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Archive for March, 2013

If you want to see a new/reinvigorated, exciting direction that palaeoart is headed, check out the All Yesterdays book by Conway, Kosemen and Naish. This review is fully cognizant that I’m late to the party of hailing this book as part of a palaeoart renaissance. I confess I haven’t read any of the many reviews of this book; I just know it is highly regarded and popular, from excitement on social media sites I frequent. So if my review covers ground others have too, so be it; it’s purely my own thoughts but I expect that mine fall in line with many others’. I’m reviewing the book on this blog because I love the interface between science and art (which is very important in anatomy), and because anatomy, and how one infers it when it is unknown, is the fundamental theme of the book.

You can buy All Yesterdays for around £18 (ASIDE: oddly, used copies (“May not include CD, access code, or DJ”– ???) are around £42 on the same site; perhaps those are artist-signed??? I have no idea!). It is a good deal at that price. While you’re at it, get “Dinosaur Art: The World’s Best Paleoart” by White et al. (including Conway) for a similar price. My review will return to some comparisons between these two books, released just a few months apart.

All-Yesterdays-coverworlds-greatest-paleoart

All Yesterdays is about not only how we reconstruct dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, but also about thinking outside-the-box in the ways we reconstruct them and thereby bucking some recent clichés and tropes. Some of those outside-the-box ideas might seem ludicrous, and some probably are. But one of the main points of All Yesterdays is that there is plenty about extinct animals, and even living animals, that we don’t know, even though the field of paleoart has matured into greater scientific rigor than in the days of Knight, Zallinger and others (1920s-1950s). There is a focus on uncertainties about integument (e.g. feathering, spines, colour/patterning, body contours) and behaviour (e.g. avoiding stereotypes like perpetually aggressive predators and frightened prey animals– amen to that!). And the capstone of the book, which in some ways I loved the most, is turning the issue on its head and pretending that we only had skeletons of extant animals, then proceeding to reconstruct those animals (elephants, whales, horses and swans stand out prominently in this section; some of these are shown below). I wish more scientists in my general area would practice this; e.g. validation of a methodology used to reconstruct extinct animals in science.

The ‘speculative zoology’ of All Yesterdays deserves favourable comparison to one of my favourite science-art books, 1981’s After Man by Dougal Dixon. I fell so in love with that book as a 10-year-old that I wouldn’t let my parents return it to the library and I made them pay the hefty lost-book-fee (yes, I was a little bastard!). I still have it, too. (Sorry, Sequoya Branch Public Library of Madison, WI!) Likewise, the whimsy of the Rhinogrades is evoked by this work, and of course Tetrapod Zoology blog readers will be no strangers to it, either.

The book begins with a clear, succinct (7 page) summary of the history and science of reconstructing animals, with a focus on paleoart’s approach rather than science’s. I would have found it interesting (but space constraints presumably precluded) to feature more of the interface/parallels with scientists at the same time, such as the careful reconstructions of musculature in A.S. Romer’s masterful work in the 1920s (e.g. below), or later efforts by palaeontologists like Alick Walker and Walter Coombs. Many of these luminaries sought not to reconstruct animals for artistic purposes, but for almost purely scientific ones: to understand what skeletal anatomy meant in terms of broader biology (e.g. comparative anatomy) and phylogeny (e.g. origin of birds or archosaur evolution). The quality of their own artistic representations as well as scientific interpretations varied a lot. Indeed, sometimes the choice of model organisms (crocodile for Romer; lizard for Walker; birds in the post-1960’s) reveals much about the author’s preconceptions about phylogeny, marshalled towards a favoured hypothesis (e.g. a crocodile origin of birds for Walker; or an avian origin amongst dinosaurs for Bakker, Paul and others), rather than a circumspect assessment of all relevant evidence.

Romer1923-fig6

Figure 6 from Romer, 1923; very crocodylian T. rex right hindlimb muscles.

But eventually the “model organism” approach to reconstructing extinct animals gave way to the extant phylogenetic bracket; very popular today; which itself is an adaptation of the outgroup method for polarity assessment in phylogenetic systematics (cladistics). I am sure many modern paleoartists explicitly consider the “EPB” in their reconstructions, although this leaves many ambiguities (e.g. integument of crocodiles and birds being totally different!) that they must overcome, whereas scientists might just give up. This interface of art and science is part of what make palaeontology so enjoyable.

The EPB mindset has been a big step forward for evolutionary morphology and palaeontology, but still some of the greatest questions (e.g. what were the actual sizes, colour patterns, or behaviours of extinct animals? How did novelties arise and which novelties did dinosaurs have that extant relatives lack?) are left ambiguous by the EPB. This is because either the EPB itself is ambiguous (crocodiles or other taxa do one thing; birds do something altogether different), or because features leave no osteological correlates (e.g. muscle/tendon/ligament scars) on fossils that can be compared with the EPB.  This quandary leads to the fun side of this book– filling in the huge gaps left by both basic anatomical interpretation and the restrictions imposed by the EPB, and then playing with the frontiers of anatomical, behavioural and ecological reconstruction, using informed speculation.

The extant phylogenetic bracket for archosaurs.

The extant phylogenetic bracket for archosaurs.

In addition to the startling, bizarre “All Todays” reconstructions at the end of the book, the highlights for me were the camouflaged Majungasaurus and plesiosaur, the “feathered mountain” (below) of a therizinosaur (can anyone illustrate a plausible therizinosaur and make it normal and boring? I wager not!) and the neck-swinging elasmosaurs engaged in “honest signalling” of their fitness. Many of the illustrations riff on notions popular in the modern palaeo-zeitgeist (and subject of many conversations at conferences, or even publications), such as evidence for the spiny integument of some ornithischians, fat ornithopods, Microraptor of somewhat-known-colouration, and so on. But plenty of other images riff on a “well why not?” theme, challenging the viewer to consider that extinct animals could have many surprises left in store for us with future discoveries, or else plausible features that we’ll never know of but might seem laughable or unfashionable to illustrate now. Each image has text explaining the logic behind it- this is not just a montage of pictures. This is a thinking person’s book- you should buy it for rumination, to challenge your preconceptions, not to have a flashy coffee table book. It’s not eye candy — it’s more like brain jerky.

John Conway's mountain-of-feathers therizinosaurs: eerily beautiful.

John Conway‘s mountain-of-feathers therizinosaurs: eerily beautiful.

I think this is a bold, fun (re)new(ed) direction for palaeoart. There’s always a place for rigorous, conservatively evidence-based, by-comparison-almost-uncreative scientific illustration of extinct organisms. The World’s Best Paleoart presents loads of this, often in vividly colourful, photo-realistic, lavish, glossy detail, whereas the approach in All Yesterdays tends toward a more soft, matte, informal style including sketches or abstractions, toning down the serious and intense (even cluttered?) approach that can characterize modern palaeoart, including The World’s Best Paleoart.  Sometimes those reconstructing life of the past (scientists included!) may emphasize that detailed realism too much and lose some of the joyful playfulness that palaeoart can revel in, at its best, most inspirational or thought-provoking. The former style might be considered the more “safe” or technical practice; the latter more risky or unconstrained.

Memo Kosemen's "All Todays" swans, with tadpolefish, might haunt your nightmares.

C.M. Kosemen‘s “All Todays” swans, with tadpolefish, might haunt your nightmares.

I’m not casting negative judgement on either style; both are absolutely wonderful — and valuable. I love both books! I’m glad we’re in a new age where the fun is waltzing back into palaeoart, that’s all. All Yesterdays doesn’t just waltz, either. It pounces into your field of view, wiggles its rainbow-coloured, mandrill-esque ankylosaurid bottom at you with a cheeky grin, and proceeds to make you smirk, be bemused, and even gasp at its adventurousness in rapid succession as you turn its pages. At 100 pages it doesn’t overstay its welcome either– that kaleidoscopic thyreophoran rump cartwheels off into the sunset at an opportune moment.

You won't forget Memo Kosemen's "All Todays" elephant.

You won’t forget C.M. Kosemen‘s “All Todays” elephant.

If All Yesterdays makes someone uncomfortable with its swashbucklerish daring, they’re probably taking palaeontology way too seriously– and maybe missing not only some good fun, but also some potential truths. Dogma is a terrible thing, and All Yesterdays slaughters it with delightful relish. Bring on the next installment! If you have  All Yesterdays too, what’s your favourite part? Or if you don’t have it, I’d be happy to answer queries in the Comments.

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Chilly 1st Birthday to You, WIJF Blog!

It has indeed been a year of blogging now! And it has been a very fun year at that. Here is my look back at past events on this blog.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 8/10- some heavy-hitters in here, but to regular Freezerinos they will mostly be familiar.

giraffe-leg-CT

This blog’s first image and subject: giraffe legs and modelling.

NUMB WITH NUMBERS:

First, the usual consideration of statistics: wow! I never expected the blog to be this successful! I’d sort of hoped as much, but for such a niche blog it was far from guaranteed in my mind. However, the initial response was overwhelming: 4210 hits in its first month, many of them on the first day!

Since then, although the usual number of blog views are around 100-200/day, there are now 76 blog followers,  and a total of ~111,000 views! According to ImpactStory and Topsy, the blog has had 48 tweets (7 of them “Influential”), 111 Facebook likes, 105 Facebook comments, and 53 Facebook shares. Nice!

The biggest day was April 27, 2012: 10,564 views– ZOWIE! That was fun. More about that below. I’m amused that my very first post only has 85 views even to this date, but it didn’t really contain much.

Visitors tended to come from browser searches (23,243 hits!), in particular hunting for images of the feet/limbs of elephants, rhinos, giraffes and other megafauna (looks like my intended purpose worked– vets and other anatomists want this rare information!). Oddly, from a few of my tweets that got listed on my blog, “deepstaria enigmatica” (remember that craze?) became one of the most common terms (214 to date!) that brings people here via the intertubez. Giraffe anatomy and patella are also major sources of search strikes. Interesting!

But don’t dismiss the power of Facebook (4,399 oggles on WIJF total) versus the somewhat surprisingly smaller impact of Twitter (2,036 pings). I say surprising because I push the blog much harder on Twitter than anywhere else, but Facebook pages like Perez’s Veterinary Anatomy (>33,000 members/likes!) have done far more than my mere ~1,300 Twitter followers can. Other blogs like the Chinleana palaeo blog (1,008 palaeo-hits here) and the ubiquitous Pharyngula (791 athe-hits) have helped a lot, too– thanks to all those bloggers and science writers who have linked to my humble little blog!!!

Who are YOU? You mostly come from the USA and UK, of course, but Japan is 3rd on my visitors ranking, followed by Canada, Germany, Australia and the Netherlands. Russia: we want more of you, too. Monaco, Nauru, Tuvalu and Liechtenstein- you as well, please! North Korea, keep trying.

So this is all great; really great. I’m rather amazed.

Definitely the blog has succeeded in what I aimed: to present the fun, awesome, curious side of anatomy in all its raw glory, using the freezer as a common theme (although I’ve felt free to deviate from purely freezer-based science when it pleases me). And it has crystallized for me just how important and powerful a single picture of anatomy can be.

That is what this post emphasizes- the pictures of the year from this blog. Enjoy the walk down morphology lane.

MOST POPULAR POSTS AND PERIODS:

Certainly the post; indeed the single photograph; that stands out for this blog is that of the elephant with its guts spilling out, from my Inside Nature’s Giants post on 13 April (so it took 2 weeks to gather momentum before the views spilled out like so many bowels). In a single day I had thousands of visitors from Boing Boing, Metafilter, Reddit, Gizmodo, io9, pinterest (which still sends me a lot of hits daily), and more! So here once again is that beastly image:

Stunning emergence of The Guts

Stunning emergence of The Guts

The post even got re-discovered by Reddit (the dreaded repost), leading to another surge. 24,330 views of the blog post so far!

A distant second to the elephant guts in terms of broad popularity was the “how thick is a rhino’s skin?” image; another Reddit favourite; with 4,719 views of the post from World Rhino Day 2012:

Skinning a White rhino forelimb

But also the “Animal: Inside Out” review did very well here (2,338 views to date), which was quite gratifying because I did a lot of detailed but enjoyable research for that one. It continues to bring people here, long after the NHM exhibit closed (it is now at Chicago’s excellent Museum of Science & Industry), which is quite cool.

Thanks to the poll results from last week, I’ll be doing more exhibition reviews like this– see below. My favourite image from that post is this: the bull (but don’t forget the camel, either):

Great exhibit. No bullshit.

Great exhibit. No bullshit.

Once we’re past those top 3 pages, things settle down to numerous posts with ~1000 or less views to date– highlights include the big rhinos and giant rhinos post: Rhino humeri

And the post on WCROC the big Nile crocodile got a fair amount of attention, as well as my posts on our Ichthyostega research and vertebral evolution discoveries, naked dinosaurian ostriches, chicken meat, giraffe anatomy (many pages, but this one is relatively most popular), and then the series I did on the RVC’s Anatomy Museum (first post here).

Here are a few thumbnails of the greatest hits from those posts and some others– which do you remember and why?

DSC_0203 Mystery Dissection 3  DSC_0963a  Whole 2 Gratuitious Melanosuchus (black caiman) shot. chicken-viscera-myopathy Gratuitious rhinoceros leg.  Kitty Hedz it is defunct rhino_front  hippo_L_knee Wolpertingers Jenny Hanniver- "face" windfall-croc (4) The nuchal ligament, which runs along the spine and helps hold up that long neck.  The left cheek's teeth-- and check out the spines on the inside of the cheek! Keratinous growths to aid in chewing, food movement, digestion etc. These extend into the stomach, too! Amazed me first time I saw them, in an okapi (giraffe cousin). my-brain2 If this post bummed you out, just focus on these contented cats. An offering to The Master

…and we’ll never speak of the freezer-penis again…

Of course, there were the puzzles and mysteries, too. When I think of those, the image I think of most is this one; one of the first. Remember what it is? DSCN0880

I’ll be defrosting some new ways to puzzle you this year.

Personally, my post about my brain means a lot to me (and any zombies out there) of course, but also I’m rather keen on my entry on elephant biomechanical models (cheeseburger units!), and the posts about elephant foot pathologies and the rhino crisis also carried a strong, semi-personal urgency.

I also featured a lot of movies here- if you want to peruse them, they’re always on my Youtube account here– >22,000 views so far; not bad. One of my favourites is this one, of a pumpkin being smashed in slow motion:

Furthermore, in terms of effort writing and researching, my very detailed post on chimeras and Jenny Hannivers and such is very memorable for me, and more recently the Freezermas series was a huge undertaking– which gave me needed breaks but also soaked up a lot of time during some intensive grant-writing!

I predict that the pangolin post, in particular, will proceed to provoke a promiscuous proportion of people to pass by this blog.

But the WIJF blog has always been about including you too, my loyal Freezerinos– what about you? Please thaw out your memories of past posts and comment below on what sticks out as your favourites and why. I’d love to hear about it!

Eggs: full of bountiful promise and symbolism for the future.

Eggs: full of bountiful promise and symbolism for the future.

THE FROZEN TUNDRA OF THE FUTURE:

A final duty for this post, heralded by my poll earlier, is for me to peer into my frosty crystal ball and report on the future of this blog:

As promised, it will continue for a year or more; as long as I feel I have something new to say and someone to tell it to.

The poll convinced me, as I’d hoped, to venture into more reviews of museum/other exhibits that I visit locally or abroad. Now and then I’ll also tackle a new or classic paper, good or bad, that tickles my anatomical fancy, and give my perspective on it. The mysteries and puzzles will continue; I was checking in that poll to see what the enjoyment level was, and it is clearly still reasonably high. I’ll continue presenting my own research here, especially when it’s quite anatomical (stay tuned for something new and VERY exciting in a few weeks!). As I’d hoped, hardly anyone found the self-promotional aspect of this blog (presenting my own research) to need downplaying, but I think over the coming year you’ll see more diversity of what is presented in terms of current research by anyone. I welcome suggestions of cool anatomical science to cover. I will try to cover mostly postcranial anatomy, since other blogs/Facebook pages already do such a good job with cranial morphology, and postcranial is much more my expertise.

But generally I will just keep on keepin’ on with what I’ve been doing!

Examples of what’s yet to come: some close encounters with my collection of specimens– the cast of characters that populate my freezers. What exactly is there, and what are the odd things I haven’t yet even mentioned here? I’ll also just grab some specimens and thaw and dissect them for the purpose of blogging it (live-tweeting too?), and going through some of the anatomical talking points for each. And much more! You may even see Cryogenics, Yetis, or Snowball Earth come up in features touching on the theme of freezerness, general science and critical thinking.

But– IMPRESSIVE IMAGERY, again, is what WIJF is truly about. It’s what I’m about, too- I became an anatomist partly because the visually arresting nature of anatomy grabbed me and won’t let go.

Here are some NEW images to ponder. One is… unpleasant; one is more abstractly technical; but both are about the bewitching power of anatomy. The coming year will run the gamut between these extremes:

PigsHeads
PURPLE EMU WHOLE 1 _Se1_Im002

Thanks, everyone here, for helping to make blogging fun for me and for others, and for enduring my self-indulgence – especially in this post – but I hope you enjoyed a ramble through this past year in my freezers.

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astro-dino

Keith Feinstein of Eureka Exhibits sent me this sketch he did, and when I expressed my reaction of hey-dude-this-is-awesome, he welcomed me to put it up on the blog. Well why the hell not? Awesome belongs here. Dinosaurs (especially space-tyrannosaurs) belong here. Astronauts go into space and space is cold– like an ultra-freezer? So there you are. Additional context: we’ve worked together on Eureka’s “Be the Dinosaur” simulation/exhibit and are now doing “Be the Astronaut.” I suppose this sketch foreshadows the next step: “Be The Astronaut Riding the Dinosaur in the Land of Badassedness”.

Stay tuned for a big post tomorrow…

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