to make a pilot documentary film for ex-Horizon Producer, Tim Haines. The pilot was Walking with Dinosaurs. We built a couple of maquettes a half scale Liopleurodon head and close-up body parts, including a large pair of feet to make footprints.

Tim Haines documentary background and exacting standards ensured that the real, grassless, backgrounds, the animatronics, models and CG all worked together to create a truly believable natural environment. The series was one of the most popular TV programmes at the time and won multiple awards including a Millenium Products Award, an Emmy and Baftas.

The success of this series spawned a genre of programmes over a ten year period depicting early life; Walking with Beasts, Ballard of Big Al, Sea Monsters, Walking with Early Life, The Giant Claw, Walking with Giants and Prehistoric Park. We also worked on the first three series of Primeval and more recently on Prehistoric Autopsy with Dr. Alice Roberts.

We made a T. rex head for a TV pilot of the Lost World, when we worked ay OSF, the series started at Pinewood Studios but was cancelled after six weeks into the build. I think our link with documentaries and OSF and our background of realistic looking work got the attention of the BBC researcher and as is often the case with the TV and Film industries you get pigeon holed, but what a nice area to get pigeon holed into!!

I am fascinated by natural history and paleontology, I have always loved museums, so much so that I have now designed a range of fossil chocolates (I have to admit that I love chocolate just as much as dinosaurs!). So we do a lot of dinosaurs for museums now as CG takes over more of the film and TV work. We have worked for The Natural History Museum London, Oxford University Museum (my favourite), The Eden Project, Gondwana das Prehistorium in Reden, Saarbreuken, Germany and the yet to be opened Dinosauropolis in Athens.

Beasts Smilodon passive

How do you start a new animal?

Usually we will receive a brief from an Art Director and we will do our own research for the latest museum reconstructions, or artists visuals, trips to museums to photograph fossils or skeletal reconstructions. We have a library of books that utilise as well as looking at internet sources.

A production company will usually have a researcher available who will look for the most recent scientific papers and studies and look to key palaeontologists whose field the beast we are reconstructing falls into, to provide us with feed back to images we send as we start to build our creatures.

Opthal2

What are the major techniques that you use?

We will start off with an armature, usually a metal framework, covered in chicken wire, hessian scrim and plaster all coated with shellac. The armature will be smaller than the intended finished surface, allowing for a layer of water based clay or wax based modelling material that will be sculpted to the smooth or wrinkled and textured skin surface that is required.

If we are making a large creature or model, we will usually sculpt a smaller scale maquette, (usually 1/10th scale). The maquette will enable us to create the pose and proportions of the creature quickly and get feedback from our client and any scientific advisers before the full scale figure is tackled.

When making a very large model we have the facility to laser scan the maquette, surface the scanned data in GeoMagic software, which allows us to manipulate the model in CAD. These files can then be sent to a 5 Axis machining company where we can get a full sized armature machined in polystyrene.

When the full sized armature is returned to us we can then begin the clay sculpture. The finished clay surface is then sealed and a GRP (glass reinforced plastic) layer is applied, usually the mould is made in several joining sections and once cured this will for a hard jacket mould that will have all the surface texture from the sculpture embedded into its surface. When the mould has cured the parts are removed and cleaned and the sculpture is destroyed. Casts are taken from the mould in various flexible elastomers such as silicones or polyurethanes.

Stegocerus mid (Large)

 

What do you have to consider from scientific sources and how do you decide where there in uncertainty such as with colours?

We will always aim for our models to be the best and most up-to-date reconstructions around so we encourage critical feedback especially at the sculpture stage when it is relatively easy to make alterations. We will produce a colour scheme based on discussions and this will be changed until an agreement is made.

Skin texture, colour schemes and feathers etc. on dinosaurs are tricky, there is no information on colour or sounds or behaviour and scant fossil evidence, as far as I am aware, of skin texture and feathering on larger specimens.

Scientists are able to argue the case for their views and understanding as to what the colour, feathering styles etc. may have been but from a filmic or TV point of view a creative decision has to be made to get the visuals on the screen and it is often a ‘best guess’ approach. The ‘best guess’ decision will usually be based on a modern analogy of the creature, our understanding of the environment that the creature may have lived in, whether the creature is a herbivore or carnivore, it’s size, whether the creature is bird, reptile, marine-reptile or crocodile like in its make-up, all this will be factored into the decision.

beasts austral male 4

What to have to consider from the perspective of filming?

Time is usually very short on a production so after discussions and hopefully a story board from the production company, we know exactly what we need to build and what the camera will need to see. Time and materials are very expensive so ideally we will only build what needs to be seen which is why a storyboard is so important. Sometimes we can build models to a smaller scale if there is no referenced give away in the shot. If we are filming at a studio or on location we have to think ahead about logistics of moving a large model or for freighting and crating and the logistics of moving and operating in the environment on the shoot

How many people would be involved in a typical build?

Because of the nature of the contacts for film, TV and museum work the deadlines are usually very short and labour intensive. So, as well as using our fulltime staff we rely on a network of Freelance Specialists to assist in delivering the models to the screen.

At present we are building a well known, very large, full-sized creature. We have three sculptors, seven mould-makers a mechanical engineer, and a CAD engineer in addition to the two office staff. Shortly we will be hiring two body fabricators. Fabricators really make soft mechanics, using specialist foams and lycra fabrics they will design and make a flexible under-structure that the sculpted skin surface will attach to, but still enable the skin to bend and flex realistically in all the right places, similar to the under-structure of costumes used in programs such as the Telly-Tubbies and their ilk.

Later in the process we will bring in a couple of Art-Finishers to prepare and then paint the assembled finished creature skins.

sm turtle uw day5 (Large)

What is the creation from your team that you are most proud of?

This is a difficult question for many reasons. One of my first jobs in the industry was working for the Jim Henson Company on the film the Dark Crystal and I was making Mystic characters. The team of people we were working with was so creative and exciting that I will never forget it.

Jabba the Hutt has to be one of my best achievements, working with a small team of six people we made one of the most famous villains in cinema and for such a prestigious film, I still get asked for autographs by Star Wars fans.

Greystoke was my next film and our supervisor Rick Baker won an Oscar for the work we all contributed to. The quality of the ape suits and the performances of the costume wearers was very special.

But those three films were in my freelance days and so the creations I’m most proud of from Crawley Creatures point of view is the work we produced for the BBC/Discovery Channel series of Walking with Dinosaurs. It was a very bold concept at a time when animatronics and CG had not been used a great deal in TV. With a small budget, from a special effects point of view, a very small build crew and production crew we felt very much part of the whole process from start to finish and that involvement was very creatively rewarding. The series was a huge worldwide hit and it got a lot more people very interested in dinosaurs and we won several awards for our work, which was nice!

Celeophysis 1 cu2 (Large)

Protoceratops take shelter – new palaeoart

Although PLOS has many things to recommend it, one thing they don’t do is give you a lot of notice about publication and so actually the production of my recent paper on Protoceratops came shortly before the manuscript went online. As a result, although the paper had been around in various guises for several years, it was a bit too short notice to have everything ready for its publication, including both a press release from me and the following artwork.

protoceratops juvenile-correct1The superb illustrator Andrey Atuchin had very generously got involved in producing an illustration to come out alongside the paper, but his recent illness coupled with the limited notice put everything back. However, I am delighted that he has now completed his new work and allowed me to put it up here.

Above is a simple (but fantastic) vignette of a single Protoceratops. This represents the age class of the block of four young animals that were the feature of the paper, with the reduced size of the frill and the overall proportions of the animal that does differ from what we see in adult animals. Although juvenile dinosaurs are often rare, there is a natural tendency for only full adults to be illustrated, or we see young animals only in the context of their parents or part of a herd and it’s great to be able to focus on a single animal, especially when the adult is already so familiar.

Protoceratops final artwork01

This then makes the whole composition below rather unusual and of course very fitting for the paper. We see the group of juveniles together, devoid of adult supervision or as part of a herd but in their apparently natural aggregation. The environment of course reflects the Mongolian Late Cretaceous with a very sandy region and little real plant life. The overall composition though hints at the wider issues of the paper in a nicely understated way – the group are largely at rest, though remain vigilant and the fact that there are multiple individuals means even those not directly scanning the environment are not that vulnerable and the group as a whole are looking in multiple directions. Staying vigilant is especially important for young and vulnerable dinosaurs lacking the size, experience and defences of adults, and so they must with here a pair of Velociraptor on the horizon.

My thanks of course to Andrey (who retains the copyright on these, please don’t share without permission) for this wonderful rendition of group living in the Cretaceous and nice of him to sneak some theropods in there so I can forget about my fall from grace and pretend that this is not just about ornithischians. It’s a wonderful piece and it really does convey not just the contents of the paper, but the issues at the heart of it, and even if you disagree with the hypotheses, it’s certainly evocative and really does show the concepts magnificently.

 

 

 

 


@Dave_Hone on Twitter

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 425 other followers


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 425 other followers