Linton Zoo

Eastern quoll

I’m really very behind on blogging generally and my zoo reviews in particular (if you haven’t seen it, you’ll want to read this thread on Twitter as to why). In addition to a couple of small outfits and revisits, I’ve made it to four notable collections in recent months and not written a word about any of them. I’ll start with one of the more recent and certainly the smallest of them, Linton Zoo in the Cambridgeshire countryside.

Linton is small by any zoo standards and even really taking your time, it’ll fill only half a day but it is not like some of the smaller provincial collections that dot the UK countryside. Too many of these are underfunded and rely on some pretty basic ‘stock’ animals which while probably interesting for the average visitor are a list of species I’ve seen too many of and are not especially exotic (you know the score, squirrel monkeys, llamas, African grey parrots, a reptile house of leopard geckos and royal pythons, and so on). However, while inevitably there’s a few very common species here, the collection has some ‘proper’ exotic animals – kangaroos, some big cats, ground hornbills, giant tortoises, Brazilian tapirs etc. and some excellent rarities.

Lesser hedgehog tenrec

I went primarily because, listed on their website, were quolls. I wasn’t aware of any in Europe, let alone in a small zoo and yet there they were a lovely set of Eastern quolls that were active and about and were a delight to see. Also on the odd mammal front, there were a pair of lesser hedgehog tenrecs so two huge ticks right there. One last thing was the binturongs, real favourites of mine but with a tendency to sleep quietly in a box and be as near to invisible as it’s possible but here mum and two mid-sized offspring were all out and enjoying the autumn sun which was a real joy.

Juvenile binturong

Their bird collection was also good, with two more new species for me, red-tailed black cockatoos, and a blue throated macaw as well as several of the rarer Amazon parrots. Plus, an ever favourite of mine, several touracos including one that sat very conveniently on a branch near the wire so I could take some good snaps of it. Finally, to round it out there were a few life-sized dinosaur models scattered around the grounds. These were a bit out of place to be honest, but they were mostly pretty good and at least had some accompanying labels.

Red-tailed black cockatoo

Overall this was a great little set-up, obviously I’d have preferred something larger and the tiny reptile and small mammal houses were in the process of refurbishment meaning there was almost nothing to see there (tenrecs aside) which was a bit of a shame. But the enclosures had that nice balance of cover and security for the animals with real space for them, and also good viewing points. It is probably a bit out of the way for a lot of people and the size might reduce its draw but to visit such a small collection and see half a dozen species new to me takes some doing and I’ll certainly be going again sooner or later.


Welcome Cryodrakon – a giant Canadian azhdarchid pterosaur

Life reconstruction of Cryodrakon boreas. Artwork by David Maas, used with permission.

A few years ago Mike Habib invited me to collaborate on a paper looking at the anatomy of the exceptionally well preserved humerus of an azhdarchid pterosaur from Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta. This specimen is well known as it is a partial skeleton and includes a tibia with bite marks and even a shed tooth from a small theropod. It, and a number of other pterosaur bits from the park were described in the famous Dinosaur Park book from the early 2000s and were tentatively refereed to Quetzalcoatlus. Intending to use both this and soem Quetz material for his study, Mike asked me to look at the material and add something on the taxonomy to make sure this really was the same thing and if not, see if we could say anything meaningful about it’s identity. I got about 6000 words into a draft before I realised that this was in now way a subsection of a paper on mechanics and anatomy and this was going to have to be it’s own entity. Fast forward a couple of years and here is the newly named and distinct Cryodrakon boreas.

Mid cervical vertebra of Cryodrakon boreas, nicknamed the teddybear for obvious reasons.

The name means the ‘frozen dragon of the north wind’ is clearly an azhdarchid pterosaur. We’ve recently found that not all of these animals had super long necks and some were rather short and robust-necked animals. Cryodrakon is certainly one of the longer-necked ones, but it’s vertebrae do seem to be shorter and wider than comparable Quetz vertebrae suggesting that it had a more robust neck than it’s more famous cousin. It’s humerus is also a little less robust than the Texan so presumably it’s ecology was a little different too given how important this element is for walking, take-off and flight.

There’s a fair bit of material known too. The holotype has a humerus, midcervical, pteroid, tibia, rib and wing metacrapl all well preserved (amazing for an azhdarchid) and represent a juvenile of about 5 m wingspan. There’s a lot of bits including lots of isolated cervicals of animals of various sizes right down to things of perhaps 1.5 m wingspan and one huge and fragmentary vertebra that we estimate would represent an anuld in the 10 m wingspan realm. So at adult this would be an aniaml approaching or comparable to the other biggest azhdarchids known. The fact we have so much material is a real bonus as we’re able to show that essentailly all the vertebrae have a unifying set of features so we can infer that even young animals have the same features as adults and we can unify them as a single species. There could be more here of course (it’s hard to say too much about things like an isolated partial scapulocoracoid of soem of the very crushed vertebae) but for now the best interepretation is that there’s one species represented by lots of specimens.

Life reconstruction of Cryodrakon boreas. Artwrok by David Maas, used with permission.

My thanks also to David Maas for his beautiful artwork which he did at short notice to help show off the animal (he retains the copyright, these are used with permission). The colours are supposed to be a bit of fun and obviously echo the Canadian flag but are also not implausible given how little we know about pterosaur colours and the bright patterns we have for at least some very large modern birds. Equally the environment it primarily lived in was subtropical but it’s also likely it would have seen snow on occasion and certainly would have seen the northern lights, but the name primarily refers to the Albertan winter.

Hone, David; Habib, Michael; Therrien, Francois.  2019. Cryodrakon boreas gen. et sp. nov. a Late Cretaceous Canadian azhdarchid pterosaur’. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.  DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2019.1649681

The problem with floating pterosaurs

A few years ago I published a neat little paper with Don Henderson on the possible posture pterosaur might adopt in water. This was done to try and see if they might have issues if they became stranded on the surface and especially if the head was left at or even under the surface (you can read about this in some more detail here). However, what I want to talk about in this post is how badly and how often this simple paper seems to have been misinterpreted. I’ve been thinking about this for a while but Heinrich Mallison has just linked to an old post on his blog making the same general point about accuracy of citations. Like him, I’m sure I’m not blameless and we all make mistakes occasionally and cite the wrong paper or misattribute a source or get some details wrong. It happens and while obviously not ideal, such is life. However, some papers more than others seem to suffer from this and the floating pterosaur paper is one of them.

It is only a short paper, under 10 pages long and there’s lots of figures and references in that too and the subject itself is fairly simple so one would hope to minimise confusion. Unfortunately, this seems not to be the case and it’s already acquired a number of citations and comments that at best miss the point and at worst say the direct opposite of a point we made. Below are some direct quotes from papers and then points or quotes from the original paper to show how these are quite incorrect. I won’t directly name and shame the perpetrators as the point here is intended to be illustrative of the problem rather than go after colleagues when I can’t rule out having made the same mistake myself somewhere.

First off our study was apparently carried out in order to ‘imitate the swimming strokes of pterosaurs’. In the title and throughout the paper we refer to the floating posture and talk about static posture in water, not swimming per se. While in the discussion we did refer to the posture some pterosaurs took in water and pointed to how it matches putative swimming tracks, this was clearly not the aim of the paper. That makes this point a bit wide of the mark, but not bad and a rejig of the phrasing would clear this up.

Next up, we apparently show that ‘pterosaurs would not have been able to float without tipping over’. That’s clearly not correct as can be seen from the figures (see below). We do discuss the issue of tipping forwards in pterodactyloids in some postures, and the heads are indeed low, but that’s not the same as saying that all pterosaurs did this all the time and indeed the pterosaurs were generally stable.

Hypothesised floating postures fo various pterosaurs

Moving onto some greater issues, we apparently state that the ‘hairlike pycno-fibers covering their body would likely not trap a layer of air, as feathers of birds, and could become water-logged’. That’s very clearly not what we say at all as we make the very clear statement that ‘the effect of such a coat may have been positive (trapped air increasing buoyancy) or negative (waterlogged).’. Yes it may have been an issue, but we don’t know and are equally open to the possibility it could assist buoyancy and we point to the fur on aquatic mammals as a possible analogy, so this quote clearly is not in line with our position on what effect pycnofibers might have had.

We also are cited for the point that pterosaurs were ‘unable to take off from the surface’. This is not a point we really address (since it’s not directly related to floating posture’ but even in the abstract we say that pterosaurs ‘if immersed would need to take off again rapidly’ which clearly implies we are happy with the idea of water launched and later on we cite Habib and Cunningham and saying ‘A recent study suggests that even the biggest pterosaurs might be capable of taking off from the surface of the water’. In short we’re clearly happy with the idea they could take off from water and while we discuss the possibility that some pterosaurs might not have been able to, at no point do we say that they could not.

Then we have this very problematic statement that ‘simulations of the buoyancy of pterosaurs made using computers indicate that these reptiles had no ability to float well in water’. We clearly do not say this and point multiple times to the high pneumaticity of ptersoaurs any say things including ‘it is not surprising that the pterosaur model floats on water’ and ‘We show that in general pterosaurs adopted a position that was high on the waterline’ which make it very clear they floated and floated well.

These five statements are varying degrees of problematic, but given that this paper has only less than 20 citations from peer-reviewed papers (and several of them are by me which I don’t think I’ve miss-cited) that points to a pretty high percentage of erroneous citations on this one piece of work. When several of them are clearly flat wrong, and even information in the abstract points to them being in error it suggests that it’s really not been taken on board. Hopefully this paper is simply unlucky in keeping getting such erroneous takes but it’s a shame that a paper that I’m really quite proud of seems to be repeatedly cited for things it doesn’t say or imply. It’s probably only a matter of time before it is used to contend that pterosaurs could not swim (something the paper also clearly does not say) and I’ve seen our paper referenced in this context in popular writing so it may yet go that way in the literature.

In short, read papers properly and check what you are saying. It’s important.


If you have read this far, I’ll trouble you for a few more words. You have read this blog post and may well have read many others of mine or enjoyed my book, seen TV shows I’ve consulted on or heard a podcast I did. If so, please take less than one minute to fill out this survey for me.

A simple, but important, request to all readers

I’ve now been blogging for over 10 years and I’ve also written plenty of other news articles, appeared on TV, radio and in podcasts, and done whole rafts of talks and events as well as writing a book (here’s a huge list of links to things I have done) and consulted for plenty more too. I do this because I enjoy it and I think it’s very important for scientists to help engage with the public and explin what they do and what they have learend and why (and even more so when it’s research based on public money). It’s nice to get recognised for this kind of work but it is not why I do it.

However, at least some of this work is now undertaken as part of my job at Queen Mary University and so I need to try and get a handle on what I am actually achieving. So, as a result, I have a small but very important request. If you have literally 1 minute and have read my book, seen one of my talks, read a blog or article I’ve written, listened to a podcast I did, saw a TV show I consulted on, sent me an e-mail that I replied to, chatted to me at  science festival, or really anything at all from my outreach programs, please do fill in this tiny form. It’s really important for me and does take seconds. Please also share this far and wide with friends and family, I know I have hundreds of subscribers to this blog but my book has sold over 10 000 copies and some of my videos or podcasts I know have had audiences in the 100 000s so I really hope this message can spread far and wide and reach those who do not read this blog.

I don’t ask for much on here, so please spare me a minute of your time to fill this in and to share the link, retweet it, post it to a messageboard, or anywhere else some people may see it who like their dinosaurs.

(Somewhat late) roundup of 2018

Lots of people are doing little end of the year reviews and with my general decrease in blogging in recent months this seemed a good motivation for me to do something similar if a bit later than everyone else.

It has been a fairly productive year for me research wise though there are lots more things that are nearing completion or are already out for review so hopefully the next couple of years will show a better return. Even the list below is inevitably a bit warped as some of these papers are effectively in press so will likely end up with a 2019 date on them, while others were out in 2017 but only now have a year appended.

First off are a few on the subject of trophic interactiosn between species. Most recently has been my paper on a Pteranodon with a shark tooth stuck in it, though this year also brough some theropod bite marks on juvenile dinosaurs. There was a rather broken peice of centrosaur frill that not nipped by something small itself, but more interestingly was a rather savaged juvenile diplodocid femur from Dinosaur National Monument. This one had bites very reminiscent of those made by derived tyrannosaurs at a time when they were not around suggesting simialr feeding mechanisms might have been present more extensively in big theropods and the paper also included some work on the issues of identifing ‘biters’ too.

My work on sexual selection and signaling also continued with two papers on this subject. First came one which is the first piece of work by my PhD student Andy Knapp looking at the evolution and changes in the horns and frills of various ceratopsians. This specifically targeted the idea that these things might have evolved as recognition signals but there was no evidence that these eveolved in response to sympatry (being in the same place so where you might want to be different to avoid confusion) and thus supporting the idea that they were more likely under sociosexual selection. Second in this area was work led by Devin O’Brien on the way things like ceratopsian frills grow which can be an indicator of sexual selection. This has been used in one form or another for years but this papers made things more rigorous in the use of reference traits for comparisons to sexually selected traits and marking out other things that also grow fast but are naturally selected.

Finally there’s a couple of papers that don’t really fit into either category. First there’s some work I was involved in looking at the exceptional preservation of dinosaur ‘dandruff’ and the implications that this brings about their biology. Second was a revision of the pterosaur genus Noripterus which has a complex taxonomic history and has suffered through most of the key material being lost. That turning up again allowed proper clarification over the definition of the taxon and a number of other genera that has been referred (os should have been to it).

So all in all a fairly productive time with a couple of my main research themes keeping pace while continuing to work on some other important areas. On the outreach front I continue to do lots of talks and school visits as well as podcasts and some consulting for various TV shows and the odd appearance. The Guardian cancelled their science blog network which ended the Lost Worlds, though it means I am doing more blogging here again as a result. Finally, an early 2019 addition was the creation of a Facebook page for my work and outreach which does a different job to both these pages and Twitter so do please follow me there too.

  • Hone, D.W.E., Witton, M. P., & Habib, M.B. 2018. Evidence for the Cretaceous shark Cretoxyrhina mantelli feeding on the pterosaur Pteranodon from the Niobrara Formation. Peer J.
  • Hone, D.W.E., Tanke, D.H., & Brown, C.M. 2018. Bite marks on the frill of a juvenile Centrosaurus from the Late Cretaceous Dinosaur Provincial Park Formation, Alberta, Canada. Peer J.
  • O’Brien, D.M., Allen, C.E., Van Kleeck, M.J., Hone, D.W.E., Knell, R.J., Knapp, A., Christiansen, S., & Emlen, D.J. 2018. On the evolution of extreme structures: static scaling and the function of sexually selected signals. Animal Behaviour.
  • McNamara, M.E., Zhang, F., Kearns, S.L., Orr, P.J., Toulouse, A., Foley, T., Hone, D.W.E., Rogers, C.S., Benton, M.J., Johnson, D., Xu, X., & Zhou, Z. 2018. Exceptionally preserved skin structure reveals the coevolution of skin, feathers and metabolism in feathered dinosaurs and early birds. Nature communications.
  • Knapp, A., Knell, R.J., Farke, A.A., Loewen, M.A., & Hone, D.W.E. 2018. Patterns of divergence in the morphology of ceratopsian dinosaurs: sympatry is not a driver of ornament evolution. Proceedings of the Royal Society, Series B,
  • Hone, D.W.E., & Chure, D.J. 2018. Difficulties in assigning trace makers from theropodan bite marks: an example from a young diplodocoid sauropod. Lethaia.
  • Hone, D.W.E., Jiang, S., & Xu, X. 2018. A taxonomic revision of Noripterus complicidens (Young, 1973) and Asian members of Dsungaripteridae. Geological Society of London, Special Volume, 149-157

A new venue

Becuase writing the Musings annd being on Twitter (and perviously doing the FLugsaurier blog and pages, and Ask A Biologist, and The Lost Worlds for the Guardian) isn’t enough, I finally decided to start up a proper page on Facebook. So if you want to follow me there and post soem dinosaur stuff and get more involved in discussions and research then hope over here to Dave Hone’s Dinosaurs page.

I’m still doing other outreach things like talks, consultations for documentaries and podcasts (here’s a very recent one on pterosaurs) and I’m writing a second book so there’s still lots more going on. But this new page will, I hope, allow me to engage with a different audience in a different way so do please go over there and like the page and share it around.


Pteranodon vs Cretoxyrhina

Shark vs Pterosaur. By Mark Witton.

Over the last 10 years I have published quite a few papers on various feeding traces, shed teeth and stomach contents that help demonstrate and refine some understandings about who ate who in the Mesozoic. These are often very interesting but also frustratingly incomplete and it can be hard to identify one, let alone both, of the protagonists and in any case these are often isolated examples that may or may not represent wider trends. Still, at least sometimes there can be a good set of marks with repeated patterns and enough data to be quite confident about a relationship.

One such is that between the classic giant pelagic pterosaur Pteranodon and various sharks from the Cretaceous, most notably Squalicorax. This is no big surprise, these pterosaurs were spending a large amount of time out over the water and could probably dive and swim after prey, even if they didn’t likely sit for long on the surface when they did so. Even aside from the possibility of being caught, at least some pterosaurs must have died while out over the water or been stranded and ill or injured on the surface and that would inevitably attract large predators to come for a meal. Given the huge numbers of Pteranodon bones we have, it should not then be a surprise that there are a good number of them described with various bite marks that can be confidently attributed to large sharks. Pterosaurs were generally lightweight for their size but that doesn’t mean there was not some decent muscle on them and modern seabirds are not infrequently eaten by sharks providing a nice analogy too.

‘Complete’ Pteranodon at the LACM.

Such data though is limited to marks on bones and it’s always nice to have something more detailed than this. Although mentioned before in several previous papers, one outstanding Pteranodon specimen in LA has never been described or illustrated properly and so when I got my hands on it while visiting Mike Habib a few years ago, it was rather inevitable that something would happen, and the paper on that, with the healthy addition of Mark Witton as a collaborator, is now out.

The indivdual in question is mounted as a lovely complete (and sort of 3-D) pterosaur on display in the Los Angeles County Museum but it is a composite of somewhat indeterminate origin and it’s not entirely clear how many individuals were used to make it or how complete any of them were. What is clear though is that there is a short series of articulated cervical vertebrae and that these have the tooth of a decently sized shark with them. It’s trapped under a prezygopophysis so it’s hard to think it just drifted in there by chance onto a skeleton at the very bottom of the sea, and while the tooth doesn’t look like it penetrates the bone it is a reasonable interpretation that this is a shed tooth from a bite.

The tooth is diagnostic of the large pelagic shark Cretoxyrhina and we have a good enough idea of where in the mouth it sat which means we can get decent estimates of the sizes of each of the two animals here. The Pteranodon clocks in at around 5 m in wingspan with the shark being 2.5 m in length, but despite this apparent discrepancy, the shark would have been by far the heavier animal and in the water it would swim rings round the pterosaur. In short, while we don’t know quite what happened here (was it predation or scavenging) it looks like a decent sized shark took a chunk out of a pterosaur and lost a tooth in the process.

This is the first record of sucha trophic relationship between these two genera, though of course various unattributed bites that are already known might also have been made by Cretoxyrhina. However, despite the large numbers of Pteranodon specimens known, apparent bites on them turn up in only about 1% of cases. In some ways this may sound like a lot but there’s perhaps a 6% rate of carnivore-consumed interactions known for Rhamphorhynchus, so the open ocean (perhaps unsurprisingly) might have had fewer incidences of large predators getting to grips with large pterosaurs than near shore ones with much smaller animals.

All in all though, this adds a nice new point to the dataset on pterosaurs and their position in various food chains. We have a healthy record of them eating things, and being eaten, and each new bit of data like this helps us get a better and better handle on how pterosaurs fitted into ecosystems and how they might have lived, and died, in the Mesozoic.


The paper is fully OA and available here.


Interview with Gabriel Ugueto

Gabriel is a real newcomer but has smashed into the palaeoart scene with his huge productivity levels meaning his artwork is already everywhere online and in books and in concert will all kinds of media and palaeo projects. There’s already a mountain of his material and more is coming as he talks about his book plans below.

Tyrannosaurus ‘design’ done for ‘The Real T. rex’

How long have you been an artist?

I have been drawing since I can recall. I was thinking about this the other day, and I realized that I do not remember a time in my life when I was not drawing or painting. I have always loved drawing, I have always loved animals, and I have always loved drawing animals, so I guess it was a natural progression for me to become a scientific illustrator and paleoartist.

Chasmosaurine phylogeny

How long have you been producing palaeoart?

I am a newcomer to the paleoart scene. I have only been seriously involved in producing paleoart for the last three years, but in that time I have been fortunate enough to have won the praise from numerous paleontologists and several fellow paleoartists that I truly admire. I have worked on some really interesting projects that include books, scientific papers, art for museums, magazine articles, and even the TV documentary “The Real T. rex,” in which I got to work with you in the concept art that was used to generate the CGI Tyrannosaurus rex that appears in the program. I studied graphic design and illustration, and the road to becoming a paleoartist has not been straightforward. Before entering the world of paleoart, I was doing other types of graphic art, including scientific illustration. For several years I was also an independent herpetology researcher, and I authored numerous papers including the description of several new species and genera of neotropical lizards. During that time most of my scientific illustration was concentrated in herpetology. As time went by, I started getting more and more requests to illustrate various types of reptiles and amphibians. The world of herpetology is intrinsically linked to paleontology, so I consider my incursion into paleoart just a natural extension of my work as a scientific illustrator. Eventually, enough people were asking me for commissions that I could start working as a full-time freelance paleoartist and scientific illustrator.


What first got you interested in dinosaurs and art?

I grew up in Venezuela in a family of nature lovers, so I was surrounded by numerous field guides and other animal books, as well as by the diverse local fauna. Thus, I was exposed to animals constantly in one way or another, and they very quickly became the most important subject for my art. I was not only fascinated by extant creatures but extinct ones as well. Dinosaurs and other Mesozoic reptiles were among the first animals I remember drawing, and I was completely mesmerized by them. My oldest brother (who is my elder by 19 years) was studying geology when I was a little kid so there were all these books about geology and paleontology laying around in my house. I used to spend hours reading those books and drawing the various extinct animals that appeared in them.


What is your favourite piece of palaeo art that you have produced?

My favorite piece is always the one I am currently working on, or the one that I am planning to do. It is that drive to create something new that keeps you going, hungry, and interested as an artist. I think that is the case not only in paleoart or scientific illustration, but in every line of creative/scientific endeavor. Currently, I am largely focused on finishing my book “Journey To The Mesozoic vol. I.” In it, I would like to take the readers on a journey around the world during the Triassic and Jurassic periods, visiting 33 geological formations and seeing reconstructions of over 600 tetrapod species that lived during that time. Some of those reconstructions include several well-known dinosaurs like Diplodocus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus, but also numerous, more obscure and extremely interesting creatures. So, my book and the reconstructions I have produced for it, are currently my favorite pieces of paleoart.

Niobrara fauna

Who is your favourite palaeoartist or piece of palaeoart?

There are many paleoartists who have been, and continue to be, sources of inspiration for me. Among those, I can name five who have been fundamental in influencing and inspiring my work. Douglas Henderson has created some of the most beautiful scenes in paleoart, with masterful compositions depicting animals in a very natural way. I am particularly fond of his reconstructions of Triassic animals and environments. John Conway has been a major influence on me regarding depicting exciting hypotheses in an artistically interesting way. I also deeply admire the wonderful art by Mauricio Anton. His magnificent and detailed illustrations of (primarily) extinct mammals are, in my view, some of the best depictions of that group of vertebrates ever created. Matthew Martinyuk reconstructions of maniraptoran dinosaurs and pterosaurs, done in a simple but thoroughly researched, field guide style, have also been very influential for me. As have been the beautiful, atmospheric reconstructions of appropriately feathered maniraptoran dinosaurs by Emily Willoughby.

Assorted sauropods

What is your favourite dinosaur / archosaur?

I get this question on social media all the time, and I always answer it the same way: I cannot choose just one because there are so many of them that I find so interesting, including all extant birds and crocodilians. In all honesty, I think I am slightly partial towards theropods, but recently, my love for various pseudosuchian groups has grown tremendously. Many of them, like poposauroids and metriorhynchids have become some of my favorite art subjects.

Deinocheirus and Alioramus

Is there any animal you would like to paint but have not?

There are a lot of them, maybe too many to list. Also, I am always interested in revisiting animals that I have reconstructed in the past, viewing them from a different point of view or perspective.


What do you think is the most important part of good palaeoart?

In my view, good paleoart should make the viewer feel the subject you have depicted as an animal that could be alive. Secondly, good paleoart should be effective in helping general audiences understand the latest scientific research and hypotheses. Finally, good paleoart should never showcase extinct animals as blood-thirsty, psychotic movie monsters. Sadly, the world of paleoart is over saturated with reconstructions of dinosaurs and other Mesozoic reptiles running around or swimming with their mouths wide open, a maniacal look in their eyes, and blood spilling everywhere. Sure, gory scenes occur in nature, but they are not nearly as interesting or common as other parts of the daily life of any animal. Images like that just help reinforce the view of dinosaurs and other extinct animals as kaiju. For me that is the equivalent of a tabloid story. Simply yellow press or click bait at its best based on little or no real truthful information.


You can follow Gabriel on Twitter here and Instagram here and his website is here.


Interview with Brian Engh

Brian with his fighting mastodons picture

It has been quite a while since I managed to do a palaeoart interview but here is a new one with newly crowned Lazendorf prize winner Brian Engh. He is a relative newcomer to the palaeoart scene but has risen quickly and blogs extensively about his projects and thoughts on dinosaurs and has a reputation for taking on big projects with some of the more dramatic and unusual (while still biologically plausible) takes on dinosaurs and other ancient beasts.
How long have you been an artist?

As long as I can remember I have been compelled to depict things, to create characters and settings and stories, to inhabit the realm of imagination and try to manifest it in physical reality. But only recently has my truly personal creative interests coalesced in a way that I can survive off them.

Cacops attacks

How long have you been producing palaeoart?

My first commission was in 2010 for Tor Bertin’s paper reviewing the Spinosauridae. There was a big gap in paleoart commissions between that and my first truly professional paleoart commission which was the art depicting Aquilops (shown at the bottom) for the paper and press release describing that specimen in 2014.

Brian’s early spinosaur picture

What first got you interested in dinosaurs and art?

I have always been interested in unexplored worlds and strange non-human beings, and bringing those to life through art. I cannot remember a time when I did not want to look at a frog or a plant or a chicken or a bug an try to understand it. My fascination with paleontology is just a natural extension of that interest, with the added benefit of the creatures being even more alien, the worlds less explored, and both absolutely requiring art to bring them back to life.

Lazendorf prize wiining entry – Savage Ancient Seas

What is your favourite piece of palaeo art that you have produced?

Whichever one I’m working on next. By the time I’m done with a piece I am exhausted with it and too close to it.

If I have to pick a single finished piece that I’m reasonably satisfied with it would be the life-sized portrait of “Ava” the new ceratopsian found by Triebold Paleontology that the Western Science Center commissioned. I feel like the character of a living animal is starting to come through in that piece. It was also fun to work at life-scale. There’s a strange intimacy to detailing the big snout of an animal that died 75 million years ago. It feels like grooming a big old pet. By the end of that project I really wished I could’ve seen what this individual who’s skull had been found really looked and acted like, where it hatched, how it survived, how it died and how it slept in the earth until it woke up in our modern world with a different face. I wish I could see the real animal’s face next to the one I gave it. I wonder how it would react to its own portrait…

The end of Xiphactinus

Who is your favourite palaeoartist or piece of palaeoart?

I really can’t pick because there are different ways to evaluate art & artists, and also the viewer’s mood and context is important for enjoying art. In terms of overall mood and style, my favourite paleoartist is Doug Henderson. His work “feels” right to me. It feels like the planet I know, and the prehistoric creatures inhabiting it feel like real animals you would expect to find living in this ancient planet. But Doug isn’t really active any more, and it seems that the difficulty of making any decent money off of paleoart and the other frustrations that come from interacting with the paleontological community seem to have worn him down and made him throw in the towel on paleoart, so I can’t say he’s my favourite artist in terms of his career. John Sibbick’s work is also gorgeous, viscerally compelling, often amazingly believable-looking, and it was hugely influential on me as a kid. I would say his animal reconstructions are my favourite in terms of the character or attitude they exude, and his plant reconstructions are the most texturally satisfying I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately he also has become much less active in paleoart since the 90s, but I really don’t know anything about him or his career beyond that. I also love James Gurney’s work, but more for the fantasy side of what he does. Gurney’s work makes me feel like life will persist and is good. There’s a sentimentality to his work that seems almost restorative for the mind and soul. It is also to his credit that he his still active in both the publishing and scientific worlds, and he shares his knowledge through his youtube page and blog. I admire all of that a lot. Mark Hallett is also at that rare intersection of still being active as a professional artist and having tremendous skill and an amazing body of work. I had the good fortune to meet him at SVP in Salt Lake in 2016. I didn’t realize until I met him that Mark was born with one arm. Despite this handicap he has developed top-level skills in drawing and painting, and has executed some of the most ambitious and beautiful pieces of paleoart anyone has ever pulled off. On top of all that he doesn’t seem to have let the often petty, political and poorly funded world of paleontology jade him too much. He has continued against all odds to grind through making paleoart, and in 2016 he released a huge book on sauropods with my friend and long-time collaborator Matt Wedel. You should probably include a link to where people can buy that here (ed: done!).

Feeding sauropods

What is your favourite dinosaur / archosaur?

I don’t have one, but because kids at outreach events ask me this all the time my go to answer is cassowary… because then I get to tell them about how goddamn awesome cassowaries are and that dinosaurs never fully went extinct.

Is there any animal you would like to paint but have not?

Yes of course. All of the ones I have not.

Hypothetical inflated throat sacs for large sauropods

What do you think is the most important part of good palaeoart?

Inspiring wonder and awe.

In recent years obnoxious know-it-alls mostly on the internet have steered every conversation about paleontological art toward evaluating its “scientific accuracy” despite the fact that these self-made experts are pedeantic dickheads that only remember laundry lists of facts so that they can look smarter than people, rather than actually developing a solid grounding in biology by which to have any real discussions. I think this has caused a significant beating back of the creativity of a lot of artists interested in paleontology, and has contributed significantly to a lot of really beige, conservative paleoart in recent years, despite all the amazing discoveries published every other day it seems. These same paleontological pests are the same people who will look back on a piece by Knight or Burian or the sculptures at the Crystal Palace and mock them for being “tail dragging lizards” and “totally incorrect,” and in doing so completely fail to recognize that this art inspired generations of subsequent artists and scientists to take an interest in natural history. Although antiquated, these past works had that effect because they were aesthetically beautiful, impressive, and gave people a window to a world that they had never seen or thought about prior to encountering that art. At best a piece of paleoart can only reflect some of the current views and knowledge on a given paleontological subject, and as more fossils and discoveries come to light nearly ALL paleoart will eventually be totally inaccurate. We should actually hope for this, because it means science and our understanding of our planet is advancing, and we shouldn’t view older art as “bad” because it is no longer up-to-date. For this reason I am fully willing to take the risk of having my work labeled “too speculative” or “sensationalized”, and it’s part of the motivation for hosting my own paleoart contest, where the main criteria I’ll be judging and rewarding the work on is creativity and originality. The contest ends November 1st, and I am excited by all the wild entries I’ve received thus far. I hope that any artists out there who haven’t entered will do so before the deadline! You can learn more here.

Cryptic Aquilops

As ever all images are copyright to Brian and are on generous loan here. Please speak to him if you want to use them.


Testing for sexual selection

I had a new paper out a few weeks ago but it was at the very height of my busy start to teaching and so barely even got a tweet out about it and completely failed to do anything on here. That’s a shame as this is a paper that has some serious and major implications for trying to detect sexually selected structures in extinct animals (and indeed looking at some odd structures in living ones too). I’ve written a huge amount about dinosaur dimorphism and sexual selection and with numerous papers covering different aspects of the evolution and behviour of dinosaurs (and pterosaus) when it comes to signals and sexually selected things like crests, spines and horns.

The short version is that these are of course hard to look at becuase we can’t directly observe behaviour in extinct animals and coupled with small sample sizes, taxonomic uncertainty of specimens and then issues like extended growth periods and cryptic dimorphism and this is a frustratingly tricky subject to tackle. One standard, if imperfect, measure has been to look at the growth trajectory of the anatomical feature in question and to see if it grows more rapidly than the rest of the naimal, especially iof this happens relatively late in ontogeny. In short, animals don’t need sexaul display structures when they are not sexually mature but when they are this is important so things like horns tend to be small for a long time and then grow very quickly.

This paper led by Devin O’Brien and featuring a host of sexaul selection theroists and biologists posits that things may be more complex still. Features that directly rate to body size will be postively allometric (this can include things like horns and crests in dinosaurs) but those that are not (like say a moths’ antenna), will not. The former are accurate representations of the animals they are attached to and so act as a proxy for their size and quality, but other traits that can still be variable and under sexual selection are not acting in this way and so wouldn’t follow this pattern. There may even be some allometry in these latter traits (non-reproducing animals will not likely invest in such features until the can mate) but the allometry will be much greater, and the correlation with body size present in visual signals.

To help resolve this, we also reccommend in the paper that allometry be tested not jsut again body size but also some other reference trait that is likely to (or been shown to) grow close to isometry. So for example, don’t just measure your dinosaur horn as it related to overall skull size, but also compre it to something like tooth size or humerus lenght. That will help keep things clear when there are other traits around that can grow rapidly or are large but that don’t function as signals. One wonderful example of this we inlcude is a comparisons of the horns on the head of a chameleon with the lenght of the tongue. We used foot size as a reference trait andf show that while both tongues and horns do show allometry, the tongue is little more than isometric but the horns (used in combat and an obvious visual siganl to reflect that) have a much greater allometric slope and show greater variability which is likely to reflect differing quality.

We include a whole raft of such measures of various animals from insects up to mammals and covering both signal and non-signal traits. Two extinct animals were included based on dataset I’ve been working on for a while and may be of interest. One was the frills of Protoceratops which I and colleagues did some time ago but now updated with some extra specimens that we did now have before. These produced a simialr result to our analysis which is no big surprise but nice to see the previous results verified. The second one though was to look at the growth of the tail vane in Rhamphorhynchus.

The standard interpretation of basal pterosaur tail vanes has been that these functioned in steering in flight and acted as something of rudder. That works out quite well since many of the shapes adopted are surprisingly close to the rudders actually made for various aircraft and putting a small vane at the end of the tail would make mechanical sense to increase the effects. However, it is notable that the vanes for Rhamphorhynchus (the only pterosaur where we have a decent sample size) seem to change quite dramatically in shape as they grow and this is rather at odds with the idea that this is purely mechanical. Similarly, there is some serious variation between various basal pterosaurs in vane shape which suggests that the tail is unlikely o be (purely) mechanical in function and the fact that the pterodactloids gfot rid of theirs implies it is hardly critical for flight. Some people have suggested that these vanes were therefor acting as some form of signal and our analysis bears this out. The height of the vane grown very considerably and shows strong positive allometry as the vane changes from a narrow leaf shape in juveniles to a triangle in adults. The vane could of course be multi-functional and it could well be that it has been co-opted from something initially mechanical to function in signaling.

The fundamentals of the methods and theory described here have been around for some time, but the nuance is important to try and distinctuish between traits that are sexually selected and those which are also likely used in some form of display and even combat. It should make for a more reliable way of assessing these kinds of traits and that should be of real benefit to palaeontologists who have an interest in these things. I hope it is not long until more animals are formally assessed for their growth trajectories and what that might mean for understanding their behaviour.

The paper is open access and is freely avaiable here:

O’Brien, D.M., Allen, C.E., Van Kleeck, M.J., Hone, D.W.E., Knell, R.J., Knapp, A., Christiansen, S., & Emlen, D.J. 2018. On the evolution of extreme structures: static scaling and the function of sexually selected signals. Animal Behaviour.

Yet more on bite marks

Yes, I have a new paper out and it is another paper describing bite marks on bones. I have done a number of these now and it can easily seem that they are incremental publications with limited application, but this is important stuff. As has been shown across various papers and descriptions, piecing together the taphomonic history of a specimen and the environmental conditions around it, as well as the nature of the bites, is crucial to showing if bites were likely inflicted by feeding predators or scavengers as well as what species/ clades may have left these traces. If palaeontologists are going to be able to amke effective statements about what bites can tell us then it will help enormously if we have numerous detailed datapoints where we are confident about what information they provide.

So, enter a small and beaten up piece of ceratopsian frill. I was shown this a few years ago by Darren Tanke and Caleb Brown after it was found during a dig in Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, Canada. It was unusual in that it was from a fairly young animal and the bite marks were quite small. It is also unusual that these are bites on a frill, it’s not the kind of place an animal would usually feed on becuase there’s bascially no meat there, just a bit of skin and bone which rather points towards these being scavenging traces from an animal that got to a very decayed carcass rather late.

The bites are hard to interpret with lots of cracks and breaks not helping things. There are two clear bites and they fit the classic morphology of theropod traces and we can rule out things like crocodiles, champsosaurs or mammals having been responsible, despite the small size. One looks more like a tyrannosaur bite (though it would have to be from a very small one) and a second looking more like it was from kind of deinonychosaur. It is certainly possible that more than one animal bit this same bit of bone, but equally bite can be variable and identifying them accurately can be very difficult or even impossible to accurately work out who the biting animal was. So despite the apparent possible different candidates it’s hard to say quite what happened here. That’s obviously disappointing, but it’s important to try and evaluate each bite on it’s merits if possible and this does a least provide evidence that even smaller centrosaurs were being bitten by the local theropods and these were not beyond trying to make a snack of a damaged squamosal.

The whole paper is freely available and open access and is online here if you want to see more:

Hone, D.W.E., Tanke, D.H., & Brown, C.M. 2018. Bite marks on the frill of a juvenile Centrosaurus from the Late Cretaceous Dinosaur Provincial Park Formation, Alberta, Canada. Peer J.


Behold the SummonEngh!

Congratulations go out to Brian Engh as he has been awarded this year’s Lazendorf palaeoart prize for his stunning ‘Savage Ancient Seas’ piece. If you don’t know Brian and his work it’s high time to catch up, he’s been an increasing force in palaeoart for some time now and he even has a small and distant connection to the Musings after his first ever commissioned work of a Spinosaurus popped up on here many moon ago.

To celebrate his win, Brian has pointed out that there’s too few art prizes for palaeart (well, one to be exact) so he is starting his own. Anyone can enter and as fits Brian’s interests, he’s especially keen on speculative, but reasoned, reconstructions of anatomy, behaviour and ecology. Here is a video of brian explaining the whole thing (there’s cash to be won!!!) and here’s the Facebook group he has set up for it. now, go make some art!


@Dave_Hone on Twitter

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

Join 503 other followers