Patterns in Palaeontology
September 1, 2014 12:59 PM   Subscribe

Palaeoart – fossil fantasies or recreating lost reality?
Illustrations, sculptures and animations of fossil organisms and the world around them are mainstays of palaeontology. Such restorations, known as palaeoart, are more important than they may at first seem: they help to communicate palaeontological ideas across age and language barriers; have inspired generations of scientists; and have provided the foundation of an international industry of palaeontology-themed merchandise and media worth hundreds of millions of pounds. Due to its increasing prominence and popularity, palaeoart is routinely scrutinized by scientists and the public alike. How can we infer so much about the postures, soft tissues, colours and behaviour of extinct animals when fossil skeletons — be they shells, bones or carapaces — are all that remain of them? In other words, how much of palaeoart reflects the whims and fancies of artists, and how much accurately reflects what once was?
posted by brundlefly (8 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
In related news, I appear to have a monopoly on the paleoart tag.
posted by brundlefly at 12:59 PM on September 1, 2014

This is fantastic. I look forward to sharing an abridged version of this article with the 3rd graders I'll be working with this year. They'll be making their own fossils during an art/science lesson and after seeing this I'm going to print out some skeletons and have them draw the animal they think goes around it and then write why they think the animal may look that way for another lesson. Thank you so much for sharing!
posted by Hermione Granger at 1:21 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Over my lifetime the reconstructions of the dinosaurs has changed radically.

When the first nearly-complete skeleton of Brontosaurus was found, it was missing its head. Marsh grabbed the first head he could find and put it on the top of the skeleton. Problem was, it wasn't actually a Brontosaurus head. The error wasn't corrected until 1979.

They used to think that Brontosaurus was too heavy to support its weight on land, so all the pictures used to show the thing immersed in water, sometimes with just its head and neck showing. Then someone did the calculations and figured out that it wouldn't have been able to breath because of water pressure, so they put it back on land again.

And that's just one kind of dinosaur. There's been a lot of good work in this field but there's also been a hell of a lot of jumping-to-conclusions going on.

Stegosaurus has been subject to a bunch of that. They still aren't quite sure what to do with the plates on its back. It's pretty certain now that their main function was heating and cooling but did they stand upright, in paired rows? Staggered rows? Were they moveable? lots of guessing going on.

And only just recently we've learned that a whole lot of dinosaur species had feathers. That's really a radical change.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:34 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

If anybody would like simple, lovely, whimsical drawings of feathered dinosaurs, I can recommend Dino-A-Day which I find delightful.
posted by foxfirefey at 5:51 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Perhaps this is an excellent place to plug the fantastic Love in the Time of the Chasmosaurs.
posted by anastasiav at 6:13 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is great, thank you!
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:18 PM on September 1, 2014

Chocolate Pickle: "And only just recently we've learned that a whole lot of dinosaur species had feathers. That's really a radical change."

Yeah, feathered dinosaurs have been a thing for a while, but we're definitely learning about a whole lot more of them these days. As in not just birds and their close relatives. It's kind of crazy. We now know that at least some tyrannosaurids had feathers, and feather-like structures have been discovered on ornithischian dinosaurs that are not close bird relatives at all.

Heck. They're not dinosaurs, but pterosaurs had something like fur.
posted by brundlefly at 11:49 PM on September 1, 2014

Tetrapod Zoology: "The changing life appearance of dinosaurs"
posted by brundlefly at 10:44 PM on September 4, 2014

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