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.

The French company Papo is known for producing really highly detailed dinosaur figures as well as modern animals, dragons, and other creatures. Unfortunately, most of the Papo dinosaurs, despite their high level of detail, tend to be... inspired... by famous movie monsters. They don't generally give much thought towards scientific accuracy. The first Papo Tyrannosaurus, for example, was such a direct copy of the Jurassic Park version that it's astonishing they didn't get sued. I guess Comcast's lawyers have bigger fish to fry than plagiarized toys. Papo later released a second version of Tyrannosaurus, this time copying the fictional tyrannosaurs from the Peter Jackson version of King Kong. The rest of Papo's roster is mainly an entire series of unlicensed JP figures including Triceratops, Spinosaurus, Pachycephalosaurus, Stegosaurus, BrachiosaurusParasaurolophus, and Pteranodon (complete with teeth), as well as an Allosaurus that is almost a direct copy of an illustration by Brett Booth.

Recently, Papo's products have gotten a little more original, or at least harder for me to recognize their sources of... inspiration. However, their figures are still sorely lacking in scientific accuracy. For a true paleo nerd, it's hard having to choose between really nicely sculpted figures like Papo's which lack accuracy, and less detailed but more accurate (usually) figures like Safari's Carnegie Collection.

Which brings us to the new Archaeopteryx. Despite its fame, Archie has never had a proper figure from one of the major companies. There was an early version with an inexplicable Pteranodon head featured in a set of "chinasaur" figurines I bought at the AMNH when I was seven, a fairly inaccurate Bullyland museum series figure, and a very nice looking but very small figurine from the Kaiyodo Dinotales series. From what I can tell, that was about it, until Papo came along. Archaeopteryx is a non-avian avialan close to the base of Avialae and very similar in anatomy to the predicted common ancestor the that entire group. Some well-publicized recent studies found Archaeopteryx not to be an avialan at all, but a deinonychosaur close to dromaeosaurids and troodontids. However, less well publicized follow-up studies found severe flaws in the one that got that result, and returned it relatively securely as an avialan. It is no longer the oldest or most primitive known bird, though, since the same studies found the Middle Jurassic Aurornis and Anchiornis to be basal avialans as well.

In theory, it should be hard to mess up Archaeopteryx when it comes to accuracy. It's one of the most-studied and best known proto-birds (non-avian avialan dinosaur), known from several exquisitely preserved and world-famous specimens. Unfortunately, there is a long artistic tradition of completely skipping the fossils and just drawing whatever comes to mind when hearing the words "missing link between reptiles and birds", ending up in some outrageously bad reconstructions even today. Thankfully, Papo has got it mostly right this time.

Let's start with the head. This is the least accurate part of the figurine, but I'm going to give Papo a slight pass here since, without the sensationally scaly, gaping, roaring maw of a head, this critter would look completely out of place among their usual roster of inaccurate dino-like monsters. The snout is a little too robust and dromaeosaur-like and the eye a little too small compared to the fossils. The head is strangely unfeathered, as with many restorations, usually an attempt to emphasize the creature's half-repile half-bird nature. Still, this is not as bad as it could be. The scales on the head are tiny and reticulate, and could easily pass for bumpy textured skin seen in some naked-headed birds, of which there are many, so it's hard to complain. Still, I can't help but feel like the head doesn't quite fit the look of the rest of the animal. The details here are excellent though, from the teeth to the tongue. For someone who grew up with paint-blob-toothed Carnegie figures, the detail here is even more refreshing. The head is crowned by a strange array of red quill-like feathers (or are they meant to be fleshy lappets?), adding to the quirkiness of the weird dino-bird head vs. the much more naturalistic, earth-toned body.

The neck is painted dark blue and blends almost seamlessly into the head, making it appear to be scaly from a distance, but up close you can see sculpted feathers. The feathers are tiny, but each bears a few striations representing the barbs of pennaceous contour feathers, showing just how detailed this model is. The underside of the neck has a sort of throat pouch covered in what look at first glance like scutate belly scales; another inaccuracy, since there's no way these would have been present given the feathered ancestry of Archaeopteryx. However, this might just be wrinkled, segmented-looking skin folds as seen in some birds (like vultures), which would make it ok.

The torso is fully feathered, with light brown paint on top and unpainted off-white plastic on the bottom. amazingly, each and every feather is individually sculpted, complete with rachis and barbs, a level of detail I have never seen in one of these mass-market plastic toys. Seriously, the sculpting here is almost up to the level of the Sideshow Dinosauria series! The arrangement of feathers on the body is as accurate as I could ask for, with small, rounded contours covering the body, tail, and upper wing coverts, with longer, even more detailed remixes and rectrices.

The wing feathers have a realistic striped pattern, with dark tips and dark blue, iridescent looking coverts (studies indicate that at least some of these coverts had dark pigment in real life). The distal primaries have an odd bend or curvature, probably to imply a dynamic flapping motion with the pose, and overall the wings should be a bit more rounded, with longer proximal primaries. As it stands, the proximal primaries are shorter than the distal secondaries, giving the wing a somewhat high aspect ratio more like that of Microraptor or Confuciusornis. The hands themselves are ok, but a mixed bag overall. The fingers are unfeathered, which is unlikely, but the model doesn't suffer from Wing Hand Syndrome, the fingers appear to be the correct length, and the model even has the minor digit crossing under the major as seen in many fossils. However, the second digit is only connected to the primaries along its most proximal phalanx instead of attaching to near the tip as i the fossils. There is no alula though, which may be an inaccuracy unless Microraptor evolved its alula independently of birds. The coverts are not unusually long as has recently been suggested, but this is controversial anyway. There are long feathers coming from the humerus, and these could be interpreted as (possibly inaccurate) tertials. Individually, they are sculpted to look like contour feathers or coverts, which is what most tertials are anyway, but might bring it more in line with the fossil evidence.

The leg feathers are shaggy, but not quite as long and hawk-like as would be accurate. There are no metatarsal or toe feathers, and though there's no direct evidence for these, they may have been present as Archaeopteryx is bracketed on both sides by fuzzy feet (Anchiornis and Sapeornis). There likely would not have been broad foot scales, as recently discussed on this blog ("recently" as measured in New Parent Time, which is similar to Geologic Time). Archaeopteryx also notoriously has a hyperextendible second toe, similar to the closely related troodontids and dromaeosaurids, which is not depicted here. However I'm not sure if the toe would necessarily have been habitually carried off the ground as in "deinonychosaurs", since the second claw was not much bigger than the others. Wither way, the hyperextended toe is not included in this model. The second claw on the right foot does look a tiny bit larger than the others, but so does the fourth toe on the other foot, so this is either a coincidence or they mistakenly put the sickle claw on the wrong side of one foot! As a side note, the underside of the feet doesn't have any textured detail, but they are not flat either, and have slight toe pad contours. Nice touch!

So, there are few glaring errors here (most notable general wing shape) and a few more subtle ones (scaly throat and metatarsals), but overall this is an excellent figure and arguable the most accurate one Papo has ever done, though their Dimetrodon also looks pretty good. It's certainly one of the best (if one of the only) proto-bird figurines available, and in terms of detail and accuracy easily surpasses most of the Carnegie feathered dinosaurs. For the paleo bird nerd, this is probably the first mass-market toy that's a must-have.


  1. I have to give Papo kudos, too, for not having one of those Dilophosaurus frill monstrosities.

    1. True. Their dilophosaur is far, far from accurate, but at least it's not another JP knockoff.

  2. Could you send a picture or something relating to the alula on Microraptor? I have not noticed one on any photos of fossils that I've seen.