Archive for the 'paleo art' Category

Introducing Aquilops americanus


Aquilops americanus a new species of basal ceratopsian dinosaur.

Aquilops americanus, a new species of basal ceratopsian dinosaur.

Click HERE for a “field guide” to everything in the above image.

Also you can support original paleo art by purchasing a poster (12″x18″ – 30.48cm x 45.72cm) of the above illustration RIGHT HERE for $25. FREE shipping within the US!!:

For an overview on the new species and it’s significance head over to Andy Farke’s blog post at PLOS, and/or check out the paper. For a rundown on Matt Wedel’s involvement in the story of Aquilops’ check out his blog post at SV-POW, and stay tuned for his post about reconstructing the skull. Here on DMWD I’m gonna talk about how we went from a few squashed noggin bones to all the stuff you see in these here color pictures.
Aquilops americanus group detail

The journey that lead to the above illustration all started a while back when the world’s two most powerful paleontologists/galactic warriors, Andy Farke and Matt Wedel, hit me up about illustrating a new species of dinosaur they were working on publishing. Basically they were like, “We have the only known remains of a creature nobody’s seen in 106 million years and we want you to be the first guy show people how it might’ve looked, which will help us explain to people why it’s so goddamn awesome.” To me it was the paleontological equivalent of getting asked to combine forces with Jackie Chan and Jet Li to make a kung fu movie with crazy stunts in it, but I didn’t even have to get kicked repeatedly in the neck or thrown through a bunch of panes of glass, i just had to light fireworks and blow stuff up all around them to help make them look extra good while they kick the shit out of all the badguys who hate science and dinosaurs.

So I said yes.

First step was to check out Aquilops‘ smooshed little skull, and also a cast of the much more complete/less crushed skull of Archaeoceratops, which Andy determined was it’s closest known relative. I took a bunch of pictures of both skulls from various angles to help me wrap my brain around how these animal’s heads were shaped. I cannot even express what a huge difference seeing the fossils in person made to my ability to visualize how Aquilops’ skull might’ve looked un-crushed, and how the soft tissues would’ve attached and surrounded it in life.

Aquilops Skull DorsolateralAquilops Skull DorsalAquilops Skull VentralArchaeoceratops Skull AnteriolateralArchaeoceratops Lateral with Andy Farke in it's jawsAquilops chillin with Archaeoceratops

Based on this personal examination along with Matt Wedel’s skull reconstruction I came up with several rough life restorations of Aquilops’ head, experimenting with various soft tissue displays, thicknesses, and interpretations on the odd little blade of bone sticking out of Aquilops’ beak. While I’m at it, big shout out to Dave Hone for posting up high-res images of this exquisitely preserved Psittacosaurus from China. Those stunning soft tissue impressions, along with impressions left by other ceratopsians were extensively referenced when illustrating Aquilops’ skin and other soft tissues. When we had a settled on a look for the fleshed out head, I mocked up an array of possible color schemes.

Aquilops Color Array

One of the ideas that influenced our choice of color palette was the idea that horned dinosaur’s headgear likely evolved for both display and defense, so we thought it would make sense if Aquilops had some showy coloration, but not so showy that it would be unable to hide from predators. Accordingly I looked to modern lizards for inspiration on color schemes, as many of them have stunning color displays despite being low on the food chain and able to blend into the right hiding spots. Once a color scheme was chosen, I rendered the full head reconstruction featured in the paper:

Aquilops americanus Head Reconstruction by Brian Engh

While all this was going on, we were also trying to dig up information on the paleoeocology of Unit VII in the Cloverly formation where Aquilops was found, in order to get a better idea of what the world this animal lived in might’ve looked like. I was fortunate to make contact with Nathan Jud, a graduate student at the University of Maryland, and (so far as we know) the only person currently studying the plants found in Cloverly’s unit VII. He supplied me with several images of gorgeous plant fossils he collected, as well as input as to close modern analogues. The fossils record a seasonally dry woodland, with relatively low ambient humidity, a high water table (it was near a lake) and an undergrowth composed of several species of small leafed ferns (see my “field guide” above), as well as a primitive angiosperm similar to modern Ambrosia (Ragweed). The trees were a species of ancient redwood, with cones identical to modern Coast Redwood Sequoia sempervirens and needles identical to modern Giant Sequoia Sequoiadendron giganteum. When I found out from Nathan that the trees were a kind of redwood I got excited because I live in northern California with redwoods all around my house, and I have visited the Giant Sequoias on a number of occasions, and they are both some of the most awesome trees ever. When I met with Matt and Andy we had talked about depicting Aquilops living in a small group near some kind of cover, and I thought it would be really cool to have them using a burrow sheltered by the roots of a fallen redwood, as I have seen various extant dinosaurs (birds), mammals and reptiles use tree roots that way. So I went out and took a bunch of pictures of various root structures, with my flip flops placed on them as a dinosaur stand in/makeshift scale bar.

Once I had a rough composition worked out I sent sketches to Nathan to work out the most reasonable placement and growing modes of the various plants in relationship to the fallen log and the light that would’ve been made available by the tree’s toppling.

Another key piece of the composition is the predatory mammal Gobiconodon ostrami, and the hatchling Aquilops. We thought it would be cool to include a mammalian predator because so often Mesozoic mammals are thought of as diminutive and primitive, yet Gobiconodon was certainly large enough to prey on small dinosaurs, and had highly advanced (and downright scary looking) teeth. It’s jaws were equipped with multi-cusped blade like molars and premolars, and fang-like conical incisors for which the genus is named. While we can’t know exactly what Gobiconodon was eating, it certainly had a mouth capable of processing flesh and small bones, as well as large claws on it’s paws, and a robust skeleton with substantial muscle attachments.


While the hatchling Aquilops and the adults emerging from the shadowy burrow are entirely speculative they are based on what we know about Aquilops’ close relatives. Several growth phases are known from various other ceratopsian species, and they consistently show young with reduced frills and jugal (cheek) horns, and adults with more elongated skulls, wider jugals and expanded frills. Also, we thought it would be a good idea to show a good number of baby Aquilops, as large clutches of young seem to be the norm for most dinosaurs, ceratopsians included. The strategy seems to have been “make a lot of babies and let the predators sort ’em out”, so we thought it’d make sense to show that happening, and by a relatively small mammalian predator no less. After all, in an ecosystem with Acrocanthosaurus, Deinonychus and Gobiconodon, Aquilops was pretty low on the food chain.

Perhaps Aquilops’ odd rostral protuberance helped them to dig and defend burrows, or engage in intraspecific combat. Perhaps Aquilops grew much larger than the holotype specimen, and could thus fend off larger predators. Perhaps Gobiconodon fed exclusively on insects. Ultimately there are many things that we simply don’t know and many things we can’t know, but it is my hope that rather than presenting Aquilops as just another fossil we’ve managed to present you with the fossil attached inseparably to the idea that it was a once-living creature, with instincts, and habits and needs. A character speaking to us, through the record of geology, an unfathomable 106 million years in the future.

Dinosaurs are rad.
Aquilops Pencil Render

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You could’ve been looking at something new right now…

National Geographic recently released a slew of gorgeous new paleoart and other press images with the announcement of a new paper on the awesome and enigmatic dinosaur Spinosaurus aegyptiacus. Though the imagery is awesome, the paper and the new reconstruction of Spinosaurus has proven somewhat controversial, and in discussing the new paleo art with a friend, he pointed out to me that one of the illustrations bears remarkable similarities to one of my own…

Here’s the press image released by National Geographic

…and here is my old Spinosaur image I did for Tor Bertin’s 2010 paper reviewing the Spinosauridae which can be found on PalArch here:
Kem Kem Assemblage by Brian Engh

I think the new piece is technically gorgeous, and I’m pretty smug about the fact that my first published piece of paleo-art is the first image ever made (to my knowledge) of a Spinosaur hunting while swimming in an underwater ecosystem and that it might be influencing (some say even getting ripped off by?) the good people at National Geographic (who I’ve looked up to for years!). Admittedly, the similarities get me a little riled up, but I know all too well that, as an artist, an image or sound that took someone else hours or days or years to create can so easily be dropped into a folder full of reference material where it dissolves into the sea of human experience that everything we do is drawn from. That’s just part of the process, and partially derivative works naturally result.

Like most paleoartists, when I do an illustration I amass piles of images of wildlife and fossils taken or prepared by hard working and skilled photographers and paleontologists and museum staff and I never even think to give any of those people credit if I don’t know them personally. For example, here’s an awesome image of a crocodile, gleaned from somewhere in the sprawling reaches of the internet that definitely influenced my Spinosaurus illustration to some degree…


So, whether something is derivative doesn’t really matter right? Maybe not. But there is a distinction to be made with regards to how directly derived a work is. To me at least, the more directly derived an image is from a previous work of the same or similar creative medium, then the less artistic integrity that piece has. When that photographer took that picture of a crocodile their end-goal was presumably to take a picture of a crocodile. When I grabbed that Image I wasn’t thinking “ooh goody, I’ll paint this crocodile almost exactly as I see it!” Rather, I absorbed information from that image into my imagination in order to accomplish a completely different end goal: depict something nobody has ever seen before.

Reference images of living animals and fossils weren’t the only information I took in. In an attempt to figure out the ideal perspective I also made a quick little sculpture of a Spinosaurus out of polymer clay, and then photographed it in a little aquarium partially submerged in water. Here are a few of those shots.

SpinosaurSculpture2 SpinosaurSculpture1

Then, to figure out the lighting, and get a really good feel for the environment, I went to a river near my house with a GoPro camera and took a bunch of video footage of fish and turtles and light coming through the water. Here are a few frames that directly translated into the look of various parts of my image:

It was a great day, I saw amazing things that filled me with ideas and surprised me, like this male Western Pond Turtle (Actinemys marmorata) who was so focused on trying to mate with a hunkered down female that I was able to put my camera right next to them to take this video (please forgive the blurriness, the early generations of GoPro had a major design flaw such that they couldn’t record clear images under water):

Going outside to explore a modern riparian environment with my Spinosaurus illustration in mind inspired me to incorporate snails feeding on algae, fish feeding (the one in the foreground of my illustration is eyeing a snail), as well as the turtles hanging out casually, despite large predators cruising through. If I moved slowly, like the Spinosaurus in my illustration, carp and turtles would swim all around me, even brushing past my legs and arms. One western pond turtle even tried to eat me!

The curved fish-eye lens perspective was also inspired by the ultra-wide angle lens of my little GoPro camera.

The reason I share all of this is because it was all essential to making my illustration different from any illustration of Spinosaurus that came before it. I’m not smart enough to just blast out a totally new perspective on an extinct animal without first doing a ton of research and exploration first. Yet finding that new perspective, and breathing life into new hypothesis is exactly my goal. Credit, reference, payment and financial security are all nice, but I really don’t care that much about any of that stuff (possibly to the detriment of my career). What’s important is art and science, and pushing both to the next level by gathering more evidence, exploring deeper into the imagination, and coming back with new ideas, insights and questions. The problem with the new Spinosaurus art is that it doesn’t do anything I didn’t do four years ago, other than display a slightly newer (albeit questionable) reconstruction of the animal. As people who enjoy science and art you all should be disappointed not that my image (maybe) got copied, but that the new image fails to contribute a new perspective or idea to the body of Spinosaurus paleo art. You could be looking at something totally new, from a different angle, or depicting a different hunting strategy, or at least with a substantially different composition. Instead you’re looking at a bluer, slightly better drawn version of my old ideas.

But at least lots of people get to see it.

To any paleontologists reading this: if you discover something new I hope you will consider contacting me to do a reconstruction or life restoration for you. If you are limited by budget but have a fascinating paper, article or discovery that would benefit from a compelling illustration I will still work with you. Also, bear in mind, I am four years better at art than I was when I made that Spinosaurus illustration, and I am brimming with new ideas I haven’t yet had the opportunity to illustrate. I have some new stuff in the works that I’ll be posting on when it’s published, and in the meantime here are a few of my more recent works.

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quick paleo doodle

sometimes you just gotta draw some dinosaurs.


A big grumpy sauropod stomps the innards out of a pesky theropod

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Feathered Dinosaurs Are Scary as Hell

There’s a bunch of squawk on the web coming from people who think that feathered dinosaurs aren’t scary. On behalf of anyone who’s had hands-on experience with or even basic working knowledge of bird biology, please, shut the fuck up. Birds are fucking creepy murderous motherfuckers. Don’t believe me? Watch this documentary in which it takes several big beefy australian rugby player type dudes to tackle down a partially sedated Cassowary which, despite being half their size, could kick their guts out.

(disclaimer: this is an hour long documentary – but if you jump to 22:25 you can see dudes tackling a drugged up dinosaur)

And that’s a fruit eating dinosaur! That’s sorta like your run of the mill Oviraptorid, except that it’s never had to run from a Dromeosaur. That’s the “Six foot turkey” the ugly fat kid in the beginning of Jurassic Park thinks ain’t shit. And it’s been roofied multiple times. And to anyone who can look at a cassowary and say “it would be scarier if it were brown and scaly like the raptors in Jurassic Park” I say that you are wrong. Not only do all those black shaggy feathers make it look like a nightmarish abomination emerging from the shadowy forest of a Jim Henson fever dream, but they also make it way harder to see which of its legs is going to kick you right in your twat. It’s like the red feathers that traditionally decorate the end of a kung fu spear to distract the opponent, except the whole animal is both feathers and kung fu and both its feet are spears.

Cassowary Attacking Ausie

Cassowary Kung Fu

I mean, HOLY SHIT. Indoors-only city folk who think that feathered animals aren’t/can’t be scary have clearly never spotted a barn owl with their flashlight while hiking alone at night. Let me explain: a barn owl in that context basically looks like the ghost of a dead Korean child sitting in a tree, that can turn its head completely around, fly in total silence, locate a rat by sound alone, and then snatch it with its ratchet-tendon talons from its hiding place in long grass.

Or better yet, check out a baby barn owl regurgitating the compressed bones and fur of the mammals its mother stuffed in its hook-billed squawking mouth.

Now imagine a big shaggy weirdo like that cassowary, but with the talons of an owl and it’s 20 feet long. Oh, also it has jaws with the crush force of a crocodile and the serrated teeth and septic bite of a komodo dragon. That’s what the little baby bitch cousin of T-Rex was. A murder-saur called Yutyrannus huali (which I choose to believe was named after some ancient kung fu master who could kick you hard enough to crumple your ribcage). Oh, but unlike t-rex it had relatively longer, frighteningly strong, creepy taloned hands emerging from its blood and shit flecked plumage to grip you to its fuzzy, death-smelling breast with. Don’t think that would make a horrifying mind-fuck of a movie monster?? REALLY!??!?

Yutyrannus huali defends its kill

I disagree.

I just watched Jurassic Park in the theater for the first time in 20 years and it’s such a goddamn solid movie that it actually managed to make me mad about the recent announcement that the upcoming Jurassic Park 4 won’t feature any feathered dinosaurs. While I’m sure the new movie will have a line or two about how the JP dinos are genetic amalgams to explain away the lack of paleo plumage, what bothers me is that without a doubt the real reason for doing this is to maintain the “look of the brand”… which is exactly what the first Jurassic Park worked so hard to get away from – depicting dinosaurs according to their traditional reptilian image. The credibility and believability of the entire film is predicated on the idea that dinosaurs were more like birds than modern reptiles – from Dr. Grant’s first memorable child-traumatizing monologue to the final shots of the film which show a flock of pelicans flying along side Hammond’s helicopter as Dr. Grant smugly looks out at them like “god damn son, i really know my shit.” And twenty years later, what really holds up about the film’s dinosaurs is their distinctively bird like behavior. The tyrannosaur assaults the Ford explorer like an eagle pinning and picking apart a carcass, the raptors stalk about like huge murderous roosters, the dilophosaur has the spookily inquisitive yet suddenly aggressive temper of a cassowary, even the Brachiosaurs move and honk gracefully like a flock of giant swans. It was all thrillingly unlike anything we’d ever seen before, but despite all that, the new movie promises more of the same. That’s particularly sad when you consider that by todays scientific standards the design of the original JP dinosaurs is downright bland. Without a doubt the artistry and animation of the dinosaurs is gorgeous (especially for the time), but imagine if that level of special effects wizardry were applied to brilliantly colored and plumed creatures, reflecting our modern understanding of dinosaur soft tissues and their propensity for outlandish display structures… I submit to you, that would be visually stunning, and at times, downright frightening

Jurassic Park T-Rex with Feathers

…aaand here is the original frame from Jurassic park that I painted over:
Jurassic Park T-Rex from end of the movie

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Cretaceous Cavers (All Yesterdays Contest Entry)

I made this illustration for a top-secret project I’m working on in collaboration with Matt Wedel (more on that later). I also submitted it as an entry in the All Yesterdays Contest for speculative reconstructions of extinct creatures, hosted by the authors and illustrators of the book ‘All Yesterdays’.

Diamantinasaurus licking minerals in a cave illuminated by bioluminescent cave glow worms (Arachnocampa sp.)

Subadult Diamantinasaurus licking minerals in a cave illuminated by bioluminescent cave glow worms of the family Mycetophilidae.

The main idea behind this illustration is that in the 120 million years that dinosaurs ruled the earth, at some point they most likely entered caves, and perhaps even large dinosaurs entered them. As discussed on SV-POW, modern elephants enter caves to exploit their mineral resources, and it was Matt Wedel’s suggestion that perhaps sauropods also did this at some point in their lengthy natural history.

Here are some close ups of their heads and necks showing speculative scale patterning and armor, based partially on Saltasaurus, and partially on modern reptiles. The spines along the bottom of their necks and abdomens are meant to be keratinous, serving both display and defense functions, much like modern Australian Bearded Dragons (Pogona), Thorny Devils (Moloch) and the Horned Lizards of western North America (Phrynosoma). Also featured are highly reflective scales on the head and neck, similar to the modern skink Proctoporus shrevei , which may serve as adaptations for species recognition or to startle predators in low-light environments such as dark forests or caves (also, to look rad). Another speculative feature of the integument are elongated hair-like scales on the snout, which are meant to be a sensory adaptation, similar to a mammalian whisker, to help these large animals navigate in dark environments.

Cave exploring Diamantinasaurus with reflective display scales, and sensitive whisker like scales.

Cave exploring Diamantinasaurus with reflective display scales, and sensitive whisker like scales.

As I was thinking about doing this illustration, it occurred to me that it would be really cool if the cave was lit by bioluminescence, and after a little research I learned that the glow worms that light up caves are from the genus Arachnocampa and are native to Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania. I shot an email to my brother (who is currently working on a masters degree in entomology) to find out a little more about the natural history of these glow worms, and he found out that although there isn’t any direct evidence of bioluminescent Arachnocampa in the fossil record, the larger group that they are a part of (the fungus gnats of the family Mycetophilida), are a very ancient group, being “well established and diversified by the Cretaceous period at the latest (wikipedia)”. Considering how many times bioluminescence has evolved independently in the history of living things, and considering that much of the flora and fauna of Australia and (especially) New Zealand is derived from common ancestors isolated there shortly after the end of the Cretaceous, it seemed reasonable enough to speculate that perhaps bioluminescent cave glow worms like the Arachnocampa of today illuminated caves that the dinosaurs of mesozoic Australia wandered into…

Based on that I decided to make the dinosaurs in the illustration Diamantinasaurus, because they lived in ancient Australia, and because they were possibly armoured like their close relatives Saltasaurus. I thought it would be cool to draw a speculatively armored sauropod because, 1) armor looks rad, and 2) armor requires a lot of minerals (especially calcium) to grow. In the case of saltasaurus, the armor is a series of boney knobs called osteoderms, which start as keratinous scales, that are reinforced with bone as the animal grows. That inspired me to speculate that perhaps during the phase in their life where they are rapidly growing and hardening their integument, they made a habit of visiting caves to boost up on calcium and other important trace minerals not easily acquired elsewhere. This caused me to begin speculating as to what other adaptations dinosaurs who frequently ventured into caves might’ve developed as they became more and more specialized for dark environments. If indeed, venturing into caves became an essential part of these animals’ life cycle, perhaps then they would have evolved such features as the whisker-like scales on their faces and the reflective display scales I depicted them with on their heads and necks. It seems to me that if the diversity of dinosaur integuments seen in the fossil record is to inform how we imagine the skin features we can’t see in the fossil record, we should imagine dinosaur skin texture and function as diverse and highly adaptable. Arguably it was the adaptational flexibility of dinosaurs’ skin and scales that helped make them so successful for so long. Even just within the theropoda we see everything from scales, to osteoderms, horns, fuzz, feathers, quills, exposed bare skin – and often with several of these different features within the same animal.

But who knows… While fossils of large animals are known from ice age caves, I don’t know of any mesozoic fossils coming from cave systems. Perhaps most cave systems are too unstable to last so long as to survive from the mesozoic to the present, or perhaps we just haven’t been looking in the right places. Based on modern animals, I think it’s safe to assume that dinosaurs and other mesozoic monsters colonized and exploited cave environments, perhaps even adapting into obligate cave dwellers, whose bizarre remains lie undiscovered in some hidden cavity in the geological bowels of the earth…

Oh, and here is the pencil drawing of the above illustration before it was colored:
Diamantinasaurus pencil drawing (uncolored)

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“Textured 2d” Cryolophosaurus Animation

This animation was created by first making traditional hand-drawn 2d animation, and then by digitally animating detailed textures (both hand drawn and digitally painted) in such a way that they match the movements of the hand drawn animation. As far as I know, 2d animation has never been done in quite this way before.

This is my first test animation, and although the techniques and look of the animation will have to be refined with successive animation tests, I am really happy to have come up with something that I think works pretty well, looks neat, and is different than anything I’ve seen before. I am excited to continue to explore the possibilities of combining 2d hand drawn animation with digital tools, and I hope you will stay tuned and give feedback as things evolve.

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Dinosaurs Reanimated

So here’s the deal: I’m fucking bored with all the CG dinosaurs running around on the TV box these days. So I’m teaming up with some dino buddies and we’re making a spec doc that we’re going to try to develop into a TV series. I’ve created a blog where we’ll be putting various production materials and giving/getting feedback. Check it out, read our mission statement, RSS it, and let us know what you think as we put stuff up. We’re open to ideas and we hope you’ll hold us to a high standard of quality and scientific accuracy:

Dinosaurs Reanimated Production Blog

Miragaia longicollum

Yeah, yeah I know, CG dinosaurs sometimes ‘look cool’ but very very rarely move well or act like real animals. Furthermore the docs that feature the CG dinos often present speculation as fact, make stupid shit up, and just strait up get stuff wrong. I call it ‘bullshitting’, and I generally don’t like motherfuckers who do it, especially to children.

Turns out, I’m not entirely alone in my weariness of CG and bad paleo docs. Paleontologists galore are also often regularly frustrated and disappointed by the shows they often advise on but have too little say in the creative process to be able to do anything much but blog about it. They work hard to discover rad stuff, and then give their time and energy advising on documentaries who often ignore what they say or even actively misrepresent them. It sucks.

On top of that there’s a diversity of talented animators out there who are skilled in a variety of mediums, who understand behavior, story and the drama of survival, and who could make much more interesting animation than the void-of-substance CG that has risen to ubiquity in recent years. With the advent of digital technology the push has been to digitize as much of the workflow as possible, and aim at an impossible level of ‘photo realism’ instead of figuring out interesting ways to hybridize and streamline beautiful traditional techniques with digital technology to (perhaps even more efficiently) present original art to the public. And that’s the thing – it’s all just ‘art’. It’s never going to look like the real animals because nobody’s ever seen the real animals. And from what I can tell, the only visual goal of ‘photorealistic’ CG is to try and look like something real THAT NOBODY’S EVER SEEN. That’s just fucking dumb. Stop wasting all that time and money.

Ultimately, what compels me most is that there are more certain truths about dinosaurs and other extinct animals that these docs could elaborate on in a gripping way, but that are completely overlooked in favor of that ever elusive “cool factor”. What I’m talking about is the fact that these were real animals, that went through gnarly harrowing shit in order to survive for millions and millions of years. They were parents, hunters, victims of natural tragedy and witnesses to the incredible beauty and vivacity of life. They struggled with so many of the same basic challenges that we do; trying to find food, a mate, a safe place to live, and they dealt with these challenges in amazing brilliant ways, many of which are actually recorded in the fossil record!

Mother On Her Eggs

Thanks for reading. If you have the time, check out our production blog – we need your critical input!

First Pass Storyboard Page 1

Dinosaurs Reanimated Production Blog

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don’t mess with prehistoric fish, either.

Serious paleo warriors know about prehistoric fish (and that they’re awesome). Either way, I’ve got good news for you. This previously undescribed Lepidotes sp. that I illustrated alongside Cladocyclus pankowskii a few months back…

Lepidotes pankowskii

…has been formally described in the current issue of Paleo Electronica. It now bears the specific name Lepidotes pankowskii (again, after Mark Pankowski who bought and donated the type specimen). Nice.

If anybody else has new species that have never before been illustrated (or named yet) get at me. I’m here for that.

In other prehistoric fish related news, some species of prehistoric fish never went extinct, and can be bought at your local pet store for $5.49. I just got a Polypterus senegalus (aka Senegal Bichir) – cogenerics of which have also been found in African Cretaceous rocks. I have it in a tank with a Xenopus frog (also cretaceous), and it’s been really fun to watch the two of them lurk around and eat earthworms together.

The polypterus uses it’s big front pectorals to sort of hover across the bottom or to weave its way through aquatic vegetation and up the water column to investigate delicious smells. It seems to only use it’s caudal fin for bursts of speed when attacking prey or evading a perceived threat (usually me maintaining the tank). It’s really fascinating to observe a working body plan derived from somewhere near the base of the branch on the tetrapod family tree that would eventually give rise to all terrestrial vertebrates.

I love that there are a few extant species that have remained virtually unchanged for millions of years. I like to think of them as some kind of an ‘entry point’ into imagining the ancient world. I feel like if I can understand these animals, then I can begin to take steps away from them, towards the more mysterious creatures they shared their world with that have left us only fossils.

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a quick doodle

Sauropod doodle

Just a random sauropod doodle from my sketchbook.

I’m working on some new things… Can’t say much now, but expect some tidbits of animation in the next few weeks/month.

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What in Hell Creek is a T. Rex?

Seriously. What is this animal?

Ambush at Hell Creek - Tyrannosaurus rex attacks a sub-adult hadrosaur
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A few months back I did this illustration of T. rex ambushing a Hadrosaur, inspired by evidence that Tyrannosaurs bit the tails of living Hadrosaurs. I decided to keep the attacking T. rex mostly obfuscated by a cloud of dust partially to give the impression that the Hadrosaur was ambushed as its herd stampeded past a hidden Tyrannosaurus, but also because this mighty predator is a mystery to me.

I was recently at the Field Museum in Chicago looking at Sue again in person, and as I gazed up into that huge bizarre skeleton, I could not ignore an unsettling idea prying at somewhere deep in my childhood psyche: This is not Tyrannosaurus Rex. Those bones were from something different. A creature foreign and bizarre to me from a different world. An animal that looked, moved and fought for survival nothing like what I had grown up imagining as Tyrannosaurus Rex.

(I did not take this photo^)

For a few years now I’ve been trying to come up with a satisfying reconstruction of a big adult T. Rex but I still haven’t managed one, and in my opinion, none exists from another artist. The necks, legs and tails are all too long, slender and bird-like, the body cavity not deep nor tall enough, the arms too developed looking. I feel like every paleo-artist (including myself) is trying to reconcile the actual skeletal proportions of big Tyrannosaurs with the idea of these animals that the film Jurassic Park made so visually concrete and believable. We want to imagine big Tyrannosaurs as agile hunters chasing down their prey, engaging it in combat, and dispatching it with fatal bites. While some of the smaller species of tyrannosaurs, and the juveniles of T. rex may have been relatively long-legged, the really big ones – the ones we base epic illustrations on – simply weren’t. When I look at the skeletons of the big adult Tyrannosaurs I see a hulking beast with a HUGE body cavity, a massive tail and head, and relatively short thick legs. And yet we have evidence that these massive predators attacked formidable living prey. So what the hell is this animal? How did it live, hunt, and sustain its enormous bulk?

In short, I do not see an agile jungle cat. I see something like an obese crocodile on two thick chicken legs.

Feathery Lizard King

I have been kicking around a few ideas for tyrannosaur illustrations (including a reconstruction of Sue) that I want to do in the coming months as I am able to find the time. I know a feathery body covering to the extent that I have drawn in the above doodle is not likely considering scaly skin impressions of tyrannosaurus have been found, but I have been experimenting with different soft tissue reconstructions with the hope of coming up with some new looks for this old giant. Ultimately my aim is to produce some reconstructions that are true to the fossil evidence while at once dramatically depict this seemingly mythical creature as a something more of a real, believable animal.

I think one of the main reasons why dinosaurs (and other extinct monsters) are so awesome is that we can keep imagining new ways they might have been awesome, and ultimately its a pretty safe bet that when these animals were alive they were more awesome than anything we’ve yet come up with. Nature tends to be pretty kick-ass that way.

Ever seen a fossil nautilus?

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