Dinosaurs Inside Out

Last year saw the publication of two of the most beautiful and significant paleoart books in recent memory – Dinosaur Art and All Yesterdays. Each in their own way, the books presented stunning scenes from the ancient past and explained the artistic decisions behind each piece. Yet while both books can be enjoyed by a variety of audiences, they are primarily geared towards older readers. That’s why I’m glad to see Catherine Thimmesh bring some of the same behind-the-scenes paleoart detail to her new young reader’s book Scaly, Spotted, Feathered, Frilled.

Scaly, Spotted, Feathered, Frilled by Catherine Thimmesh
Scaly, Spotted, Feathered, Frilled by Catherine Thimmesh

Paleontological grump that I can sometimes be, I’ve often lamented the profusion of Walking With Dinosaurs style of documentaries. Such shows can be a refreshing step away from field sites and lab benches in moderation, but computer-generated dinosaurs have overshadowed the science that explains how we’ve come to restore the animals so realistically. And while Thimmesh’s book focuses on paleoartists working in traditional media rather than documentaries, the lessons still apply to the general question of “How do we know what dinosaurs really looked like?” Thimmesh’s objective is to show how artists meld scientific fact and speculation to create visions that no human has ever seen.

Rather than acting as a “How to Draw a Non-Avian Dinosaur” guidebook, Scaly, Spotted, Feathered, Frilled uses the changing traditions of paleoart and the various creative questions illustrators face to explore the curious combination of science and art that brings dinosaurs to life. In a six page sequence, for example, Thimmesh covers the weird 19th century image of Iguanodon created by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, Charles R. Knight’s sluggish-looking Tyrannosaurus, and the major dinosaur image shift spurred by the switchblade-clawed Deinonychus to drive home the point the way we envision dinosaurs has always been bounded by our understanding of the fossil evidence at hand but allowed flexibility through hypotheses and the unknown. This sets up the rest of the book, wherein paleoartists discuss their craft.

Thimmesh is the book’s main narrator, but she weaves in points and perspectives from extraordinarily-talented paleoartists along the way. John Sibbick, Greg Paul, Mark Hallett, Tyler Keillor, and Sylvia and Stephen Czerkas explain the painstaking and deliberate process of taking animals often known only from incomplete skeletons and restoring them as realistically as possible while still keeping a sense of action and excitement. Paleoartists need to know anatomy and other scientific particulars as thoroughly as professional paleontologists do in order to figure out a dinosaur’s appropriate posture, musculature, behavior, and habitat. And even the one area where artists typically had free reign – coloration – has started to come into the realm of scientific evidence through the discovery that fossilized feathers retain clues as to what shades such plumage was in life. To draw non-avian dinosaurs, artistic excellence must be married to intricate scientific detail.

But as up-to-date as Thimmesh’s book is in many respects, there is one error of omission that is becoming increasingly frustrating to see. On page one, Thimmesh writes “[N]o one has ever laid eyes on a real dinosaur before.” Sure we have. Birds are living, feathery dinosaurs. They are just as much dinosaurs as bats are mammals. Thimmesh gives a brief nod to “the bird-dino relationship theory” in a caption on page 15, but that’s about all. Yet the realization that birds are truly surviving dinosaurs has provided artists with a wealth of new information from anatomy, behavior, and coloration to draw from. Thimmesh isn’t the only author to consider “dinosaur” to be synonymous with “non-avian dinosaur”, but this traditional disjunction ultimately hides evolutionary fact and exciting new science. From here on out, whoever wishes to write books on dinosaurs must find their own way to grapple with the reality that some dinosaurs survived.

My gripe about tradition aside, however, Scaly, Spotted, Feathered, Frilled is an excellent primer for young dinosaur fans and aspiring paleoartists alike. That is, if those groups are separate – they’re usually one in the same. I spent plenty of long afternoons trying to bring dinosaurs to life with colored pencils and huge sheets of paper, but I never knew how to do more than imitate elements I liked from some of my favorite illustrations. I wish I had Thimmesh’s book during those days. Our understanding of what dinosaurs were really like will undoubtedly continue to change, but Scaly, Spotted, Feathered, Frilled highlights the techniques that have been passed down through generations to do justice to those Mesozoic celebrities that continue to spark our imagination.

14 thoughts on “Dinosaurs Inside Out

  1. It should be noted that most museum mounts like Carnotaurus above are artistic reconstructions combining casts from fossil material with sculpted elements. Even mounts that feature actual fossils (like Sue at the Field Museum) include reconstructed elements. Artistry is essential to vertebrate paleontology. And at least a couple of paleo artists have taken their anatomical expertise into creating novel hypotheses – with mixed success.

  2. Frustrated by people saying we haven’t seen dinosaurs, because birds are dinosaurs? Yet, how do you feel about the question “Did humans and dinosaurs live at the same time?” Eh? Feel a bit different about what we are going to commonly call dinosaurs now? Frustrated as you may be, is perhaps how sick I am of hearing dinobird enthusiasts whine when someone else shows they don’t wet their pants at the thought that birds can be considered living dinosaurs. And when someone writes anything like, “There are no apes that build structures with roofs,” are we really always going to have to add “except humans?” Can we not say that “no one has seen a living therapsid,” because mammals evolved from them? And how far back does this “you are your ancestor” thing go? When we list fish known to travel across land, must the mudskippers, snakeheads, and walking catfish be joined by “and of course, all the amphibians and their descendants”? I know of one author who has argued that we should consider ourselves to be fish ( http://www.amazon.com/Discovering-Fossil-Fishes-Henry-Reference/dp/0805043667/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1379795206&sr=1-2&keywords=Fossil+fishes ) For that matter, I do believe there are some people, including evolutionists who hold PhDs in relevant fields, who still doubt that birds evolved from dinosaurs. At any rate, it’s useful to make a distinction between the extinct dinosaurs and extinct feathered flying vertebrates of the early Mesozoic, and living birds.

  3. Good – I’m glad someone else beat me to the punch. “Birds are dinosaurs” is usually the claim of not necessarily the “non-scientist” but, rather, the “non-ornithologist.” Birds may have very well evolved from dinosaurs, but they are a world away from their ancestors. Birds have only one functioning ovary, no tail vertebra to speak of, legs that move very differently from dinosaurs, neck vertebrae that are extremely flexible, and an altogether different center of gravity as one recent paper noted – ALL birds are like this, not just some. You don’t have to do too much to modify an insectivore so that it becomes a bat; you have to do a lot more than that to make a human being from the same insectivore but you have to do waaaay more than than and completely overhaul a small theropod to make it a modern bird.

  4. Having once run a paleo-themed blog, I always bristle a little when somebody says “dinosaurs” to the exclusion of birds. However, I do also get sick of having to add “except birds” or use the not-easy-to-say “non-avian dinosaurs.” I’ve stopped correcting people, because people generally mean “non-avian dinosaurs.” And then when I jump in and say “except birds!” they say “well, okay, yeah.”

    I dunno. I’m of two minds on the matter.

  5. Jonny O, you have got to be kidding me. It’s perfectly acceptable for the layperson to distinguish between birds and non-avian dinosaurs because the latter aren’t important to their everyday lives, but it does ignore the reality that there is no clear-cut distinction between the two – they grade into each other. The book Switek criticizes glosses over this relationship despite its intended purpose of covering how we know what dinosaurs looked like. If the fact that birds *are* dinosaurs doesn’t inform us on this subject, I can’t imagine what could. If someone were to hand you a living small theropod, you’d probably mistake it for a modern bird at first, but you’d never mistake a bat or a human for anything else.

    Bump, the few guys that keep claiming dinosaurs are not birds basically ignore the mountain of evidence against them. See here for an example of why they’re wrong (the blog post title is sarcastic): http://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/2009/07/17/birds-cannot-be-dinosaurs/

    1. Thanks for the link, Chelydra, but it largely reinforces my perception that this is a very emotional, subjective argument and “the mountain of evidence” is largely due to the popularity of one view, and their … I feel I could almost use the word “hatred” for even one bit of evidence that might weight against their beloved “knowledge” that birds are living dinosaurs. It’s easy to get the evidence on your side when you “re-examine” everything and declare it really fits your view and you’ve got the major publications and sheer numbers to drown out any criticism. The hypocrisy of snidely referring to a researcher’s _hypothesis_ when the whole field is nothing but a pile of hypotheses stood out, as did the criticism of using the media to popularize ideas with the general public. Wow, classic example of pot calling the kettle black. Then there’s the criticism of the peer-reviewing — as if there haven’t been numerous reports about the problems of peer-reviewing in general. But that’s the power of groupthink — WE are always okay (look at how many of us say so!) and our problems aren’t serious, but a for THEM, well…

      Your statement that a living small (oops, NON-AVIAN?) theropod wouldn’t be immediately distinguishable from birds as we know them shows how such a desire makes it easy to see everything compatibly, overlooking that a lot of people can tell a lot of living birds apart at a glance, a long-tailed birdlike dinosaur (or dinosaur-like ‘bird’) with fuzz and maybe a few ornamental feathers would stand out from modern birds even to a 12-year-old.

  6. Chelydra – that’s my point: it’s not just the lay person that is making this distinction. Two very recently published papers analyzed the morphometrics of the whole dino-bird line and they both came to the same conclusion: there is a crossover roughly 90 million years ago wherein the bird line seems to have become distinct morphologically (by virtue of its unique traits like center of gravity and limb ratios). One of those very papers was mentioned on another of these Nat-Geo blogs but no one seemed to respond because the math-based analysis “flew” over the heads of most non-scientific readers (as well as writers). Yes – this is what happening (finally) in the paleo-trenches: scientists are diligently documenting how distinct birds are from dinosaurs. The notion that “birds are dinosaurs” overlooks all the various offshoots of the presumed ancestral theropod line that developed into bird-like creatures (“Confuciusornis” is one obvious example – no way would you mistake that for a theropod). Such a glib explanation also leads to the notion that somehow it is possible to just turn on a few “dormant” genes in a chicken embryo and end up with a dinosaur! No. The bottom line is that the oldest “modern bird” that so far has been unquestionably documented in the fossil record is “Vegavis” of the Late Cretaceous (near Antarctica). This bird has been identified as a member of the same family that includes ducks and geese, thus implicating waterfowl as the starting point for all the birds you see today. If you put “Vegavis” next to a small theropod, I doubt you’d confuse the two. I know I wouldn’t.

  7. Wow, I can’t believe we’re still arguing about the birds-are-dinosaurs thing. There’s no scientific question left, birds are the direct descendants of theropod dinosaurs. If you believe that clade-based nomenclature is a good thing, then birds are dinosaurs. If you don’t, then you can say pretty much anything you like, there’s no standard by which to judge. In fact, I might just declare right here that sauropods aren’t dinosaurs because they are so morphologically distinct. Counterpoints?

  8. The “birds are dinosaurs” perspective is voiced almost exclusively by those who have little to no intimate familiarity with birds – their biology, their physiology, their musculature, etc. – with most comparisons to dinosaurs being made using members of the passerine or raptor lines. This completely overlooks the fact that these lines are recent evolutionary forms while the more ancestral form of “modern bird” is far from that. I’ve already mentioned “Vegavis,” but there are also the much more ancient “Gansus yumenensis,” “Yixianornis,” “Yanornis,” etc. Even skeleton-wise, these creatures look distinct from the theropods that preceded them. Of course, if you don’t want to acknowledge these differences, I guess you could argue that a bird is a dinosaur and a dinosaur is an amphibian which is really a fish.

  9. Jonny O, to you actually understand the basis of phylogenetic nomenclature? You seem to be arguing the case that morphological differences between birds and other theropods mean they are not theropods. This is rejected by the majority of vertebrate palaeontologists as an arbitrary, unscientific way of classifying living organisms. Engage with this point, or you are simply arguing past the rest of us.

  10. Good points, but the descent of birds from dinosaurs is not really in question. T.H. Huxley suggested it as a hypothesis; but there was not enough information to judge it one way or another. The modern re-evaluation seems to have begun with the concept of “hot-blooded dinosaurs” when people noted that a cold-blooded critter sprawls while a warm-blooded one has the continuous muscular energy to stand, leading to very different placement of their legs. The larger dinosaurs leading to allosaurus show a series of changes, including hollow bones, that pre-adapted them to be birds, while other changes such as the ankle or foot joints were inherited as well. The evidence has been accumulating for thirty to forty years and really was clinched when we discovered fossils with protofeathers and feathers. However, it does seem that the earliest birds were waterfowl. Hesperornis was so adapted to penguin-like diving that it has no wings, just webbed hind feet.

    You are right that if dinosaurs are still around we are living with them now! Good point about the rhetoric: no, humans didn’t live with the giant sauropods; yes, dinosaurs persisted through the last 65 million years while mammals proliferated.

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