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Peek Into Tiny Crime Scenes Hand-Built by an Obsessed Millionaire

At first glance, the miniatures in the Maryland medical examiner’s office look like ordinary dollhouses. But look inside, and each is a carefully crafted crime scene, right down to the tiny murder weapons and minuscule clues.

And it’s all based on true crimes. Frances Glessner Lee, heir to International Harvester’s tractor and farm equipment fortune, was transfixed by criminal investigations. Much to her family’s dismay, she spent much of her life—and a small fortune—building dioramas depicting the scenes of real crimes in New England, incorporating evidence that’s still used to train investigators in crime scene analysis. Even today, the clues woven into her dioramas are closely guarded secrets.

Glessner Lee called the scenes Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, and she built them with a grand purpose: to elevate gumshoe cops into an elite squad of homicide detectives. She founded a department of legal medicine at Harvard and a weeklong seminar, still held annually in Baltimore, using the dioramas to teach the art of observation and the science of crime scene analysis.

(To see more of the dioramas, click through the gallery at the top of this story, with photos by National Geographic photographer Max Aguilera-Hellweg.)

Not only are the Nutshell dioramas still used to train investigators, but Glessner Lee overcame her outsider status to become a well-regarded criminalist of her day. Today she’s often called the “mother of forensic science.”  

She built the deathly dioramas in the 1940s and ‘50s on a scale of one inch to one foot, shrinking down details that she pulled from autopsy reports, police records, and witnesses—tempered with a dose of obfuscation. Sometimes she changed names and dates in her scene descriptions, and she took liberties with details that weren’t essential as evidence, such as wallpaper and decor. She spent as much on some of the miniatures as a full-size house cost at the time, says Bruce Goldfarb, executive assistant to the chief medical examiner of Maryland and de facto curator of the dioramas.

Glessner Lee built the dioramas from her home in New Hampshire, and mostly depicted crimes in New England. Here, a teenager was stabbed in a parsonage.
Glessner Lee built the dioramas from her home in New Hampshire, and mostly depicted crimes in New England. Here, a teenager was stabbed in a parsonage.
Photograph by Max Aguilera-Hellweg

“It couldn’t be toylike at all. They had to be as gritty and realistic as possible,” Goldfarb says.

In one, a woman lies dead in a bathtub, plastic water frozen in time as it streams across her face. Her home is shabby. The linoleum in front of the wooden commode is rubbed bare as if from years of use.

“What blows my mind is the boards under the sink are water-stained. It has no significance at all, but nothing escaped her observation,” says Goldfarb.

Glessner Lee’s attention to detail is legendary. Sometimes entire rooms were constructed that couldn’t even be seen without taking the diorama apart, and she once insisted, Goldfarb says, that a tiny rocking chair should rock the same number of times after being pushed as its full-size counterpart. “There was real plaster and lath; those walls have studs, and the doors are framed,” he says.

The dioramas speak not just to a macabre obsession, but to Glessner Lee’s passion for and fascination with the victims she depicted, many of which were women, in her 19 known dioramas (she’s thought to have made at least 20).

“This was a society woman, a millionairess, and it’s striking who’s portrayed,” says Goldfarb. “Most are marginalized, alcoholics or prostitutes—poor people living quite desperate lives. She chose to document the lives of people who were far removed from her social circles.”

Max Aguilera-Hellweg is the photographer who shot the images above for National Geographic’s July feature story on forensic science. His eerie photos spotlight the victims in the dioramas as well.

“I look at photography as mathematics, and this was using light and subtraction to reveal what’s important to me,” he says. No one is allowed to touch the fragile dioramas, so the photographer spent hours setting up each shot using tiny flashlights and positioning the camera to put the viewer inside the crime scenes.

As a former medical doctor who had declared death, Aguilera-Hellweg thought he had seen it all. He has photographed autopsies, surgeries, and dead bodies, but says he was shocked to learn of the Nutshell dioramas for the first time. “I didn’t know they existed,” he says.

After three days of staring at the scenes, Aguilera-Hellweg says he thinks he may have picked up on a few important clues. “What can the crime scene tell you by looking at what’s there? That what Frances Glessner Lee wanted to teach,” he says. “It’s all about the art of observation.”

Read more about the state of forensic science today in “How Science Is Putting a New Face on Crime Solving” and a companion quiz feature, “Can You Rule Out Suspects Using Faces Drawn From DNA?”

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Nudging Kids Into Wonder—Then Science

They never met, Rachel Carson and Cecilia Cruz.

Diptych of portrait of Rachel Carson and an illustration of Celia Cruz
(Left) Photograph by CBS Photo Archive, Contributor, Getty (Right) Illustration detail by Gavin Aung Than, Zen Pencils

Cecilia, as you’re about to learn, is a little girl who lives indoors. She doesn’t get out much, doesn’t want to, but she has a mom, and that mom coaxes her out the door, across the yard and onto a beach that looks….. totally empty, totally boring—and then, something happens. Something extraordinary.

Actually, reading this cartoon strip, two amazing things happen, or happened to me. The words come from Rachel Carson, the famous marine biologist and author of the world-changing Silent Spring. The text is only 340 or so words, lifted from an essay she wrote about taking her little nephew to explore woods and beaches. It’s about childhood wonder.

The opening spread of Rachel Carson's ''The Sense of Wonder''
Photograph by Becky Harlan

Carson writes well enough, but for me the real kick comes from Gavin Aung Than’s pictures. He’s an Australian illustrator, and he doesn’t change a word. But he improvises. Instead of a boy, Than draws a girl, an imaginary “Cecilia.” He substitutes the girl’s mother for Carson. And instead of woods and shells, he gives Cecilia a moment on the beach that thrills her and changes her life.

None of the scenes drawn here were in Carson’s head, but what Than has imagined is the graphic equivalent of a movie score—he enhances, he underlines, and every so often he gives her words a crazy, topsy-turvy joy. Maybe you’ll disagree. Why don’t you to take a look?

Comic illustrating words by Rachel Carson about encouraging a sense of wonder in children

Comic illustrating words by Rachel Carson about encouraging a sense of wonder in children
Comic by Gavin Aung Than, Zen Pencils

Than does a lot of these illustrated passages. His blog is called Zen Pencils. A few years ago, he was toiling away in an Australian ad agency, hating his job, hating his days, and I don’t know what broke him, but finally he said “enough,” sold his house, resigned his job, and decided to throw himself into this project, taking quotations (from presidents, scientists, statesmen, writers, celebrities) and annotating them with drawings. Now it’s a pair of books.

What he does is not translation; there’s nothing literal about his strips. He’s inventing, augmenting, reshaping. In the Carson passage, the mother worries that she doesn’t know enough to teach her child true things about nature. “It is not half so important to know,” Carson writes, “as to feel.”

So how does he sell that line? He shows us, wordlessly, all these little turtles heading off to sea, lit by a rising sun. Feelings follow. Later, he gives Cecilia a 500-pound swimming companion to keep her company. Yes, it’s sentimental. But hey, he’s got a brush in his hand, a mood in his head, and he knows how to make us see what those sentences are saying. Or what he thinks those sentences are saying.

As Carson suggests, science is a discipline. It needs data, numbers, replication, pattern. But to get there, to get started, scientists need astonishment, mystery, and an intuitive feel for beauty. So feelings matter. And Gavin Aung Than has a feel for feelings.

As good as the Rachel Carson strip is, I think my all-time favorite is Than’s take on a passage by Loony Tunes cartoonist Chuck Jones (of Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny fame) talking about his first few (horrible) days in art school, which was a total nightmare until his uncle gave him some simple, cool advice. This involves dancing. Much dancing. You’ll find it here.

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The Week’s Most Eerily Fascinating Stories

I can’t look away.

That’s the mark of an eerily fascinating story, and this week served up a pile of them. Whether it’s the clown who scaled a cemetery fence in Chicago and then stood waving very, very slowly to passersby, or the discovery of a snake with four little grasping “hands,” it just seemed like a creepier-than-average week. So here’s a little roundup of spooky science that had me riveted.

(OK, the scary clown has nothing to do with science, but I made you look.)

Art + Science

Artist Kate Clark does taxidermy with a twist: she molds human faces from clay and shapes an animal’s skin over the face to create surreal hybrid creatures.

“This is not in an effort to create a creature from fantasy or nightmares,” writes Kathryn Carlson on National Geographic’s photo blog PROOF.

VIDEO: Human-Looking Faces on Animal Bodies—Taxidermy as Art

Instead, the artist hopes to “confront the viewer with mankind’s innate connection with the animal kingdom by evoking empathy, curiosity, and, sometimes, discomfort,” she says.

It is uncomfortable. To be honest, the first word that popped into my head when I saw the kudu with a human face was “abomination.” But then I watched the video and looked more closely at the creatures, and I was entranced by their eerie beauty. Consider this: Clark uses recycled pelts—ones rejected for normal taxidermy—and turns them into art with a conservation message.

People are, in some sense, wired to seek out human faces (hence pareidolia, seeing faces in inanimate objects like the moon, or toast). And we relate to them. So maybe seeing a reflection of our own faces in animal form does evoke a stronger sense of empathy for animals. Try it yourself and see.

Creepy Animals

Behold Tetrapodophis in its leggy glory.
Credit: Julius Cstonyi.

The four-legged snake takes the prize this week. The strange fossil was discovered lurking in a drawer in a German museum and inspired many colorful exhortations from the scientist who found it (“Bloody hell!”), much to the delight of science journalists.

As our own Ed Yong described, if the animal is indeed a four-legged snake, it is the only one ever found. Its discover calls it the Archaeopteryx of the snake world, linking snakes and their lizard ancestors as Archaeopteryx linked birds with dinosaurs.

But is it even a snake? As Yong and others note, some scientists are not convinced. Maybe it’s an offshoot in one of many experiments in leglessness that reptiles have played out over the millenia. Either way, it’s an important find. “This is the single most extraordinary fossil that I’ve ever seen,” vertebrate paleontologist Bhart-Anjan Bhullar told Sid Perkins in Science. And the idea of a constrictor holding its prey with tiny feet is also pretty creep-tastic.

Also of note on the nightmare-animals beat: the plant that covers itself in insect corpses to attract bodyguards. It’s a “beneficial coating of death.”

Spooky Trick

The skeleton flower turns from white to clear when wet. As the flowers transform, pieces of petal appear to almost melt away, revealing white “bones” before the whole petal disappears.

Super cool, but how does it work?

I had trouble finding a satisfying explanation in short blog posts and videos, but here’s a paper that tells more. Jiale Yong and colleagues used the flowers as inspiration for new materials that turn clear underwater. “The color does not come from a natural white pigment; rather it results from the highly loose cell structure of the plant petals,” they write.

Here’s how it works. On a sunny day, light reflects off the interface between plant cells and air pockets between them, creating the white color. When it rains, water floods the spaces between cells and because light passes similarly through both the rainwater and the fluid in the plant cells (technically, they have about the same refractive index), the whole petal turns transparent!

Oh No, Not Dolls
Oh yes. Linda Rodriguez McRobbie has a long story on Smithsonian.com about the history of creepy dolls. It’s currently listed as the most popular story on the website, which says a lot about the concept of morbid curiosity.


The story traces some well-worn turf about the uncanny valley and movies featuring murderous playthings, but also points out some interesting research on whether the uncanny valley is real and on what creepiness really is: possibly a state of hyper-vigilance when faced with ambiguity. Or as McRobbie puts it, “If someone is acting outside of accepted social norms—standing too close, or staring, say—we become suspicious of their intentions. But in the absence of real evidence of a threat, we wait and in the meantime, call them creepy.”

Bonus: the story links to an article on the history and psychology of scary clowns. Heaven help us.

The Prehistoric Worlds of Julius Csotonyi

Paleontology is a kind of time travel. It isn’t quite as fast as Emmett Brown’s DeLorean or as swanky as the TARDIS, but standing on the vestiges of ancient environments, picking out remnants of prehistoric life, nevertheless allows us to see through the ages. Bit by bit, all those geological and biological pieces come together to let us trace images of what life was like during the distant past, and artist Julius Csotonyi is exceptionally talented at visualizing what lies at the intersection of science and speculation.

If you even have a passing interest in prehistoric life, you’re already familiar with Csotonyi’s art. He’s created detailed murals for museums around North America, contributed some of his work to Dinosaur Art, and frequently creates illustrations to announce new scientific discoveries – from many-horned dinosaurs to giant Arctic camels. But no matter how much of Csotonyi’s art you’ve seen, nothing compares to his new book, co-written and edited by Steve White, called The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi.

Csotonyi’s glossy new collection isn’t so much a gallery as a tour through life’s storied history. Starting with weird “fishapods” and other early oddities, the book leads readers through prehistoric time all the way up through the “Age of Mammals.” Every image has a unique feel. Csotonyi works in photo composites, digital paintings, and pencil, creating prehistoric depictions that range from photorealistic to detailed sketches that resemble slightly-hazy imaginings of these long-lost animals. And through it all, Csotonyi’s animals run, swim, breach, flap, chomp, skitter, and lope through the landscapes, giving the viewer the impression that they’re really watching a prehistoric scene rather than an obedient dinosaur posing for the artist.

PaleoartCoverThe book itself is finely-printed. Csotonyi’s images have never looked crisper. This makes even old images look new, although, in some cases, it does highlight the current limitations of photocomposite illustration.

Some of the photocomposites, such as a portrait of the early human Ardipithecus, show a just the slightest disjunction between the animals and their background. This can throw ancient organisms into the uncanny valley. But when this technique works, as Csotonyi has become increasingly adept at doing, it takes a moment to even realize that an illustrated animal has been placed within a photographic proxy of a lost habitat.

And whether in photocomposite or pencil, Csotonyi’s greatest strength is considering animals as parts of their environments rather than gaudy prehistoric monsters. This attention to ecology creates some true stunners, such as a dome-headed Acrotholus dwarfed by a larger dinosaur track and a fluffy little Archeroraptor stealing a scrap from a carcass before a grumpy tyrannosaur chases it away. Then again, the most stunning image in the entire book is a double-page spread of disembodied horned dinosaur heads, each detailed down to individual scales, which shows just how varied and strange these herbivores were.

This visual feast is supplemented by a smattering of text. Each illustration gets a rundown of basic stats – the kind of painting, who it was created for, what animals are featured – and others are paired with comments from the paleontologists who named the animals in question, short descriptions of the fossil creatures, or long explanations of how Csotonyi created the illustrations, the most striking example of the latter being a ground-up, fisheye view of a sauropod breaking down a tree. Some of this text is a bit too tiny, but otherwise the text helps amplify that message that Csotonyi is a prolific and skilled artist who is bringing some of the latest fossil finds to life.

In fact, more than a few of the dinosaurs featured in the book – such a the tyrannosaur Lythronax – were named within the last year. That means readers are likely to encounter animals they’ve never seen before, but it also speaks to how important paleoart has become in acquainting us to these animals. An image attached to a news report provides a first impression of creatures we’ll never see in life. Csotonyi is an expert at this kind of artistic introduction, giving us fleeting glimpses of lost worlds.

The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi by Julius Csotonyi and Steve White is out now.

“Lake That Turns Animals to Stone” Not so Deadly as Photos Suggest

If you’re a natural history fan and have been online at all this week, chances are you’ve seen photographer Nick Brandt’s stunning photos of mummified birds and bats along the shores of Tanzania’s Lake Natron. The gloomy images make the lake look like a living museum where animals fall into the water and immediately turn to stone. But as Brandt himself has noted, the images are more art than science, and these pictures obscure the resiliency of life in and around the lake.

As Brandt told New Scientist and other news sources, he collected the dead animals and posed them on their dark perches. The flamingos and bats didn’t really become petrified in place, as if calcified by ominous clouds of salt-filled smog. Nor are such carcasses totally unique. Dead pelicans, seagulls, and other birds take on a similar appearance as salt covers their bodies along the margins of the Great Salt Lake near my home. And, just like the Great Salt Lake, Lake Natron is hardly lifeless.

BoingBoing’s Maggie Koerth-Baker has already covered the peculiar fish that live in the alkaline waters of the strange lake. Even though the lake is particularly warm and salty, Koerth-Baker notes, algae within the lake supports a species of tilapia adapted to the unusual conditions. That’s not all. Lake Natron is also an essential breeding ground for the Lesser Flamingo.

The importance of Lake Natron to the Lesser Flamingo isn’t a secret. BBC natural history unit programs and even a Disney documentary have featured the flamingos who congregate in this picturesque place. Lake Natron is a hotspot for beautiful life. And for those animals that do become interred here, animals don’t immediately die and turn to stone upon touching the lake. Those that fall in and perish are exceptionally preserved by the salts that make the lake so unique, but the lake’s surface isn’t an aquatic equivalent of the Medusa’s gaze.

In some ways, Brandt’s photos mask the importance of Lake Natron to life in and around the body of water. For the Lesser Flamingo, Lake Natron is a singular, prime breeding site. That mating ground is now under threat from industry.

Lake Natron is such an attractive mating site for flamingos because the water stays low enough to prevent nest flooding but remains high enough that there’s a barrier between predators and the conical nests the birds build. Two developments threaten the birds. A dam and a soda ash extraction factory  will dramatically alter the ecology of the lake. The human activity may directly drive off the skittish birds, not to mention the ways both projects might alter the ecology of the water and mud the flamingos have come to rely upon. The spectacle the Lesser Flamingo puts on at Lake Natron may soon disappear. From the look of Brandt’s pictures, the place is already dead. Let’s hope his images are not a portent of what’s to become of this spectacular place.

Science Meets Speculation in All Your Yesterdays

Visions of prehistoric life require speculation. Ancient strata contain biological and geological clues to restore scenes from the deep past, but the task of the paleoartist is to arrange those scraps in an approximation of what life was really like. This requires as much imagination as science. Even the most exquisitely-preserved fossils can leave out details such as color, behavior, and the ecological role of the organism, all of which must be reconstructed according to an artist’s own particular style. As a result, paleoartists have often hewn as closely as possible to the probable form and habits of their long-dead subjects to uphold accuracy, but a new movement is seeking to push beyond traditional boundaries into the whimsically speculative.

Late last year, the collaborative team of John Conway, C.M. Kosemen, Darren Naish and Scott Harman published All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals. The project’s aim was to imagine fossil creatures sleeping, playing, hiding, and otherwise engaging in activities different from the “prehistory red in tooth and claw treatment” so often seen in books, documentaries, and museum displays. Most striking of all was the second half of the book in which Conway and Kosemen applied trends in paleoart – such as skin wrapped too tightly on bones – to modern animals to underscore the point that dinosaurs and other ancient animals were probably far stranger than anything we’ve been able to conceive. Now, almost a year after All Yesterdays debuted, Kosemen, Conway, and Naish are back with All Your Yesterdays – an anthology of pieces from various artists inspired by unseen prehistoric possibilities.

All Your Yesterdays, an anthology of speculative paleoart.
All Your Yesterdays, an anthology of speculative paleoart.

Because the book is a gallery created by disparate artists, All Your Yesterdays is more uneven than the original. Some of the illustrations – such as Alvaro Rozalen’s nocturnal rendition of the little dinosaur Epidexipteryx, Geunhong Pius Park’s plump version of the mosasaur Clidastes velox, and Rodrigo Vega’s snouty, swimming Spinosaurus – are just as stunning as anything in the original, but other entries are not quite as polished. All Your Yesterdays also runs a wider range of material between the scientifically speculative and the silly. Lew Lashmit contributed a fictional, oldschool vision of the long-clawed Therizinosaurus as a dinosaur that farmed for tubers, Mike Keesey turned the little-known prehistoric human from Denisova into an Abominable snowman, and Simon Roy envisioned a cyclops based on elephant bones, drawn from an actual connection between Greek mythology and fossils.

But such fanciful departures are relatively rare. With dinosaurs dominating the show, All Your Yesterdays purveys a slew of unique prehistoric vignettes that push behaviors seen among modern animals far back into the past. Vitaly Melnik’s shaggy pachycephalosaurs duel with speculative horns growing from their thickened skull domes, the pterosaur Dsungaripterus echoes the behavior of living bearded vultures in Andrew Dutt’s “Bones Away”, and Joschua Knuppe’s Heterodontosaurus defends itself with “a jet out foul-smelling feces.”

Filled with 180 pages of art and commentary, All Your Yesterdays presents a monumental amount of speculative artwork for fossil fans. That’s far more than I can do justice to here. But the book will certainly be a welcome addition to the library of anyone who grew up reading the speculative biology books of Dougal Dixon, such as After Man and The New Dinosaurs. And the traces of Dixon in All Your Yesterdays underscore the promise and pitfalls of the new paleoart movement.

A speculative vision of Allosaurus with an inflatable sac on its head, as seen in All Your Yesterdays. Art by John Conway.
A speculative vision of Allosaurus with an inflatable sac on its head, as seen in All Your Yesterdays. Art by John Conway.

While Dixon had some startlingly imaginative ideas – remember the Night Stalker? – he often took traits and behaviors from living animals and attributed those features to his speculative beasts. The Lank was a pterosaur molded into the form of a giraffe, down to the body coloration, for example, and his Vortex was a penguin fashioned into a baleen whale. In a similar way, the “All Yesterdays movement” has projected behaviors and appearances specific to modern species onto prehistoric life. Beautifully-illustrated by Raven Amos, a pair of Gorgosaurus court just like modern bowerbirds, a feathery Jinfengopteryx envisioned by H. Esdaile uses a stick as a tool as a extant crow would, little alvarezsaurs pick at the flesh of the hadrosaur Saurolophus in an oxpecker tribute by Oscar Mendez, and Bethany Vargeson’s adorable Ambulocetus couple are an Eocene echo of sea otters.

All of the illustrations I just mentioned are beautifully executed, and none are inherently wrong, yet they speak to the limits of our imagination. In speculative paleontology, there is always a pull to take what’s peculiar about the modern and impress that specific biological point of interest into the past. Thus prehistory becomes modernized, and the unique nature of ancient life can become obscured. There’s also the opposite danger of making fossil creatures so unlike anything alive today that they might as well be monsters or aliens. Modern biology greatly informs what we know about the past, but I’m wary of taking specific coloration or habits and projecting the modern world onto a past we know relatively little about. There is a crucial difference in finding inspiration in modern biology and outright copying.

Nevertheless, the point of the All Yesterdays movement is to challenge our perceptions of how prehistoric animals lived. Imagination is essential to paleontology, and even discarding an idea or vision as unlikely or impossible brings us a little closer to unraveling the lives of animals we’ll never get to see in the flesh. At its best, such art can even raise prehistoric potentials that science may be able to discern. Perhaps future study of preserved sabercat DNA will be able to ascertain whether some were totally black, as Carlos de Miguel Chaves suggests in his piece, and a combination of fossils and evolutionary logic may eventually allow researchers to explore the possibility of Mike Keesey’s disturbingly cute mother Dimetrodon suckling her young. After all, some speculative paleoart – such as sparsely-feathered dinosaurs that started to poke their way into popular publications during the 1970s and 80s – has later been found to hold more than a small grain of truth. Art is one of the playgrounds the paleontologically-minded have to play with ideas and visions unseen, and for that reason I’m glad All Yesterdays has inspired artists to go beyond convention to show us possibilities of prehistoric life unlike any seen before.

All Your Yesterdays is available through Irregular Books as a free download (with the option to donate).

[Top image by John Conway.]


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.

Drawing Tyrannosaurus – You’re Probably Doing it Wrong

The first Tyrannosaurus rex I ever met was horribly out of date. Propped upright in the Cretaceous dinosaur hall at the American Museum of Natural History, the snarling tyrant held the same tail-dragging pose that it had for the past eight decades, seemingly in defiance of paleontologists who were promoting an updated rendition of T. rex as a speedy killer with a more horizontally-oriented spine. The dinosaur’s new persona was struggling to subdue the old.

By 1994, the AMNH renovated their dinosaur halls and gave their T. rex a proper spinal adjustment. And the spectacular cinema dinosaurs of Jurassic Park instantly popularized the adjusted posture and supercharged nature of the tyrant. T. rex was not a tottering Godzilla wannabe. Yet, twenty years after Stan Winston’s dinosaurs tore up the screen and over four decades since the “Dinosaur Renaissance” sparked a major revision of the way we understand dinosaurs, the specter of the unbalanced T. rex  still clings to our imagination.

W.D. Matthew's reconstruction of Tyrannosaurus rex, showing the classic tail-dragging posture. This art appeared in H.F. Osborn's 1905 description of the dinosaur. Image from Wikipedia.
W.D. Matthew’s reconstruction of Tyrannosaurus rex, showing the classic tail-dragging posture. This art appeared in H.F. Osborn’s 1905 description of the dinosaur. Image from Wikipedia.

Ask an elementary school student to draw a T. rex, and they will probably depict the tyrant with a sloping back and drooping tail. College students are even more likely to make the same error. That’s what paleontologists Robert Ross, Don Duggan-Haas, and Warren Allmon found when they asked students to do just that in an effort to see how public perception of dinosaurs matches up with scientific understanding. Despite museum displays, carefully illustrated works of paleo art, and even blockbuster films, young students from elementary school to university envision the classic dinosaur in a pose that is strikingly similar to the reconstruction paleontologist William Diller Matthew drew over a century ago.

In the first illustration of a T. rex skeleton, published with the theropod’s initial description, the dinosaur’s spine sloped at an angle of 57°. Modern illustrations tend to depict the dinosaur with vertebral column held between 0 and 10° in respect to a flat surface. Most of the drawings by the sampled students didn’t even come close to the current representations. Within a sample of 111 Ithaca College undergraduates and 205 elementary to middle school students who visited the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, New York, students most often drew T. rex with a spinal angle of over 40°, with the college students being more likely to draw the dinosaur with the incorrect posture than precollege students. In the minds of some students, at least, T. rex is lagging a century behind the science.

T. rex at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History showing the updated, scientifically-accurate posture. Photo by ScottRobertAnselmo, image from Wikipedia.
T. rex at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History showing the updated, scientifically-accurate posture. Photo by ScottRobertAnselmo, image from Wikipedia.

Why should such a discrepancy exist? With the exception of a very few – such as the high-kicking T. rex at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science – reconstructions of the famous tyrant dinosaur in most of America’s major museums have been adjusted into more accurate poses, and modern T. rex have been stomping around movies and television documentaries for decades. Obviously the illustrations of precollege students involve a fair bit of imagination and artistic license – accuracy was not necessarily at the forefront of my mind when I scribbled dinosaurs in elementary art class – but why would university students taking a geology class be so far off the mark?

Ross and co-authors suspect that pop culture is the culprit. Despite scientific advances and some real outreach successes in updating the public image of dinosaurs, there’s a ton of dinosaur kitsch and crap out there that still presents T. rex circa 1905. Everything from cookie-cutters and cartoons to dinosaur-shaped chicken tenders and plush toys show T. rex in the wrong posture. Even “Buddy” from the popular kid’s show Dinosaur Train perpetuates the old T. rex imagery! Amazing, scientifically-accurate reconstructions and restorations of T. rex are totally swamped by oldschool images that establish the outline of what a dinosaur is from the time kids are first introduced to the prehistoric celebrities.

If you haven’t asked this already, by now you’re probably wondering why tyrannosaur posture matters. It seems a rather frivolous bit of dinosaurian arcana to get frustrated about. But even though this specific example might seem inconsequential, the trend Ross and colleagues found among the sampled students pinpoints a significant problem with the “deficit model” of science communication.

Comfortable assumptions to the contrary, the public is not some amorphous and empty vessel that will readily accept scientific knowledge as soon as they hear an expert speak. Some of the most pressing issues in science communication today are not going to be solved by more scientists simply speaking at greater length at at higher volume. The perpetually-broken back of T. rex in amateur art underscores the complexity of getting good science out to the public.

Not only have paleontologists and paleoartists been able to present up-to-date visions of T. rex in museum exhibits attended by millions each year, dinosaur experts have had great success at presenting their science through documentaries and even Hollywood films. Despite all this, though, everything from the toys museums sell to internet memes perpetuate discarded science. Getting people to understand something as simple as the way T. rex stood isn’t merely a matter of a paleontologist saying “This is the way the dinosaur looked” and the public responding “Huh. Ok. Thanks!” Scientific facts and imagery are intertwined with, and often compete with, pop culture tidbits that can distort even the simplest of findings. To replace those misunderstandings with what we know and how we know it, we must first identify how those misconceptions evolve. I doubt that awkward, wobbly T. rex are going to disappear anytime soon, but perhaps researchers can use these ungainly and incorrect dinosaurs as a springboard to explain how much more amazing  the real king of the tyrant dinosaurs was.


Ross, R., Duggan-Haas, D., Allmon, W. 2013. The posture Tyrannosaurus rex: Why do student views lag behind the science? Journal of Geoscience Education. 61: 145-160

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The Art of the Insect

'bee veins' by Barrett Klein

Earlier this week I was tickled by a study about dancing insects. European honey bees perform a rump-shaking ‘waggle dance’ in order to tell their hivemates where they’ve found food. The new research showed that when the bees don’t get any sleep, their dance moves become spasmatic and repellent; they clear the floor like a drunk uncle at a wedding (see a video here).

I suspected that the lead researcher, Barrett Klein, would be an interesting guy just based on the URL of his website — www.pupating.org — and I was right. He not only comes up with clever experiments to test Apis social interactions, but is an illustrator, sculptor and expert in ‘cultural entomology’: the study of how insects inch into human culture.