National Geographic

Every tooth is correct. Every whisker is correct.

Remember the picture above? I used it in a post from last week about a team of scientists who had reconstructed the last ancestor of all placental mammals—that’s every human, monkey, bat, dolphin, lion, pangolin, shrew, antelope, and sloth.

The animal ended up looking like a furry-tailed shrew, which came as a surprise to absolutely no one. But far, far more went into this portrait than just “Paint something small, scurrying, and a bit like a shrew.”

To reconstruct their ancestral creature, the team studied 80 placentals, both living and extinct, and painstakingly analysing each one according to around 4,500 different anatomical traits. All of these details went into the reconstruction. Then, as with many palaeontology papers, the team turned to an artist to bring their work to vivid life. And as with many palaeontology papers, that artist was the great Carl Buell.

Palaeoartists—those who reconstruct dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasties—need to create vivid, evocative portraits that are still technically true to the creatures they are trying to depict. The latter task must have been especially demanding when a team of scientists spent 5 years reconstructing every single facet of that creature’s body.

After my piece came out, Carl sent me the following message on Facebook:

Hi Ed, I just wanted to thank you and National Geo for displaying the painting of the new placental mammal ancestor so nicely online. Yours was the ONLY image that was large enough to show all the work I did on that damn little thing.

The group I worked with on this worried about the size and placement of every cusp on every tooth, the texture of the hair, the placement of each and every chin and facial whisker, the number of pads and placement of pads on the feet… and the shape, size and hair on the ears. It’s a shame that newspaper publication size limits the ability to see the tremendous amount of work that went into the details.

So, I asked Carl for a really big version of his drawing, which you can open here. Just gawk at every agonisingly crafted detail. Every tooth is correct. Every whisker is correct.

There are 10 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Kim Harrell
    February 12, 2013

    Thank you for recognizing and acknowledging the often-ignored contribution scientific illustrators make to the understanding of science!

  2. Angela Winner
    February 12, 2013

    The larger format really puts a dramatic focus on the mammal. There is art in that composition, not just in the whiskers!

  3. Kurt Kohler
    February 12, 2013

    It’s interesting how primate-like the ears and feet look.

  4. Jerrold Alpern
    February 14, 2013

    That blown-up image is astounding! Carl, your are a MAGNIFICENT artist!

  5. Nathan Myers
    February 15, 2013

    Is that a bone underfoot? Is there a story about why that’s there and what it’s from?

  6. Randall Collura
    February 17, 2013

    Awesome work Carl! The big version wonderful!

  7. Mike Ryan
    May 15, 2013

    Carl Buell is definitely my favorite! I love that art.

  8. Wayne Terwilliger
    February 22, 2014

    Carl, your name came up as we were reading one of your brother Bill’s articles in the newspaper. Having seen some of your work I wanted to show my wife a sample and this one came up. I remain in awe of your artistic talents. All the best !
    Wayne Terwilliger

  9. Marc Ericksen
    March 19, 2014

    Carl, I’m using this as a link in my write up about our days at the studio in North Beach. Check it out at retrogameart.com. tomorrow.

    I’ll be calling soon old friend, as always your work is superlative, and classically informed. I miss your days as a crazed UDT thug though;)

    Cheers, Marc

  10. Vince
    March 22, 2014

    Does anyone have a phone number for Carl Buell – I have been emailing him for two months with no reply

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