Noripterus returns – sorting out some pterosaur taxonomy

New reconstruction of Noripterus by Rebecca Gelerenter. This is a composite based on all the material we have from various specimens (known material is in white).

New reconstruction of Noripterus by Rebecca Gelerenter. This is a composite based on all the material we have from various specimens (known material is in white).

Immediately after the Munich pterosaur meeting ended in 2007, I moved to Beijing to take up a postdoctoral position at the IVPP. Perhaps the first bit of mail I has there was from the now late Wann Langston thanking me for setting up the Munich Flugsaurier (which he had attended) and sending me a photocopy of his notes and some old photographs he’d taken on a trip to China back in the 80s. This was of a superbly preserved pterosaur hindlimb, and one he wanted to know more about but which had since not been seen by any researcher he knew, or been in the literature.

This was a specimen of Noripterus, a small dsungaripterid from China found by, and then named by, C.C. Young back in 1973. The original description of this was both a bit sparsely described, and in Chinese which is a shame as Young mentions a number of specimens, and illustrates or measures only part of some of them. I asked around the curators at the IVPP but no one knew the location of the material and it was suggested to have been borrowed and not returned.

Fast forward a couple of years and while Paul Barrett was visiting the IVPP he had been directed by a colleague to a little used set of cabinets in the collection, where apparently some mislaid dinosaur material was residing. I happened to be looking over a specimen in the collections at the time so inevitably was keen to see what might turn up. On opening the case, Paul found his specimens, but one thing I spotted was immediately recognisable from Wann’s photos – the lost Noripterus foot. Accompanying it was quite a lot of other pterosaur specimens with similar specimen numbers – Noripterus was back.

Since then I’ve been working on and off on a number of projects on these specimens (hampered by my no longer being in China) and the first is finally out as part of the volume from the back of the 2015 Flugsaurier meeting in Portsmouth. A more full description is in the work but this is the first and important step because the taxonomy of the Asian dsungaripterids has been an issue that’s been problematic for quite a while, and much of it hinges on Noripterus.

Things have been difficult to resolve because as noted, the original description doesn’t give that much information on the material (and less if you don’t speak Chinese – I am indebted to my collaborators here as you may imagine). If you want to sort out how various other species and genera relate to it (or not) you really need to know what it actually is anatomically and taxonomically, and so having the specimens available means we can make some significant updates to Young’s identification and how other more recent discoveries might relate to it.

First off the bad news – what was originally designated as the holotype is mostly still missing. Only a fragment of the jaws remain and they are not in great condition. Still, they are diagnostic which helps us to define Noripterus better. On the good news side of things, there is a lot of nice associated material as Young collected multiple specimens from just a few sites and despite the lack of overlap in some areas, there’s some good reasons to think they are all the same thing. Noripterus is known from several superbly preserved specimens including a near complete set of limbs and girdles preserved in 3D. There will be more on this in the future, but obviously it’s very useful material to have.

A superb set of limbs from one specimen of Noripterus

A superb set of limbs from one specimen of Noripterus

Working out quite which specimen was which however actually took quite some time and detective work. The field numbers on the bones and the specimen numbers on the boxes they were in, did not always line up with the identities given in Young’s paper (either illustrations or the few measurements).  Eventually though we got this sorted out and so one part of the paper gives some new specimen numbers and sorts out the various specimens into their (hopefully) correct sets.

The main issue though is the taxonomy itself of these animals. Noripterus was only the second dsungaripterid identified (you may not be shocked to learn Dsungaripterus was the first) and so it might not be a surprise that it’s considered a valid taxon. It is rather smaller than it’s more famous relative, and has straight rather than curved jaws, as well as rather more narrow teeth. That’s the easy bit.

Then we have ‘Phobetor’ from Mongolia, named from some very fragmentary material that has never been described in detail. More recently there’s more Mongolian stuff from 2009 called the ‘Tatal pterosaur’ that was used to link together that material, ‘Phobetor’ and Noripterus all under the latter name. On top of that we have the Chinese genus Longchognathosaurus known from little more than a few bits. Clearly lining these up and working out if there were one, two or three genera was going to prove difficult while 2 of these 4 sets of specimens were fragmentary and most had never been described or illustrated properly. In this context, getting to see Noripterus was clearly very useful in terms of making some meaningful comparisons of key characters.

So, what did we find? Well, actually the Tatal material and the original ‘Phobetor’ are very similar based on the limited descriptions of each suggesting they are the same taxon. However, they have some consistent differences with the Noripterus material which suggests they represent a valid and separate genus and should not be synonymised with it. That also means that ‘Phobetor’ is still lacking a name (it’s preoccupied by a fish). Finally, Longchognathosaurus has at least a couple of the supposedly diagnostic characters present in the holotype of Noripterus and while it’s not necessarily the same thing, it is hard to justify it being unique at this point.

Clearly all of this is provisional, and lacking a good skull for Noripterus (or at least the rest of the holotype) would really help firm all of this up, not least when the Tatal specimens include a good skull and Longchognathosaurus is based mostly from cranial material. In fact given how much good Noripterus material there is, it is an oddity that there’s so little of the head, but hopefully more will turn up. In the meantime, this should help move things forwards and provide a better basis for sorting out these taxa and some curiosities about their relationships to other pterosaurs (in particular Germanodactylus which may or may not be an early dsungaripterid). Now we just need some more detailed descriptions of all the other Asian dsungaripterids (and yes, more on Noripterus too) but this is a start.

 

TLDR: We have a good amount of Noripterus back. ‘Phobetor’ is probably separate and valid and the same thing as the ‘Tatal pterosaur’ material. Longchognathosaurus is probably not valid.

 

Buried Treasure – Tom Holtz

I consider my 2008 paper “A critical re-appraisal of the obligate scavenging hypothesis for Tyrannosaurus rex and other tyrant dinosaurs” to have the highest “underappreciated:applicability” index. (The fact that it took 10 years for the paper to actually come out doesn’t help my appreciation for its unappreciatedness, too…)

It isn’t that other theropod workers ignore it; they do cite it. But since the topic of tyrannosaurid predation is studied by a larger spectrum of workers, many of whom do not have particular expertise in dinosaur morphology or even paleontology, many papers where it SHOULD have been cited do not do so. This is particularly frustrating because it is not a hard reference to find on a scholar.google search, and more importantly because it was specifically written to be accessible to a non-specialist audience. Of course I don’t think that they had to agree with every point in it, but I did collect and address all the major arguments for obligate scavenging in tyrannosaurs proposed up to that point, so it should at least be discussed.

Furthermore, when (often younger) paleontologists respond to the newer (and sometimes non-paleontologically-informed) studies on tyrannosaur predation, they wind up “re-inventing the wheel” (not being aware of my paper from so long ago…)

Holtz, T.R., Jr. 2008. A critical re-appraisal of the obligate scavenging hypothesis for Tyrannosaurus rex and other tyrant dinosaurs. Pp. 370-396, in P. Larson and K. Carpenter (eds.), Tyrannosaurus rex: The Tyrant King. Indiana University Press.

—-

In my opinion, one of the least appreciated papers in dinosaur paleontology is

Janis & Carrano’s 1991 work comparing reproductive turnover in dinosaurs and mammals. The implications for this paper reach into nearly every aspect of dinosaurian ecology (size; evolutionary turnover rates; ontogenetic niche shifts; number of species per fauna; extinction sensitivity; etc.) in comparison to placental mammal ecology. And yet it seems (at least to me) to be underreported relative to its applicability.

Janis, C.M. & M. Carrano. Scaling of reproductive turnover in archosaurs and mammals: why are large terrestrial mammals so rare? Annales Zoologici Fennici 28: 201-216.

Buried Treasure – Mike Taylor

So kicking off the first in the series of favourite / underappreciated papers is Mike Taylor of SV-POW. Here’s his thoughts on one of his own works:

The paper I look on most fondly is Taylor and Wedel (2013) on “Why sauropods had long necks; and why giraffes have short necks”. I like the snarky title, of course — when I give talks about this subject, I just use the second half — and the subject matter is dear to my heart. But it’s how this paper came together that makes me love it the most.

It started out on a car journey in 2008. All three Wedels were staying with us that summer, as Vicki had a leprosy conference in Bradford. Matt and I visited several museums while they were around. I think it was as we were driving back from Oxford that we started listing the ways that sauropod necks didn’t make mechanical sense to us. Since I was the one driving, Matt took out his notepad and started making lists. “What the hell is going on?”, we asked — and so the embryonic project was dubbed WTH, for “what the hell”.

More than any of our other papers, this one went through really significant revisions. The earliest “complete” version was rather formless: it contained a lot of good stuff, but there was no structure to it. We revised it into an unconventional form with three main sections: “Facts”, “Interpretation” and “Speculation”. At this point, the title was still “What the hell is wrong with you? Mechanical design flaws in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs”.

This was also the basic shape of the version we finally submitted to a journal, though by then it had the more sober (and boring) title “Vertebral morphology and the evolution of long necks in sauropod dinosaurs”. We had a very bad review experience at that journal, which I won’t go over here; but suffice to say that the result was that, having thoroughly reworked it into a form resembling the one we know today, we sent it to a different journal rather than back to the first one. We were bullish about this submission, and pleased to think we were giving a good paper to a journal that could probably use it. So we were rather shocked to find it rejected with reviews that we couldn’t sympathise with — especially one that said “The manuscript reads as a long “story” instead of a scientific manuscript”, which we feel is praise though it was intended as criticism.

We made some revisions in response to those reviews, but by the time we’d done that PeerJ was on the horizon so we sent it there — and after very quick and genuinely helpful reviews, it was published as part of that journal’s first batch: https://peerj.com/articles/36/

We’re really happy with the “story-like” final form of the paper. Our goal was to make something that was not only informative but also fun to read. I hope the progression of the argument makes sense — Introduction, Long Necks in Different Taxa (finishing with sauropods), Factors Enabling Long Necks, Architecture of Sauropod Necks — and that readers always have a solid sense of where they are in the progressing argument. We’re also really happy with the illustrations in this paper: PeerJ, being an online-only open-access journal, imposes no limits, so this is a lavishly illustrated paper with some comparative illustrations (Figs 1, 3 and 7 particularly) that we’re really proud of: https://peerj.com/articles/36/#fig-3

Finally, I won’t deny it’s satisfying that a paper which was (wrongly, we feel) rejected by two palaeo journals has gone on to be viewed 23,000 times by 17,000 different visitors, and has been downloaded 3,000 times. We very much hoped that that paper would reach a non-specialist audience as well as other researchers, and those numbers suggest that’s happening.

 

Finally, Mike has a pick for an underappreciated paper by someone else is:

Hokkanen, J. E. I. 1986. The size of the largest land animal. Journal of Theoretical Biology 188: 491-499.

New series – Buried Treasure

The Musings has been too quiet of late what with mad work commitments, and my ongoing responsibilities for blogging etc. elsewhere means I have too little time. The old days of a post nearly every day are, I suspect, never coming back but I do want to keep producing material on here. Happily I have a cunning plan (insert your own favourite Blackadder response here) and more happily still, a number of colleagues could be persuaded to write something for me that I can put up here.

Anyone who has read or written a fair amount of scientific papers will know that there are lots of hidden gems out there. Yes, there are tons of celebrated great papers, and tons that all but deserve to be overlooked, but it’s also true that there are many great papers, or even important bits of papers that are glossed over, or simply never spotted. There’s numerous examples of major discoveries turning out to have been already found or worked out years or decades before and even in the modern digital age, people cannot find, let alone read, everything. Important bits of papers, or whole manuscripts will fall by the wayside and key points missed or underappreciated.

With this in mind comes the new series – Buried Treasure (and thanks to Paul Barrett for coming up with the name) where authors talk about papers of theirs or bits of papers which deserve a second (or even a first) reading. Obviously academics are sensitive about their paper and do get annoyed when things are missed or bypassed, so while this isn’t supposed to be a place for axe grinding, (or tooth grinding) it does hopefully provide a platform for people to showcase their work and talk about how papers came about and why they think something is important and might benefit people to revisit it.

The whole thing is supposed to be a bit of fun and rather free from constraints, so people have already suggested they might write about papers that are not their own, but simply one they think needs some more recognition, or just want to write about a paper that has a strong significance for them, or they simply enjoyed writing. Hopefully it’ll be interesting and readers will discover (or rediscover) some nice ideas and see how others look at their own works.

I’ll kick this off with a first entry tomorrow and then it will build up as posts come in, so it is likely to be fairly irregular and I have no idea how long this will run. However, I do already have a small set ready to go, so it won’t die immediately at least and with luck there will be quite a few to come.

 

Two million (and 3500)

It was never my intention for the Musings to fall quite this silent but between commitments for the book (still available in many bookshops, online, as an e-book and audio-book), the ongoing Guardian blog and in particular my teaching, I’ve rather run out of time to write posts. And let’s be honest, even this one is just a holding pattern post and is mostly just self-congratulatory. Even though I’ve all but stopped posting here, the huge back catalogue of posts on here (over 1000) between them still clock up hits at a decent rate and so just this week the Musings hit 2 000 000 total views. Whoo, go me etc.

However, all is not lost for fans of Dave-based web content as I do at least still tweet quite often and happily this week also saw me hit 3500 followers. If you want to join then you can follow me as @Dave_Hone and currently there’s a huge stream of tweets on my recent trip to the AMNH in New York.

I really do intend to post a bit more on here again in the future and new year should see me with a bit more time and also some papers coming out which will provide something to discuss. I also managed to find time to get to the Bronx Zoo while I was in New York and hope to get a review up of this as it’s a place I had not visited before. In the meantime, thanks to those who still use this site, and I hope it will continue to be a valuable resource for a long time to come, even if my output remains at a fairly diminished level. Till next time, bye.

The Tyrannosaur Chronicles is here!

Well it’s been coming of course but today sees the publication of my first book. I’ve always wanted to write one and now it’s done and I can (sort of) relax. There’s lots of PR stuff ahead and the official book launch tomorrow, but there’s not much to do now except let it go free and hope that most people enjoy it.

I’ve been writing about dinosaurs and palaeo one way or another for nearly 10 years now between various blogs and ventures as well as the odd review paper and book chapter that are for more of a general audience than a typical paper, but this is obviously a much bigger and rather different undertaking. It’s also rather different in that I was writing for something of a different audience (certainly compared to here where I generally assume readers know at least a little anatomy, what a phylogeny is, what the main time periods were etc.) and over a long book you want to introduce quite a few topics and aspects of not just tyrannosaurs, but also their contemporaries and major issues like behaviour, anatomy, local environments, extinction and more. It turned out to be a lot to cover and while trying to keep it interesting for the reader.

Hopefully, I’ve managed that but it is nervy letting this out into the wider world with little control over it. That may sound odd given how much I’ve written online, but with a blog (either here, on Pterosaur.net or on the Guardian) you have a fair idea of who your audience is likely to be, and people will soon leave if they don’t like it. Getting someone to pick up and be immediately drawn to, and then stick with, a whole tome is rather different so obviously I am nervous and curious as to how it goes from here.

The book is very much in the popular science mould and so while I would hope even some academics and researchers would get something from it and enjoy it, really it is aimed squarely at the general public and those with little or no knowledge of dinosaurs or paleontology and even biology in general. As a result, despite the fact that the book is around 85 000 words long, it really doesn’t delve into the tiny details of but tries to cover a broad spectrum of tyrannosaur origins, evolution and their biology. Given my interests there’s quite a lot on ecology and behaviour and there’s a few bits of informed speculation or suggestions that I hope are novel and interesting, but also clearly flagged as such.

It was a huge effort to write all of this while keeping up with a full time academic job and try and keep my other blogs ticking over, and it was also important to try and update things. The last few years have seen a near endless stream of new tyrannosaurs being named and some parts of the book I changed a half dozen times to reflect the addition of new species, and with the book going to print in February, it’s inevitably already out of date thanks to the most recent addition to the ranks of this clade, despite my efforts. Still, I have tried to make this a modern take on tyrannosaurs and I hope I have managed to overcome a few of the more persistent anachronisms and misconceptions about these animals. Anyway, enough of the (brilliant) text and its (brilliant) author, and time to talk about some other aspects of the book and to give a minimal amount of credit to other people.

The book is illustrated by Scott Hartman and there’s around a dozen figures of his scattered through the book, with lots of skeletals (especially of tyrannosaurs, but also various other dinosaurs too) and other little bits, a number of which were done especially for the book, but will be popping up on his website if they haven’t already. I’m obviously especially grateful to Scott for finding the time to do these and putting so much time and effort into them, the book benefits enormously from it.

There is also a colour section in the middle with numerous photos of various specimens and some reconstructions. Plenty of these have been in print in various places before but there are some novel shots and views of various things and I’ve been blessed with the generous assistance of numerous colleagues and friends who have sent in pictures and allowed me to use them. While I’m on the subject therefore I must thank Peter Falkingham, Jordan Mallon, Larry Witmer, Xu Xing, Lu Junchang and Phil Currie for providing various images and also the Royal Tyrrell, LACM, IVPP, Hayashibara, Mongolia Palaeontological, Royal Sasketchewan, Carnegie and New Mexico Museums, and also Don Brinkman, Mark Loewen and Matt Lamanna for helping me negotiate to get a couple of the images. Finally I must also thank Darren Tanke and Chisaka Sakata for the photos of me that are on the covers of the paper- and hardbacks respectively.

Finally with regard to the text I had a series of editors and assistants at Bloomsbury though most especially I want to thank Jim Martin for commissioning the damned thing in the first place and also in particular for supporting my campaign for the colour scheme of the cover. Several friends of mine including Marc Vincent (yes, that one) read through an early draft for me and provided useful feedback and special mention goes to Tom Holtz for reading through it looking for errors (and mercifully he found only one, so I’m happy to blame him for any others that slipped through). A whole host of other friends, collaborators, coauthors and colleagues are thanked in the acknowledgements for sharing their knowledge of tyrannosaurs with me over the years and I hope this book helps do justice to these amazing animals.

Well, the book is out now (actually I’ve had reports of it being on sale since Monday) and while I’ve always wanted to say it’s available in all good bookshops actually I have no idea. It is available online (including direct from the publishers Bloomsbury) and it’s in at least a few physical places. I know it’s available in hardback (paperback coming next year) and e-book versions and there’s an audio version coming via Audible, and hopefully a few translations too. The US have to wait till early June, but not long for you to wait and in the meantime you can enjoy me talking about the book here. Hopefully many people will find it one way or another (such as in charity shops for £2 in a few weeks) but more importantly I do hope people enjoy it. Happy reading.

The Tyrannosaur Chronicles actually exists!

So the official publication date is drawing near (21st of April) of my first book and I actually have a physical copy in my hands! Oooh! It’s got nice pictures and photos and words and everything!

Obviously I’m very pleased but I am also rather nervous about the whole thing – people will be paying actual real money and I really don’t want to let them down. I know you can’t please everyone and even the greatest books will not appeal to every person that picks up and reads even a few pages but despite the years of blogging and outreach stuff this is a new style and form and it’s rather more global in spread than even online media. So, lots of nerves my end.

However, anyone who does buy it and hurls it across the room a few hours later in frustration may at least be mollified by having paid 30% below the cover price thanks to a discount being offered by the publishers. If you order direct from the publishers Bloomsbury before May 31st and enter the promo code ‘DINOSAUR’ at the checkout, it should be reduced. (This has only just been set-up, so do leave a comment if this doesn’t work, or indeed if it does to let me know it’s working!).

Finally, if you are in and around London there is a small formal book launch on the 22nd of April. Tickets are free (but you need to reserve them here in advance). It won’t be long or special, I’ll talk about the book for a bit, answer some questions and sign any copies going (available for sale there, and also at a hefty discount).

Hope to see some regulars there and I do hope you enjoy the book.

 

 

 

Dinosaurs Monster Families

IMG_4460

Even people living in London may not know the Horniman Museum which sits in south east London, just a few miles from the famous Crystal Palace dinosaurs. The Horniman is a small museum with an excelletn and old-fashioned natural history section full of bones and taxidermied material but with some great illustrations of development, variation and evolution. There’s a section on human cultures and especially tribal artefacts, a small aquarium in the basement and  a petting zoo and gardens. It’s well worth a visit anytime, but they also regularly have special exhibitions and right now it is the above titled one on dinosaur eggs, nests and babies.

IMG_4554

 

The exhibition is not large but it is excellent. I’ve only included a few snapshots here but hopefully it’s clear that there’s some wonderful specimens (almost all casts, but very few are of specimens or even species I have seen before and none will be well known in the UK), with interesting mounts, excellently presented information and lots of detail. There are some looped videos of researchers talking about major discoveries like the brooding oviraptorosaurs and also lots of top Luis Rey artwork. Luis was actually integral to the origin of this traveling exhibit (it’s also been in Spain and Italy but I don’t know where it’s headed next) and hence the liberal splashing of his works.

IMG_4568

 

Given the theme it’s perhaps no surprise that most of the material is based on Mongolian and northern Chinese specimens – Protoceratops and oviraptorosaurs feature heavily as does Tarbosaurus and innumerable eggs and nests. Again though, while this might in one respect be a bit same-y, you’d have to pay close attention to notice and it’s not played as a central point, merely that so much accessible material is from there so it features. Still there’s stuff from Argentina and North America and lots of key sites and specimens get a mention.

IMG_4576

In a nice touch, the last case is a collection of modern specimens from the Horniman’s own collections showing off various bird and their eggs and some other goodies. There’s also a very special ‘guest’ that is quite remarkable to see but I won’t spoil the surprise for anyone going.

The museum also has an excellent record of using these temporary exhibits to carry out additional activities and outreach events, bringing in artists and experts to talk about them to various groups and creating extra activities and presentations. Somewhat inevitably therefore I got roped into this and in the opening week look along a gang of students and colleagues to talk dinosaurs and their biology and evolution and I’m back again in a couple of weeks for another talk.

IMG_4590

Overall this is a superb little exhibit, there’s a lot to see, it’s well laid out and there’s some interesting and exciting specimens. It’s well labeled and there’s a lot of information to potentially digest and I can highly recommend it.

What is an adult dinosaur?

Back in early 2015 I took a trip to LA, primarily to catch up with Mike Habib and look at some pterosaur and tyrannosaur material there, but I also took some time to see Andy Farke and Matt Wedel up in Claremont. We chatted about various ideas for things we could collaborate on and threw around a few ideas. Andy suggested something on ontogeny and this soon led to the issue of diagnosing life stages for dinosaurs – something that had been an issue for our Protoceratops paper – and within a few weeks I’d actually had an invitation to submit a review to Biology Letters, and so a plan was hatched.

That paper is now out and in it we look at the vexed issues of what are adult / subadult / juvenile / hatchling etc. dinosaurs. This is of course really quite fundamental to huge amounts of research, if it’s not clear how old an animal is, then issues like taxonomy, systematics and their position in an ecosystem are going to be hard to sort out. Comparing across specimens or species will also have their issues. None of this is a major surprise and yet looking though the literature it’s clear that although people recognise this, they don’t necessarily actually define the nature of the animals they are working on. Things are called ‘adult’ or ‘subadult’ without a definition, specific diagnosis or reference to papers or alternatively they do provide some kind of definition and reason for the assignment but it’s different from all the others out there. It doesn’t take long to find a bewildering and ever changing list of definitions, none of which can be aligned or compared easily between specimens or species.

There’s clearly nothing wrong in principal with diagnosing an animal by different means but not all specimens can be accessed in the same way or preserve things you want to look at. So something that can help bring them into alignment should help everyone. This is a key part of the paper as we try to come up with something close to a universal definition that should apply as widely as possible. We make it very clear that this should be only a starting point and that whatever works for people is fine, but that hopefully it helps, and even if people utterly ignore these definitions, in general we need to be much more careful about actually putting definitions into papers, even for things that are ‘obviously’ adults or juveniles.

Although short, we do cover a lot of ground in the paper and I hope there’s things in there that will resonate and be familiar and useful to many people (and of course lots of the points apply to other extinct clades too). There’s obviously a lot more to come here and more nuance and details than we could easily include but it’s one of he most contentious and important issues around at the moment and I really hope we have contributed meaningfully to it.

The paper currently seems to be available freely online and can be downloaded here.

Edit: here’s a bonus – Mat Wedel’s sauropod-centered take on the paper

Hone, D.W.E., Farke, A.A., & Wedel, M.J. 2016. Ontogeny and the fossil record: what if anything is an adult dinosaur? Biology Letters

 

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.


@Dave_Hone on Twitter

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

Join 467 other followers