Posts Tagged 'Dinosaurs'

Buried Treasure – Matt Wedel

I’m not quite sure whether I’m supposed to be talking about my favorite paper out of my little flock, or the one that I wish had gotten more attention. But it’s okay, because the answer in both cases is the same: my 2012 paper on long nerves in sauropod dinosaurs. It’s freely online through Acta Palaeontologica Polonica.
This one is my favorite for several reasons. I think it’s the most personal of my papers, in that there was no obvious need for it, and probably no-one else was ever going to write it. Whereas with pneumaticity I just got in at the right time – that work was going to be done by someone, and probably sooner rather than later. I also like the long nerve paper because all it required was thinking. I didn’t discover anything, and I didn’t do any real work. In fact, at the outset I was basically thinking of it as sort of a stunt paper. If it had any broader meaning at first, it was merely, “Ha ha, I thought of this before anyone else did.”
But that’s the great thing about science – if you pick up any given thread and follow it, you may soon find yourself in a labyrinth of possibilities, like Theseus and Ariadne in reverse. That happened with the sauropod nerve project, which has spun off in a couple of new directions for me. One is thinking more about the peripheral nervous systems of extinct animals, which has attracted almost zero attention so far. It’s pretty esoteric – nerves leave even less of a trace on the skeleton than air sacs – but there are some interesting and useful inferences that we can draw (to find out what those are, wait for the paper!). The second spin-off is that writing the 2012 paper fired my interest in the physiology of neurons, and in fact kicked off some conversations and potential collaborations with neuroscientists. That is a career wrinkle I never anticipated.
Still, I have to admit that it is a paper without a lot of obvious applications. It hasn’t been cited much – about half as many times as other papers of mine from around that time – but I have been happy to see it cited in a variety of fields, including neuroscience, computer science, and linguistics. That’s satisfying because I cited works from a variety fields in writing the paper in the first place. In part that was because cell biology in giant dinosaurs is an inherently cross-disciplinary problem, and in part because the example of the recurrent laryngeal nerve in the giraffe has become widely known and referenced across so many fields.
My goal now is to build on the 2012 paper with at least a couple of follow-ups to show paleontologists that, yes, there is some actual science to be done here, beyond the gee-whiz aspects. That was the subject of my talk at SVPCA last year. And as I said at the end of that talk, if you’re interested in the interplay of evolutionary novelty and developmental constraint across multiple levels of biological organization, thinking about the cell physiology and comparative anatomy of large animals is a fertile playground.

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 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.

Dinosaurs Monster Families


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.



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.



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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


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.

Combat and cannibalism in tyrannosaurs

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

Interview with Jez Gibson-Harris

Big Al 1

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


What is your background in model making?

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

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

Lost World Iguanadon

How did you get into recreating dinosaurs and prehistoric animals?

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

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

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

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

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

Beasts Smilodon passive

How do you start a new animal?

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

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


What are the major techniques that you use?

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

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

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

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

Stegocerus mid (Large)


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

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

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

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

beasts austral male 4

What to have to consider from the perspective of filming?

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

How many people would be involved in a typical build?

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

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

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

sm turtle uw day5 (Large)

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

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

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

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

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

Celeophysis 1 cu2 (Large)

Protoceratops take shelter – new palaeoart

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

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

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

Protoceratops final artwork01

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

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





The Archosaur Musings 2014 awards

Time for another end-of year summary and roundup, though this year I’ve modified the format a little. With my changing habits and responsibilities, I don’t keep up with and get involved to the same degree with some areas of outreach and research that I used to, so I thought to keep things running I should adjust the setup a bit to better reflect what I’m up to and interested in.

Other than talking about my papers and research generally, I don’t tend to talk much on here about my career, however it’s been both an odd and important year for me. I had a brief secondment back in Bristol for the five months in the middle of the year and then had a big event in being offered a permanent position at Queen Mary. I am well aware of how lucky I am t have had this opportunity when so many other very talented and able colleagues have, and continue to, struggle for employment and there is still a very long way to go (I’ve still got to pass my academic probation for starters) but 10 years after I finished my PhD and after chasing postdocs and short-term contracts round the world, as far as I’m concerned it’s about time.

With all the to-ing and fro-ing between cities and jobs and the new dinosaur course, it’s been a hectic time but my research has rather fallen behind of late. Happily however, several long-term projects are coming to fruition now and so I do hope the next 18 months will see a good increase in submissions and publications. One of the things I’ve been keeping relatively quiet is that I’m writing a book on tyrannosaurs which is provisionally scheduled to come out in the summer of 2015. It will very much be a popular science book and not too technical, though there should be some nice photos and Scott Hartman will be providing skeletals for it, so the illustrations at least should be accurate.

Right enough of the generalist stuff, let’s get onto some specifics.


Most important new archosaur discovery

Although Kulindadromeus is an obvious and very cool candidate here and does bring some new data and ideas to the feather-holomology party, with my pterosaur hat on, the two (yes two!) new bonebeds full of pterosaur material is really big news. Apart from Pteranodon and Rhamphorhynchus (both tending to be too flat) we don’t have major datasets for pterosaurs, so lots of basic things like growth series, dimorphism and intraspecific variation are really hard to look at with much confidence. These discoveries should really chance this and with eggs and young juveniles clearly present at one site too, there’s plenty more scope on both basic biology and also ecology.


Best newly discovered archosaur specimen

It is rather inevitable, but yeah, I’m delighted to see the new Deinocheirus too and unlike some other sail-based theropods, the two specimens here actually have lots of elements and articulated bits so there’s no arguing about the detailed anatomy. It’s big, it’s cool, it’s really, really odd.


Best named new archosaur

No one seemed to like Dreadnaughtus much and while it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, the etymology behind it is really neat. Still, I do like the short and snappy and so I’ll plump for Anzu which just sounds neat to me.


Worst named new archosaur

Rhinorex should be a cool name indeed it IS a cool name, but really, that’s not much of a horn or nasal expansion for this to really be the animal with the king nose. It just doesn’t fit right for me.


The ‘Similicaudipteryx’ award for least original archosaur name

This is probably one I’ll drop in future years, as pretty much every year I plump for yet another Placenameraptor or Placenamevenator. Yeah, not every name needs to be super original and clever and yes, having consistent names for various clades does help you remember them, but there are still too many Placenameasaurus things out there.


 Favourite palaeoart piece this year

The standards of palaeoart seem to go up and up with new animals, new techniques and new information getting around more easily online with people sharing ideas and data making a huge difference. It’s also way easier to find new artists and images and so it’s great to see so much appearing online and seeing things develop. Despite the wealth of cool stuff though, I simply have to go for Julius Csotonyi’s amazing sauropods with a fish-eye view. Not only did it win a Lazendorf this year, but it really does combine some nice behaviour, multiple species in a realisitic ecosystem, and superb accuracy but it adds a level of artistic brilliance with an approach I don’t think has ever been taken before and that I know has really caught the imagination of plenty of people. Great job.


The website I’ve been most getting into this year

A new entry but a worthwhile one. These days I do tend to read more of fewer sites, but I occasionally stumble across ones I’d not seen before, or have only ever seen occasionally, and then start reading more heavily and they become a regular part of my browsing. Heavily featuring this year is Why Evolution is True. There’s lots on there that I’m not a huge fan of and tend to skip over, but much I can devour and so do drop in every few days and see what’s been posted.


Best personal achosaur-related moment of 2014

Aside from the obvious delight of having of a job and finally getting a decent website up, there’s been a few highlights this year. First of all, my Protoceratops paper came out which included not only some magnificent specimens but some extended discussions on dinosaur social behaviour. As with my previous big papers on behaviour (bone use in feeding and the mutual sexual selection papers) this went through some torture over various submissions and extended periods of writing so I’m pleased to finally have it out. The best thing however was taking a group of undergrads out to Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta to go prospecting for dinosaurs. A number of friends and colleagues turned out to join in the fun and it was incredibly rewarding and the feedback from the students was superb, and I’ll be doing it all again this year too, and hopefully for many years to come.


Long time no see award

I’d not seen Jonah Choiniere since my later days in China, and then combined with his move to South Africa didn’t think I’d run into him again anytime soon, but happily he was going through London on the way to SVP so we were able to catch up a bit which was very nice.


The ‘about time’ award for slow publication

Well the Hadrosaurs volume is out a full year after all the manuscripts were finalised and proofed, though my copy hasn’t even arrived yet, so I won’t get to see it till 2015 now. I know some of these volumes take forever, but a full year delay from the publishers end after the great work but the editorial team to have it all done to a good deadline was not welcome.


Ridiculous prediction for 2015

Ending as ever on a note of improbability, here’s something I would love to appear next year but probably won’t. At various places online people have discussed the fact that plenty of animals that we would consider dedicated herbivores occasionally consume small animals and it’s fair to assume dinosaurs were no different. So my prediction is for something like a hadrosaur or sauropod to turn up with stomach contents of some nicely chewed bones.


Discovering dinosaurs in the field

I’ve already written a bit about the fieldtrip to Alberta from this Autumn that I led from Queen Mary with a team of colleagues and undergraduates where we had a great time and found some great stuff. My friend and colleague Rob Knell was with us as pseudo-official photographer and he also had video capacity with his cameras so took plenty of footage and has now edited this together to make a brief video to show off what we did. This has been put together in order to  promote the course and show future students what the trip is likely to involve, but it should be of general interest to those who have not seen Dinosaur Provincial Park firsthand and what a better idea about hunting dinosaurs.






Dinosaur Provincial Park 2014

The Musings has been quiet again in part because I have changed jobs / cities yet again, but also with a general wind-up towards the start of teaching. This is now my third year at Queen Mary, but more importantly for me, I’m finally teaching on a course I have specifically created with a colleague and so can really get to grips with an area that interest me in particular. And so a new course on taxonomy and systematics has come into being and a core part of this is actually a fun hands-on practical, namely hunting down, and then identifying, remains in Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta. Yep, for some reason the university trusted me to take a team of undergraduates out into the wilds of Canada and the Tyrrell even sent along a couple of people to help collect what we found (we had an explore, but not collection, permit).

Naturally much of the discovered material was very fragmentary and unsuitable for collection (not least by the Tyrrell’s exacting standards since they are buried in teeth and partial skeletons and don’t care too much about isolated verts or longbones), but this didn’t mean it could not be identified. Picking up key skills in identifying characters that can be used to unite things into groups, or split them off as different is a fundamental basis of taxonomy and key to identifying possible characters for systematic analysis, so it’s an excellent introduction into some practical skills on that side as well as the more obvious aspects fundamental to palaeontology and indeed good science (data collection, archiving data and specimens, access to material etc.).

Even so, there were some great finds. We were supposed to have four days in the field but bad weather restricted this to little more than two (though knowing the weather was coming, we pushed hard with long days to maximise the good ones, so we didn’t loose too much time over all), but we still put a dozen specimens into the Tyrrell collections (both research and teaching) including teeth of dromaeosaurs and troodontids, some ornithomimosaur elements, and best of all a hadrosaur skull. The latter was found eroding out of a cliff and while the lower jaws were going and most of the teeth were out, the rest seems to be in the hillside (with probably a decent bit of postcranium)  and this has been flagged for collection next fieldseason.

As this is the first time we have run this, there were inevitably some teething issues, but I’m delighted to say the feedback from the students has been incredibly positive and they really enjoyed both the fieldwork, the Tyrrell itself and interacting with the academics present on the trip (Musings collaborator Mike Habib also made the trip up and joined us). This is hopefully the first of many future trips as this should be an annual component of the course, so hopefully for me, I’ll have a nice source of material for future posts every year. Meantime, here’s some views, the hadro skull, some tyrannosaur teeth and turtle plastron.

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My thanks to all on both sides of the student / staff divide for all their efforts in making this such a great trip for all concerned and I’m really looking forwards to the future of this course.

Welcoming Zhanghenglong

It has been a while coming on the Musings, but here’s something that’s bordering on traditional palaeontology. However, it is based on ornithischians, so obviously doesn’t quite count. That is a joke before I start getting all the complaints in the comments – I’m genuinely pleased to finally be on a paper that focuses on the other side of the Dinosauria after all my saurischian work. Anyway, long term readers will remember this post from back in 2011 about creating plaster jackets in the field. This was from a trip down in Henan were we turned up a number of specimens (and interestingly, Xu Xing was called away up to Zhucheng becuase of the discovery of what would turn out be Zhuchengtyrannus). At the time we had something that looked like a hadrosaur of some sort, and the blocks you can see us removing in the other post form the core of the new paper.

So say hello to Zhanghenglong, a basal hadrosauroid from the Late Cretaceous. Somewhat inevitably there’s not much of it, though there is a good maxilla (shown below) and dentary, as well as dorsal vertebrae, ribs, a scapula and a tibia. Phylogenetically it comes out as a hadrosauroid, but very close to the base of Hadrosauridae and gives some additional support to the idea of an Asian origin for hadrosaur groups with the nearest relatives to hadrosaurs being from Asia, as are the earliest lambeosaurines at at least a couple of members of the hadrosaurines. Happily the full paper is at PLoS ONE so all the information is fully accessible if you want more.


Xing H, Wang D, Han F, Sullivan C, Ma Q, et al. (2014) A New Basal Hadrosauroid Dinosaur (Dinosauria: Ornithopoda) with Transitional Features from the Late Cretaceous of Henan Province, China. PLoS ONE 9(6): e98821. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0098821

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