A much underappreciated area of palaeontology this and one I should probably have mentioned months if not years ago, but the opportunity arises so here we go. Emma Schachner (who’s pursuing a PhD with Peter Dodson) was kind enough to let me use some of here pictures from an upcoming paper on the basal iguanodontid Tenonotsaurus to illustrate this post for which I am most grateful (and you can see more of Emma’s work here).
An obviously important part of palaeontological papers is illustrating them to show off your ideas. Pictures can indeed be worth thousands of words and when you are striving for the accuracy and clarity that is an anatomical description they can be essential. Obviously if you have a specimen then a photo is a damned good start in terms of getting across what it looks like, and how big it is etc. but it is not the only way, and technical drawings are often as good if not better.
While obviously there is no set terminology and continuum of levels of detail and so on, I’m here tying to refer specifically to work that is designed to clarify and show off various features of a specimen. That is, something more than just a very simple outline with minimal shading or other features being recorded (like this lower leg and foot of Fodonyx on the left, contrasting with the technical reconstruction of the tibia on the right). While photos are of course rather by definition exceptionally accurate renditions of fossils, they do have their drawbacks and that is where technical drawings can come in.
For starters it is incredibly hard to light and shoot some things well and certainly some institutes or researchers lack the facilities to do this, but pretty much anyone can find a pen and paper. Secondly, some things can be cryptic in photos – no matter how well shot it is, a black coloured bone in a black matrix will not reveal it’s subtleties well as contrast goes out the window. Drawing this in clean black and while can clear up this problem, and using different styles or pen sizes etc. can help distinguish between breaks and sutures, or show where matrix is adhered to the bone or whatever. One can also use techanical drawings to make things in a sense ‘more real’ – by highlighting important features of a bone or leaving out the unimportant or distracting to make the image clearer. Similarly, while restorations of broken and distorted bones can be done in a simple manner, where the morphology is important or complex, a more detailed image can really help.
I think the ability to produce these is much undervalued especially as now often perfectly acceptable images can be produced pretty easily on a computer by someone with minimal artistic ability. However, good or great drawings really add to a paper or description and it would be a shame if this was lost to us. I still produce all of my own images like this by hand, and while I’m not a patch on someone like Emma, I do think that they are generally better than most electronically produced ones. Many students even have access to professional artists and can end a higher degree without having drawn a single bone which I can’t help but think will be a problem for them one day. Sure we have to move with the times, but I think that drawings are still much better than computer generated outlines and this is something we should make an effort to hang on to.
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