I’m a big nerd for dinosaurs, so I was really excited to write this post. Who doesn’t love dinosaurs? Imagining the Earth at a time when dinosaurs roamed has always been fascinating to me, and I am not alone. I recently checked out this cool book from my local library, which includes paleoart from John Conway and other artists:
I love John Conway’s unique portrayals of our prehistoric friends. His work is a unique critique on the field of paleoart, exploring the connection between art and science that is necessary when creating illustrations of dinosaurs. He presents some interesting new ideas about how these creatures may have looked.
Illustrating dinosaurs is both a science and an art. Paleoart is necessary for us to be able to understand their world, and it requires careful scientific investigation as well as some artistic speculation.
Most of the time, the only parts of the dinosaur that are fossilized are its bones. (There are, of course, exceptions. Recently, a perfectly preserved feathered dinosaur tail was found in a chunk of amber. Researchers have also found rare examples of preserved dinosaur skin.) Researchers can locate muscle attachments on dinosaur bones, and so we can roughly reconstruct the muscle structure of the dinosaur. However, it is very difficult to reconstruct the size of each individual muscle, or to know how much fat, loose skin, or other soft tissues were present. This is where the speculation comes into play. For example, how do we know that Parasaurolophus wasn’t this round?
Perhaps these Protoceratops climbed trees. Why not? Goats can climb trees, which we would not know based on their skeletons.
Perhaps the most speculative part of dinosaur paleoart is color, which is most certainly not fossilized. Paleoartists can use knowledge of the ecology of animals alive today to infer their color patterns, but almost no direct evidence exists. (Although there is this cool example of a way scientists have used a fancy microscope to determine the color of dinosaur feathers!) Some dinosaurs may have had brightly-colored crests to attract mates, similar to modern birds.
Maybe this little critter had a striped tail, like a lemur or raccoon.
All Yesterdays concludes with a section on “paleoart” reconstructions of modern animals. Conway has drawn them as if we only had their fossilized bones. This conclusion highlights some of the problems with a lot of paleoart. Believe it or not, this is a housecat:
Cats’ ears and lips are entirely soft tissue, an unlikely candidate for fossilization.
How about this “shrink-wrapped” cow:
Or this venomous baboon, straight out of your nightmares (This one is illustrated by C.M. Kosemen):
Finally, maybe we would determine that swans used their knife-like forelimbs (which, without feathers, we might not recognize as wings) to impale tadpoles (also illustrated by C. M. Kosemen):
While these illustrations may seem preposterous to us, they are not unlike the reconstructions of dinosaurs that we believe to be true. Artists often “shrink-wrap” dinosaurs, so that their skin clings tightly to their bones, lean with very little muscle. We also sensationalize images of dinosaurs, making them out to be vicious beasts, much like the creepy swans in the image above. Dinosaurs almost always appear in battle scenes or striking dramatic poses. In reality, even the most vicious predators only spent a small portion of their lives fighting, snarling, and breaking necks.
I’ll leave you with this image of a peaceful, sleeping Tyrannosaurus rex.
So, what now? What did dinosaurs really look like? We may never know the answer for sure, but we are surely on our way.
Special thanks to Bryan Bongey for editing and fact-checking this post for me!
Have a suggestion for an artist or topic I should write about? Comment on my “Suggestions” page!