Sunday, November 30, 2014

Is Jurassic World Stealing from Independent Illustrators?

Sorry for the clickbait title. The answer is yes. Yes they are.

It's one thing when toy companies do it.

It's quite another when a big-budget Hollywood movie starts stealing the work of independent paleoartists and illustrators for use in their production design.

It started when well-known paleo illustrator Brian Choo posted the following modified production still to his DeviantArt account. The photo in question is fairly low res and comes from the newly opened Jurassic World web site. The still features children using a prop in the movie called a "Holoscape", presumably a kind of interactive computer terminal featuring information about the various kinds of dinosaurs in the park.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

You're Doing It Wrong: Protobird Toys Edition

The new Carnegie Velociraptor figure.
I'm pretty slack when it comes to keeping up with my Twitter account, but if one thing can get me to break my one post per month general rule, it's "somebody is wrong on the Internet!" Or, in this case, "somebody made an inaccurate dinosaur model under the auspices of museum-approved accuracy!"

Let me preface this post with a few disclaimers. One, I have no problem with people making dinosaur art however they like. But I feel it's very important to draw a distinction between dinosaur art in general and paleoart. Creating a drawing, painting, or sculpture under the guise of paleoart implies that some degree of research went into the piece. When evaluating paleoart, critics are completely entitled to demand as rigorous an approach to accuracy as the evidence allows. Of course, speculation must be included to some degree, but the baseline expectation is always that basic facts and plausible inference will be taken into consideration.

Dinosaur art is a for of pop art, a purely artistic expression. Paleoart is a representation of a scientific hypothesis about the life appearance and behavior of an extinct organism.

This recent Twitter kerfuffle was due specifically to the debut of a new dinosaur figure in the Carnegie Collection produced by Safari Ltd. I've been a big fan of the Carnegie figures (and the sometimes nicer quality Wild Safari sister series) since I was a wee lad buying my first Carnegie Pteranodon in a little hobby shop for about $2, and pining over their massive Brachiosaurus. Carnegie figures have obvious appeal for scientifically-minded young dinosaur fans. First, most of them are made with a consistent scale (usually 1:40), so when you line them all up you can see how big each animal was compared to one another. Second, they are marketed as having the highest level of scientific authority: the Carnegie Museum stamp and assurances that hey are approved by actual paleontologists gives them the weight of authority and accuracy not found in many other toy lines. Sure, many of the older figures, including my Pteranodon, are now sorely out of date, but this is due largely to the Science Marches On effect rather than a basic, original inaccuracy.

However, like many paleoartists, the sculptors at Carnegie and related accuracy-minded/marketed toy lines seem to be having, well, let's say a little trouble adapting to the feathered revolution. Trained in the '80s and '90s drawing and sculpting Paulian, reptilian dinosaurs, it's been a steep learning curve for many of these artists to switch to bird-like, feathered dinosaurs, which many artists don't even realize requires a crash course in avian anatomy, rather than reptile or mammal anatomy, to get right. This is why expert consultants are so important in these projects--artists simply need help catching up with the latest research. Unfortunately, they're usually getting bad advice from "experts" who simply do not care.

The newest entry in the Carnegie Collection is the old favorite Velociraptor. Carnegie had previously released a scaly Velociraptor, but like many of their other models, they have commendably updated it to try and reflect current science. Unfortunately, it seems they mainly achieved this by slapping feathers over the basic original model with no regard for the fact that feathers inherently change the entire presentation and outline of an animal. Unlike fur or "protofeathers", which just fluff up the outline of an animal, feathers are more like a mobile exoskeleton that re-defines the entire body.

My own hypothesis, based on fossil and phylogenetic evidence as well as
inference from living analogues, about the life appearance of Velociraptor.
That being said, the Carnegie Velociraptor is not that bad overall and is very nicely sculpted, with an interesting and plausible color scheme. The feathers look fur-like, true, but this is not unprecedented among different lineages of large ground birds, and so is not unlikely in flightless protobirds (though they'd probably still be longer). The main problem here is the wing. Yes, wing. Like chickens and ostriches, protobirds possessed fully-fledged wings despite being flightless or nearly so, and retaining large claws on the fingers (yes, chickens, ostriches, and many other birds have hand claws--they are not some prehistoric protobird relic!).

Specifically, the wings in the new Velociraptor figure are very small, with short feathers, and are present only on the forearm, not the hand, making them only half a wing--literally, since they're issuing the primary feathers. We do not have direct evidence of primaries, but we have never found a single example of a maniraptoran that has secondaries but not primaries, and so it should be assumed they were there by default. As for secondaries, we have direct evidence in the form of quill knobs for this species. Quill knobs are not found in all feathered animals, let alone all flying birds, and seem to be associated with strong attachment either due to high-stresses during flight or other flapping behavior and/or especially large/long individual feathers.

Long story short: Not only did Velociraptor have wings, it probably had larger wings than many other dromaeosaurids. AFAIK not even Microraptor and Archaeopteryx had quill knobs to support their wings.

The new Carnegie figure, on the other hand, barely has wings at all. What went wrong?

Some insight can be gained by a recent series of incidents involving sculptor Dan LoRusso on the message board of the Dinosaur Toy Blog. LoRusso Is an amazing artist and is responsible for some of my all-time favorite dinosaur figures released in the Boston Museum of Science Collection by Battat (now being re-released with updates and new figures under the Terra brand). Collectors were understandably excited about the fact that the Battat series was coming back after nearly two decades, though the excitement was dampened a little by some obvious accuracy issues in the new figures, specifically when it came to the feathered species (or species that should have been feathered).

LoRusso was criticized online for producing a very well done but very inaccurate therizinosaur figure which completely lacked feathers. It would have fit right in with the excellent quality and Paulian style of the original series... back in 1994. But in 2014, when we have incontrovertible proof that therizinosaurs were not only feathered but that at least smaller species were very densely feathered, it is simply bizarre to see a featherless figure in a line that is being marketed as scientifically accurate. LoRusso stated that his consultants told him larger therizinosaurs would have been featherless. It's not LoRusso's fault that he somehow was able to sculpt a bald maniraptoran in the year 2013. Somebody who did not know what they were talking about and claiming to be an expert in paleoart just because they work in the related field of paleontology told him to do it, and he very reasonably believed them because they were an "expert", though obviously they had misrepresented themselves.

And there's the biggest problem and probably the answer to the question of what is going on with these strange and obvious inaccuracies. Paleoart consultants for major projects tend to be, often but not always, simply terrible. They seem not to know what they are talking about. Not only that, but second-hand reports suggest that they often simply do not care. Seriously: When asked about blatant inaccuracies creeping into paleoart-based projects like toys or books or even press releases, at least one anonymous paid paleontological consultant stated that they don't care what dinosaurs looked like in life, and so would presumably rubber-stamp any abomination that came across their desk.
Here's a prime, objective example: The Carnegie Collection Caudipteryx zoui figure. This species was first found in 1998, a complete skeleton with feather impressions. There are plenty of photos of Caudipteryx fossils that show crystal clear how the feathers attach and were ignored completely for this figure. The artist might have copied some inaccurate depiction rather than doing actual research or glancing at a fossil, and the consultant approved it because they didn't know or didn't care about the relevant details. The Carnegie Caudipteryx proves that consultants are utterly useless and often have no clue what they're talking about. Any one of us can compare the model with the fossil and show that the model is objectively wrong in major details. Look for yourself:

Caudipteryx wing fossil: note the primaries, longer than the hand, anchored along the second finger,
and lack of a clawed third finger.

Carnegie Collection Caudipteryx figure. Note the wing feathers anchored everywhere along the arm
EXCEPT on the second finger where they belong, and the incorrect number of fingers.
The wings/arms of this figure are wrong in just about every single way possible, and these are not minor details. Yet it's marketed as accurate and "paleontologist approved" in a series bearing the name of a major scientific institution!

It's not fair to ask all working paleontologists to know or care how their research into fossils translates into life appearance. Matching osteological and behavioral correlates with the structure and anatomy of living analogues could almost be considered a distinct field separate from actual paleontology. This is something paleoartists can and do think about and research constantly, but would almost never need to enter into the research when describing fossils. There's really no reason for working paleontologists to keep up to date with developments and research that go into paleoart.

The solution? Don't ask these paleontologists to consult! Just because someone is a paleontologist does not make them an expert on the life appearance of any given species of prehistoric organism. The examples cited above were, allegedly, all approved by "expert" consultants. This simply proves the consultants that are being employed are utterly failing at their job. I hate to say it, but there are legions of paleoartists and other dinosaur fans online who jump at the chance to criticize and nitpick and otherwise consult on these things for free. It's just that by the time the product is released, it's too late to do anything about inaccuracies. If companies that use paleoart would simply post concept art beforehand on, say, Facebook, they could probably get much better advice for free. Or, preferably, they could employ actual paleoartists as experts, hopefully artists who specialize in researching the life appearance of a given subject group of organisms.

Darren Naish, Mark Witton, and John Conway recently published an article on the (shameful) state of  paleoart as used in professional and commercial contexts. Companies like Safari Ltd. would do well to listen to their advice.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Beasts of Antiquity

So, it looks like my new book, Beasts of Antiquity: Stem-Birds In the Solnhofen Limestone (Pan Aves 2014), is now available for preorder! Well, the ebook version anyway, but that's not a bad thing (see below).

Beasts of Antiquity started life as "Age of Dragons", an idea to do a dinosaur book without really talking about "dinosaurs" (inspired partly by this post). The idea was to focus on all members of the avian stem group (and talking about the historical taxon name Dracones, hence the title), not just dinosaurs, each from a different continent or formation in different books in the series. The first was going to be focused on the stem-birds of North America and would feature many of the recent illustrations on my Web site, plus obviously a lot more. Suffice it to say this is a little ambitious for a summer project, so I decided to try releasing the whole thing piecemeal in short installments based on formation first. As I recently teased on social media, this particular concept would focus on several short, stand-alone ebooks that would later be combined with new material to form a single, print volume.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

People Think Feathered Dinosaurs Don't Look Scary. They're Right.

This short article on io9 pretty well encapsulates an area of frustration for artists and scientists in the age of feathered theropods.
Ooh, I'm shakin' in my boots.
Photo by Simon Rumblelicensed.
The implication is, right from the title, that it's common knowledge most depictions of feathered T. rex are not cool. Feathered theropods are widely derided by the public because feathers make these scary reptilian monsters less scary. In a recent Facebook discussion, I took one of those "short pelt raptor" images to task for inaccuracy (you know, the kind that pays lip service to the idea of feathered theropods, but with the minimum possible change to the classic silhouette, with a cat-like short pelt rather than a bird-like poof of feathers engulfing the body). In my reply I kind of hypothesized that there's an evolutionary psychology* reason for our aversion to feathered theropods and our cat-like concessions to the idea.

As Andrea Cau has pointed out, paleoartists (myself included), consciously or not, often employ all kinds of subtle tricks to make feathered theropods look "cool". Leaving the face scaly and reptilian is a popular trick; his body might say "Big Bird", but his face tells you he means business. Face fully feathered? Introduce an eagle-like lowered "brow" or some kind of eyebrow analogue so his facial expression can look "mean". Make sure his mouth is open or he's prominently displaying his other weapons in a ninja-like fighting stance. And be sure if you make him colorful, use high contrast, red and black if possible, and light it so his face is in shadow--that way you know he's thinking evil thoughts. This might also allow you to add eye shine making the eyes look like demonic embers! (check back to the io9 article and see how many of these points that T. rex hits).

In the comments to the io9 article, there were the predictable bouts of resistance to the idea that T. rex could have had feathers at all. "It was too large! Large mammals don't have so much fur in hot climates!" The problem with comparisons to large mammals is that feathers are very different in structure from fur, and have very different insulating properties. Fur is mainly used to keep an animal warm, but thanks to the fact that feathers grown in adjustable, planar layers, and are better at trapping and regulating air flow, many large birds use their feathers to very effectively keep themselves cool by circulation while blocking the skin from absorbing direct sun. It may actually have been disadvantageous for a large animal to lose its feathers, especially if it lived in a hot sunny climate. The fully-feathered Yutyrannus was not significantly smaller than any but the largest T. rex. Most T. rex specimens fell short of the 6.8 tons estimated for the most gargantuan known adults like Sue, that is certainly not the species average size!

But, there was one comment that played right into my ego-psych hypothesis. The commenter basically stated that we know juvenile T. rex had feathers, but there's no reason to think adults kept them. Except even that premise is wrong. 
There is in fact zero direct evidence to support the hypothesis that T. rex juveniles had feathers, let alone that they had them and then lost them. It's simply easier for people to assume that a baby animal, which is supposed to be cute, had feathers, which we psychologically associate with cute animals. 

Are one of these things is not as scary as the other?
Illustrations by M. Martyniuk, all rights reserved.

It is actually less of a stretch (i.e. more parsimonious) to hypothesize that based on its phylogenetic bracket, T. rex had feathers and retained them throughout its life, than the hypothesis that T. rex was born with feathers, lost them because they became disadvantageous at some unspecified weight, then through some unknown developmental pathway replaced its feathers with the kind of thick, scaly skin it is usually depicted with and would need to protect itself from the sun/injury if it lacked feathers. But this convoluted thinking is easier for people to accept because T. rex is the king of all monsters, and monsters are by definition not cute.**

The sad fact is, T. rex may not have looked all that cool. I think John Conway and others have brought this up before. It, and many if not most other dinosaurs, may very well have looked really, really stupid to us. Nature doesn't care if an animal looks intimidating to a species that evolved 66 million years later in a completely different environmental context alongside a vastly different set of predators. Our brains are programmed to find mammalian and reptilian predators scary at least in part* because we evolved alongside these and our survival depended on it. We had no such pressure for most kinds of birds***, and maybe coincidentally, we find very few kinds of birds the least bit intimidating. We have to be told/shown that a cassowary is even capable of being dangerous, and people still constantly trot this out as a surprising fact, despite the fact that it has very few physical differences from a Velociraptor, other than being much larger

So, if your average Joe met a non-avialan theropod in real life, the reaction might be less like any of the raptor scenes in the original Jurassic Park and more like Newman vs. the cute, colorful, silly, hopping (read: bird-like) dilophosaur - bemusement leading to injury.

* I know evo psych is mostly made up of untestable just-so-storys. But it's still fun to think about.

** That's sarcasm. Tyrannosaurs were not monsters, they were plain old regular animals. A lesson people forget from the original Jurassic Park (probably because they're not actually depicted hat way in the movie, despite the fact that the characters talk about it).

***Raptors seem to be the exception. Probably because they preyed on early humans, and maybe also because of their mean-looking "eyebrows"?

Sunday, June 15, 2014

What Does T. rex Say?

T. rex holotype specimen. Photo by Scott Robert Anseimo, CC BY-SA 3.0.
It's an iconic scene in every dinosaur movie: the huge, conquering carnivorous theropod rears back and lets out a terrifying bellow. Sound effects artists spend huge amounts of time sampling vocalizations from various animals to create just the right mix to create an unfamiliar, otherworldly roar. And, of course, everybody knows that pterodactyls let out harsh, echoing, prehistoric sounding screeches.

But how close to reality are these sounds? Do we have any ways of using science to figure out what dinosaurs and other stem-birds may have sounded like? Do we have evidence that they made sounds at all?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Review: Papo Archaeopteryx

Like many paleontology fans, I have a pretty big collection of little plastic dinosaur toys. Most of these I got when I was a kid and have held onto since, but every so often a nice looking model is released that is too cool to pass up. This new Archaeopteryx figurine from Papo was one of them.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Oh, Hi, Bohaiornithids!

It's not often that we are introduced to a large new clade of stem-birds*, but a new paper by Wang et al. finds support for just such a thing among the enantiornithes. Named Bohaiornithidae, the family unites a few previously-known similar-looking opposite birds with two brand new species.

Phylogeny of Bohaiornithidae, modified after Wang et al. 2014.