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OK guys, what is wrong with this picture?
Seems like a fairly standard Parasaurolophus illustration, right? Pretty generic but nothing obviously wrong about it. That’s how most people, including for a long time myself, would react to this image. However, many a dinosaur fan nowadays would look upon this image and gag, saying that the poor creature must be horribly malnourished. To these people (now including myself) this is a much more preferable image.
Now, you may be thinking that the first image was much more preferable while these guys look like they’ve had one too many Twinkies, but many dinosaur fans and paleo artists feel the need to add more flesh to their reconstructions of dinosaurs. In the recent All Yesterdays movement (something in which I would love to do a post about one day, even if I am a little late to the party), scientists, artists, and enthusiasts alike have been trying to push people into thinking beyond stereotypes when reconstructing dinosaurs and to try to think of them as actual animals instead of bygone beasts. One of the things members of this movement are actively trying to discourage is the tendency to put only a small layer of skin around the skeleton of a dinosaur in illustrations. This is a paleo art trope that has been nicknamed ‘shrink wrapping’ or ‘skin wrapping’ by the community.
After the Dinosaur Renaissance of the 80’s, it was popular to depict dinosaurs as slim and lean as opposed to the chunkier and bulkier look dinosaurs had before that.
But in doing so, some think we have gone a little too far in the other direction. Many dinosaur fans have called out the fact that we barely put a layer of skin on most of our reconstructions of dinosaurs when in real life animals have very different body shapes then their skeletons would imply because of soft tissue that doesn’t fossilize.
We can see this most evidently in the skulls of dinosaurs. Have you ever noticed that whenever you see the head of a dinosaur you can see every outline and crevice in the skull itself?
Now, what if we were to do this with modern animals?
Well, I can assure you that the results would be horrifying.
OMG, what is that?!
That my friends, is a baboon devoid of fur, muscle, fat, and it’s skin hugging every crevice of it’s skeleton.
I am not amused.
This brings to mind many reconstructions of raptors, with sleek skin clinging closely to the skeletal structure with the teeth very much exaggerated, creating a much more menacing creature than what probably existed in real life.
Makes you think, doesn’t it?
This horrifying looking creature looks like it hails from some Middle Earth wilderness, but is actually a skin wrapped hippopotamus. What may look like hornlets in the skull actually support muscle and aren’t visible in the living animal. It actually brings to mind the horns of ceratopsians….
Are we doing something…wrong?
The teeth of the hippo are also very much exaggerated, even though those impressive teeth aren’t visible in the living animal. Dinosaur art does tend to exaggerate strange features in dinosaurs, such as Masiakasaurus’ big teeth.
It stands to reason that the teeth probably weren’t as prominent in real life. Many animals today have objectively crazy looking teeth as well, but they usually fit nicely within their mouths and aren’t very noticeable until they bare them.
My favorite reconstruction of Masiakasaurus, with the teeth no nearly as prominent as they are usually portrayed.
This horrific looking creature is actually a rhinoceros, with no horn because keratin doesn’t fossilize and a weird sail thing because a rhino’s skeleton has a weird hump in it. However, this illustration greatly exaggerates the hump, even though in real life a rhino’s hump isn’t very visible. Now, doesn’t this illustration remind you of a certain random humped theropod?
The creature above looks more identifiable then some of the earlier examples, but it’s still off. The creature above is supposed to be a cow, and as you know cows aren’t normally that skinny.
Well, not normally.
Still, that image illustrates that pudgy Parasaurolophus image from the beginning. The skinny cow illustration really does bring to mind the fairly standard imagery of hadrosaurs.
The above image illustrates that point further, this time using a whale for reference. I like the idea that they added fingers to the whale even though they had flippers, just like many hadrosaur depictions give them opposable appendages despite their front feet actually ending in a hoof.
She has hands…like a human….
Many animals today have features that wouldn’t be able to fossilize, but without those features the animal wouldn’t look the same. how would an elephant look like to a being from the far future that discovered it’s skeleton but didn’t know it had a trunk?
Now you may tell me ‘there aren’t any dinosaur depictions that make the creatures look that freaky and malnourished’. And to that I say: ‘Um, yeah there is’. In the 90’s, some artists too it upon themselves to really lean up their dinosaurs to differentiate them from the older lopsided and waddling look, but in doing so they made their dinosaurs look like zombies that have risen after the asteroid hit the earth. Case in point…
This illustration, from the William Stout book The Dinosaurs (a book I absolutely adored as a kid) depicts it’s dinosaurs as literally nothing more than skin and bones. I mean, just look at those raptors! They don’t look like living creatures, they look like they’ve stumbled off the set of a Mesozoic version of the Walking Dead. The Jurassic Park raptors look more natural than that! i’m not knocking the artistic skill, which is still impressive, I only show disgust for the animal’s depiction.
Look at this poor Apatosaurus! You can see every crevice of bone in the neck region. The poor head doesn’t even look like it has any ligaments to attach it to the back of the neck. How is this animal held together?!
In the media, dinosaurs from Jurassic Park often get the most flack for presenting skin wrapped dinosaurs.
Even though these claims are valid, I believe that the television series Primeval takes the cake for the most ghoulish looking dinosaurs.
Heck, pretty much every creature on this show succumbs to this trope.
These may be extreme examples, but let’s be honest, pretty much every popular dinosaur image falls into this trap. So, why is it so prevalent? Well, it’s probably because most people think of dinosaurs as reptiles first, and reptiles do have what appears to be tight and conforming skin.
However, we need to remember that dinosaurs are built completely different from any modern day reptile. Really, we should be looking closer to birds and even mammals when we want to reconstruct a dinosaur, as their body plans are much closer to them than any crocodile or lizard. We also need to realize that animals often look very different than what their skeleton would suggest, and we must accept the fact that we may never really know for sure what dinosaurs truly looked like. However, we shouldn’t be afraid to take risks in our dinosaur portrayals, nor should we be afraid to break away from the common dinosaur cliches. That is basically the spirit of the All Yesterdays movement, and is certainly an ideology I fully support. I’ll continue this conversation in my next post, as I talk about speculative feathering of dinosaurs.
How much feathers are too much feathers?