Guest post: STILL LIFE WITH FOSSIL SEAFOOD ~ Exhibited at the Royal Academy


I was delighted to find my photograph Still Life with Fossil Seafood accepted for the Royal Academy “Summer” Exhibition this year. They say “summer” but it has only just opened to the public and goes on until 2 January. So, maybe more of a Devensian or Anglian summer, but with shorter days. However, when you go into the show it has the colour and energy of the brightest summer. It is also available to view online here.

I am a geologist by training (St Andrews) but couldn’t get a job in geology  in those days because of my gender. My careers advisory officer advised me to apply to the BBC, which I did and much of the rest is history. After working variously as a studio manager, producer, reporter, general presenter etc, I eventually melded my two halves and started writing and presenting programmes about geology and writing a few short books and newspaper features. In my spare time and on holidays I collected fossils and minerals with my husband, Des Maxwell Clark.

I think I will have to admit that it was the aesthetic quality of fossil and mineral specimens that had drawn me into the subject in the first place. The shape and form of some of the things we study are outstandingly beautiful, and the stories they can tell breathtaking and often epic. I would argue that as well as being scientifically important the specimens of our trade are like natural pieces of art, and not just any old art but the highest quality art.

Very occasionally my Mother accompanied us on fossil collecting trips and although she enjoyed the shape of ammonites, she was always hankering for lunch and would ask if they would have been good to eat when they were living. This rather charming thought has not left me. Yes, they may well have been utterly delicious.

A film I presented for the BBC’s Natural World series was named Postcards from the Past by my producer (Roger Jones) – the concept that fossils are like postcards from journeys of continental drift taken through earth history. If you know how to read them they will unfold great adventures and maybe some warnings about the extremes of climate that are possible on our planet. During the making of this film, specimens became the key way to engage the public with our science, alongside reconstructing environments of the past using archive film. (I called it operation Lyell in reverse!)

After taking early retirement I turned to fine art and became known for my photographic art, re-imagining famous works of art as photographs, using careful framing to add to the illusion of an updated oil painting. (See my website for more examples.) I had made well over 40 of these and already had three hung at the RA. But after visiting some particuarly gorgeous still life paintings in the Rijksmuseum and the Wallace Collection in London, I felt the traditional still life was a genre I could not ignore. The concept of fossils as food and geology as a series of aesthetic objects suddenly clicked in my brain with the need to shoot a still life, and so I started choosing pieces from our own collection and arranging them on the kitchen table on a small Dutch table carpet I had inherited from my Belgian Aunt.

I tried a variety of ammonites, but it was soon clear that strong ribbing and serpentine coiling was going to work best, so involute samples went back in the cabinet pretty quickly. All the best still life paintings have a lobster, and it just so happens that about 45 years ago my husband found a fine specimen of Meyeria magna on the Isle of Wight (I believe this beast has undergone a name change) so that had pride of place. I had to have another arthropod so my prize trilobite (pet name Nelson) went in the front. I needed some grapes, so used some carnelian and soapstone ones I’d bought in a charity shop, plus a rather fine piece of haematite from Florence Mine in Cumbria. A glistening cut lemon is often featured, and for that I substituted two slices of polished  Scottish agate. Instead of silver vessels I used geodes from Morocco and a cluster of quartz xtals from Cornwall. Oysters – we need oysters, so Gryphaea was the obvious one to use there. (Hmm, I hate raw oysters, but love them cooked, I bet Gryphaea would have been nice prised out of his shell with a very strong oyster knife,  wrapped in parma ham and fried!! Yummy.)

Orginally I’d planned to shoot the whole thing in candle light having previously shot an homage to Mary Anning that way. But it didn’t seem quite right this time. So the following morning I got up bright and early to find the eastern sun shining beautifully on my set. I made a few fine adjustments, put a reflector in and pressed the shutter. That was it. Job done.

Of course the hidden message in the traditional Dutch Still Life genre is the memento mori – that reminder of the fate that awaits us all, that we’re all gonna die… In my still life I have gone further, as firstly you can’t get more dead than a fossil and secondly the image is in fact a memento mori for the whole planet – there are at least two mass extinction events represented in there and, well everyone, another mass extinction does appear to be a fate that awaits as all. Think on it, I am telling my audience.

The reaction to the image has outstripped my expectations. Comments and enthusiasm from people that saw the image in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter made me feel this was the one I should choose for my RA application this year. I was right. It has gone down very well indeed. The framed image sold at one of the early private views, nearly a week before it opened to the public and orders for unframed prints (£120) are streaming in.

The show is on until 2 January, but to visit physically you have to book a slot in advance. It is well worth going. Look out for some other interesting artists such as Bristol-based Emma Stibbon RA who is interested in rapid geological change and active landforms. Her multi-layered prints are a science in themselves and very beautiful. Geology and art are natural soulmates.

Guest post: Prose Pasts

A guest post from Benjamin Chandler, with many thanks to Benjamin. 

We’re nearly at the end of August but there’s still time to squeeze in a good book before summer holiday is over. Usually summer reads feature people as protagonists—a quirky detective, an unfaithful Russian aristocrat, a wanderlusting whaler—but this is not always the case. Animals can take the protagonist’s role, too. Indeed, some of the first stories children hear have animal heroes instead of human ones, such as “The Three Little Pigs” or “The Little Red Hen”. Later, as children read on their own, they find beastly heroes in Black Beauty, Bambi, and Charlotte’s Web. Even as adults, readers engage with animal protagonists in books like Watership Down.

But what about prehistoric animals? Do they get to share the fictional limelight? Certainly! No doubt most folks in the paleo community are familiar with Robert Bakker’s Raptor Red, a novel following the life of a Utahraptor and the Cretaceous creatures that share her world. Bakker hoped the book would allow him to explore ideas about dinosaur behavior and help readers imagine these ancient creatures as living things. His characters hunt, sleep, fight rivals, build nests, and raise families, but also explore and play. One of the book’s most memorable scenes is of Utahraptors sliding down snowy hills in play much as corvids do today.

Bakker’s 1995 novel is just the most famous example of an author using prehistoric animals as their protagonists. Paleofiction has a legacy that reaches almost as far back as the popularization of paleontology.

Charles H. Sternberg, an early 20th century fossil hunter and poet, composed several books about his discoveries, describing dusty Kansas chalk beds, horrific thunderstorms, and curious locals. In Hunting Dinosaurs in the Bad Lands of the Red Deer River, Alberta, Canada (1917) Sternberg made his adventures less of the book’s focus and spends long passages describing antediluvian scenes. Chasmosaurs root in vegetation, ankylosaurs mow down meadows, and hadrosaurs of all manner wade through reeds and swamps. Sometimes Sternberg presents these scenes as imaginative reconstructions, other times these are described as dreams.

Sternberg’s prose is colorful. He paints vivid pictures that, although dated by today’s science, are evocative of a lost era. Here he describes the battle between a Trachodon and a Gorgosaurus:

The noble lizard seeing that he could not escape his foe, bravely faces him. As if to hurry the end, he exposes the most vulnerable part of his body, by rising on his hind limbs. The enemy hurls himself at full length upon his defenseless victim; with great claws of hardened horn, full ten inches long, he rips his body down and red blood floods the mossy way. As he falls to earth and death, this tyrant, of those early days, tears open his body, and feeds on the quivering flesh and running blood in the very shelter of the redwood forest. The awful terror of the scene kept me well out of reach in the water. I was overcome with the shock, coming so swiftly in the peaceful woods. The sun was not darkened, the perfume of flowers filled the air, the gentle breeze sighed in the branches overhead, showing that nature knows no pity, no mercy. That death is inevitable, and still nature’s beauty, her changing seasons go on for time.

As can be seen in the paragraph’s end, Sternberg inserted himself into this story as an observer. He often pops up in his paleofiction passages to give a pithy comments about nature and God, or insert facts about various beasts’ lengths and weights, or note at which collections their bones now reside. He is clearly writing to inform as well as entertain. A rather touching length of the book features the ghost of Sternberg’s real-life late daughter. She comes to him in a dream of Cretaceous Kansas, and together they explore the beaches of the Niobraran Sea.

One of the most popular dinosaur books for several generations was Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Reptiles (1960) written by Jane Werner Watson and illustrated by Rudolph F. Zallinger. Much can be said about Zallinger’s illustrations; they are gorgeous, lush, and evocative, and likely what most readers remember of the book, but here we will discuss Watson’s text. Watson wrote dozens of children’s books, ranging from science books to Bible story retellings, from The Happy Little Whale to A Parade of Soviet Holidays. Her skills as an author are evident in Dinosaurs. Instead of dryly listing details about each animal and its environment, she composes stories that follow the actions of these creatures. The text matches the illustrations, sometimes extrapolating whole scenes from one image. For example, one of Zallinger’s paintings for the book features a troop of grouchy-looking Protoceratopses and a duo of lanky Oviraptors meeting over white sand and exposed nests of eggs. To pair with it, Watson wrote:

Watch! One egg, then another begins to quiver and crack. They are ready to hatch. The first baby crawls out. It has no bony cap as yet. That will come as it grows up. Now it is just very small and weak. And from the looks of things, it may not live to grow up. For here comes a hungry hunter.

The hunter is very small for a dinosaur, only about three feet long. Although he is hungry, meat is not the kind of meal he wants, for he has no teeth. Sucking eggs is his idea of a feast. This is why scientists of today call him Oviraptor, which means Egg Stealer….

The sky darkens. A cold wind rises. The wind sends stones rattling across the ground. It sends clouds of sand rolling and tumbling. Oviraptor feels the sting of the needle-like sand grains. He crouches on the nest, hiding his head. The sand slithers along. It piles up, drifting over the nest and eggs. It drifts over Oviraptor too.

The wind dies down. The sand settles. And now the desert is bare of life.

Watson’s prose, like Sternberg’s, is written in present tense, as if the reader was watching the scenes unfold. It is an effective way of bringing the reader into the images and the world they try to recreate.

But these tales are meant to inform as much as entertain. What about pure fiction without an educational mission?

More than once the pulps published stories that featured dinosaur protagonists. Often these leaned heavily into violent melodrama. They were the pulps, after all.

“The Way of the Dinosaur” is one of these uber-violent tales. Written by Harley S. Aldinger and published in the April, 1928, issue of Amazing Stories, this story packs as much saurian slaughter into the text as possible. Cayna, a Tyrannosaurus, is the story’s focus and he is introduced thusly:

His little, red-rimmed, cold, reptilian eyes were blazing with hate and menace, for Cayna was in another of his blood-rampages that day, and woe betide the unlucky animals whom he encountered, no matter what their size and strength might be. It was a blood lust of a fierceness and wantonness, to which only Cayna could attain.

Cayna then storms across two and a half pages, killing a pterosaur, a Stegosaurus, a Triceratops, and a Brontosaurus before he himself is dragged under the sea by a gargantuan ichthyosaur. The story is mercifully short, for although the prose is amusingly purple and loaded with paleo-hyperbole—Cayna is “the most destructive living thing that ever existed”—the litany of dinosaur dismemberings and disembowelings gets tiresome. Violence for the sake of violence is not much fun to read.

More in the pulpy science fiction vein is “The Death of the Moon” by Alexander Phillips (Amazing Stories, February, 1929), in which another protagonist Tyrannosaurus thwarts an invasion of extraterrestrial insectoids. The bug folk are natives of the moon—a dying world during the Cretaceous Period. They set their sights on Earth and travel there, but their colonization attempt is crushed by the T. rex, thereby sparing the Earth for humans 65 million years later. Phillips gives the rex a dramatic death scene: “The sinking sun bathed the saurian’s grim visage in a soft, warm light and as he gazed into the last sunset he would ever see, across far spaces into the mellow glory of the Life-giver, Tyranosaurus’ eyes softened and he was vested with a dim, far-away dignity as one whose purpose is accomplished.” It’s a hero’s ending worthy of any summer blockbuster.

1934’s Before the Dawn by John Taine (pen name of Eric Temple Bell) is perhaps the first novel featuring dinosaur protagonists, predating Bakker’s novel by sixty-one years. The book’s prehistoric scenes are framed by scientists watching the beasts through some kind of time screen. One of the men has devised a means of replaying a residue of light within crystals just as someone might play grooves left by sound on an LP. The pseudoscience is beside the point, it’s just a vehicle to get to the dinosaurs.

The scientists investigate the light memories of several crystals, letting them see a number of prehistoric scenes. A dinosaur hatchling survives a nest raid by a marsupial; several beasts scramble to escape a flash flood; sauropods laze in a weed-choked swamp; early birds flee burning volcanic ash. For the most part, none of the animals are named or identified, only described. It is up to the reader to recognize the species. (It could be argued that, if given access to time-TV, paleontologists would be hesitant to definitively identify species seen on the screen—after all dinosaurs are identified by their bones and age, things that would not be seen under the flesh and keratin in a visual recording.)

A group of theropods are named by the scientists, but instead of giving them names like Tyrannosaurus or Allosaurus, they call them Belshazzar, Jezebel, Bartholomew, and Satan. These four spend much of their time navigating curious rock formations, fighting each other over food, and jumping—lots and lots of jumping. Though all are given personality traits like greed, cowardice, and stupidity, Belshazzar is especially anthropomorphized. He is described as being the smartest of the four, and becomes the star of the crystal’s show.

Before the Dawn has been republished in pulps and anthologies, but, unlike as with some of his other stories, Taine did not let the copyright lapse. He must have been proud of this one.

Pure paleofiction took a step out of lurid pulp and closer to poetry in 1981 when Byron Preiss published The Dinosaurs, William Stout’s famous “fantastic view of a lost era.” Preiss, impressed with Stout’s art, invited him to create a dinosaur book, which ultimately featured 130-some images. This was more art book than scientific screed. Although some folks might point out Stout’s penchant for “shrink-wrapping” his dinosaurs, this was the first major publication to show dinosaurs of the warm-blooded “Renaissance” galloping, tails lifted, partaking in activities beyond hunting and swamp-lounging. It was so outside the norm for a dinosaur book that it was featured in Life magazine.

Alongside Stout’s images are “narrations” by William Service. Preiss did Stout’s images right by linking them to Service’s prose.

Here Service describes a styracosaur’s morning:

When there was enough light to pick out the dark bare trunks of the magnolia grove, the ceratopsian came slowly awake. Massively fit, in the prime years of his life, nevertheless he struggled to his feet like one sick or wounded. Still percolating through his system were the juices from yesterday’s forage, when he had strayed from the herd to feed in a deadfall of cycad trees. In his mouth the texture of the moldering fronds lingered, on his tongue the strange taste of the foamy sap in the crowns.

Service was not pedantic with his facts, sometimes inventing behaviors—like Quetzalcoatlus mating styles—or name-dropping plants and critters that may have been anachronistic to the geologic moment, but he was just being as inventive with his stories as Stout was with his images. Service uses all manner of storytelling techniques to give each tale its own special flavor, adopting various tenses, points of view, emotional states, and humor. The dinosaurs not only feed and fight as they did in Sternberg’s and Watson’s stories, but also stumble, sleep, scratch itches, break wind, get sick, have sex, and poop. Service’s stories bring the Dinosaur from monstrous and mythic sagas to the everyday business of life.

Certainly the texts listed here are not the only examples of paleofiction. A popular series of children’s books published in the mid-80s by Rourke Enterprises recreated scenes from the lives of dozens of prehistoric animals. Each book told the story of one animal. Kids could read tales of  Iguanodon, Nothosaurus, Dimetrodon, or a cave bear, to name a just few titles from the series. More recently the Smithsonian Institute published the “Prehistoric Pals” book series, which also told stories of ancient animals. Some of the series’s more amusing titles are Triceratops Gets Lost and Is Apatosaurus Okay? These two series are just a fraction of the picture books that have used paleofiction to bring dinosaurs and their ilk to life for kids. To list every publication would make this blog entry twice as long.

Natural history fires the imagination. That is perhaps its most exciting aspect. Above the details of how living things work, their measurements and metabolisms, is the fact that living things have lives. Humans may not share some of the hows of these lives—people do not lay eggs in ponds, fly on glassy wings, flutter tails to attract mates, or caress babies with a trunk—but all animals, human or otherwise, share the needs to eat, sleep, grow, endure disease, and reproduce. These experiences connect people with the natural world. People will never know the mind of a trilobite or a Tyrannosaurus or a Megatherium, but science can make an educated guess as to what their lives may have been like. Then writers can compose those lives and take a reader with them.

Guest post: How To Evolve Your Dragon: Dragons Under Natural Selection

This is a guest post from The Bristol Dinosaur Project blog. With thanks to Rhys Charles for the share.

Guest Author: Emily Green
Emily Green graduated from the University of Bristol in 2019 with a Masters degree in Palaeontology & Evolution. She is now a PhD student at the University of Lincoln researching biological complexity, on a project funded by the John Templeton foundation.

Dragons seem a universal staple of global mythology. Large and fearsome beasts which are so often, in part, based on unexplainable fossil discoveries. Many mythical creatures began life this way, such as the cyclops of Ancient Greece from the skulls of extinct island elephants, or mythical giants found by Carthaginians during excavations which are more likely the limb bones of Mammoths. In creating these myths, these civilisations were trying to explain their amazing discoveries. Now, as palaeontologists, we have a plethora of tools to explain the history of these fantastical beasts, which are sadly far more mundane than the flying fire breathing fiends of popular fantasy.


The ancient civilisations of the Mediterranean were often digging up fossils and attributing them to fantastical or divine origins. Many think that the myths of island dwelling cyclops come from the common fossils of dwarf elephantids found on many Greek island, with their large central nasal passage being mistaken for a huge eye socket! A. Mammoth Femur. B. Elephantid skull. C. A representation of a cyclops.

Biology puts many constraints in the way of creating some of the dragons more fantastical adaptations. But, using all the tools in our biological toolbox, we can piece together a story using clues from the evolution of other animals. So, if dragons were to exist under the rules and regulations of evolution, what would they be like?

Dragons feature almost globally in religion, myth, and legend. This cosmopolitan distribution can be achieved in many ways; either as birds by flight between far flung continents, as fish by swimming between oceans (or dropped off in many different lakes by careless birds), or by rafting events such as those undertaken by monkeys in the Paleogene to reach South America (or see the more recently the voyages of black rats on human vessels around the world).

Equally they could have achieved this distribution by simply travelling across land when the continents were all stuck together. The last such time was at a time dinosaurs roamed the earth, in the Mesozoic era, when the supercontinent Pangea existed.

We still see remnants from this time in the distribution of organisms today, such as the Gondwanan Floral Belt, where many modern Southern continents which made up a supercontinent called Gondwana now share closely related species of plants, despite their far flung geographical separation.

Diversity remains an important tool for palaeontologists. Working out how the distribution of an organism was achieved gives us some insight into how it evolves. For example, the giant flightless bird group known as the ratites (see ostriches, kiwis, and emus), have a wide geographical range between Africa and Australia. Thanks to paleogeography and molecular trees using genes, we know that ratites travelled to Australia from Africa by flying, likely across the land bridge of Antarctica before it was todays frozen tundra, and lost the ability to fly and became giant independently  after they migrated (Mitchell et al., 2014).

For dragons at least, they almost universally seem to posses the ability to fly, or in many cases swim, and so a world-wide population seems easily achievable, in the way that birds or fish have spread globally.

Dragons also represent great disparity in their forms. Disparity is the variation between organisms, most notably in shape, size, and even behaviour. The most commonly depicted forms of dragons in mythology are reptilian in appearance. European myths show them having wings, though they more often go without in Asian mythology, and sometimes have no limbs at all, like in the legends of large sea serpents. These are all body forms present in modern day tetrapods (four limbed vertebrates). This group evolved at the onset of terrestrialisation in the late Devonian, where lobe finned fish, similar to today’s coelacanths, slowly moved from the sea onto land, developing 4 limbs from their fins, to help them get around.

One of the enduring myths of the dragon is their ability to fly. Most easily explained by evolution of wings. Powered flight has evolved many different times in tetrapods, notably in pterosaurs, birds, and bats, which all adapted their forelimb bones and muscles for powerful flapping and gliding. The modern fantasy depictions of dragons like in ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ (or even the Welsh flag), where the dragons have four limbs AND wings, are entirely improbable. Notably because in every other vertebrate species that has evolved wings, they have done so by modifying their fore limbs. To still have four limbs with fore limbs intact AND a set of wings, would require the dragon to start with 6 limbs, which is not something we see in vertebrates, as the four limb pattern is very heavily controlled by body planning genes (HOX genes).

To fly requires you to be very light, as so dragons would have to have very light skeletons, like modern birds which have hollow bones. Their massive size is a consideration too. Many of the largest birds are now flightless, having become large enough to deter predators due to their size, but still retained their wings for display purposes (though these are more vestigial in some species like the kiwi). So, whether dragons fly would likely be dependent on their size.

Like birds too, some dragons have gone back to the oceans. Returning to the water has happened many times in evolution; with the return of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) to the waters well as marine reptiles such as Mosasaurs and Ichthyosaurs; the Mesozoic’s more terrifying answer to a dolphin. This four-limb pattern is often modified for flippers to aid swimming in the water, though some have even gone so far as the lose limbs all together, such as whales losing their hind limbs relying on just their tail for propulsion. The sea dragons’ loss of limbs may have been to gain a more hydrodynamic body shape and to aid swimming, likely in an eel-like fashion.

One of the more fantastical components of dragon mythology is their ability to breath fire. Fire would likely be used as a predation tool, or predation deterrent, part of an ecological arms race to outdo competitors. As far as we know, no organism alive possess this remarkable ability.

Actual fire breathing poses many evolutionary difficulties; requiring the need for fire retardant insides, means of generating a spark, and the production of highly flammable gases or chemicals. The other issue that comes with fire breathing is the logistics of aim. You are far more likely to be subject to natural selection AGAINST fire breathing by accidentally set yourself on fire before managing to reproduce.

Though if we really wanted something more akin to fire, what would evolution come up with? Other species have developed long range deadly attacks by becoming venomous, like wood ants, flinging formic acid when threatened to defend the colony. Or if we wanted the flashy approach, we’d be looking at creating light through bioluminescence. This is used for a plethora of things in the animal world, squid sometimes employ this as counter-camouflage, fireflies use it to attract mates, and angler fish to lure in a tasty bite.

Bioluminescence is found in many deep-sea creatures like squid, box jellyfish, and anglerfish, who all use this symbiotic relationship with bioluminescent algae for different purposes.

One of the famous parts of European dragon mythology is their large hoard of gold and jewels. This made them a very attractive myth for the medieval knight looking to score some bounty in a get rich quick scheme, which either paid off very well, or led to a nice snack for the dragon.

Hoarding behaviours is quite common in the animal kingdom, but is very varied in terms of reason. Animals like hamster or squirrels tend to hoard food for hard times. This is unlikely the case for dragons here, as treasure possesses little nutritional value, the very large and pointy teeth and penchant for fighting wayward knights would suggests a highly carnivorous diet. Amusingly many of the perpetrated ‘dragon teeth’ discovered in Asia were actually ancient horse teeth, so often anatomy and myth do not overlap.

This behaviour of collecting and hoarding objects is also exhibited by many other creatures across the animal kingdom usually as ways to attract mates. This could be prime territory as in deer or grouse, or by the creation of a fantastically decorated mating arenas to demonstrate prowess and fitness, as in Bower birds, cichlids, or Gentoo penguins.

Extravagant mating behaviour exhibited by other species: a mating arena created underwater by fish, Gentoo penguins collecting nice pebbles as mating gifts (works on human geologists as well), a flamboyantly decorated bower by the bower birds, to entice ladies with a cool collection of blue objects.

So, what have we garnered from all this about dragons? Due to their depicted reptilian nature, they would likely be archosaurs, close relatives to crocodiles, dinosaurs, and birds, and probably had their origins way back in the Permian, when the major lineage between the mammals and the reptiles split. Dragons probably achieved their global distribution before the split of the supercontinent Pangea in the Cretaceous period. They don’t breathe fire, but they can fly, like birds and bats. Some are even secondarily aquatic, like whales, returning to the sea and gaining and smoother streamlined body forms. Their long and sharp teeth show that they are carnivorous, as in modern predators like lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!). And some hoard gold, likely a behaviour to attract mates.

This comparative biology can help us understand a lot about creatures that no longer exist during this time, something common place in palaeontology. Sadly while dragons are non-existent, all the methods used here with a bit of imagination are the very same we apply to the very much real, dinosaurs, mammoths, and pterosaurs, to understand what they were like, and how they lived.


Mitchell, K. J. et al. (2014) ‘Ancient DNA reveals elephant birds and kiwi are sister taxa and clarifies ratite bird evolution’, Science. American Association for the Advancement of Science, 344, 898–900

Guest post: Does Jurassic World HAVE to be accurate? – Part Two

This is a guest post from The Bristol Dinosaur Project blog. With thanks to Rhys Charles for the share.

Guest Author: James Ormiston
James Ormiston graduated from the Palaeontology & Evolution MSci at the University of Bristol in 2016. He is now a palaeoartist (@notsimro) and lab technician.

Bridging the Gap

So far what I’ve done is over a thousand words of moaning, and excessive moaning adds fuel to the weird factionalism that’s appeared in the wake of this debate. So, what can actually be done about it? It was good to see Colin Trevorrow finally take on board peoples’ concerns over the lack of feathers, and getting the well-known dinosaur palaeontologist Prof Steve Brusatte (of the University of Edinburgh) on board for ‘JW: Dominion’ as an advisor is encouraging. For the most part however, the Jurassic franchise is something of a lost cause when it comes to accuracy as it’s already out there. It has its own extended universe, with spin-offs and video games, now cemented in modern culture – pronated hands and all.

Unless Dominion is radically different, or Universal suddenly decide to make their own documentary addressing the movies’ scientific flaws, the damage is mostly done. It is indeed mainly for entertainment, and huge numbers of people enjoy it because the movies are fun to watch. Maybe we should just bury the hatchet and focus our efforts elsewhere? After all, the movies are still huge adverts for STEM subjects, even if they are now much more like fan fiction than love letters. We should steer young prospective palaeontologists, science enthusiasts and dinosaur fans of the future in the right direction, rather than turn them away by simply nit-picking at their ticket in (and I say this as someone 100% guilty of doing the latter in this very article – it’s easy to get carried away!).

Let’s compare palaeontology’s media presence to its bigger physics-based brother: space exploration. Unlike palaeontology, which has essentially one big live-action franchise and nothing else, space has had a continual presence in cinema for decades. It has had the time and opportunities to incorporate more and more real-world science. Things like the lack of sound in space, how gravity works and what a black hole may look like.

Yes, there are still many unrealistic aspects because the audience needs to be engaged, but the key difference is that many different directors have had a go and at least tried to make their movies more convincing. Just look at the plethora of big budget space releases we’ve had since Gravity came out: Interstellar, The Martian, Ad Astra, and series like The Expanse. How often do you see dinosaurs in non-cartoon films outside of the Jurassic franchise, and when you do, how well-researched are they?

Why Jurassic Park was important. Mainstream media’s endorsement of new science is part of a wider relationship between that science and the public, and contributes greatly to keeping it alive. Granted, Jurassic World still brings people in, but it starts the public on the back foot by not giving them current science and little reference pointing them in the right direction. It falls on the outreach/sci-comm community to step forward and spend more time dispelling misconceptions (which is good in a way because outreach is great fun).

This monopoly over dinosaurs’ public image should ideally be broken. The public needs a bigger and more accessible yardstick to compare with the Jurassic franchise. They should be easily able to say “the dinosaurs in those movies are inaccurate, they should look more like this”. Not just because I’m telling them to through outreach efforts, but because the public likes dinosaurs and deserves something that lets them do it themselves. Currently though, this does not exist in popular culture. Walking With Dinosaurs came out over 20 years ago. It may have been the closest thing to rival the movies for the public’s attention, but soon afterwards it too was outdated (the same goes for its follow-up, Planet Dinosaur, though to a lesser extent). It just happened to be unlucky timing, in that it came out just before the main swing of the feather revolution and other breakthroughs of the 21st century. Space science already had its Walking With Dinosaurs moment with Carl Sagan’s 1980 series Cosmos, which returned to great praise with physicist and sci-comm juggernaut Neil deGrasse Tyson in 2014. It’s about time palaeontology got its next big public update too.

For larger studios this shouldn’t be difficult given their enormous budgets. All it takes is more engagement with the research community, to hire advisors who know their stuff and a willingness to listen to them. Even Jurassic Park 3 was starting to update things, as Stan Winston’s design team gave the raptors little head quills (in 2001!). The 2013 Walking With Dinosaurs movie also managed a good amount of communication with scientists, and although it wasn’t much of a critical success it gave us a glimpse of what was possible (also worth noting that critics liked the well-researched and visually impressive animation, but not the cheesy voiceover story which 20th Century Fox insisted on adding late in production, fearing the public would become bored otherwise, i.e. they didn’t want to risk doing something different). There have also been ambitious real-world immersive experiences like Dinosaurs in the Wild (which I had the immense privilege to work at in 2017). Projects like this have big potential, and if done right could fill a significant gap in the market.

The Nerds Fight Back and Hope for the Future

One of the biggest hurdles to clear when getting the public up to speed is that there are many places to get information about dinosaurs (and prehistoric life in general) but not all of it is updated and reliable. Wikipedia is generally a good place because many palaeontologists, especially those working on dinosaurs, actively update Wikipedia articles to include their most recent work on them. While this does result in some very long overly-academic sections where competing research teams have a bit of a back-and-forth over certain issues, at least readers can see what is still debated and why.

Outside of Wikipedia, which is often a dry read and as a result off-putting to the layperson, where can the public go for good, engaging palaeontological information? After all, there’s a lot of clickbait out there alongside piles of stuff from other inaccurate media and the Jurassic franchise itself. It also doesn’t help at all that mainstream news can be very patchy when it comes to reporting almost anything in the field. Here’s where the outreach and science communication community steps in. Whether it be museums, academics or enthusiasts, we live in an exciting time when the public is increasingly able to get well-researched content presented to them on familiar formats such as YouTube, livestreams and podcasts.

You can tune into hour-long live discussions hosted by museums with current researchers answering questions in real time (no doubt bolstered by recent boom in video calling thanks to the current situation!). You can listen to podcasts by people passionate about the science of palaeontology dispelling misconceptions, interviewing experts, relaying the latest and most interesting discoveries, or going over the basics for the uninitiated. Thanks to channels like PBS Eons you can watch mini-documentaries on YouTube with accurate palaeoart to bring the prehistoric world to life, and we’re seeing an increase in small networks and indie studios making their own features. There are other projects aiming to catalogue up-to-date information together into consistent, easily comprehensible online resources like the pterosaur archive Pteros.

The Emerging Palaeo-media Revolution. Since Jurassic World didn’t do it, a wide variety of passionate palaeontology nerds have taken up the gauntlet and are pushing for better-informed content. These are only some examples, there are many more. There is evidently a demand for this, and mainstream media will hopefully realise the largely untapped potential it holds…

In physical literature we are seeing a great array of popular science books about prehistoric life and its reconstruction being published – with the non-academic reader in mind. Palaeoartists are banding together to make accurate and beautiful prehistoric-themed merchandise for decorating your home and self. You can also now buy very well-designed and researched toys and models thanks to efforts like Beasts of the Mesozoic and the PNSO dinosaur series.

It’s even happening to video games, among the most exciting upcoming examples being Prehistoric Kingdom – a park simulator in a similar vein to the popular Jurassic World: Evolution, but for those who want to look after animals rather than movie monsters. Similar improvement is increasingly happening for content aimed specifically at children (obviously, since children are among the biggest dinosaur fans of all and represent a huge market), though not being a parent I’m less familiar with that side of things.

All these efforts serve to re-connect the public to the ever-changing world of palaeontology research. It’s a link that the original Jurassic Park made an effort to strengthen but Jurassic World generally did not. Will mainstream media pick up on this increasing momentum? It would seem this is indeed finally happening! A couple of years ago Apple TV greenlit a major new dinosaur series with BBC Studios’ Natural History Unit, to be called Prehistoric Planet. Among the team working on it were reported Jon Favreau (of Iron Man and Mandalorian fame), Mike Gunton (Planet Earth II) and Tim Walker (Ice Age Giants). Will it live up to or even exceed the lofty expectations left by Walking With Dinosaurs, and be big enough to sway public perception? We’ll just have to wait and see…

Could Jon Favreau be the superhero dinosaurs need?

So…does it matter?

At the end of the day, Jurassic World is under no concrete obligation to be realistic. But its creators must surely have recognised they are dealing with the largest dinosaur-related media entity on the planet. That should come with at least some level of awareness and responsibility, especially since the movie that started it all back in ’93 was indeed largely well-researched and hugely influential as a result. 20 years ago(!), Jurassic Park 3 was still taking on new theories about feathers and for 2001 its Spinosaurus looked pretty good (even now I have people on outreach almost refuse to believe it doesn’t look like that anymore, which again demonstrates the franchise’s influence and the changing science simultaneously). Jurassic World’s dinosaurs ended up being rather inconsistent with the franchise’s past approach…by keeping too many things the same.

Perhaps that’s why the flashbacks were added for Dominion, which in their defence do seem to contain some better-looking reconstructions this time round, but at the same time the inaccuracies shown alongside them could be seen as self-defeating. Outside that, Jurassic World’s general disregard for accuracy may not be hurting anyone (depending on how you define “hurt”) and it does provide an in-universe explanation for it, but it still feels like a lot of lost potential. I hope this piece serves to explain to those in Jurassic World’s corner why so many people were disappointed. That it’s a bit more complicated than just saying “it’s only a movie”.

Whether you think the pro-accuracy crowd have been demanding too much, or that Universal were insulting 20 years of hard work in a beloved field of science by wasting its largest public platform, is largely up to you. There are hardliners on both sides and being too factional about it likely won’t help anyone. It’s an issue steeped in subjectivity since, again, being entertainment means Jurassic World doesn’t have to do anything realistically. I and many, many others were saddened that it didn’t, but I won’t berate people for enjoying it as it is. If you are one of the millions of people who love the dinosaurs as they are shown, understand that I’m not saying you shouldn’t. Indeed, I still had fun watching both recent entries (though nowhere near as much as the original obviously), so I don’t want to give the impression that I dislike them as movies. Now that we’re almost three films, a couple of TV seasons and a handful of video games into the new series, the more prominent issue regarding accuracy seems to be their lack of competition.

And of course, Jurassic World will still continue to inspire many people even if it could be much better as palaeontology’s popular ambassador. I have to give kudos to Colin Trevorrow for trying something different this time and acknowledging the issue. I’ll very likely watch it in the cinema anyway, and probably like it as a monster movie as Samuel Welles did. Who knows, maybe this concept of the dinosaurs now being loose in the wild could lead to some funky genetic shenanigans and a new look for the familiar beasts. At any rate, as the saying goes, “let people enjoy things”…

…but also respect valid reasons for others being disappointed.

Guest post: Does Jurassic World HAVE to be accurate? – Part One

This is a guest post from The Bristol Dinosaur Project blog. With thanks to Rhys Charles for the share.

Guest Author: James Ormiston
Palaeontology & Evolution MSci Graduate / Palaeoartist

From Science to Sensation

A short while ago, dark blurry YouTube uploads began appearing of two big dinosaurs fighting in IMAX cinemas. These were covertly-filmed showings of the first few minutes of the next instalment in the biggest dino-franchise of all: Jurassic World Dominion. Though the official global reveal was some way away, these low-quality videos revealed some intriguing details. The online community immediately began picking it apart…and battle lines were drawn. A debate as old as the franchise itself was about to fire up again.

Look, feathers!

To heavily paraphrase, some comment threads went a little like this:

“This is awesome!”

“Is that Giganotosaurus?! I’m so excited!”

“Look! Feathers! They finally did it!”

“Wait, those two dinosaurs didn’t live together or at the same time, what’s up with that?”

“So what, it’s a movie, it doesn’t have to be accurate!”

“Yeah it’s just entertainment, not a documentary.”

“I’m excited for it anyway. It’ll be a fun movie like the others.”

…and so on. This debate actually gets rather heated sometimes, but the general disagreement comes from roughly the same thing: should the Jurassic World franchise have made their dinosaurs more scientifically accurate, since scientists have now known for a long time that they didn’t actually look like how Jurassic Park originally showed them? This argument is especially relevant to the upcoming Dominion, because it includes “flashback” scenes of the Mesozoic showing its prehistoric cast on home turf. No longer is it only concerned with resurrected genetically modified monsters; this seems to be the first franchise entry to attempt showing the dinosaurs as they originally were.

I won’t list all the foibles and inaccuracies so far pointed out by palaeontologists and enthusiasts alike, because that could take an entire article in itself. Nor am I going to tell you that Jurassic World is a bad film series as a result, because I don’t think it is. I also don’t want to suggest that people aren’t allowed to like the depictions presented in it just because they aren’t accurate. Instead, I’m going to ask a more general question…

Does it really matter?

To say that the original Jurassic Park was influential would be a colossal understatement. Not only is it THE dinosaur movie, it’s one of the most highly-praised cinematic works of all time. You’d be hard pressed to find a dinosaur palaeontologist who wasn’t influenced by it in some way, and it managed to almost completely change the public’s perception of dinosaurs as animals. Like Jurassic World, it still had its share of inaccuracies. Supposedly Samuel Welles, who first described Dilophosaurus, despaired at Jurassic Park’s famously over-the-top depiction of his dinosaur, but he still acknowledged it as a good monster movie. Even today that fictionalised association with a frill and venom clings to the public mind-set…and to some that persistence is troubling.

All the way back to the books, we are told that the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park/World are not “real” dinosaurs. They’ve been hacked together with what DNA fragments InGen and its rivals/successors recover, merged with that of modern animals and in some cases intentionally altered for scare-factor. They are basically GMOs, so we shouldn’t expect them to be scientifically accurate, like how Ice Age and The Land Before Time are obviously cartoons and shouldn’t be too closely scrutinised.

But for 1993 Jurassic Park was actually roughly in line with palaeontological understanding of the day. Spielberg’s team did a lot of consultation with palaeontologists to make the dinosaurs realistic even though, according to the story, they don’t have to be (and indeed, like in Dilophosaurus’ case, sometimes they intentionally aren’t). The Dinosaur Rennaisance of the late 20th century, when scientists realised that they were not just lumbering lizards, was finally taken on board by the general public thanks to Jurassic Park showing it to them in an engaging way. That was a REALLY big deal.

22 years later, Jurassic World then emphasised that (in the story universe) the public didn’t want accuracy, they wanted dinosaurs to be scary. That’s the explanation given for not changing the dinosaur designs in ‘World despite over 20 years of real life post-‘Park research suggesting (with very little room for debate) that they should look different. Both films have inaccuracies, but that’s mainly due to one being an earnest attempt at realism made a long time ago, and the other deliberately choosing to keep its reconstructions in that era. As a result, one could easily interpret ‘World as inherently far more misleading. Our view of dinosaurs has indeed changed quite a lot since 1993, in fact some are referring to the 21st century as an age of dinosaur re-discovery.

But that’s still basically ok, right? After all Jurassic World is just entertainment, like the fictional attraction itself. Jurassic World’s shareholders wanted people to be excited, so keeping the dinosaurs the same (and adding made-up new ones) was safer than the financial risk of dinosaurs being scientifically accurate (feathered raptors? What’s so scary about a 6-foot turkey?!). They aren’t treated like real animals; they are treated like characters.

The dinosaurs are brand icons, so why change what people love? It’s quite funny because, intentionally or not, Jurassic World feels like a parody of itself in this regard. Besides, it’s not like knowing how dinosaurs looked is way up on the list of “Scientific Things You Should Definitely Know About in Every Day Life.” It’s hardly as practical and relevant as re-wiring a plug, acknowledging climate change or understanding vaccines. People who are really interested in dinosaurs can just look it up on the internet, and discover that all was not as it seemed on screen.

Comic by James Ormiston

However, I think it’s still relevant to the legacy of the original film and the franchise’s wider responsibility as a STEM promoter. How has it repaid all those people who were inspired to become palaeontologists by the first film’s attention to detail, along with existing researchers, who then greatly advanced our knowledge even further in the years following its release? By ignoring all their hard work and using a plot device to cover that decision? Now the franchise is attempting to show the actual time of the dinosaurs, and the genetic modification thing doesn’t really apply to those. In fact I’d say it adds confusion because it addresses one well-known inaccuracy (lack of feathers) while keeping others.

Well, that’s a bit cynical of me to say, but still, from my experience talking to people at outreach events across the UK it seems that many do still take the franchise’s outdated depictions at face value. Evidently not everyone watching has taken the idea of the dinosaurs not being “real” on board. Is it not obvious enough, or do people just subconsciously prefer the inaccurate versions out of familiarity? More importantly though, what are viewers then meant to take away from this about what dinosaurs should look like, and how we know that? What can the average viewer compare it to? How often do you see the Jurassic-style raptor in other media (including things like memes, logos, murals, tattoos, or webcomics) in place of a realistic one, simply because it’s more recognisable to a general audience than a feathered one? Unless specifically referencing Jurassic Park/World, according to the movies’ own lore, other depictions that copy them are by definition not actually dinosaurs.

The up-to-date information is out there, but it would be nice to give that information some kind of solid platform in popular culture, which the public can immediately use for reference and a starting point. Then they don’t have to sift through potentially outdated, misleading, or even boring (to the average non-expert) sources to learn more about their favourite dinos. And this assumes they even want to have to do much or any reading; many might rather just watch something instead. Jurassic World had the potential to be that watchable platform and continue one of Jurassic Park’s greatest legacies.

The top Google Images search results I was met with for “Velociraptor” (left) and “realistic Velociraptor” (right). Almost half the results in both cases are based on the outdated movie design, and this only continues as you scroll down. Ironically, one of the results I consider the most accurate is Fred Wierum’s depiction (bottom right of the left image) which was actually further down the “realistic” search results despite being used for Velociraptor’s Wikipedia entry. Thankfully however, some of these results are also cover images for articles explaining that they are wrong. The situation is gradually improving. (also worth noting that Jurassic Park’s Velociraptors have, since the books, been more anatomically based on the larger Deinonychus and renamed, but the feathers still apply to both)

The fact remains that scientists and outreach educators are still, after nearly 30 years, having to dispel public misconceptions dating back to the first film (looking at you, Dilophosaurus). Some people (none of whom I’ve yet observed to be palaeontologists) even approach the opposite end of the scale and suggest that, because we still don’t yet 100% know what many dinosaurs looked like, accuracy in movie depictions doesn’t matter because it’ll just change again in a few years. I’m not a fan of this argument at all, as it oversimplifies the issue and shows a more subtle disconnection between the public and the research community.

On the face of it, it’s good to acknowledge that science changes. Indeed, we certainly do have some way yet to go; the fossil record is notoriously incomplete. Yes, some things have changed, but among them are changes supported by strong new evidence (much of which isn’t even very new anymore).

Just because dinosaurs’ appearances will probably change in the future doesn’t mean mainstream media can be excused for ignoring basic aspects of current understanding that are no longer widely controversial among scientists. Scientists who, ironically, are more numerous than ever before thanks largely to being inspired to enter the field by Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. Interstellar’s black hole was generated based on guidance from a team of 30 people’s theoretical physics equations, but even that may become outdated tomorrow…maybe it already is (again ironically, I don’t know because I’m not familiar with theoretical physics). It was still worth it for the spectacle and appreciation for the science.

Just look at the Senckenberg Museum’s Psittacosaurus with its preserved skin and other soft tissues. It’s an amazing specimen, and only takes us further along routes which modern palaeontology predicted long ago (striking colour patterns like modern animals, varying bodily coverings like bristles, lack of shrink-wrapping), leaving Jurassic World’s depictions even further behind the curve. One of the most fascinating things about dinosaurs is precisely that our view of them keeps changing, but at the same time some modern revelations (like un-pronated theropod wrists and feathered raptors, the former being a really basic, inoffensive thing which is extremely easily fixed) have become well-established by consensus and therefore unlikely to change any time soon.

The BBC’s 2011 documentary Planet Dinosaur quite bravely demonstrated this balance of discovery, observation and speculation pretty well, even though it too succumbed to new evidence almost immediately in its finer details. The public, which by-and-large adores dinosaurs, deserves more than outdated tropes. Should we expect movies to go all-out and feature all the very latest research? No. Should we hope for them to at least move on from 1993? I mean, Transformers: Age Of Extinction gave it a go, even though its Psittacosaurus was still mostly otherwise inaccurate (the bristles had been known about since the early 2000s)…

Little room for doubt: Psittacosaurus specimen SMF R 4970, originally from China, reconstructed by Bob Nicholls and revealed in 2016 – currently a strong contender for the most accurate dinosaur reconstruction in the world.
Michael Bay’s slightly earlier depiction in 2014’s Transformers Age of Extinction. There’s a LOT anatomically wrong with this reconstruction, it certainly wasn’t accurate for 2014 even without the new colour pattern. But look…bristles! That’s something! However, Transformers is not Jurassic Park and this Psittacosaurus is not genetically modified. It is presented to a huge mainstream audience, in the highest grossing film of that year, as a dinosaur. Jurassic World came out the year after and in its own success reinforced this media tendency to stick with depictions with a track record of commercial appeal…despite being very, VERY dated. Have studios been worried that people wouldn’t like updated ones simply for looking different?

But still, we must consider again the target audience. Jurassic World acts on two main concepts: excitement and familiarity. Universal will have wanted to excite new (mainly younger) viewers and appeal to people (many of whom will be parents of said younger viewers) who fondly remember Jurassic Park. I expect people strongly advocating for scientific accuracy mostly fall into the latter camp, because they are more likely to be enthusiasts and academics inspired to pursue the field by the original movie (as a child of ’94 with a palaeontology degree, I’m in that camp too). They are also almost certainly a minority.

To the studio, these people alone were likely not very high up the list when it came to deciding who to cater to. The majority of casual viewers will not care about accuracy, but that in itself is fuelled by simple lack of awareness due to Jurassic Park reigning almost unchallenged in dinosaur media. The movie industry probably couldn’t predict how modern mainstream audiences would react to significantly updated dinosaurs…because they basically haven’t been given any since 1993*. The safer option to guarantee excitement through familiarity, therefore, was to keep the dinosaurs largely unaltered. And while it’s fine that people do indeed like what’s familiar, I (and many others) think it was a wasted opportunity to assume they wouldn’t like even slightly updated ones.

So, on the one hand, Jurassic World not showcasing palaeontology’s major developments since the 90s has been a bit of a slap in the face for the field of science it owes its existence to. Dominion may end up being an improvement, but some aren’t holding out hope. On the other hand, misleading the public about dinosaurs isn’t really a tangible problem with any significant negative consequences for society, nor even entirely Jurassic World’s fault since there is a plot-based reason given (even if it feels more like an excuse to not take risks); it’s also not helped by a reluctance in the wider movie industry to come up with any well-researched competition. I’ll come onto that next…

*If anyone has access to audience surveys, focus group minutes and the like proving or disproving this suspicion, then do share them! I’m prepared to be wrong as someone who doesn’t work in the movie industry.

Part Two will be coming out tomorrow!!

Preview… “So far what I’ve done is over a thousand words of moaning, and excessive moaning adds fuel to the weird factionalism that’s appeared in the wake of this debate. So, what can actually be done about it? “

James Ormiston graduated from the Palaeontology & Evolution MSci at the University of Bristol in 2016. He is now a palaeoartist (@notsimro) and lab technician.

The First Dinosaurs (Part One)

(With thanks to those who have suggested sources or sent information about these films.)

I have already written about the first drawn animated dinosaur, Gertie the Dinosaurus, here, but dinosaurs were also animated using stop-frame animation during the early 20th century. This is a survey of the very first stopframe animations of dinosaurs, covering the period from 1914 to 1923. It is worth mentioning that cinema as an art form for less than two decades, and the potential for special effects became very obvious very quickly.

There was an animation of dinosaurs that were possibly made by stopframe in 1905, based on the comic strip “Prehistoric Peeps”, that ran in the British satire magazine, Punch. A version of it has been digitised and is held by the British Film Institute but is unavailable for viewing. (If it does become available, I will update the post.)

So Gertie the Dinosaurus was Winsor McCay’s vaudeville act that opened in February 1914, and in December 1914 a film was released of the animated cartoon embedded in a live-action story (made because McCay’s employer objected to him spending so much time on his vaudeville act). During 1914, a film was also released directed by D. W. Griffiths (1875-1948) entitled Brute Force (also known as The Primitive Man) in which people at a sophisticated cocktail party are transported back in time to become cave men. In one scene, here, a dinosaur is seen in the background, which does not move very much, just its jaw opening and closing, and it is likely to be a full-size model.

The theme of cavemen co-existing with dinosaurs ran through several early animations, the next being a 6-minute film by the animation pioneer Willis O’Brien. It was made by O’Brien in 1915 on a budget of $5,000 – he had made a 90 second test reel of a dinosaur and a caveman while working as assistant to the head architect of the 1915 San Francisco World Fair and some of his models and the test piece were seen by one of the exhibitors, Herman Wobber. Wobber then commissioned The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy, which was seen by Thomas Edison and released by Edison’s distribution company Conquest Pictures in 1917.

The plot is one that keeps appearing in caveman films, namely love triangles. In this film, two suitors, the Duke and Stonejaw Steve are rivals for the hand of Araminta Rockface who lives in a cave with her father. O’Brien creates some classic slapstick humour, with the Duke bumping into a tree and when the two fight, Stonejaw drops the Duke into the cooking cauldron outside the cave. An intertitle then tells us that a third suitor, our hero Theophilus Ivory-head has arrived, so Araminta invites all three of them into their home for tea (which the intertitle tells us has not been discovered yet!). While the three of them argue inside the cave, their hated enemy, Wild Willie, the “missing link” steals their food from the cauldron and makes off with it. When Araminta’s father sees that the food has gone, he sends the rivals out to get dinner, Duke and Stonejaw to get meat, and Theophilus to get fish. The meat-hunters come across a “desert quail” and in another piece of slapstick, Stonejaw fires an arrow at the bird which misses and embeds itself in the Duke’s backside, who falls head first into the cauldron. Meanwhile, Theophilus has reached the lake where a dinosaur has come to the water to drink; Wild Willie has also decided to visit the lake to find some snakes to eat, mistakes the dinosaur’s tail for a snake and Wild Willie and the dinosaur get into a fight. The dinosaur kills Wild Willie and leaves, and Theophilus decides to claim the victory over Wild Willie for himself. When the others arrive, he is hailed as a hero and wins the hand of Araminta.

The dinosaur bears a strong resemblance to Gertie, and Wild Willie to O’Brien’s later creation King Kong, both characters based on the gorilla which at the time had a very negative reputation for fierceness. Edison was so impressed by the film he employed O’Brien to make films for Conquest Pictures, and O’Brien made several shorts.

One of these shorts was R.F.D. 10,000 B.C., made in 1917. (“R.F.D.” refers to the Rural Free Delivery system in early 20th century America whereby mail would be delivered to outlying isolated communities such as farms.) The story centres around the mailman, who can be seen in this clip delivering the mail on a cart – the cart has round stone wheels and is pulled along by a dinosaur in a harness. Again, the dinosaur is very similar to Gertie, but the harness and cart are rather prescient of the Hanna-Barbera 1960s cartoon The Flintstones.

One of O’Brien’s more well-known films was released in 1918, The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, in which O’Brien worked with Obrien worked with Herbert Dawley, and both appear in the film. It was a much more ambitious project, that originally ran at three reels around 40 minutes, but when it was shown at the Strand Theater, the manager ordered it to be shortened. It was eventually cut to 12 mins, but more material that was thought to be lost has been found taking the length to 19 mins. A reference on the Wikipedia entry claims that Barnum Brown was an advisor on the film and O’Brien based the dinosaurs on Knight’s paintings.

The story is based around Uncle Jack (played by Dawley) telling his nephews an adventure story – he and his friend had visited Slumber Mountain in the Valley of Dreams. Jack and friend find a deserted cabin belonging to dead Mad Dick who had a magic telescope. Jack goes to the cabin where the ghost of Mad Dick (played by O’Brien) tells him to look through the telescope, and Jack sees back into the Cretaceous; he sees a Brontosaurus, a strange wingless bird (that looks very similar to the “desert quail” from The Dinosaur and the Missing Link) and two Triceratops fighting. A T. rex then attacks and starts to eat one of the Triceratops, a shot strangely prescient of the T. rex eating the Stegosaurus in Disney’s Fantasia. Jack is chased by the T. rex but then wakes up, he had fallen asleep by the campfire and it was all a dream, and his nephews are pleased with such a fine adventure story.  The clip of the dinosaurs can be seen here.

The collaboration between Dawley and O’Brien was not a happy one, and it has been said that Dawley re-used some of the discarded footage to make his next film, Along the Moonbeam Trail.[1] However, the IMDb entry states that this was not the case, and an examination of the two films shows the difference between the animation style and quality in the films.[2]

This film was released in 1920 and seems to be made by Dawley himself. The version I’ve seen runs at about 14 mins and a splendidly restored version can be seen here. Dawley again features in the film with a familiar starting story of Uncle Jack and his nephews, this time, with a slightly more complicated story. While they are camping, Jack tells of the fairy of dreams, Queen Mab, who appears in their dreams as a scantily clad, fetching young lady, who offers them a wish; they ask for a magic airplane that will take them to the moon. The airplane duly appears and as they leave, she gives them a magic ring to rub if they need her help. They take off and fly out into space, passing “Mars”, deposed to a humble traffic cop of the skies, and the Man in the Moon among other characters, and to escape a pursuing pterodactyl they land on a strange planet. They hide in a cave from “frightful monsters”, this clip showing that they see a Stegosaurus (a lizard with plates glued on?), a “Trachodon” and the inevitable T. rex which tries to reach them inside their cave. When it fails, it fights the Trachodon, and we see Jack and the nephews, the boys crying at this fearsome scene. Queen Mab reappears and although the finale is missing, an intertitle explains that the crying boy had rubbed the magic ring and he wishes them safely home.

The film is interesting because it was one of the first to show actors and dinosaurs (and Queen Mab!) in the same shot, and as much of the animation dinosaur action is seen from inside the cave, it can be framed by a dark masque, reducing the required resolution of the images.[3]

The last film I want to consider here is Buster Keaton’s 1923 film Three Ages. Buster was born and bred into vaudeville, his family travelling the vaudeville circuits with Buster performing on stage with his parents from a very young age. The film was made in three sections, each telling much the same love story; the sections are The Stone Age, The Roman Age and the Modern Age. It was made in this format in case it bombed, in which case it could be easily separated into three discrete films. In the first section, The Stone Age, Buster is a caveman, and makes his entrance riding the back of a dinosaur, here. This was inspired by his seeing Gertie the Dinosaur, probably as the vaudeville act, but when he came to make Three Ages, he was insistent that he would ride into the scene on a dinosaur like Gertie.[4] His rival in love, played by Wallace Beery who would go on to play Challenger in the 1925 Lost World, rides into the scene on an elephant with strange-looking tusks that is supposed to be a mammoth.

This is by no means definitive, and there are other, less well-known stopframe animations that I will consider in The First Dinosaurs (Part Two) but this blog has partly come out of an online discussion with some of the Palaeomedia Project members. Please do let me know if you have suggestions or corrections!

[1] Donald F. Glut, The Dinosaur Scrapbook (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1980). p. 83

[2] With thanks to the Palaeomedia group discussion that looked at these animations.

[3] Thanks to Dan Hedger for suggesting this, and for also pointing out that with stop frame, the models have to have “fixed” feet to support them, so always seem to shuffle.

[4] Donald Crafton, “McCay and Keaton: Colligating, Conjecturing, and Conjuring,” Film History: An International Journal 25, no. 1–2 (2013): 31–44,

“Some Guided Journeys to Early Times” by Benjamin Chandler

Our first specially written guest post! Benjamin is an American teacher working in Slovakia. He has a life-long love of dinosaurs and all things prehistoric. He runs the Twitter feed @paleo_pop and the (semi-retired) Tumblr Antediluvian Echoes. I “met” Benjamin through his fascinating Twitter feed and asked him to write a piece for us. Here it is – with my thanks.VC

Fossils have a way of firing the imagination. Finding shells where there is no sea or uncovering bones of massive, unusual beasts has sparked ideas since ideas could be had. Fossils were imagined to be relics of Thor’s thunder-strikes, bones of dragons, and evidence of Noah’s Flood. As paleontology turned fossils from mythical curios to scientific artifacts, so too did people’s imaginations shift from describing fossils with fantastical stories to using them to explain the history of life on Earth. British academic Henry Morley did so in writing one of the first examples of paleofiction in “Our Phantom Ship on an Antediluvian Cruise” (1851). His essay invited readers to journey on a fantastical boat, sailing through space and time to visit prehistoric flora and fauna—“Monsieur the Mylodon” consuming a tree; a muddy, peeping ichthyosaur; and tree fern forests brushing against the sky; among other sights. By using the framework of a time-traveling ship, Morley provided a narrative device to explain the reader’s antediluvian sightseeing. He would not be the last to do so. Teaching paleontology via a fictional “time tour” has become a popular framework for science education, especially in children’s natural history books.

An early example of this is 1924’s Dragons at Home, by C. H. Murray Chapman. Printed in London, the book follows the adventures of four children—Rupert, who loves dinosaurs, and Helen, Dick, and Di who are either apathetic towards fossils or doubtful of their authenticity. (It is curious how many authors describe their chrononauts as starting their adventure doubting dinosaurs even existed. In my experience, it is usually adults who cannot fathom dinosaurs; children are eager to believe.) Paging through a dinosaur book, Rupert wishes he could see extinct animals in the flesh. His wish is so strong, it resurrects a talkative pterodactyl which guides them to the past. Chapman does not seem too interested in explaining the means of the kids’ time travel; they just sort of fall though darkness and “the Sigh of the Ages”, landing in the Mesozoic. There the pterodactyl introduces the children to a Stegosaurus who thinks itself a poet, a German-speaking Archaeopteryx, and a pair of sauropods. The children travel through a few more epochs with other animals as their guides, chatting with an overly-sensitive Iguanodon and a Deinotherium and mastodon pair that wax at length about their family’s dynasty. At the book’s end, the children return to their own time and visit the Natural History Museum at night. The ghosts of their prehistoric docents give a final good-bye from the fossil exhibits.

Chapman illustrated the book himself. His pen and ink drawings are scribbly, sometimes cartoonish. Few will suggest his reconstructions are scientifically accurate—even by the standards of his era—but considering the animals all speak (and are quite chatty!) and tend to split their genera names into friendly fore- and surnames (e.g., Archie Opteryx and Hesper Ornis), the drawings match the playful tone of the text.

Dragons was published posthumously. Chapman was a pilot by trade and was sadly killed in a flight accident at the onset of World War I. His prose is jaunty and imaginative, so it is a pity his early death prevented more books in his voice from being published.

Similar to Dragons at Home is Whirlaway: A Story of the Ages, written by H. C. F. Morant and illustrated by Jean Elder. Published in 1937 for Australian readers, Whirlaway begins with twelve-year-old Helen (another Helen!) wandering through the pages of a natural history book. A bit bewildered by the images of prehistoric beasts, she gazes into the fireplace to watch the embers crackle in the flames, remembering that her father “had said that every spark in the fire was a sunbeam that had shone, millions of years ago, on the plants that had formed the coal.” Suddenly one of the coals pop, and from it emerges an elf—literally a living sunbeam trapped in the coal for 100 million years—who Helen names Whirlaway. The two discover a trapdoor in the floor of Helen’s home and through it they sink deep into the earth, passing through additional doors which lead to vistas of various geologic eras. Helen nearly stumbles into the waving arms of an Orthoceras, gets spooked by a flock of pterosaurs, watches a Tyrannosaurus struggle to the death in a bog, and thrills to an Arsinoitherium defending itself against predators.

The animals do not talk in this book. Instead, Whirlaway—being a spot of light and therefore very old and knowledgable—teaches Helen about each era and creature they encounter. Although having a beam of light as a guide is novel, the elf-like nature of Whirlaway harkens to an earlier time-travel docent: 1861’s Paris Before Man by Pierre Boitard has the author taken through time on a flying rock by an impish demon with a bum leg. However, Boitard’s demon does not break into song like Whirlaway, such as his ditty about why trilobites evolved eyes.

Elder’s illustrations for Whirlaway are a bit less fanciful than Chapman’s for Dragons at Home. There are blasts of steam coming from a hungry Inostrancevia, anchisaurs battling by nipping each other’s tails, and a Scelidosaurus stomping about upright like an Ultraman monster—“This animal is called Beef Ribs,” claims the caption—but for the most part the reconstructions are more accurate for the era than not. Eagle-eyed readers might notice a few “homages” among Elder’s drawings to images by other artists like Gerhard Heilmann or Charles R. Knight.

Copies of Whirlaway are rare. The book’s publication was ill timed. As European antagonism intensified at the end of the 1930s, few shipments of books reached Australia from London printers, and the majority of the unsent Whirlaway book stock was destroyed in the Blitz. Morant’s planned sequel, The Ether Chariot, a book about astronomy, was never realized.

Life Story by Virginia Lee Burton may be the best known of the books described here as it has been in print the longest. Originally published in the U.S. in 1962, it has never been out of print. Burton’s book takes its reader through time via the framework of a theater production. It sometimes feels like a cosmic version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Narrators of different specialties (an astronomer, a paleontologist, etc.) lead the readers through epochs of time glowing on the stage, starting with the birth of the Milky Way and ending with a spring morning outside the reader’s window. The pages between feature a colorful panoply of mountains heaving, forests thriving, dinosaurs prowling, whales spouting, and people building.

The illustrations are stylized and painted in dreamy colors, with phantom blacks butting against lurid yellows, pinks, and greens. Superficially, Life Story is a bit reminiscent of “The Rite of Spring” sequence from Fantasia, though Burton’s retelling is certainly her own. The book’s text was updated in 2009 to reflect changes in nomenclature—Brontosaurus becomes Apatosaurus, for example—but the images remained untouched.

Many of Burton’s children’s books deal with change: The Little House describes the life of a tiny home and the transforming landscape around it as suburbs become cities and so on. Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel is built on the themes of technology’s progress and overcoming obsoletion. Life Story is no different, with its theater show of life and environments parading across billions of years. As the book progresses, the spans of time between the “scenes” shorten, starting with eons and ending with hours. It is an effective means of conveying the intimate finiteness humans experience in the infinite vastness of time and space. In that way, Life Story is a humbling book, yet its last words are empowering, reminding the reader that they are part of the Life Story—“each passing second a new link in the endless chain of Time”—and inviting them to be the next lead the drama.

All of these books are available for reading online. Dragons at Home is on Hathitrust; Whirlaway is on Austalia’s Gutenberg website; and Life Story can be read on The copy of Life Story that some generous soul uploaded to archive features an inscription written by anonymous grandparents. The words were meant only for the reader of that particular copy of Life Story, but, now shared, they could be addressed to anyone exploring natural history through the magic of a book: “We continue to learn more and more … a continuous story … what new kinks will you discover in your lifetime? May you always experience the joys … and the questions discoveries present!”

Dinosaurs Attack!

A great post, from the Bristol Dinosaur Project cross-posted with permission.

Tim Burton’s Dinosaurs Attack! – The Jurassic Park Rival That Wasn’t

Guest Author: James Ormiston
Palaeontology MSci Graduate / PalaeoArtist

We all know the story leading up to the summer of 1993: God creates dinosaurs, God kills dinosaurs, God creates Steven Spielberg, Spielberg creates dinosaurs, dinosaurs inherit the box office (other creation timelines are available). The titanic impact of Jurassic Park brought a head to the public’s interest in dinosaurs which had been bubbling over for some years.

Original 1988 packaging for the Topps cards (left) and alternative updated cover for the 2013 re-release of Dinosaurs Attack! Issue 1 by J. K. Woodward (right).

Although Spielberg may have been the one to break the ice, another familiar director almost had their own shot at a prehistoric blockbuster around the same time. That director was Tim Burton. Burton’s creation would have taken on a darker, violent and comedic tone (as perhaps we would expect from him). But hold on…an adult-oriented Burton-directed dark sci-fi comedy from the 1990s? That sounds familiar! Mars Attacks! anyone?

That Burton released Mars Attacks! a few years later in 1996 is no coincidence. He and Warner Bros had acquired the rights to Mars Attacks! a couple of years prior, which was an American trading card game by The Topps Company dating back to the 1960s. The cards came in bubble gum packs and were something of a sign of the times – undertones of the Cold War abounded in these cards with their “us vs them” story of Earth fighting off the comically violent and evil Martians.

Despite proving popular, the cards also drew controversy. Some of the cards were strangely shocking in their themes despite being marketed to kids, featuring (for the time) extreme violence and other nasty things as the Martians invaded, tortured and subjugated various Earth nations. As a result the cards became a hot topic for the collector scene over the years and the lore was expanded accordingly to meet resurgent interest. There’s now tonnes of merchandise and memorabilia centred on the titular googly-eyed big-brained Martians, and Warner Bros fuelled this with Tim Burton’s movie based around the card game’s story.

The movie was relatively popular at the time, but more so in Europe than the USA, and took a while to generate a cult following as it divided critics. Its box office performance was also hampered somewhat by another bigger and thematically similar film coming out around the same time (Independence Day). It seems Burton just couldn’t escape the shadow of the big hitters, even with a cast including Jack Nicholson, Pierce Brosnan, Glenn Close, Michael J Fox and Tom Jones(!) in his favour.

So that’s some context of how things went. But how about what could have been? When Warner Bros acquired the rights to Mars Attacks!, this included the rights to one of Topps’ other card games which appeared in the 1980s – Dinosaurs Attack!.

As you can guess from the title, Dinosaurs Attack! was pretty much the same deal but with dinosaurs (yay!) as they were becoming very popular. This was likely due to the “Dinosaur Renaissance” which was in full swing; when the likes of John Ostrom, Robert Bakker and others brought dinosaurs back into the limelight with a wave of ground-breaking research.

The basic premise of this new Attack! incarnation was that some kind of time travel experiment had gone disastrously wrong, summoning dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasties into the present day where (or indeed when) they start destroying cities and horribly killing thousands of people. And when I say horribly, I am not kidding…

A selection of Dinosaurs Attack! cards, which have a varying ratio of horrifying to hilarious. Two things you’ll notice: most of these aren’t dinosaurs at all, and that space station looks very familiar. These are also some of the tamest cards in the collection, the rest are MUCH more violent, and that’s before even mentioning the comic…

The book upon which Jurassic Park is based, by Michael Crichton, is well-known for being a damn sight more sinister and violent than on screen. Characters in the novel are graphically eviscerated and torn to bits, whereas in the film these scenes are either toned down or obscured. Given the controversial legacy of Mars Attacks! on this front, Dinosaurs Attack! was no different.

The cards and comic really put the “graphic” in graphic novel, parroting mid-century B-movies but with a liberal dose of blood splattered over it, concocting scenes so ridiculously violent that they became comedic. People are impaled on ankylosaur spines, torn in half by pterosaurs, swarmed by vampiric trilobites, hounded by giant Carboniferous insects and burnt alive by…wait for it…Dinosaur Satan (actual name The Supreme Monstrosity, but nicknamed by fans because of his demonic appearance).

The only dinosaur in the whole 55 card set not depicted killing someone (the herbivorous “Trachodon”, a nomen dubium now encompassing multiple lambeosaurine hadrosaurs) still triggers manslaughter through frightening someone who then accidentally shoots their fishing partner.

Original cover art of Dinosaurs Attack! Issue 1, painted by Earl Norem. The mid-century sci-fi and monster movie elements are apparent.

Dinosaurs Attack! was not very popular as a card game and it’s relatively easy to find for sale online. Talks of turning its parent game Mars Attacks! into a film had been going on since the mid-80s but it wasn’t until 1993 that Jonathan Gems, one of Burton’s collaborating screenwriters, approached him with a pitch. At the same time he presented Burton with Dinosaurs Attack!.

If the Multiverse Theory is correct, somewhere out there is a parallel timeline in which Jurassic Park didn’t exist, or was released later. But in this universe Burton decided that Dinosaurs Attack! was too similar to Jurassic Park and would almost certainly suffer from the comparison. The decision made a lot of sense considering Burton was working on a biographical film of the director Ed Wood, who made one of the sci-fi films Mars Attacks! would go on to parody (Plan 9 From Outer Space).

So now we have Mars Attacks!, and we have the Dinosaurs Attack! cards and comics. Put the two together and we can imagine what kind of film Burton could have given us. A star-studded parody of the monster flicks of old brought up to date with CGI, cutting dark (and political) humour and comic violence. Whereas Spielberg’s dinosaurs were mostly rendered in a way that reflected scientific understanding of the time, Burton’s may well have been the lumbering upright lizards seen in films like King Kong and The Valley of Gwangi.

The story revolves around a device called the TimeScanner, which is capable of transporting things from the past to present day Earth and looks suspiciously similar to the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Naturally, it all goes wrong, begins transporting creatures from all kinds of time periods and apparently making all of them ravenous carnivores along the way (which turns out to be the doing of the aforementioned Supreme Monstrosity). The rest of the story consists of various scenes of them eating people, destroying stuff and occasionally being killed themselves as the humans fight back. Eventually scientists figure out how to fix the TimeScanner and (spoiler alert) one of the main characters, the lead scientist Elias Thorne, sacrifices himself to The Supreme Monstrosity to save humanity.

Mars Attacks! spent a good portion of its opening from the perspective of eager news crews trying to get the big scoop on Earth’s invasion, and Dinosaurs Attack! has its own man-on-the-ground referred to simply as ‘The Anchorman’. Another interesting side character of note is ‘The Saurian’. The Saurian is one of those classic old ideas of a “dinosauroid” – an intelligent dinosaur which walks upright like a human to accommodate its large brain. The Saurian appears in one of Elias’ dreams and tells him about The Supreme Monstrosity.

What we did get in Mars Attacks! was a fun, silly film that relished in its tendency for the over-the-top, so replacing the Martians with dinosaurs and adding a lot more people-eating sounds like the makings of another cult hit. Although the cards and comic were highly visceral, the film probably wouldn’t have gone that far, at least not in its original 90s pitch form (Mars Attacks! is rated 12 and although lots of people are offed, their fates are more funny than overly graphic). But if left largely unchanged from its source material, this formula fits in extremely well with some more modern cinematic trends.

Well, maybe not cinematic, more straight-to-video. Look at our Sharknados, our Kung Furies, Lavalantulas, Velocipastors…we love our schlocky, clichéd, violent, retro-tinged comedy romps. Dinosaurs Attack! would probably have little trouble as a mature (in the loose sense of the word) budget antithesis to the modern family-friendly behemoth that is Jurassic World. I for one would welcome our satanic dinosaur overlords…

Reference & Further Reading:

Tim Burton & Mark Salisbury, “Burton on Burton” Faber & Faber, London (2006) (here you can see all the cards in their horror/hilarity)

Edited by Rhys Charles

Gertie on Tour

Winsor McCay’s film version of Gertie the Dinosaurus, released late 1914, was a huge success, bringing fame to both McCay and his amiable Brontosaurus. (See Introducing Gertie the Dinosaur). McCay planned a sequel Gertie on Tour but the film was never released and there are just a few minutes of the animation remaining that can be seen here.

In it, McCay plays fast and loose with the scale of Gertie, she can be seen here playing with a trolley carriage. The animation is more sophisticated with a much more detailed background than the original, with several different layers to the landscape.

After playing with her tail, and then the trolley, she falls asleep and dreams.. She is with others of her kind and is dancing for them. I find this incredibly sad – the only time that Gertie is with other dinosaurs is in her dreams, and she and other dinosaurs McCay used in his comic strips and political cartoons, are always alone.

There are two surviving drawings from McCay exploring his initial ideas for the film, showing that the ‘on tour’ part of the film would be Gertie interacting with well-known American landmarks.

She uses the Brooklyn Bridge as a trampoline, but is not very good at it so she and the cars are bounced into the river.


In the other drawing, she picks up the Washington Monument, rather like the way she uproots the tree in Gertie the Dinosaurus, but thinks better of it and puts it back.

In both cases, the size of Gertie is comparable to the monuments themselves.

McCay uses a dinosaur very similar to Gertie in his comic strips and political cartoons..

But that’s a separate blog to come soon!

Palaeo Pop-Culture – SUE the T. rex


Guest Author – Han Kemp
2nd Year Undergraduate Student in Palaeontology, University of Bristol

Twitter is a great social media platform that’s allowed me to follow along with all kinds of palaeontologists and fossil aficionados. One such account is SUE (@SUEtheTrex), representing one of the largest and most extensive Tyrannosaurus rex specimens ever found. The 67-million-year-old enthuses over Jeff Goldblum, plays Dungeons and Dragons with their followers, and gets angry at people who mention meteors. This might sound a little confusing, so let me add some context.

Sue Hendrickson discovers FMNH PR 2081

In August 1990, Sue Hendrickson an explorer and fossil collector found small pieces of bone at the base of a cliff in South Dakota. She was there with other members of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, who confirmed the bones belonged to a T. rex and began excavating.

Sue Hendrickson uncovering the specimen’s skull

What they found was an incredible skeleton, with over 90% of it (by bulk) recovered the most complete T. rex fossil ever unearthed. Since 1997 it has been a feature at the Field Museum of Natural History in Illinois as Specimen FMNH PR 2081. [1] It gained the nickname SUE (all capitals) after its finder. SUE has been an incredible resource for palaeontology, giving scientists tons of information about this dinosaur and the world it lived in, including biology, biomechanics, growth and behaviour. Its sex has not been determined, nor the actual cause of its death.

But this post is in the pop-culture section for a reason let’s talk about social media.

SUE the T. rex gets on Twitter

SUE laments their extinction with a bitter tweet

Since 2009, the Field Museum has run an account representing SUE on Twitter and has gained over 50 thousand followers. The Twitter SUE is snarky, makes puns, and has formed a unique personality. SUE’s account became more popular in 2017 when they started an interactive game of Dungeons and Dragons with their followers, creating polls to let users decide what their character (a hadrosaur dino-sorcerer) would do next. Other Chicago-based institutes like the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium also joined in the fun by becoming characters in the adventure, and garnered the game more attention. As interactions with the account became more frequent, it became a bigger issue that followers were referring to SUE as a girl, she/her, or Sue (lowercase). Due to their name, SUE was being perceived as female but the T. rex’s sex is still up for debate and has not been determined either way. As such, letting SUE be a ‘girl dinosaur’ was scientifically very misleading. While the specimen itself is still referred to as an ‘it’, that didn’t feel like the right pronoun for SUE’s online personality. So SUE added they/them pronouns to the ‘Bio’ section of their profile, and addressed it in a tweet saying:

Science doesn’t know my actual sex.

If it helps one person feel comfortable, good.”  [2]

What FMNH PR 2081 has taught us

A skeletal reconstruction of FMNH PR 2081 (Snively et al. 2019)

This T. rex is estimated to have lived for twenty-eight years. We know this is the upper end of a T. rex’s life expectancy from analysing bone growth rings. For example, we used the rings to determine that a T. rex reaches full size at about nineteen years of age. Our SUE is forty feet long and thirteen feet tall at the hip, and is estimated to have weighed 8.4-14 metric tons [3]. It lived a tough life, shown through the many partially healed injuries wracking its skeleton. An injury to the right shoulder resulted in a damaged shoulder blade, a torn tendon and three broken ribs this was likely the result of a struggle with its prey. SUE’s left fibula is also twice the diameter of the right one, likely due to an infection. Infections were, in fact, common multiple holes in the front of the skull indicate SUE was also plagued with a parasite.  But all these injuries have signs of healing, which means the actual cause of death is still unknown. These extensive injuries are evidence of the harsh and painful lives that many dinosaurs experienced, especially the carnivorous theropods. [4]

What SUE has taught us

The SUE twitter account is a modern example of academics blurring the line between education and entertainment, as a means of getting the general public invested in science. Although SUE mostly spends their time making snide jokes, they will always correct any scientifically inaccurate replies in hopes of always sharing the most updated scientific knowledge.  Their use of they/them pronouns is both a gesture towards inclusivity and towards reducing the spread of misinformation. The team behind SUE clearly know how important it is to represent marginalised identities in STEM fields, and are working to encourage widening participation in palaeontology-related careers.

When the specimen was briefly removed from the public eye during the installation of a new suite, the Twitter account was there keeping people updated with the latest goings-on. Scientists were making important updates to the configuration of the fossil, based on new information information which SUE allowed the public to access easily. These updates included lowering the arms and installing a once-unknown bone they now know to be FMNH PR 2081’s wishbone.

The popularity of SUE’s account represents a new wave of palaeomedia. The demographics are changing from TV watchers to internet surfers, and academics will have to keep up with these changes if they want to continue to encourage scientific interest in the public.

FMNH PR 2081 on display at the Field Museum of Natural History


[1] Relf, P., 2000. Dinosaur Named Sue: The World’s Most Complete T. Rex. 1st ed. Scholastic, Inc.

[2] Twitter. @SUEtheTrex. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 4 November 2019].

[3] Snively E, O’Brien H, Henderson DM, Mallison H, Surring LA, Burns ME, Holtz TR Jr, Russell AP, Witmer LM, Currie PJ, Hartman SA, Cotton JR. 2019. Lower rotational inertia and larger leg muscles indicate more rapid turns in tyrannosaurids than in other large theropods. PeerJ 7:e6432

[4] Field Museum Blog. 2018. Sue the T.rex. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 4 November 2019].

Edited by: Fionn Keeley & Oliver Demuth


This post was orginally written and posted in the blog, here, for Centre for Environmental Humanities, University of Bristol

Illustrations kindly supplied by Robert Nicholls and used with permission.

Since their discovery less than 200 years ago, dinosaurs have invaded popular culture, appearing in literature, fiction, art, film and entertainment. Dinosaur displays draw eager visitors to museums, and dinosaur-related feature films yield some of the highest box-office returns of all time.[1] A general public usually indifferent to science reacts enthusiastically to a new dinosaur discovery reported in popular news and media channels. Yet the word ‘dinosaur’ is still used to refer to something – or someone – out of date, extinct, obsolete and inflexible.

Apart from their entertainment value, why are dinosaurs relevant today? Why spend time, effort and money studying an apparently extinct group of animals? Because dinosaurs were the dominant life form on land for over 200 million years. They were amazingly diverse – they came in all shapes and sizes, from the size of a raven to the largest animals ever to walk on land, living all over the planet from the Antarctic to Siberia, from Scotland to China.

So, first, if we want to understand life in its entirety, we need to understand how and why dinosaurs became so successful, how they adapted to variations in their environment and how they dominated the planet for so long.

Second, and perhaps more urgent today, we need them to tell us what went wrong – what were the global repercussions of a massive asteroid impact? What exactly caused the extinction* of such resilient, adaptable creatures? Dinosaurs lived through some of the most dramatic environmental upheavals the planet has experienced – variations in oxygen levels, climate, even the position of the land masses – yet, in the end, were at the mercy of their changing environment.

Third, some dinosaurs were the largest creatures to walk the planet, massive creatures more than ten times the size of an elephant. Scientists in the field of biomechanics are trying to understand how they lived, exceeding any limits we can even imagine from extant life. How did they live? Eat? Mate? Grow? Understanding them helps us to understand how evolution solves the problems of life.

If the environmental humanities study our relationship with, and effect on, our environment, the dinosaurs can put that in context. More than that, the popularity of dinosaurs in contemporary culture needs the methodologies used by the humanities to understand the underlying critical influences in their interpretations. Any representation of a dinosaur is a product of speculation and that speculation can carry hidden bias and social influences even when based on known science.

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*Except, of course, the dinosaurs didn’t die out. Today, around 10,000 species of them feed on your garden feeders, fly overhead and sing at dawn. Birds are dinosaurs, evolved from a common ancestor in the branch of theropods that included T. rex – and T. rex is more closely related to a hummingbird than to a stegosaurus.

[1] See, for example, the increase in numbers to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery when they displayed the diplodocus skeleton from May to Sept 2018 [accessed 260419]. Among worldwide grossing films of all time, Jurassic World is no. 5 and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom no 12. Jurassic Park comes in at no. 32. [accessed 260419].

A Tyrannosaurus rex in Scotland: “Trix, the Grand Old Lady”

In the summer of 2019, the city of Glasgow was home to a spectacular dinosaur. “T. REX in Town” was an exhibition of a fully mounted T. rex skeleton, on tour around Europe, with Glasgow the only stop in the UK.

The centrepiece of the exhibition was ‘Trix: the Grand Old Lady’, a well preserved specimen that was excavated in Montana, in 2013, by the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, in Leiden, the Netherlands, and the Black Hills Institute in Hill City, South Dakota. The team was led by Anne Schulp from Leiden and Pete Larson from the Black Hills Institute. Early in the excavation, palaeontologists realised this was a large T. rex with a relatively complete skeleton, and while it was being prepared in the Black Hills Institute, several unusual features were found that made it a special and important fossil.

The T. rex was identified as a female because the skull had thick protuberances over the eyes which is thought to be typical of the female and continued to grow throughout life. The protuberances on this skull were very developed which also implied she had lived to a ripe old age. She was an old lady.

Another unusual feature was the number of injuries on the skeleton, including broken ribs and a line of five holes in the jaw that were inflicted by another T. rex, as well as an injury to the tail and clear evidence of scars on the fossilised bone caused by infection, scars that showed some evidence of healing so the injuries and infections were suffered during her life.

And the name? Initially referred to as ‘Grandma Rex’, the specimen was eventually named ‘Trix’ after Beatrix, the former queen of the Netherlands, and given the additional label of ‘Grand Old Lady’ as a reference to her size and age. Her lifespan could be estimated by counting the growth lines in the bones, rather like growth rings in a tree can give its age, and the researchers think that Trix was around thirty when she died.

The exhibition was held in a large hall with the specimen as the centre piece and various panels surrounding her pointing out the features and injuries on the skeleton.

Several additional, generally interactive side exhibits showed features of the dinosaur such as an animated hologram of a T. rex hatching from an egg, interactive screen/movement centres allow visitors – particularly energetic children – to find out if they could outrun a T. rex or make a T. rex move.

A fun exhibit allowed visitors to “spray paint” a T. rex with different colours and patterns and two videos showed details of the excavation and the scientists preparing the specimen.

There was an addition to the exhibition in Scotland, including a dinosaur footprint from Skye with explanatory material from the Staffin Museum, on Skye, about Scotland’s own dinosaurs.

I visited in early July and certainly felt the a sense of awe in standing next to such a magnificent dinosaur. She was mounted as if lunging forward, so the skull was at eye-level and the signs clearly explained where the injuries were. Mounted in the centre of the hall meant she could be viewed from all angles and the additional exhibits around the side meant visitors had plenty of room.

The exhibit had its own shop and café, and the shop sold a range of merchandise from children’s toys and books to local themed merchandise such as bags, t-shirts etc, but didn’t have much in the way of adult books on dinosaurs. It did, however, sell a sumptuous exhibition guide book, with background material on the dig, the people involved and the science used; my only frustration with the guide book was the printing of large, dramatic images across two pages yet the binding meant that the centre spine ran down the centre of the image.

If you still want to see Trix, her European tour is now finished and she has gone back to Leiden, but will be on permanent display at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in a new purpose built museum, opening later in 2019.


  • ‘Trix:The Grand Old Lady’, Marijke Besselink, published by Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden, 2016.

Dinosaurs in the Drawing Room: the forgotten palaeoartists Alice and Gertrude Woodward

ABW: Reconstructed Igunanodon

In the genre of palaeoart which was – and still is – dominated by men, the sisters Alice Bolingbroke Woodward (1862-1951) and Gertrude Mary Woodward (1854-1939) were talented, professional illustrators of the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Their subjects ranged from children’s book to scientific illustrations of palaeontology, yet their scientific works are all but forgotten today.

The geologists among you will recognise the name of Henry Bolingbroke Woodward, FRS, the eminent geologist and palaeontologist, who eventually became president of the Geologists Association, Malacological Society and the Palaeontological Society. When not studying fossils, writing publications and attending meetings, he had time to father seven children. Two of his daughters, Gertrude and Alice, became professional artists, and although Alice became better known for her children’s book illustrations, both worked in scientific illustration, producing images for the Natural History Museum as well as for published works by scientists of the day.

GMW: drawn for 𝘊𝘢𝘵𝘢𝘭𝘰𝘨𝘶𝘦 𝘰𝘧 𝘛𝘦𝘳𝘵𝘪𝘢𝘳𝘺 𝘔𝘰𝘭𝘭𝘶𝘴𝘤𝘢 𝘪𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘋𝘦𝘱𝘢𝘳𝘵𝘮𝘦𝘯𝘵 𝘰𝘧 𝘎𝘦𝘰𝘭𝘰𝘨𝘺, 𝘉𝘳𝘪𝘵𝘪𝘴𝘩 𝘔𝘶𝘴𝘦𝘶𝘮 (𝘕𝘢𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘢𝘭 𝘏𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘰𝘳𝘺), Part 1 (1897).

The Woodward children were educated at home by a governess but from an early age all were encouraged and taught to draw and, while the boys went on to be scientists, the girls became artists.

Gertrude mostly worked illustrating fossils and she created the images to accompany the infamous Piltdown fossils, a collection of bones that were found in 1912 and thought to be evidence of a formerly unknown early human. They were, in fact, a hoax, but this was not confirmed until 1953.

She became friends with Beatrix Potter, who was fascinated by palaeontology alongside her own childrens’ books and illustrations. Many of Gertrude’s drawings of fossils are in the care of the Natural History Museum, and she illustrated many of their publications on geology and palaeontology, although now her name seems to have faded into obscurity.

By her teens, Alice was being paid to illustrate her father’s lectures and his colleague’s papers. The money allowed her to attend art school, eventually studying at the Academie Julian in Paris, as well as receiving private tuition in illustration. Although working with children’s books, most famously illustrating The Peter Pan Picture Book by Daniel O’Connor.

Her palaeontology illustrations, less well known, were considered accurate and life-like and ranged from recording fossils to reconstructing prehistoric creatures including dinosaurs. Her reconstuctions usually showed the subject in its environment, giving an overall effect of a living creature, and were highly regarded by the scientists commissioning them, although at times she added human figures into the composition; it was known that humans and dinosaurs didn’t co-exist but Alice used them to give an indication of scale.

ABW: Remounted Diplodocus skeleton, 1905
ABW: Gigantosaurus, with child lighting a fire.
ABW: ‘The Evolution of the Elephant’, Second Stage, Palaeomastodon



Alice contributed to major publication by Henry Knipe, ‘Nebula to Man’ (1905), a substantial “coffee-table” book with 70 plates, which she co-illustrated with J. Smit, and ‘Evolution in the Past’, (1912), which had 50 plates, mostly by Alice.

Three of her illustrations were used as plates in Hutchinson’s 1910 volume ‘Extinct Monsters and creatures of Other Days’, in the chapter illustrating the evolution of the elephant family; one image is shown here.

On her death, her sister Katherine arranged for her drawings to be sent to the Natural History Museum for safe-keeping, including five drawings of dinosaurs.


  • ‘Forgotten women in an extinct saurian (man’s) world’ SUSAN TURNER, CYNTHIA V. BUREK & RICHARD T. J. MOODY. From: Moody, R. T. J., Buffetaut, E., Naish, D. &Martill, D. M. (eds) Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 343, 111–153.
  • ‘Dinosaur Sculpting’, Debus, A; Morales, B.; Debus, D., McFarland & Company, Inc, Jefferson, NC (2013)

So you want to be a palaeoartist?

Drawing and painting dinosaurs – creating prehistoric creatures – is fun and rewarding, but where and how to start? As a practising artist, I have to ‘fess up that I’m not a palaeoartist but have a lot of experience of drawing and painting animals, and often discuss with leading palaeoartists how their own practice works. These suggestions and guidelines are for those of you who are keen to start or are already experimenting with palaeoart.

What do I mean by palaeoart? For this, I am indebted to Mark Witton (of which more shortly) who describes palaeoart in three parts:

  • art that is informed by scientific data
  • art that reconstructs missing biological data
  • art that reconstructs extinct animals, plants and environments.

You are going to attempt to visualise a creature that no longer exists, but there are some things you can do that will get you a long way to making that work. However, whichever way you look at it, there is no getting away from the reality that you have to be able to DRAW. This is the most important and useful tool you can own:


There’s no point in playing with wizzy computer hardware and software if you can’t draw.

Incidentally, for anyone toying with the idea of computer animation, the common heartfelt plea from those teaching animation at graduate and postgraduate level – and those running animation studios – is that they need animators who can draw. With a pencil.

For me, whereas painting is the act of creating a final image, drawing is a process of understanding a subject – I have sketchbooks full of half-finished, exploratory drawings, and often have to accommodate the uncomfortable truth that animals don’t pose for me and will move or wander off part of the way through a study. However, you can visit museums and draw specimens if you’re not comfortable with uncooperative subjects. Draw skeletons – understanding anatomy is crucial for making realistic studies. In my own practice I worked on two projects, one involving great apes and one involving horses, and in both cases, I was able to visit the University of Bristol’s Veterinary School, where I could examine and draw the skeletons of a gorilla and a horse, which was invaluable.

Draw your pets. Draw people. Still life. Landscapes. Anything that helps your observation and understanding of how to turn a three-dimensional object into a two-dimensional image. (The problem with just copying photographs or other images is that they have already been ‘flattened’.)

You might already paint with traditional materials – watercolour, acrylics, oils, coloured pencils – or you might go straight to digital media, which is an individual choice, but remember – you can make a bad painting from a good drawing, but you can never make a good painting from a bad drawing.

However, you’re likely to be reading this because you want to draw dinosaurs.

Now this is very important: Do not even THINK of plagiarising others’ work. EVER.

You can copy to learn, to work out how another artist has arrived at an image, to understand the process. If I want to learn about composition, I’ll copy a Rembrandt or a Leonardo to deconstruct it, but copying others’ work and claiming it for your own is the absolute cardinal sin. And you will be found out. (Incidentally, in wildlife art, even copying someone else’s photograph without permission or credit is just as unacceptable.) But what else can you do?

If you’re interested in dinosaurs, the chances are that you already try to keep up with the science news, and this can give a lot of information about the latest thinking about anatomy and surface texture. Scales, skin, feathers, colour – an element of speculation is, of course, inevitable, but it pays to try to go along with the most recent information.

Follow the professional palaeoartists – look at the work of Mark Witton, Bob Nicholls, Emily Willoughby, Julius Csotonyi, John Conway, Luis Rey, to name a few and with huge apologies to anyone I’ve missed. Try to keep up with their blogs, talks, websites and published images.

And I really, really, really recommend Mark Witton’s book: The Palaeoartist’s Handbook, which has a section on the history and context of palaeoart, and a mass of information on reconstructing images of extinct animals. Beautifully illustrated, reasonably priced and accessible (no, Mark hasn’t paid me to say this) it will go a long way to help you.

Becoming a palaeoartist isn’t – and won’t be – easy, but bringing an extinct world to life is a challenge that brings enormous satisfaction.