Archive for October, 2018

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!


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