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    Two giant azhdarchids, Arambourgiania philadelphiae, attempt to portion a troodontid. The troodontid objects.
    When people talk about giant azhdarchid pterosaurs (odds are most readers of this blog don't need an introduction to azhdarchids, but if you do, click here) they typically mention two taxa. The first is Quetzalcoatlus northropi, a giant Texan pterosaur discovered in the 1970s and now one of the most famous pterosaurs of all (Lawson 1975, Langston 1981). The second is Hatzegopteryx thambema, a relatively robust giant discovered in the 1990s and initially - because of its size and reinforced bone construction - thought to be a giant predatory dinosaur (see Buffetaut et al. 2003). From internet forums to TV show producers, if you want to chat about giant pterosaurs, these species are your most likely subjects.

    Many readers will be aware that these aren't the only giant azhdarchids, however. The record of these animals cannot be described as extensive, but it is sufficient to indicate that they were present across most of the world and probably not particularly rare in Late Cretaceous ecosystems. But most fossils of giant azhdarchids are unnameable on account of being too fragmentary, being represented by parts of undiagnostic anatomy, or being too poorly preserved. This makes it all the more surprising that the third named giant azhdarchid doesn't get much attention: the Maastrichtian species Arambourgiania philadelphiae, known from several bones from phosphate mines in Jordan.

    I'm not sure why we generally overlook this giant. Perhaps it's because Arambourgiania - 'Arambourg's giant' - is one of those old-fashioned names which works better in translation than the original Greek. It certainly doesn't sound as evocative or exotic as Quetzalcoatlus or Hatzegopteryx. Moreover, it's the least known of the three named giants, being primarily represented by a long - 620 mm - cylindrical neck vertebra, and not much else. The other named giants are not well represented either, but we have more than a handful of bones for them, and they're represented by intuitively intriguing anatomies: giant wing skeletons, bits of skull and jaw and so on. But whatever the cause, there are reasons to consider our relative neglect of Arambourgiania as unwarranted. It may not be as well-known as Quetzalcoatlus, or as immediately intriguing as Hatzegopteryx, but if you're interested in giant azhdarchids (and, hey, who isn't?) you this animal deserves your attention just as much as the other species. Here are just three reasons why.


    History has been unkind to Arambourgiania

    We typically start the story of giant azhdarchid studies in the early 1970s and the discovery of Quetzalcoatlus, but Arambourgiania was found and described long before then. Indeed, it's among the first accounts of an azhdarchid in scientific literature. When exactly the first Arambourgiania material was unearthed remains mysterious - it was likely the late 1930s or early 1940s - but the holotype cervical vertebra emerged in a scientific paper in 1954 thanks to French palaeontologist Camille Arambourg. Five years later, he would name this bone Titanopteryx philadelphiae (Arambourg 1959), a title which would be modified to Arambourgiania in the 1980s once the preoccupation of Titanopteryx by a black fly became apparent.

    Aramboug misidentified this vertebra as being wing metacarpal of a large pterosaur (below). This might seem surprising - how do you confuse a vertebra for a wing bone? - but this tubular bone must have been a bizarre object to him. Consider that no-one in the 1950s had a clue what an azhdarchid was; that no-one imagined pterosaurs could have the incredibly long necks now known for azhdarchids; and that there weren't any pterosaur specialists at this time (pterosaur researchers collectively took a breather in the early-mid part of the 20th century, only really returning to work from the 1970s onwards). The vertebra itself is near-devoid of features we would expect from an axial element, with only the lightest development of typical vertebral processes, and it has a near circular cross section, a condition at odds with a typical pterosaur vertebra but pretty typical of limb bones. In the context of the time, wing metacarpal was not a silly suggestion.

    Despite his misidentification, Arambourg made one thing very clear in his reports: his animal was big. In both his 1954 and 1959 works he wrote that this bone, fragmentary as it was, clearly indicated an animal vastly superior in size to the 7 m wingspan Pteranodon, then considered the largest flying animal of all time. This is important: as early as the 1950s Arambourgiania was being interpreted as evidence that pterosaurs with wingspans rivalling small planes once existed.
    Arambourg's (1954) illustration of the Arambourgiania vertebra as a wing metacarpal.
    What Arambourg didn't do was elaborate on this point further: he made no fanfare about 'largest flying animal of all time' or whatever, though he might have been justified in doing so. I quite admire Arambourg's restraint in not running too far with the size of his giant: sometimes it's good to admit we don't have enough data to provide a full answer to certain questions, and given how bizarre this bone must have seemed he probably made the right call in being conservative. But his lack of excitement about his gigantic animal might explain why little fuss was made over Arambourgiania after the 1950s. The discovery of Quetzalcoatlus in the 1970s made the vertebral identification of the Arambourgiania holotype clear (Lawson 1975; Wellnhofer 1978), but no mention was made of its significant size compared to the then newly discovered Quetzalcoatlus vertebrae, nor its implication that giant azhdarchids were not only gigantic in wingspan, but must be enormous in neck proportions too.

    Other authors missed the significance of Arambourgiania too. For instance, when writing about giant pterosaur flight in 1974, Cherrie Bramwell and G.R. Whitfield stated that Pteranodon was the largest flier ever. Ross Stein's (1975) work on a similar topic provided the same fact, and Wellnhofer's (1978) review of Pterosauria made no mention of the size of Arambourgiania. It wasn't until the 1980s and 1990s that Arambourg's interpretations finally penetrated the pterosaur research zeitgeist, but by this time a flurry of media and scientific attention had made Quetzalcoatlus 'the' giant pterosaur. Arambourgiania would eventually get more dedicated scientific treatment - including wingspan estimates - in the mid 1990s (Frey and Martill 1996; Steel 1997; Martill et al. 1998), but this did little to elevate the status of Arambourg's work and his giant in the story of giant azhdarchid research.

    I have to admit that I'm as guilty as anyone in not been kind to Arambourgiania. In Witton (2010), a paper on the history of giant pterosaur discoveries, I didn't even feature it in this figure of 'world record' claims of pterosaur wingspans and equivalent standing heights. A, a 3 m span Andean condor (Vultur gryphus); B, 3 m span wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans); C, Marsh’s 1876 7.6 m span Pteranodon longiceps; D, Stoyanow’s 1936 (apocryphal, and never published in a peer reviewed journal) 10 m span Jurassic pterosaur; E, Harksen’s 1966 9.1 m span Pteranodon sternbergi (now considered too big - 6-7 m max is likely for Pteranodon); F, Lawson’s 1975 11 m span Quetzalcoatlus northropi; G, Buffetaut et al. (2002) 12 m span Hatzegopteryx thambema (probably a smidgen too large); H, another apocryphal giant, a 20 m wingspan form announced at the BA Festival of Science. I want to stress that this animal really, really doesn't exist. Humans used for scale are 1.75 m tall.
    Of course, it's easy to see why the 1970s discovery ofQuetzalcoatlus had the impact it did: the fossil material was better, it was announced in Science, and the Texan team did a lot of work to promote their discovery (indeed, there might be more information about Quetzalcoatlus in popular articles than in scientific papers...). By contrast, Arambourg presented Arambourgiania in a couple of very dry articles, published all his work on this animal in French*, and without fanfare. Needless to say, history is more likely to record the bigger splashes than the ripples on the pond, and Quetzalcoatlus made a big splash. But with hindsight, I think we can say that the sidelining of Arambourg's work in historic accounts and our frequent omission of Arambourgiania in discussions of these animals is something we should address. Arambourg was saying decades before anyone else that Arambourgiania was significantly bigger than Pteranodon, and we have to recognise the concept of 'truly' giant pterosaurs as his creation. We might have put numbers to his animals with our 10 m wingspan estimates and 200-250 kg mass predictions, but he put the concept on paper first. The fact he did this from such scant material, and at a time when our knowledge of pterosaur palaeontology was rusty, is impressive, and it really doesn't matter that he got a few things wrong. So yeah, from now on I'm saying that Arambourgiania - not Quetzalcoatlus - was, and always has been, the original giant azhdarchid, and that Arambourg knew this decades before anyone else.

    Predicted size and neckage of Arambourgiania next to a Masai giraffe and a human wife. C. Arambourg predicted this 20 years before anyone else, yet we rarely give him any credit for his insight.

    Arambourgiania is more than just a neck bone

    It's rarely mentioned that Arambourgiania is known from material other than just a gigantic neck bone: a smattering of other bones from the same Phosphate mines might - probably- pertain to the same species. These were re-discovered and outlined by Frey and Martill (1996), and comprise the proximal and distal end of first wing phalanx (below), and a heavily eroded bone interpreted as a second cervical vertebra. Given the uncertainty about their association with the holotype - remember that the circumstance of its collection are lost to history - Frey and Martill classified these as cf. Arambourgiania.

    Line drawing and reconstruction of the lesser seen cf. Arambourgiania first wing phalanx fragment (a, c-d). That's the wing phalanx of Quetzalcoatlus sp. in panel b. Scale bars equal 20 mm, which shows the cf. Arambourgiania bone as pretty darned big. From Frey and Martill (1996).
    There isn't that much which can be said about the additional cervical - it has some identifiable features, but it's a few flecks of broken bone and bumps of internal mould away from being a featureless tube. It's a little smaller in diameter than the big holotype vertebra, and much shorter. I'm not sure it should be considered as belonging to an animal of the same size as the holotype individual.

    The wing phalanx elements however, are more interesting. For one, they're enormous, and look proportionate to the holotype vertebra when juxtaposed in a skeletal reconstruction (below). If they're not from the same individual, they must be from a very similarly sized one. Frustratingly, the wing phalanx ends are broken in a way that hints at the bone shaft bone surviving to the modern day as well, but being lost in recent times.
    Arambourgiania (known elements in white, restored, hypothetical neck length of 2.6 m indicated by grey vertebrae) compared to Quetzalcoatlus sp. Note the chunky wing finger bones.

    It might be difficult to understand why these scraps of a wing bone are exciting, but they inform us of some fundamental aspects of giant azhdarchid anatomy and wing structure. There aren't many giant pterosaurs where we have recognisable wing and neck material from the same species so, however scrappy it might be, this is already useful material for building a picture of their proportions and appearance. From a functional perspective, they are interesting in showing that wing finger of Arambourgiania articulated with the metacarpal in exactly the same way as it did in smaller pterosaurs. This is good to know, as it confirms the notion that understanding the smaller azhdarchid species is our best route to fathoming the bigger ones. And of further mechanical note is that these elements show the wing finger as proportionally robust, with a big articular surface for the metacarpal/phalanx joint and a wide space for insertion of ligaments pulling the wing open in flight. Increased robustness is a sign of greater resistance to stresses and strains, and a good indication that Arambourgiania had scaled its wing bones to be flightworthy. This is an important counterpoint to proposals from some researchers that the extreme size of giant azhdarchids rendered them flightless. Of course, these scraps of wing bone don't tell us much about flight performance or style, but they are a good indication that flight of some kind was happening in these forms.

    The neck of Arambourgiania was a high point of tetrapod evolution, and we need to learn more about it

    Of course, we can't talk about Arambourgiania without mentioning its long, tubular neck skeleton. To appreciate it fully, we should outline some generalities of azhdarchid neck anatomy. Proportionally speaking, azhdarchids have some of the longest necks of any tetrapod, a feat all the more remarkable given several aspects of their head and neck skeleton. While the idea of their necks being made of nothing more than simple, near-featureless tubes is overstated, we can't escape the fact that the majority of the azhdarchid neck skeleton had highly reduced features: no big processes, no elongate cervical ribs, no complicated corporeal geometry. This means they had atypically reduced opportunities for muscle attachment and soft-tissue neck support, and they must have been doing something clever to keep their necks aloft - exactly what that was remains a mystery. Like all pterosaurs, azhdarchids also only had seven 'true' cervicals (cervicals eight and nine are 'dorsalised') so that their neck length largely had to stem from just a few bones. This can be seen as peculiar as other long necked reptiles tend to increase their cervical counts to aid elongating their necks, but azhdarchids made do with their ancestral condition. The job of the azhdarchid neck was a significant one: most long necked animals have proportionally small heads, but azhdarchid heads were enormous (see Quetzalcoatlus skeletal restoration, above) and, even allowing for pneumaticity, they probably represented a good chunk of their body mass. Indeed, azhdarchid skulls are big for any tetrapod, their jaws being about about three times longer than their bodies, and those of the giants are predicted as being among the longest of any terrestrial animals, ever. The fact these huge heads were atop these long, skinny neck skeletons is pretty remarkable. In my view we should consider the azhdarchid neck as a real marvel of evolution: these animals did some pretty amazing things with an outwardly simple approach, and achieved some pretty extreme anatomy using a seemingly maladapted to enlarging neck tissues.

    The 620 mm long holotype of Arambourgiania philadelphiae as illustrated by Martill et al. 1998. Top is ventral view, bottom is left lateral. Anterior is to the left of the image, scale bar is 100 mm. This bone is predicted to reach 770 mm when complete.
    Taking all these points and multiplying them across the Arambourgiania holotype cervical suggests this tubular bone is a pretty fantastic piece of anatomy. We can reconstruct the length of the holotype cervical (presumed to be a fifth, the longest bone in the neck) as 770 mm, and this translates to a neck length estimates of 3 m using scaling based on Quetzalcoatlus (Frey and Martill 1996), or 2.6 m using a range of azhdarchid necks (specifically lengths of cervicals III-VII - this from my an unpublished dataset). However you want to cut it, it's clear this was a very long-necked animal, perhaps up there with the longest necked of all non-sauropodan terrestrial animals (below). On top of this we have to put a big azhdarchid skull, which is going to be about 2-3 m long for a giant. If these estimates are correct, Arambourgiania would be loaded with 5 m of neck and head, and was supporting the whole lot with a small number of bones resembling packing tubes. It has to be regarded as one of the most 'extreme' tetrapod bodyplans known.

    Mike Taylor and Matt Wedel's (2013) take on the non-sauropod contest for longest tetrapod neck. It's a close call in my mind as to who wins out of Arambourgiania and a large Tanystropheus, but the important point is that Arambourgiania has an extremely long neck.
    So how did the neck of Arambourgiania work? How did a series of bony tubes support a 2-3 m long head? Where did the muscles attach to on the simple structure of cervical V? Full answers to these questions remain part of a broader mystery about the functionality of azhdarchid necks, and this is something that researchers are only just starting to address. But what we know of Arambourgiania is sufficient to give some provisional, partial insight here. The basic construction of the Arambourgiania cervical is basically similar to what we see in smaller azhdarchids, where large, stiffened joints between the neck bones helped support and reinforce the neck (artists: please stop drawing azhdarchids with S-shaped necks in flight!). But subtle modifications to its vertebrae likely enabled each element to grow to much greater lengths without failing. Most azhdarchid cervicals are dorsoventrally flattened, which makes them weakest against vertical loads. Most of the time, vertical loading is created by the weight of the neck and head, but it will also include any food being picked up. The Arambourgiania cervicals are expanded dorsoventrally to the extent that they are slightly taller than wide (Frey and Martill 1996), reinforcing them against vertical bending, and thus potentially able to support greater weights than their smaller cousins. Furthermore, in expanding the bone dimensions to a near circular cross section, and all the while retaining a characteristically thin pterosaurian bone wall, Arambourgiania likely had vertebrae more resistant to torsion and bending than those of the smaller forms.

    So counter-intuitive as it seems, making a neck out of tubes is a good way to produce a strong, long, lightweight skeleton, especially if it has to support heavy loads like a huge head. Pterosaurs used the same tactic to enhance their wings, and it seems azhdarchids - especially Arambourgiania - transferred some of these mechanical properties to their vertebral column. We can only guess at the exact proportions of the Arambourgiania head, but adaptations of its neck bones indicate it might have been just as large as those of its smaller cousins. While assessments like this are very basic and clearly only the tip of the iceberg as goes azhdarchid neck mechanics, they demonstrate that Arambourgiania is, and will continue to be, a critical species for understanding the neck proportions, mechanics and scaling of giant azhdarchids.

    So, what I'm saying is...

    These are just three reasons why we shouldn't be overlooking Arambourgiania when considering the largest pterosaurs. It might not have the sexiest name, and it might not be known from as many elements as the other named giants, but it has historic and anatomical significance that cannot, or should not, be eclipsed from other species. It's clearly an animal that needs to be brought back into the fold of popular science so, the next time giant azhdarchid pterosaurs come up in conversation, remember that there are three named giant species, not just those other two, and that forgotten, old-timer Arambourgiania still has plenty of things to tell us about giant azhdarchid palaeobiology.

    Coming really, really soon: you guys like pterosaurs, right?



    This bout of championing an old, somewhat forgotten dead reptile was sponsored by Patreon

    The paintings and words featured here are sponsored by the best people on the planet, my Patreon backers. Supporting my blog from $1 a month helps me produce researched and detailed articles with paintings to accompany them, and in return you get access to bonus blog content: additional commentary, in-progress sneak-previews of paintings, high-resolution artwork, and even free prints. Accompanying this post is an animation and discussion of the production of my Arambourgiania painting at the top of the post. Sign up today to access it and other exclusive content!

    References

    • Arambourg, C. (1954). Sur la presence dun pterosaurien gigantesque dans les phosphates de Joradanie. Comptes Rendus Hebdomadaires des Seances de l'Academie des Sciences, 238(1), 133-134.
    • Arambourg, C. (1959). Titanopteryx philadelphiae nov. gen., nov. sp., ptérosaurien géant. Notes et Mémoires sur le Moyen-Orient, 7, 229-234.
    • Bramwell, C. D., & Whitfield, G. R. (1974). Biomechanics of Pteranodon. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 267(890), 503-581.
    • Buffetaut, E., Grigorescu, D., & Csiki, Z. (2002). A new giant pterosaur with a robust skull from the latest Cretaceous of Romania. Naturwissenschaften, 89(4), 180-184.
    • Buffetaut, E., Grigorescu, D., & Csiki, Z. (2003). Giant azhdarchid pterosaurs from the terminal Cretaceous of Transylvania (western Romania). Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 217(1), 91-104.
    • Frey, E., & Martill, D. M. (1996). A reappraisal of Arambourgiania (Pterosauria, Pterodactyloidea): One of the world's largest flying animals. Neues Jahrbuch fur Geologie und Palaontologie-Abhandlungen, 199(2), 221-248.
    • Langston, W. (1981). Pterosaurs. Scientific American, 244, 122-136.
    • Lawson, D. A. (1975). Pterosaur from the Latest Cretaceous of West Texas. Discovery of the Largest Flying Creature. Science, 187: 947-948.
    • Martill, D. M., Frey, E., Sadaqah, R. M., & Khoury, H. N. (1998). Discovery of the holotype of the giant pterosaur Titanopteryx philadelphiae ARAUBOURG 1959, and the status of Arambourgiania and Quetzalcoatlus. Neues Jahrbuch fur Geologie und Palaontologie-Abhandlungen, 207(1), 57-76.
    • Steel, L., Martill, D.M., Kirk, J., Anders, A., Loveridge, R.F., Frey, E. J.G. Martin (1997). Arambourgiania philadelphiae: giant wings in small halls. The Geological Curator, 6(8): 305-313
    • Stein, R. S. (1975). Dynamic analysis of Pteranodon ingens: a reptilian adaptation to flight. Journal of Paleontology, 534-548.
    • Taylor, M. P., & Wedel, M. J. (2013). Why sauropods had long necks; and why giraffes have short necks. PeerJ, 1, e36.
    • Wellnhofer, P. 1978. Handbuch der Paläoherpetologie. Teil 19: Pterosauria. Gustav Fischer Verlag, Stuttgart. 82 pp.
    • Witton, M. P. (2010). Pteranodon and beyond: the history of giant pterosaurs from 1870 onwards. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 343(1), 313-323.

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    Finally, my long promised palaeoart book Recreating an Age of Reptiles is available from online retailers! Conceived as a short, 'how long can it take to publish a print-on-demand book where I have full control?' sort of project, today marks the end of the year of design, illustration and writing work it actually took to take this broad, palaeoart-led look at various parts of the Mesozoic. The result is a Letter page-sized (that's 21.59 x 27.94 cm) full-colour paperback with 108 pages of text and imagery, and over 90 bits of artwork. About 20% of the artwork has not been published anywhere before, at least not in entirety, and virtually none of the pictures have been featured in other publications. So if you're after some new entries on your palaeoart bookshelf, or hard copies of images of mine that you've seen around the internet, this might be the book for you. You can access a preview of the book interior via its page at Lulu.com.

    The opening spread of the azhdarchid pterosaur section. This is one of three sections featuring flying reptiles.
    The book is divided into a number of thematic sections based around animal clades, specifics of behaviour, or types of habitat. In selecting the art and generating new pieces for this project I tried to keep things varied and interesting. This is not a book dominated by any one particular type of animal, nor a tome where every picture shows prehistoric animals ripping each other's throats out (if, indeed, that can be said to feature at all). Dinosaur groups account for 50% of the book's content, with the rest taken up by mammal-like creatures, Crocodyliformes, Triassic archosauromorphs, pterosaurs and others. Many of the pictures show atypical behaviours such as burrowing, swimming, sleeping, falling over, shyness and nocturnality, and weather - rather than just variably coloured skies - plays an active role in a good number of illustrations. I'm not going to boast that "you've never seen the likes of this before!" but, presented as a collective, I hope it presents a nuanced take on Mesozoic palaeoartworks.

    Brontosmash! needs a double page spread.
    Although primarily an art book, I've tried to make this something worth reading too. Each picture is accompanied with details about the research, artistic decisions and researcher collaborations that informed their production. The book is bracketed by essays musing on aspects of the palaeoartistic process: how many ways we can reconstruct extinct animals without leaving the realm of scientific credibility; the role of artistic personality and biases in palaeoart; whether we constrain our art by adhering too tightly to familiar parts of science, and whether we should view the inevitable outdating of our work as positive or negative. While (hopefully) avoiding naval gazing, I've tried to outline some of my own inspirations and philosophy concerning palaeoart production throughout this text. We don't really discuss our individuality as palaeoartists very much - why we prefer certain colours or animal behaviour, why we choose certain compositions - but it's something I'm curious to hear more about from the palaeoart community, so I've shared some of my views in this book. It seems that discussing palaeoart as 'art' rather than a strictly illustrative or scientific endeavour seems like an important step to improving its standing and perceived value among its patrons.

    So, where can you buy it from, and how much is it?

    The cover price for Recreating an Age of Reptiles is £26, and it's available now, direct from Lulu.com (below). You can also buy it at all major online book stores (e.g. Amazon, Barnes and Noble etc.). But before you click the Amazon link, note that Lulu.com is, and will always be, the cheapest place to buy Recreating an Age of Reptiles. I've set a 5% discount at their store which means it's retailing for £24.70, not £26. I'll be honest about why I've set this incentive: major retailers take 50% of sale profits before the rest can be divided up among printers, publishers and authors, which means book authors are not left with much from their sales. Lulu offers the same shop service as anywhere else online (and you can pay with Paypal, too) and their service, in my experience, is swift and efficient - you should have the book within a week from ordering.

    There are other ways you can get a copy. One way is to support me on Patreon, a copy of the book being a reward for the highest support tier. This copy will be signed and doodled on if requested. If you have any requests for a small sketch in the front pages, please let me know when you place your order!

    The final way is to buy a signed and doodled copy through my website store. These are a bit more expensive than the unsigned copy, because there's two sets of shipping to factor (once to me, and then again to you) but hopefully not too steep at £30. These will be on sale any day now. As above, if you have any requests for a small sketch along with my signature please let me know when you place your order!

    I'll have more info and promotional material for the book here in a few days - in the meantime, if you have any comments or questions, be sure to ask them in the comment field below, on Facebook or Twitter (#RecARep is the Recreating an Age of Reptiles hashtag). And for those who buy the book, I hope you enjoy it!

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    Last week I put my new palaeoart book Recreating an Age of Reptiles on sale: you can see previews and buy copies here, and check out this post for some basic details.

    If you'd like a more in-depth introduction to the project and enjoy the experience of disembodied voices narrating over slides, why not make a cup of tea and watch this 24 minute book launch video? It features some of the new art, explains why the book has such an old-timey title, and outlines some of the palaeoart philosophising that takes place therein.


    To whet your appetite further, here's the full set of adverts that I put out for the book on Twitter. They set the tone for the book pretty well.






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    Minor update (06/07/16): Thanks to Andrea Cau, a few additional citations and points of discussion have been made below - the thrust and arguments of the post are the same, but the context is improved. Thanks Andrea!

    Hypuronector limnaios restored as a glider. Have palaeontologists been smoking something of variable legality, or is there some basis to this?
    Assuming you've reached level 5 of palaeontological geekdom you can't fail to know of the exceptionally weird Triassic clade Drepanosauromorpha. These generally small, long-bodied reptiles are largely, but not incontrovertibly, thought to nest at the base of Archosauromorpha (so between lizards and crocs in the landscape of modern animals) and are famous for their highly aberrant anatomy. Gracile, bird-like heads and necks sit atop long, robust and tubular bodies with deepened tails and stout limbs. The hands and feet are highly modified in each species, some bearing powerful claws, others having chameleon-like opposable digits. The end of their tails are modified into either grasping, prehensile organs or sharp hooks, these being interpreted as adaptions for anchoring the tail to vegetation or substrata. Exactly what drepanosaurs did for a living has long been a subject of discussion among academics, and they are nowadays generally considered arboreal or fossorial - or a blend of both. They're pretty awesome animals.

    Because the Triassic was evolution's drug-fuelled, rebellious college days, it can't be considered shocking to learn that there's a drepanosaur species which is to drepanosaurs what they are to everything else. This distinctive, strange, and controversial species is Hypuronector limnaios (above). Reasonably good fossils of this small (c. 12 cm long) animal have been known for decades from upper Triassic deposits of New Jersey, but it received its name only relatively recently (Colbert and Olsen 2001). Hypuronector is often regarded as a swimming creature because of its dorsoventrally expanded, 'leaf-shaped' tail which lacks a hooked or prehensile termination (Colbert and Olsen 2001). Its tail is remarkable for the enormous chevrons (prongs of bone projecting downwards from the underside of tail vertebrae) which extend far below and behind their vertebra of origin to create the majority of the tail depth and its 'leaf-like' profile. Some authors have likened the outline of the tail skeleton to the body shapes of gymntoid or gymnarchid fish and suggested that it propelled Hypuronector through the deep, freshwater lakes its fossils were buried in, perhaps in a newt- or crocodile-like fashion (Colbert and Olsen 2001). Although possessing unusually long legs relative to other drepanosaurs and swimming animals, it's been argued that these were also related to an aquatic lifestyle. Specifically, it's suggested that they held the long, deep tail off the ground during terrestrial bouts, the tail apparently being incapable of elevation at its base (Colbert and Olsen 2001). This aquatic Hypuronector hypothesis has been around for some time. The animal was informally known as the 'deep tailed swimmer' in the 1980s (Fraser and Renesto 2005) and this moniker was transferred more or less entirely to its scientific name in 2001: loosely translated, Hypuronector means 'deep-tailed lake swimmer'.

    Hypuronector limnaios skeletal reconstruction, from Renesto et al. 2010. Scale represents 10 mm.
    At first glance at least, none of this sounds too outlandish: the tail of Hypuronector certainly has an oar-like shape, and we all know that lateral undulation of a tail is the commonest means of water propulsion for vertebrates. But there are other interpretations of Hypuronector which suggest it may not have been a swimmer at all. These alternative views suggest it was more like other drepanosaurs in being suited to climbing but, more remarkably, possibly a glider (Renesto et al. 2010). Sharing early versions of my gliding drepanosaur art (above) suggests that the latter hypothesis is not well known, even among experts. However, I want to stress from the outset that this is not All Yesterdays-style artistic speculation or the bizarre opinion of a 'fringe' worker. Challenges to the aquatic Hypuronector concept and suggestions that Hypurnoector was a more 'typical' arboreal form have been made by several authors (e.g. Senter 2004; Spielmann et al. 2006; Renesto et al. 2010; Castielloa et al. 2015), and the notion that it may have been a glider has been raised on reasonable (if perhaps not yet conclusive) evidence (Renesto et al. 2010). It follows older suggestions that some drepanosaurids - Megalancosaurus specifically - were gliders (see below; Ruben 1998; Renesto 2000) and, though this all might seem bizarre, there is some genuine scientific basis to it.

    The aquatic Hypuronector hypothesis under scrutiny

    Aquatic drepanosaurs are were first proposed in the early 90s (Berman and Reisz 1992) and quickly received criticism from drepanosaur workers (see Renesto 2010 for history). Hypuronector perhaps remains the best candidate for an aquatic, or at least amphibious species because of its unusual tail, but somewhat ironically, it's actually this paddle-shaped organ which seems to be the main problem for this hypothesis.

    Holotype of Hypuronector limnaios, a partial skeleton with the 'paddle tail' (left), disarticulated torso and bits of limb and limb girdle. From Colbert and Olsen (2001).
    One thing we should address straight out is that the resemblance of the Hypuronector tail to the body of certain fishes is not a the best endorsement for swimming habits. Fish do not swim using their whole bodies (the front end of any undulating swimmers needs to be stiff), and the gymntoid or gymnarchid fish likened to the Hypuronector tail don't really move their bodies at all when swimming. Rather, they propel themselves with oscillations of long, low fins along the top of bottom of their bodies. Thus, they may be a poor shape analogue for a sculling organ, and we're better off looking at the fins and paddles of swimming animals, not their entire bodies, for clues about the aquatic potential of the Hypuronector tail.

    It stands to reason that Hypuronector would have swum like a crocodylian, newt or swimming lizard, where waves of lateral undulation in the tail generate forward thrust (Colbert and Olsen 2001). This requires tail anatomy which can accommodate a lot of lateral motion, and it's here that Renesto et al. (2010) suggest we hit a major issue. The caudal vertebrae of Hypuronector seem to permit some movement at the base and tip of the tail, but the mid-tail was pretty stiff. This is because the zygaopophyeses - processes of bone that overlap neighbouring vertebrae to guide their motion - are very long and have steep articular surfaces (below). In simple terms, they seem to have 'clamped' their adjacent vertebrae rather than - as expected for an undulatory tail swimmer - provided flat, horizontal surfaces for the vertebrae to slide over.

    Further rigidity is provided by those amazing chevrons (Renesto et al. 2010). These rearward-projecting bones underlie the articulations of the adjacent 7-8 vertebrae, meaning any lateral motion at the vertebral joints had to overcome the stiffness of the 7-8 bony rods hanging beneath them. Although thin bones are somewhat compliant and the Hypuronector chevrons may have been flexible to a degree, it's difficult to see their arrangement as optimised for sculling habits: they may made the tail more paddle shaped, but to obvious detriment of tail flexibility and sculling potential. Indeed, we have to note that this configuration is very similar to biological structures adapted to resist bending. Tetrapod wings are a good example: the arrangement of bat fingers, pterosaur structural fibres and bird feather shafts with respect to the wing bones echoes the chevron distribution in Hypuronector. By contrast, deep-tailed swimmers, like crocodylians and newts, have chevrons which are short, robust, and do not significantly underlie neighbouring vertebrae. They are ideal structures for anchoring tail musculature, increasing tail depth and not interfering with tail motion. I have to agree with Renesto et al. (2010) that the potential of the Hypuronector tail as a swimming organ seems limited.

    Hypuronector limnaios posterior trunk (left) and tail base (right) - note elevation of the latter with respect to the former, and the significant overlap of the zygapophyses. From Renesto et al. 2010, scale represents 10 mm.
    Of further relevance here are the limbs of Hypuronector, which do not have obvious aquatic signatures. Aquatic, or even semi-aquatic animals tend to have proportionally short, squat limbs, often with expanded, paddle-like bones. But the limbs of Hypuronector are elongate, gracile and hollow (Renesto et al. 2010). Its hands and feet are not well known and variably interpreted, but the elements we have suggest that they were not paddle-like. Colbert and Olsen (2001) proposed that the limbs of Hypuronector were long to lift the tail from the ground when it left the water, their work suggesting that the vertebral column was too stiff to lift the tail on its own. But this can be seen as problematic for three reasons. Firstly, as pointed out by Renesto et al. (2010), articulated fossils of Hypuronector show the tail arcing upwards with respect to the trunk vertebrae (above): this is not thought to be taphonomic or diagenetic distortion. Secondly, the forelimbs of Hypuronector are somewhat longer than the hindlimbs, which is perhaps the opposite of what we would expect if dragging the tail was a concern - surely the body would tilt backwards with this arrangement? Thirdly, since when did reptiles, aquatic or otherwise, care about dragging tails? We need to be careful that we're not providing 'empty support' for hypotheses by inventing problems for our fossil animals to solve.

    Maybe Hyperonector isn't 'the weirdo drepanosaur 'after all?

    Taken collectively, these points about tail shape, tail arthrology and limb size must be viewed as problematic for the aquatic Hypuronector hypothesis, and maybe we should see if there are other interpretations of Hypuronector lifestyle which are more in tune with its anatomy. A good strategy for understanding strange fossil animals is putting the controversial, weird bits of anatomy to the side and first focusing on the more reliably interpreted components. With that said, let's ignore the controversial tail of Hypuronector for a moment and look at its limbs, limb girdles and trunk anatomy. As with all drepanosaurs, the shoulder and hip bones of Hypuronector are very tall and somewhat reminiscent of the limb girdles of chameleons (Renesto et al. 2010). It is thought both limb sets were highly mobile, although the drepanosauromorph fusion of the pectoral girdle into one solid structure, as opposed to having two separate halves like chameleons, would limit forelimb reach somewhat. The limbs were likely held in a sprawling pose and, because the femora and humeri are greatly elongated, Hypuronector likely had a wide, stable base to walk and stand on.

    Bits and pieces of AMNH Hypuronctor specimens, including the only known cranial material (mandible, A-C) and the ventral view of a trunk and pectoral skeleton. Note the huge, curving ribs. From Renesto et al. 2010.
    Hypuronector lacks the large, fused vertebrae over the pectoral region that we see in other drepanosauromorphs, but given that these likely reflect increased forelimb muscle mass and a reinforced pectoral region for digging and prey-capture (Castielloa et al. 2015), this may not impact locomotor mechanics too much. The trunk of Hypuronector was evidently powerfully muscled all the same, the tall neural spines of the dorsal vertebrae and the presence of large, curving ribs along the entire torso suggesting large muscles enveloped most of the body.

    It can be seen that Hypuronector trunk and limb anatomy matches pretty well with what we see in other drepanosaurs: powerful torsos and mobile limbs that seem well suited to walking and climbing. We might view its limb elongation as an adaptation to climbing, the increased length of the upper limb segments simultaneously increasing stability and enhancing reach while also keeping the centre of mass close to the substrate. Perhaps more surprisingly, Hypuronector is also similar to other drepanosaurs in certain aspects of tail anatomy. Although its tail has a different overall shape and lacks the derived tail-tips of true drepanosaurids, it shares the specifics of drepanosaur tail motion - flexible base and tip, rigid mid-length - with the rest of the group (Renesto et al. 2010). So perhaps the tail of Hypuronector was just a simpler, oddly-shaped variant on the drepanosauromorph tail and used for similar purposes: stability when climbing (a simple prop can aid traction, balance and recovery from accident), a brace when rearing to dig and feed, or simply for showing off (Renesto et al. 2010).

    Putting these lines of evidence together, several authors have started to interpret Hypuronector as a more 'typical' drepanosaur, albeit a less-specialised species that lived like a modern arboreal lizard rather than a reptilian tree pangolin or pygmy anteater (Spielmann et al. 2006; Renesto et al. 2010). If this is true, we might view the shape of its tail as a mechanical red-herring, something which seems more important to Hypuronector behaviour than it actually was. Perhaps it had no more significance to locomotion and behaviour than do the cranial ornaments of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, structures which most now agree were more to do with communication and display than the mechanics of day-to-day life.

    Yes yes yes, but we're here for the gliding stuff

    Taking this idea of a climbing, generalist Hypuronector a step further, Renesto et al. (2010) note that there are several features of Hypuronector which might indicate it was a patagial glider - that is, an animal with membranes extending between its limbs to facilitate slower falls from elevated positions or glide between perches. The chief features of interest here are the the elongate limbs and, in particular, the forelimbs being as long, if not slightly longer, than the hindlimbs. This configuration is uncommon among reptiles. Well known reptiles with disproportionately long arms include canopy-browsing herbivorous dinosaurs, completely aquatic lineages like ichthyosaurs, derived sauropterygians and turtles, and flying animals like pterosaurs. It's clear that the former animals are playing an entirely different game to drepanosaurs, but the basic similarity between pterosaurs - small, gracile boned creatures which probably had climbing and gliding ancestors - and Hypuronector might be a little more intriguing. Forelimb elongation occurs again and again in patagially gliding tetrapods - pterosaurs, cologus, scaly tailed gliders etc. - and it's not unreasonable to wonder if the same phenomenon in Hypuronector betrays the presence of gliding membranes. The limb proportions of this species are not so extreme as to think it was an exemplar glider and able to travel long distances from vertical starts, but they may have housed membranes of sufficient size to cushion the fall of these small animals if they jumped or fell from high places. The deep, rounded shape of the tail becomes something to pay attention to here as well, it perhaps being well-shaped to help 'correct' a tumbling Hypuronector into the right posture for a steady glide.

    Which might have been handy if the initial glide trajectory was what glider pilots call 'less than ideal'
    As noted above, at least Megalancosaurus has been also posited as a potential glider in the past (Ruben 1998; Renesto 2000). These conversations were inspired (at least in part) by long-defunct (if you could ever really consider them credible!) ideas that birds may have had shared, close ancestry drepanosaurs or drepanosaur-like animals - let's quickly duck aqay further discussion of that. But why has the idea of gliding Megalancosaurus not caught on? Although not ruled out entirely (Renesto 2000), gliding doesn't seem to have stuck with this species because it its spiked tail, highly mobile wrists and ankles, and grasping appendages suggest it was quite highly adapted to climbing. While climbing and gliding are not incompatible, it also lacks features like the long, gracile limbs we would expect from flighted animals. The anatomy of Hypuronector, by contrast, is a little more generalised and ticks enough boxes in the glider column to think it could be possible.

    Of course, it's worth stressing that any gliding drepanosaur is hypothetical at this stage, but we should not take this as reason to dismiss the idea out of hand. In addition to the evidence mentioned above, consider that many, perhaps all drepanosauromorphs seem to have been climbers of one kind or another, and we know from extant faunas that the step from climbing to gliding is often a short one (Renesto 2000). It's really not crazy to think extinct lineages were any less able to develop gliding forms than our modern ones, and drepanosaurs were exapted for gliding flight in many ways. Their skulls had large brains and overlapping visual fields (Renesto and Dalla Vecchia 2005) (ideal for judging distance and processing flight data); they were generally small animals with hollow limb bones (lightweight); their torsos were stiffened and reinforced (aids stability); their limbs were powerfully muscled and highly mobile (control of aerofoils) and their deep, strong tails might be ideal rudders and stabilisers. And as bizarre as it may seem to be discussing the possibility of gliding in an animal only known from bones, recall that pterosaurs were identified as flying animals in the early 1800s long before we discovered fossil remains of their wing membranes: we can identify flying animals if we look carefully enough at their bones. The challenge now is to see if we can test these ideas, perhaps carefully comparing the limb anatomy and myological signatures of Hypuronector with other drepanosaurs, modelling the effects that crazy tail has on a falling animal and so on. We can also look for Renesto et al.'s membranes on Hypuronector fossils, examining them with UV light and being extra-careful when preparing future Hypuronector specimens: experience with other delicate reptile specimens shows that it helps to know where to expect soft tissue when removing matrix.

    So there we go, then: the Triassic, and drepanosaurs, might have just got even weirder/cooler/complicateder/more frustratinger than we all knew. I'm thinking we need to hang out in the Triassic even more in future blog posts - check out this label for previous conversations on Triassic topics. And note that my new art book, Recreating an Age of Reptiles, has several pages dedicated to Triassic animals - including Drepanosaurus.

    This blog glides on the gentle, supportive updrafts of Patreon

    The paintings and words featured here are sponsored by the organisms almost as awesome as Hypuronector: my Patreon backers. Supporting my blog from $1 a month helps me produce researched and detailed articles with paintings to accompany them, and in return you get access to bonus blog content: additional commentary, in-progress sneak-previews of paintings, high-resolution artwork, and even free prints. For this post, we'll be taking a look at a (currently unpublished) painting of a more familiar drepanosaurid.

    References

    • Berman, D. S., & Reisz, R. R. (1992). Dolabrosaurus aquatilis, a small lepidosauromorph reptile from the Upper Triassic Chinle Formation of north-central New Mexico. Journal of Paleontology, 66(06), 1001-1009.
    • Castiello, M., Renesto, S., & Bennett, S. C. (2015). The role of the forelimb in prey capture in the Late Triassic reptile Megalancosaurus (Diapsida, Drepanosauromorpha). Historical Biology, 1-11.
    • Colbert, E. H., & Olsen, P. E. (2001). A new and unusual aquatic reptile from the Lockatong Formation of New Jersey (Late Triassic, Newark Supergroup). American Museum Novitates, 1-24.
    • Fraser, Nicholas C., and Silvio Renesto. Additional drepanosaur elements from the Triassic fissure infills of Cromhall Quarry, England. Virginia Museum of Natural History, 2005.
    • Renesto, S. (2000). Bird-like head on a chameleon body: new specimens of the enigmatic diapsid reptile Megalancosaurus from the Late Triassic of Northern Italy. Rivista Italiana di Paleontologia e Stratigrafia (Research In Paleontology and Stratigraphy), 106(2).
    • Renesto, S., & Dalla Vecchia, F. M. (2005). The skull and lower jaw of the holotype of Megalancosaurus preonensis (Diapsida, Drepanosauridae) from the Upper Triassic of Northern Italy. Rivista Italiana di Paleontologia e Stratigrafia (Research In Paleontology and Stratigraphy), 111(2).
    • Renesto, S., Spielmann, J. A., Lucas, S. G., & Spagnoli, G. T. (2010). The taxonomy and paleobiology of the Late Triassic (Carnian-Norian: Adamanian-Apachean) drepnosaurs (Diapsida: Archosauromorpha: Drepanosauromorpha): Bulletin 46 (Vol. 46). New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.
    • Ruben, R. R. (1998). Gliding adaptations in the Triassic archosaur Megalancosaurus. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 18 (3), 73A.
    • Senter, P. (2004). Phylogeny of Drepanosauridae (Reptilia: Diapsida). Journal of Systematic Palaeontology, 2(3), 257-268.
    • Spielmann J. A., Renesto S. and Lucas S. G. (2006). The utility of claw curvature in assessing the arboreality of fossil reptiles.Bulletin of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science 37: 365-368.

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    Pteranodon longiceps, Pteranodon sp. or something else entirely? In recent years one of our most famous and abundant pterosaurs has been carved up into multiple species, but is this overzealous taxonomic splitting, or is there more to it than that?
    Writing about pterosaurs can be difficult because so much of their classification is disputed. The number of pterosaur species, their assignment to different groups, appropriate clade nomenclature and the arrangement of branches in the pterosaur tree are all contested, sometimes to polarising extents.
    A bastion of taxonomic stability in all this is Pteranodon, everyone's favourite giant, toothless Late Cretceous ornithocheiroid (or pteranodontoid) from interior regions of the United States. Known since the late 1860s, Pteranodon is one of the most substantially sampled of all pterosaurs and we now have well over 1100 specimens in museums around the world. This record stems from a relatively limited geographical area and is constrained stratigraphically to the Smoky Hill Chalk Member of the Niobrara Formation, with a smattering of fossils from the overlying Pierre Shale Group.

    A series of papers documenting Pteranodon anatomy, variation and stratigraphy, all penned by pterosaur expert S. Christopher Bennett during the 1980s-2000s, have made this pterosaur one of the best understood of all flying reptiles (perhaps the most important entries in this series are Bennett 1992, 1993, 1994, 2001a, 2001b). These publications are the result of examining several hundred Pteranodon specimens and are among the most significant and comprehensive contributions to pterosaur literature in modern times. I recommend them to any students of vertebrate palaeontology: even if you don't agree with their conclusions, they're great examples of clear writing, of hypotheses being established and tested, and of large amounts of data being presented clearly and logically.

    Skeletal restorations of P. longiceps male (the larger animal) and female morphs, based on Bennett (1992). Illustration from Witton (2013).
    For pterosaur workers, one of the most important outcomes of Bennett's work was a robust taxonomy for Pteranodon. This genus was once a polyspecific monster composed of 13 species, but Bennett (1994) whittled it down to two, stratigraphically segregated forms: the geologically older Pteranodon sternbergi and its direct descendent, Pteranodon longiceps (Bennett 1994). Measurements and observations of hundreds of Pteranodon fossils and detailed analysis of its growth regime suggested that most variation seen in Pteranodon samples resulted from sexual dimorphism (above), where (presumed) males are identical to females except for being 50% larger, bearing bigger headcrests and narrower pelves (Bennett 1992). We can recognise osteologically mature Pteranodon by details of skeletal fusion, bone texture and histological structure (Bennett 1993), thus allowing us to determine that the small, 'female' individuals were not just juveniles but, in fact, relatively small adults. Although sexual dimorphism had been proposed for pterosaurs previously, few studies went to such detail in making their case and Bennett's 1992 work stands as one of the better cases made for sexual dimorphism in a fossil reptile. This complex consideration of Pteranodon diversity can be viewed as a milestone in our modernisation of pterosaur research, it being a clear sign that pterosaur studies were maturing to the level attained by dinosaur or mammal vertebrate palaeontology in the 1980s and 1990s. This work has been uncontested for over a decade and subsequent studies have since found evidence for similar morphological trends in other pterosaur species. Hurrah, hooray and huzzah for Pteranodon, then, the pterosaur worker's faithful friend and our securest mast in a taxonomic storm.

    But then things got a complex

    Given the established status of Pteranodon taxonomy it came as something of surprise when, in 2010, a counterargument to Bennett's interpretation of Pteranodon was published. Another big name in modern pterosaur research, Alexander Kellner, proposed that Bennett's Pteranodon was in fact a 'complex' of at least four species (perhaps five) in three genera (Kellner 2010). Kellner's alternative scheme suggested that the giant, swollen-crested sternbergi was different enough from longiceps to warrant a separate genus, and resurrected the 'subgenus'Geosternbergia for this purpose (giving us the rather daft name Geosternbergia sternbergi). A second Geosternbergia species was proposed for a partial skull referred to P. longiceps by Bennett (1994), which Kellner named G. maiseyi.Another skull, this one with a broken crest but the best preserved rostrum of any giant Pteranodon specimen, was said to represent a third pteranodontid genus, the deep-snouted Dawndraco kanzai. Finally, although not naming a new taxon, Kellner (2010) singled out another P. longiceps specimen as being distinct from this species, arguing that this long-crested specimen has a crest which is too upright to be referred to longiceps: he referred this simply to Pteranodon sp. for now. You can see these skulls, and how they contrast with Bennett's older scheme, below.
    Differing interpretations of some important Pteranodon skulls. Blue text and panelling reflects the Bennett (1994) interpretation of Pteranodon skull taxonomy, green text shows where Kellner (2010) differs. Skull images borrowed from Bennett (1994).
    This might not seem like a big deal - after all, famous fossil speciesare carved up all the time - but this has implications beyond just having to learn a few new binomials. The presence of multiple genera in our 'Pteranodon'sample makes it difficult to classify the majority of Smoky Hill pterosaur material, and thus our thousand-strong Pteranodon catalogue mostly becomes Pteranodontidae incertae sedis, with a few named skulls. With that, the statistical support for our hypotheses of Pteranodon variation, growth and sexual dimorphism require reevaluation, because we've lost our grip on what animals those hundreds of measurements actually pertain to. For pterosaur workers, this is something to pay attention to: one of our 'cornerstone' taxa might not be the dependable, go-to reference pterosaur that we thought it was, and its palaeobiology may not be as well understood as previously considered.

    I've been asked about the 'Pteranodon complex' several times and thought it was time to share my thoughts here. I normally avoid talking about detailed taxonomy because I'm aware how dry it can be, but the Pteranodon controversy is pretty interesting. There are lot of strands of data to consider, some philosophising about palaeontology itself, and - if nothing else - the reality about the fossils behind Pteranodon might be of interest. This is only a summary of course - if you're interested, you really need to check out the papers cited below for the full details.


    How understanding hundreds of Pteranodon specimens hinges on a handful of important ones

    The holotype skull of Pteranodon longiceps, the only Pteranodon specimen which can be objectively referred to the genus. This skull is from a small (presumed female) morph. From Eaton 1910.
    Since at least Eaton (1910) it's been recognised that the majority of Pteranodon specimens are not diagnostic to specific level. Most Pteranodon fossils are bits of limb or scraps of bodies that can be identified as Pteranodon (or pteranodontid, if you prefer) but not much further. To know what species we're looking at we need the back of a skull, and ideally, a big one with a good amount of crest. One of the key points to stem from both Bennett's (1994) taxonomic review and Kellner's (2010) paper is that Pteranodon species are best differentiated by the orientation and shape of their headcrests. Bennett (1994) considered this in a fairly simple way: sternbergi has an upright and distally swollen crest, while longiceps has a more posteriorly directed, distally tapering one. These distinctions can be seen in smaller skulls, but are most obvious in the bigger ones. sternbergi and longiceps might also be distinguished by the orientation of the posterior skull margin (sternbergi being more upright than longiceps) and slenderness of the mandible (sternbergi being a touch shallower) but the crest shape and angle is the best way to tell these taxa apart.

    Bennett's characterisation may seem quite broad, maybe even simplistic, but there's a reason for that: no two Pteranodon crest specimens are entirely alike and none of our better, larger skull specimens are complete (below). We have some excellent and complete smaller skulls (above), and several incomplete large specimens, but any visage you see of a long skulled, long-crested Pteranodon fossil is an interpretation of fragmentary specimens. Bennett's (1994) taxonomy reflects this, using relatively broad characters to separate the species because the material ultimately offers limited scope for detailed comparison or augmentation with other characters. The fact that the crests differ somewhat within Bennett's species is explained by their likely role in visual communication rather than biomechanics (Bennett 1992; Tomkins et al. 2010): such structures are often far more variable in appearance, and sensitive to factors like ontogeny, than strictly 'functional' anatomies.
    Line drawings of important Pteranodon/pteranodontid skulls from Witton (2013). A, skull still referred to P. longiceps; B, isolated crest and part of the braincase region referred to either longiceps (Bennett 1994) or Pteranodon sp. (Kellner 2010); C, holotype of longiceps; D, holotype of Pteranodon (or Geosternbergia) sternbergi. Note the twisted posterior skull face in B and how little of the skull remains in D.
    Kellner (2010) argues that Bennett's interpretation accommodates too much morphological variation however, picking out several skull characters as sufficiently distinctive to warrant erecting new genera and species. The diagnoses for these new taxa are much more specific than those offered by Bennett, pertaining not only to crest shape and angle, but also size and shapes of skull bones, skull openings and rostrum morphology. Partly because these criteria are quite specific, these novel pteranodontids are currently represented by single specimens. And it's here that I think we hit a bump with the 'Pteranodon complex' hypothesis. The diagnoses are quite specific, and we have good reason to think a lot of the variation apparent in Pteranodon fossils is not taxonomic in origin. For instance, taphonomic damage and the significant crushing that affects all Pteranodon bones (most Pteranodon bones are reduced to thicknesses of mere millimetres) means no two Pteranodon skulls are identical, and many diagnostic characters suggested by Kellner (2010) - specifically those pertaining to bone lengths, fenestra sizes and so on - have yet to be demonstrated through illustrative or quantified means. We've yet to see the measurements, data tables or an illustrated series of Pteranodon skulls which show these features are atypical against a range of specimens, and thus suitable to base new taxa on.

    It's not just taphonomic and diagenetic effects which are of concern: there are palaeobiological trends to consider, too. For example, Kellner (2010) uses the breadth of the crest base as a diagnostic feature for both Dawndraco and G. maiseyi, noting that the former has a crest base located largely behind the eye socket, while the latter is expanded to erupt well in front of the orbital region. But Bennett (1994) gives reason to think that crest base size is linked to growth and size, not taxonomy. As can be seen above, there's a steady correlation between crest base size and skull size: larger skulls have much thicker crest bases extending far in front of the orbit than smaller skulls (Bennett 1994, 2001a). Although Kellner (2010) mentions that Dawndraco is a relatively mature specimen, and thus maybe unlikely to change its crest size, there's no discussion of the fact that the Dawndraco skull is quite a bit smaller than some other 'large'Pteranodon skulls (below). The fact this small skull has a smaller crest is, of course, consistent with Bennett's crest scaling hypothesis. Similarly, the wide-crested maiseyi skull meets Bennett's predictions that it should - as a big individual - also have a relatively large crest base.

    Dawndraco (red) is a bit of a wimp compared to the largest Pteranodon skulls. Black is the sternbergi holotype, blue is the maiseyi holotype. Note how the crest bases of the black and blue skulls are much broader than that of Dawndraco. Illustrations adapted from Bennett (1994).
    Some parts of the 'Pteranodon complex'hypothesis also face issues with specimen comparability. Some allegedly diagnostic features are based on very poorly understood aspects of Pteranodon anatomy, such as the relatively deep jaw of the Dawndraco skull. According to Kellner (2010) this rostrum is diagnostically deep and peculiarly shaped: this is certainly true when compared to complete smaller Pteranodon skulls, but no large Pteranodon has well-preserved jaws and we can't compare like-with-like. The best we can do is look at fragmentary remains, all of which suggest large Pteranodon also had deep, subparallel-sided jaws (below; Bennett 1994, 2001a). However, because none of these are associated with posterior skull remains, we can't gauge their depth in any context. This being the case, the fact that Dawndraco has the deepest rostrum known from a pteranodontid is of questionable significance: similar morphologies clearly existed in other Pteranodon, we just can tell if they're identical to Dawndraco or not. Similar issues occur when trying to fathom the significance of cranial crest shape and orientation for some unusually crested specimens. Many of these crests are only partly preserved, or not associated with substantial skull remains. As noted above, we have reason to think the context of the wider skull anatomy is important for interpreting crest anatomy, and this is reason for caution when it comes to erecting new pteranodontid taxa based on these specimens. Clearly, the issue here is that we have a huge amount of data for Pteranodon, but only a tiny part of it is taxonomically relevant, and only a fraction of that portion can be compared to a meaningful degree across a good number of specimens. Big sample sizes are meant to make things clearer in science, but for Pteranodon they seem to make things more complicated!

    The Dawndraco skull compared to fragmentary Pteranodon sp. jaw tips. Note how the subparallel dorsal and ventral margins and (predicted) Dawndracro overbite are present in other Pteranodon fossils. Note that some small Pteranodonhave overbites too. Drawings after Bennett (1994).

    Pteranodon stratigraphy and the significance (or not) of geological boundaries

    Both Bennett's and Kellner's taxonomies consider Pteranodon distribution through the Niobrara Formation and neighbouring rock units, but there are fundamental differences in how they treat this data. Bennett's (1994) approach sees morphology trump stratigraphy in that the ranges of his species are dictated wholly by specimen anatomy. This is essentially the approach typically taken by biostratigraphers, where it is considered (and relied upon) that species distribution is not linked to our designation of rock units. In this scheme, it doesn't matter where the specimen occurs, but what it looks like that matters. The fact that all the 'sternbergi morphs' occur at the base of the Smoky Hill Chalk Member, and all the 'longiceps morphs' occur at the top (and somewhat beyond - see below) is the basis for Bennett's (1994) idea that our Pteranodon sample is a single, evolving population which entered the fossil record as sternbergi, and left as longiceps. The fact that these species do not overlap can be viewed as helping the verify the Pteranodon chronospecies hypothesis.

    Kellner (2010) takes a different approach to stratigraphy, where provenance is a factor in the likelihood of a specimen being assigned distinct taxonomic status. A good chunk of Kellner (2010) is devoted to discussing the role of stratigraphy in taxonomy, it being argued that Pteranodon skulls found several levels away from each other were not contemporaries and thus cannot be reliably assessed for intraspecific variation. When this happens, taxonomic significance takes over as the most likely (or perhaps default) interpretation of morphological differences.

    Kellner (2010) makes specific mention of the fact that neither the Dawndraco or maiseyi skulls are from the same horizons as other Pteranodon type material (below). Particular attention is drawn to maiseyi, which comes from the Sharon Springs Formation: a unit two formations above the Niobrara Formation and its glut of Pteranodon material. Of this, Kellner states: "One could argue that the morphological differences of Geosternbergia maiseyi might be due to ontogeny, individual variation or even sexual dimorphism, but there is a considerable time gap between these [pteranodontid] species that never co-existed." (Kellner 2010, p. 1078). The implication here is that there is a stratigraphic limit to when similar-looking animals might be considered conspecific, and that morphological similarity is eventually overruled by provenance.

    Pteranodons in time - click to embiggen and see full details. Grey lines show distribution of key Pteranodon
    specimens, black lines show those associated with skull illustrations. Skull diagrams from Bennett (1994), data from Bennett (1994); Hargrave (2007) and Kellner (2010). These discussions touch on almost philosophical elements of palaeontological science, and I expect readers will differ as to which approach they think is most useful. Personally, I don't agree with the use of stratigraphy in taxonomic considerations. It's generally accepted that paleontology uses a morphology-based species concept (morphospecies) and, if that's the case, we have to stick by it. This means letting morphology dictate the ranges of fossil species and not deciding a priori that a span of time/extent of rock exceeds an acceptable 'species range'. For abundant, well-documented groups we may be able to bolster such concepts with a sense of their speciation frequency but, with rare fossils like pterosaurs, we know next to nothing about their evolutionary rates. And as unusual as it may seem for a pterosaur to span several formations, there are taxa that seem to do this (Anhanguera, Istiodactylus, Quetzalcoatlus, Rhamphorhynchus are well known examples). Moreover, plenty of other groups pay little attention to the stratigraphic boundaries that we set. Indeed, the whole science of biostratigraphy is is more or less founded on this fact: we can date the rock record using fossils because so many species do transcend stratigraphic boundaries. Stating that a fossil cannot be conspecific with another just because it occurs in younger or older rocks seems presumptuous and at odds with trying to understand evolutionary history.

    More specific concerns with the 'Pteranodon complex' approach to stratigraphy is that its perceived issue with Pteranodon ranges are not mirrored by those who work on other Niobrara Formation vertebrates. From fish to marine reptiles, it's widely thought that many Niobrara species persisted through big chunks of the three million year period recorded by the Smoky Hill Chalk Member and Pierre Shale Group (e.g. Everhart 2005; Carpenter 2008). If large swathes of the Smoky Hill Chalk fauna can survive over long periods of time, why can't Pteranodon species? It is noteworthy here that Hargrave (2007) identified new, potentially diagnostic Pteranodon longiceps bones from the Pierre Shale. If so, this bolsters older suggestions that longiceps occurs above the Niobrara Chalk (Kellner (2010) was unconvinced of their referral to longiceps, however). We might also note that the 'Pteranodon complex' taxa accord less with stratigraphy than alternatives, in that Geosternbergia disappears during the interval represented by the upper Smoky Hill Chalk and Gammon Ferruginous Formation, only to reappear in Sharon Springs beds. This is despite there being a higher number of skulls the upper Smoky Hill than any other Pteranodon bearing interval (Bennett 1994). This isn't an insurmountably complex distribution of course, but in terms of parsimony, Bennett's (1994) scheme must be seen as simpler and more congruent with stratigraphic data.

    'Pteranodon complex', or Pteranodon simple?

    Tying this all together, I hope it's clear that the 'Pteranodon complex' is quite a complicated issue, and one that will take some work to resolve one way or the other. I've had to skim over many of the details here, so be sure to read the papers cited herein if you'd like to read the full story. Many are available online.

    It would perhaps be remiss to outline all this without giving my own take on this shake up of Pteranodon taxonomy. In my 2013 book I said I preferred Bennett's (1994) scheme and followed it accordingly and, revisiting this debate several years later has not changed my mind. I stress that I'm not 'against' the idea of more Pteranodon species, just that - in my opinion - the evidence points to Pteranodon containing longiceps and sternbergi, and that these species are each others closest relatives and might as well stay congeneric in Pteranodon. For reasons outlined above I find the stratigraphic arguments about separating these taxa unconvincing, and I don't think the morphological arguments are developed enough yet to overturn those for synonymy.

    Concerning the specific taxa, the Dawndraco skull seems to be about right for a small 'male morph'P. sternbergi, and probably mostly seems atypical because of it's relatively completeness. Most large Pteranodon probably have those big rostra (you'll note that all my paintings of large Pteranodon, like that above and here, have this feature). What I've seen of its postcrania is extremely Pteranodon-like too, right down to its peculiar, highly characteristic tail (see Kellner 2010, p. 1074). I can appreciate why some folks might consider the maiseyi specimen a different taxon because of its seemingly unusual crest. However, the fact the leading crest edge is relatively complete but does not swell forwards means it is not particularly sternbergi-like, despite Kellner's (2010) suggestion that the maiseyi specimen is more closely related to sternbergi than anything else (Kellner 2010). Indeed, as preserved, the maiseyi crest meets the criteria of longiceps provided by Bennett (1994) as well as his predictions that it should have a huge crest base because of its large overall skull size. Moreover, the posterior and dorsal crest margins are broken: there is greater potential for the complete maiseyi crest to be more longiceps-like (longer, posteriorly directed) than sternbergi-like (tall, expanded forwards).

    As for the large longiceps crest referred to Pteranodonsp., the specimen is not only (and obviously) very incomplete but the crest base is badly deformed, and I find it difficult to orientate the specimen against other skulls to determine the crest angle. There are suggestions that the crest base is too tall over the orbit to be longiceps (Kellner 2010) but, again, this region seems to change a lot with size and this specimen seems to have belonged to a big skull (judging by the orbit proportions): this needs to be considered carefully. The crest shape itself is generally longiceps-like, of course, and I suspect this specimen is just a big, mature version of this species.

    So cheer up matey, you might not be a 'sp.' after all.
    Of course, all this is subject to change should new ideas and data on Pteranodon be published in future. I should close by saying that the 'Pteranodon complex hypothesis' will soon become the 'Pteranodon complex debate': several authors are working on technical follow ups to Kellner's (2010) paper and describing relevant specimens that have bearing on this topic. This matter, then, is far from closed, and it's going to be interesting to see how it pans out. Now that we have a 'primer' article, if and when new papers are published, perhaps we'll cover them here.

    This blog post on the 'Pteranodon complex' was made less complex because of support from Patreon

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    References

    • Bennett, S. C. (1992). Sexual dimorphism of Pteranodon and other pterosaurs, with comments on cranial crests. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 12(4), 422-434.
    • Bennett, S. C. (1993). The ontogeny of Pteranodon and other pterosaurs. Paleobiology, 19, 92-106.
    • Bennett, C. S. (1994). Taxonomy and systematics of the late Cretaceous pterosaur Pteranodon (Pterosauria, Pterodactyloidea). Occasional papers of the Natural History Museum. 169, 1-70
    • Bennett, S. C. (2001a). The osteology and functional morphology of the Late Cretaceous pterosaur Pteranodon Part I. General description of osteology. Palaeontographica Abteilung A, 1-112.
    • Bennett, S. C. (2001b). The Osteology and Functional Morphology of the Late Cretaceous Pterosaur Pteranodon Part II. Size and Functional Morphology. Palaeontographica Abteilung A, 113-153.
    • Carpenter, K. (2008). Vertebrate biostratigraphy of the Smoky Hill Chalk (Niobrara Formation) and the Sharon Springs Member (Pierre Shale). In High-Resolution Approaches in Stratigraphic Paleontology (pp. 421-437). Springer Netherlands.
    • Eaton, G. F. (1910). Osteology of Pteranodon. Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, Memoirs.
    • Everhart, M. J. (2005). Oceans of Kansas. Indiana University Press.
    • Hargrave, J. E. (2007). Pteranodon (Reptilia: Pterosauria): stratigraphic distribution and taphonomy in the lower Pierre Shale Group (Campanian), western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming. Geological Society of America Special Papers, 427, 215-225.
    • Kellner, A. W. (2010). Comments on the Pteranodontidae (Pterosauria, Pterodactyloidea) with the description of two new species. Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências, 82(4), 1063-1084.
    • Tomkins, J. L., LeBas, N. R., Witton, M. P., Martill, D. M., & Humphries, S. (2010). Positive allometry and the prehistory of sexual selection. The American Naturalist, 176(2), 141-148.
    • Witton, M. P. (2013). Pterosaurs: natural history, evolution, anatomy. Princeton University Press.

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    Giant, Oligocene rhinocerotoids Paraceratherium transouralicum engage in some early morning flirting. Because, in rhino speak, playing hard to get involves shoulder barges and head-butts.
    Depictions of the giant indricotherines, relatives of modern rhinoceros that lived across mid- and eastern Asia during the Oligocene, have varied over time. We've known about these animals - which are part of a longer-lived (Eocene-Miocene) indricotherine lineage that includes a number of smaller, almost okapi-or horse-like species - for over 100 years and they have become regular fixtures in museums, books and those rare documentaries which offer glimpses into ancient life outside of the Mesozoic. Any yet, when we think of our favourite indricothere paintings - including those by our most celebrated mammalian palaeoartists such as Knight, Burian, Anton, and Buell - they often differ markedly in their depiction of these 15-20 tonne animals. Most notably, their neck proportions, overall robustness, the development of a proboscis or trunk, and - most recently - the size of the ears are all inconsistent. Why are these animals so differently depicted, and should we rule out some of the anatomies we've seen in palaeoart in the last century? Having faced these questions recently when asked to restore this animal myself (above), I thought I'd share some of what I learned in my research here.

    The obligatory note on nomenclature

    It almost seems tradition that any article or paper on indricotherines requires an aside on their confused taxonomy. As has been the case for decades now, the taxonomy and systematic nomenclature of these giant rhinocerotoids are a matter of ongoing discussion. It is widely appreciated that several giant indricotherine species from roughly contemporaneous Oligocene Asian sediments can be identified, but how many species they represent, and how they are related to each other, is not clear. At least seven generic titles and many more species names have been given to the largest of these animals over the years (Indricotherium and Baluchitherium are perhaps the most famous generic labels), but some authors (e.g. Lucas and Sobus 1989, Prothero 2013) tidy all or most of these taxa into three species of the oldest established genus, Paraceratherium. Arguments persist, however, that at least one other, perhaps slightly smaller genus existed, Dzungariotherium (Qiu and Wang 2007). Geologically older indricotherine genera such as the Eocene Urtinotherium are also wrapped into these discussions as remains attributed to the Oligocene genera are sometimes argued as having greater affinity to these older taxa (Prothero 2013).

    This confusion is sometimes framed as a 'lumper/splitter' philosophical distinction, but it does not help that the fossil record of these giant rhinocerotoids is far from exemplar: giant indricotherine specimens can be fragmentary, of starkly contrasting size with one another, and many suffer from distortion. The fact that 20th century indricotherine science developed with Asian and American teams working largely in isolation, with limited access to certain specimens and literature, has also contributed to the confused history of this group. Those interested in the history of indricothere taxonomy should check out Prothero (2013) for an overview. For now, it will serve us to simply state that the best known, biggest and most famous of these animals currently resides as the taxonomic address of Paraceratherium transouralicum. This is the species most of us think of as 'the' giant indriotherine as well as the taxon that has carried both the Indricotherium and Baluchitherium label at one time or another. It's also the focus of most artwork of giant rhinoceratoids, and thus forms our primary interest here.

    Giant rhino, bulky giraffe or giant workhorse?

    One reason we see such variation in indricotherine appearance is that researchers have produced vastly different interpretations of its anatomy in the last 100 years. But unlike, say, dinosaurs, where older reconstructions have been (for the most part) abandoned in favour of newer, more accurate interpretations, educators and researchers continue to publish skeletal reconstructions published in the 20s and 30s despite our improved knowledge of indricotherine anatomy, documented criticisms of these older works, and the availability of more modern, theoretically better-informed reconstructions.

    Many readers may be aware that the first reconstruction of Paraceratherium, published by Osborn (1923a),showed a form not too far off a giant rhinoceros - a heavyset, short-necked animal with a deep torso and short legs. Osborn published a revised version almost immediately after his first effort, which had a much longer neck and longer legs thanks to data provided by additional fossil material (Osborn 1923b). A shorter-necked version was then produced by Granger and Gregory (1935, 1936), who scaled the remains of numerous, differently-sized individuals from a range of collections to create their robust, gigantic take on indricotherine anatomy. Although this reconstruction has been quite influential, Fortelius and Kappelman (1993) have been critical of the scaling methods used by Granger and Gregory, calling their interpretation 'a highly speculative creation indeed'.

    Paraceratherium has been variably reconstructed over the years, with particular disagreement over how long the neck was compared to the body. So far as I can tell, a consensus on the life appearance of these animals has yet to be reached.
    A third contrasting reconstruction was published a few decades later by Gromova (1959), based on a composite mounted skeleton in the Paleontological Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences. This reconstruction, executed by N. Yanshinova, was accompanied by several wonderful muscle and skin reconstructions which palaeoart fans will not want to miss. Both the mount and reconstruction show a gracile, giraffe-like form with a remarkably long neck and, in being based on a relatively complete set of giant indricotherine remains, some have argued it is a superior take on indricotherine anatomy than those produced by Osborn, or Granger and Gregory (Fortelius and Kappelman 1993). The most striking aspect of this reconstruction is its very long neck. We have to stress that this is extrapolated from a few incomplete cervicals associated with postcranial material, and its exact length remains uncertain - a complete set of neck bones remains elusive for Paraceratherium. This is another reconstruction which has been quite influential (helped, no doubt, by its apparent basis for the BBC's Walking with Beasts 'Indricotherium') but, again, it has not escaped criticism. Paul (1997) suggested that multiple aspects of this mount and reconstruction were erroneous, including the length of the neck, the size of the pelvis and depth of the ribcage, the length of the feet, and the ratio of the humerus and femur, as well as the fully erect posture of the limbs.

    And so we turn to another indricotherine skeletal reconstruction, produced by Paul (1997). This restoration incorporated data from the same specimens used in the efforts above and came out somewhat 'averaged' between the more heavyset restorations of the early 20th century and the gracile interpretation of the 1950s. It looks, in overall form, more like a giant workhorse than it does a giant rhino or bulky giraffe. Paul (1997) provides some discussion of the reconstruction process - this is worth a read if you're interested in the life appearance of Paraceratherium and its relatives. Paul's interpretation has, to my knowledge, escaped criticism to date and, to the contrary, Larramendi (2016) described this reconstruction as 'accurate', although did not elaborate on why it should be considered superior to older efforts.

    The million dollar question here is obvious: which one of these different takes on Paraceratherium is 'right'? To be honest, I'm not sure. The situation is compounded by the fact that a lot of indricotherine literature is obscure, that the specimens fragmentary and that many of them await description. I was hoping that Donald Prothero's recent (2013) book Rhinoceros Giants, which is solely dedicated to Paraceratherium, would provide some insight on this matter, but it's not a great help here - it provides no real evaluation on the different reconstructions and does not even mention Paul's 1997 effort. My work above is primarily based on Paul's (1997) skeletal but this is largely because of principle rather than real insight. Paul's work is the most modern and, of course, he's made a career out of reliably reconstructing extinct animals. The brief endorsement from Larramendi (2016) helps here too, of course, but a longer discussion of the relative merits and detriments of each interpretation would be useful. Opinions from others with more insight into this matter are welcome in the comments below.

    A tapir-like proboscis... on a rhino?

    Turning our attention to the face, did Paraceratherium and its relatives have relatively short-lipped faces like those of rhinos, or long, mobile proboscides like their more distant relatives, the tapirs? Despite mammal lips and nasal tissues being highly fleshly and thus only rarely entering the fossil record, this is a surprisingly easy question to answer. Whether rhino, tapir or anything else, a suite of osteological characters seem to correlate well with the presence of proboscides. Briefly summarised, these are: narrow snouts; retraction of the nasal openings towards the orbits; the presence of large muscle scars, bony knobs and other muscle attachment markers around the nasal opening (particularly in the dorsal region); retraction of the nasal bone (the 'roof' of of the nasal opening); deepening of the premaxillary bone (the bone making the jaw tip); anterior migration of the orbit; a large intraorbital canal (a foramen situated in the cheek region, just in front of the eye - it houses the nerves and blood vessels for our anterior face muscles); and strengthening of the posterior skull regions related to supporting the weight of the head on the neck (Wall 1980). Note that the criteria for elephant-like trunks are similar, but slightly different.

    Paraceratherium transouralicum (formerly Baluchitherium grangeri) skull in dorsal, lateral and ventral views. Note features around the skull anterior linked to proboscis development (see text). From Osborn (1923b).
    Paraceratherium skulls (above) meet these criteria well and, all else being equal, we have to say that yes, it looks likely that these giant rhinoceratoids had short proboscides in life, presumably to assist browsing from trees and bushes (Prothero 2013). The view that they had more typically rhinoceros-like faces is hard to defend in light of these cranial features: mammal skulls just don't have those retracted nasal openings, associated deep muscle scarring etc. unless they were doing something unusual and sophisticated with their upper lip and nasal tissues. The reality of giant indricotherines with dangly noses may seem hard to swallow for those of us used to shorter lipped versions, but given the relationships between rhinos and tapirs, the fact that some other fossil rhinocerotoids probably had proboscides as well (e.g. Wall 1980), and the independent development of long, flexible noses in numerous mammal lineages, we can't really see this as unusual. Moreover, we need to remember that modern rhinos are derived animals in their own right and separated from the indricotherine lineage by tens of millions of years. They aren't necessarily always going to be the best models for the life appearance of their fossil ancestors.

    And big, elephant-like ears, right?

    Finally, let's tackle the component that everyone now mentions about indricotheres since seeing the Carl Buell's cover art for Donald Prothero's Rhinoceros Giants:

    Indiana University Press.
    Yikes, elephant ears? For those of us familiar with the history of indricotheres in art, where their ears are restored as typically rhinoceros-like, this is a shocking, double-take image. Within the book, Prothero justifies the restoration:

    "...indricotheres were larger in body mass than any living elephant and almost certainly had problems regulating their body heat at such large size. Elephants must do all they can to increase the surface area of their bodies to release as much excess heat as possible, which is why they have huge fan-like ears full of blood vessels that are essentially giant radiators. Given the huge size of indricotheres, it seems likely that they too should have had elephant-like ears, or at least very large ears of some shape, much larger than they are usually drawn."
    Prothero, 2013, p. 90.

    The text continues to suggest that this appearance is not without anatomical support, the prominence of the mastoid and paroccipital processes (projections of bone situated behind the ear opening, adjacent to the posterior surface of the skull) being similar to the condition in certain elephants and mastodonts, and therefore indicative of large, flappy ears (Prothero 2013).

    I have mixed feelings about this reconstruction. I like it for two reasons. The first is that it's nice to see indricotheres being distanced from their depiction as giant, long-necked rhinoceroses - again, it's not unreasonable to think they may have looked quite different in to modern rhinocerotids in many aspects. I also like these ears for being an All Yesterdays-style speculation on soft-tissue adaptations in extinct species. If we can use this as an excuse to give fat stores to desert sauropods or fuzzy hides to Arctic ceratopsids, then we can give large ears to giant rhinoceratoids.

    On the other hand, I'm not convinced that they're as likely as Rhinoceros Giants suggests. It's clear from our modern fauna that ear size does not correlate with body mass in terrestrial mammals. By this logic many rhinos and giraffes should have proportionally large ears too, which they evidently do not. We also have to consider that even larger animals than indricotheres, dinosaurs, almost certainly got by without giant ears to help lose heat. And yes, while dinosaurs may have used different metabolic strategies to mammals, one inescapable consequence of giant size is a constant high body temperature. At least some investigations into the proportions of large dinosaurs suggest that development of their features - such as sauropod necks - were not driven by thermoregulatory pressures (Henderson 2013).

    We should also consider the unusual nature of elephant thermoregulation: they are not typical mammals when it comes to controlling body heat. For one, they're atypically compact compared to other large mammals because they have extremely short necks, giant, round heads, and big, rotund torsos. This is a suboptimal bauplan for thermoregulation because it minimises surface area with respect to volume, and thus reduces the available area for elephants to dump excess heat. Moreover, unlike most mammals, they lack sweat glands (Wright and Luck 1984), do not pant, and they live in climates which are so warm that for much of the day they cannot shed heat through simple convection, big ears or not (Weissenböck et al. 2012). Elephants can, of course, regulate their temperature, but they need to employ different strategies to the rest of us mammals. These include maintaining moist skin with mud bathing and trunk spraying (Wright and Luck 1984), maintaining a sparse set of body hair to aid thermal escape (Myhrvold et al. 2012), using heterothermy (Weissenböck et al. 2012), the development of 'thermal windows' in their skin (Weissenböck et al. 2010), having loose and highly wrinkled skin to boost surface area and - of course - fanning their blood-vessel rich ears to help lose heat, when ambient temperatures are low enough for this to make a difference.

    Silhouettes of the largest land mammals of all time, Paraceratherium transouralicum and Palaeoloxodon namadicus. Note the relatively gracile build of Paraceratherium - all the better for improving surface area:volume ratio, and thus superior for radiating heat. The numbers at the base of the image refer to estimated shoulder heights and tonnage. From Larramendi (2016).
    These facts suggest elephants should not be used as direct thermoregulatory models for a giant rhinoceratoid. Modern rhinos other perissodactyls are much more typical in their thermoregulatory approaches: they have sweat glands and use panting behaviours (Hiley 1977) as well as some special tactics, such as enhanced vascularisation in the skin folds of certain rhino species (Endo et al. 2009). We have to assume that indricotherines at least had these entry level perissodactyl adaptations and, if so, they would have an advantage over elephants in hot climates. Indricotherines also benefit from being more complicated in form than elephants. They have longer limbs and necks, as well as a proportionally smaller head, and this enhances their surface area:volume ratio. Again, makes them better adapted to cope with heat as they have a shape better suited to radiating excess body heat. And of course, there's no reason to assume this could not have been augmented with wrinkled or folded skin or sparse hair. The picture emerging from these points is that big ears are only one strategy that big animals may use to keep cool, and maybe one that will only arise in specific circumstances. The idea that indricotherines would have big ears just because of their size is far from certain.

    Basic muscle layout and trajectories (arrowed lines) of a modern horse. Note their superficial attachment and position high on the head - the ear canal itself is about halfway down the back of the skull. The 's' is the scutiform cartilage, which hangs out in front of the ear over the jaw muscles. From Goldfinger (2004).
    But isn't all this moot because of Prothero's (2013) observations about the mastoid and paroccipital processeses being expanded, and thus giving big ears something to hang off? I'm suspicious about the significance of this observation. So far as I can determine, neither the mastoid or paroccipital have anything to do with anchoring ear tissues in modern perissodactyls (or perhaps any mammal). This might be because in most mammals - primates being one obvious exception - the ear pinnae are vertically displaced from the ear canal and attach to the head via a series of muscles and cartilages at the top of the skull (above). Only select few of the ear muscles reach the skull directly and these anchor, with very small attachments, to the skull midline, dorsoposterior margin and zygomatic arch. The rest have no osteological connection at all, anchoring instead to cartilage, membranes overlying facial musculature, or even the side of saliva glands. The paraoccipital and mastoid processes do have important roles in the muscular system but these are to do with neck, jaw and tongue muscles, not ears. Thus, unless indrictotheres were doing something different to modern mammals, those particularly big processes behind their ear openings were probably more to do with supporting and moving the head than they were holding big ears, and may have little significance to the big-eared indricotherine hypothesis.

    So...

    Putting all this together, it seems that there might be less need for uncertainty about indricothere appearance than our various artworks suggest. We should be saying 'yes' to some sort of proboscis, and 'probably not' to big ears (or, at least, 'there's no reason for them'). The elephant (or, giant rhino, if you prefer) in the room is the proportion issue, and it would be good to see folks who really know rhinocerotoid anatomy pore over those various reconstructions to ascertain which (if any) are the best representation of indricotherine form.

    Next time: either the Next Big (but also kinda small) Thing in pterosaur research, or another trip to the Triassic.

    Big rhinos need big support - thank goodness for Patreon

    The paintings and words featured here are sponsored by another group of (metaphorically) giant mammals, my Patreon backers. Supporting my blog from $1 a month helps me produce researched and detailed articles with paintings to accompany them, and in return you get access to bonus blog content: additional commentary, in-progress sneak-previews of paintings, high-resolution artwork, and even free prints. For this post, we'll be taking a further look at the anatomy of the Paracertherium in my painting, above. Why do they have little manes and stripy faces? Are those child rhinos at the back a bit fuzzy? And why do the main animals look like they're fighting? Head over, and sign up to Patreon to get access to this and the rest of my exclusive content!

    References

    • Endo, H., Kobayashi, H., Koyabu, D., Hayashida, A., Jogahara, T., Taru, H., Oishi, M., Itou, T., Koie, H. & Sakai, T. (2009). The morphological basis of the armor-like folded skin of the greater Indian rhinoceros as a thermoregulator. Mammal Study, 34(4), 195-200.
    • Fortelius, M., Kappelman, J., 1993. The largest land mammal ever imagined. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 108, 85-101.
    • Goldfinger, E. (2004). Animal Anatomy for Artists: The Elements of Form. Oxford University Press.
    • Granger, W., & Gregory, W. K. (1935). A revised restoration of the skeleton of Baluchitherium, gigantic fossil rhinoceros of Central Asia. American Museum of Natural History, 787, 1-3.
    • Granger, W., & Gregory, W. K. (1936). Further notes on the gigantic extinct rhinoceros, Baluchitherium, from the Oligocene of Mongolia. American Museum of Natural History, 72, 1-73.
    • Gromova, V. (1959). Giant rhinoceroses. Trudy Paleontologiskei Institut Akademie Nauk, 71, 1-164.
    • Henderson, D. M. (2013). Sauropod necks: are they really for heat loss?. PloS one, 8(10), e77108.
    • Hiley, P. G. (1977). The thermoregulatory response of the rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis and Ceratotherium simum) and the zebra (Equus burchelli) to diurnal temperature change. African Journal of Ecology, 15, 337-337.
    • Larramendi, A. (2016). Shoulder height, body mass and shape of proboscideans. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, 61, 537-574
    • Lucas, S. G., & Sobus, J. C. (1989). The systematics of indricotheres. In: Prothero, D. R., and R. M. Schoch (eds.) The Evolution of Perissodactyls. Oxford University Press, New York, 358-378.
    • Myhrvold, C. L., Stone, H. A., & Bou-Zeid, E. (2012). What is the use of elephant hair?. PloS one, 7(10), e47018.
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    • Weissenböck, N. M., Weiss, C. M., Schwammer, H. M., & Kratochvil, H. (2010). Thermal windows on the body surface of African elephants (Loxodonta africana) studied by infrared thermography. Journal of Thermal Biology, 35, 182-188.
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    As the Cretaceous fossil record enters its final two stages - the Campanian and Maastrichtian - several unusual things seem to happen in the world of flying reptiles. Firstly, we see the end result of a steady drop off in pterosaur diversity leaving only azhdarchids - those often long-necked, long faced animals that we cover here with some regularity - with a strong, widespread fossil record. It's known that nyctosaurids and (thanks to recent discoveries) perhaps pteranodontids survived until the very end of the Mesozoic in at least two locations, but azhdarchids are globally distributed and dominate the pterosaur fossil record at this time. The overwhelming precedence of azhdarchids in the Late Cretaceous is an anomaly: at no other point in the pterosaur fossil record does one clade feature so prominently.

    Secondly, Campanian and Maastrichtian pterosaurs are, without exception, pretty big animals. Many species from this time are renowned for their gigantic size: it's these stages which give us the famous 10 m wingspan, 250 kg colossi like Quetzalcoatlus,Arambourgianiaand Hatzegopteryx, as well as a number of other giant azhdarchids which are too poorly known for generic titles. Coinciding with the evolution of the giants is a loss of small pterosaur taxa - those animals less than 2.5 m across the wings which are present, more-or-less, throughout the rest of pterosaur history. This shift in body size is sometimes interpreted as pterosaurs demonstrating 'Cope's Rule', the somewhat controversial proposal that species evolve towards large body size over time (Hone and Benton 2007; Benson et al. 2014). It's argued by some that competition from birds may be the driver behind this trend, as early avians fought small flying reptiles for ecological space and ultimately forced pterosaurs into larger sizes (e.g. Benson et al. 2014). Note that this concept is not without its detractors, including myself - I won't go into my reasons now but I plan to outline them here eventually.

    Whether you agree with the bird-pterosaur competitive displacement hypothesis or not, we can't disagree that the end of the Cretaceous is almost entirely devoid of small pterosaur remains. Only a handful of specimens record small pterosaurs in the Campanian and Maastrichtian, and they're all tricky to work with. Aside from being highly fragmentary, some are controversially identified (such as Piksi barbarulna, an alleged small pterosaur from the Two Medicine Formation - see Agnolin and Varricho 2012 for the pro-pterosaur case) and others represent probable juvenile individuals (Godfrey and Currie 2005). Whatever it signifies, the lack of diminutive pterosaur specimens from the close of the Mesozoic is a real phenomenon of our fossil record, and any new specimen of a small, latest Cretaceous flying reptile has to be something to get excited about.

    Enter: a new small, latest Cretaceous pterosaur specimen to get excited about

    Title slide of my SVPCA 2016 talk, discussing the findings of Martin-Silverstone et al. 2016, out today. If you don't get the reference, you clearly get out too much, have too many friends and aren't watching enough crap TV.
    It's this point where a new paper, published today by Liz Martin-Silverstone, myself, Victoria Arbour and Phil Currie comes in. Our new work, which you can check out without restriction at the open access journal Royal Society Open Science, presents a new small pterosaur fossil from the Campanian Northumberland Formation of British Columbia. The specimen number - RBCM.EH.2009.019.0001 - is pretty unwieldy, so I've been calling it the 'Hornby azhdarchoid' or the 'Hornby pterosaur' after it's discovery on Hornby Island, just off the coast of Vancouver. As you can see  below, the Hornby specimen is not pretty. Following our presentation of the fossil at SVPCA 2016, pterosaur guru David Unwin suggested we might have the ugliest pterosaur fossil on record (or at least tied the game). But while not well preserved, we do at least have several bones to play with: most of a humerus, three fused vertebrae (from the notarium, a set of fused shoulder vertebral elements), a few loose dorsal vertebrae and some other odds and ends that defy identification. This makes it the first set of associated bones of a small latest Cretaceous pterosaur, which is at least a step in the right direction for their paltry fossil record. For reasons discussed in the paper (concerning taphonomy, element size and likely identifications) we assume these remains represent one individual.

    RBCM.EH.2009.019.0001, a fragmentary azhdarchoid pterosaur from the Campanian Northumberland Formation, British Columbia. It's, er, not the prettiest pterosaur specimen you'll ever see. Combination of figures from Martin-Silverstone et al. 2016.
    I don't want to rehash the full gory details of our study here - please read the paper for the technical aspects - but instead want to outline our main points. The first thing to clear is that we've been careful to rule out an avian ID for the specimen. The Northumberland Formation contains several bird fossils and the quality of the specimen means that many obvious pterosaur features are missing. The Royal British Columbia Museum was kind enough to ship the specimen all the way from Vancouver, Canada to Southampton, UK just so Liz and I make a thorough assessment on this issue. Happily, we found the specimen to be very pterosaur like in every aspect (even as fragments, pterosaur bones are quite distinctive) as well as differing from Mesozoic birds in several ways. It particularly contrasts in having a notarium, which seem absent from Mesozoic birds (note that we compared the notarium element compared carefully with Mesozoic bird synsacra to be sure of our identification), as well as having a pterosaur-like, rather than avian, proximal humerus morphology. But we're not bird workers so, to be extra sure, we showed the material to fossil bird experts in Canada and the UK (including people who've identified and published on the Northumberland Formation avians). No-one we spoke to suggested an avian ID and, moreover, we are aware that other people with expertise in both birds and pterosaurs (including our paper editor) have seen the material and prefer a pterosaur ID. Based on our research and the testimonials of others, we're as confident as we can be that the Hornby fragments represent a pterosaur, not a bird.

    We've identified the Hornby specimen as an azhdarchoid, and noted several features indicative of, but not conclusive to, an azhdarchid ID. We suspect the specimen is an azhdarchid because of its provenance and its basic anatomical characteristics, but the specimen does not contain the right bits to confirm an azhdarchid identity. Nonetheless, narrowing the specimen down to Azhdarchoidea allows us to estimate its body proportions and confirm that the specimen was indeed a small animal when it died. We estimated its wingspan using two methods factoring both the humerus and vertebrae, and each pointed to a wingspan between 1.4 and 1.6 m. That puts our pterosaur at a comparable size to a good sized-seagull and, while these are respectably-sized modern birds, this is small for a latest Cretaceous pterosaur. Rather than poking giraffes in the face, our little chap would only just be beyond predation risk from an average housecat (below). The only contemporary pterosaur competing with the Hornby azhdarchoid for size is Piksi, a poorly known possible pterosaur from the western US. Our new study lists a number of reasons why the pterosaurian characterisation of Piksi is problematic however: in short, its morphology is all wrong for a flying reptile and we suspect a non-pterosaurian ID is more likely. The Hornby specimen is thus a contender for the smallest latest Cretaceous pterosaur currently known.

    A 1.5 m wingspan azhdarchoid next to one (SI) MrTiddlesmetre. From Martin-Silverstone et al. (2016).
    This million dollar question, of course, is whether the specimen is a small juvenile or a small adult. The former would be neat, but the latter is potentially significant. The findings of recent, detailed histological examinations of pterosaur fossils are permitting increasingly good understanding of their growth regimes (e.g. de Ricqles et al. 2000; Prondvai et al. 2012), so we made a section of the humerus to understand how old the Hornby animal was when it died. Our section showed a mix of bone textures, some indicating that the specimen was still growing, but other features (secondary osteons, an endosteal lamella, lines of arrested growth and a large structure forming on the internal bone surface) are indicative of relative maturity (de Ricqles et al. 2000; Prondvai et al. 2012). We found the endosteal lamella (a band of bone deposited around the internal bone cavity) of particular interest, as this seems to signify the end of internal bone expansion in azhdarchoids, and is thus a hallmark of near-mature animals (note that this is not true for all pterosaurs - see Prondvai et al. 2012). The fused dorsal vertebrae are a further marker of maturity, as pterosaurs do not develop these features until they're at least subadults. The exact timing of notarium formation seems to differ from taxon to taxon (e.g. Bennett 1993; Kellner 2015), but their development does not seem to start until these animals were near to full size, if not at full size already. Putting these and a few other observations together suggests that the Hornby pterosaur was a latest-stage juvenile or subadult: in other words, it looks like a genuinely small pterosaur, not just a juvenile one. We don't know how much larger it might have got before it reached full size, but its ontogenetic characteristics and what we know of pterosaur growth regimes suggests it was close to maximum size at time of death. Given its estimated 1.5 m wingspan, it had a good chance of remaining smaller than the next smallest, 2.5 m wingspan pterosaur currently known the Campanian or Maastrichtian (McGowen et al. 2002).

    What's inside the RBCM.EH.2009.019.0001 humerus? A mix of things, but among them are features indicative of late-stage juvenility/subadulthood. Please see the paper for details of this figure. From Martin-Silverstone et al. 2016.

    A small pterosaur amongst the pigeons

    There's obviously a limit to what a single fragmentary specimen can tell you about the evolution of a group, but what the Hornby specimen means for pterosaur evolution is interesting and - if we've interpreted it correctly - potentially significant. Most obviously, it suggests that small pterosaurs may have been present in the Campanian stage of the Late Cretaceous after all, at least in one part of the world. Regular readers will be aware that there's growing evidence for Late Cretaceous pterosaur faunas being less uniform than previously realised (e.g. Vremir et al. 2013, 2015), and our new specimen plugs into this picture nicely: it increasingly seems that the end Cretaceous wasn't just a stage for large-to-giant long-necked azhdarchids. What's more, while the specimen only provides one data point against the idea that birds ousted small pterosaurs, the presence of at least two types of bird in the Northumberland Formation seems to indicate small pterosaurs and birds coexisted in at least this palaeoenvironment. We might see this as a continuation of the coexistence pterosaurs and birds demonstrate in Jurassic and Early Cretaceous localities: maybe pterosaurs and birds got along OK after all.

    ...except when pterosaurs stole their eggs. Our PR art for the new paper, where a group of Hornby azhdarchoids perform guerrilla raids on shore-living Campanian bird nests. Take THAT, birds.
    To my mind, one of the most significant things we do in the paper is discuss the 'face value' interpretations of Late Cretaceous pterosaur diversity: should we really be interpreting the lack of small pterosaur fossils as a genuine feature of their history when their fossil record is so patchy? We point out that some types of small pterosaurs - juveniles - had to exist in the Late Cretaceous, and yet their fossils are almost entirely unknown. We argue that this indicates a preservation bias against small bodied pterosaurs of any kind in the Campanian and Maastrichtian. Until we amass a good number of small juvenile pterosaur bones from this time without any small adults we cannot distinguish preservational interference from genuine biological signals. Perhaps the shift of pterosaurs from marine to non-marine habits through the Cretaceous (Butler et al. 2013) accounts for this lack of data. It's well known that terrestrial settings are less conducive to preserving relatively delicate fossils and small examples of even robust terrestrial animals like dinosaurs rarely fossilise in these deposits. We have to wonder what chance small pterosaur skeletons - which were strong in life, but fragile and weak once exposed to decay - have of making it into the fossil record in these settings. The fact the Hornby specimen is in such a sorry state perhaps reflects the rough time small pterosaur fossils experience under 'typical' fossilisation regimes, rather than the far gentler handling of animal remains evident at fossil Lagerstätten.

    With all this said, the most important message of the paper has to be this: we need more data on small pterosaurs in the latest Cretaceous. The specimens we have are scrappy, hard to work with and offer limited scope for analysis. Thus, any small Late Cretaceous pterosaur material is significant, and whether they're lying unnoticed in museum collections or pulled straight out of the field, they are noteworthy specimens which need to be put on record. Curators and researchers, please keep your eyes peeled!

    And that, in a nutshell, is our new paper: be sure to check it out if you want more details. You can also read Liz's take on the study over at The Conversation and other experts have been chiming in at news sites covering the story. With a bit of luck, this is not the only news you'll be hearing about Late Cretaceous pterosaurs from these quarters this year - more on these projects as they move along. All that's left to do is to thank Liz and Victoria for inviting me to collaborate with them on the new specimen - I learned a huge amount trying to get my head around this challenging material and its histology, and had a blast working with them.

    This blogpost, paper and artwork are sponsored by Patreon

    Regular readers will know that this blog and its art are sponsored by a suite of awesome Patrons, but this post is proof that this support goes further than mere internet tomfoolery and contributes to papers and outreach, too. Supporting my blog from $1 a month not only helps keep this blog ticking over, but helps me contribute thoughts, words and illustrations to scientific research. In return you get access to bonus blog content: additional commentary, in-progress sneak-previews of paintings, high-resolution artwork, and even free prints. For this post, we'll be talking about the PR art I've done for this research: how was the azhdarchoid reconstructed from that pile of rubble specimen? What's the story with the landscape image and why is there an ammonite in it? How many iterations did we go through to get that composition? Head over to Patreonto get access to this and the rest of my exclusive content!

    References

    • Agnolin, F. L., & Varricchio, D. (2012). Systematic reinterpretation of Piksi barbarulna Varricchio, 2002 from the Two Medicine Formation (Upper Cretaceous) of Western USA (Montana) as a pterosaur rather than a bird. Geodiversitas, 34(4), 883-894.
    • Bennett, S. C. (1993). The ontogeny of Pteranodon and other pterosaurs. Paleobiology, 19(01), 92-106.
    • Benson, R. B., Frigot, R. A., Goswami, A., Andres, B., & Butler, R. J. (2014). Competition and constraint drove Cope's rule in the evolution of giant flying reptiles. Nature communications, 5, 3567.
    • Butler, R. J., Benson, R. B., & Barrett, P. M. (2013). Pterosaur diversity: untangling the influence of sampling biases, Lagerstätten, and genuine biodiversity signals. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 372, 78-87.
    • Godfrey, S. J., & Currie, P. J. (2005). Pterosaurs. Dinosaur Provincial Park: A Spectacular Ancient Ecosystem Revealed, 292-311.
    • Hone, D. W. E., & Benton, M. J. (2007). Cope's Rule in the Pterosauria, and differing perceptions of Cope's Rule at different taxonomic levels. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 20(3), 1164-1170.
    • Kellner, A. W. (2015). Comments on Triassic pterosaurs with discussion about ontogeny and description of new taxa. Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências, 87(2), 669-689.
    • Martin-Silverstone, E., Witton, M. P., Arbour, V. M, & Currie, P. J. (2016). A small azhdarchoid pterosaur from the latest Cretaceous, the age of flying giants. Royal Society Open Access, 3, 160333.
    • McGowen, M. R., Padian, K., De Sosa, M. A., & Harmon, R. J. (2002). Description of Montanazhdarcho minor, an azhdarchid pterosaur from the Two Medicine Formation (Campanian) of Montana. PaleoBios, 22(1), 1-9.
    • Prondvai, E., Stein, K., Ősi, A., & Sander, M. P. (2012). Life history of Rhamphorhynchus inferred from bone histology and the diversity of pterosaurian growth strategies. PLoS One, 7(2), e31392.
    • Vremir, M., Kellner, A. W., Naish, D., & Dyke, G. J. (2013). A new azhdarchid pterosaur from the Late Cretaceous of the Transylvanian Basin, Romania: implications for azhdarchid diversity and distribution. PLoS One, 8(1), e54268.
    • Vremir, M., Witton, M., Naish, D., Dyke, G., Brusatte, S. L., Norell, M., & Totoianu, R. (2015). A Medium-Sized Robust-Necked Azhdarchid Pterosaur (Pterodactyloidea: Azhdarchidae) from the Maastrichtian of Pui (Haţ eg Basin, Transylvania, Romania). American Museum Novitates, (3827), 1-16.

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    Two Garjainia madiba decide who gets the table scraps. The reconstructions here are modified from the life reconstruction I provided for Gower et al. (2014).
    I find erythrosuchids, large, big-headed Triassic archosauriforms, very charismatic fossil animals. If nothing else, it's hard not to admire their no-nonsense approach to carnivory. Take a fairly standard reptilian bauplan, weld an oversize theropod dinosaur face to the front, then point it at the things you want to die: simple. They're the Mesozoic equivalent of mounting a howitzer on a golf cart and calling it a tank. We might question the rudimentary nature of the design, but we can't argue with the results.

    Alas, erythrosuchids don't get as much love from palaeoartists or outreach projects as they deserve. Their marriage of a proportionally huge, sharp-toothed skull with a crocodile- or lizard-like body is unlike anything around today and it's difficult not to wonder how they functioned as living animals. Closer inspection of their anatomy reveals more sophistication than we might assume from the few illustrations of these animals available online or in books, and it seems that their role in Mesozoic ecosystems and reptile evolution was an important one. These were a successful, abundant group of predators with an evolutionary run spanning the Early and Middle Triassic (12 million years in total) and a near cosmopolitan distribution. Moreover, they remain important species for understanding the early evolution of archosaur-line reptiles. They really do have a lot going for them, but they just haven't quite caught public imagination.

    A few years ago I was commissioned to reconstruct the small(ish), early erythrosuchid Garjania madiba for David Gower and his colleagues for their 2014 descriptive paper (below). The brief was for a straight illustration of the animal rather than a restored scene, and I promised the team I would put this reconstruction in a landscape one day. Two years later, I've finally got around to it: the results are above. Posting this painting seems like as good an excuse as any to lavish some much needed attention on these most encephalised of reptiles, so let's get stuck in.

    G. madiba reconstruction from Gower et al. (2014). Note prominent bosses on the face, a characteristic feature of this species.

    What, exactly, is a erythrosuchid?

    You can find erythrosuchids in Triassic rocks on every continent except North America and Antarctica and, although relatively complete specimens are not common, many species are represented by large inventories of bones. Despite this relative glut of material, the classification of erythrosuchids - from the fine anatomical characteristics of the group, to their position in the reptilian tree and the number of species contained in the clade - has been the subject of long-standing, ongoing discussions among palaeontologists. Older erythrosuchid literature is confused by a multitude of different classifications which entwine erythrosuchids with other large-headed, carnivorous archosauriforms such as raisuchians and proterosuchids. Researchers have long realised the problems with these schemes, but unpicking the relationships of these groups and other early archosaur-line reptiles has been tricky. With the arrival of extremely detailed and well sampled cladistic analyses of archosauromorphs (e.g. Nesbitt 2011; Ezcurra 2016) we might be moving towards greater consensus on the systematics of these animals, however. In modern schemes, erythrosuchids are recovered as non-archosaur archosauriforms close(ish) to the base of Archosauria. More specifically, they are the sister clade to the the Eucrocopoda, the large clade that contains the likes of Euparkeria and proterochampsids, as well as the true archosaurs(Ezcurra 2016).
    Erythrosuchus africanus skull, restored by Gower (2003). Note the extremely robust construction of the bones and expanded areas for neck muscle attachment.
    Several erythrosuchid species are well known: Erythrosuchus africanus from the Middle Triassic of South Africa, Garjainia prima from the Early Triassic of Russia, and Shansisuchus shansisuchus (that's not a typo) from the Middle Triassic of China. These species are represented by associated remains as well as large numbers of fragmentary referred specimens, and allow for a relatively complete insight into their overall form. The largest taxa, like Erythrosuchus, are big animals with head-tail lengths approaching 5 m - the length of a good-sized car - and even small taxa like Garjainia are over 2 m long. The most arresting aspect of eyrthrosuchid anatomy is, of course, their skulls (above). Superficially theropod-like, these long, deep and robust structures are sub-rectangular in lateral view, but taper markedly towards the snout in dorsal or ventral aspect. These animals are yet another reminder that restoring fossil animals needs more than a lateral view of a skeleton: those massive skulls are considerably narrower than we might expect. Their teeth are thecodont, large, serrated and recurved. A characteristic of the group is the complicated shape of the upper jaw, where the jaw tip is vertically displaced from a ventrally bowing maxillary region (Parrish 1992), creating something of a 'notch' towards the front of the jaw. Beneath this, the mandible has a slightly dorsoventrally expanded tip, as well as a swollen posterior region. At least the skull of Erythrosuchus is essentially akinetic, although minor movements of some bones may have been possible (Gower 2003). Although erythrosuchid skulls are fairly conservative in morphology, some species were not above frivolous accessorising: prominent bosses above and below the eye are known from Garjainiamadiba (Gower et al. 2014 - see reconstructions, above), and Pickford (1995) reports a long, low boss on the snout of an undescribed Karoo Basin specimen.

    Although erythrosuchid skulls were almost certainly pneumatised in some areas, the largest opening in the skull is not, as we might expect in such large headed animals, anything to do with a pneumatic cavity. Rather, it's the lower temporal fenestra, an opening typically associated with allowing bulges of the jaw adductor muscles. This, as well as the presence of a small sagittal crest between the superior temporal openings (which overly the same muscle block) and the depth of the posterior mandible likely betrays the presence of massive adductor muscles in temporal region of the skull. Eryhtrosuchid skull bones certainly look sufficiently robust to withstand powerful biting, the bones forming the temporal fenestra, jaw and orbital margins being extremely massive and thick and tightly interlocking with complex sutures between each bone. Interestingly, Shansisuchus has the same partly invaded orbit shape that Henderson (2003) linked with reinforcement against heavy bite forces in theropod dinosaurs: perhaps similar buttressing was taking place in these Triassic reptiles

    The dorsal extent of the occipital face in Eryhtrosuchus africanus, posterior view. The rounded flanges at the top poke above the rest of the skull, and perhaps indicate expanded neck muscles in this and other species. From Gower (2003).
    The posterior surface of the skull is interesting. Rather than the relatively flat surface we see in most animals, the posterior erythrosuchid skull is recessed so that several aspects of the skull - the jaws and lateral extents of the occipital surface - extend further back than the vertebral/skull joint. The area which anchored the neck musculature extended across this recessed surface, even exceeding the dorsal margins somewhat by means of a pair of semiscircular flanges projecting above the rest of the skull (visible in at least Erythrosuchus and Garjainia - see above). Assuming a typically reptilian muscle plan, these indicate that muscles anchoring above the skull-neck articulation were larger than usual, as might be expected for animals with ginormous heads. Similar dorsal expansion of the occipital region is seen in tyrannosaurids, and is also thought to reflect large cervical musculature (Paul 1988). It thus seems the vertebrae and posterior skull of erythrosuchids were deeply buried in neck tissues, befitting animals with a giant head to support and utilise in predatory acts. But I wonder if all this support and strength compromised the mobility of the skull-neck joint somewhat. Moving the neck articulation forward to sit within the boundaries of the skull likely shortened the length of the skull flexor muscles, as well as buried the joint in masses of potentially restrictive muscle and bone. Motion of the head may have been limited at the front of the neck, then, but unfortunately for erythrosuchid prey, the size of the shoulder skeleton and stoutly built humeri suggest this was accounted for with powerful muscles at the base of the neck, as well as forelimbs able to shove the forequarters around at speed. Dashing left or right against a charging erythrosuchid was unlikely to save you from a nasty, gigantic and powerful bite.

    Behind the skull we see a fairly typical Triassic archosauriform body (below). The neck is short, and especially so in some of the larger species, and the majority of the vertebrae are adorned with tall neural spines: these almost certainly provided anchorage for axial musculature related to supporting the head and back. The pectoral elements, which are also employed somewhat in neck musculature, are also robust. Their tails are moderately long, with deep chevrons in the anterior region likely related to hindlimb musculature. Behind these, the tail becomes rather slender. Gower (2001) proposed that Erythrosuchus vertebrae possessed pits and depressions possibly related to the development of post-cranial pneumaticity, the first found outside of pterosaurs and dinosaurs. This would be a significant find, telling us something of erythrosuchid lung structure as well as the early evolution of postcranial pneumaticity in archosaur-line reptiles. However, both O'Connor (2006) and Butler et al. (2012) argued against this interpretation, noting that the features in question were not associated with internal cavities, thus failing to meet criteria for structures of pneumatic origin. An important caveat to this, however, was raised by Butler et al. (2012): the phenomenon of pneumatic tissues invading vertebrae and other postcranial bones almost certainly did not evolve in one swoop. Its earliest stages may have simply been pneumatic tissues 'pushing' against external bone walls, forming pits and cavities, rather than invading them entirely. If so, the sort of thing Gower (2001) found in Erythrosuchus might be what we'd expect of early stage, postcranial pneumaticity. So while we have to concede that these structures do not meet our current definition of a postcranial pneumatic structure, perhaps we also need to learn more about the early evolution of postcranial pneumaticity before this hypothesis can be ruled out entirely.

    Mounted Garjainia prima skeleton as mounted at the Paleontological Institute, Moscow. Certain aspects of this skeleton are reconstructed or sculpted, so take some details with a pinch of salt. From Ivakhnenko and Kurochkin (2008).
    The limbs of erythrosuchids are not, to my knowledge, completely known from any species but their major limb bones are powerfully built and surprisingly lengthy: you could never call them 'long-limbed', but they are not the stumpy-legged animals we often see them reconstructed as. Their hands and feet are poorly known. Rare examples of erythrosuchid ankles are thought to indicate an mesotarsal condition (Gower 1996), and their pelves show signs of advanced features that we see developed further in true archosaurs. These features led to our G. madiba reconstruction having semi-erect hindlimbs, while the forelimbs remained sprawling. The typical pose of erythrosuchids remains to be determined from further study of their limb bones.

    A point of contention among researchers is whether or not erythrosuchids had osteoderms. Two examples of such structures have been found in association with a specimen of Erythrosuchus, but they show no consistency in their morphology (Gower 2003). Moreover, the extensive inventory of Erythrosuchus and other erythrosuchids have yet to show additional evidence of dermal bones (Ezcurra et al. 2013). The safe bet, for the time being at least, is to assume these reptiles did not have osteoderms, and that those previously referred to the group were a fluke association from another animal.

    The life and times of Triassic big-heads

    We have much to learn about many aspects of erythrosuchid palaeobiology: details of their dietary preferences, locomotor mechanics and likely habitats remain only provisionally researched. Much of what we've learned about their lifestyles comes from 'bigger picture' assessments of Triassic diversity and faunal turnover, so we can only paint a broad-brush picture of their ecology at this time. That's not to say we have no specific palaeobiological insights into these animals, however. For instance, there is consistent histological evidence that erythrosuchids grew quickly, perhaps at rates comparable to pterosaurs and dinosaurs, until they reached reproductive maturity (de Ricqlès et al. 2008; Botha-Brink and Smith 2011; Ezcurra et al. 2013). Given that this trait is not limited to erythrosuchids among Early and Middle Triassic reptiles, this is one reason it's thought that archosaur-line reptiles may not be ancestrally ectothermic. Whatever the cause, rapid growth may have played some role in the success of erythrosuchids and other reptiles as ecosystems were rebuilt in the early Mesozoic (Sookias et al. 2012).

    Erythrosuchid ecology remains only lightly investigated, but they have been considered arch terrestrial predators by some (Sennikov 1996 - see below). Interestingly, their size puts them among the largest terrestrial animals known from their respective faunas (Sookias et al. 2012). This is unusual: in post-Middle Triassic ecosystems we generally find herbivores are the largest animals in terrestrial ecosystems, so what's going on here? It's thought that physiological distinctions between large Early-Middle Triassic reptiles and the synapsid herbivores they coexisted with may explain the size difference (briefly summarised, archosauriform growth rates and respiratory anatomy may have permitted larger overall body size than therapsids - see Sookias et al. 2012), but how did this translate into ecological balance? Energy is lost as it is transferred between species in food webs, so how did populations of relatively 'giant' top-tier erythrosuchids sustain themselves on consistently smaller prey? Perhaps they were simply comparatively rare, or very energy-efficient, or maybe they supplemented their diet with non-terrestrial food items - did they also take food from aquatic realms, perhaps?

    An Early Triassic terrestrial food web, reconstructed for the Yarenga Formation by Sennikov (1996). In this scheme, most things ended up in the bellies of erythrosuchids or rausuchians.
    Speaking of aquatic habitats, the concept of erythrosuchids as strictly terrestrial predators is not the only interpretation of their habits. Indeed, for much of the 20th century erythrosuchid proportions were considered evidence of aquatic or semi-aquatic habits: their huge heads and robust limbs were thought to permit only cumbersome, laboured movement on land (see Ezcurra et al. 2013 for a brief review). The words offered by Reig (1970) paint an excellent summary of these older interpretations: "We doubt that bulky and clumsy animals like Erythrosuchus and Shansisuchus should be considered very active animals... It is more likely that they were inhabitants of swamp marshes, able to prey upon big, slow herbivorous vertebrates, inhabiting the same environments, which could be caught by a relatively slow and heavily built predator" (p. 261). Potentially further evidence of semi-aquatic lifestyles are the relatively thick limb bone walls common to all erythrosuchids, these being comparable in thickness to those of modern alligators (Botha-Brink and Smith 2011; Gower et al. 2014).

    In recent years, however, erythrosuchids seem to have been perceived as more terrestrial animals (Sennikov 1996; Botha-Brink and Smith 2011; Ezcurra et al. 2013). Their thick bone walls are explained as being a consequence of their large size rather than aquatic habits (Botha-Brink and Smith 2011) and the deficit of obvious aquatic adaptations in their skeletons has been noted by several authors (Botha-Brink and Smith 2011; Ezcurra et al. 2013; Gower et al. 2014).

    Aquatic, semi-aquatic or fully terrestrial? This guy's meant to have taken a dip in the water, but was it intentional or accident? We may not have the data to say exactly what erythrosuchids did for a living yet.
    All this said, I must admit to desiring more work in this area. The habits of strange Triassic animals are difficult to fathom in many instances, and we're yet to see particularly comprehensive assessments of the most basic elements of erythrosuchid functional anatomy, let alone application of modern techniques like isotope analysis, stress modelling of jaws and so on to this problem. My gut feeling - and thus in no means a basis for a hypothesis - is open to both interpretations of erythrosuchid habits, and I wouldn't be surprised if terrestrial and aquatic prey were on their radars. I'm suspicious about the weight of the head being a problem for terrestrial locomotion. A decade of looking at terrestrially-competent, large-headed pterodactyloid pterosaurs and recent monkeying about with mass fractions of giant-necked Tanystropheussuggest our intuitive grasp of front-heaviness might be poorly calibrated. Animal heads and necks are often much lighter than we think in contrast to torso and limb masses, and we should remind ourselves that erythrosuchid skulls are actually quite narrow, presumably well-pneumatised structures. This is the sort of thing that can be relatively easily investigated using digital models, and we might hope this approach is applied to erythrosuchids in future. But if that supports a terrestrial habit, the notched upper jaw and swollen mandibular tip of erythrosuchids argues contrarily: similar jaw tips are seen in fish-eating animals like modern crocodylians and pike conger eels, as well extinct presumed fishers such as spinosaurids and some pterosaurs. Might this not imply that small swimming animals were sometimes eaten by erythrosuchids, too? Lest we forget, animals do not necessarily need to be dedicated swimmers to be able to eat aquatic prey. There's a lot of scope for further work and investigation here, and it would be great to see some dedicated functional assessments and ecological investigations of erythrosuchids in future.

    I love it when a bauplan comes together

    Perhaps one of the most interesting things mentioned recently about erythrosuchids is how little their postcrania differs from those of other archosauriforms, despite their substantial cranial modifications (Ezcurra 2016). This is something we see again and again in Triassic reptiles: relatively conservative bodies with highly localised outlandish anatomy, and is true even for the weirdest Triassic creatures. For example, Tanystropheus isn't that strange aside from its incredible neck, and (what we know of) the body of Sharovipteryxis not that atypical in spite of its leg-wings. I wonder if Triassic animals get the short shrift in popular circles because they're viewed as boring 'also rans' taxa which evolved strange, untenable anatomies but without moving too far from a typically 'reptilian' visage.

    But perhaps what we're seeing with these animals is far more interesting than it first appears: a display of the intrinsic adaptability of the archosauromorph bauplan, and how applicable it was to many lifestyles with only localised modification. We can be particularly impressed with erythrosuchids because of their rapid evolution so early in the Triassic: they very quickly and successfully jumped into the niche of large, hypercarnivorous apex-predator after the end-Permian extinction event, and then held that niche worldwide for 12 million years. The fact they did so without much additional modification to the postcrania is evidence that their success was not a fluke, and that the basal archosaur-line body plan was a strong one. Perhaps instead of looking at erythrosuchids and other Triassic archosauromorphs as those strange, but ultimately dull animals that struck it lucky before the more successful ones took over, we might view them as some of the earliest evidence that the archosaur-line bauplan had real potential, and a sign of what was to come.

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    References

    • Botha-Brink, J., & Smith, R. M. (2011). Osteohistology of the Triassic archosauromorphs Prolacerta, Proterosuchus, Euparkeria, and Erythrosuchus from the Karoo Basin of South Africa. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 31(6), 1238-1254.
    • Butler, R. J., Barrett, P. M., & Gower, D. J. (2012). Reassessment of the evidence for postcranial skeletal pneumaticity in Triassic archosaurs, and the early evolution of the avian respiratory system. PloS one, 7(3), e34094.
    • de Ricqlès, A., Padian, K., Knoll, F., & Horner, J. R. (2008). On the origin of high growth rates in archosaurs and their ancient relatives: Complementary histological studies on Triassic archosauriforms and the problem of a “phylogenetic signal” in bone histology. In Annales de paleontologie (Vol. 2, No. 94, pp. 57-76).
    • Ezcurra, M. D., Butler, R. J., & Gower, D. J. (2013). ‘Proterosuchia’: the origin and early history of Archosauriformes. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 379(1), 9-33.
    • Ezcurra, M. D. (2016). The phylogenetic relationships of basal archosauromorphs, with an emphasis on the systematics of proterosuchian archosauriforms. PeerJ, 4, e1778.
    • Gower, D. J. (1996). The tarsus of erythrosuchid archosaurs, and implications for early diapsid phylogeny. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 116(4), 347-375.
    • Gower, D. J. (2001). Possible postcranial pneumaticity in the last common ancestor of birds and crocodilians: evidence from Erythrosuchus and other Mesozoic archosaurs. Naturwissenschaften, 88(3), 119-122.
    • Gower, D. J. 2003, Osteology of the early archosaurian reptile Erythrosuchus africanus, Broom. Annals of the South African Museum, 110(1), 1 - 84.
    • Gower, D. J., Hancox, P. J., Botha-Brink, J., Sennikov, A. G., & Butler, R. J. (2014). A new species of Garjainia Ochev, 1958 (Diapsida: Archosauriformes: Erythrosuchidae) from the Early Triassic of South Africa. PloS one, 9(11), e111154.
    • Henderson, D. M. (2003). The eyes have it: the sizes, shapes, and orientations of theropod orbits as indicators of skull strength and bite force. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 22(4), 766-778.
    • Ivakhnenko, M. F. & Kurochkin, E. N. (eds.) 2008. Fossil Vertebrates of Russia and adjacent countries. Fossil reptiles and birds. Part 1: A. Reference book for paleontologists, biologists and geologists. GEOS, 2008, 348 pp.
    • Nesbitt, S. J. (2011). The Early Evolution of Archosaurs: Relationships and the Origin of Major Clades. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, 1-292.
    • O'Connor, P. M. (2006). Postcranial pneumaticity: An evaluation of soft‐tissue influences on the postcranial skeleton and the reconstruction of pulmonary anatomy in archosaurs. Journal of Morphology, 267(10), 1199-1226.
    • Parrish, J. M. (1992). Phylogeny of the Erythrosuchidae (Reptilia: Archosauriformes). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 12(1), 93-102.
    • Paul, G. S. (1988). Predatory dinosaurs of the world: a complete illustrated guide. Simon & Schuster.
    • Pickford, M. (1995). Karoo Supergroup palaeontology of Namibia and brief description of a thecodont from Omingonde. Palaeontologia Africana, 32, 51-66
    • Sennikov, A. G. (1996). Evolution of the Permian and Triassic tetrapod communities of Eastern Europe. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 120(3), 331-351.
    • Reig, O. A. (1970). The Proterosuchia and the early evolution of the archosaurs; an essay about the origin of a major taxon. Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, 139(5), 229-292.

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    Bear-sized gorgonopsid Inostrancevia latifrons. Sabre-teeth? What sabre teeth?
    It is something of a trope that prehistoric animals must bare their teeth in palaeoart, even when their mouths are closed. Historically, the majority of palaeoartists covered the teeth of their subjects with lips, cheeks or other types of tissues and only select species – sabre-toothed carnivorans or mammoths – were depicted with exposed tusks or sabre-canines. This changed when artists working in the 1980s and 1990s - Paul, Hallett, Stout - and a certain 1993 movie started showing predatory dinosaurs with toothy overbites and perpetually exposed teeth. This convention has since expanded to all kinds of prehistoric animals, and some galleries of Deep Time now have more toothy grins than a holiday photo album. Theropod dinosaurs in particular are almost always shown with alligator-like overbites that perpetually expose their upper teeth, the large canines of stem-mammals protrude over their lower jaws, and even herbivorous animals with relatively unimpressive dentition (like sauropods) are shown without lips or other forms of dental covering.

    Many words – mostly published at blogs, online mailing lists and social media - have been typed to discuss the credibility of lipless palaeoart, but the subject has traditionally received only cursory attention from academics. Happily for artists, this is starting to change. A small set of literature exists which debates the presence of extra-oral tissues in dinosaurs (e.g. Ford 1997; Knoll 2008; Morhardt 2009; Keilor 2013; Reisz and Larson 2016), and most this agrees that some sort of soft-tissue - at least 'lips' - covered their teeth. However, a running theme of these works is that reliably inferring soft-tissues of the face is not a simple task, and we really need more data to be sure of anything. Work on more recent fossil mammals shows more reliable inferences (e.g. Wall 1980; Antón et al. 1998), obviously benefiting from soft-tissue data from a range of extant, close relatives. New insights on the evolution of mammal cranial nerves are helping to understand the development of sensitive lips and cheeks in stem-mammals (Benoit et al. 2016). It's still early days for understanding fossil facial tissues, but at least it feels like we're off the line.

    Collectively, there seems to be recognition among the academics interested in this topic that understanding the tooth coverage of fossil animals lies largely in understanding living animals. Attempts to understand tooth exposure from skulls alone - through making inferences about tooth size, jaw closure and speculations on how extensive soft-tissues can be before they become untenable - do not consider all necessary data. For example, Prehistoric Times palaeoart adviser Tracy Ford (1997) looked solely at the skulls of predatory dinosaurs to infer the absence of lips, suggesting their teeth were so long that they would pierce lip sheathing once the jaws were closed. This study assumed that predatory dinosaurs closed their mouths to the extent that the teeth of the lower jaw contacted the roof of the mouth, and that the preserved tooth configuration was the condition in life. These points are common issues raised against lipped dinosaurs, but there are several major problems. Dissections and CT scans of reptile heads show that jaw muscles and other soft-tissues have a major influence on mouth closure, to the extent that reptile jaw skeletons are typically loosely closed under their skin, even when the mouth is fully sealed. Taphonomic studies show that teeth slip readily from their sockets after death and often fossilise in far more vampiric states than they were in life. And undermining this further is that no extant taxa with lipped jaws were used to calibrate a limit for oral soft-tissues. Arguments about tooth coverage based on simply looking at skulls, without detailed consideration of modern animals and their anatomy, border on being arguments from incredulity : "I don't believe the anatomy could do that."

    Modern animals and their tooth coverage

    For an upcoming project, I've been trying to crystallise my approach to restoring ancient animal facial tissues, and deciding whether to cover their teeth or not is an important part of that discussion. I've been deliberately broad in this assessment to attempt to try to sort the wood from the trees: discussions of oral tissues can sometimes get lost in the minutiae of tissue types, uncertain osteological correlates and so on - and many of these discussions result in the same answer: they can't be resolved with current data. That's not to say they aren't important discussions, but it's helpful to step back to see if we can answer the simpler questions as well: what gauge of teeth can be covered by oral tissues? When are teeth actually exposed? And what questions should we, as palaeoartists, be looking to answer when restoring facial tissues?

    Reviewing literature and galleries of modern animals, we can see that overwhelming majority of living tetrapods have covered teeth, including all amphibians, most mammals and most reptiles (excluding birds, naturally. Hey, if they wanted to be involved they shouldn't have lost their teeth). Exposed teeth are actually really rare, and a character completely absent in many major clades. The soft-tissues involved in covering the teeth are variable, but 'lips'– either slightly fleshy margins of skin, or skin overlying true muscle - are so universal among tetrapods, as well as living relatives like lungfish, that we might assume lip tissues of some kind were ancestral to the group, and breaching these with large teeth is a derived condition evolved independently in a minority of lineages. Crocodylians are the only living tetrapods with fully exposed teeth, but it's increasingly obvious that they're also pretty specialised/derived/downright weird (Grigg and Kirshner 2015). Far from being 'living fossils' frozen in evolution, they have so many anatomical nuances and specialisations that their use as model organisms for other extinct taxa is increasingly questionable. This applies to aspects of their facial anatomy too - we’ll discuss this in more detail below.
    Fossil big-tooths - species almost universally depicted with exposed teeth - versus modern animals with huge, but completely covered teeth teeth. A, Inostrancevia latifrons; B, Tyrannosaurus rex; C, Smilodon fatalis; D, crocodile monitor Varanus salvadorii; E, mandrill Mandrillus sphinx; E, hippopotamus Hippopotamus amphibius. With the exception of Smilodon, the fossil taxa are out-toothed by the extant animals, and yet we know their oral tissues can accommodate their teeth without problem. Blue lines approximate lip margins in living species. A, after Kemp (2005); E, after Goldfinger (2004).
    Looking inside animal heads (above) shows that facial soft-tissues can cover very, very large teeth – perhaps much larger than we might intuitively expect. Examples from a range of tetrapods – including rhinoceroses, sloths, tapirs, mandrills, baboons, camels, tuataras, snakes, peccaries, bullfrogs, hippopotamuses, monitor lizards, clouded leopards, numerous rodents and others – show that large fangs, robust tusks and other forms of enormous dentition can be retained within lips or cheeks. These large teeth are truly ‘hidden’ without bulges, changes in lip direction or other features to betray their presence, and are thus undetectable unless their owners open their mouths (and sometimes not even then). Many people are shocked by the size of animal teeth when they see their skulls, and the savagery of mammalian herbivore dentition – horses and camel fangs, rhino tusks, baboon canines - are particularly startling.

    We owe many of these surprises to animal lips, which are generally much more extensive than we casually assume. Large teeth can slide into soft-tissue sheaths located between gums and lips, and these are quite visible in the open mouths of some species. Amphibians, lizards and many mammals have upper and lower lips of similar size which meet over the teeth and sheaths can form on either jaw, but some mammals – including most carnivorous forms - have very large, fleshy upper lips over thinner, tightly-bound soft-tissues of the lower jaw (Antón et al. 1998). In these species, the canine teeth overbite the lower lip but the upper ‘over-lip’ is large enough to obscure the fact that the tooth is outside the lower mouth tissues. I am unaware of a reversed situation with the lower lip covering a thin upper lip: this may reflect the fact that overbiting dentition is much more common than underbiting. Regardless of the specific configuration, it is clear that we should not underestimate the capacity for facial tissues to obscure even very large, sharp and ferocious-looking teeth. The assumption that all conspicuous teeth of fossil animals were on display in life is thus problematic and does not agree with what we can observe in modern animals (below).

    Applying palaeoart-esque considerations of oral tissue capacity to modern mammals suggest hippos are giant hogbeasts and mandrills evolved in Mordor. Restoring modern animals using palaeoart approaches is a completely original concept which in no way owes anything to some book called All Yesterdays (Conway et al. 2013).
    When do teeth breach the confines of soft-tissue? Mostly, it seems teeth used to process food remain covered. Mammal tusks and the exposed canines of certain deer are not directly involved in food processing, although this is not to say they are non-functional overall (e.g. elephants use their tusks to break branches, dig, topple trees; deer fight with their large canines). It seems that teeth of extreme size relative to the rest of the dentition are most likely to escape covering with soft-tissue, and it helps – though is not mandatory – if they grow obliquely or directly away from the jawline (this accounts for the majority of living mammal tusks). Teeth can remain covered even when their tips extend to the dorsal or ventral limits of the jaw skeleton, so long as they are aligned more or less vertically within the jaw (e.g. the mandrill skull illustrated above).

    What's up with crocodylians?

    The elephants – or rather large semi-aquatic reptiles – in the room here are crocodylians: why do they have exposed teeth when all other tetrapods have largely covered mouths? Their teeth are not overly large, nor acutely angled. Some (Reisz and Larson 2016) have argued crocodylian dentition is only possible because of their semi-aquatic habits. The (unpublished, currently conference abstract only) Reisz and Larson hypothesis is that exposed teeth – specifically their enamel component – are at risk from desiccation and breakage without constant hydration from saliva or environmental water (Reisz et al. 2016). This is an interesting idea which potentially gives artists a useful, practical guide to restoring prehistoric animals: anything living outside water with enamel-covered teeth must have covered them with soft-tissue. Despite its unpublished status, this idea has already chimed with some quarters of the online palaeoart community who're restoring anything with enamel-covered teeth with full sheathing.

    We need to talk about enamel and exposed teeth. The exposed canines of male wild boars, Sus, have enamel (white shading) coatings on 3/4 of their surface, despite being exposed (dentine is dark grey, cementum is light grey). What does this mean for the enamel desiccation hypothesis outlined below? Image from Hillson (2005).
    However, this proposal may not be as simple to implement as it first appears. For one thing, there is a real lack of consistency in tusk composition in living animals (see Hilson 2005). It is true that, as noted by Reisz et al. (2016), the tusks of elephants have caps of enamel and cementum that wear off rapidly, leaving their tusks composed of dentine alone. This would seem to support the desiccation hypothesis, it implying that enamel is a liability outside of the jaw soft-tissues. However, living elephants may not be typical in lacking enamel on their tusks, there being fossil and living mammals which do have substantial enamel components on their exposed teeth. For example, the tusks of several gomphothere species have broad bands of enamel along their lateral surfaces, even as adults (Padro and Alberdi 2008), while the canines of male musk deer are enamel covered on the external surface. The tusks of male wild boars and warthogs only bear dentine on the posterior surface and wear facet, the rest of these large, exposed teeth being covered in enamel. In all these species these are not just small bits of enamel that get worn off, but sustained coatings that persist on the tooth indefinitely and influence tooth wear (Koenigswald 2011). To confuse things further, walruses have dentine tusks like elephants, despite their aquatic habits seemingly precluding desiccation as a risk for their teeth, and the spiralling tusks of another marine mammal, the narwharls, are covered in enamel. If there is a relationship between enamel and tooth exposure, it is clearly a complicated one: the presence of absence of enamel in itself seems to have little bearing on tooth exposure in at least modern mammals. (Readers interested in tooth composition should check out the second edition of Samuel Hillson's Teeth (2005), for its extensive documentation and illustration of mammalian dentition).

    Musk deer, Moschus, canines in lateral and medial view. Note the (white) enamel layer on the lateral surface, but dentine (grey) on the medial. From Hillson (2005 - the scale bar is likely erroneous!).
    Our second reason to be sceptical of the enamel desiccation hypothesis concerns crocodylian behaviour. It is not widely appreciated that several crocodylians species ‘hibernate’, or more accurately aestivate, for months at a time in dry underground burrows during the hottest summer months (Grigg and Kirshner 2015). During these intervals they do not access water at all. Other, South American species spend dry spells as fully terrestrial carnivores, abandoning aquatic habits and obtaining water largely from the prey they kill (Grigg and Kirshner 2015). These states have to be explained against the suggested need to frequently moisten crocodylian teeth, because they suggest dental desiccation is not as risky as we're all assuming it is. Alternatively, it suggests that the requirement for hydration is so relaxed – literally months can pass without getting the teeth wet – that it probably has little influence on tooth anatomy.

    Furthermore, there are important caveats about crocodylian facial tissues that we have to factor into any discussion of their lipless configuration. Crocodylian faces are far more specialised and unusual than they first appear, and this may factor into their lipless mouths. Their highly keratinous facial skin undergoes a developmental pathway unlike that of any other amniote (their facial skin is essentially have one, highly 'cracked' scale) (Milinkovitch et al. 2013) and their heads are riddled with hyper-sensitive Integumentary Sense Organs (ISOs). ISOs are another unique crocodylian feature and are attuned, among other things, to sensing tiny vibrations in water (Soares 2002, see Grigg and Kirshner 2015 for a recent overview). In at least some parts of the crocodylian skull ISOs are situated over tiny foramina, presumably housing nervous tissues, and the overlying epidermis is thinned, with a reduced keratin component, to enhance their sensitivity (Soares 2002). We can thus see that ISOs do have a role to play in configuring crocodylian skin, and they present many questions that palaeoartists should be interested in. Are ISOs an important reason for crocodylian faces having such tight, contour hugging and lipless skin? Do the major functional and developmental distinctions of croc faces explain the lack of crocodylian lips? It might explain why virtually no other aquatic tetrapods have abandoned lips - aside from the the odd (and perhaps only) exception like the South Asian river dolphin*, there are no whales, snakes, seals or otters with crocodylian-like, fully exposed teeth. And given that no other lineages have osteological correlates for ISOs, should we put huge caveats around using crocodylians as models for facial tissues in anything other than their own ancestors? I don't know if anyone has answers to these questions yet, but they're food for thought when using crocodylians as ammunition for lipless reconstructions of fossil animals.

    *Thanks to Ádám Lakatos for pointing out the toothiness of some river dolphins!

    It's still very early days for the enamel/oral covering hypothesis, but modern animals suggest that interpretations of enamel precluding extraoral teeth are definitely more complicated than they first appear, and may even be flawed. If so, the simple presence of enamel on the teeth of fossil organisms may not be as useful to artists as some are currently suggesting. But this conclusion is preliminary, and we need to wait for this idea to mature before it's shot down entirely. We know, for instance, that there's more than one type of enamel among vertebrates. Reptilian enamel, for instance, is both thinner and of different microstructure to mammalian enamel, and these clades have rather different approaches to tooth longevity. This may mean something for enamel desiccation and long-term tooth exposure, and we may think differently on this matter once this research has been completed.

    Predicting tooth exposure in fossil species

    Fully 'lipped' gorgonopsids and theropods: maybe not be as exciting as their toothy variants, but are they more credible? Well... if modern animals are anything to go by, probably.
    All this said, what can we say about the decisions to show prehistoric animals with exposed teeth? My reading of modern tetrapods is that covered teeth is their ‘default’ configuration, and we should apply the same logic to extinct animals. If so, maybe only the more extreme examples of fossil dentition should qualify for perpetual display. Perhaps instead of asking ‘does this animal have lips?’ we should ask why they should not have them. We have to concede that the dentitions of many fossil animals frequently shown with exposed teeth – particularly theropod dinosaurs, gorgonopsids and other carnivorous stem-mammals – are relatively no larger, and in some cases a great deal smaller, than those enclosed inside the oral tissues of living animals, especially once taphonomic tooth slippage is corrected (above). For these species, it is very difficult to justify why their teeth should not be covered.

    If this is so, only especially long teeth which project a considerable distance from the margins of the skull and lower jaw should be considered strong candidates for permanent exposure. Select examples might include the canines of certain mammalian carnivores (e.g. Smilodon and other machairodont felids), the tusks of fossil elephants and their relatives, and the larger tusks of dicynodonts. We should also note those fossil reptiles – such as certain crocodyliformes, pterosaurs and marine reptiles – where entire toothrows are composed of dentition so long that their tips extend well beyond the margins of the jaw skeleton. Such extensive dental apparatus would seem to preclude the development of any sheathing tissues, at least akin to those exhibited by from modern animals, and these animals probably had fully exposed toothrows in life. Of course, this conflicts with the observation that food-processing teeth are almost always covered in the modern day. However, we can defend this approach by arguing that their morphology gives a strong reason for ignoring this guideline: it answers the "why we shouldn't give them lips?" question.

    The large, procumbent dentition of plesiosaurs and certain pterosaurs argues against them being sheathed in life, although I do wonder if some plesiosaurs are in a 'grey area' here. Could animals like Leptocleidus (right) have covered its teeth with lip-like tissues? Hmm....
    We might also set aside this guideline when extant relatives of modern forms provide us with means to predict unusual lip anatomy. For instance, the aforementioned ‘over-lip’ of modern mammalian carnivores is common enough across this group to assume it was present in their fossil relatives. Because we understand how the lips of these animals work, we can make more specific predictions concerning tooth exposure in species with particularly impressive teeth. Thus, we can look at classic reconstructions of machairodontid cats like Smilodon with perpetually bared fangs as reasonable because, unless their lips were arranged differently to virtually all their living relatives, that’s simply how their lip tissues would respond to a massive set of canines. And yes, I'm aware of Dunae Nash's recent discussions about sheathing Smilodon: given that this rests heavily on enamel being a no-no in exposed teeth, I'm unconvinced for the reasons explored above.

    The concluding caveat

    Of course, it must be reinforced that these are just guidelines - and guidelines based on my own qualitative studies, nonetheless, your mileage with them may vary - and there are exceptions to the suggestions made above. As is well known, for all the suggestion that restoring sabre-toothed cats with exposed teeth is reasonable, one living cat species – the clouded leopard – does cover a set of long upper canines in a lower lip sheath. We would not predict this based on other cat species and, if known only from fossils, clouded leopards would probably be restored with a slightly exposed canine. Likewise, the exposed tusks of some deer are not especially massive, and if we followed the suggestions above we'd probably cover them up in a reconstruction. But palaeoart is ultimately a game of prediction and probability, attempting to restore what is most likely to fill gaps in our data, and any game of odds will have some failures. That’s not to say we shouldn’t ignore these exceptional examples - they show that guidelines can't be trusted all the time - but it makes sense for us to know where the guidelines are in the first place. As with all aspects of palaeorestoration, all of us stand a chance to be proved wrong about our artistic decisions: if and when that happens, the best we can hope for is to have been wrong for the right reasons.

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    The paintings and words featured here are sponsored by a group of animals which also have sheathed dentition, Patreon backers. Supporting my blog from $1 a month helps me produce researched and detailed articles with paintings to accompany them, and in return you get access to bonus blog content: additional commentary, in-progress sneak-previews of paintings, high-resolution artwork, and even free prints. Sign up to Patreon to get access to this and the rest of my exclusive content!

    References

    • Antón, M., Garcia‐Perea, R, & Turner, A. (1998). Reconstructed facial appearance of the sabretoothed felid Smilodon. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 124(4), 369-386.
    • Benoit, J., Manger, P. R., & Rubidge, B. S. (2016). Palaeoneurological clues to the evolution of defining mammalian soft tissue traits. Scientific reports, 6.
    • Conway, J., Kosemen, C. M., Naish, D., & Hartman, S. (2013). All yesterdays: unique and speculative views of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. Irregular Books.
    • Ford, T. L. (1997). How to Draw Dinosaurs. Give Theropods no Lip! Prehistoric Times, 25, 49-50.
    • Hillson, S. (2005). Teeth, Cambridge Manuals in Archaeology Series. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 373.
    • Goldfinger, E. (2004). Animal anatomy for artists: The elements of form. OUP USA.
    • Grigg, G., & Kirshner, D. (2015). Biology and evolution of crocodylians. Csiro Publishing.
    • Keillor, T. (2013). June, in the Flesh: The State of Life-Reconstruction in Paleoart. In: Parrish, J. M., Molnar, R. E., Currie, P. J., & Koppelhus, E. B. (eds). Tyrannosaurid Paleobiology, Indiana University Press. 157-176.
    • Kemp, T. S. (2005). The origin and evolution of mammals. Oxford University Press.
    • Koenigswald, W. V. (2011). Diversity of hypsodont teeth in mammalian dentitions—construction and classification. Palaeontogr. Abt. A, 294, 63-94.
    • Knoll, F. (2008). Buccal soft anatomy in Lesothosaurus (Dinosauria: Ornithischia). Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie-Abhandlungen, 248(3), 355-364.
    • Morhardt, A. C. (2009). Dinosaur smiles: Do the texture and morphology of the premaxilla, maxilla, and dentary bones of sauropsids provide osteological correlates for inferring extra-oral structures reliably in dinosaurs? (Doctoral dissertation, Western Illinois University).
    • Prado, J. L., & Alberdi, M. T. (2008). A cladistic analysis among trilophodont gomphotheres (Mammalia, Proboscidea) with special attention to the South American genera. Palaeontology, 51(4), 903-915.
    • Reisz, R. R. & Larson, D. (2016) Dental anatomy and skull length to tooth size rations support the hypothesis that theropod dinosaurs had lips. 2016 Canadian Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Conference Abstracts, 64-65.
    • Soares, D. (2002). Neurology: an ancient sensory organ in crocodilians. Nature, 417(6886), 241-242.
    • Wall, W. P. (1980). Cranial evidence for a proboscis in Cadurcodon and a review of snout structure in the family Amynodontidae (Perissodactyla, Rhinocerotoidea). Journal of Paleontology, 54, 968-977.

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    The best holiday of the year is just around the corner: Halloween! It's the season to celebrate the macabre, the weird, the dark and the terrifying. It's the best excuse to watch all your favourite horror movies. And it's the time to spend hours making costumes that you can't really see out of or eat or drink in, but that's OK because you're doing this for the art, not the practicality. Yes, it's Halloween: king of the holidays.

    This year, an impending honeymoon and my attendance at Dinosaur Days 2016 (a palaeontology/palaeoart event being held at the WWT Wetland Centre, London, 28-29th October - it's going to be awesome, and you should come along) means I can't celebrate Halloween as normal. But dammit, I'm going to do something, even if that means just celebrating a little here by sharing some off-topic art.

    Sometimes, very rarely, I take a break from painting and writing about palaeontology and turn my attention to vintage science fiction, producing paintings of some of my favourite stories, characters or monsters, and the creatures of H. P. Lovecraft are a frequent subject. With Halloween being just around the corner and Lovecraft's tales of sinister cults, strange creatures and other-worldly horrors being pretty note-perfect fodder for this time of year, I'm going to take the blog off-road with a short gallery of my Lovecraft paintings. Although we're going to be pretty palaeontology-lite for this post (folks here for coverage of extinct creatures may be pleased to know we'll be back to normal very soon) we're not abandoning the concepts of biology and evolution altogether. One of the things I find appealing about Lovecraft's work is the frequent nods to biology, geology and evolution, and creating biologically plausible(ish) versions of his creatures was a primary goal of the work shared here. We're not quite in the territory of full-on speculative evolution with this post, but I've tried to make my discussion at least a little informed. Right, enough preamble, let's get stuck in. (Oh, and a major SPOILER WARNING for those of you who haven't read Lovecraft's most famous stories and books.)

    The Innsmouthians 

    First up is a take on some of my favourite Lovecraftian creations, the residents of the decrepit fishing town Innsmouth, as described in The Shadow Over Innsmouth. They're among the few Lovecraftian creatures which stand a chance of being depicted well in art because they're real, physical beings rather than elemental or transmaterial whosermerjiggers that are meant to drive people mad simply by violating the laws of physics.

    Deep Ones and their allies search Innsmouth for the narrator. The one in the middle seems to have forgotten what he was doing.

    The Deep Ones, the hybrid humans and their devious human counterparts are terrific, enigmatic villains and they feature in one of the most exciting of Lovecraft's stories. The Shadow Over Innsmouth is one of his few tales with a sustained action sequence, and it was this that forms the focus of the painting above where men and inhuman, bactracian beings pursue the narrator. I approached illustrating the Deep Ones using both Lovecraft's brief descriptions as well as keeping some basics tenets of biology in mind. In the novella, these creatures are described as sharing ancestry with humanity and retaining a capability to breed with us too, the resultant hybrid phenotype passing through a human stage before attaining Deep One characteristics. It's hard not to see this as a nightmarish variant on peramorphosis, the evolutionary process where growth is accelerated or extended to produce exaggerated features (it's the opposite of paedomorphosis, a more familiar evolutionary phenomenon where growth slows or ceases so that juvenile features are retained to adulthood).

    I wanted to keep my Deep Ones fairly 'grounded', looking like beings that up until their latest growth stages passed for strange looking people, as well as sharing some of the basic tetrapodiness that we might expect of clade we have recent ancestry with. Thus, they still have anthropoid proportions and faces, with the exception of a certain tall froginess about the head, and a further exception being elongate hindlimbs to permit more effective swimming and bounding, as described in the novella. Their feet are also large to aid their swimming potential. I took inspiration from early tetrapods and tetrapodomorphs in removing some of the distinction between the head and shoulders and widening the oral tissues to create an amphibian-like mouth instead of a cheeked human face. The gills were kept relatively subtle, as they appear to be in Carboniferous tetrapods, rather than wacky fin-like structures that recall the designs of Ray Harryhausen. My hope is that creating a set of more grounded creatures rather than slimy-finny-tentacle-beings makes them a little creepier, too. My own responses to horror imagery are that distortions of real life are much scarier than all-out fantasy entities.

    It also seemed important to show some of the creatures wearing clothes, something we rarely see in artwork of these creatures but mentioned several times in the story. I think this helps show that they are meant to be intelligent creatures on par with humans in terms of civilisation and culture, even if one of them - the bounding individual on the right - only wears a dirty, ill-fitting human shirt as a remnant of its former life (note the shirt is now incapable of buttoning properly around its fattened, gilled neck). The figure on the left wears a tiara and robes, another nod to specific references in the story and suggesting some sophistication in this species. A few normal-looking people are in the scene too, nodding to the fact that the whole town is associated one way or another with Innsmouth's peculiar goings-on. I think this is why the Innsmouthians are great villains: even those who aren't tainted with 'the Innsmouth look' are in on the game, and those who have lost their humanity remain man-like abilities, intelligence and malevolence. At the heart of The Shadow over Innsmouth is a story about how corrupt and nasty real people can be when they have things to hide.

    Dagon: benthic whale wrestler

    Moving on, the next image shows another famous Lovecraft creature, one we've come to know as Dagon, from the story of the same name. How Dagon fits into the rest of the Lovecraft universe is a bit murky. Some do not count it as part of the Cthulhu Mythos (indeed, Call of Cthulhu can be seen as a elaborate, Mythos 'canon' retread of Dagon) and the creature in Dagon is never explicitly identified as 'Dagon' itself. We assume it is the titular beast because of its prominence and because several aspects of its nature correspond with the popular, if erroneous, fish-god interpretation of the near-eastern deity also known as Dagon, but confirmation of this is not provided in the story. But something known as Dagon is continually referred to throughout other Lovecraft stories however, and we might assume that - as with his other in-universe references - these are nods to the creatures and scenarios outlined in his earlier work. My work and discussion here assumes that all references to 'Dagon' in Lovecraft's work point to the same entity, including all references to beastly creatures in the Dagon tale itself.

    Dagon, imagined as a giant, facultatively-bipedal, whale-murdering member of the benthos, here taking a trip over land to visit his favourite monolith.
    Dagon doesn't really give many details about the appearance of the titular creature and there are lots of different takes on this being available online. The best description we get are the narrator's observations of glyphs on a monolith, and they describe a man-like figure large enough to wrestle with whales. I've tried to follow those basic guidelines here. My version also has deliberate nods to my designs of the Deep Ones, it being alluded to as both a relative of their kind as well something they recognised and worship. With the intention to create something biologically practical as well as weird and freaky, I again turned to the early days of tetrapod evolution for inspiration. The barbels around the mouth, posteriorly-placed jaw musculature, sprawling limbs, expanded appendages and long, axolotl-like gills are nods to various amphibians as well as some tetrapod-like fish, but I resisted the urge to add a long tail because of the need for a generally man-like bauplan. 

    With a human-like bauplan not being terrific for swimming, I assumed Dagon is a member of benthic communities and gave it large, weight-dispersing feet and hands to facilitate walking on soft marine oozes at the bottom of the sea. It's meant to be a facultative biped, something which can locomote like a man if needed but probably spends more time moving like a gorilla. Its limb girdles and musculature are small and on account of it being a bulky creature mostly living in and supported by water, and we could see this being a sluggish being on land. I don't recall any references to Dagon being a particularly intelligent creature in Lovecraft lore, and think this design conveys a slightly more animalistic, rather than humanistic, creature than the Deep Ones illustrated above. I quite like the idea that this thing may be a figure of worship for the Deep Ones not because its wise or divine, but simply because it's a giant monster that they fear. Sort of the Lovecraft equivalent of King Kong, I suppose. Now that's a movie I'd pay to see.

    Echinoid Men from Beyond the Moon!

    Heading now to Antarctica we meet what are, on paper, some of the pulpiest of Lovecraft's creations: sentient echinoderm men that lived on Earth before the evolution of man (I feel that sentence needs to be written in perspective-heavy writing over a 50s B-movie poster). More routinely known as the Elder Things, this bizarre species appears in another Lovecraft classic, At the Mountains of Madness. Along with The Shadow Over Innsmouth, this is another must-read entry in the Lovecraft canon as it's not only a great adventure story - and an important early entry into the 'lost world' genre of fiction - but delves into Lovecraft's alternative evolution of life on Earth. Briefly summarised, a civilisation of Elder Things arrived on Earth hundreds of millions of years ago and helped shape life into what it is today, even using some of our fossil reptile species as beasts of burden and livestock. Over time the Elder Things lost much of its adaptive edge - biologies that aided their arrival on Earth became unimportant to their survival and were allowed to become vestigial - and vital knowledge of how to build significant technology was lost. Amidst changing climates, their cities fell until only one survived in central Antartica, along with the last, frozen and dormant, members of their species. Almost needless to say, we start to learn all this only when Antarctic explorers accidentally wake them up. The outcome of that scene is depicted below.

    Echinoid Men from Beyond the SpaceMoon. Is that the best caption I've ever written?

    Yes. Yes it is. 
    Lovecraft provides an extremely detailed overview of Elder Thing anatomy courtesy the reported dissection of the first thawed individual. Thus, they can be depicted in some detail and there's strong consistency among Lovecraftian artists of their general form. It's obvious that Lovecraft was highly influenced by various types of echinoderms in his description of this species, particular regular echinoids. Pentameral symmetry, their use of tentacle-like appendages to interact with the world and locomote, as well as pinnulate arms atop their frames are all echinoderm-like features. Furthermore, their barrel-shaped bodies are essentially just stretched versions of the globular tests seen in regular echinoids. But what makes the Elder Things particularly biologically interesting is that this bauplan is given to a species which is meant to be smart, emotional and even artistic. They're the answer to the question of 'what would a sentient, intelligent echinoderm look like?'. Granted, that's not a question most people would think to ask, but it chimes with discussions about 'dinosauroids' and other speculations about the rise of human-grade intelligence in other species. I don't think this was Lovecraft's intention, but we can still view this species as a particularly bizarre take on alternative evolution.

    Painting the Elder Things was challenging because it is a little tricky to make them look, well, sensible and viable. I think this is partly because their appearance - based though it seems to be on living species - is pretty out there and grinds against creature designs that we're more familiar with. I mean, how many illustrations or movies show creatures that look the same from five different angles? I've done my best to honour Lovecraft's description here, the only omission from his overview being the absence of wings. However, these are mentioned as being retractable in the novel and thus consistent with all large flying animals to have ever evolved on Earth: wings, frankly, get in the way unless you're flying, so it makes sense for them to be stowed away until needed. Thus, although you can't see them in this illustration, the wings were considered and would be hidden between the bulges of the test (this also solves the problem of how to draw an animal with five wings). The bioluminescence is an exercise of artistic license as it is not mentioned in the novel, but I figure it adds both a sense of sophistication and eeriness to these figures. It's also in keeping with Lovecraft's echinoderm sources, several species of this clade having developed bioluminescent body parts. More by accident than design, the patterning created by the bioluminescent channels reminds me of body painting and masks of some human tribes, which seems appropriate for a race of super intelligent beings... even overgrown echinoids.


    And finally...

    OK, we're just about done scratching this Halloween itch scratched for this year - I hope you've enjoyed it, or at least tolerated my indulgence. If this sort of thing is appealing let me know in the comments below and I'll consider posting similar post in future. I'm also making these images available as prints at my website shop should you want some Eldritch horrors for your own home. But enough seasonal fun: back to dinosaurs next time!

    Except for one more thing... how could we have a Lovecraft Halloween special without a picture of Cthulhu?

    "In his house at R'lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming. And singing '100 bottles of beer on the wall'. He loves that song."
    Folks interested in the development of this picture, including a previous version, should check out this post at Matt Wedel's (yes, he of SV:POW! fame) blog Echo Station 5-7.
    Happy Halloween everybody!

    This blog (but not this post) is haunted by Patreon

    The paintings and words that make up my blog posts are sponsored by a group of sentient, intelligent, non-echinoderm beings: my Patreon backers. Supporting my blog from $1 a month helps me produce researched and detailed articles with paintings to accompany them, and in return you get access to bonus blog content: additional commentary, in-progress sneak-previews of paintings, high-resolution artwork, and even free prints. There's no bonus content or charge for this post because it's so far off my normal topics and not what people have signed up for, but, all the same, sign up to Patreon to get access to past and future exclusive content!

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    Plateosaurus engelhardti restored as a) speculatively filamented and b) speculatively smelly (note the cloud of insects buzzing around its head). Scientists have good reason to think that sauropodomorphs could not be routine shower users, but what about that fuzz?

    PS - Blogger has added some weird watermark on this picture that I can't figure out how to remove. If anyone knows, please let me know! 


    Palaeoartistry is not a science. Even a conservative reconstruction requires artists to stretch data and evidence further than would be allowed for any scientific study and the whole process relies more on inference and speculation than many of us would like to admit. Yes, palaeoart is data-led and evidence-based, but only in rare circumstances do we have enough data to bring us to a single, reliable interpretation of a fossil species. Most of us would agree that there are some aspects of reconstructions that we can and should be getting 'right' for many species - basic proportions and musculature being top of the list - but beyond these science can often only narrow our choices, not present definitive answers. In lieu of clear scientific guidance, what guides these decisions may be our personal preferences, logical thinking, the demands of a project, or the penchants of our consultants. This means that, odd as it may seem, vastly contrasting reconstructions can be construed equally credible. A weird, alternative take on a fossil species might be just as ‘accurate’ to our knowledge as another preferred or familiar one. When evidence is equivocal for two or more states, we have to concede that one interpretation can be just as 'correct' as another.

    With this in mind, I thought it might be pertinent to talk about the above reworked reconstruction of Plateosaurus engelhardti with a filamentous coat, and why – at time of writing at least - it’s perhaps neither ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to depict this animal in this way. I could have covered it with scales as an alternative and not necessarily been ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’, either. The question of whether sauropodomorphs were wholly scaly has not escaped discussion in many quarters - it was even mentioned at this blog briefly back in 2013 - so, for a change, and perhaps to mirror the sometimes antagonistic way that similar matters are discussed on social media, I’m going to present my thoughts here as a conversational debate between… myself. The idea is that it will allow for fuller discussion of opposing points, but I suspect it really just reflects the amount of time I spend alone at home with no-one but some chickens and various squamates for company. Whatever, hopefully the 'conversation' below will be balanced: both ‘pro-filaments’ and ‘pro-scales’ have important points to make, and I’m not strongly advocating one or the other here: the point is that both sides have valid points to make, so warrant an equal platform. Over to, er… me, then.

    Me¹, meet Me²

    Me¹ (filaments, opening statement). Should we restore Plateosaurus and other sauropodomorphs with filaments? Maybe. The evolution of dinosaur integument is an increasingly complicated area of study, and the idea that scales alone were the most likely ancestral condition for the major dinosaur lineages is no longer certain. As is well known to many, in the last decade we’re discovered filaments occurring in not only theropods but also in disparate parts Ornithischia too, and detailed new studies are suggesting that filaments in the likes of Psittacosaurus are structurally similar to those of other ornithischians as well as extant and extinct theropods (Mayr et al. 2016). They may even be similar enough to suggest true homology (Mayr et al. 2016), which strongly implies dinosaur skin may have been at least partly fuzzy in its ancestral form. Indeed, with pterosaurs thrown into the mix as well, an ancestrally-filamentous Ornithodira remains not only a valid hypothesis, but one that has passed several important tests in recent years. This being so, a filamented Triassic sauropodomorph is a sensible extrapolation of modern data.

    Me² (scales, opening statement). Should we restore Plateosaurus and other sauropodomorphs with filaments? Maybe not. Firstly, studies have shown that our reconstructions of the ancestral ornithodiran integument type remains highly sensitive to the condition of its basalmost species, and we lack fossil data on these forms (Barrett et al. 2015). The 'ancestrally filamentous hypothesis' is enjoying some invigoration from new discoveries and research, but the game is not over yet. Virtually all of our dinosaur skin samples stem from derived species that had plenty of time to modify their integument from the primitive condition, and we have to concede that - whatever we think about the ancestry of dinosaur skin - they were very plastic in integument types. Thus, an important test of this hypothesis will be the recovery of good fossil skin samples from Triassic dinosauromorphs and pterosaurs, and their close relatives. Until we find these, or a fuzzy sauropod fossil, the recovery of scales from all three major dinosaur clades means the argument for 'ancestrally scaled' remains valid.

    What's the likelihood of sauropodomorphs having filamentous structures on their skin? Not much, according to Barrett et al. (2015), even in models where dinosaurs are given their best chance of being scaly. But does the absence of skin impressions from non-sauropod sauropodomorphs come into play here?
    Secondly, accepting that the evolution of dinosaur integument is complicated, sauropodomorph skin impressions are exclusively scaled. With our current data we can’t say whether this is a derived, reversed condition from a filamentous ancestor or retention of a ‘primitive’ scaled skin type, but whatever: all evidence we have from the sauropodmorph branch of the dinosaur tree seems to show scales. Granted, these specimens all pertain to true sauropods, not their ancestors, but as the closest relatives of Plateosaurus we should probably be using these as guides for our reconstructions. This is supported by the probability study of Barrett et al. (2015), who calculated that sauropodomorphs only have a slim chance (<10%) of non-scaly skin, even when the likelihood of filaments in Ornithodira was maximised.

    Me¹. Three points in response here. Firstly, admittedly playing Devil’s Advocate, a <10% chance of sauropodomorphs being filamented is still a chance, right? A filamentous Plateosaurus may not show what is most probable, but it still shows something that science shows is ‘possible’.

    Secondly, and more constructively, the fact that skin impressions are not known outside of true sauropods means we may want to question what that the sauropodomorph stats of the Barrett et al. (2015) study really tell us. Does it reflect the condition for all sauropodomorphs, or just Sauropoda? The same probability assessments gives a 50% chance of filaments being ancestral to Saurischia, so the the first sauropodomorphs must have a somewhat higher chance of being filamentous, or at least being closely related to filamented species. Presumably, that 50% chance of filaments doesn’t just plummet the moment we steer evolution to the sauropod line: it’s a long evolutionary road from a basal saurischian to the sorts of sauropods we have with skin impressions, and we have no idea if or when filaments were abandoned on that road. We have a data vacuum of skin at the base of Saurischia: after sauropods, the next closest saurischian with skin impressions to Plateosaurus is the abelisaurid theropod Carnotaurus - hardly a close relative at all. Our absence of skin impressions around the phylogenetic neighbourhood of Plateosaurus, and our data about the likelihood of filaments in saurischians as a whole favours open-mindedness about the life appearance of these animals.

    The third point is that if recent claims about dinosaur filament homology are correct, we have to assume that these structures were present in some form in the stock that gave rise to all major clades. Seeing as theropods retained filaments after the theropod/sauropodomorph split at the base of Saurischia, we should probably assume that sauropodomorphs lost their filaments after that divide. If so, a fuzzy Triassic sauropodomorph is not a far stretch.

    Me². But - even assuming homology of filaments - if Carnotaurus is scaly, and so are sauropods, we can contrarily hypothesise that saurischians were secondarily-scaly ancestrally. This might even be the most objective reading of the data we have.

    Me¹. Perhaps, but is the data supporting that interpretation really reliable? Carnotaurus is actually a weird outlier among theropods, it being the only theropod known with extensively scaly skin impressions. We have to wonder how significant this is against the wider backdrop of extensively filamented coelurosaurs sitting just a little higher up the theropod tree. As the rootward-bracket of the theropod integument bracket it's almost irritatingly important - it has a lot of sway in our reading of dinosaur integument evolution - but we still have to view it as a single outlier against the wider picture of theropod integument. As with any outlier, we have to be cautious about over-interpretation, or thinking one datum can give us the whole picture. As with so many palaeontological issues, we need more information.

    The ornithodiran integument evolution 'choose your own brackets' game. When clades without skin samples are featured alongside those with them the amount of missing data becomes apparent, and trying to find obvious patterns becomes tricky. Osteroderms are considered evidence of scales because of their relationships with scaly coverings in modern animals. Compiled from various sources.
    And if we need an example of how sensitive our dataset still is, we need only consider Psittacosaurus, Kulindadromeus. Both are deeply nested within Ornithischia but basal to clades dominated by scaly species, and yet both have filaments. No-one would have predicted their integument type from their relatives. Not only does this show that our data may not be reliable enough yet to make confident predictions about integument types, but it suggests skin types might have been quite a bit more varied among even closely related dinosaurs than we anticipated.

    Me². The risk here is that we’re pandering to exceptions, unknown data and slim chances. Arguments about the unknown nature of sauropodomorph or early saurischian skin seem like threading loopholes more than effective rebuttals. They play on what we don’t know rather than what we do, and that’s not how science works. There’s lots to be said for keeping an open mind, but we shouldn’t ignore data. Sure, there’s room for doubt here and we may be proved wrong in the future, but palaeoart should probably err on the side of caution, using the best supported, highest probability models to inform reconstructions. ‘Being wrong for the right reasons’ is perhaps the motto we should take when faced with the data gulfs associated with restoring partly known animals.

    Me¹. The flip side of this is that ornithodiran integument has been proved complicated and surprising often enough that assuming variation in the poorly known areas is justified. Who expected Kulindadromeus and Psittacosaurus, or Tianyulong? Who, for that matter, would have predicted the first fluffy pterosaur fossils among - at that point - entirely scaly relatives? The point about exploiting unknown data is an important one, but we have a strong precedent for filaments in poorly sampled areas of ornithodiran evolution now. This is less exploiting a loophole than admitting we don’t have a full picture yet, and simply portraying one of the two more likely options of integument form.

    Furthermore, Kulindadromeus and Psittacosaurus are great examples of how dangerous our approach to integument reconstruction is when we only have scraps of soft-tissue. It’s only because of their extensive soft-tissue preservation that we know they mixed scales and filaments in different body regions. And it’s not just these dinosaurs that show us that. Pterosaurs have scaly feet to counter their fluffy bodies (Frey et al. 2003), and the extinct mammal Spinolestes is known to have had scales, bristles, and variably long and short fur (Martin et al. 2015). Andrea Cau has even cast doubt on our presumed reasonable knowledge of Carnotaurus skin, pointing out that its skin impressions all pertain to the underside of the animal and that the dorsal surface could be entirely different. We thus have to ask what we really know about sauropod skin: are the bits we have representative of whole animals, or the group as a whole? The most extensive set we have - those from a diplodocid that might be Kaatedocus, described by Czerkas (1992) - show a lot scaling on the body, which meets the predictions we’ve made from smaller pieces of skin found with other sauropods. But it might be naive to think this offers a significant insight into these species, or rules out the chance of localised filaments on some sauropodomorph species.

    Me². But where do we draw the line here? There has to be a point where we can say ‘we haven't seen evidence of filaments yet, and we should factor this into our science’ without someone going ‘you don’t know the whole animal yet!’. Some artists take this to an extreme, restoring animals like Edmontosaurus with large filamented regions despite this species being known from several well-studied and extensively-scaled mummified individuals. These have no evidence of filaments whatsoever, despite preserving scales down to millimetre resolution, and yet some folks are still unconvinced, speculating that filaments were poking through gaps between scales and so on. Palaeoart like this Plateosaurus reconstruction almost holds palaeontology to a standard of knowledge that it’s unlikely to ever attain: no, we don’t have skin impressions from every species, we don’t have good skin impressions from many species at all and fossils are never perfect records of animal appearance. But we have to use what we have: science does not work on a philosophy of 'assume whatever until proven otherwise'.

    Excellent fossils show that animals like the Cretaceous mammal Spinolestes xenarthrosus had regionalised integument variation, just like modern species. So how much skin do we need from a fossil animal before we can rule out major variation in integument types? Note that the tail fluff in this picture is speculative - the integument preservation of Spinolestes doesn't extend to the tail region.
    Me¹. Of course, if we restore animals however we like in our artwork then we’re not doing real palaeoart, just palaeo-based artwork. Palaeoartists must constantly ask where the boundary between informed, sensible extrapolation of data ends and where unbridled speculation begins. So I suppose the question here is ‘does this reconstruction go too far?’ Is a filamented Plateosaurus just nutball craziness, or a reasonable idea based on what we currently know? The fact this discussion has got this far suggests that there must be some validity to this idea, even if some might think it's ultimately a flawed one. But 'flawed' is not the same as 'nonsense'. Depictions of filamentous or scaly sauropodomorphs simply reflect emphasis on different datasets. A scaly interpretation prioritises skin impressions from close relatives, but downplays emerging 'bigger picture' interpretations of ornithodiran integument, and a filamentous one does the opposite. From a 'big picture' perspective we're entering a time when reconstructing any dinosaur with filaments should not be considered ridiculous or outlandish, save for those with well sampled scaly skin tissues. It's not necessarily the best approach, but it's not an invalid one.

    Me². It must be said that it would be easy to construct this conversation around a scaled version of this animal, and discuss why it doesn’t have filaments. Our base expectation for dinosaur integument and life appearance is in a state of flux, no matter what we personally prefer or assume.

    Me¹. I think a point often lost on viewers of palaeoart is that these artworks are not, and cannot, be definitive, incontrovertible renditions of these animals. There are some animals so well represented in fossils that they lend themselves well to ultra-detailed reconstructions which are hard to quibble over to significant degrees - the awesome Bob Nicholls Psittacosaurus model being a great example (Vinther et al. 2016) - but for lesser known animals like Plateosaurus we are only painting hypotheses, not fact-based reality. This painting is one possible reconstruction of Plateosaurus as known in 2016, a time when interpretations of dinosaur skin evolution remain in flux. Time will tell if it's the product of over-interpretation of fossil data, or a lucky gambit later borne out with fossil evidence. I don’t mind getting stuff like this wrong: I’m more interested in painting and exploring credible possibilities of what we know now, not being ‘right’. We may never know what is ‘right’, so there’s not much point worrying about it. There are a couple of essays on this topic in my new book,Recreating an Age of Reptiles (Witton 2016).

    Me². You’ve seen RecARep? I hear it’s awesome and that everyone should buy a copy.

    Me¹. Wow, that’s desperate. Any actual final points?

    Me². In a previous post on the role of pterosaurs in interpreting dinosaur filaments I concluded that: “Forcibly arguing for either scales or filaments at the base of Dinosauria seems premature at this stage, and, whatever our personal hunches are, it seems sensible to accept some ambiguity in this situation for now.” I think that’s true here too. There are certainly arguments to be had on both sides, some stronger than others, but neither side has knock-out data or evidence on the table yet. It’s the same old frustrating cop-out, but we need more fossils, and fossils of the right sort, to resolve this. Specifically, we need early saurischians or dinosauromorphs with good skin preservation, as well as that Triassic sauropodomorph with excellent skin remains. It must be said that these animals are not generally found in fossil Lagerstätten conducive to good soft-tissue preservation, so I’m not advising anyone to hold their breath for this one. But new techniques for detecting soft-tissues and increasing awareness of soft-tissue preservation in lithologies once thought to only preserve bone are reasons to be optimistic that we'll have insight on these matters one day.

    Me¹. And ‘frustrating’ is the right word here, too. It seems like dinosaur science has made sufficient headway on understanding integument evolution and predictive methodologies that a reasonable, if provisional answer to the ancestral integument of the three major clades is close. But the puzzle piece needed to get our first good look at the broad picture is still out of reach.

    Awkward facial expression, bad fashion sense and a hygiene problem. No wonder no-one likes to paint early sauropodomorphs.
    Me². OK, that seems like a point to end. This discussion with yourself didn't seem to go too bad, actually. Unlike that vulture-like ruff around the base of the neck in the Plateosaurus reconstruction. I mean, if you're going to paint a controversial reconstruction, at least make the animal look good.

    Me¹. Pfft... Good… bad… I’m the guy with the graphics tablet.

    Me². Movie quotes in scientific blog post don’t make you look clever, you know. You just cheapen the whole act.

    Me¹. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.

    Me². What...? that doesn’t even fit our context.

    Me¹. It wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.

    Me². Sigh, why do I hang around with you? I think we're done here.

    So long everyone - I'm away from my computer for the next few weeks so I'm going to be pretty quiet in blog comments, social media and so on. Things will pick up again come December when we'll be addressing the sauropods in the palaeo-outreach room: has the popularity of dinosaurs above other fossil animals become a problem?

    This blog post was inarguably supported by Patreon

    The paintings and words featured here are sponsored by an excellent group of animals with regional variation in integument, Patreon backers. Supporting my blog from $1 a month helps me produce researched and detailed articles with paintings to accompany them, and in return you get access to bonus blog content: additional commentary, in-progress sneak-previews of paintings, high-resolution artwork, and even free prints. Later this month (much later - around the 28th/29th) I'll be uploading a video version of the presentation I gave over the Halloween weekend at Dinosaur Days 2016, entitled Palaeoart and the Never-Ending Quest for Accuracy. Here's the title slide to whet your appetite:
    "Oh, I see you're putting movie easter eggs in this post now too. This is why no professional blogging platform will pick you up."

    Sign up to Patreon to get access to this and the rest of my exclusive content!


    References

    • Barrett, P. M., Evans, D. C., & Campione, N. E. (2015). Evolution of dinosaur epidermal structures. Biology letters, 11(6), 20150229.
    • Czerkas, S. A. (1992). Discovery of dermal spines reveals a new look for sauropod dinosaurs. Geology, 20(12), 1068-1070.
    • Frey, E., Tischlinger, H., Buchy, M. C., & Martill, D. M. (2003). New specimens of Pterosauria (Reptilia) with soft parts with implications for pterosaurian anatomy and locomotion. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 217(1), 233-266.
    • Martin, T., Marugán-Lobón, J., Vullo, R., Martín-Abad, H., Luo, Z. X., & Buscalioni, A. D. (2015). A Cretaceous eutriconodont and integument evolution in early mammals. Nature, 526(7573), 380-384.
    • Mayr, G., Pittman, M., Saitta, E., Kaye, T. G., & Vinther, J. (2016). Structure and homology of Psittacosaurus tail bristles. Palaeontology. doi 10.1111/pala.12257.
    • Vinther, J., Nicholls, R., Lautenschlager, S., Pittman, M., Kaye, T. G., Rayfield, E., Mayr, G. & Cuthill, I. C. (2016). 3D Camouflage in an Ornithischian Dinosaur. Current Biology, 26(18), 2456-2462.
    • Witton, M. P. (2016). Recreating an Age of Reptiles. Red Phare.

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    This article is being cross-posted at the website of the London-based 2016 Popularizing Palaeontology workshop as part of a series of blog posts focusing on the discussions and themes of that event. Over the course of this two day workshop curators, artists, historians and palaeontologists presented talks and led round-table discussions about the history and current state of palaeontological outreach. I presented a talk at this workshop - entitled 'The importance and impact of palaeoart in palaeontological outreach', which you can see here. The following is not based on this talk, but rather a theme that seemed - to me - to be consistent across many presentations and discussions, including my own.

    Whether it's a giant armoured thyreophoran like Panoplosaurus mirus (thanks to the Empress of Ankylosauria, Victoria Arbour, for advice on this restoration) or a svelte theropod like Chirostenotes pergracilis, everyone likes dinosaurs and we - palaeontologists - like using them in our outreach. But are dinosaurs really universally popular and appropriate for the wide range of outreach we use them in?
    The Popularizing Palaeontology workshops held in August 2016 presented fascinating insights into the history and current state of palaeontological outreach. Our many talks and roundtable discussions touched varied topics but several central themes emerged, of which one was the prevalence of dinosaurs in virtually all palaeontological PR exercises. Whatever we discussed - the history of museums, the palaeoart industry, public interest in research or palaeontological influences on cinema - dinosaurs were almost always involved. Even if they weren’t a main focus, their influence there - catalysing certain events, influencing decisions, eclipsing other outreach topics. It would be wrong to say popularising palaeontology is totally synonymous with popularising dinosaurs, but for better and worse, these animals have a major role and influence over public outreach of palaeontological science.

    The success of dinosaurs in outreach

    Exactly why dinosaurs occupy such an important and influential space in popular culture remains largely mysterious. On paper, dinosaurs are a group of extinct reptiles which are not - superficially at least - so different from other long-dead sauropsids, and yet they have somehow gained global fame and many dedicated followers. My suspicion is that dinosaurs uniquely combine obviously amazing, ‘high impact’ anatomy - large size, fantastic skeletal structures such as horns, huge teeth and so on - with bauplans that are easily understood by the general public, without being so familiar that they’re pedestrian. For instance, everyone can appreciate Allosaurus as an active, large bodied predator even if just looking at its skeleton in a museum, but - as bird-like as it is in detail - the overall form is somewhat alien and intriguing. Other fossil groups, such as ancient carnivorans or whales, are impressive enough but perhaps also too familiar to inspire our imaginations in the same way. At the other end of the spectrum are extinct creatures which are just too unusual for widespread appreciation. Perhaps their anatomy is too strange or their life histories are too obscure and difficult to relate to familiar biology. This applies to many extinct invertebrates, as well as several types of weirder vertebrates. Dinosaur biology is thus near perfect for outreach material: they’re visually impressive, anatomically and biologically accessible, but different enough to warrant interest. Whether this is the actual basis for dinosaurian appeal or not, museum staff, educators and merchandisers have realised for over 150 years that dinosaurs are an excellent way to interest the public and make money, and given them prominent roles in outreach. Aiding any intuitive draw we have to dinosaurs is a lot of social inertia, and part of the enduring appeal of dinosaurs is a long history of ingraining them into popular culture.

    The success of dinosaurs in the public eye almost certainly reflects many varied influences, but their unique anatomical qualities may play an important role. Does any other fossil group combine interesting, ‘high impact’ biology, in a format that the public can easily grasp, in the way that dinosaurs do?

    For those of us interested in science education, dinosaurs are one of the most important and potent tools at our disposal. We see them as not only fascinating subjects in their own right but as a way to introduce ‘bigger picture’, perhaps fundamentally more important, scientific concepts to lay audiences. Dinosaurs are gateways to discussions of evolution, adaptation, anatomy, biological diversity, extinction, geological time and the changing nature of the planet. They provide, as charismatic and fantastic creatures, perfect characters to maintain interest in discussions of these sometimes complex concepts, and well-known Mesozoic dramas - the breakup of Pangea, formation of the Deccan Trapps, the Chicxulub Impact - offer rich backgrounds to stage our conversations. Dinosaurs are more than just awesome animals: they’re public ambassadors for science, facts and intelligent thinking.

    We cannot ignore the economic value of dinosaurs, too - and not just to Hollywood movie makers and toy manufacturers. Dinosaurs provide academia and its satellite industries with vital income because of their easy marketability and merchandising potential. Public interest in dinosaur news, books and artwork keeps authors and palaeoartists in work, while the pull of dinosaur exhibitions in natural history museums not only keeps turnstiles spinning but brings essential revenue - in the form of gift shop purchases, entry fees and cafe visits - to these underfunded venues. I don’t know that anyone has ever attempted to work out the net worth of dinosaurs to education, but, globally, their appeal must bring millions of pounds into venues that perform outreach every year.

    Too much of a good thing?

    So hurrah for dinosaurs, then, and their role as not only fascinating subjects for research and art, but as bankable, relatable and demanded elements of modern culture. But the popularity of dinosaurs does have an impact on other aspects of palaeontological PR, and in some conversations at our workshop ‘dinosaur’ almost became a bit of dirty word. No-one will deny the positive aspects of dinosaur popularity, but their dominance in popularised palaeontology influences outreach strategies, merchandising and public expectation, and not always in a positive way.

    Some of the problems caused by dinosaurs were outlined in detail during talks at our workshop. We heard that a large portion of natural history museum visitors are exclusively concerned with seeing dinosaur exhibits, challenging natural history museums to use the rest of their collections in a meaningful, impactful manner. This is despite many museum goers being unable to distinguish dinosaur remains from those of other animals without the aid of helpful signage. It seems that, for some museum visitors, dinosaurs act like a brand label, or justification for interest, rather than an excuse to visit a museum for a rounded educational experience.

    We also heard that bringing attention to non-dinosaur groups can be extremely difficult, and the less dinosaur-like they are, the harder it is. Groups like pre-Cenozoic synapsids, extinct invertebrates, fossil fish and so on struggle for attention and require highly creative outreach tactics to receive any interest. One of the commonest strategies - used frequently for semi-technical books on fossil animals (below) - is to make sure dinosaurs remain prominently mentioned even in those events or products which are focused on completely unrelated groups of animals. We just don’t trust most non-dinosaur clades to draw crowds or revenue on their own and have to spin them as being relevant to dinosaurs in some way. Tellingly, the only groups to escape frequent dinosaur namechecking are those which are already somewhat ‘dinosaur-like’. Giant fossil mammals, pterosaurs and Mesozoic marine reptiles share aspects of size and gross appearance with Mesozoic dinosaurs and might be seen as ‘honorary dinosaurs’ by the public, and perhaps mistakenly interpreted as the genuine article by many. Both dinosaur-targeted museum visits and our resistance to promote palaeontological topics without a dinosaurian safety net questions whether dinosaurs are a genuine ‘gateway’ to wider scientific education, and perhaps suggests a rather narrower interest in prehistoric life among the public.

    Just some of the non-dinosaurian textbooks coming your way in 2017. Probably.
    Our group also raised the association between dinosaur outreach and very young demographics, and the challenge this presented to educators. The problem isn’t that many children are naturally interested in dinosaurs - if anything, this is something to celebrate and encourage - but the impact this association has on older audiences. Many adults assume that anything to do with dinosaurs, and by extension any prehistoric animal, is automatically related to children, and often very young children. This becomes an issue for to those attempting to perform outreach or market palaeontologically-informed products to older audiences, and particularly outside of online venues. Experience shows that ‘real world’ dinosaur events - regardless of venue, event type or advertising theme - will be primarily stocked by children and parents expecting child-friendly media. I’ve experienced this many times in my outreach career, such as bowing to pressure for colouring-in stations at a palaeoart gallery, being asked whether a public lecture (entitled Palaeoart: the Never Ending Quest for Accuracy) was suitable for toddlers, and being invited to run art stalls and events for older audiences at dinosaur-themed events to find few interested people over 10 years of age.

    The general expectation that dinosaur-related events or products skew towards children presents a complex set of challenges. Firstly, it can lead to older audiences deciding a priori that they cannot take anything away from dinosaur outreach because the event - whatever it is - is ‘just for kids’. I’m sure many of us have seen how ‘switched off’ parents of young dinosaur fanatics are when visiting outreach events, even though the people their children are speaking to may be expert scientists, experienced fossil hunters or world-renowned palaeoartists. Secondly, mismatched expectations of outreach events can be frustrating for both outreachers and audiences: attendees may wonder why a dinosaur event is pitched above the level of their children, while outreachers may feel over-prepared or over-invested in their activity programme when confronted with only young audiences. Perhaps the most concerning issue is that many outreachers and merchandisers use young demographics as an excuse for low scientific standards and sensationalism, promoting outdated, erroneous and sometimes idiosyncratic views of palaeontology because their audience is too young and insufficiently educated to know otherwise, or ignoring scientific data where it might curb child appeal. I am sure most readers can think of numerous examples of products - many labelled as ‘educational’ - which show evidence of this, and it’s easy to see how this attitude may play a major role in perpetuating outdated and erroneous ideas about the past.

    One of our final discussion touched on perhaps another issue faced by dinosaur outreach: the schism between public and palaeontological appreciation of what dinosaurs are. For palaeontologists, dinosaurs are a constantly - and sometimes rapidly - evolving set of hypotheses and ideas, and this is what we generally try to present to the world in our outreach. But certain dinosaur concepts outgrew palaeontologist-steered media long ago and now occupy their own place in popular culture, one almost entirely divorced from developments of dinosaur science and instead orbiting their portrayals in film, TV and popular literature. Most of these products - even those produced in the last few years - stick to now long-outdated 20th century interpretations of dinosaur biology and, divorced from guiding hands of scientists, solely emphasise marketable aspects such as their size, perceived ferociousness, and unusual anatomy. The result is a public largely familiar with dinosaurs in a scientifically-distanced, simplified and monstrous form rather than the animals reconstructed through biological and geological sciences, and with little appreciation for their evolutionary context, the scientific techniques used to understand them, or their relationship to wider, ‘core themes’ of scientific outreach. Recent studies partly vindicate this view in showing that the public are generally unaware of even the most basic aspects of dinosaur science, such as the near 50-year old revision from the classic ‘tail-dragging’ posture to an elevated tail and horizontal body attitude (Ross et al. 2013). This is despite museums, artwork, documentaries and some of the most successful blockbuster movies of all time showing the latter since at least the 1990s. This being the case (and with an added caveat that the study in question was relatively small), perhaps our issue with dinosaur education is more severe than we thought: are people really engaging with dinosaur media at all, or are our subjects of research, artwork, and hallowed gateways to other sciences little more than time-fillers and distractions?

    Despite the best efforts of many scientists, the public at large seem to associate dinosaurs with considerably outdated interpretations and monstrous creatures. Reviewing recent successful entries into one of the most widely-accessed sources of popular dinosaur culture - Hollywood movies - is this surprising? Perhaps the most visually progressive rendering in this set are the sparsely feathered dromaeosaurs from Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur (bottom right). However, the state of their integument still recalls dinosaur palaeoart from the mid-1990s, and not the extensive feather body covering shown by fossil evidence and now commonly restored over certain dinosaur species. Image sources, from top row down; King Kong (2005); Godzilla (2014); Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014); Toy Story (1996 - onwards); Jurassic World (2015); The Good Dinosaur (2015).

    So, are dinosaurs as useful as we think for outreach purposes?

    The points raise a simple but significant question: how effective is dinosaur-based outreach, really? As noted above, many decisions about outreach are shaped around dinosaur science and resources are poured into promoting dinosaur science itself. But are we right to regard dinosaur outreach as highly as we do?

    Trying to balance the positive and negative points raised above, my take is yes, dinosaurs are an effective means to bringing science to people… but probably only certain people. Specifically, they seem to work very well among those who are already tuned into palaeontology, natural history and general science, an audience composed mostly of adult enthusiasts and children. Beyond this, their effect seems to tail off quickly and they may actually be a barrier to effective outreach. Audiences with preconceived expectations of dinosaur-themed content may ignore anything dinosaur related, which is a concern with us giving dinosaurs such privileged consideration in educational material. Are we limiting our promotion of other topics that could engage these uninterested people? And is one of our challenges of popularising palaeontology making dinosaurs and related topics universally attractive, and not just subjects with appeal to specialist audiences or younger people?

    Of course, your opinion on this matter may differ. But even so, I think most of us would agree that our wider education about dinosaurs and related matters could be more effective, or at least more nuanced and reflective of more topics, than it currently is. I am optimistic that a groundswell of suitable movements towards this goal may already be underway. Many modern curators, scientists and artists are attuned to matters of science communication and interested in identifying outreach issues, sharing best practise, evolving public engagement methods and reaching new audiences with new topics. The fact that this article is being written as output from a workshop dedicated to popularised palaeontology is evidence of these practises actually occurring, and it feels like the right questions are being discussed. How can we, and when should we, shift focus from dinosaurs? How do we make other forms of life/parts of museum collections of wider interest? How do we more effectively impart new science to publishers, movie makers and other non-educational bodies making palaeontologically-themed media? It’s also pleasing to see more discussions about the once largely backgrounded industry practises of palaeoartistry in both scientific and popular media. Realising the important role that palaeoart has for communicating science, many involved in its production are vocally distancing themselves from the ‘popularised’ image of dinosaurs to more nuanced, scientifically-validated and interesting portrayals of dinosaurs, as well as other forms of prehistoric life. We are still on the uphill part of this journey to revising our outreach approach, but it’s reassuring to know that a body of professionals are looking critically at dinosaur outreach and its wider impact.

    Minor victories in recent palaeontological outreach involve effectively communicating to certain, interested audiences that Deep Time was not a dinosaur theme park, and that fossil creatures did not spend all their time battling and roaring at one another. Evidence that this message has hit home with at least some audiences is reflected in the broadening depth and nuance of palaeoart being posted across the internet. Shown here: my take on Jurassic stem-mammals, a gorgonopsian, gliding drepanosaurs, a goniopholidid crocodyliform, Cretaceous albanerpetontid, erythrosuchids, and... Longisquama, whatever the heck that is. Not shown here: dinosaurs in premier view, or roaring. The challenge is getting scenes like this, and subjects like this, to wider audiences.
    Most of the discussions and innovation in dinosaur/palaeontolgical outreach are taking place online, and transferring these to ‘real-world’ outreach, where the necessity of resource investment makes change risky, may be our greatest upcoming challenge. Again, however, there are signs of this sort of thing happening, such as the famous (or infamous?) decision to replace the Natural History Museum’s famous Diplodocus cast with a blue whale skeleton. This logic of moving this famous attraction has been questioned by some, but I admire the museum for putting a very relevant and symbolically significant specimen in their most prominent location. In doing so, they’re making a clear statement about what they consider to be important, and what they want the public to engage with. Whether you agree with the controversial reorganisation of the natural history museum or not, the idea of outreachers taking initiative with their educational agenda is something I feel we should echo when popularising prehistoric animals. If our outreach is primarily reaching pre-interested audiences anyway, then why not have faith in their interest and tell them what we - as researchers, artists and curators - think is fascinating and exciting about our field, whether it’s related to dinosaurs or not? It would seem a diverse array of outreach topics is more likely to spread out from palaeo-primed audiences and into broader public interest than one largely revolving around a single, perhaps somewhat over-familiar topic. Perhaps cutting palaeontological outreach’s umbilical chord with dinosaurs would benefit us outreachers too, allowing us to freshen and rethink our approach to popularising neglected groups and focus on their own selling points, instead of using them to greater contextualise dinosaurs.

    The risk of failure is what prevents many of us, and our employers, from straying too far from tried and tested means of outreach. And yes, if we’re talking paleontology with the public, dinosaurs are an obvious safety net. But we should take advantage of the fact that we’re more enabled than any previous generation of educators to cooperate, create and promote the subjects we feel are important with only a little inventive thinking and technological knowhow. Individuals can now develop significant outreach resources without the need for expensive designers and developers; online promotion can be essentially free; and the increasing accessibility of printing - both 2D and 3D materials - is lowering the financial risks tied into ‘real world’ outreach events. Any public enterprise involves a level of investment and risk, but resourceful thinking and shouldering the brunt of development ourselves can minimise these.

    In closing, I want to stress that I’m not wailing on dinosaurs. As may be evident from my own output, I think they’re fantastically interesting animals with an important role to play in outreach. But for dinosaur outreach to be successful and support, not restrict, other outreach efforts we have to realise their limitations, as well as their strengths, as public ambassadors.

    This piece of outreach was supported by Patreon

    The paintings and words featured here are sponsored by folks who are certainly very popular in my house, my Patreon backers. Supporting my blog from $1 a month helps me produce researched and detailed articles with paintings to accompany them, and in return you get access to bonus blog content: additional commentary, in-progress sneak-previews of paintings, high-resolution artwork, and even free prints. For this post we'll be looking at my new angry nodosaur painting, discussing ankylosaurs in palaeoart and why they're so darned challenging to render well. Sign up to Patreon to be part of the discussion!

    Reference


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



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    In an ideal world, all blog posts would start with images like this one. (Edited talk title slide I used back at SVPCA 2013 - we've been working on the project discussed below for a while now.)
    In the last year we've spoken at great length about the giant azhdarchid pterosaurs, those toothless, tube-necked, 10 m wingspan behemoths that awesomed their way into existence at the end of the Cretaceous Period (if you need more of an introduction, check out these posts). Of the three named giant species, we've discussed what is really known of Quetzalcoatlus northropi and outlined why their least famous representative - Arambourgiania philadelphiae - is worthy of greater attention. But we've yet to tackle the most recently named and, in some respects, intriguing giant of them all: the heavily built, giant-headed Romanian behemoth Hatzegopteryx thambema.

    A quick primer for those of you who aren't familiar with Hatzegopteryx. The first fossils of this Romanian, Maastrichtian pterosaur were announced in 1991 but, on account of their considerable size and robustness, they were interpreted as belonging to a large theropod, not a pterosaur. Eric Buffetaut and colleagues reassessed these bones some years later and made their azhdarchid pterosaur identity apparent (Buffetaut et al. 2002, 2003). As with all giant azhdarchids, only scraps of Hatzegopteryx are known. Bits of skull and a broken humerus from the Densuș Ciula Formation form the holotype, and a large femoral shaft from the same formation may belong to this animal as well. All these elements are remarkable for their size - wingspan estimates of 10-12 m seem sensible (Buffetaut et al. 2003; Witton and Habib 2010) - as well as an unusual degree of internal reinforcement. In addition to thick bone walls (4-6 mm, which doesn't seem much, but is impressive for a pterodactyloid pterosaur), both Haztegopteryx humeral and jaw elements possess large amounts of coarse spongiose bone. This reinforcement may be related to the evolution of some very substantial anatomy. Buffetaut et al. (2003) were able to make a compelling case for a 50 cm wide jaw for this animal, and even conservative extrapolation of that figure suggests Hatzegopteryx was among the longest-jawed non-marine tetrapods to have ever lived (Witton 2013). Such an unusual pterosaur seems fitting for its provenance, the Densuș Ciula Formation representing part of the ancient and peculiar 'Hateg Island' ecosystem. This setting will be familiar to many as an ancient, large Cretaceous island well-separated from the rest of Europe by deep seas, and populated by archaic, sometimes dwarfed or otherwise peculiar dinosaur lineages (e.g. Benton et al. 2010).

    Since Hatzegopteryx was named in 2002 several Romanian sites of equal age and palaeoenvironmental setting have provided new fossils of giant pterosaurs. Some of them have a real Hatzegopteryx flavour (Vremir 2010; Vremir et al. 2013) and, although a complete specimen remains far from realised, a crude picture of this giant pterosaur is slowly being put together. These specimens are being worked on by different teams and, hopefully soon, we'll have a lot of new Haztegopteryx (or at least large azhdarchid) material to play with.

    But that's not to say there's nothing new about Hatzegopteryx to discuss here. In fact, today Darren Naish and I published a new, open-access peer-reviewed form-function assessment of a Hatzegopteryx vertebra which takes us a step closer to understanding this enigmatic animal (Naish and Witton 2017). Long-term readers of this blog or Tetrapod Zoology will know that Darren and I team up semi-regularly to write about azhdarchid palaeobiology and may have played a role in shaping modern interpretations of these pterosaurs (Witton and Naish 2008, 2013). Our work this time focuses on a remarkable pterosaur bone known as EME 315, a giant azhdarchid cervical briefly described by Vremir (2010) and likely representing the first described axial element of Hatzegopteryx*. Our ideas about the proportions, structural properties and surrounding musculature of this bone are quite different to what has previously been said about Hatzegopteryx and other azhdarchids and, if we were sensible people, we would have kept quiet until today. However, our enthusiasm for the project and as well as a long, complex writing process has made for a particularly leaky embargo (artwork of our new interpretation of Hatzegopteryx made it into my art book, Recreating an Age of Reptiles, of instance) and many readers may be aware of our punchline: Hatzegopteryx may have a been a particularly powerful and 'short necked' azhdarchid, and maybe even a dominant predator of the topsy-turvy island ecosystem of ancient Hațeg. With the cat already somewhat out of the bag, let's take a look at our substantiation for what is a bold, counter-intuitive claim: could a pterosaur, even a giant azhdarchid, have been a formidable arch predator?

    *EME 315 is from the Sebeș Formation, and thus not from the same formation as the H. thambema type, and does not overlap with our existing thambema inventory. However, it has the same characteristically thick bone walls, spongiose internal texture and stupendous size that we can recognise in the Hatzegopteryx type specimen. This, and its extremely close geographic and chronostratigraphic (Maastrichtian) occurrence, make referral to Hatzegopteryx reasonable, although we hedge our bets a little in not referring it to H. thambema itself. We settled on H. sp.


    Mighty EME 315 as presented in our paper. The scale bar represents 100 mm - for a pterosaur vertebra, this is a massive bone. Note the graph at the base of the image - for its size, EME 315 is a clear outlier to other azhdarchid cervical specimens. That's the Arambourgiania type cervical V for contrast. From Naish and Witton (2017).

    Estimating the neck length of Hatzegopteryx

    Figuring out the proportions of an animal from one bone is not easy, and is especially challenging for a group with a subpar fossil record like azhdarchids. We were thus quite careful not to push our proportional interpretations of EME 315 too far, but some aspects of the size and basic anatomy of the EME 315 individual can be deduced quite readily. In turn, they provide some insight into the basic shape of Hatzegopteryx. It goes without saying that EME 315 was from an enormous animal. Its width is almost three times that of the next largest known pterosaur vertebra, and that puts it into the 'giant azhdarchid' category without hesitation. We were able to use some fundamental aspects of pterosaur neck construction to conclude that EME 315 might belong to similarly-sized animal as the (estimated) 10-12 m wingspan Hatzegopteryx holotype individual, the same one that has the 50 cm wide skull. That makes sense to me - an animal with a jaw that wide - and who knows how long? - is going to need a chunky set of neck bones to support and operate it.

    Complete azhdarchid necks are rare, but we were able to track down data for six associated or reconstructed cervical series to plot their scaling regimes and predict the neck length for EME 315. These vertebral series also allowed us to make a predication for where in the neck EME 315 came from - we concluded that it likely represents a seventh cervical, one of the smaller vertebrae from the back of the 'functional' cervical skeleton. Our identification contradicts Vremir (2010), who suggested it was a third cervical, but there are good reasons to doubt this ID. Rehashing our long discussion of the vertebral ID here would be both tedious and unnecessary, especially given that interested readers can head to the paper for our full assessment. It will suffice to say that we're confident a cervical VII identification is much more likely than a cervical III, and this was the assumption we employed for the neck length estimate.

    Our neck dataset predicted a cervical III-VII length of 1.5 m for EME 315, which sounds impressive, until you realise that the much smaller, 4.6 m wingspan azhdarchid i>Quetzalcoatlus
    sp. has a neck of equal size - 1.49 m long (below). By contrast, the giant holotype cervical of Arambourgiania, which probably also represents a gigantic animal of 10 m(ish) wingspan, gives a reconstructed cervical III-VII length of 2.65 m. So EME 315 has a neck no longer than that of a pterosaur with perhaps half its wingspan, and much shorter than that of at least one other giant species. We thus suggest that, for its size, Hatzegopteryx had an abbreviated neck skeleton. Of course, this is not the first time the potential of short-necks in azhdarchids has been raised - it's not even the first time Darren and I have discussed it in a peer-reviewed paper (Vremir et al. 2015). But Naish and Witton (2017) is the first time this hypothesis has been outlined in detail and substantiated with a dataset of neck bone measurements, so it feels that we've elevated the idea to something that can be discussed and challenged more legitimately.

    Neck lengths in large and giant azhdarchids. A and B show Hatzegopteryx in lateral and dorsal aspect (B shows EME 315 and the holotype jaw bones only, but gives you an idea how chunky its neck was); C, shows Arambourgiania (known bones in white) with a reconstructed neck (grey elements); D and E, Quetzalcoatlus sp., lateral skeletal and dorsal view of skull and neck. From Naish and Witton (2017).
    A short-necked azhdarchid may not seem like a big deal, but they're potentially important for at least two reasons. The first is that azhdarchids are in part classified by their super-elongate neck bones, but our data indicates that this may not be a universal trait. We used our neck bone dataset to predict that the longest bone in the EME 315 neck - cervical V - would have only just exceed 400 mm, which makes its length less than twice the width of EME 315. By contrast, a typical azhdarchid cervical V is 5-8 times longer than wide. We need to find a complete Hatzegopteryx neck without hypertrophied mid-series cervicals to confirm our calculations, and have little idea how common this 'short necked' variant might be within Azhdarchidae as a whole (we helped describe another proportionally short Romanian azhdarchid vertebra, R.2395, which could be a second 'short necked' species a few years back - Vremir et al. 2015), but - if verified - a 'short necked' morph could complicate how we characterise Azhdarchidae.

    Secondly, and perhaps of more general interest, this calculation adds to increasing evidence that azhdarchids may have differed rather dramatically in overall proportions. A number of workers have criticised the concept of azhdarchid anatomical uniformity in recent years (Vremir et al. 2012, 2013, 2015; Witton 2013), and our new paper adds further force to that argument: data for skulls, wing morphologies and now necks hint at a range of bauplans within the group. Their categorisation may not be as simple as 'robust' and 'gracile' forms as I've previously suggested (Witton 2013), but it's increasingly difficult to view Azhdarchidae as a parade of Quetzalcoatlus clones. This is of interest to not only researchers - differing forms might indicate differing behaviours and ecologies - but is something for artists to take note of too.

    Arambourgiania vs. Hatzegopteryx: Neck Wars

    Just how does our new 'short-necked'Hatzegopteryx compare to a regular, long-necked giant form? Something like this. That's our Industry Standard 5.8 m tall male Masai giraffe on the left, the Disacknowledgement centre left, Arambourigania centre right, and Captain SuperChunk on the right. As restored here, Hatzegopteryx is nowhere near as tall as Arambourgiania, but the bulk of its skull and neck likely made it a more formidable animal.
    Being interested in azhdarchid ecology, we wondered how the different proportions and internal anatomy of giant azhdarchid cervicals might influence their ability to withstand neck stresses caused by foraging, supporting their heads and so on. We performed a range of bending strength assessments on both the robust and thick-walled EME 315 and the elongate, slender-walled tube that is the giant holotype Arambourgiania cervical V. There are too many variants of the experiments to report all the results here (again, see the paper for details), but the TL;DR version is that the performance difference was consistently huge. OK, no-one was expecting the long, gracile Arambourgiania vertebra to outperform EME 315 in a bone strength competition, but the difference between the two is significant enough to indicate very different neck functions. Even comparing Arambourgiania's best bending performance against EME 315's worst, the latter is ten times stronger. We extrapolated our data to assess bending strength in the longest (and therefore weakest) neck bone in the Hatzegopteryx skeleton (a hypothetical cervical V) and it still outperformed its counterpart in Arambourgiania by several biomechanical miles. A larger cross-section, shorter vertebral body and thicker bone walls all contribute to EME 315's stellar bending performance, and we identify several additional aspects of reinforcement and strengthening of EME 315 in our paper.

    It's therefore clear that the neck structure of Hatzegopteryx was in a different biomechanical league to that of Arambourgiania, and this implies vastly different neck functions in these species. We expect that one factor in this distinction is the wide, presumably heavy head ascribed to Hatzegopteryx, and infer that the weaker neck bones of Arambourgiania would require a narrower, gracile variant of the azhdarchid skull (maybe something a bit Q. sp-like). But the strength of the Hatzegopteryx neck seems high even accounting for its likely skull size, and we postulate that additional loads - big prey items, violent uses of the head and beak during foraging - may have contributed to its boosted structural properties.

    Supporting this hypothesis are features indicative of large soft-tissue volumes around the neck of Haztegopteryx. Classically, the reduced features of azhdarchid neck vertebrae have seen them regarded - and depicted - with minimised cervical musculature and ligaments. We regard this view as problematic for a number of reasons. The first is that complete azhdarchid necks show that only the mid-series vertebrae lack complex anatomy indicative of muscle and ligament attachment. The complexity of their neck skeleton as a whole is not far off that of a 'normal' tetrapod, where the anterior and posterior vertebrae are relatively complicated to allow for greater volumes and intricacies of soft-tissues in these regions. Yes, azhdarchids do reduce their vertebral complexity further than most species, but not so far that we should assume their in vivo necks were little more than bony tubes covered in skin.
    Reconstructed cervical series and associated azhdarchid specimens show that their necks were not just made of bony tubes, but variably complicated bones in a pattern structurally typical of other long-necked tetrapods. What might this mean for soft-tissue development? One obvious implication is that at least the anterior and posterior neck regions were likely fleshier than often considered. From Naish and Witton (2017).

    Furthermore, assuming azhdarchid neck muscles and ligaments were basically homologous to those of living reptiles, some attachment sites must be regarded as expanded, not shrunken. These include particularly deep shoulder blades (for anchoring neck elevators and lateral flexors) and deep basins at the back of the cranium (for anchoring neck-skull extensors). While famously lacking vertebral processes on their mid-series cervicals, a suite of scars along the dorsal surfaces of azhdarchid cervicals betray long muscle or ligament attachments, while the vertebrae at the extremes of the neck have well-developed neural spines. Most startlingly, the expansion of their zygagpophyses take on new significance when we realise that these structures anchor numerous neck muscles in living sauropsids. So yes, azhdarchids certainly lost and reduced some areas of neck muscle attachment, but others were enhanced. The peculiar cervical anatomy of azhdarchids likely reflects an economising, rather than all-round loss, of neck soft-tissues.

    Bringing this discussion of soft-tissue back to the giants, we have to look at Arambourgiania and Hatzegopteryx as once again reflecting very different types of animals. Our Arambourgiania cervical has much smaller areas for soft-tissue attachment compared to EME 315, which has immense, complicated anatomy in all the areas we associate with cervical soft-tissues in living sauropsids. This may partly be explained by EME 315 and the holotype Arambourgiania cervical being from different parts of the neck, but complete azhdarchid necks suggest these bones provide some general sense of neighbouring cervical skeleton anatomy - it would be weird if the Arambourgiania cervical V was juxtaposed with a massive, EME 315-type bone, for instance. We take this to indicate that EME 315 was not only a strong bone in a robust neck, but that the cervical skeleton of this animal was perhaps wrapped in large, powerful muscles and ligaments - exactly the sort of soft-tissues that can deliver those demands hinted at by our bending strength tests, and would be needed to wield that enormous head.

    Ecological diversity of giant azhdarchids

    These results get most interesting when we plug them into the bigger picture of giant azhdarchid anatomy and lifestyles, because there seem to be a couple of different stories being hinted at here. For example, we can take the long neck, relatively low cervical bending strength and lessened areas of muscle attachment in Arambourgiania as placing restrictions on prey size as well as precluding violent, dynamic foraging strategies and other behaviours that would impart high stresses on its neck anatomy. Assuming the 'terrestrial stalker' model for azhdarchid lifestyles (Witton and Naish 2008, 2015) applies to the giants, we might imagine Arambourgiania as preferring smaller prey and relatively lightweight foodstuffs: smallish animals, the eggs of larger reptiles and birds, and generally anything that wouldn't put up too much of a fight. These would still be formidable animals - remember that they stand 4-5 m tall - but all indications are that they represent the 'lightweight' end of the azhdarchid palaeoecology spectrum, and likely behaved accordingly.

    Giant azhdarchid pterosaurs, diet edition. What we know of Arambourgiania implies they preferred smaller prey, such as diminutive dinosaurs, which may have been caught using relatively undemanding means.From Naish and Witton (2017).
    The emerging picture is rather different for Hatzegopteryx. Here, we can plug our results of a relatively short, strong neck and high fractions of cervical musculature into its overall robust construction, reinforced bones, massive and wide jaws, and stupendous size. Collectively, this paints an image of a far more solidly built and powerful animal than Arambourgiania. If - as most of us now seem to think - azhdarchids were 'terrestrial stalkers', we can imagine Hatzegopteryx as as a giant azhdarchid turned up to 11: a prairie-roaming giant with elevated maximum prey size and capacity for violent and forceful foraging tactics. Given how dangerous we know modern azhdarchid-like birds can be, and armed with a powerful neck and giant, reinforced skull, we might even imagine Hatzegopteryx using powerful bites, bludgeoning blows of its head and stabbing motions to tackle prey too large to swallow whole. If we're right, Hatzegopteryx was both a truly awesome, but also entirely terrifying animal. There is not exact modern analogue for this sort of creature, but if you imagine a giant mix of a shoebill stork, a ground hornbill, and the Terminator you might be pretty close.

    The Hatzapocalypse: a group of foraging Hatzegopteryx find a chunky, subadult rhabdodontid Zalmoxes. Rather than pursuing baby sauropods or raiding nests, our interpretation of Hatzegopteryx implies it was a dangerous predator of mid-sized or larger animals. Whether it used the catchphrase "Hatze la vista, baby" after each successful hunt remains a matter of debate among scientists. From Naish and Witton (2017).
    It is significant to this hypothesis that no large theropods are known from the same sediments as Hatzegopteryx. We can never say never with negative evidence, but the Maastrichtian sediments of Romania have been sampled for centuries and not a single large predatory dinosaur bone has been found - not even a single tooth. These are the only sediments in the world where you stand a better chance of finding a giant pterosaur than a large theropod, and it's hard not to look at that as intriguing. Hatzegopteryx is the only carnivorous animal we know of from this time and place which was large enough, and robust enough, to tackle good-sized prey, and we postulate that it may have taken the 'arch predator' niche occupied by theropods elsewhere in the world.

    Further work on new Romanian pterosaur fossils, as well as new discoveries, will show if this view is correct or not. Moreover, they'll help answer the many, many questions that remain concerning giant azhdarchid anatomy, evolution and palaeobiology. For me, among the most significant of these questions is what Hatzegopteryx signifies in the context of Late Cretaceous pterosaur disparity, ecological diversity and their eventual extinction. The latter is something we discuss briefly in our paper, as we've classically interpreted Maastrichtian pterosaurs as a biologically conservative group living on borrowed time. But our new work on Hatzegopteryx, as well as the potential recovery of a small-bodied pterosaur from Campanian sediments of Canada (Martin-Silverstone et al. 2016), and ongoing work on non-azhdarchid pterosaurs found near to the K/Pg boundary from Morocco (these being presented at SVPCA 2016 by Nick Longrich and colleagues) complicates that picture. It's looking more and more likely that our perception of the last pterosaurs as a low diversity, dying group has been distorted by sampling biases, and they may have actually been doing just fine until the end of the Mesozoic. Perhaps pterosaur extinction was a more significant event than previously realised.

    But these questions will have to wait. For now, it's satisfying to finally be talking about these new data on what was clearly one of the coolest animals in the pterosaur canon. I'll leave you with a thought echoed from our paper: whether the ideas discussed here are right or wrong, the fact we can discuss 'the Hatzegopteryx arch predator hypothesis' without laughing is a real sign that interpretations of azhdarchids - and pterosaurs generally - have moved on considerably. Could our colleagues of 50-60 years ago have imagined pterosaurs - considered lame, underweight, creaky-winged gliding things - would be discussed in this sort of context? I imagine not.

    (We're not done with pterosaurs, or new papers, at the blog just yet: stay tuned for more pterosaur news in the very near future.)

    This paper, blog post and paintings are made possible by Patreon

    The content featured here is sponsored by another group of short-necked tetrapods, my Patreon backers. Supporting my blog from $1 a month helps me produce researched and detailed articles with paintings to accompany them, as well as peer-reviewed papers on which to base them. In return for being a Patreon backer you get access to bonus blog content: additional commentary, in-progress sneak-previews of paintings, high-resolution artwork, and even free prints. For this post, we'll be looking the four years of development that went into the Hatzegopteryx painting shown above, revealing the earliest versions up to the final, published version. Sign up to Patreon to get access to this and the rest of my exclusive content!


    References

    • Buffetaut, E., Grigorescu, D., & Csiki, Z. (2002). A new giant pterosaur with a robust skull from the latest Cretaceous of Romania. Naturwissenschaften, 89(4), 180-184.
    • Buffetaut, E., Grigorescu, D., & Csiki, Z. (2003). Giant azhdarchid pterosaurs from the terminal Cretaceous of Transylvania (western Romania). Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 217(1), 91-104.
    • Martin-Silverstone, E., Witton, M. P., Arbour, V. M., & Currie, P. J. (2016). A small azhdarchoid pterosaur from the latest Cretaceous, the age of flying giants. Royal Society Open Science, 3(8), 160333.
    • Naish, D. & Witton, M. P. (2017). Neck biomechanics indicate that giant Transylvanian azhdarchid pterosaurs were short-necked arch predators. PeerJ, 5:e2908; DOI 10.7717/peerj.2908
    • Vremir, M. (2010). New faunal elements from the Late Cretaceous (Maastrichtian) continental deposits of Sebeş area (Transylvania). Acta Musei Sabesiensis, 2, 635-684.
    • Vremir, M., Kellner, A. W., Naish, D., & Dyke, G. J. (2013). A new azhdarchid pterosaur from the Late Cretaceous of the Transylvanian Basin, Romania: implications for azhdarchid diversity and distribution. PLoS One, 8(1), e54268.
    • Vremir, M., Witton, M., Naish, D., Dyke, G., Brusatte, S. L., Norell, M., & Totoianu, R. (2015). A Medium-Sized Robust-Necked Azhdarchid Pterosaur (Pterodactyloidea: Azhdarchidae) from the Maastrichtian of Pui (Ha&tcedil; eg Basin, Transylvania, Romania). American Museum Novitates, (3827), 1-16.
    • Witton, M. P. (2013). Pterosaurs: natural history, evolution, anatomy. Princeton University Press.
    • Witton, M. P., & Naish, D. (2008). A reappraisal of azhdarchid pterosaur functional morphology and paleoecology. PLoS one, 3(5), e2271.
    • Witton, M. P., & Naish, D. (2015). Azhdarchid pterosaurs: water-trawling pelican mimics or “terrestrial stalkers”?. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, 60(3), 651-660.

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    A few years ago I wrote about how the 21st century is a terrific interval for palaeoart because of the wealth of information, discussion of palaeoart theory and diversity of talent we presently enjoy. Never before has so much data on this topic been available to practitioners of the trade, to scientists and historians, or to curious members of the public. The increase in palaeoart talent, a movement of artists exploring the outer regions of palaeoart science and artistry, and hints of wider interest in art of fossil animals are all traceable to these recent developments.

    Any palaeoartist you speak to will tell you that there are honed practises and processes that should be applied when executing a palaeoart study. Several decades worth of influential artwork and writing by the likes of Knight, Hallett, Paul, Antón, Conway et al. and others send a unified message: reconstructions of fossil animals should be produced through close study of animal anatomy, both fossil and modern. They demonstrate that palaeoartworks must pass some basic, almost objective tests to be considered scientifically credible, successful examples of the medium.

    • The proportions of the subject should be accurate to those indicated by its fossil remains
    • The skeleton of the subject should fit within the restored soft-tissue volume
    • Depicted poses should conform to predictions of joint motion
    • The soft-tissue volume should - at minimum - be informed by predictions of muscle bulk derived from fossil remains as well as relevant data from modern, related species
    • Soft-tissues restoration should be informed where possible by fossil data, or else via robust predictive techniques, such as phylogenetic bracketing
    These points are not controversial. I'm sure any number of modern palaeoartists would list these as their baseline, entry level requirements for bona fide, scientifically-credible palaeoartwork. Further considerations of posing, composition and behaviour become more subjective and debatable - ideas of what we think 'looks right' or is 'most likely' in these areas are influenced by personal preferences, artistic styles and intent of the artwork. Successful palaeoartists can have contrasting ideas about these latter points, and that's fine: so long as our work remains within the realms of scientific plausibility, we are free to experiment and develop unique styles. But at the core of any palaeoartwork must be a reconstruction of a species that conforms to those fundamental aspects listed above.

    Although it feels like we live in an enlightened age for palaeoart, some artworks associated with the very people who should be sticklers for scientific precision and reconstruction plausibility fall well short of the most elementary aspects of fossil animal reconstruction. These are not reconstructions for TV shows or films, where creative forces override scientific input. They are not illustrations for books where an overworked generalist illustrator is given a few hours to render an animal they'd not heard of until that morning. These are artworks produced for papers and press releases where scientists - researching palaeontologists with direct access to fossil material and technical literature - have every opportunity to guide and shape the artistic process. And these works are sometimes so scientifically awful that they're almost insulting to those of us who strive to produce credible prehistoric imagery, being critically flawed at the most basic level.

    The level of failure in some artworks (not linked to here out of politeness) is sufficient to question whether those involved knew anything about reconstructing anatomy or if they really cared about the artwork at all. And yes, I think we do have to look at the scientists and researchers as being ultimately responsible here. These are artworks produced directly under their control to be associated with their work, and without pressure from publishers or media producers to be fantastic, weird or sensational. Scientists made the decision to produce these palaeoartworks, chose the artist to execute it, chose the level of input to have during its production, and signed off the final product.

    In these artworks, even errors which scientists can objectively veto (such as proportions and bone articulations, elements of form such as skull or tooth shape, well-studied soft-tissue anatomies like feathers arrangements on dinosaur wings) are ignored. The result is that these pieces perpetuate errors that were realised as problematic years ago: under-muscled, 'shrink-wrapped' animals; 'bunny handed' theropods; feathered maniraptorans with three free fingers extending from their wings; ichthyosaurs with visible giant eyes; pterosaurs with enormous torsos and so on. The worst offenders show no grasp of basic aspects of animal anatomy, fossil or modern, with outlandish ideas of muscle distribution or proportions which are falsified by the most cursory glance at reference material. It is no exaggeration to say that some recent scientist-led palaeoartworks would not look out of place if produced in the 1830s. 

    And we - educators, scientists, palaeoartists - should feel ticked off about this. Scientist-led palaeoart should be the best there is: carefully-executed, evidence-led syntheses of research conclusions in compelling artworks. It should convey to people how the subject appeared and behaved based on both new, cutting-edge research and the best of the science which preceded it. There is no reason not to take the same attitude to our palaeoart that we do to the rest of our studies. It is frowned upon to take half-measure approaches to descriptions, statistical analyses or cladistic methodology, so why is palaeoart exempt? Making crass, basic errors in animal reconstruction is no different to executing a flawed study or analysis. Both ignore data, advice and theory documented in palaeontological literature, and both show little regard for the techniques developed by pioneers of the process. Moreover, when they make it to publication, both imply that half-baked approaches are worthy of equal consideration to more carefully executed examples. Scientists will know the feeling of frustration when work directly relevant to a paper is not cited: lousy palaeoart is guilty of ignoring the theory and development of an entire field

    A baffling aspect to this problem is that scientists routinely seek expertise lacking on research teams. Need a fossil prepared but lack the skulls? Seek assistance from a preparator. Need to crunch some stats but not sure how? Contact a colleague with statistical expertise. What we don't do with our science is assume our intuition and instincts about a topic are enough to guide us alone: we defer to those with the training, specific knowledge and experience to do the jobs we can't. And we would never employ an equally inexperienced individual and guide them through a process we lack all experience of ourselves.

    But this is exactly what we do with palaeoartistry. Executing a palaeoart study requires a grasp of anatomy (and not just bones!), an ability to reconstruct/interpret fossil remains, a healthy grasp of living animal form, and an ability to translate all this into an artistic creation. These are not skills that everyone has, or that even all palaeontologists have. There are numerous specialisms in palaeontology, and not all of them are associated with the expertise ideal for consulting on palaeoartworks. Fossil bones do not exude a radiation which means those who work with them automatically know everything about palaeoart methods and theory. And yet it seems some scientists think it does, resulting in ill-founded advice for naive artists and approval of poor, flawed work. I am not the first person to raise this point (it has been mentioned in palaeoart literature since the 1980s), but it seems to fall on deaf ears.

    Some readers may be wondering if this matters - so what if we have the odd wobbly looking reconstruction every now and then? Consider these points. Firstly, if scientists are so relaxed about palaeoart that they have no regard for even getting fundamental aspects correct, then what, really, is the point of the art in the first place? What can art of that quality really add to our field? It can't be held up as an accurate representation of the animal itself, and knowledgeable educators will avoid it or abandon it the moment a superior alternative becomes available (which, given the popularity of palaeoart online, is normally a couple of days after a new discovery. Indeed, awful PR palaeoart normally spurs more alternative versions, and with faster turnaround times). Badly produced palaeoart is basically destined to be ignored by those in the know, reflects poorly on those involved in its production, and ends up being an embarrassing aspect of the publication.

    Secondly, scientist-led palaeoart is often the basis for derivative artwork, whether it's good or bad. Whereas people might expect prehistoric animals seen in film and TV to be embellished and enhanced, scientist-endorsed artwork carries the weight of expert approval. For non-specialist illustrators, they're an obvious source of information and errors are carried over into next generation work. Scientists need to realise that the half-lives of palaeoart are often much longer than any press articles or even scientific papers: they have long-lasting impacts on public perception and even inform scientific hypotheses. Darren Naish recently wrote more about these issues at length here.

    Thirdly, there are scores of competent palaeoartists awaiting opportunities to work with scientists, and their prior knowledge of reconstruction processes and anatomy would fill knowledge gaps in some teams. Not only do these individuals have the skills needed to understand a fossil specimen and technical paper, and are thus able to produce credible artwork without constant academic input, but their experience means they can converse with scientists at (or close to) a technical level. This allows for detailed conversations about the specifics of the reconstruction and development of new ideas and insights into the life appearance of the subject organism. Experienced palaeoartists are more than just people who make pretty pictures: they're peers and colleagues of scientists, and able to augment research when given the opportunity.

    Lastly, it is widely known that the palaeoart industry has a problem maintaining employment for even its most talented individuals, and in this context hiring non-specialists, especially if the research team is not palaeoart savvy, is ludicrous - why not hire the right people for the job? There are many early-career palaeoartists available if tight budgets are a concern, as well as numerous veterans who can offer highly polished art and rapid turnaround times if time is tight. Finding these people is as easy as opening modern palaeoart books, asking colleagues for recommendations or even a Google search. The wealth of easily-accessed palaeoart talent makes it inexcusable not to bring specialist artists on board for palaeoart projects.

    And 'inexcusable' sums up my feeling on this topic pretty well. The fact that many scientist-led artworks are really amazing shows that high quality palaeoart of this nature is achievable if scientists care enough about its production. But the availability of palaeoart-relevant information, the growing body of literature on palaeoart theory, the willingness and accessibility of talented artists, and the demands of modern scientific standards make academically-driven, scientifically-rotten palaeoart inexcusable in the modern day. I'm not arguing that scientist-led palaeoart has to be perfect. I'm not arguing that scientist-led palaeoart has to conform to specific conventions of style, or to constrained ideas of life appearance. But I am arguing that scientist-led palaeoart should look like someone gave a damn about the final product.



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    Jurassic plesiosauroid Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus with a controversially dipped left hindfin. Nothing like a little drama to start a blog post.
    Among the first animals to feature prominently in palaeoart were plesiosaurs, those four-flippered marine sauropterygians that need no introduction to anyone who's reading a blog focused on prehistoric life. Some plesiosaur depictions are among the most spectacular palaeoart of all: their arcing spinal columns, toothy faces and the moodiness intrinsic to seascapes are wonderful ingredients for palaeoartists to play with, leading to two centuries of plesiosaurs as dependably gripping art subjects.

    Despite their popularity among artists, the theory we apply to our plesiosaur reconstructions has not been significantly 'modernised' in the way that it has for other prehistoric species, most obviously Mesozoic dinosaurs, pterosaurs or fossil mammals. A number of authors and artists have produced solid foundations for the reconstruction of the latter animals - libraries of skeletal references, assessments of gait and stance, heightened awareness of common soft-tissues, etc. - and their life appearances are now more uniformly reconstructed and prone to fewer obvious errors. This has yet to happen for plesiosaurs, however. Modern skeletal reconstructions are few, references for muscle layout and soft-tissue data are fewer, and discussions over aspects of their life appearance are rare.

    I was recently commissioned to produce two studies of two Early Jurassic plesiosaurs - one of the plesiosauroid Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus (above) and another of the pliosaurid Attenborosaurus conybeari (below). I cannot claim any expertise in plesiosaur science, but when reviewing art-relevant literature on these animals it struck me that many familiar elements of plesiosaur palaeoart oppose our soft-tissue data, modern muscle studies and flipper arthrology, as well as the generalities of vertebrate anatomy. I'm sure others have noticed these issues before me, but their prevalence in contemporary plesiosaur art suggests they are not as widely known as they could be. In the interests of stirring conversation on restoring plesiosaurs, I thought I'd share my findings and thoughts here.

    Flipper shape and motion

    One of the ‘classic’ elements of plesiosaur reconstruction is their distinctive flipper shape: a tight, oar-like profile which hugs the contours of the fin skeletons. However, both muscle studies and soft-tissue data indicate that their limb morphology was quite different to the underlying osteology, and our 'oar-like' depictions are problematic.

    Firstly, reconstructions of plesiosaur forelimb musculature show that they were likely powerfully muscled around the shoulders, especially ventrally. Reconstructions of plesiosaur forelimb musculature have been around for almost 100 years and several alternative ideas on the exact configuration are available. They vary from sparingly muscled reconstructions where those massive, plate-like pectoral elements are left mostly free of muscle anchorage (e.g. Carpenter et al. 2010), to models where the entire girdle is swathed in huge muscle attachment sites (Araújo and Correia 2015). The latter seems to reflect the most phylogenetically-informed hypothesis (using data from lizards, crocs and turtles, which seems sensible given on-going uncertainty about plesiosaur ancestry) and - from a purely intuitive perspective - an extensively muscled limb girdle seems more likely than a lightly muscled one. Why develop those huge coracoids if they aren't going to anchor anything?

    If the more extensive models of pectoral musculature are correct, we need to consider how the proximal regions of plesiosaur forelimbs would have looked like in life. One key consequence is that, once we link all the pectoral muscles to their insertions on the limb and body, the 'shaft' of the 'oar-shaped' flipper disappears: muscles running along the anterior and posterior region of the humerus fill the pinched, concave regions so that the proximal region is almost as thick as the bony paddle. Much of the proximal humerus becomes buried in muscle dorsally and ventrally too, to the extent that we might imagine the shoulder region was quite bulky in life.

    Summary diagrams of plesiosaur pectoral musculature based on Araújo and Correia (2015), with some of my own input on the body outlines (middle and right). Left shows a schematic plesiosaur skeleton (based on Rhomaleosaurus) and a 'traditional' soft-tissue outline, traced from Araújo and Correia (2015). Middle shows the superficial dorsal pectoral musculature predicted by their study - note that it embiggens the pinched proximal region of the flipper by bulking out the anterior and posterior humeral regions. Right shows how data from plesiosaur soft-tissues - see below - changes the flipper shape even further.
    In this respect their limb anatomy might look more similar to that of modern tetrapod swimmers – such as whales, seals and turtles – than we typically reconstruct it. We might draw particular comparison to pinnipeds, where a noticeable bulge can be seen at the junction between the forelimb and the torso. The size of plesiosaur pelvic girdles probably indicate a similar muscular condition for the hindlimb and we might assume that they weren't slender-necked, 'oar-shaped' fins either.

    Holotype specimen of Seeleysaurus guilelmiimperatoris. Note soft-tissue outlines behind the right forelimb and tail. If you'd like to see these tissues in person, you're too late - the body outlines of this specimen were painted over years ago. Bummer. From Dames (1895).
    But these are not the only tissues which distort the outline of the flippers. Fossils of plesiosaur body outlines are very rare, but three specimens (the holotypes of Seeleyosaurus, Hydrorion and Mauriciosaurus - seeDames 1895, von Huene 1923 and Frey et al. 2017) preserve soft-tissues that considerably augment their flipper shape. All three show deep wedges of soft-tissues tapering along the back of the fin skeleton to the flipper tip, with Mauriciosaurus showing tissues - though their shape isn't entirely clear - also present behind the proximal limb regions. There is sufficient consistency across these specimens to suggest expanded paddle tissues were common, and maybe even widespread, in plesiosaurs and, for artists, augmenting our plesiosaur flipper skeletons with these trailing edge tissues should be our standard approach to their restoration.

    Hydrorion brachypterygius and its soft-tissue forelimb impressions (the dark, grainy textures behind the fins). From von Huene (1923).
    Moving on, artists might also want to note that ideas about highly restricted motion of plesiosaur flippers are being revised. Traditionally, authors such as Carpenter et al. (2010) have argued for limited motion at both the shoulder and hip limb joints, resulting in what I like to call the 'sinking rowing boat' pose: depictions of plesiosaurs with limbs projecting just a little off the horizontal, regardless of what they're up to. Restricted fore- and aft motion seems likely given the elongate shape of limb girdle joints, but whether the vertical movement of the limbs was restricted to tight arcs - perhaps as shallow as a 54° total range - is being challenged (e.g. Liu et al. 2015). Plesiosaur limb girdles were evidently highly cartilaginous in life and estimating their joint motion challenging - most of the information we desire to determine some sense of joint mobility is long gone. But if we assume they had more than the slimmest covering of cartilage in the girdle limb joints - which seems sensible, given the huge size of the girdle joints and their poor match for the limb bone shape - we can assume wide arcs of motion to both limb sets before disarticulation. The exact range of movement remains an open question - unpublished studies hint at even greater motion than other 'wide arc' research, such as Liu et al. (2015) (thanks to Darren Naish for advance word on this) - but artists should not feel confined to the 'rowing boat' pose that we've seen plesiosaurs depicted in for decades. With my artist hat on, I find this very welcome news. Plesiosaurs with limbs perpetually stuck out sideways can look a little static even in the hands of great artists, and their limited poseability has not made them the most interesting subjects to reconstruct. Wider arcs of motion allow plesiosaurs to be depicted in more complex and dynamic poses, and to convey a greater range of behaviours - pirouetting around corners with dipped fins, beating their flippers to attain high speeds, dropping their limbs because they're being lazy... all sorts of stuff. Well done, science, you've made at least one artist a happy person.

    Aspects of the neck

    My experience with the mass-economising, lightweight long necks of terrestrial or volant tetrapods means the extensively developed vertebrae of longer necked plesiosaurs are of great personal interest. Freed of the constraints of mass reduction, their numerous neck vertebrae are short, highly developed elements with long, robust processes - the exact opposite of the long, simplified structures I'm used to dealing with. Assuming plesiosaur necks were constructed like those of other amniotes (below), they likely anchored powerful muscles along their lengths. In particular, their neural spines are very tall and we can assume they bore enhanced musculature associated with lifting and turning the neck - useful features for long necked animals living in a dense fluid medium. Myological reconstructions suggest that the axial column would bear muscles connecting to the pectoral girdle, producing a deep set of tissues at the neck-torso junction (Araújo and Correia 2015, see pectoral myology diagram above). Artists should equip these animals with chunky, powerful 'reptilian' necks rather than svelte, bird-like variants. I do wonder if thick muscles along the neck might have impacted their neck mobility somewhat - another reason to assume long-necked plesiosaurs were only capable of bending their necks into simple curves (e.g. Zammit et al. 2008).

    Amniote neck muscle groups and functionality, modelled by the American alligator Alligator mississippiensis. If the same basic rules apply to plesiosaurs, we should expect many species to have huge muscles and very powerful necks. Diagram concept and muscle layout after Snively and Russell (2007).
    The neck/skull articulation of plesiosaurs is also of interest. In many taxa, including Plesiosaurus itself, the posterior face of the skull is displaced anteriorly to the jaw joints. This condition is not unique to plesiosaurs, also being found in some other reptiles including living crocodylians. This 'staggering' of the posterior skull margins might minimise any obvious topographic demarcation between head and neck tissues (the head/neck junction is less obvious in crocodylians than it is in many birds and mammals, for instance) as as well as complicate motion at the head-neck joint. The anteriormost cervical vertebrae and their articulation with the skull would be buried by bone laterally and throat tissues (including muscles and hyoid cartilages) ventrally, and we have to wonder if this envelope of material would limit how far the skull could pivot on the neck. The analogous condition in modern crocodylians seems to bear out this prediction, so perhaps we should not be restoring plesioaurs with mammal- or bird-like cocked heads.

    Trunk shape - cross section and lateral profile

    Plesiosaurs are often restored with a generic, 'barrel-shaped’ trunks. This is appropriate for some taxa, but not all. It must be said that plesiosaur torso shape is an area of on-going research. I recently spoke with a number of plesiosaur experts on this matter and found aspects like rib and gastralia articulation, the vertical position of the pectoral girdle and so on were somewhat contentious (thanks to Richard Forrest, Aubrey Roberts and Mark Evans for their thoughts). The crux of the issue is that, unlike some reptiles (such as birds or pterosaurs), plesiosaur torso skeletons don't slot neatly together in a single, incontrovertible manner, as is evident to anyone who's seen more than one plesiosaur mount in a museum. Understanding their torsos requires precise appreciation of their vertebral rib articulations, knowing their rib and gastralia curvature in three dimensions, and the benefit of fully articulated fossils for reference. This is quite a list of requirements, and one that is only currently met by a fraction of plesiosaur taxa.

    Despite this, detailed reconstruction attempts provide reason to think not all plesiosaurs had tubby, barrel-shaped torsos. Close inspection of vertebral rib articulations and the shape of three-dimensionally preserved plesiosaur torso skeletons allowed O’Keefe et al. (2011) to reconstruct some cryptoclidids with tall, barrel-shaped bodies, and others with dorsoventrally compressed ones (below). In some genera, like Tatanectes, this is augmented further by almost flat dorsal ribs. It is difficult to gauge torso cross sectional shapes from just looking at a typical, half-prepared and flattened plesiosaur fossil, but artists should be mindful that not all species will have circular torso sections. Given how important torso shapes are to a reconstruction, we should check research literature carefully to make the most informed call we can on this aspect of restoring their life appearance.

    Cryptoclidid torsos in cross section, with (over conservative) soft-tissue outlines. Modified from O'Keefe et al. (2011).
    It is not only the cross section of plesiosaur trunks which are of artistic interest. Neural spine height is not always consistent along the dorsal column, with genera like Attenborosaurus having much taller vertebrae towards the anterior end of the torso. I don't think we know much about the torso cross section of this animal yet, but its vertebral proportions alone imply a proportionally deep shoulder region and a ‘tear-drop’ profile in lateral aspect. This may have been translated into soft-tissue depth in life: deep neural spines over the shoulder might betray a well developed m. latissimus dorsi, a forelimb elevator muscle that could be beneficially augmented for a swimming animal. Interestingly, Attenborosaurus has larger forelimbs than hindlimbs, and it's not entirely daft to wonder if its big shoulder vertebrae and their possible role in beefing out the shoulder muscles reflect forelimb-dominated swimming (see Liu et al. 2015). That's a discussion for another day, of course: the take home for artists here is to pay attention to those trunk vertebrae, and think about how they might influence the long-axis trunk symmetry.
    Attenborosaurus conybeari, Jurassic equivalent of those top-heavy gym users who forget about working their legs.


    And finally... so long, shrink-wrapping

    A recurrent theme in this post has been the idea of plesiosaur skeletons being deeply buried in soft-tissues of varying kinds. One of the most amazing plesiosaur fossils known to date, recently described from Cretaceous deposits of Mexico (Frey and Stinnesbeck 2014; Frey et al. 2017), clearly vindicates this theory. This specimen is the holotype of Mauriciosaurus fernandezi, which preserves a near-continuous body outline to give us an unprecedented glimpse of its life appearance. Much of the soft-tissue includes belly and lateral body wall skin impressions (tiny, 12 x 2 mm rectangular scales arranged in rows along the animal), but even more surprising is how much soft-tissue there is: by gum, this was a tubby creature, particularly around the tail. Even the thinnest regions of the outline are a good 50 mm wide, and some parts are considerably deeper. Frey et al. (2017) ascribe much of this depth to fatty, subdermal adipose tissue, including the caudal mass. Many living reptiles have extensive fat deposits around their tails (as discussed for prehistoric animals in this post) and it would not be surprising if plesiosaurs used this adaptation to streamline their shape. As noted by Frey et al. (2017), the preserved torso shape is not dissimilar to those of highly pelagic turtles or penguins.
    Line drawing of Mauriciosaurus fernandezi holotype, redrawn from Frey et al. (2017). This specimen is extra special for reminding us of the finest Queen song of all time.
    Whether these plump tails were the case for all plesiosaurs remains to be seen. Frey et al. (2017) note that the caudal vertebrae of Mauriciosaurus has small processes for muscle attachment, and may have been weakly muscled in life. This might be predicted, as a tail encased inside a deep, restrictive cone of fat is unlikely to have been capable of much movement even if it was strongly muscled. However, other plesiosaurs - including, for easy reference, the Hydrorion depicted above - do have large caudal sites for muscle attachment - might they have lacked these extensive fatty tissues tails so as to allow their tails to move about? Given the compelling evidence for caudal fins or rudders in several plesiosaur species (Dames 1895; Wilhem 2010; Smith 2013 - check out Brian Switek's post if you need a quick primer) it might make sense for some species to maintain mobile tails to aid steering. We should note that the partially preserved tail tissues of Seeleyosaurus are not as chunky as those of Mauriciosaurus: they're thick, sure, but not obviously part of a wide, wedge-shaped mass. Hopefully, more plesiosaur soft-tissues will turn up soon to give us more insight on this matter.

    As a final point on the Mauriciosaurus fossil, we can now add plesiosaurs to the list of fossil taxa with specimens directly opposing 'shrink-wrapping' palaeoartistic conventions. It joins fossils of dinosaurs (Mesozoic and beyond), pterosaurs, mammals, early archosauromorphs and many others in suggesting the soft-tissues of long extinct creatures were no less extensive than those of modern species. As with living taxa, their skeletons were mostly placed well inside their bodies, not just under the surface of a thin skin. There's no doubt that soft-tissue depth is going to vary across animal bodies and between species, but it's increasingly difficult to defend reconstructions where bodies tightly hug skeletal contours, where facial tissues are sucked into every skull cavity, and where the depth of fats and integuments are not factored into the restorative process. 'Shrink-wrapping' is one of the few aspects of palaeoart that is testable against fossil data, and it is not winning out.

    And that's that, then

    I'm sure there's a lot more we could say on restoring plesiosaurs, but this is where we'll have to leave this discussion for now - hopefully this post helps fill the deficit of detailed discussion on plesiosaur life appearance. I must admit that these recent efforts at restoring plesiosaurs have given me a newfound interest in the group, and I wouldn't be surprised if artwork these chaps and their relatives turn up around here soon.

    Next time: sharks vs. pterosaurs - who will win? (Spoiler: not the pterosaurs)

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    References

    • Carpenter, K., Sanders, F., Reed, B., Reed, J., & Larson, P. (2010). Plesiosaur swimming as interpreted from skeletal analysis and experimental results. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science, 113(1/2), 1-34.
    • Dames, W. B. (1895). Die plesiosaurier der süddeutschen Liasformation. Verlag d. Kgl. Akad. d. Wissenschaften.Frey, E., & Stinnesbeck, W. (2014). Plesiosaurs, reptiles between grace and awe. In Dinosaurs and Other Reptiles from the Mesozoic of Mexico (pp. 79-98). Indiana University Press.
    • Frey, E., Mulder, E., Stinnesbeck, W., Rivera-Sylva, H., Padilla-Gutiérrez, J., González-González, A. 2017. A new polycotylid plesiosaur from the early Late Cretaceous of northeast Mexico. Boletín de la Sociedad Geológica Mexicana. 69 (1): 87-134
    • Liu, S., Smith, A. S., Gu, Y., Tan, J., Liu, C. K., & Turk, G. (2015). Computer simulations imply forelimb-dominated underwater flight in plesiosaurs. PLoS Comput Biol, 11(12), e1004605.
    • O’Keefe, F. R., Street, H. P., Wilhelm, B. C., Richards, C. D., & Zhu, H. (2011). A new skeleton of the cryptoclidid plesiosaur Tatenectes laramiensis reveals a novel body shape among plesiosaurs. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 31(2), 330-339.
    • von Huene, F. (1923). Ein neuer Plesiosaurier aus dem oberen Lias Württembergs. Jahreschefte des Vereins für vaterländische Naturkunde in Württemberg, 1923, 3-23.
    • Wilhelm, B.C. 2010. Novel anatomy of cryptoclidid plesiosaurs with comments on axial locomotion. Ph.D thesis, Marshall University, Huntington, WV. USA
    • Zammit, M., Daniels, C. B., & Kear, B. P. (2008). Elasmosaur (Reptilia: Sauropterygia) neck flexibility: Implications for feeding strategies. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part A: Molecular & Integrative Physiology, 150(2), 124-130.

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    Last month I posted a complaint about poor scientist-led palaeoart - those artworks of extinct animals produced under direct control of scientists to promote research, without any interference from TV companies or book publishers, and yet still end up being objectively flawed at a scientific level. I focused a lot of my criticisms at scientists themselves, as they have final authority over factual aspects of palaeoartworks. That doesn't necessarily clear artists from all blame, but it's naive to think that every artist tackling palaeoart has specific training in palaeontological matters, unrestricted access to technical literature, or the anatomical knowledge required to restore fossil animals without instruction. A scientist's main role in a palaeoart collaboration is bringing rigour and information to the table and, when science-led pieces are objectively poor, we have to wonder what happened to those guiding hands.

    Our instinct might be to assume that lack of scientific rigour reflects flippancy towards palaeoart and its impact, and I think that is true - in at least some cases. But in a comment posted after my article, Matt Bonnan proposed that scientifically poor artwork might reflect scientists struggling with their role in the palaeoart process - that is, not really knowing how to instruct an artist, or where the line between scientific and artistic considerations lies. I can believe this is true, too. Lots of people - including many scientists and artists - view science and art as incompatible concepts, and are unsure how to approach projects blending the two. For some folks the idea of contributing to an art project is pretty terrifying, perhaps because they're afraid of being seen as naive, or of their contribution letting a project down.

    Whatever the reason, I want to follow my previous criticism with something more constructive: some pointers for how scientists might approach their role in producing palaeoartworks. The take-home message is that scientists concerned about getting paint on their fingers shouldn't worry about the artistic aspects of paleaoartworks. The primary role of a scientist is not to understand colour hues, choice of media, composition and so on, but to comment on objective, factual components of the work. Is the restored species the right size in relation to other species and the environment? Is its head the right shape? Has it been restored with the right soft-tissue anatomy? Answering these and other questions do not require artistic training, or any special training at all for that matter, just application of knowledge that most palaeontologists will already have.

    This discussion mainly considers scientists involved in producing a novel palaeoartwork, but will also apply to those reviewing artwork before publication or exhibition. This includes peer review of papers with palaeoartworks, and I encourage editors to make sure these aspects are checked alongside other parts of a paper. After all, if an artwork is being presented as scientifically-credible enough to be included in a peer-reviewed publication, it should be held to the same standards as the rest of the publication. I don't want to beat a dead horse by bringing this up again, but we should recall that palaeoart components can remain in use long after the context of their original genesis has been consigned to history, and artworks associated with papers can be especially prone to long-term use. We should take all opportunities to steer depictions of the past in the most credible directions, hopefully influencing subsequent generations of artists in the best way possible.

    So, what should scientists look to critique in artworks, and how might they go about assessing credibility? A perquisite of guiding palaeoart processes is having a concept of what the subject species looked like. This might seem like a patronising comment, with experts replying 'of course I know what [subject species] looks like!', but really think about it - do you really know what the proportions of your subject are, and what they look like when reconstructed against one another? As in, to the point where you could render a reasonable stick-figure version of it? Could you describe what it looks like outside of plain lateral view, and are these interpretations based on modern technical data, not treatments of the same subject by previous artists? Palaeoart is highly varied in scientific credibility and even those works produced by masters of palaeoart may have dated or contain errors. Ergo, palaeoart consultants should form their basic concepts of appearance from images of fossils, tables of measurements and other primary resources, not previous artistic interpretations. This need for caution applies to skeletal reconstructions too, as these become dated and require modernisation as much as any other reconstructions of prehistoric life. So before dusting off that copy of Romer's Vertebrate Palaeontology for another round of consultancy work, or digging out a skeletal from a century ago, consider how kind the last few decades of research have been to those familiar images. Anyone needing an example of how a well-known, seemingly 'safe' skeletal can become dated should check out Scott Hartman's new Dimetrodon skeletal. The animal we all 'know' as Dimetrodon is really Romer's 1927 skeletal - 90 years on, it's looking pretty different.


    Role 1 of a palaeoart consultant: know what the basic anatomy of a subject looks like when pinned together. A great poster child for this requirement are pterosaurs, familar animals but with very unfamiliar proportions. It's continually clear from scientist-led pterosaur palaeoartworks that their proportions remain unclear even to specialists, a fact made especially obvious by the continued depiction of large torsos in many species. Spend an afternoon piecing together pterosaur fossils, or even just measurements of their bones, and their tiny bodies - shown here via Quetzalcoatlus sp. - become inescapable.
    Once good contemporary and credible references have been amassed to account for the technical side of a project, they can be used as core reference material for all parties on the project, giving a common goal to work towards. A useful shopping list for 'core references' might be a skeletal reconstruction of the subject species (either drawings or a good museum mount; a closely related species might do if the specific skeletal is unavailable, and especially if the subject is poorly known or only subtly different from available reference material), lists of bone measurements and ratios, and literature providing a detailed insight into the anatomy of the subject. Good photos of referred specimens, from as many angles as possible, are always helpful too.

    Is palaeoart a reliable source of information about the appearance of a fossil animal? Sometimes yes, but oftentimes, no. Talk slide from my 2014 TetZooCon presentation on the cultural evolution of azhdarchids pterosaurs, showing some of the earlier, zanier attempts to restore these animals. There's so much incredulous anatomy here that artists and scientists should steer well clear of these as reference material and go back to primary sources - fossils, descriptions, measurements - to form the foundation of their artwork. (Psst - TetZooCon is happening again soon, details here)
    With these references in hand, regular checks on developing artwork can begin. A rule of thumb in palaeoart is that aspects of an artwork should be justifiable one way or another ("these proportions are because of that, this pose seems OK because of this, this speculation reflects this..."). If they aren't, or the defence for that aspect is suspect, the artwork should be modified until a superior interpretation is presented. We can go a long way to bringing palaeoart credibility up to speed by appraising the following, fact-based elements:
    • Anything to do with basic measurements, including the size of the subject relative to its environment and other species, or the proportions of its body. Obtaining metrics from 2D art can be difficult if a subject is obliquely posed or foreshortened, but their rough proportions can be estimated based on their relationship to other body parts. If in doubt, it’s better to get the artist to check their work than to ignore it. Pay particular attention to the proportions of the head to the rest of the body, the size of the torso, and the ratios of the limb bones, as these are prone to errors.
    • Whether the skeleton of the subject fits within the restored soft-tissue volumes. Especially notice the shape of the head and teeth, the cross-section and length of the torso, and the bulk of the appendages, as these are often problem areas. Also make sure the position of the shoulders is correct – it is often more challenging to reconstruct the pectoral region than the pelvic, so the forelimb attachment region can end up in strange places.
    • Whether the chosen pose breaches predictions of joint articulation. Over-stretched limbs, as well as exaggerated neck and tail poses, are key to look at here.
    • Whether appropriate fossil soft-tissues have been factored into the painting. This includes tissue types (e.g. correct integument) and aspects of tissue bulk. Where tissue types are unknown, check that the predicted substitute is based on sensible use of phylogenetic bracketing and comparative anatomy.
    • Finally, note whether the species depicted in the artwork were actually contemporaneous, and that the restored environments and climates are appropriate. 
    If, via aid of flux capacitored DeLorean, I was consulting for my own azhdarchid art from 2008, I could make lots of suggestions for improvement on purely scientific grounds. The comments here - concerning proportions, limb bone orientations, bone shapes and so on - could be made from any scientist familiar with recent work and interpretations of pterosaur anatomy, and do not require any forays into the artistic side of palaeoart.
    Note that none of these aspects stray into areas of artistry, except - sometimes - a need to interpret 3D shapes in 2D art. Moreover, virtually all of these elements relate to commonly studied aspects of fossil forms. All we're doing is taking the same bone shapes and proportions that inform taxonomic or systematic studies, or the ratios and metrics that underlie functional analyses, and applying them to a different project. We're using information that most scientists already know or have immediately to hand, just set to a different tune.

    Because of this, palaeoart consultancy is not as arduous a task as it first appears, nor a total time sink. I'm not going to pretend that good palaeoart consultancy is a job you can do in seconds but, once you have basic references established, most comments simply pertain to nudging the reconstruction in the right direction. As with many academic projects, advising on palaeoart requires the most time investment up front, and then relatively little after. Needless to say, the more prepared you are at the start, the less time investment is needed down the line.

    And these points - basic as they might seem - will see just about any palaeontologist able to guide and shape palaeoart production. It should be stressed how continued checking along these lines can make an amazing difference to a palaeoartwork, and thus its success at capturing a hypothesis and future legacy. Correcting a scientific goof not only makes a picture more credible, but it often marks a division between a picture being artistically lacking and coming together. There's a reason artists of living creatures (including humans) are so obsessed with the anatomy of their subjects, and that's because it's essential to producing good artwork. Palaeoart is no different, so don't be shy: help your artist get the information and understanding they need to make your science look great.


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    A female Pteranodon tries to explain the new Silverstone et al. (2017) paper on Pteranodon taxonomy to the Cretaceous shark Squalicorax. Unfortunately for her, the sharks quite liked the 'Dawndraco' hypothesis.
    Last year I posted a couple of overviews of the better parts of the pterosaur palaeoecological record, discussing what we know was eaten by Rhamphorhynchus and azhdarchid pterosaurs, as well as what species ate them. These reviews were tied to a peer-reviewed paper on the same subject which, at the end of Febuary 2017, was published as part of an upcoming collection of pterosaur papers (Witton 2017). This collection, edited by David Hone, myself, and David Martill, is the proceedings of the Flugsaurier 2015 pterosaur meeting and will, when finished, contain over a dozen new insights into pterosaur research, with an emphasis on their palaeobiology. You can check out the existing content here - keep an eye on that site, as there are more papers to come.

    With my paper now out (though sadly not open access, but I will eventually be able to post an unformatted version online next year) I thought it would be a good time to take a holistic look at direct fossil evidence of pterosaur lifestyles. What are some of the most interesting examples of pterosaurs interacting with other species? Which purported interactions stand up to scrutiny, and which ones are a little tenuous? And what do they tell us about the all important Big Picture of pterosaur palaeobiology?

    Yes, some pterosaurs may well have been seabird mimics

    A number of pterosaur specimens have been reported as being associated with the remains of their last meals. Several of these have been lost, found to be erroneously interpreted, or are simply too poorly preserved to interpret their gut content. However, examples of the Jurassic non-pterodactyloids Rhamphorhynchus and Scaphognathus, the Triassic Eudimorphodon, and the famous Cretaceous taxon Pteranodon show reliable insights into their dietary preferences (below). These are virtually all remains of aquatic animals - mostly fish - preserved in intimate association with pterosaur skeletons, either between their jaws, aligned with their throats or within the torso skeleton. One example of a coprolite is known, though it's difficult to say exactly what it contains.


    Pterosaurs and their last meals (shaded grey). A, torso of Eudimorphodon; B-D, various Rhamphorhynchus with gut content and coprolite (C), E, Scaphognathus; F, Ludodactylus; and G, Pteranodon. From Witton (2017).
    Many of these specimens have been known for several decades, and their evidence of aquatic feeding probably played some part in the stereotyping of pterosaurs as seabird analogues (e.g. Wellnhofer 1991). Nowadays, we need to be a little more circumspect about what they tell us. Yes, they do show that some pterosaurs ate fish and other pelagic prey and, along with results from detailed studies into functional morphology, they help portray certain pterosaur species in the 'classic' seabird niche. RhamphorhynchusScaphognathusEudimorphodon and Pteranodon have at least some adaptations consistent with foraging for pelagic prey, such as long wings ideal for marine soaring, 'fish-grab' jaws and adaptations for launching from aquatic settings, as well as occurrences in coastal or marine settings. It would be a little odd if these aquatic-adapted species weren't catching aquatic animals from time to time.

    But we can't maintain the older view that these specimens, on their own, undermine the increasingly diverse and nuanced takes on pterosaur palaeoecology hinted at by form-function studies, biomechanics, and modern understandings of pterosaur habitats. We have thousands of pterosaur specimens in museums around the world, of which gut content is known from less than a dozen examples, and in four species. That's not even enough to demonstrate the full dietary range of the species in question, let alone tell us about the ecology of all pterosaurs. Indeed, the scarcity of pterosaur gut content agrees with some new predictions of pterosaur lifestyles in that non-aquatic food sources now suggested for pterosaurs - insects, wormy things, fruits, small tetrapods - have limited preservation potential, particularly outside of Lagerstätten. When factored against common agents of taphonomy and preservation, these hypotheses predict empty bellies in many pterosaur fossils, which is what we find virtually all of the time. It is, of course, difficult to be certain of anything concerning negative evidence, but it's nevertheless useful to note this predicted match between modern ideas and fossil data.

    A selection of pterosaur foraging traces - beak tip impressions and scrape marks - from Jurassic and Cretaceous sites. The black-filled elements are the feeding traces, dark grey are manus prints, and light grey are footprints. From Witton (2017).
    Evidence that not all pterosaurs were obtaining their food out to sea comes in the form of feeding traces - small, paired impressions and scratch marks created by beak tips (above). These were likely formed by pterosaurs wandering over water margins in pursuit of invertebrates and other small prey, much like extant shorebirds and waders. Indeed, if you walk across a mudflat on a falling tide you can find near identical traces made by living avians mimicking this pterosaur strategy. Somewhat frustratingly, the identities of the pterosaurs that made these tracks remain mysterious. That said, in my new paper, I have - finally - formalised a case for a Late Cretaceous Mexican set of tracks and possible feeding traces (panel D, above) having an azhdarchid trace maker.

    Pterosaur feeding evidence: the 'close, but no biscuit' specimens

    Inferring palaeoecological details from fossils can be tricky, and it is unsurprising that some purported insights into pterosaur diets and lifestyles are contentious. One of these is the famous and perhaps darkly comic circumstances surrounding the holotype skull and mandible of Ludodactylus sibbicki, a Cretaceous, likely fish-eating Brazilian ornithocheirid found with a sharp, pointed leaf between its lower jaw rami (panel F in the image above). Much of the 2003 description of this specimen (Frey et al. 2003) discusses this association and concludes that ingestion of these plant remains led to the death of the pterosaur. According to this story, the pterosaur accidentally scooped up the leaf, having mistaking it for its usual prey, stabbed the plant material on its throat tissues, frayed the end of the leaf trying to work it loose, but starved to death before it could dislodge it.

    I must admit a little scepticism about this scenario. This is not because animals getting things stuck in their mouths is implausible, but because the story presented by Frey and colleagues is pretty presumptive. It infers a lot about pterosaur behaviour, foraging strategies, throat tissue strength and so on that we can't confirm at present. Moreover, the hyoid apparatus - the skeletal support for much of the throat and tongue tissue - is preserved lying on top of the leaf, despite the suggestion that the plant matter was deeply imbedded in the throat tissues. How did that work itself loose with the leaf fatally stabbed between the jaws? The answer to that question - as with a lot of questions about this association - would easily fall into speculation and special pleading about all manner of unknown quantities, and thus has little value to understanding fossil animal palaeobiology. Boring and po-faced as it is, I don't think the unusual Ludodactylus holotype provides enough information to tell us much about pterosaur behaviour, or how this unlikely fossil association came to be.

    A similar observation might be made about insect specimens - a dragonfly and lacewing - from the Jurassic Solnhofen Limestone that have torn wings, allegedly from a pterosaur attack (Tischlinger 2000). The logic goes that these otherwise perfectly preserved insects cannot have been attacked by aquatic predators, or else they would have been eaten after their wings were damaged. Failed attack from an airborne predator that would not pursue the injured insects into water is suggested as more likely. Solnhofen deposits do hold pterosaurs that were almost certainly aerial insect hawkers - such as Anurognathus (below, see Bennett 2007 and Witton 2013) - and these might be ideal perpetrators in this scenario.

    Anurognathus ammoni was an insect-hawking pterosaur that lived over the Solnhofen lagoon. Has it left feeding traces on fossil insect wings after a failed attack?
     As with Ludodactylus, this set of circumstances is quite elaborate to base purely on damaged insect wings. The extent of their wing damage is considerably greater than we might expect under general 'wear and tear' and foul play was probably involved, but whether it was a pterosaur, a conspecific, or even those disregarded aquatic predators is difficult to say. I appreciate the logic that aquatic predators would eat disabled insects after a failed strike, but animals are not predictable, logic-driven machines: they make mistakes, strike at things they have no intention of eating, get bored, distracted and so on. In all, other than the fact that these insects were almost certainly attacked by something, it might be difficult to say anything more substantial about their final moments.

    Pterosaurs vs. dinosaurs, crocodyliforms and... the revenge of the fish

    The fossil record gives us an insight on the question "did pterosaurs taste good?", and that answer seems to be "yes". Bite marks, embedded teeth and vomited pterosaur remains indicate that dinosaurs, crocodyliforms and fish all ate pterosaur flesh, at least on occasion (below). Among the more impressive examples of these interactions is a spinosaurid tooth, likely from the Brazilian spinosaurine Irritatorchallengeri, embedded in the cervical vertebra of an ornithocheirid (Buffetaut et al. 2004). Alas, no other evidence of their interaction was evident on the specimen (a series of pterosaur vertebrae) and it's not possible to ascertain much about circumstances that brought these species together.
    Evidence of many, many things that ate pterosaurs. A, ornithocheirid cervical vertebrae with embedded spinosaurid tooth; B, azhdarchid tibia with tooth gouges and embedded dromaeosaur tooth; C, ornithocheiroid wing metacarpal with unidentified puncture marks; D, Quetzalcoatlus sp. skull with puncture marks; E, Eurazhdarcho langendorfensis cervical vertebrae with crocodyliform puncture marks; F, Pteranodon sp. cervical vertebra with intimately associated Cretoxyrhina mantelli tooth; G, Velociraptor mongoliensis torso with possible azhdarchid pterosaur gut content; H, probable fish gut regurgitate including Rhamphorhynchus bones; I, associated Rhamphorhynchus muensteri and Aspidorhynchus acutirostris skeletons. Images drawn and borrowed from many sources - see Witton 2017 for details.
    The fossil record's most common purveyors of pterosaur murder, however, are not dinosaurs or crocodyliforms, but fish. Apparently out for revenge after learning of all that fishy pterosaur gut content, we've got evidence of fish eating and spitting out pterosaurs, of pterosaurs getting entangled with piscine predators, and even fish bite marks on pterosaur bones. A lot of these pertain to specimens of Rhamphorhynchus and you can read more about them in this post - some of the specimens are exceptional and there's lots to say about them. One of the more famous examples of piscine-pterosaur consumption -  an Italian, Triassic pellet composed of alleged pterosaur bones (Dalla Vecchia et al. 1989) - has recently been reappraised. It's now more reliably interpreted as vomit ball made of bones from the tanystropheid Langobardisaurus (Holgado et al. 2015).

    Lesser known, but pretty darned awesome examples of fishes eating pterosaurs are Pteranodon specimens that found themselves at the wrong end of Cretaceous sharks. Several Pteranodon bones reveal bite marks and even embedded teeth from two genera of sharks, the 2-3 m long 'crow shark' Squalicorax and the larger, 6 m long 'ginsu shark', Cretoxyrhina. The former seems to have eaten Pteranodon flesh on several occasions, while evidence of the latter is only currently known from a tooth closely associated with a cervical vertebra (panel F, above). Further work on the latter specimen is currently underway.

     Feeding traces from these sharks are common in Western Interior Seaway fossils and those of Squalicorax are particularly abundant and taxonomically indiscriminate. Given that even giant marine reptiles are among the species consumed by this mid-sized shark, it's often assumed that this animal was a scavenger, biting into whatever free meat floated about America's continental sea. However, it is less certain that Pteranodon was scavenged by Squalicorax, as even a 2 m long specimen would vastly outweigh the largest Pteranodon. It is not inconceivable that an unwary Pteranodon could be grabbed and killed by a stealthy Squalicorax, though I stress this scenario is no better supported than the shark simply chancing acrossa Pteranodon carcass. Whatever the scenario, it's somewhat grounding to think of a weird extinct creature like a pterosaur being devoured by a fairly conventional-looking shark. It's a reminder, perhaps, that Mesozoic life was not a pantomime of exotic, giant reptiles and weirdo evolutionary experiments, and that much of our modern ecosystem was in place many millions of years ago.

    The big picture

    Looking at the pterosaur palaeoecological record holistically, what patterns emerge? If we look at where the record focuses phylogenetically (below), it's obvious that our records are significantly biased towards certain taxa - Pteranodon, Rhamphorhynchus, and azhdarchids. Even their close relatives, with similar anatomy and adaptations, preservational conditions and so on, don't get much of a look in. There's a few data points scattered here and there, but tumbleweeds run though the palaeoecological data stores for the majority of the group.

    Attempting to make sense of the pterosaur palaeoecological record in a holistic way mainly shows how paltry this record remains. It's improved a lot in recent years, but we await evidence of diet and consumer-consumed relationships in virtually all major pterosaur clades. The images at the bottom of this figure are takes on known examples of pterosaur ecology: Rhamphorhynchus ingesting fish, and azhdarchids being devoured by dromaeosaurs. From Witton (2017).
    We wouldn't be scientists if we didn't ask ourselves why this is. I don't think it's simply a sampling issue. The pterosaur record is not great, but we are talking about several thousand specimens now - enough that we might start looking at what we don't have as well as what we do. So why does Rhamphorhynchus show 10 palaeoecologically-relevant fossils, but other Solnhofen species only preserve one confirmed piece of gut content? Why do azhdarchids, which are never found in sites of exception preservation and are generally only known from bits and pieces, have a better record than those lineages which are abundant, represented by dozens of complete skeletons, and often found in sites of exceptional preservation? Interestingly, there's no obvious correlation between factors like abundance, preservation quality and palaeoecological data. Several lineages - the ctenochasmatoids (wading pterodactyloids), the rhamphorhynchids (excluding Rhamphorhynchus) and ornithocheiroids (excluding Pteranodon) - have everything going for them in terms of abundant fossils, occurrences in sites of exceptional preservation, and yet they turn up very little in the way of gut content, or evidence of being consumed by other Mesozoic animals.

    My take on all this is that there must other factors at play here. We don't get evidence of pterosaur palaeoecology just by throwing more fossils, or better quality fossils, into the mix. I'm sure these factors have some role, but perhaps only in concert with special traits of certain pterosaur groups - maybe behaviours and anatomies - that allow them to have good records. We might have a good record of azhdarchids being consumed by dinosaurs and crocs, for instance, because their bones are often quite big and allow predators to bite them without destroying them. Perhaps we have good palaeoecological insights for Rhamphorhynchus and Pternanodon because of their habits and behaviour - both have strong aquatic adaptations (see this blog postfor ideas on that), and there is a bias towards preservation of aquatic animals in the fossil record. Perhaps this aids preservation of not only palaeoecological data, but also explains why these taxa are our most abundant pterosaurs (>100 Rhamphorhynchus fossils are known, >1000 Pteranodon).

    The pterosaur palaeoecological record, then, is perhaps in a transformative state. Though vastly improved over its condition a few decades ago, it requires further augmentation to provide us with significant insights into pterosaur lifestyles, and to explain its biased nature. However, we should not be too pessimistic about the insight it offers into pterosaur palaeobiology: it still provides useful datapoints that can shape our interpretation of flying reptile ecology for several species. Cliched as it is, the take-home message of this project is that any palaeoecologically-relevant pterosaur fossils are worth putting on record. We still have a lot to learn about how these animals lived and behaved, and direct insights are the most reliable ways to do that.

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    References


    • Bennett, S. C. (2007). A second specimen of the pterosaur Anurognathus ammoni. Paläontologische Zeitschrift, 81(4), 376-398.
    • Buffetaut, E., Martill, D., & Escuillié, F. (2004). Pterosaurs as part of a spinosaur diet. Nature, 430(6995), 33-33.
    • Dalla Vecchia, F. M., Muscio, G., & Wild, R. (1989). Pterosaur remains in a gastric pellet from the Upper Triassic (Norian) of Rio Seazza valley (Udine, Italy). Gortania, 10(1988), 121-132.
    • Frey, E., Martill, D. M., & Buchy, M. C. (2003). A new crested ornithocheirid from the Lower Cretaceous of northeastern Brazil and the unusual death of an unusual pterosaur. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 217(1), 55-63.
    • Holgado, B., Dalla Vecchia, F. M., Fortuny, J., Bernardini, F., & Tuniz, C. (2015). A reappraisal of the purported gastric pellet with pterosaurian bones from the Upper Triassic of Italy. PloS one, 10(11), e0141275.
    • Martin-Silverstone, E., Glasier, J. R. N., Acorn, J. H., Mohr, S. & Currie, P. J. (2017). Reassesment of Dawndraco kanzai Kellner, 2010 and reassignment of the type specimen to Pteranodon sternbergi Harksen, 1966. Vertebrate Anatomy Morphology Palaeontology, 3, 47–59.
    • Tischlinger, H. (2001). Bemerkungen zur Insekten-Taphonomie der Solnhofen Plattenkalke. Archaeopteryx, 19, 29-44.
    • Wellnhofer, P. (1991). The illustrated encyclopedia of pterosaurs. Salamander Books.
    • Witton, M. P. (2013). Pterosaurs: natural history, evolution, anatomy. Princeton University Press.
    • Witton, M. P. (2017). Pterosaurs in Mesozoic food webs: a review of fossil evidence. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 455, SP455-3.

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    Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkin's (1858?) sketch of amphibious marine reptiles, including a large shambling ichthyosaur. Image borrowed from Frank T. Zumbach's Mysterious World.
    One of the most charming aspects of mid-19th century palaeoart are those amphibious marine reptiles: depictions of ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs that hauled themselves onto rocks or beaches to rest, or lunge with open jaws at passers by (above). To modern eyes these images look naive and quaint, a clear reminder of how far our understanding of fossil animals has progressed in the last two centuries.

    Of course, art has a habit of imitating life and, a good 150 years after amphibious marine reptiles became unfashionable in palaeoartworks, Ryosuke Motani and colleagues (2014) published a new marine reptile suggested to be capable of locomotion on land as well as in water: the ichthyosauriform Cartorhynchus lenticarpus. This Chinese, Early Triassic species is anatomically remarkable in several respects. Although reminiscent of early ichthyosaurs in overall shape, it has a considerably reduced snout, seems to lack teeth, is just 20 cm from snout to vent despite indications of osteological maturity, and bears enormously long forelimbs. Though unique when first discovered, another, much larger Cartorhynchus-like species has since been found in the same deposits, Sclerocormus parviceps. Together, these animals form a clade at the base of Ichthyosauriformes known as Nasorostra, the 'nose beaks', referring to a defining feature where their nasal bones reach the jaw tip (Jiang et al. 2016).

    Holotype specimen of Cartorhynchus lenticarpus. Note the enormous forelimbs with their expansive unossified wrists, indicated by the distal phalanges being well posteriorly displaced from the upper arm bones. From Motani et al. (2014).
    The amphibious habits of Cartorhynchus are primarily based on its unusually large forelimbs and small body size, it being reasoned that Cartorhynchus could drag or propel itself over exposed sediments like a mudskipper, turtle or pinniped. I find this idea fascinating: an ichthyosauriform that was at home outside of water? Cartorhynchus certainly deviates from ichthyosaur anatomy and evolutionary trends enough to inspire inquiry about its weird bauplan - if it was not amphibious, it might be doing something else equally unexpected. The amphibious Cartorhynchus hypothesis has received surprisingly little detailed attention online, save for coverage of a 2014 press release and this excellent primer article at Tetrapod Zoology, so there's scope for a closer look at this idea. What is the evidence for amphibious habits in Cartorhynchus, and how does this concept fit models of early ichthyosaur evolution?

    The functional basis for an amphibious lifestyle in Cartorhynchus

    Motani et al. (2014) present a fairly detailed argument in favour of amphibious habits in Cartorhynchus. The chief lines of evidence are those expansive forelimbs, but it's not just their size that matters: their enormous, unossified carpal regions are also significant. Several early ichthyosauriforms have poorly ossified carpal bones but the unossfied region in Cartorhynchus flippers is proportionally bigger by some margin. This would allow these ordinarily-rigid marine reptile flippers an unusual degree of flexibility and optimise them for terrestrial locomotion. Flipper-based terrestrial motion is surprisingly tricky because its users tend to be suboptimally designed for movement out of water and they almost always have to overcome drag forces acting on the body as well as shove themselves around. Moreover, substrates associated with coasts and waterways tend to be unstable, yielding under pressure and being challenging for even proficient terrestrial animals. These factors mean flippers can easily dig into substrate or slip across it rather than propel their owners about, and it's easy to see why beaching is fatal for so many specialised aquatic species.

    Studies (using robot turtles!) suggest that rigid flippers are generally poor at terrestrial locomotion and may even be incapable of moving animals over some surfaces (Mazouchova et al. 2013). A bendy flipper, in contrast, works well, allowing the forelimb to flex before the substrate moves, spreading the weight of the animal over the distal limb and allowing the proximal flipper region to elevate and support the body (Mazouchova et al. 2013; Motani et al. 2014). The unusually expanded flexion zone in Cartorhynchus forelimbs would be well suited to this purpose, and certainly much better at this task than those of other ichthyosaurs. We might note, as an aside, that the lack of flexion zones in other marine reptile flippers, such as those of plesiosaurs, might be good reason to doubt their ability to crawl over land.

    Did I mention the robot turtles? There are robot turtles. Supplementary video data from Mazouchova et al. (2013).

    The downside of having lots of cartilage in a long flipper is that they are weaker against bending than a more ossified one, so their utility as a walking limb lessen as the forces involved in moving the body increase. It's here where the small size of Cartorhynchus comes into play. Small size equates to low body masses and smaller forces associated with lifting the body, less structural demand on the flipper, and reduced drag effects from the sliding belly. As is so often the case in evolution, small body size might be an enabler for evolutionary experimentation in Cartorhynchus, allowing it to perform feats that its bigger relatives just couldn't even if they were also equipped with giant, bendy fins.

    The tail of Cartorhynchus is incompletely known but it's anatomical and phylogenetic proximity to the completely-known Sclerocormus suggests that its tail was long, flexible, and lacked any sort of fin or fluke (Jiang et al. 2016). A relatively simple tail lessens the risk of it dredging sediment or catching on debris during terrestrial locomotion and its flexibility might have permitted its use as a prop or even propulsive organ: fish such as the Pacific leaping blenny show how a long, bendy tail can be used to powerful effects in semi-terrestrial locomotion (Heish 2010, also below). Combinations of fin and axial motion in land-crawling fish can be surprisingly effective over a range of substrates (Standen et al. 2016) and we might assume similar options were available to Cartorhynchus.

     
    Leaping blennies, robot turtles... is this the best blog post ever? From Wikipedia, source: Hsieh (2010).

    The torso of Cartorhynchus is also of interest for this hypothesis. In contrast to some other Triassic ichthyosaurs, Cartorhynchus has a broad, stout torso rather than a long, laterally-compressed one (Carrol and Dong 1991). Though a wider torso would impart more drag during terrestrial crawling, it would aid stability when crawling over land. Moreover, torso drag can be lessened by shortening the body overall, giving new significance to the low Cartorhynchus pre-sacral vertebral count of 31 vertebrae, instead of a more typical ichthyosaurian count of 40-80 (Motani et al. 2014). Short, narrow hindlimbs, rather than the broad pelvic flippers of some other early ichthyosaurs, might have further aided drag reduction.

    Cartorhynchus in context

    It seems there's a prima facie argument for considering Cartorhynchus as equipped with some amphibious features. However, we should not get carried away - a suite of evidence for an aquatic lifestyle suggests it wasn't it a specialist denizen of shallow, partly-exposed habitats, but more of an animal able to exploit two realms. It has pachyostotic bones, true flippers rather than webbed walking limbs, and is adapted for suction-feeding: a mechanism where the combination of a small mouth and a large oral cavity creates a pressure differential during feeding, literally sucking small prey into the mouth if it's opened quickly (Motani et al. 2014). This foraging strategy cannot work outside of water so is strong support for Cartorhynchus foraging in fully aquatic settings.

    Cartorhynchus also stems from the Nanlinghu Formation, a mudrock and limestone marine deposit rich in fossils of aquatic reptiles and marine invertebrates: ammonoids, bivalves and conodonts. We might take these data as signs that Cartorhynchus was quite happy in water and maybe spent most of its time there, visiting coastlines and beaches on occassion, rather than living there permanently. We should also regard it as a marine animal, not an inhabitant of rivers or swamps (though it would be extremely cool if one turned up in such deposits!).

    Holotype of Hupehsuchus nanchangensis, a marine reptile seemingly more closely related to the ancestor of ichthyosaurs than Cartorhynchus. These guys surely deserve their own blog post and painting at some point. From Carroll and Dong (1991).
    The relationships of Cartorhynchus to other marine reptiles is also interesting in light of the amphibious hypothesis. You could be forgiven for interpreting Cartorhynchus as some sort of bridge between ichthyosaurs and terrestrial reptiles, but, no, the nasorostran clade seems to nest above the root of the ichthyosaur line between 'true' ichthyosaurs and the fully marine, ichthyosaur-like hupehsuchians (Motani et al. 2014; Jiang et al. 2016). The ichthyosaur + hupehsuchian clade, Ichthyosauromorpha, may be further allied to another group of marine reptiles, the amphibious thalattosaurs (Motani et al. 2014 - Darren Naish has an excellent overview of this topic here). This surrounds Cartorhynchus with lineages that had taken to water in a significant way and we should conclude that any amphibious adaptations of Cartorhynchus do not represent an ichthyosaurian invasion of the sea, but ichthyosaurs returning to land.

    Some might consider this surprising evolutionary scenario evidence against the amphibious hypothesis - why would a lineage of marine reptiles start retracing their adaptive steps to become landworthy, when the rest of the group is pressing ahead with more specialised aquatic lifestyles? In response, perhaps we should ask if a potentially amphibious marine reptile is really that surprising. A huge number of vertebrates have transferred between terrestrial and aquatic lifestyles in the last 400 million years, sometimes contrasting with wider adaptive trends taking place in closely related species. Well-understood evolutionary 'transitions' also show that large-scale adaptive phases are often complex with all manner of evolutionary experimentation and dead-end offshoots. We know that bridging aquatic and terrestrial realms can be advantageous to aquatic species - refuge from predators or rough seas, access to food off-limits to other marine species, access to safe habitats for rest or reproduction, etc. - and there's no reason to think ichthyosaurs were incapable of capitalising on these advantages, or immune to their selective draws. With all this in mind, the concept of a marine reptile exploiting semi-exposed habitats isn't really that radical. Maybe the key question here isn't 'why would a marine reptile go rouge and turn landward?' but is 'why aren't we seeing more of this sort of thing?'.

    What about Sclerocormus?

    A question currently unaddressed in technical literature is whether the other currently known nasorostran, Sclerocormus, might have also bear amphibious hallmarks. It has virtually all the same features that we likened to amphibious adaptations above, the only distinctions being marginally enhanced ossification of the forelimb (though it still retains a comparatively enormous unossified carpal region) and greater size overall (body length of 160 cm, representing an animal about 3.3 times larger than Cartorhynchus). In lieu of a detailed, quantified assessment it's difficult to say whether Sclerocormus was too heavy to pull itself along on land, but we can note that it is not especially big compared to the truly massive aquatic animals we have scampering over beaches today - leatherback turtles, giant pinnipeds, the odd manatee (Motani et al. 2014) and so on. Some of these animals weigh several tonnes and, if they can haul themselves out of water, maybe Sclerocormus could too.

    Holotype specimen of the larger nasorostran species, Sclerocormus parviceps. From Jiang et al. (2016).
    I find this question particularly interesting given how similar Sclerocormus and Cartorhynchus are in virtually all aspects (above). Is nasorostra a clade of potentially amphibious ichthyosaurs, or are we actually looking at growth stages of one oddball species? Their proportions are near identical, and they are only separated by fine details of anatomy (Jiang et al. 2016). Many proposed differences might be attributable to intraspecific variation, too. For instance, the significance of their slightly different vertebral counts is questioned through populations of living snakes, limbless lizards and fish with variable numbers of axial elements (Tibblin et al. 2016). Individually variable vertebral counts seem common in species with large numbers of axial elements, and this might have been true for ichthyosaurs. Ontogeny and scaling effects could explain other differences, including overall size, greater ossification of the postcranial skeleton, and subtle arrangements of skull bones. It can't be overlooked that these near identical species, unique in morphology in the grand scheme of ichthyosaur evolution, also happen to occur in the same member of the same formation, separated by only 14 m of strata (Jiang et al. 2016). For the time being, the identification of 'adult' skull fusion and textures in Cartorhynchus suggests they aren't the same species, but the marine reptile trait of retaining poorly fused skeletons into adulthood makes identifying adult forms especially tricky, especially with so few specimens to look at (Motani et al. 2014). It also seems worryingly difficult to tease fossil adults from juveniles without histological assessments, even with large sample sizes and good growth series (e.g. Prondvai et al. 2009). Perhaps we're waiting on histological examinations and more specimens to make a call on this.

    So, walking with ichthyosaurs?

    And finally, a painting: Cartorhynchus goes for a drag around a Triassic lagoon.
    Putting all the strands of the amphibious Cartorhynchus hypothesis together, I don't see reason for excessive suspicion about the idea of beach hauling nasorostrans. At the core of the pro-amphibious argument is that Cartorhynchus (and perhaps, by extension, Sclerocormus) has weird anatomy that requires an explanation - it's just too different from other ichthyosauromorphs to pretend it wasn't doing something unusual, maybe even unexpected. Amphibious behaviours are an explanation that seem to chime well with provisional form-function investigations and seem a sensible hypothesis at this time. That said, we should be appropriately cautious in our interpretations of these animals: our understanding of nasorostrans is in its infancy and alternative, currently-unexplored functional hypotheses could explain their anatomy as well, or better, than the amphibious concept in future. Fingers crossed that these animals receive more dedicated functional investgiations in years to come.

    Or maybe more robot turtles. Either is good with me.

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    References

    • Carroll, R. L., & Zhi-Ming, D. (1991). Hupehsuchus, an enigmatic aquatic reptile from the Triassic of China, and the problem of establishing relationships. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 331(1260), 131-153.
    • Hsieh, S. T. T. (2010). A locomotor innovation enables water-land transition in a marine fish. PloS one, 5(6), e11197.
    • Jiang, D. Y., Motani, R., Huang, J. D., Tintori, A., Hu, Y. C., Rieppel, O., ... & Zhang, R. (2016). A large aberrant stem ichthyosauriform indicating early rise and demise of ichthyosauromorphs in the wake of the end-Permian extinction. Scientific reports, 6, 26372.
    • Mazouchova, N., Umbanhowar, P. B., & Goldman, D. I. (2013). Flipper-driven terrestrial locomotion of a sea turtle-inspired robot. Bioinspiration & biomimetics, 8(2), 026007.
    • Motani, R., Jiang, D. Y., Chen, G. B., Tintori, A., Rieppel, O., Ji, C., & Huang, J. D. (2015). A basal ichthyosauriform with a short snout from the Lower Triassic of China. Nature, 517(7535), 485-488.
    • Prondvai, E., Stein, K., Ősi, A., & Sander, M. P. (2012). Life history of Rhamphorhynchus inferred from bone histology and the diversity of pterosaurian growth strategies. PLoS One, 7(2), e31392.
    • Standen, E. M., Du, T. Y., Laroche, P., & Larsson, H. C. (2016). Locomotor flexibility of Polypterus senegalus across various aquatic and terrestrial substrates. Zoology, 119(5), 447-454.
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    Abelisaurid Kryptops palaios recieves some TLC in Early Cretaceous Niger, while duck-faced Anatosuchus minor sneaks out of the water. But what's with the swollen, bulging look to the abelisaur's face? (Concept by Chidumebi Browne. Award yourself an extra biscuit if you spot the homage to one of my palaeoart heroes in this scene.)
    A hot topic in modern palaeoart circles is the relationship between bone surface texture and soft-tissues. Specifically, artists are interested in what bone textures mean for skin composition and thickness, and whether it tells us anything about epidermal structures such as scales, feathers or hair. The idea that bone texture has a relationship to skin anatomy is not new, and palaeontologists have been linking details of fossil bones to beaks, horns, feathers and so on for many decades. Recent research on this matter is much more detailed and informed than previous efforts however, and uses careful comparisons of bone structure (both external and internal) in fossil and living species to make detailed predictions about the life appearance of long-extinct animals. Tobin Hieronymus and other individuals from the Witmer Lab (University of Ohio) have made some especially valuable contributions to this field, and their work adds to a growing literature that palaeoartists should consult to make credible restorations of past species. Palaeoart is long past the stage where we can doodle a rough outline around a skeleton and call it a day - more than ever, production of truly credible palaeoartwork is only possible after careful and thorough research.

    One of the most interesting aspects of this recent work concerns a skin type that we rarely discuss for ancient animals: dense, stiff dermal tissues that forms thick armour in animals like hippos, mouse deer and pigs; and epidermal projections, such as horns and crests, in rhinos and birds. We might assume that these soft-tissue structures would leave little trace on bone and that we're ignorant of their presence in fossil animals until specimens preserving soft-tissues show us otherwise. However, this is not so. Work by Hieronymus (2009) and Hieronymus et al. (2006, 2009) shows that we can identify the presence of skin armour and epidermal projections without soft-tissue preservation. This has significant implications for how we might restore fossil animals, and artists should be on the lookout for features evidencing these structures when researching their reconstructions.

    Reinforcing skin to make armour and skin projections

    Before we get to the fossil examples, it will help to know how skin is armoured and epidermal projections are reinforced without the aid of bony material. For armoured skin, white rhinoceros hide provides a well-studied example. Here, the dermis is reinforced with densely packed collagen fibres criss-crossing one another in three perpendicular planes (Shadwick et al. 1992). This structure differs markedly from typical reptilian and mammalian skin (Hieronymus et al. 2010) and has correspondingly different skin mechanics. Not only is it considerably stiffer and highly resistant to tearing, but under compression it is stronger than cartilage (Shadwick 1992). White rhinoceros skin is, on average, 25 mm thick (though their belly skin is about half that measurement) and it serves them well at resisting damage during intraspecific bouts or when on the wrong end of a predatory act. Similar skin has convergently evolved in pigs, hippos, mouse deer and seals, these being species that engage in biting and stabbing fights and having obvious need for protective tissues.

    Indian rhinoceros skin in all it's supercollagenous glory. Note the thick folding but otherwise sparse wrinkling, a consequence of poor elasticity in this skin type. From Wikimedia user Sanjay ach, CC BY-SA 3.0.
    Soft-tissue crests, horns and other projecting structures can also be made of expanded, dense dermis (seen in comb ducks), or reflect enhancement of another skin tissue: the epidermis (Hieronymus et al. 2006, 2009). These epidermal elements anchor to underlying dermis and are formed of dense keratin matrices, producing ultra-tough cornified tissue not dissimilar in composition to beaks, claws, horn sheaths or baleen (Hieronymus et al. 2006). Some skin projections can incorporate non-keratinised components as well - rhino horns, for instance, have mineral and melanin components as additional stiffening agents (Hieronymus et al. 2006) - and the degree of keratinisation can vary, depending on the functional demands of the projection. The crests of white pelicans are a well-known example of these structures, and are noteworthy for their ephemeral nature. Unlike most epidermal outgrowths, pelicans shed and regrow these structures annually. That's food for thought for not only palaeoartists, but also those of us wondering if soft-tissue crests have significance to taxonomy. Would a fossil pelican with a rostral crest be considered a different species to one without? Quite possibly.

    American white pelican with rostral crest, photographed by Travis Barfield. Photo from Wikimedia.
    When either of these skin types overgrow bone, they leave clear traces on the bone surface texture and histology. The best places to look for these markers are animal skulls, as they are generally not separated from skin by layers of muscle and fat like postcranial bones, and they tend to be body parts that animals adorn with horns, crests and other epidermal outgrowths. Particularly good sites to check for skin-derived markers are the bones forming the cheek, those around the orbit, and along the forehead and snout, as these regions generally have the closest relationship between bone and skin.

    Collagen-dense armoured dermis leaves relatively coarse (1-2 mm) rugose projections of bone beneath it, often of sufficient extent that they are discernible in photographs. You can readily see them on rhino skulls, for instance, as well as around the jaw tips of hippos and the rostral bosses of red river hogs. They have a corresponding histological signature, too: patches of obliquely-orientated metaplastically ossified dermal collagen fibres (Hieronymus 2009; Hieronymus et al. 2009). These patches of rugose bone cover large areas of the skull, and, in hippos, they even wrap into the mouth, betraying the presence of soft-tissue armour inside the jaws. This is something for palaeoartists to note as it shows dense, armoured skin can grow around complex structures, like gums and teeth, and also allows for lip-like structures that sheath teeth (so no, these tissues are not excuses for toothy prehistoric artwork). I assume the stiffness of armoured skin explains why the 'canine pocket' in the hippo upper jaw does not collapse when gaping, despite their lack of skeletal reinforcement.

    Business end of a hippopotomus skull - note the rugose textures around the end of the snout, characteristic of collagen-dense armoured skin. Cropped detail from a CC BY-SA 3.0 photo by Wikimedia user ContinentalEurope. From Wikimedia.
    Similarly coarse rugose projections or spicules exist underneath epidermally-derived horns and crests, but with an important distinction to those underlying armoured skin. Rather than leaving uniform patches, these structures leave ring-like rugosities that outline the circumference of the projecting structure. This is true for massive projections, like rhino horns, and also more delicate ones, like pelican crests (Hieronymus 2009; Hieronymus et al. 2009). It's thought that stresses inflicted on projecting structures explain their ring-shaped 'footprint'. Virtually any load placed on a crest or horn is transmitted to base of the opposing side, meaning the edges of these structures experience the greatest loading in life. It makes sense, therefore, that the outline of the structures have the deepest developmental scarring (Hieronymus 2009). A boss or other elevated bony region is sometimes associated with epidermal structures too, but this is not universal. Ring rugosities do not tell us much about the exact morphology of projecting structures but they do reveal something about the extent of the base and - from the size of the rugosities and spicules - we can predict the size of the compositional fibres. If we assume that bigger structures need larger fibres for reinforcement, which seems borne out in modern animals - rugosity dimensions might give us some clue of overall structure size (Hieronymus 2009). 

    Where can we find these structures in the fossil record?

    Spoilers: in species like this guy. Mmm... abelisaur fresh... 
    Turning our attention to extinct creatures, these bony correlates are robust enough to withstand fossilisation and we can look for hints of thick, armoured skin or epidermal projections in any specimen with reasonable preservation. The skulls of fossil rhinocerotids are an obvious place to seek such structures and the results are quite fascinating. Evidence of dense, armoured skin appears in taxa from c. 40 million years ago, while their horns are a more recent development, from about 20 million years ago (Hieronymus 2009). The development of large tusks, rather than horns, seems to have spurred the development of skin armour in ancient, hornless rhinos, and we can note parallel correlations between large teeth and armoured skin in other lineages. When animals are routinely slashing, ripping and biting one another, armoured skin seems to be a common adaptive response (Hieronymus 2009).

    Majungasaurus crenatissimus skull, showing extent of bone texture related to armoured skin (blue) and tough cornified skin (purple). Skull drawn from Sampson and Witmer (2007); distribution of bone textures after Hieronymus (2009).
    It's not just mammals that get in on this act. The top and front of the skull of the abelisaurid theropod, Majungasaurus crenatissimus, matches osteological and histological criteria for dermal armour, and this is good reason to restore this species with thick, collagen-reinforced skin over its snout and braincase region (Hieronymus 2009). Adjacent skull areas - the sides of the jaws, the roof of the mouth, the orbital and cheek regions  - also show hints of a gnarly skin covering, these being marked with a bone texture characterised by deep pits and grooves. Among modern animals, this seems best correlated with thick, highly keratinised skin, such as cornified pads or beaks (Heironymus 2009; Hieronymus et al. 2009). When considered with the correlate for dermal armour, these textures suggest the face and oral cavity of Majungasaurus was covered in deep, reinforced skin tissue, and we have to wonder how much of the underlying skull structure was obvious in life. Abelisaurids are well known for their gnarly, pitted skull bones (e.g. Sereno et al. 2004), and it's likely that thick facial skin occurred in other members of the group (Hieronymus 2009). These are animals that science encourages artistic speculation with: what would the armoured face of an abelisaur look like? I've taken a punt at this concept with the Kryptops painting accompanying this post, but I'm sure there are other configurations that could be explored. It would be remiss not to mention that armoured skin on theropod faces aligns well with face-biting antagonistic behaviour predicted from their pathological bones (Tanke and Currie 1998; Hieronymus 2009), and that this again chimes with biting behaviour driving evolution of armoured skin.

    Evidence of epidermal structures are common in a paleaoart mainstay: pterosaurs. By now, most of us will be familiar with the idea that many pterosaurs had soft-tissue headcrests thanks to well-publicised exceptionally preserved fossils (e.g. Bennett 2002; Frey et al. 2003), but can we predict them in species represented by bones alone? Thanks to bone textures, we can. Soft-tissue crests grow over low bars of bone projecting from pterosaur snouts, often with expanded anterior regions (Bennett 2002). Fine, curving striations and spicules are discernible on the top of these projections, contrasting with the smooth bone forming the base of the bony crest and the rest of the pterosaur skull. These rugosities mostly project vertically, or somewhat anteriorly at the front of the base structure. It is difficult to know if these rugose regions have a ring-like distribution given the flattened nature of most pterosaur fossils, but their presence around the top of a projecting bone bar implies a ring-distribution. Collectively, these components meet predictions for epidermal projections and their distribution points to a tall, narrow structure - a crest - rather than a horn or boss. We would likely see this as the most parsimonious take on pterosaur crest bases even without exceptional fossil preservation so, wherever you see these features on pterosaur skulls, it is reasonable to assume a large, prominent crest. I stress that you do not these features in all crested pterosaurs: some bony crests are completely smooth, and have no evidence for extensive soft-tissue elaboration. This is mainly seen in the ornithocheiroids (the group that includes taxa like Anhanguera, Pteranodon and Nyctosaurus).

    Darwinopterus robustodens as a case study for pterosaur striated crests, and what they mean for soft-tissues. Yes, they were that daft - don't feel you need to be conservative when restoring them!
    We are fortunate to have pterosaur specimens with preserved soft-tissues to help us gauge the size and shape of their crests. They are generally rounded, with the deepest portion posteriorly, and their size seems correlated with bony crest development (coarser rugosities and taller crests seem to indicate larger crests). Their crests were generally large, even in animals with modestly developed bony supports (Czerkas and Ji 2002), and they can grow to many times the area of the skull in species with strongly developed crest rugosities (Campos and Kellner 1997; Frey et al. 2003). Don't hold back when drawing these things, chaps: they were nuts (see diagram, above).

    Applications to other species, and potential pitfalls

    There are surely other animals that we could discuss with these features, but I think our point is made by now: with careful observation and comparison to modern species, we can detect the presence of body profile-altering skin structures in fossil animals, and these features should be on the radar of anyone trying to restore fossil tetrapods credibly. It should be stressed how phylogenetically widespread the examples given in this post are: as if it needs saying - pterosaurs, rhinos, abelisaurids, deer and so on are not closely related, and yet they share basic aspects of bone texture and histology related to skin structure. The take-home here is that skin is a highly plastic, adaptable tissue that we need to be especially open-minded about reconstructing. It is naive to assume fossil animals will only have skin types common to their closest extant relatives.

    There are some caveats and pitfalls to be aware of about predicting tough dermis and epidermal projections. For example, there are a few cases where skin elaborations lack osteological correlates. Warthog warts, for instance, are prominent, permanent and conspicuous skin structures, but they leave no trace on the underlying bone. Likewise, the presence of armoured skin becomes difficult to predict beyond the skull because postcranial bones tend to be buried under other soft-tissues. We know from living animals that collagen-dense skin can be regionalised (mouse deer, for instance, tend to localise it on their dorsum and rumps - Dubost and Terrade 1970), so evidence of cranial armour is only a partial indicator for armouring across the body.

    Cuspicephalus scarfi regrets sporting a hunk of tall, cornified cranial epidermis on a windy day.
    Detection of bone rugosity type is also an issue, at least in cases where we are unable to see fossil material first-hand. Yes, the rugosities and structures discussed here can be seen in photos, but not always. Moreover, unless the photo is especially clear, it's easy to confuse them with other types of bone surface rugosity, of which there are several, all with different soft-tissue correlates (Hieronymus et al. 2009). So, before going nuts with armour, crests and horns on a fossil animal because they seem to have a rough surface somewhere on their skull, check out specimen descriptions, high-res photos, histological studies, quiz those consultants, and make sure the criteria for these elaborate skin structures are met.

    That final point seems particularly relevant given the modern palaeoart fashion of speculating about fossil animal appearance. Long-time readers will know that I'm an advocate of this practise, but science of the kind discussed here puts an onus on artists to be careful when adorning extinct animals with elaborate skin structures. Yes, there are loopholes which can justify these outlandish reconstructions if we want to find them, but consider that some speculative structures included in modern palaeoartworks would be expected to leave osseous markers if they were present. Maybe this is a case where absence of evidence is actually evidence of absence and, if we cannot find these correlates, we should assume those structures were not present in our subject species.

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    References

    • Bennett, S. C. (2002). Soft tissue preservation of the cranial crest of the pterosaur Germanodactylus from Solnhofen. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 22, 43-48.
    • Campos, D.A. & Kellner, A.W.A. (1997). Short note on the first occurrence of Tapejaridae in the Crato Member (Aptian), Santana Formation, Araripe Basin, Northeast Brazil. Anais da Academia Brasileira Ciências, 69, 83–87.
    • Czerkas, S. A., & Ji, Q. I. A. N. G. (2002). A new rhamphorhynchoid with a headcrest and complex integumentary structures. Feathered Dinosaurs and the Origin of Flight, 1, 15-41.
    • Dubost, G., & Terrade, R. (1970). La transformation de la peau des Tragulidae en bouclier protecteur. Mammalia, 34, 505-513.Frey, E., Tischlinger, H., Buchy, M. C., & Martill, D. M. (2003). New specimens of Pterosauria (Reptilia) with soft parts with implications for pterosaurian anatomy and locomotion. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 217, 233-266.
    • Hieronymus, T. L. (2009). Osteological Correlates of Cephalic Skin Structures in Amniota: Documenting the Evolution of Display and Feeding Structures with Fossil Data (Doctoral dissertation, Ohio University).
    • Hieronymus, T. L., Witmer, L. M., & Ridgely, R. C. (2006). Structure of white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) horn investigated by X‐ray computed tomography and histology with implications for growth and external form. Journal of Morphology, 267, 1172-1176.
    • Hieronymus, T. L., Witmer, L. M., Tanke, D. H., & Currie, P. J. (2009). The facial integument of centrosaurine ceratopsids: morphological and histological correlates of novel skin structures. The Anatomical Record, 292, 1370-1396.
    • Sampson, S. D., & Witmer, L. M. (2007). Craniofacial anatomy of Majungasaurus crenatissimus (Theropoda: Abelisauridae) from the late Cretaceous of Madagascar. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 27, 32-102.
    • Sereno, P. C., Wilson, J. A., & Conrad, J. L. (2004). New dinosaurs link southern landmasses in the Mid–Cretaceous. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 271, 1325-1330. 
    • Shadwick, R. E., Russell, A. P., & Lauff, R. F. (1992). The structure and mechanical design of rhinoceros dermal armour. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 337, 419-428.
    • Tanke, D. H., & Currie, P. J. (1998). Head-biting behavior in theropod dinosaurs: paleopathological evidence. Gaia, 15, 167-184.

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    Reworked version of my 2012 Tyrannosaurus painting, now in it's third guise. There's something about this painting which recalls reconstructions from 1906 rather than those of 2016.
    The skeletal anatomy of Tyrannosaurus rex is probably better known and studied than the skeletons of many living animals, but its soft-tissues - and thus much about its life appearance - are poorly represented by fossil remains. Thus, virtually all of our ideas about muscle bulk, soft-tissue body shape and integument have to be reconstructed by phylogenetic proxy and functional prediction. As with all dinosaurs, we've historically felt pretty confident that Tyrannosaurus was entirely scaly, but relatively recent discoveries of filamented tyrannosauroids in China (Xu et al. 2004, 2012), as well as a growing mountain of fuzzy coelurosaur fossils, point to a different conclusion: that Tyrannosaurus was adorned in simple filaments - hair-like equivalents of feathers. Skin impressions for more derived tyrant species - the tyrannosaurids - have proven rare in fossil record (Hone 2016) and, though rumours have circulated about some, they have largely escaped formal description and publication. In the absence of better evidence, the most parsimonious modern takes on everyone's favourite tyrant have involved a fuzzy covering.

    In the recent months two papers have challenged this idea. The first, by Thomas Carr and colleagues (2017), purports to find osteological correlates of scales on the facial anatomy of the tyrannosaurid Daspleteosaurus, which they argue (along with other lines of evidence), to suggest crocodylian-like facial tissues and sensitivity. The second, by Phil Bell et al. (2017), describes scaly skin impressions from multiple postcranial regions of a Tyrannosaurus skeleton, and argues that the distribution of these impressions implies a uniform (or near uniform) covering of scales across the body, without much in the way of fuzz.

    Because this is Tyrannosaurus, media sites and bloggers have spilled great amounts of ink over these stories. The scientific press has often been far from objective or unbiased. Popular articles have suggested Jurassic World fans might have 'won' the debate over scientists, that science fans are 'due' a return to scaly tyrants after 'losing' Pluto, and that the findings mean 'all is well in the dinosaur world'. The implication is a ridiculous one, like evidence of scalier tyrants is a moral victory rather than a test of a scientific hypothesis. But while the popular press has been celebrating the new papers, members of the palaeoblogosphere have been less enamoured with the findings. Trey the Explainer suggests that Bell et al.'s work doesn't really change what we already knew about tyrant integument, and thus does not invalidate many existing reconstructions. Andrea Cau posits that interpretations of scaly tyrants reflect our prejudices more than science, and that taphonomic factors may explain the absence of filaments. Brian Switek has concerns that the skin patches are too small and spread too widely to give a complete picture of the integument, and echoes concerns about taphonomic interference. The collective response seems to be a defensive one, protecting concepts of filamented tyrannosaurids from a resurgence of a more traditional, scaly model. Would any other dinosaur get this treatment? Perhaps not: as Brian explains in his recent post, this reaction is the T. rex celebrity effect at full bore.

    Supermegafluffy Tyrannosaurus, from 2015. They were simpler times.
    I've painted many fluffy Tyrannosaurus in the last few years (above) and quite like the idea of everyone's favourite 6 tonne dinosaur bonecrusher being a giant plush toy. However, we also have to concede that our ideas of Tyrannosaurus skin have been largely informed by prediction, not direct data, and that popular, long-held notions are as ripe for scientific revision as any other (lest we forget other famous examples of this - Brontosaurusand Ornithoscelida). Moreover, although some critics are suggesting the papers don't tell us anything new - rumours of scale impressions have been circulating for years - these recent studies give us the first rigorously documented, peer-reviewed glimpse into Tyrannosaurus skin anatomy. This is new, allowing us to form our own opinions on Tyrannosaurus appearance based on actual data, not hearsay. So, rather than putting our gloves up to defend our prior model, I wonder if we should be exploring how this new data might transform our perception of Tyrannosaurus life appearance. That these new studies present conflicting data to our expectations is not grounds to be upset, annoyed or defensive. To the contrary, they allow us to use real data - not predictions - to refine our ideas of tyrannosaurid appearance and evolution. For those of us interested in dinosaurs as real entities, and not movie monsters, that's a good thing.

    What, exactly, has been argued about scaly tyrants?

    A lot of the popular write ups of these recent papers include errors and misrepresentation, so let's recap what is actually being argued about Tyrannosaurus skin. A common social media reaction to Bell et al.'s work is that they've presented 'a patch' of skin, and are extrapolating from that. We need to debunk that right away: they've not described a single patch, but multiple small patches from the neck (alas, exactly where on the neck isn't reported), the top of the pelvis, and the base of the tail (below). All the samples stem from the 'Wyrex' specimen (HMNS 2006.1743.01). The most extensively represented area is the tail base, which has the largest single piece of fossil skin - 30 cm². The other skin samples are not as large, some being just a few centimetres across. Each patch shows the same skin type: uniform, tiny 'basement scales', each less than 1 mm across (Take note, artists: you would not see Tyrannosaurus scales until you were being eaten by their owner). Similar scale patches, also described by Bell et al. (2017), have been found on the torso and tail regions of other tyrannosaurid species, implying similarly scaled regions in these taxa.

    Tyrannosaurus skin patches from the neck, pelvic area and tail of the 'Wyrex' specimen as illustrated by Bell et al. (2017). The scale bars for the scale imagery are 5 mm (b - e) and 10 mm (f-h). These things are tiny, and we can assume the skin of the animal would look smooth or leathery in life.
    Some folks are suggesting that the size of these skin patches allows us to dismiss their scaly signal, or that even that they're anomalous, reflecting unusual taphonomic conditions that cloud their significance. I'm unsure about these ideas. Most skin impressions are small patches (even scaly skin gets a rough ride during fossilisation) and the fact they're small doesn't diminish the fact that each records a cluster of scales. We have to assume these are not unusual or 'special' areas on the body but generally indicative of surrounding skin fabrics. The fact that each patch is consistent with regard to scale size and texture hints at them being part of a continuous, unbroken integument, and not isolated scaly pockets in a sea of fluff.

    But what about arguments that the scale patches are tissues stripped of filaments before preservation, like so many 'monster' carcasses? Filament/scale combos do have precedent in dinosaurs, being present on the tail of Juravenator and those scales of Kulindadromeus with fibre-like tassels (Chiappe and Göhlich 2010; Godefroit et al. 2014). We know from modern animals that fibrous epidermal structures are especially vulnerable to decay and physical weathering, but is there evidence that this has taken place on the Wyrex Tyannosaurus skin patches? At present, it's hard to say because we have no idea what tyrannosaur skin looks like as it decays. It might be significant, however, that the scale patches look very similar across the Wyrex specimen, and that they resemble other tyrannosaurid skin impressions closely. We might expect some variation if taphonomy was really distorting these specimens in a major way, and we're not seeing that. Moreover, the Wyrex skin impressions, though small, are pretty high-resolution. The scales, and their intervening areas, have sub-millimetre proportions and sharply defined edges. There's no tatty scale margins, no obvious spaces for filament attachment, or linear structures crossing the scales to imply a rogue filament impression. We'll remain uncertain if these are anomalous, taphonomically-altered samples until we find other examples of tyrannosaurid skin, but there's no reason to be unduly suspicious of the the samples we have.

    Of course, the adage that 'absence of evidence is not evidence of absence' is always important when dealing with the fossil record, and it applies here as a sensible caveat. However, we shouldn't wield this phrase as a definitive counter-argument to reasonable interpretations of available evidence. Palaeontologists have to work with data, not suspicions or gut feelings, and the data we have does not include, or hint at, the presence of filaments. I'm not arguing that taphonomy isn't worthy of consideration here (indeed, the omission of details about 'Wyrex' taphonomic history is an issue with the Bell et al. 2017 paper) but we must beware the logical fallacies of appealing to probability (i.e. taphonomy could explain the lack of filaments, so it does explain the lack of filaments) or special pleading (excluding Tyrannosaurus from the same logic we would apply to other fossil animals when presented with this data).

    Tyrannosaurus skull AMNH 5027 - note the 'hummocky' textures on the side of the snout, above and below the orbit, and atop the rostrum, likely indications of scaly skin. Image in public domain, sourced from Wikipedia.
    Carr et al. (2017) present a different form of evidence for scales: osteological correlates. I consider some aspects of their study problematic in that it only looks to crocodylians and birds for comparative tissues, despite the clear value other tetrapods have in deducing facial tissue types (Knoll 2008; Morhardt 2009; Hieronymus et al. 2010); it lacks illustrations of the bone textures correlated to scaly integuments; and the conclusion of tyrants bearing crocodile-like face scales is flawed: crocodylians do not have face scales, but a tight, highly cracked sheet of facial skin - Milinkovitch et al. (2013). Nonetheless, I think Carr et al. (2017) are right in concluding the bony textures of tyrannosaur skulls seem indicative of scaly skin. These findings echo previous interpretations of bosses and rugosities in tyrant skulls (e.g. Brusatte et al. 2012; Sullivan and Xu 2016) and aren't controversial. Scales closely associated with bone either leave a 'hummocky' surface texture, which is seen on tyrant snouts (specifically their maxillae and nasals) or small bosses and hornlets, which are found in all tyrannosaurid skulls above their orbits (lacrimal and postorbital bones) and on their 'cheeks' (jugal bones). Hornlets and bosses represent the locations of specific scales in living reptiles (Hieronymus et al. 2009) and can thus give especially good indications of life appearance (check out chameleon skulls for especially good correlation between skull and scale features). The presence of hummocky bone textures and hornlets is a strong correlate for scales, as they rule out coverings of naked or feathered skin. Such skin types do not alter the underlying bone surface (Hieronymus et al. 2009).

    These osteological correlates combine with the skin impressions to collectively show Tyrannosaurus as scaly across much of its face, somewhere on its neck, over the pelvic region and along the tail base (below). So far as we can tell, this picture seems consistent with osteological correlates and skin sampling from wider Tyrannosauridae. That's pretty extensive coverage, ruling out the presence of fibres in places that we know other dinosaurs - including other tyrannosauroids - were fuzzy, and implies that tyrannosaurids were mostly scaly. I'm particularly startled at the scales over the hip region as they curb even the long 'fibre capes' we see in some modern tyrant reconstructions, like the famous Saurian Tyrannosaurus. The fact that the scales occur in places known to be ancestrally filamented for tyrants is also intriguing: Bell et al. (2017) speculate that they may be modified feathers - that is, the same as bird scales - rather than a reversion to lizard or croc scales. Hold that thought, we'll come back to it soon.

    Everyone's doing maps of Tyrannosaurus with integument details nowadays, and I want in. Note that this is Tyrannosaurus specific, and does not feature scale data from other tryannosaurids.

    What's in the gaps?

    The million dollar question is what was present between these scaly regions: more scales, or fibres? This is a major point for many respondents to the Carr et al. and Bell et al. papers, as it decides whether we keep our interpretation of Tyrannosaurus as an - at least partly - fuzzy animal. With our scale distribution map as a starting point, several options are available. The first is that fuzz was present in regions not yet represented by skin remains or osteological correlates. This would mostly imply the top of the torso (Bell et al. 2017), but may also be parts of the back of the head, some aspects of the neck (depending on where the neck skin impression came from) and maybe the end of the tail. Over on Twitter, Patrick Murphy has presented a reconstruction which shows what this might look like. I must admit to finding it quite amusing, sort of like T. rex has put on a shawl to visit the opera.

    But how dense could these fuzzy patches have been? Bell et al. (2017) suggest that dense fibrous coverings are doubtful, noting that large living mammals avoid patches of thick insulating fibres to aid heat loss. This has not gone down well with some critics, who cite studies of feathers preventing over-heating instead of facilitating it. An oft-cited study in this regard is Dawson and Maloney (2004), who found emu feathers block virtually all solar radiation from the skin, preventing them from overheating in solar exposure that causes similarly-sized hairy mammals to seek shelter.

    Feathers: great at blocking solar radiation, also great at trapping body heat. Note how cooking hot these ostriches are on their necks, heads and legs, while the feathers are mostly ambient temperature. This isn't because the body isn't warm, but because the feathers block the heat signature entirely, trapping all that heat around the body. As surface area:volume ratios drop as animals get larger, it stands to reason that the benefits of blocking solar radiation give way to a need shed heat. Image from Wikipedia user Arno / Coen, CC BY-SA 3.0.
    Feathers, however, are not magic structures that defy fundamental physical laws of insulation, nor do they liberate animals from the challenges of heat loss at reducing surface area:volume ratios. Beyond a certain size, shedding excess body heat is difficult for any terrestrial animal, and it gets tougher as they get larger. King and Farner (1961, p. 249) described feathers as having "an extremely high insulating value to the feathered surfaces" and a rich literature of studies on modern birds shows that feathers are as effective at trapping body heat as they are blocking solar rays (e.g. King and Farner 1961; Kahl 1963; Philips and Sandborn 1994; Dove et al. 2007). We can almost see them as a little too effective, leading many birds to develop heat-dumping adaptations to circumvent their own insulation, such as highly vascularised, non-feathery body parts as well as a repertoire of postures and behaviours (maximising exposure of unfeathered body parts; flapping wings; urinating on their legs) that aid cooling (e.g. Kahl 1963; Arad et al. 1989; Philips and Sandborn 1994). So yes, feathers are terrific at protecting birds from environmental heat, but that limits their ability to release metabolic heat from their own bodies.

    If living birds find feathers a little warm, despite their relatively high surface area to volume ratios, we have to assume a theropod weighing anywhere between 6-14 tonnes is going to find big areas of dense filaments a challenge to thermoregulation too. It is not unreasonable to assume blankets of fibres could be a problem for big tyrants. The counterargument here is that Yutyrannus huali, a largish tyrannosauroid, does have dense fibres everywhere. But Yutyrannnus seems more lithe than Tyrannosaurus - perhaps just 10-25% of its mass, depending on the estimates (Bell et al. 2017) - and lived in a more vegetated, and thus shadier, habitat (Bell et al. 2017). A neat comparison Bell et al. (2017) make along this line uses living rhinos, where hairier species live in shadier settings than the virtually naked ones. In light of this, the reduction of filamented regions, and perhaps lessening their density, is a reasonable inference for animals of the size and habitat of Tyrannosaurus, and would reflect thermoregulatory responses to scaling and shade availability seen in living animals.

    Large tyrannosauroids, like Yutyrannus huali, show that dinosaurs weighing perhaps 1.5 tonnes could be covered in feathers. But does this reflect the fact that this animal lived in shadier, vegetated habitats than the tyrannosaurids? This idea isn't silly: adaptation to specific circumstances has a major role to play in shaping animal skin anatomy, and could well explain why some tyrants are fuzzy, and others seem less so. (If you want to see the rest of this picture, check out this Patreon post)
    Could Tyrannosaurus have had extremely fine, widely-distributed filaments - perhaps similar to something like elephant hair? This isn't entirely falsified by the new data, although the skin impressions we have show no evidence of such a covering despite preserving tiny integument details. Granted, animal filaments can be extremely fine, and they might be beyond the preservation potential and mechanics of even these high-res impressions. However, if we're arguing for filaments of this size and patchiness then - certainly for artistic purposes - we should concede that the animal would be essentially scaly, in the same way that most rhinos, elephants and hippos are essentially naked (below). From a thermoregulatory perspective, short, sparse filaments could make sense as these have the surprising ability to draw heat from the body in modern elephants, helping them stay cool (Myhrvold et al. 2012). Given the potential for overheating under dense filament coats in giant animals (Bell et al. 2017), I see this as more plausible than a 'cloak' of fibres between our scaly waypoints.

    Scaly, minimally-filamented Tyrannosaurus. There's some tufts on the neck, but that's it. Is this model more consistent with the thermoregulatory requirements of a 6-14 tonne animal?
    A last interpretation of this new data is that Tyrannosaurus was actually just scaly, with no fibres whatsoever. This is the most contested suggestion made by Bell et al. (2017), but it's not unreasonable with our current knowledge. Existing skin data, representing seven parts of the body if you pool all the distinct skull correlates and postcranial points (add several more if you want to extrapolate scale patches from other tyrants), shows enough scales and consistency in the scalation pattern that uniform scale coverage is not a ridiculous or indefensible concept. I appreciate that some folks will point to regional fuzziness of animals like Kulindadromeus in response, and its sharply defined areas of different integument types, and that's valid point. But we can also point to plenty of dinosaurs with extensive or entirely scaly hides and - if there's any value to linking body size and thermoregulatory regimes - they're a better match to Tyrannosaurus body mass than any known fuzzy species. For the time being, wholly scale models fit our existing data just as reasonably as partly fuzzy ones so, archaic and counter-intuitive as it seems - a scaly Tyrannosaurus is not an unreasonable interpretation for the life appearance of this animal, given our current data.

    Beyond Tyrannosaurus: 'unlocking' dinosaur skin constraints

    My take-home from these new papers is that our models of Tyrannosaurus skin have not crystallised, but we're a little more constrained in how we can imagine this animal, and have to concede a scalier appearance than many of us thought likely. But the implications of the Bell et al. study go beyond Tyrannosaurus in implying new ways to think about dinosaur skin evolution. With incontrovertibly fuzzy animals lining much of the the tyrannosauroid tree and its root, our scalier Tyrannosaurus gives us one of the best examples of a dinosaur replacing fuzz with scales. This is a far-reaching conclusion for those of us interested in dinosaur life appearance, complicating the already confusing evolutionary pattern of scale and fuzz distribution within the group. Ideas that some dinosaurs could be 'secondarily scaled' are supported by this discovery, and we have to wonder if classically fuzzy lineages - including many other theropod lines - are as tightly locked into fuzz, fibres and feathers as we once thought. Could large dromaeosaurs be a little lighter on fuzz than we imagine? Did Therizinosaurus look less like a giant pigeon and more like a walking Christmas dinner? We don't know, but now have reason to wonder.

    Fluffy Tyrannosaurus juveniles, one of the possibilities created by the idea that tyrannosaurs might have avian-like 'dynamic' skin. The recovery of scales in non-scaly clades is not as simple as it might first appear!
    Furthermore, the notion that Tyrannosaurus scales could be modified feathers (Bell et al. 2017) opens possibilities about mixes of filaments and scales. It's important to realise that not all scales are alike: 'reptile'' scales' are developmentally and genetically distinct from those we see in birds, which are actually secondarily modified feathers (Chang et al. 2000; Dhouailly 2009). Reptilian skin cannot be forced to grow feathers or filaments (Chang et al. 2000) and is developmentally static: once scales are formed, they're with them for life. Bird skin, however, is far more dynamic, and allows for all manner of ontogenetic and even seasonal variation in scale:feather ratios, changes to feather types, and modification of scale size (Lennerstedt 1975; Stettenheim 2000). If, as suspected, our tyrannosaurid skin samples represent fibrous integument masquerading as a scaly one, is this a sign of a bird-like 'unlocked' skin configuration where epidermal dynamism was possible? If so, Tyannosaurus could have changed appearance considerably with age (fluffy when small, scaly when big - above) or season (reflecting changes in climate or behaviour)? It must be stressed that we don't have any direct insight into these sorts of changes at the moment, and the hypothesis of tyrannosaurid scales being modified feathers needs testing. But the irony - we might have data indicating Tyrannosaurus could change its appearance readily, vindicating debaters on both sides of the scaly and fuzzy debate - is not lost on me. Maybe, just this once, everyone wins?

    Summing up time

    Let's tie this all together. A lot of ambiguity remains about the skin of Tyrannosaurus and its relatives, and it's not wise to hold any opinion about their life appearance too strongly at present. However, unduly downplaying the creep of scaly evidence into the tyrannosaurid fossil record isn't useful or logical. The skull skin correlates and fossil skin patches show that scales were present in numerous, widely-distributed parts of the body, and - until we see evidence to the contrary - this is good reason to assume scalier Tyrannosaurus than we might be used to. And yes, this does mean that some of our favourite, fluffier interpretations are now directly contradicted by fossil data, and consigned to our ever growing book of historic, discredited reconstructions. But this is always a possibility in palaeontology: our views of these animals are only ever hypotheses based on a sparse, biased fossil record, and every new discovery risks overturning someone's favourite concept. The fact we're able to move on from these reconstructions is positive, as it means we're a little less uncertain about the past, and a little closer to the truth.

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    References

      • Bell, P. R., Campione, N. E., Persons, W. S., Currie, P. J., Larson, P. L., Tanke, D. H., & Bakker, R. T. (2017). Tyrannosauroid integument reveals conflicting patterns of gigantism and feather evolution. Biology Letters, 13(6), 20170092.
      • Brusatte, S. L., Carr, T. D., & Norell, M. A. (2012). The osteology of Alioramus, a gracile and long-snouted tyrannosaurid (Dinosauria: Theropoda) from the Late Cretaceous of Mongolia.
      • Carr, T. D., Varricchio, D. J., Sedlmayr, J. C., Roberts, E. M., & Moore, J. R. (2017). A new tyrannosaur with evidence for anagenesis and crocodile-like facial sensory system. Scientific Reports, 7.
      • Chang, C., Wu, P., Baker, R. E., Maini, P. K., Alibardi, L., & Chuong, C. M. (2009). Reptile scale paradigm: Evo-Devo, pattern formation and regeneration. The International journal of developmental biology, 53(5-6), 813.
      • Chiappe, L. M., & Göhlich, U. B. (2010). Anatomy of Juravenator starki (Theropoda: Coelurosauria) from the Late Jurassic of Germany. Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie-Abhandlungen, 258(3), 257-296.
      • Dawson, T. J., & Maloney, S. K. (2004). Fur versus feathers: the different roles of red kangaroo fur and emu feathers in thermoregulation in the Australian arid zone. Australian Mammalogy, 26(2), 145-151.
      • Dhouailly, D. (2009). A new scenario for the evolutionary origin of hair, feather, and avian scales. Journal of anatomy, 214(4), 587-606.
      • Dove, C. J., Rijke, A. M., Wang, X., & Andrews, L. S. (2007). Infrared analysis of contour feathers: the conservation of body heat radiation in birds. Journal of Thermal Biology, 32(1), 42-46.
      • Godefroit, P., Sinitsa, S. M., Dhouailly, D., Bolotsky, Y. L., Sizov, A. V., McNamara, M. E., ... & Spagna, P. (2014). A Jurassic ornithischian dinosaur from Siberia with both feathers and scales. Science, 345(6195), 451-455.
      • Hieronymus, T. L., Witmer, L. M., Tanke, D. H., & Currie, P. J. (2009). The facial integument of centrosaurine ceratopsids: morphological and histological correlates of novel skin structures. The Anatomical Record, 292(9), 1370-1396.
      • Hone, D. (2016). The Tyrannosaur Chronicles: The Biology of the Tyrant Dinosaurs. Bloomsbury Publishing.
      • Kahl Jr, M. P. (1963). Thermoregulation in the wood stork, with special reference to the role of the legs. Physiological Zoology, 36(2), 141-151.
      • King, J. R., & Farner, D. S. (1961). Energy metabolism, thermoregulation and body temperature. Biology and comparative physiology of birds, 2, 215-288.
      • Knoll, F. (2008). Buccal soft anatomy in Lesothosaurus (Dinosauria: Ornithischia). Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie-Abhandlungen, 248(3), 355-364.
      • Lennerstedt, I. (1975). Seasonal variation in foot papillae of wood pigeon, pheasant and house sparrow. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part A: Physiology, 51(3), 511-520.
      • Milinkovitch, M. C., Manukyan, L., Debry, A., Di-Poï, N., Martin, S., Singh, D., ... & Zwicker, M. (2013). Crocodile head scales are not developmental units but emerge from physical cracking. Science, 339(6115), 78-81.
      • Morhardt, A. C. (2009). Dinosaur smiles: Do the texture and morphology of the premaxilla, maxilla, and dentary bones of sauropsids provide osteological correlates for inferring extra-oral structures reliably in dinosaurs? (Doctoral dissertation, Western Illinois University).
      • Myhrvold, C. L., Stone, H. A., & Bou-Zeid, E. (2012). What is the use of elephant hair?. PloS one, 7(10), e47018.
      • Phillips, P. K., & Sanborn, A. F. (1994). An infrared, thermographic study of surface temperature in three ratites: ostrich, emu and double-wattled cassowary. Journal of Thermal Biology, 19(6), 423-430.
      • Stettenheim, P. R. (2000). The Integumentary Morphology of Modern Birds—An Overview 1. American Zoologist, 40(4), 461-477.
      • Sullivan, C., & Xu, X. (2017). Morphological diversity and evolution of the jugal in dinosaurs. The Anatomical Record, 300(1), 30-48.
      • Xu, X., Norell, M. A., Kuang, X., Wang, X., Zhao, Q., & Jia, C. (2004). Basal tyrannosauroids from China and evidence for protofeathers in tyrannosauroids. Nature, 431(7009), 680-684.
      • Xu, X., Wang, K., Zhang, K., Ma, Q., Xing, L., Sullivan, C., ... & Wang, S. (2012). A gigantic feathered dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of China. Nature, 484(7392), 92-95.

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      Palaeoart has never been a particularly diverse artform. Since the early 1800s most palaeoartists have pursued art attempting to depict fossil animals in realistic ways, with stylistic variation mostly along the spectrum of how obvious our brush strokes and pencil lines are, and how much detail we add. In recent decades we've seen artists deepening their dedication to realism with hyperrealist palaeoart, artworks which look like they've been snapped by high-speed cameras with crisp focuses and ultra-high levels of detail.

      But not all palaeoartists are taking this approach. Some take a step away from not only high levels of detail but also realism, producing palaeoart with a more stylised and even abstract bent. Though few in number, the growing roster of ‘stylised’ palaeoartists represent an exciting new frontier for palaeoart. In varying artworks along spectra other than tidiness and detailing, these artists are producing unconventional works recalling pop art, classic western animations, heraldic crests, perspectiveless Medieval art and more. Among the most fascinating aspects of these works is their capacity to maintain respect for scientific credibility even when producing stylised, non-realist art. The forms may be simple or sharply angular, the colours may be garish, but we can still tell what the subjects are, what they are doing, and get a sense of their anatomy.

      ...which brings us to Johan Egerkrans's Alla tiders dinosaurier. If you like stylised palaeoart, you should check out this book. 
      Swedish artist Johan Egerkrans is part of this emerging group of unconventional palaeoartists. Emerging onto the online palaeoart scene only recently, his work has already generated a fanbase and widespread acclaim. It's easy to see the appeal of his creations. Distinctively angular, full of personality and recalling great works of American animation, his digital artworks emphasise and almost caricature the form of fossil animals without undue distortion of their form or disregarding fossil data. Attention to details, anatomy and colours make his work interesting to look at despite it's simplicity compared to traditional modern palaeoart. We're not just seeing generic cartoons of fossil animals, but highly stylised versions of contemporary, scientifically credible palaeoart, informed by a clear appreciation for modern wildlife and the natural world. Notice the pupil colour change between his adult and juvenile Microraptor (below), variable integuments on Gorgosaurus (above), fine attention to animal poses and behaviour, and so on. His use of traditional compositions and poses prevent his work becoming overbearing: in this regard, his work is less intrusive, and even perhaps less cartoony, than some artists employing ‘realistic’ animals in hyper-dynamic poses and compositions.

      Egerkrans' parent and offspring Microraptor. Look past the stylisation and this is a pretty accurate take on Microraptor anatomy, right down to the iridescent black plumage. Note the pin feathers and dark pupil on the juvenile - very sensible speculations for juvenile maniraptorans. © Johan Egerkrans.
      Each Egerkrans work radiates personality: his animals have real character, and it’s almost impossible not to imagine them taking part in animated vignettes. Several of his works have a strong sense of mischief and dark humour, another rarity among palaeoartworks. I’m particularly tickled by his scene of a capybara running away from terror bird Titanis (below): the bird has a mania that captures real birds at their most frantic and chaotic, while the drab mammal looks overwrought, panicked, but also like it’s going to write a strongly worded letter to the Daily Mail about all this. Comparisons of Egerkrans’ creations to stylised fossil animals rendered for the big screen are inevitable, and mostly leave us wondering what the heck everyone else is doing wrong. Hollywood, give this man a job!

      Titanis and capybara star in Hilarious Scene of Violence. Capybara won an Oscar for its eyebrows. © Johan Egerkrans.
      Johan was kind enough to send me a copy of his recent book, Alla tiders dinosaurier, which I thoroughly recommend you check out. There’s no English translation at the moment (one might happen at some point) but the artwork speaks volumes alone and the design and print quality is excellent - it's a nice book to have, even if you're unable to read the text. The follow up, Flygödlor och havsmonster, which focuses on marine reptiles and pterosaurs, is due out later this year. Both are published by B Wahlstroms, and can be purchased from Bokus and other Swedish book retailers (sorry, American readers, there are complications around shipping these books to the USA at the moment). You can check out the art of both books on Facebook, Artstation and Johan's blog. If you're Stockholm-based, you can also check out a dinosaur exhibition featuring the Alla tiders dinosaurier work, which is running until the end of September.

      Earlier this month I asked Johan if he’d like to chat to me about his art, books and palaeoart philosophy, and he’s taken time out of his schedule to give the following interview. With thanks to him for taking time to respond to my questions, it’s time for me to stop gushing about his work and hand you over to the man himself…

      MW. You’re quite new to the palaeoart scene, but have landed an instant fanbase with your highly distinctive artwork. Can you give us some insight into your artistic background and what brought you into restoring dinosaurs, pterosaurs and so on?


      JE. Hi Mark! Thanks for having me on the show!


      I started out as a concept artist and, like most people in that field it seems, I´ve nursed  a deeply rooted fascination for paleoart since... Well, forever I guess. At the age of four my dad gave me Burian´s seminal art book “Life Before Man” and that was it; I was hooked and filled countless A4 sheets with scribblings of dinosaurs, therapsids, pterosaurs and other extinct beasties. I´ve still got that same cherished tome in my bookshelf, worn and coming apart at the seams.


      Fast forward to the early 2000´s when I got my first fulltime job as an illustrator concepting for a small computer game outfit called Idol here in my hometown Stockholm. There I did designs for monsters, robots, spaceships and stuff like that. A high point was when I got to draw a series of - listen to this - demonically possessed cyborg dinosaurs!  That´s about as awesomebro as things can get. Take that Michael Bay!


      I was always had a talent for mimicking different art styles, which came in very handy at that job - one month you did a superhero game in a highly stylised Bruce Timm style, another month it was horror inspired by Clive Barker, Frazettaesque fantasy or something completely different. I really got to flex those versatility muscles in that environment.


      Anyway, after a couple of years Idol went belly up, as small computer game outfits are wont to do. I became a freelance illustrator and found myself working more and more with children´s books. In 2013 Nordiska väsen/Vaesen was released - a book about creatures from Scandinavian folklore that I wrote and illustrated. That really was a watershed moment, as the book did rather well (still does - it's sold over 40.000 copies in Sweden alone so far). After that success I had a certain amount of freedom and one of the things I wanted to do was to go back to my paleoart roots in some fashion. The first such project was a children´s picture book called My first book of dinosaurs. It was originally intended to be a rather tongue-in-cheek affair and the initial pictures were intentionally tropey (large theropod roaring on cliff, cassowary Oviraptor). I did take care to stay off the beaten path though so, unusually for a book aimed at young children, there wasn't a T. rex or Triceratops in sight - I went with Giganotosaurusand Styracosaurus instead.

      Mention the tropes, and they shall appear. Egerkrans'Smilodon bellowing off a cliff (or maybe suffering a major case of lockjaw). It's difficult not to see this as satirising the most traditional means of restoring sabre-toothed cats: the lower jaw stretched so far as to make its tissues near invisible, and the skull arcing upwards to attain more ferociousness. Image © Johan Egerkrans.
      Pretty soon my science geek side kicked in - I did more and more research and realised I wanted the reconstructions to have a certain amount of scientific accuracy, even if the book was aimed at toddlers. The cartoony stylised style I had chosen for the book could be tweaked into some something more “serious” while still retaining the whimsy and charm of those first illustrations. My first book of dinosaurs was followed by a another one about Cenozoic beasts and by this time I had gotten wind of the All Yesterdays movement and had started following a bunch of paleoblogs (this one and Tet Zoo among them). This new wave of paleoart and the philosophy behind it appealed to me. My editor and I decided to do a “real” pop science book about dinosaurs which was released as Alla tiders dinosaurier ("Dinosaurs of All Ages") earlier this year. I´m currently racing towards the finish on the follow up about pterosaurs and Mesozoic marine reptiles.

      MW. Strongly stylised palaeoart is rare, perhaps because we focus so rigidly on precision and scientific credibility in our reconstructions. Where do you draw the line between style and adherence to science, and are there cases where you’ve thought ‘screw science, this looks cooler!’

      JE. My aim, in a way, is to do what Disney animators did in films like The Jungle Book or The Lion King. Now, Shere Khaan might not be realistic per se, but the design is informed by a deep understanding of tiger anatomy, and what tigers are like - their “essence” if you will, with the risk of sounding a tad pretentious. Thus Shere Khaan becomes the tigeriest tiger around as far as I´m concerned. My paleoart sort of tries to do something similar - only with extinct animals (though I´m nowhere near as talented as those old school Disney animators).To capture that “essence” you sometimes got to break the rules a bit. It´s a “know the rules to break the rules” kinda deal.



      It´s a bit like caricatures come to think of it. People often find it easier to recognise a celebrity from a (well made) caricature than from a photo because the drawing exaggerates that person's distinguishing features. In a similar way stylisation allows me to focus on what’s distinctive about a certain species/genus and bring that up to front.

      Parvicursor, from Alla tiders Dinosaurier, is a great example of Egerkrans' capacity to find the essential elements of form in an extinct animal and project them through a strong visual style. © Johan Egerkrans.
      Another advantage is that it allows me to remain vague when we’re uncertain about some feature of an animal's anatomy. Take for instance the recent dispute whether tyrannosaurs had lips or croclike exposed teeth. The simplified style allows me to draw something in-between, should I so wish, and leave it open to interpretation. That doesn’t mean I do this all the time and never takes a stand, but it remains an option.


      A lot of paleoart seems rather overworked. I´m hardly the first to voice this opinion but meticulously rendering thousands of  tiny scales in a dinosaur picture doesn't necessarily make said picture more accurate. Sometimes it´s the complete opposite where hyperrealism only serves to create the illusion of scientific accuracy. I tend to prefer sketchier, looser paleoart - by artists like John Conway, Simon Stålenhag and of course Zdeněk Burian - where the emphasis lies on movement, mood and communicating that aforementioned essence of an animal - what it felt like.


      My most common “screw-you-science” is probably the eyes. The peepers of my stem-birds are more mobile than they probably were in real life; they move around and look at things in a human, or at least mammalian way. Avian eyes are usually fixed in a perpetual stare which makes them come off as either vexed or insane (or both). That might be precisely what you’re after, but often you’re looking for something different. I almost always give the animals discernible pupils as we humans are geared to interpret that as more affective than-all black eyes. Windows to the soul and all that.


      MW. Your reconstructions are full of personality and humour. I find it very easy to project emotion onto your subjects. Is this something you deliberately seek with your work? Do you render each image with an idea about what each animal is thinking?


      JE. I´ve always had a flair for characterisation. It just sort of happens no matter what I draw, be it a robot, a dragon or a lone animal hanging about doing nothing. They always end up seeming to be up to something (my subjects often look rather smug for some reason, apparently it´s my go-to emotion). There´s a hint of anthropomorphism but I try not to overdo it. It´s just little things like an eye ridge tweaked to look as if the animal is raising it´s eyebrows or the hint of a smirk at the corner of the mouth. It should only be just enough to help the viewer empathise with the subject.



      MW. The colour choices of your artwork are interesting, blending ‘realistic’ animal colour schemes with background hues rarely seen in palaeoart. It works very effectively, creating a strong sense of atmosphere. Can you take us through your approach to choosing animal colouration and blending these with often contrasting backgrounds?

      JE. I always start with the animal itself and let their colouration dictate the tones of the background. The aim is to give them striking, simple colour schemes that still comes off as believable. Once the animal is painted I start with the surrounding environment, which on the whole is a rather intuitive and organic process. I play around in Photoshop until I land in something that works.



      The colour choices and compositions are highly influenced by animation backgrounds, especially in the way the scenes are framed. There´s a lot of colour theory at work as well - complementary colors (often good old orange and teal) or split complementary colours (like red and blue) in different overlay layers make the animals “pop” from the background. A cool coloured animal will be framed by a warmer environment and vice versa.



      Dimorphodon meets a neighbour (notice the keratin crest on the lower jaw of Dimorphodon - most artists miss that). In addition to showing the personality common to Egerkrans' work, this piece also shows the mix of realistic animal colouration with striking, pseudorealistic background colours. In fully realistic art, this might not work, but here, it does. © Johan Egerkrans.
      MW. To me, your palaeoartworks recall some of William Stout’s illustrations. Both have a distinctive, non-realist style, interesting colour schemes and emphasis on the animal subjects. Is Stout an influence on your work?

      JE. Very much so. I've always loved his work and his approach to paleoart. His creatures have tons of character and the draughtsmanship is sublime. They’re admittedly a bit skeletal at times but they make that up with personality. That I’m partial to Stout is hardly a surprise, as we're both inspired by the same old masters. Even if it's not obvious in my paleoart, a lot of my work takes cues from turn of the century illustrators like Arthur Rackham, Dulac and John Bauer, just like Stout's art.


      MW. The work you produce is included in educational books. How do you think style impacts the scientific or educational prospects for palaeoart?


      JE. The illustrations are not intended to be photoreal and that´s sort of the point. It´s obvious that they're an interpretation which forces the viewers to do part of the reconstruction in their own heads. That hopefully gets their imagination going which is the ultimate goal - to connect and get people interested. To make science fun.

      The chosen style also saves me from meticulously rendering those thousands of tiny scales and retain my sanity, so that´s a huge plus.


      MW. Do you ever stray from your signature style? Will we ever see a ‘realistic’ Egerkransian dinosaur?


      JE. As I´ve mentioned before I always adapt my technique to the project at hand and this is just one of several styles I utilise. It´d be interesting to do a paleoart project in a more realistic vein, though I think there´ll always be a certain amount of stylisation. I´m not a realist painter and never will be - others have got that down already.



      Umoonasaurus and chums. The barnacled fallen trees turns this image from just another Mesozoic marine scene into something much more atmospheric. © Johan Egerkrans.



      MW. I’ve seen that you get a lot of scientific feedback on Facebook posts, a source that many palaeoartists – professional and amateur – can be wary of because of misinformation and confrontational internet users. How useful do you find social media to shape your art, and have you encountered much hostility?


      JE. I was flabbergasted at how overwhelmingly positive the response was when I posted my first drawings on the Facebooks. Especially from the academic community. There´s been very little hostile or dismissive remarks - in general people seem to take the works seriously, as ‘proper’ paleoart.


      The feedback is often extremely helpful - there´s lots of very well informed academics hanging about (you yourself and Darren Naish to mention just a few) and you quickly learn to sift the good advice from the bad or opinionated. I approach the forums as a sort of quick and dirty peer review; I´m not an expert and get things wrong all the time and if there´s something wonky someone is bound to point it out. As the ambition is to be as accurate as possible, within the limitations of the style, I try to surround myself with people who actually truly knows about this stuff. As luck would have it a lot of people I admire have proven to be more than willing to help out with comments, constructive criticism, links to papers and by just being supportive in general.


      MW. When are you going to get Hollywood on the phone to make your work into a movie? They already look like they’re stills from some epic animated film about Mesozoic life. And they owe us, frankly, after The Good Dinosaur.


      JE. I´m still waiting for them to get the straws out of their noses and give me a call. Bastards.


      Guanlong and some sort of impudent Mesozoic mammal. Note how the Guanlong is strikingly and variably coloured, and yet still looks grounded. Bringing bright colours into the Mesozoic doesn't necessarily mean painting entire animals in lurid shades. © Johan Egerkrans.
      MW. Finally, where’s the best place to find your art and support your work? And how long do we have to wait until your next book?

      JE. You can follow my public facebook account “Johan Egerkrans - Illustrator” where I post about new projects and upcoming events like signings. Then of course there is the Paleoartists Facebook group where I´m pretty active.



      My books can be bought from www.bokus.com or any other Swedish book retailer. You should be able to order them from there if you live in Europe but it's trickier in the States due to the fickle nature of the U.S. customs. Hopefully Alla tiders Dinosaurier will get an English edition at some point, but nothing's set at the moment.


      The next book Flygödlor och havsmonster, about your favourites the pterosaurs (and their marine contemporaries), will be out in Sweden this fall. At some point I´d very much like to do a book about Permian and Mesozoic stem mammals (gorgonopsids are hands down my favourite prehistoric animals), but sadly it is a rather tough sell…  



      MW. Johan Egerkrans, thanks very much!


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      Europasaurus holgeri - twice. These portraits are of the same animal using the same specimen and the same view, but one is restored with extreme shrink-wrapping (above) and the other has a more generous amount of facial tissue (below). But which one is more plausible, and can we even tell from fossil bones alone?
      You can't move around palaeoart circles on the internet nowadays without someone being criticised for 'shrink-wrapping' their reconstruction. This refers to the convention of restoring extinct animals with minimised soft-tissues, allowing details of muscle layouts and major skeletal contours to be seen in allegedly healthy living animals. At its most extreme, this includes clearly visible ribs and vertebrae, tissues sunk into skull openings, ultra-prominent limb girdles and skinny, sinewy legs. We owe the term 'shrink-wrapping to sauropod expert and SV:POW author Mathew Wedel who, in a 2010 article, compared the contour-hugging soft-tissues of these restorations to items wrapped in tight plastic for transport.

      Shrink-wrapping is a well known convention among those interested in palaeoart but is a relatively modern invention. Palaeoartists restored ancient animals with relatively bulky soft-tissues until the end of the 20th century to an extent where visible deep-tissue anatomy is genuinely exceptional in pre-modern palaeoart (a well known exception are ichthyosaur sclerotic rings, reflecting erroneous interpretation of these structures among early palaeontologists - see Buckland 1836). Shrink-wrapping became popular as conservative reconstruction approaches became dominant in the 1970s and went on to become a standard palaeoart convention soon after. Many, perhaps most, of the restorations produced by late 20th century artists employed shrink-wrapping and it remains conspicuous in artwork produced today. It has even spawned related traditions, such as tightly cropping fur and feathers to ensure animal shapes remain obvious, and has influenced approaches to restoring colour and skin texture, these elements being used to outline the topography of underlying bones. Famous shrink-wrappers include artists like Gregory S. Paul and Mark Hallett, who tend to be on the less dramatic side of the tradition, showing slight contours of the skull features alongside lean, though well-muscled, bodies and limbs. More extreme shrink-wrappers, like Ely Kish and William Stout, have works where shrink-wrapping is taken to a wholly unrealistic level. Gaping vacuities exist between neck vertebrae; rib cages and limb girdles bulge from the torsos; limbs are extremely thin and faces are lipless and gaunt. It’s difficult not to look at some of these works and not think of starving animals or even decaying remains: they do not look like healthy, virile beings.

      William Stout's Quetzalcoatlus, posted at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs, has to be the most shrink-wrapped being ever rendered in paleoart. If it had any less tissue we'd be looking at moulds of the internal organs.
      We might assign three reasons for the popularity of shrink-wrapping. The first is that its development coincided with a reinvention of dinosaurs as bird-like, active and powerful animals rather than oversized, under-muscled cold-blooded creatures. The athletic appearance of shrink-wrapped dinosaurs chimed with this renaissance and contrasted newer art from the plodding, perhaps over-voluminous animals of previous generations. Shrink-wrapping is not a dinosaur-exclusive tradition of course, but the popularity of these reptiles means that palaeoart conventions applied to dinosaurs are inevitably followed in artworks of other species. Secondly, images of prehistoric animals as heroically-built, powerful beings are preferred by many merchandisers and palaeoart fans, these interpretations most closely matching the erroneous but popular portrayal of prehistory as a savage struggle for survival, where only the most powerful animals survived. Thirdly, shrink-wrapping allows palaeoartists to ‘show our work’, demonstrating that the anatomy underlying the skin of a restored animal matches the osteological information provided by fossils.

      How shrink-wrapping became unfashionable

      Nowadays, shrink-wrapping is losing popularity among some parties as scientists and artists note a simple, but obvious problem: modern animals are generally not shrink-wrapped in the way we draw their extinct relatives. The most famous counter-shrink-wrapping arguments are in All Yesterdays (Conway et al. 2012) but something of an anti-shrink-wrapping movement was underway from the mid-2000s onward. Some now argue that, while champions of the rigorous reconstruction movement were right to draw attention to the true shapes of fossil animals and to emphasise their form in art, they might have gone too far in thinning out skin, muscle, fats and other tissues. Few animals have deeply sunken tissues over skull fenestra or distinctions in skin colour and texture correlating with skeletal anatomy, and no animals witnessed outside of veterinary clinics have detailed limb bone outlines projecting through their skin. Even reptiles - meant to be the living poster boys of shrink-wrapping - have a suite of elaborate, contour-altering soft-tissues. They include voluminous fat deposits; large amounts of wrinkly, saggy skin; eyes which bulge prominently from their sockets; deep lip tissues which fully sheath their teeth; jaw muscles which completely fill and swell from their skull housing; thick or pointed scales and, in some species, even expansive, mostly cartilaginous noses.

      Matt Wedel's touching plea to end shrink-wrapping, from 2011. The struggle is still real: if you have spare paint, pixels clay or graphite, please donate generously.
      Nowadays, many view skeletal elements as providing an important palaeoartistic foundation for soft-tissue shape, but concede that overlying tissues must have smoothed-over skeletal contours to produce 'softer' body forms. Indeed, there's something of an collective interest in knowing how deep extra-skeletal tissues can get. The answer, it seems, is 'very'. The necks of many birds and mammals are often flexed at much higher angles than we would assume based on their external appearance because their overlying tissues are so thick that the entire neck skeleton posture is hidden (Taylor et al. 2009). The muscles and bones of major anatomical elements – such as necks and proximal limb segments – can also be obscured under skin, fat and integument. Contour-altering structures like horns, spikes, spines, combs, humps, armour, fins, and webbing are often composed of soft-tissue, and the large, savage-looking teeth of mammals and lizards can be completely obscured by facial tissues. We need only look at x-rays of living animal species to see their often-startling lack of correlation between external appearance and internal anatomy.

      Even seals get in on this action, as evidenced from this Irish Seal Sancutary x-ray. Their site appears to be down at time of writing, but SV:POW! has this image hosted there for the time being. 
      It's from this general train of thought that a  push for more bulk, fuzz and fat in palaeoart has been born, and this general philosophy is lining up well with fossil data. We have direct evidence that the bodies of ichthyosaurus (Stenopterygius) and mosasaurs (Prognathodon) bore tall fins and paddle extensions that vastly exceeded the limits of their skeletal margins (McGowan and Motani 2003; Lindgren et al. 2013). Preserved body outlines of ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs show deep tissues which created smooth, streamlined torsos that are much bulkier than the underlying skeleton (Frey et al. 2017). Fossils of early horned dinosaurs (Psittacosaurus), Tanystropheus and ‘mummified’ hadrosaurs (multiple taxa) show extensive muscle volume that bury their skeletons as well as elaborate structures – soft-tissue filaments, combs and skin membranes – that defy ‘shrink-wrapping’ conventions (e.g. Mayr et al. 2002; Renesto 2005; Bell 2014). The feather outlines on innumerable fossil theropods show that they were just as densely feathered as modern avians, and the fuzzy ‘halos’ of fossil mammals and pterosaurs suggest they too were also adorned with deep layers of filaments. Several pterosaur fossils (PterodactylusPterorhynchus) also preserve unexpectedly broad neck tissue outlines which contrast against their thin, tubular neck vertebrae, as well as elaborations of crest tissues that create body outlines more voluminous than those predicted from musculoskeletal restorations (e.g. Frey and Martill 1998; Czerkas and Ji 2002). The 'shrink-wrapping hypothesis' is being falsified with regularity.
      Select fossilised body outlines of exinct taxa: no shrink-wrapping here. A, plesiosaur Mauriciosaurus fernandezi, B, ichythyosaur Stenopterygius quadriscissus; C, dromaeosaur Sinornithosaurus millenii. A, after Frey et al. 2017; B after McGowan and Motani 2003.

      Anti-anti-shrink-wrapping

      But while cries of 'bulkier, deeper, fuzzier!' are generally well-placed in palaeoart discussions, we should be careful not to overshoot the mark. Amid the cry for deeper tissues, we might be overlooking the fact that some living creatures are somewhat shrink-wrapped - at least in some regions. In fact, virtually animals have areas where their extra-skeletal tissues are shallow and skeletal contours are visible. Common areas of thin tissue include the ends of limbs and tails; the midline of the sternal region; and some areas of the face, such as the frontal and nasal regions; the ‘cheek region’ (over the jugal in birds and reptiles, and the zygomatic arch in mammals), and the lower margins of the bottom jaw. Our own anatomy is no exception to these trends, as is borne out by the extremely well-studied tissue depths of human faces (e.g. Stephan and Simpson 2008) or the simple act of looking in a mirror. The osteoderms of sauropsids are another example of close interaction between skin and bone: as with modern armoured reptiles, extinct scaly sauropsids with extensive osteoderm arrangements probably looked pretty darn like their fossil remains - in other words, kinda shrink-wrapped.

      There is no tissue, only Zuul.
      In reality, there is a spectrum of tissue depth in living species and some are more 'shrink-wrapped' than others. While no healthy living animal attains the most extreme levels of shrink-wrappery portrayed in palaeoartworks, certain lizards, fish, and crocodylians have anatomies which are more shrink-wrapped than average, possessing large areas of relatively thin, skull-hugging tissues which recall shrink-wrapped art. These thin tissues are highly characteristic of these species and are something something palaeoartists would want to capture if restoring these animals from fossils. We would miss this, however, if we assume that all animals have their tissue volume settings cranked up to maximum.

      These observations mean we have to be careful with applying a general philosophy to shrink-wrapping rather than scientific investigation. Tissue depth is evidently not a matter of palaeoartistic style or fashion, but a biological variable we should be aiming to predict and infer. If we're aiming to approach this topic like scientists, we should look to see what fossils and comparative anatomy can tell us about tissue depth to make informed, specific predictions about extinct animal appearance and avoiding a one-size-fits-all 'anti-shrink-wrap' philosophy. So, is there anything in the fossil record that elucidates how deeply buried animal skeletons were under muscle, skin and so on?

      Looking for clues of 'shrink-wrapped' tissues

      Frustratingly, one of the first lines of evidence we have to jettison are those body outline fossils. As great as they are, they can be of limited use for determining subtle variation in tissue thickness as their shapes are readily altered by taphonomy, preservation styles and even our own preparation work. Regions of thin tissue depth will be were especially sensitive to destructive processes and are easily obliterated by imperfect preservation or human error, so their chances of preservation are minimal. Phylogenetic bracketing is also of limited utility because the vastly different cranial architecture of extant and extinct animals makes such investigations almost meaningless. Non-avian dinosaurs, for instance, have skulls which are neither truly croc-like or bird-like, and it's probably not sensible to assume their extant relatives provide reliable insights into their facial tissues.

      Predicting regions of thin tissue is thus largely left to comparative anatomy - predicting minimised tissue volumes using fossil bones and the living structural analogues. Among extant species, we see shrink-wrapping largely applying to animal faces, so if we investigate the skulls of ‘soft-faced’ animals like mammals, monitor lizards, snakes, and certain birds, and compare them to species with shrink-wrapped faces, like turtles, crocodylians, chameleons and well-ossified fish, we might find characteristics that correlate with facial tissue depth. These will then give us some criteria to assess tissue depth in fossil species. I've had a go at this, and suggest that osteological attributes related to facial tissue depth include:

      How might we predict shrink-wrapping in fossil animals without good soft-tissue remains? It's challenging, but these attributes might give a general idea. From top to bottom: Burchell's zebra (Equus quagga burchellii); water monitor (Varanus salvator); Alligator mississipiensis and Arrau turtle (Podocnemis expansa).
      Openness of skull architecture. The skull openings of softer-faced animals - including the temporal muscle openings, orbits and nares – tend to be large. At their most extreme these openings are not fully bordered by bone (e.g. many mammal orbits and nares, the lower temporal fenestrae of lizards). Larger skull openings necessitate a larger fraction of face structure be composed of soft-tissue, such as muscle, organs, and cartilage, and this overwhelms the contours of the bony skeleton to make a 'soft-faced' species. The nasal cartilages of monitors and mammals, as well as bulging mammalian jaw muscles, are examples of this. Conversely, shrink-wrapped species have smaller cranial openings, which impose physical limitations on how much soft-tissue can form the shape of the face. Muscles and organs might protrude from these somewhat, but their impact on facial structure is less than that of species with large skull openings, and more of the face shape reflects bony contours

      Rugosity. Soft-faced animals tend to have smooth bone textures with limited or no areas of rugosity, whereas the skulls of shrink-wrapped species have large areas of rugose textures, often corresponding to specific epidermal features (e.g. scales or keratinous sheaths - see below and Hieronymus et al. 2009). This factor largely seems to reflect the proximity of epidermal tissue, which can leave characteristic textures in species with tightly-bound skin. Soft-faced species generally lack this rugosity because muscles, fat and voluminous integuments (fur and feathers) don’t leave broad osteological features (Hieronymus et al. 2009), or simply because their skin is displaced far enough from the bone that it doesn't alter its surface. We might also note that the skull contours of soft-faced species are generally more rounded than those of shrink-wrapped species, which can be crisp and sharp. Rugosity is a particularly useful criterion because it can show the presence of tight skin tissues with some precision. If one part of a skull is rugose, and another isn’t, there’s a good chance that the smoother region had a different tissue configuration which could - among other things - reflect a deeper or 'softer' facial covering.

      Fossil skulls - like those of the centrosaurine Centrosaurus apertus - are covered with features that allow us to predict aspects of their facial skin. Often - as is the case here - they suggest fairly low-volume structures, like scales and horn sheaths, which generally don't deviate too much from the underlying bone (yes, I know there are exceptions, but we're looking for major trends here). Centrosaurus skull redrawn from this Wikipedia photo, data on facial tissue correlates from Hieronymus et al. (2009).
      Pits, grooves and foramina. Shrink-wrapped species tend to have large numbers of perforations in their skulls, while soft-faced species show the opposite (Morhardt 2009). This is particularly evident around their jaws and presumably reflects the greater capacity for soft-faced animals to carry nutrients and sensory information through their soft-tissues, whereas shrink-wrapped animals are forced to run nervous and vascular networks through their face skeletons.

      Correlates for epidermal projections. Elaborate skin projections – such as soft-tissue horns or crests - leave characteristic osteological signatures (Hieronymus et al. 2009). Given that these projections can alter animal faces quite substantially from the underlying skull shape, the presence of these is a clear indication that the species was not shrink-wrapped. We would expect a lack of correlates for epidermal projections in shrink-wrapped species.

      As is often the case with zoological topics there are exceptions to these observations that preclude using any one of these criteria in isolation to determine tissue depth (e.g. smooth bone textures can underlie thin naked skin, so are not always a hallmark of deep tissues). However, applied collectively, they might give a general insight into how shrink-wrapped or 'soft-faced' an extinct animal was. I'm encouraged to see that these proposed osteological features of soft- and shrink-wrapped faces covaried in the past as much as they do for modern species. This doesn't mean these criteria are 'correct' as goes their relationship to tissue depth, but at least shows there's variation in their skull architecture that we can recognise as equivalent to that of modern species, and it isn't unreasonable to think the variance might reflect the same anatomical factors.

      If we apply these criteria to some fossil taxa, what predictions might we make? The roomy, smooth-boned and foramina-lite skulls of cynodont-grade synapsids and fossil mammals match predictions for ‘softer-faced’ species, and this might be true of some fossil reptiles – like sauropod dinosaurs - too (this is not a new conclusion: both Matt Wedel and Darren Naish have been saying similar things about sauropods for years). If right, the 'soft-faced' sauropod that greeted you at the start of this post might be more likely that the shink-wrapped toilet-headed version we're so familiar with. At the other end of the spectrum, the highly textured, pitted bones and solidly-built skulls of ankylosaurs and anamniotes meet our criteria for shrink-wrapping very well, and they likely had facial anatomy tightly conforming to their skull shapes.

      Applying the criteria outlined above might help us roughly sort predict 'shrinkwrapped', 'soft-faced' or intermediary conditions in extinct taxa. The placements of the animals here are only rough, but give an indication of their relation to the tissue-depth criteria outlined above. Fingers crossed that some of these will be corroborated or refuted with soft-tissue discoveries in future.
      Careful examination of fossil skulls allows us to also predict partial or regionalised shrink-wrapping in species where some aspects of their facial anatomy conformed to the underlying bone, and others did not. An example of this configuration is demonstrated in some living lizards, like gila monsters, which have skull textures strongly indicating minimal tissue depth over much of their skull but smooth, foramina-lite jaw margins. In life, these animals have shrink-wrapped dorsal skull regions and snouts, but vast, fleshy lips, which is what we might predict based on their skull anatomy.

      Partial facial shrink-wrapping seems apt for many fossil species. Gorgonopsians, for instance, might not have soft faces like living mammals as their snouts and foreheads are quite rugose and their nasal openings are small (e.g. Kammerer 2016). These features might indicate the presence of tighter skin over the snout. However, they have few jaw foramina and relatively open regions for jaw musculature, so they might have been fleshier around their jaw margins and at the back of head (below). Tyrant dinosaurs have skulls with relatively small openings compared to some of their theropod relatives, rugose snout textures, several hornlets (Carr et al. 2017), as well as a slightly elevated foramina count (Morhardt 2009). This cranial anatomy is consistent with tighter tissue depth in several areas, if someway short of a fully lipless, crocodylian-like degree of shrink-wrapping. Many pterosaurs show pitting and vascular canals embedded into their jaw margins, and some species have indications of tight sheathing on their crests and jaws, but the presence of striated bony crests – correlates for epidermal projections– as well as large skull openings and smooth bone textures in other parts of the skull, indicate that their faces might not have been entirely skeletal.

      Was gorgonopsian Inostrancevia shrink-wrapped or soft-faced? According to the criteria of this post, maybe a little from column A, a little from column B. 
      Time and testing will tell whether these criteria are a genuinely useful means to predict facial anatomy. I hope - as with other aspects of extinct animal appearance - that genuine research into this issue will be carried out one day. Criteria to predict tissue-depth are a desirable tool for any palaeoartist as it's simply more honest and scientific: if we're serious about this reconstructing extinct animals gig, predictive methods and sound hypotheses are infinitely better than sticking to our personal hunches, guesses or erring on what looks coolest. Regardless of whether we can predict tissue depth or not, the take home here is that we should not approach our artwork having already decided how thin or fat the tissue volumes of our subjects will be. There is probably not a single ‘universal truth’ that can be said about restoring tissue depth for all animals, whether we err toward thicker or thinner: the right tissue depth is the most defensible and best rationalised on for each subject and its constituent body parts.


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      References

      • Bell, P.R. (2014). A review of hadrosaurid skin impressions. In D.A. Eberth and D.C. Evans (eds.) The Hadrosaurs: Proceedings of the International Hadrosaur Symposium. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, pp. 572–590.
      • Buckland, W. (1836). Geology and mineralogy considered with reference to natural theology (Vol. 1). Carey, Lea and Blanchard.
      • Carr, T. D., Varricchio, D. J., Sedlmayr, J. C., Roberts, E. M., & Moore, J. R. (2017). A new tyrannosaur with evidence for anagenesis and crocodile-like facial sensory system. Scientific Reports, 7.
      • Conway, J., Kosemen, C. M., Naish, D., & Hartman, S. (2013). All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals. Irregular books.
      • Czerkas, S. A., & Ji, Q. 2002). A new rhamphorhynchoid with a headcrest and complex integumentary structures. Feathered Dinosaurs and the origin of flight, 1, 15-41.
      • Frey, E., & Martill, D. M. (1998). Soft tissue preservation in a specimen of Pterodactylus kochi (WAGNER) from the Upper Jurassic of Germany. Neues Jahrbuch fur Geologie und Palaontologie-Abhandlungen, 210(3), 421.
      • Frey, E., Mulder, E. W., Stinnesbeck, W., Rivera-Sylva, H. E., Padilla-Gutiérrez, J. M., & González-González, A. H. (2017). A new polycotylid plesiosaur with extensive soft tissue preservation from the early Late Cretaceous of northeast Mexico. Boletín de la Sociedad Geológica Mexicana, 69(1), 87-134.
      • Hieronymus, T. L., Witmer, L. M., Tanke, D. H., & Currie, P. J. (2009). The facial integument of centrosaurine ceratopsids: morphological and histological correlates of novel skin structures. The Anatomical Record, 292(9), 1370-1396.
      • Kammerer, C. F. (2016). Systematics of the Rubidgeinae (Therapsida: Gorgonopsia). PeerJ, 4, e1608.
      • Lindgren, J., Kaddumi, H. F., & Polcyn, M. J. (2013). Soft tissue preservation in a fossil marine lizard with a bilobed tail fin. Nature Communications, 4, 2423.
      • Mayr, G., Peters, S. D., Plodowski, G., & Vogel, O. (2002). Bristle-like integumentary structures at the tail of the horned dinosaur Psittacosaurus. Naturwissenschaften, 89(8), 361-365.
      • McGowan, C. & Motani, R. (2003). Part 8 Ichthyopterygia. Sues H–D (ed.) Handbook of Paleoherpetology. Munchen: Verlag Dr. Friedrich Pfeil. 175 p.
      • Morhardt, A. C. (2009). Dinosaur smiles: Do the texture and morphology of the premaxilla, maxilla, and dentary bones of sauropsids provide osteological correlates for inferring extra-oral structures reliably in dinosaurs?. Western Illinois University.
      • Renesto, S. (2005). A new specimen of Tanystropheus (Reptilia Protorosauria) from the Middle Triassic of Switzerland and the ecology of the genus. Rivista Italiana di Paleontologia e Stratigrafia (Research in Paleontology and Stratigraphy), 111(3).
      • Stephan, C. N., & Simpson, E. K. (2008). Facial soft tissue depths in craniofacial identification (part I): an analytical review of the published adult data. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 53(6), 1257-1272.
      • Taylor, M. P., Wedel, M. J., & Naish, D. (2009). Head and neck posture in sauropod dinosaurs inferred from extant animals. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, 54(2), 213-220.

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      1.5 Arsinotherium zitteli trotting about Eocene Egypt, looking a bit like they could be advertising farm products. But what's with those more elaborate than usual horns?
      The horns of the giant, Egyptian, Oligocene afrotherian Arsinoitherium zitteli are probably a key factor in its status as one of the better known fossil mammals. Though perhaps not quite as popular as mammoths or sabre-toothed cats, this 3 m long, four-horned species has enough osteological charisma to warrant display in many museums as well as starring roles in books and films (including, cinema fans, narrowly missing out on an appearance in the 1933 King Kong). And unlike a fossil rhinocerotid (to which it is not at all related), Arsinoitherium doesn't need us to imagine the shape of its ornament in life: two enormous horns project over the end of the snout and another pair of smaller, sub-vertical horns grew above the eyes.

      Recently, I painted a portrait of Arsinoitherium for an upcoming book project and, based on my understanding of epidermal osteological correlates, I threw a keratinous sheath over the entire horn set (below). This is not a typical reconstruction - Arsinoitherium has been reconstructed with 'regular' mammalian skin (perhaps better termed 'villose skin' - Hieronymus et al. 2009) on its horns for decades but, as we all know, popularity and longevity don't always equal 'credibility' when it comes to fossil animal reconstructions.

      Arsinoitherium zitteli, sporting antelope-like horn sheaths.
      Shortly after this image was shared online, Darren Naish, he of Tetrapod Zoology (and the upcoming TetZooCon meeting, which you should definitely attend if you're in the UK and reading this article), had a question: had I checked horns without keratinous sheaths, like deer antlers or giraffe ossicones? It turns out that these are the more typical artistic analogues for Arsinoitherium horns, and their reconstruction without a keratinous sheath reflects this interpretation. It wasn't a question I could easily answer because I'd zeroed in on a keratinous sheath quickly in my research for the image and, in a major palaeoart faux pas, hadn't given due consideration to other options. Simultaneously, neither of us could argue for any model of Arsinoitherium horn coverage confidently because no-one has looked into this in any detail. There are some ideas in the literature, but they are fleeting and conflicting (keratin sheaths - Anonymous 1903; Andrews 1906; Osborn 1907; or skin, Prothero and Schoch 2002; Rose 2006).

      It's difficult to turn away a good palaeobiological mystery, and because I like to make sure my work is as credible as it can be, I followed this question up with more research. I reasoned that the structure, development and surface texture of the three major types of mammalian headgear - horns, ossicones and antlers - could be compared to Arsinoitherium horns to see which, if any, is the best match and indicator of life appearance. Looking into this has been very informative and might be of interest to fellow palaeoartists as well as those interested in cool fossil animals, so I thought I'd share my thoughts and process here. We'll start by looking at Arsinoitherium horns themselves, then move through modern potential analogues, and finally compare them at the end to see which model seems most apt.

      Arsinoitherium horns: growth, structure and surface texture

      PV M 8463, the most famous of all Arsinoitherium skulls, as illustrated in Andrews (1906). Note the dotted lines across the horns - they mark the end of the preserved skull and the start of reconstructed elements.
      As noted above, Arsinoitherium has two pairs of horns: a larger anterior set, which grows out of the nasal bones and over the snout, and a smaller, second pair formed from the frontal bones, above the eyes. Both sets are highly conspicuous and dominate the skull, the weight of the anterior pair presumably accounting for the development of a bony bar between the nostrils in mature animals (Andrews 1906; Court 1992). Note that the Arsinoitherium horns we're used to seeing in museums are partly reconstructed and thus of limited use as reference material. Most exhibited skulls are based on NHMUK specimen PV M 8463 (above), a 'moderately sized' adult specimen (Osborn 1907) in which neither horn is complete (Anonymous 1903; Andrews 1906). This skull was among the earliest Arsinoitherium skulls collected from Egypt but was restored rapidly once it arrived back in London. A 1903 report describes how the skull was:

      "...brought home by Dr. Andrews from Egypt, and after cleaning, strengthening, and the restoration of parts deficient on the left side by modelling from the right side, is now exhibited in the central hall of the Natural History Museum in Cromwell Road."
      Anonymous, 1903, p. 530

      The fact that some parts of the skull were in less than stellar shape is evident from this photo of PV M 8463 (from the NHM's data portal): note the variation in colour and texture, reflecting places of reconstruction against real bone. Thus, while the familiar Arsinoitherium museum skull is a useful reference for morphology, illustrations and descriptions in technical literature will be more informative for reconstructing their integument. I've based my assessment mostly on Charles Andrews (1906) monograph, as well as that of Court (1992).

      Structure. Both horn pairs of Arsinoitherium are relatively simple in gross shape and maintain the same basic morphology throughout their lives (below), though the horns of mature animals are wider, taller and more pointed than those of juveniles. The figures presented in Andrews (1906) show an increase in anterior horn base length from 41.6% in the smallest specimen to over 56% in the largest. Both horn sets are hollow, with vast internal cavities being supported by sheets of trabecular bone. In some places the exterior bone walls are surprisingly thin, only 5-10 mm (Andrews 1906).

      Arsinoitherium zitteli skull ontogeny. I wonder if the horns of the largest skull should be reconstructed as longer and taller, given their arcs in the completely known skulls and gentler tapering of other nasal horn specimens (e.g. Sanders et al. 2004). Skull drawn from Andrews (1906), skull measurements by me.
      Surface texture. The base of the horns are marked by deep, broad and branching neurovascular channels running from the facial region onto the horns themselves. The horn shafts are rugose on account of many deep pits, grooves and branching channels aligned along their long axes (Andrews 1906; Sanders et al. 2004). The horn tips of young animals have an especially spongy texture at the tip, presumably reflecting growth of the horn core (Andrews 1906). These textures are not typical of the rest of the skull, which are of a more typical, smooth mammalian variety even in regions where skin was probably in close proximity to the bone (e.g. the zygomatic arch, over the braincase). This is an important distinction, implying that a different epidermal configuration - different skin types, in other words - was present on the horns compared to the rest of the skull.

      Having learned something of the Arsinoitherium condition, let's take a look at how modern horns, antlers and ossicones compare...

      Analogue 1. Bovid-style horns (keratinous sheaths over a bone core)

      Bovid horns typify a widely used approach to cranial ornamentation and weaponry across Tetrapoda. They are perhaps the simplest approach to producing a sturdy cranial projection, being little more than a bony horn core covered in a hard keratinous sheath and are permanent feature in almost animals that bear them. The one exception is the pronghorn, which sheds its horn sheath annually (it also isn't a bovid). Biology, eh: can't we have one rule without an exception?

      Bovid (bighorn sheep, Ovis canadensis) horn anatomy. From Drake et al. 2016.
      Structure. Bovid-style horns are composed of a hollow bony core lined with trabeculae that strengthens an otherwise thin-walled structure (Drake et al. 2016). The bone portion only occupies the basal portion of the horn, anchoring ever-growing bands of keratin that grow from the bone-keratin interface, not at the horn tip (below). This means that the tip of the horn sheath is the oldest part of the structure and that the base of the sheath is the youngest. Because keratin sheaths are inert, dead and tough tissue, they cannot be remodelled once they are formed. This dictates that the growing bony core has to forever comply with the shape of the horn sheath and cannot change shape much over time. Size changes can be accommodated as wider and longer sheath layers can cover expanding horn cores, but it is not possible to form a more complex shape - say a branch or spur - at the tip of the horn. And before anyone mentions pronghorns: their horn branches are entirely soft-tissue: the bony core retains a simple shape.

      Schematic bovid horn growth, adapted from an illustration in Goss (2012).
      Surface texture. Deep, oblique foramina and branching neurovascular canals characterise the surface texture of bovid horn cores. This rugosity profile is most pronounced in younger animals, but is maintained to a lesser extent in adults - in many bovids, the horns never stop growing, they just slow down a great deal. This texture is not unique to horns but accompanies many structures with keratinous sheathing, including claws and beaks (e.g. Heironymus et al. 2009). A sharp lip and particularly deep rugosity can mark the transition from horn to facial skin.

      Analogue 2. Giraffe ossicones (skin over ossified dermis)

      Giraffes have awesome skulls with two - and often more - ossicones that are covered in the same skin as the rest of their faces (Davis 2011). Their approach to cranial ornamentation seems unique to giraffes and their fossil relatives but might be an apt model for aberrant extinct forms, so is worth reviewing here. Clive Spinage (1968) provides an excellent overview of ossicone structure and development: the following is taken from his work.

      Structure. Ossicones are low humps or columnar protuberances, continuous with the surrounding skull anatomy but formed from dermal ossifications, not outgrowths of skull bones. They eventually fuse with the skull in adult life but, unlike the underlying skull bones, ossicones are solid and very dense - they are described as having 'ivory-like' in compactness and hardness by Spinage (1968). Mature specimens show increasingly complex shapes including development of swollen tips on the frontoparietal 'horns', as well as hornlets and bosses across the major 'forehead' ossicone. Having an adaptable, living integument is essential to this process, as the ossicone covering needs to change shape to reflect the changing size and complexity of the underlying bone.

      Giraffe skulls are full of sinuses, but they do not extend to their ossicones, which are extremely dense. From Spinage (1968).
      Surface texture. Generally smooth with oblique foramina in juveniles and young adults, but increasingly gnarly in mature animals (more so in males). The continued ossification of dermal tissues produces a conspicuous pitting and 'flaky' rugosity profile that overgrows the surrounding skull bones and obscures the textures from earlier growth stages. In mature males, this rugosity can overgrow the entire upper surface of the skull and enhance the height and ornamentation of the ossicones considerably.

      Young adult male giraffe skull by Wikimedia user Nikkimaria, CC BY-SA 3.0. Note the flaky, irregular textures of the ossicones and their complex shape: they are much more intricate and developed than those of less mature animals. There's room for more irregularity and texture on this skull, too: the skulls of old males look like they have cathedral spires growing from their faces.

      Analogue 3. Deer antlers (bony projections atop cranial pedicles)

      The familiarity of deer antlers allows us to forget what remarkable and unusual structures they are. Present almost universally in male deer (and in female reindeer), these elaborate, sometimes enormous structures are cast and regrown each year using a regenerative process that is the source of much anatomical and medical interest - no other mammal can regenerate such a complex appendage in this way, and the speed of the regeneration process is remarkable. Antlers are so unusual that they are only partly useful to our discussion here: we are primarily interested in antlers when they are covered in their velvet (specialised antler skin), as this is most comparable to the likely Arsinoitherium condition. Antler skin itself is interesting as, although it is continuous with the skin of the underlying pedicle, it lacks sweat glands and arrector pili (the tiny muscles that pull hair up or give us goosebumps) (Li and Suttie 2000). The antler pedicle (the permanent bony base) in contrast, is covered in the same type of skin as elsewhere on the body (Li and Suttie 2000).

      A happy-looking moose (Alces alces) with his fuzzy antlers. Note the visible blood vessels on the underside of each palm. Photo by AlbertHerring, in public domain.
      Structure. Both antlers and pedicles are solid, and antlers can - by virtue of growing at their tips - become more complex as they grow, developing from single spurs into networks of brows, tines and palms. As with giraffes, antler skin needs to be living and adaptable to facilitate this: a covering of inert keratin would preclude this form of growth.

      More Alces antlers, this time without velvet. Note the long, branching channels. By Wikimedia user Nkansahrexford, CC-BY-4.0.

      Surface texture. Antlers have variably developed rugosities consisting of conspicuous, long and branching channels impressed into smooth bone or around prominences and tubercles. These grooves are the impressions of blood and nervous networks that facilitated rapid antler growth. These textures are easily discerned even from a distance, and thus contrast with the texture of the pedicles, which are smoother and lined with relatively shallow, narrow and long impressions of vascular networks. It is unusual for hairy skin to leave such a significant osteological scar on underlying bone: typically, this form of epidermis leaves little to no remnant on skull bones (Hieronymus et al. 2009).

      Arsinoitherium vs the analogues

      Having looked at three major types of cranial projection in living animals, which - if any - best match the condition in Arsinoitherium?Giraffe ossicones are incomparable to Arsinoitherium horns in several aspects, perhaps the most significant being their increasing complexity and development of flaking bone textures in later life. Furthermore, the development of giraffe ossicones from bony growths in dermal tissues suggests a fundamentally different relationship between skull and dermis than of Arsinoitherium, where the bony horn component represents skull bones alone. There's enough differences here to question whether giraffe ossicones are a good model for the life appearance of Arsinoitherium horns.

      In being formed of polished, deeply vascularised bone, deer antlers are closer approximations of Arsinoitherium horns. However, there is so much weirdness associated with deer antler formation and tissues that they almost remove themselves from meaningful comparison to permanent skull horn cores. The fact that antler velvet, as hairy skin, is (to my knowledge) unique in leaving deep vascular channel impressions is a major issue here, implying that either antler bone is unusually susceptible to neurovascular imprinting (do they grow so fast that they grow around their blood vessels?) or that velvet is better at altering bone textures than other skin types. Both scenarios point to antlers having some endemic oddness about them, which complicates their use as a model for life appearance of non-antlered species.

      All is not lost with the cervid data, however: antler pedicles are comparable to Arsinoitherium horns in being permanent outgrowths of bone, and they also have neurovascular impressions. However, these shallow grooves compare poorly to the deeper channels and pitting of Arsinoitherium horns. Indeed, there is little about antler pedicle texture to distinguish them from the surrounding skull bones, whereas the opposite is true for Arsinoitherium.

      Our comparisons improve with the bovid horn condition, which seems to chime with the Arsinoitherium skull in many regards. Both are hollow outgrowths of skull bones supported by internal trabeculae; both have bone textures characterised by deep, bifurcating neurovascular channels as well as conspicuous longitudinal grooves and oblique foramina; and both maintain the same basic shape throughout growth - excepting some basic changes in base width and horn length. Further similarities include the development of particularly deep rugosties at the base of the horn cores, which is evident in at least large Arsinoitherium skulls (Andrews 1906). This interpretation is consistent with one of the longer (but still rather short, if we're honest) interpretations of the blood vessel impressions in Arsinoitherium:

      "These channels evidently lodged blood-vessels which served for the conveyance of blood to or from the covering of the horn, and judging from the marked way in which both these vessels and those on the anterior face of the horns impress the bone, it seems probable that the covering was hard and of much, the same nature as that clothing the horn-cores of the cavicorn ruminants."
      C. Andrews (1906), p. 7

      So...

      Of the three models looked at here, it seems the basic structure and textural package of bovid-like horns best matches what we see in Arsinoitherium. Moreover, unlike the antler or ossicone models, there's no obvious mismatches with this configuration: pretty much everything we would correlate to a bovid-like horn anatomy seems present on or in the Arsinoitherium skull. The idea that a keratinous sheath might have existed in Arsinoitherium might seem odd, but it is not that outlandish given the apparent ease through which keratinous sheaths evolve. This is, after all, the tissue which has covered just about every claw, hoof, nail, horn, cranial dome and beak that has ever existed, whereas ossicones and antlers seem like specialised, clade-restricted approaches to cranial projections. The functionality of hollow Arsinoitherium horns is further reason to suspect a horn sheath. Studies of bovid horns suggest hollow cores and keratin sheaths compliment each other biomechanically, optimising the horns for for impact dissipation (Drake et al. 2016 and references therein). Stripped of a keratinous sheath, we find that hollow horn cores are great at transmitting energy but are brittle and prone to buckling and fracturing under heavy loading. It's only with a tough, fracture resistant keratin sheath that these structures can avoid breaking under heavy use so, if Arsinoitherium employed its horns for anything vaguely physically demanding, they probably needed a keratinous sheath.

      It's possible, of course, that these structures were just for show, but they do look like they had a function beyond display. It occurs to me as I write this that this scene recalls the painting from Ghostbusters II. I guess we'll call this guy Vigo. 
      Putting all this together, I feel the case for a keratinous sheath over the Arsinoitherium horn sets is reasonable, at least so far as it can be made with publicly available data. Aspects of morphology, growth, surface texture and - perhaps - functionality seem fully consistent with a bovid-like horn configuration, whereas other potential models are less comparable. From an artistic perspective, this is exciting: horn sheaths can be extremely elaborate structures and exaggerate the size of the horn core considerably, so Arsinoitherium might have been far more extravagant in life than we have previously imagined. I've tried to hint at this with my reconstructions - remember, this animal wasn't just a funny-faced rhinoceros!

      But - before we go crazy with this - do remember that the core of this analysis - the interpretation of Arsinoitherium headgear - is entirely literature based. I've not seen original specimens nor even modern, high-res imagery of an unreconstructed skull (this wasn't for lack of trying - the literature on these animals needs updating). Thus, while I've tried to be as thorough as I can with my observations, and as cautious as I can with my interpretations, I might be ignorant of some important detail. Take everything here with an appropriate pinch of salt, and please chime in below if you can provide superior insight. There's clearly scope for a more detailed study on this topic and, given how unique the horns of Arsinoitherium are, there might be some interesting functional findings to emerge from further investigation.

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      References

      • Andrews, C. W. (1906). A descriptive catalogue of the Tertiary Vertebrata of the Fayum. Publ. Brit. Mus. Nat. Hist. Land. XXXVII.
      • Anonymous. (1903). A New Egyptian Mammal (Arsinoitherium) from the Fayûm. (1903). Geological Magazine, 10(12), 529-532.
      • Court, N. (1992). The skull of Arsinoitherium (Mammalia, Embrithopoda) and the higher order interrelationships of ungulates. Palaeovertebrata, 22(1), 1-43.
      • Davis, E. B., Brakora, K. A., & Lee, A. H. (2011). Evolution of ruminant headgear: a review. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 278(1720), 2857-2865.
      • Drake, A., Donahue, T. L. H., Stansloski, M., Fox, K., Wheatley, B. B., & Donahue, S. W. (2016). Horn and horn core trabecular bone of bighorn sheep rams absorbs impact energy and reduces brain cavity accelerations during high impact ramming of the skull. Acta biomaterialia, 44, 41-50.
      • Goss, R. J. (2012). Deer antlers: regeneration, function and evolution. Academic Press.
      • Hieronymus, T. L., Witmer, L. M., Tanke, D. H., & Currie, P. J. (2009). The facial integument of centrosaurine ceratopsids: morphological and histological correlates of novel skin structures. The Anatomical Record, 292(9), 1370-1396.
      • Li, C., & Suttie, J. M. (2000). Histological studies of pedicle skin formation and its transformation to antler velvet in red deer (Cervus elaphus). The Anatomical Record, 260(1), 62-71.
      • Osborn, H. F. (1907). Hunting the Ancestral Elephant in the Fayûm Desert: Discoveries of the Recent African Expeditions of the American Museum of Natural History. Century Company.
      • Prothero, D. R., & Schoch, R. M. (2002). Horns, tusks, and flippers: the evolution of hoofed mammals. JHU press.
      • Rose, K. D. (2006). The beginning of the age of mammals. JHU Press.
      • Sanders, W. J., Kappelman, J., & Rasmussen, D. T. (2004). New large-bodied mammals from the late Oligocene site of Chilga, Ethiopia. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, 49(3), 365-392.
      • Spinage, C. A. (1968). Horns and other bony structures of the skull of the giraffe, and their functional significance. African Journal of Ecology, 6(1), 53-61.

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      Thalassodromeus sethi, a juvenile Mirischia asymmetrica, and half a spinosaurid hang out in Cretaceous Brazil. The spinosaurid wants to go home.
      One of my favourite pterosaurs is the Brazilian thalassodromid Thalassodromeus sethi: a large (4-5 m wingspan) Cretaceous azhdarchoid known only from a broken skull and cranial fragments of disputed affinity (Kellner and Campos 2002; Veldmeijer et al. 2005; Martill and Naish 2006). Characterised by an especially large bony cranial crest, toothless jaws and a robust skull construction, Thalassodromeus gained fame (and it's name, which translates to 'sea runner') from a presumed habit of skim-feeding. Long-time readers or pterosaur aficionados will know that multiple studies have suggested pterosaurian skim-feeding was unlikely on anatomical grounds (we discussed this most recently here and here) and was especially improbable for large species on account of the huge energy demands of ploughing large, blunt jaws through water (e.g. Humphries et al. 2007). A lack of skim-feeding habits does not make Thalassodromeus any less interesting however: it's a large, charismatic animal with a heavy dose of pterosaur weirdness, so there's still plenty to like. I recently had reason to overhaul the Thalassodromeus painting from my 2013 book (above) and took the opportunity to revisit my understanding of this animal's anatomy. The process had me fall for Thalassodromeus' cresty charms all over again, and I've taken this as impetus to share the love here.

      The continuing puzzle of the Thalassodromeus skull

      Thalassodromeus sethi skull elements as figured in Witton (2013). Note how the holotype skull is a giant jigsaw with well- and ill-fitting elements. The little (drawn) jaw to the left is no longer referred to Thalassodromeus, but is now the holotype of the dsungaripterid Banguela oberlii. This photo composite was created using photographs provided by the excellent Andre Veldmeijer and Erno Endenburg. 
      The holotype skull of Thalassodromeus is pretty well preserved as pterosaur fossils go, but isn't quite as exceptional as it first appears (above). Though three dimensionally preserved and uncrushed, it's suffered damage in several areas and is broken into multiple pieces, some of which are ill-fitting with the rest of the skull or are missing entirely. It's a jigsaw puzzle which is complete enough to get the general picture of the skull shape, but some large areas remain open to interpretation. Pterosaur literature records that different bits of this specimen were once scattered across American research institutions and we have to hope that some of the last missing elements are still in a drawer somewhere, waiting to be reunited with the rest of the skull.

      That the shape of the Thalassodromeus skull is somewhat ambiguous is evident by our history of T. sethi skull reconstructions (below). The first reconstruction - published in Kellner and Campos (2002) - is a little odd in that it shows a downturned, irregular upper jaw with a straight mandible. It also features 'classic' structures that we've come to know and love in this species: that badass 'V'-shaped chunk missing out of the back of the crest, a boss-like structure on the upper jaw, and a partly hooked mandibular tip. This reconstruction has always looked a little odd to me because I'm not sure how the animal is meant to close its mouth. A second reconstruction, which I presented in my 2013 book, was similar to the first except for showing both jaws as straight, without a downturned upper jaw. My logic was that Thalassodromeus should look something like the better known thalassodromid Tupuxuara, which has entirely straight jaws. Later, Headden and Campos (2015) presented a third interpretation, where the mandible was bent down at the base of the mandibular symphysis. Jaime Headden's (as far as I know unpublished) skull reconstruction hints at further differences from previous reconstructions, including a lack of that cool 'V' notch in the back of the crest.

      Select T. sethi skull reconstructions, with my latest take at the bottom right. All three agree on some aspects of basic morphology, but there's not quite enough data to eliminate some possibilities of jaw and crest shape. Note that the 2017 skull outline is pretty conservative - the crest may have been longer and taller.
      Which of these, if any, is correct? We await a comprehensive description of the skull to fully augment our understanding of T. sethi anatomy but, based on published information, it's likely that some of our earlier interpretations were erroneous. The gnarly crest shape drawn by Kellner and Campos (2002) probably takes damaged margins and missing elements too literally - this includes that awesome-looking V-shaped notch at the end, which is likely just another chunk of missing crest (this is certainly reported by colleagues who've examined the skull first hand). There's also no obvious reason why the mandible should be restored with an upturned tip. This interpretation was at least partly fuelled by an upturned jaw tip once referred to Thalassodromeus (Veldmeijer et al. 2005), but this specimen has since been considered a new genus of dsunagripterid pterosaur (Headden and Campos 2015).

      It's also looking possible that - as indicated by Headden and Campos (2015) - both sets of Thalassodromeus jaws were downturned. It's difficult to be confident about any jaw reconstruction in this animal because these regions are not well represented in the holotype skull, but preserved elements of the upper and lower jaw margins imply a subtle downturn at the base of the rostrum and mandibular symphysis (and no, this isn't an effect of distortion or damage). Either Thalassodromeus had some sort of wibbly jaw shape or else it had a downturned jaw similar to azhdarchoids such as Tapejaridae* and Caupedactylus**. Whether this is convergence or further evidence of a close relationship between thalassodromids and tapejarids depends on your take on azhdarchoid interrelationships - this is still an area of disagreement that would benefit from dedicated investigation.

      *of which thalassodromids - or thalassodromines - may, or may not be, a subdivision of. Ah, pterosaur phylogeny...

      **I'm as confident as I can be that Caupedactylus is synonymous with my own "Tupuxuara"deliradamus. I should really write this up one day...

      But hey, evidence for facial tissues and life appearance!

      Thalassodromeus has some interesting features which allow us to reconstruct some aspects of its facial anatomy in detail, even in lieu of soft-tissue preservation. The crest of Thalassodromeus is marked by very conspicuous neurovascular grooves which were linked to a thermoregulatory function by Kellner and Campos (2002). They look pretty near identical to the sorts of branching grooves you find under bird beaks however (below), and my suspicion is that they're not a specialisation for controlling body temperature but simply a correlate for a keratinous sheath (Hieronymus et al. 2009). Similar grooves are seen on crestless parts of pterosaur jaws (the holotype of Serradraco sagittirostris has some especially obvious ones, for instance - see Rigal et al. 2017) as well as under the keratinous horns and beaks of animals everywhere. We don't need to imagine a unique function for these grooves just because they're on a big pterosaur crest, they're a standard variant of tetrapod skull anatomy.

      Branching neurovascular networks on the Thalassodromeus crest - this is the region above the eye and posterior end of the nasoantorbital fenestra. Note the conspicuous groove crossing across the photo - this is the boundary between the premaxilla and underlying skull bones. From Kellner and Campos (2002).
      Keratinous sheaths can have sharp margins which leave signature textures on the underlying skull. Bony steps or 'lips' can mark the transition to another tissue type, or a groove may form where one sheath plate abuts another. Both are evident in bird species which have beaks composed of multiple plates instead of a single keratinous covering (below), and we can look for similar features in fossil skulls to make predictions about life appearance. In Thalassodromeus we see a deep groove running along the boundary between the large premaxillary bone (the bone which makes up the jaw tip and top region of the entire crest) and the frontoparietal region (the base of the crest from the eye region backwards). Correlates for keratinous sheaths occur on both sides of this groove, so there's a chance that the crest covering was a compound structure composed of two abutting sheaths rather than one continuous one. If so, we might have been able to see this join on the live animal, just as we see the joins on the beaks of certain birds.

      Gannet (Morus bassanus) skull with keratinous sheaths removed. Note the branching neurovascular impressions and deep grooves that mark the position of keratinous sheaths - we would predict a compound beak from these textures if we only knew gannets from fossils.
      Can we test this idea? We could chop up our super-rare Thalassodromeus specimens to see if  histological data matches the surface texture interpretation (it's not only bone surface texture which records epidermal types - see Hieronymus et al. 2009) but I'll wager that most folks don't want the Thalassodromeus holotype carved up any more than it already is. Happily, there are other lines of data that might help us out. The first is the presence of the crest groove itself. Pterosaur skulls are normally devoid of sutures between bones because, in adults, they fuse so solidly that all trace of the original bone outlines is obliterated. Thus, the presence of a conspicuous groove in a mature Thalassodromeus specimen indicates that something unusual was happening, and influence from facial tissues is a well-known phenomenon that could explain this feature.

      Schematic take on thalassodromid crest growth, from Martill and Naish (2006). The crest doesn't begin fully formed in juveniles, with the premaxillae (dark shading) having to overgrow the rest of the skull. Fun fact: my first ever PR palaeoart, now 11 years old, was to publicise this study.

      A second line of support stems from studies into thalassodromid crest growth (Martill and Naish 2006). The "upper" (or premaxillary) component of the thalassodromid crest does not cover the skull in juveniles: rather, it has to overgrow the skull as the animal ages (above and below). Keratin sheaths are difficult to modify once formed because they're thick and inert (Goss 2012), so it's likely that parts of the premaxillary sheaths formed in juveniles migrated with the bone over the skull, meeting their counterparts at the skull posterior in later life. If the sheaths couldn't join once they met because they couldn't be modified or resorbed, they probably continued to grow as a compound cover, explaining the retention of an obvious groove between the two crest-forming bones. I find this idea pretty neat. Features like grooves on beaks or crests are nuances of animal appearance that are mostly lost to time but are important to characterising the appearance of living species. The idea that Thalassodromeus (and probably thalassodromids) had this feature makes them that little bit more real. Painting the images for this post certainly felt a little more like painting an animal than illustrating a hypothesis, just because of this detail.

      Thalassodromid crest growth and compound keratinous sheathing, modelled by T. sethi. Note how the juvenile has an obvious 'two part' crest composition, and that the front/upper part (the premaxilla) sits on top of the posterior (frontoparietal) elements. With enough time, they form the monster-sized crest we know from big thalassodromid specimens. See Martill and Naish (2006) for more details.

      Skull mechanics and lifestyle

      It would be remiss to write about Thalassodromeus without mentioning its robust skull construction. The skull is proportionally wide, has especially deep jaws, a partly sealed orbit region, and the mandibular symphysis has a robust 'teardrop' cross section instead some flimsy crest. Its robustness is especially obvious when compared to the skull of the otherwise similar Tupuxuara (below), which has more typically open and airy pterosaurian cranial architecture. Thalassodromeus thus has a skull which looks like it could take a little more punishment than that of an average pterosaur, and this correlates nicely with observations that the regions for jaw adductor muscles are expanded on both the skull and lower jaw (Witton 2013; Pêgas and Kellner 2015). It's unsurprising that foraging hypotheses for Thalassodromeus have favoured forceful feeding habits such as skim-feeding (Kellner and Campos 2002) or being a predator of small-to-medium animals in terrestrial settings (Witton 2013).

      Tupuxuara leonardii skull and mandible - looking pretty slender compared to the star of this post.
      The possibility of downturned jaws in Thalassodromeus becomes especially interesting in light of its robust skull. Long, curving bones are a biomechanical paradox because they're weaker in compressive loading than a straight equivalent. This is, in part, because applying loads directly to both ends of a curved bone induces bending stresses even though the bone is not being bent in a traditional fashion. This is why big, slow animals tend to have straighter limb bones than smaller ones: they benefit from the increased strength of straight shafts, and they load their limbs in compression virtually all the time. From this perspective, the curved jaw of Thalassodromeus might seem like a disadvantage, being weaker under compression than that of a straight jawed animal. If striking violently at prey head on, the straight jawed species might be less likely to go home with a broken jaw.

      However, curved bones are superior to straight bones at handling unpredictable, dynamic stresses. Curvature introduces predictability to stress distribution throughout a bone shaft, so they behave more reliably under a variety of loading regimes, be it compression, bending or twisting. A bone which responds to stress in the same way no matter how you deform it is easier to manage behaviourally, and to optimise mechanically, than a straight bone, and loss of raw strength created by bone curvature can be compensated for by modifying cross sections, shaft diameters and internal reinforcement (Bertram and Biewner 1988). These attributes have not been ignored by evolution and, in fact, most animal limb bones are curved to some degree to take advantage of these effects (Bertram and Biewner 1988). The superior compressive performance of a straight bone may not be as advantageous as the reliability and potential all-round stress resistance of a curved variant so, in simple terms, if you're planning some crazy stunts with your long bones, you want curved bone shafts, not straight ones.

      A curved jaw thus complements the strong skull and jaw muscles of Thalassodromeus. If Thalassodromeus used foraging mechanics which were forceful or violent - such as catching big or powerful prey types, or using its beak to batter or tear at other animals - a curved beak may have served it well. This jaw shape - assuming we've interpreted it correctly, remember - could be further evidence of foraging habits at the more explosive and exciting end of the pterosaur ecological spectrum. Exactly what Thalassodromeus did for a living remains unknown, but it's hard not to compare these cranial features with other ideas of robust, terrestrial azhdarchoid predators - maybe this 'large pterosaur predator' niche has a longer roster than we've traditionally thought.

      Hypothesis B: spinosaurids were allergic to curved jaws. Hey, it could happen.
      Thalassodromids and their azhdarchoid kin are exceptionally interesting animals and we could probably talk about them all day, but we'll have to stop there. Coming soon: pterosaurs from the other end of the pterodactyloid spectrum, or a return to the world of extinct mammals. Probably.

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      This blog is sponsored through Patreon, the site where you can help online content creators make a living. If you enjoy my content, please consider donating $1 a month to help fund my work. $1 might seem a meaningless amount, but if every reader pitched that amount I could work on these articles and their artwork full time. In return, you'll get access to my exclusive Patreon content: regular updates on research papers, books and paintings, including numerous advance previews of two palaeoart-heavy books (one of which is the first ever comprehensive guide to palaeoart processes). Plus, you get free stuff - prints, high quality images for printing, books, competitions - as my way of thanking you for your support. As always, huge thanks to everyone who already sponsors my work!

      References

      • Bertram, J. E., & Biewener, A. A. (1988). Bone curvature: sacrificing strength for load predictability?. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 131(1), 75-92.
      • Headden, J. A., & Campos, H. B. (2015). An unusual edentulous pterosaur from the Early Cretaceous Romualdo Formation of Brazil. Historical Biology, 27(7), 815-826.
      • Hieronymus, T. L., Witmer, L. M., Tanke, D. H., & Currie, P. J. (2009). The facial integument of centrosaurine ceratopsids: morphological and histological correlates of novel skin structures. The Anatomical Record, 292(9), 1370-1396.
      • Humphries, S., Bonser, R. H., Witton, M. P., & Martill, D. M. (2007). Did pterosaurs feed by skimming? Physical modelling and anatomical evaluation of an unusual feeding method. PLoS Biology, 5(8), e204.
      • Goss, R. J. (2012). Deer antlers: regeneration, function and evolution. Academic Press. 
      • Kellner, A. W., & de Almeida Campos, D. (2002). The function of the cranial crest and jaws of a unique pterosaur from the Early Cretaceous of Brazil. Science, 297(5580), 389-392.
      • Martill, D. M., & Naish, D. (2006). Cranial crest development in the azhdarchoid pterosaur Tupuxuara, with a review of the genus and tapejarid monophyly. Palaeontology, 49(4), 925-941.
      • Pêgas, R. V., & Kellner, A. W. (2015). Preliminary mandibular myological reconstruction of Thalassodromeus sethi (Pterodactyloidea: Tapejaridae). Flugsaurier 2015 Portsmouth, abstracts, 47-48.
      • Rigal, S., Martill, D. M., & Sweetman, S. C. (2017). A new pterosaur specimen from the Upper Tunbridge Wells Sand Formation (Cretaceous, Valanginian) of southern England and a review of Lonchodectes sagittirostris (Owen 1874). Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 455, SP455-5.
      • Veldmeijer, A. J., Signore, M., & Meijer, H. J. (2005). Description of two pterosaur (Pterodactyloidea) mandibles from the lower Cretaceous Santana Formation, Brazil. Deinsea, 11(1), 67-86.
      • Witton, M. P. (2013). Pterosaurs: natural history, evolution, anatomy. Princeton University Press.

      0 0

      Triceratops horridus with some crazy long and curving brow horns. Just speculation, right? Surprisingly, maybe not...
      For palaeoartists, animals with flamboyant headgear are among the most rewarding to render, but it's not only the bony aspects of their cranial ornaments that we have to pay attention too. Animal headgear is covered with various amounts of soft-tissue that, in extreme cases, can dramatically augment the shape of the underlying bony features. The headgear of living species has a spectrum of soft-tissue coverings from nothing at all (mature deer antlers), to relatively thin dermal tissues (giraffe ossicones), through to hard keratin sheaths that can add significant depth and length to a horn or crest (most other animal horns). This excellent breakdown of a bighorn sheep face by Aaron Drake of Colorado State University (uploaded by Simpleware Software Solutions) gives a pretty good idea of how much tissue extreme keratin sheaths can add to the underlying skull.


      Not all horns are augmented to the extent seen in bighorn sheep, but even modestly proportioned keratin sheaths can add a lot of bulk, length and characteristic geometry to horn tissues. Thus, anyone hoping to accurately predict the appearance of ancient horned animals should want to predict the shape of their horn sheaths along with understanding the skull geometry. This isn't easy because, though incredibly tough and resistant, keratin sheaths are still prone to decay and rarely fossilise.

      Researching horn growth for an upcoming book project has made me wonder if horn sheath shape might be more predictable than we've traditionally thought, however. Horn sheath growth mechanics are relatively simple, closely related to bone shape, and constrained by the properties of heavily keratinised tissues. They're also fairly universal across across tetrapods - the same processes that make a goat horn will make the enormous keratin sheath of a skimmer jaw, for instance. These properties might allow insights into sheath shape in fossil species even when the sheath is not preserved. So what aspects of horn sheath growth might allow this, and how could we transfer them to fossil animals?

      Growing horn sheaths in living animals

      Keratin sheaths are dead tissue with their only living components being the cells that synthesise the keratin at the horn core/sheath interface (e.g. at the inner surface of the horn soft-tissues, see diagram, below). Because no living tissue reaches the outer horn surface, they cannot grow by adding tissue to the tip. Rather, they grow by internal accumulation of keratin layers, each new deposit displacing the older sheath from the bony core. This creates a stack of keratin cones, with new cones growing at the base and causing the horn tissues to lengthen. Continuous internal deposition and displacement of old material is what creates the soft-tissue horn extension, as each new keratin layer shoves the older material a little further from the bony tip. This makes the tip of a keratin horn the oldest part of the sheath, and in many bovids the tips are many years old. Conversely, the youngest part of the horn tissues are located at the base. As we discussed in a recent post about the horns of Arsinoitherium, this growth mechanism binds the internal horn tissues in the overlying sheaths, limiting their ability to change size or shape. Changes in size or curvature can only be achieved by displacing the older horn layers, but complicating the horn shape - say, by branching the tip - is impossible unless the sheath is shed, pronghorn-style. The sheath itself can't be modified after deposition either, on account of no living tissue reaching it. Thus, old sheaths permanently maintain the size and geometry they were created with.

      Stylised bovid horn growth, heavily modified from Goss (2012).
      This growth mechanic presents three important points relevant to predicting the shape of fossil horn sheaths. The first is that sheath tissues are synthesised directly over the horn core, effectively making the internal sheath margin a cast of the bone at the time it grew. The second is that the shape of new keratin layers are constrained by the keratin sheaths that preceded them. They can't deviate too radically from the overlying horn shape and the horn core of the emerging layer should mostly nestle into margins of the older one. The third is that horn extensions are not simply exaggerations of their contemporary horn core, but a keratinous record of the horn history. Geometry exhibited by the earliest growth stages is maintained in the extending sheath regardless of later changes to the horn core morphology, and only periodic shedding or heavy abrasion are likely to alter this.

      This being the case, could ontogenetic changes in horn cores provide insight into the sheath shape of fossil animals? If bone shape translates to keratin sheath shape, and sheath shape dictates the horn extension profile, then a growth series of bony horn anatomy may allow us to reconstruct horn keratin accumulations that are otherwise lost to decay. Horn core profiles give us a 'cast' of the inner sheath margin for that growth stage, and we can fit these into the margin of the preceding sheath layer (which, of course, can be deduced by the shape of a ontogenetically preceding horn core). Building a stack of nestled horn core profiles creates something akin the bovid horn diagram above and tells us something of how keratin layers were accumulated for that horn shape. The very tip of the horn sheath is lost to time because we cannot predict external appearance from horn core casts (they only represent the internal structure) but if the youngest animal in a growth series is suitably juvenile, we probably aren't missing much.

      As proof of concept, I've taken the horncore outlines from the schematic bovid horn above and attempted to recreate the horn shape. Stacking them was achieved by simply eyeballing the margins, trying to fit the horn core outlines together as tightly as possible without their margins overlapping. Here's how it turned out...


      I don't think that's too bad. It's not perfect, but it gives a pretty good idea what's going on with the actual horn. This method is very simple, but - as outlined earlier - keratin horns are simple, so we might not need a particularly complex method to predict their shape. But you're not here to talk about ram horns: what happens when we apply this idea to a fossil animal with a well-known growth series, and how do the results compare to our conventional means of reconstructing horn sheaths in fossil taxa?

      Step forward, Triceratops

      Triceratops growth series from Horner and Goodwin (2006). Both species of Triceratops are included here, but the generalities of this growth sequence are thought to apply to both. Say, that brow horn curvature looks pretty changeable - what would that mean for horn sheath shape?

      The super-famous horned dinosaur Triceratops is a great animal to explore this idea with. It's known from dozens of specimens representing a range of ontogenetic stages, from small juveniles to giant adults (above, Horner and Goodwin 2006 - and no, the adults in question here are not Torosaurus). Like the horns of other ceratopsids, Triceratops brow horns have well-developed epidermal correlates for keratinous sheaths (oblique foramina and anastomosing neurovascular channels - Horner and Marshall 2002; Hieronymus et al. 2009) and these textures are present in the smallest known skulls, indicating that most or all their life was spent with sheathed brow horns (Goodwin et al. 2006). Confirmation of a horn sheath comes from poorly-preserved soft-tissues found on some Triceratops horns (Farke 2004; Happ 2010).

      Triceratops skulls underwent pretty major changes as they grew, including complete reorientation and allometric scaling of the brow horns. In juveniles these curve backwards, but in big adults they arc forwards (Horner and Goodwin 2006). Typically, artists have assumed that the keratin sheaths covering these horns changed shape with them. Even pros, such as Greg Paul (2016), who have stressed that the keratin sheath should extend the horn shape, render the sheaths as more-or-less reflecting the underlying horn core of a given growth stage, without any hangovers from a previous iteration of horn shape. Whether intentional or not, the implication here is that the horn sheath was dynamic - capable of changing as the animal grew.

      ....just like this. Note how the brow horns of this Triceratops group are clearly changing shape as the animals increase in size, but that the keratin sheaths don't reflect any earlier horn history. Hmm. Say, do you know this image is on the front of my 2018 calendar?
      The model outlined above conflicts with this traditional take, however. If we assume that the horn extension was composed of a series of retained keratin sheaths, and using Horner and Goodwin's (2006) ontogenetic sequence as a basis, the resultant horn shape is pretty surprising. Stacking horn cores in the juveniles sees those recurved shapes pushed off the horn core to extend and extenuate the curve strongly, to the point where the horn tip even points posteriorly at one stage (below). As the horn base tips forward on the approach to adulthood, these arcing tips rotate with them, creating a long, elaborate set of horns which curved twice: once at the tip, and again, but inversely, at the base. If the Triceratops in this model retained the full history of their horn sheaths into adulthood, the result would be pretty fantastic: very long horns where the tips pointed 90° away from the point of the horn core. Yowsers - that's quite different from our traditional 'just make it pointier' approach.

      Stacking Triceratops horn cores, mimicking how living animal keratin sheaths grow, suggest the keratinous extension of the brow horns was strongly curved even in adult animals. As in the mock bovid horn above, the horn cores were stacked simply by trying to make them fit as neatly as possible.
      Which is more likely: twirly horn sheaths or the more conventional, 'dynamic' sheaths? Where morphing horn sheaths immediately lose points is their requirement for the inert keratin horn tissues to react to each horn core shape, as well as for the horn sheath history to continuously disappear. Modern horn sheaths just don't grow like this: their extensions only exist because the old keratin tissues hang around, and we have to ask how the extending sheaths are created in our 'dynamic' sheath model. There are perhaps two ways we could attain morphing sheaths: the first is through continuous eradication of old sheath material, allowing new keratin to grow over the horn core without being obscured by previous sheath layers. This might have been achieved by Triceratops shedding and regrowing sheath extensions, or by abrading outer sheath tissues away. The second is that the horns weren't covered in one sheath but several interlocking plates, like the beaks of some birds, which might allow for jimmying and reconfiguration of the horn tissues through growth without adding lots of material to the end.

      Let's consider shedding first. It's possible that at least some layers of Triceratops horns were shed because exfoliation is common on keratin sheaths in living species. For instance, puffins shed the outer layer of their beaks annually, and bovids exfoliate outer layers of their horns once or twice in their lifetimes (O'Gara and Matson 1975; Goss 2012). The fact that only a superficial layer of tissue is lost prevents the sheath being significantly altered however: exfoliation alone would probably not give us particularly 'dynamic' horn sheaths.

      Constant reshaping of horn tissues might be plausible if Triceratops could regularly shed and regrow the horn sheath, as performed by pronghorns. Unfortunately, these mammals show us that detecting this growth mechanic in fossil species is challenging, however. Despite their unusual habit of regrowing an entirely new sheath each year, pronghorn horn cores have similar textures to those of animals with permanent sheathing (Janis et al. 1998). There are some differences, but they're subtle. O'Gara (1990) reported that pronghorn horn cores have annually variable properties, alternating between a spongy, relatively rounded horn core when the sheath is growing, and a smooth-textured, sharper horn core at peak sheath hardness (O'Gara 1990). It's pretty well established that dinosaur skeletons grade from spongy, rounded bones to smoother, sharpened bones as they aged, so perhaps variation in texture and shape of Triceratops horns that broke this pattern could indicate horn shedding - provided these differences could be distinguished from ontogenetic or intraspecific factors. I'm not aware of any evidence of this kind, despite the frequency in which Triceratops skull bone texture is commented, but I also don't know that anyone has specifically looked for this variation yet.

      Lovely, lovely epidermal correlates on the skull of Triceratops prorsus illustrated in Hatcher (1907). Note that there's no divide between the correlates on the brow horn and surrounding skull - might we expect some sort of dividing sulcus if the horn sheath was routinely cast? From Wikimedia, uploaded by Biodiversity Heritage Library, CC BY 2.0.
      A more illuminating insight may be that the correlates for Triceratops horn keratin are continuous with the epidermal correlates of the face (above). Horner and Marshall (2002) noted that the horn correlates for keratin sheathing extend over virtually the entire face - including the back of the frill (this is why so many Triceratops reconstructions have smooth 'face shields' nowadays). However, what's not seen on Triceratops horns is a boundary dividing the face sheath and a hypothetical temporary horn sheath, as might be expected where two keratinous sheaths meet (I'm assuming that the entire face shield wasn't shed annually either (palaeoartists: exfoliating/shedding Triceratops face - go!) - that's not a discussion I want to get into here).

      A last, more arm-wavy point against horn shedding is that it is not at all common among living animals, possibly not even being present in some close pronghorn relatives (Janis et al. 1998). If Triceratops did shed its horns, it would be part of a club with very few members. This isn't a particularly scientific argument, but we have to concede that permanent horn sheaths are - by some way - far more common than ephemeral ones, and probably the 'default' condition for horned animals. Maybe we should assume permanence until there's good reason to think otherwise?

      Could wear and abrasion create our morphing, dynamic horn sheaths in Triceratops? It's certainly true that keratin horns can be worn down, sometimes considerably. Bighorn sheep, for instance, can wear away years of horn growth in a behaviour known as 'brooming', but the results do not look like our palaeoart - in other words, they don't look like these sheep stuck their horns in a pencil sharpener. Nor do they echo the shape of the underlying skeleton. Instead, the ends are blunt, frayed and fractured (below). Any Triceratops that removed horn keratin through abrasion would presumably adopt a similarly 'sawn-off' appearance, and lack neat, pointed tips.

      File:Desert Bighorn Sheep (8981484583).jpg
      The broomed horns of a bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) - notice that they're heavily and deliberately worn at the tips, but they aren't shaped into fine points. From Wikimedia, uploaded by Lake Mead NRA Public Affairs, CC BY-SA 2.0.
      Might a compound horn sheath be a route to horn sheath dynamism for Triceratops? Some readers may recall that we discussed compound keratin sheath covers last month and that they typically have deep grooves between abutting sheets. We don't see grooves of this nature on Triceratops skulls despite the very obvious rugosity profile created by the epidermal tissues, so I think we have to reject this hypothesis outright. The coverage of Triceratops horn core epidermal rugosities are pretty near identical to what we see on the horns of animals like cattle or goats, and I think we have to assume they indicate a similar, all-encompassing sheath morphology.

      If Triceratops horns couldn't be renewed or take advantage of a more complex sheath arrangement, the likelihood of dynamic Triceratops horn sheaths is probably low. But does this idea of continuous sheath growth and twirly horns fare better under scrutiny? It seems to pass some basic tests, at least. The Triceratops brow horn outlines fit together pretty well with only a little displacement of the preceding horn layer, which is just what in see in modern horn growth, and the fact that their horn profiles don't change suddenly is consistent with them being perpetually constrained by layers of hard tissue. The predicted Triceratops sheath profile it is unexpected, but not beyond anything we see in living animals. And it scores points generally for being a simple model that is grounded in a well-understood aspect of living animal biology, in not needing to explain the loss of sheath tissue, and for factoring data we know is relevant to horn growth in living animals. I'm not saying this model is correct, but I am thinking that explains and fits our available data better than the dynamic sheath concept.

      Of course, there are still lots of caveats. Remember that the model here is rough, being based on a generic Triceratops dataset and not the growth regime of a single species. The growth series outlined by Horner and Goodwin (2006) is a good general illustration of Triceratops growth, but results might vary if we restricted the data to a single species. My illustrations do not assume any exfoliation or tip abrasion, and we still don't have any idea what the external sheath morphology - including the presence of absence of ridges, spirals and bosses - might have been like. My attempt to stack the horn core profiles has also assumed minimal sheath thickness. If the sheath was thicker, the arcs of the horn could be stretched out over longer distances. So if you're buying this concept, remember that the horn shape proposed is only a general one - it's more in keeping with our understanding of sheath grow in modern animals, but it's still quite sketchy.

      So...

      Perhaps the take-home message here is not, however, that Triceratops might have had loopy horns, but that there might be more to consider about fossil horn sheaths than we've assumed. Our discussion of dynamic horn sheaths does not just apply to Triceratops: artists take this approach with most horns and spikes in palaeoart, and it's clearly at odds with how most animals grow keratin sheaths today. But maybe this isn't just a topic for artists to ponder. There's potentially scope for a real study here and, seeing as fossil horn shape has a lot of functional significance, predicting sheath morphology would be a useful aid to predicting ancient behaviour. This needn't be restricted to horned dinosaurs, or even just horns, either: keratin sheaths on plates, spikes and so on grow in a similar way, and there's not reason this technique couldn't be used on other body parts, if validated. Moving this from food-for-thought-blog post to genuine science would require testing on modern species, perhaps through reconstructing living animal horns, to see how well it holds up. Recreating a schematic, 2D goat horn sheath using this method is fine, but real-world tests - especially using 3D horn casts, not just 2D drawings - might be more challenging. In the meantime, I'm curious to know what others think of all this - the comment field is open below...
      "Hello, I'm Triceratops. I'll be your odd-looking concluding dinosaur reconstruction for this evening."


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      This blog is sponsored through Patreon, the site where you can help online content creators make a living. If you enjoy my content, please consider donating $1 a month to help fund my work. $1 might seem a meaningless amount, but if every reader pitched that amount I could work on these articles and their artwork full time. In return, you'll get access to my exclusive Patreon content: regular updates on research papers, books and paintings, including numerous advance previews of two palaeoart-heavy books (one of which is the first ever comprehensive guide to palaeoart processes). Plus, you get free stuff - prints, high quality images for printing, books, competitions - as my way of thanking you for your support. As always, huge thanks to everyone who already sponsors my work!

      References

      • Farke, A. A. (2004). Horn use in Triceratops (Dinosauria: Ceratopsidae): testing behavioral hypotheses using scale models. Palaeontologia Electronica, 7(1), 1-10.
      • Goodwin, M. B., Clemens, W. A., Horner, J. R., & Padian, K. (2006). The smallest known Triceratops skull: new observations on ceratopsid cranial anatomy and ontogeny. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 26(1), 103-112.
      • Goss, R. J. (2012). Deer antlers: regeneration, function and evolution. Academic Press.
      • Happ, J. W. (2010). New evidence regarding the structure and function of the horns in Triceratops (Dinosauris: Ceratopsidae). In: Ryan, M. H., Chinnery-Allgeier, B. J. & Eberth, D. A. (Eds.) New Perspectives on Horned Dinosaurs: The Royal Tyrrell Museum Ceratopsian Symposium. Indiana University Press. pp. 271-281.
      • Hieronymus, T. L., Witmer, L. M., Tanke, D. H., & Currie, P. J. (2009). The facial integument of centrosaurine ceratopsids: morphological and histological correlates of novel skin structures. The Anatomical Record, 292(9), 1370-1396.
      • Horner, J. R., & Goodwin, M. B. (2006). Major cranial changes during Triceratops ontogeny. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 273(1602), 2757-2761.
      • Horner, J. R., & Marshall. C. (2002). Keratinous covered dinosaur skulls. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 22(3, Supplement):67A.
      • Janis, C. M., Manning, E., & Ahearn, M. E. (1998). Antilocapridae. In: Janis, C. M., Scott, K. M., & Jacobs, L. L. (Eds.). Evolution of tertiary mammals of North America: Volume 1, terrestrial carnivores, ungulates, and ungulate like mammals (Vol. 1). Cambridge University Press
      • O’Gara, B. W. (1990). The pronghorn (Antilocapra americana). In: Bubenik, G.A. & Bubenik, A. B. (Eds). Horns, pronghorns, and antlers: evolution, morphology, physiology, and social significance, Springer-Verlag. pp 231-264.
      • O'Gara, B. W., & Matson, G. (1975). Growth and casting of horns by pronghorns and exfoliation of horns by bovids. Journal of Mammalogy, 56(4), 829-846.
      • Paul, G. S. (2016). The Princeton field guide to dinosaurs. Princeton University Press.