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Jurassic art: how our vision of dinosaurs has evolved over time

How we think things may have looked: In early Cretaceous China, a pair of Beipiaosaurus make way for a pack of Yutyrannus trudging over a recent snowfall. Large pterosaurs (Feilongus) and tiny birds (Eoenantiornis) take flight. Brian Choo, Author provided

Jurassic art: how our vision of dinosaurs has evolved over time

How we think things may have looked: In early Cretaceous China, a pair of Beipiaosaurus make way for a pack of Yutyrannus trudging over a recent snowfall. Large pterosaurs (Feilongus) and tiny birds (Eoenantiornis) take flight. Brian Choo, Author provided

The release of the latest Jurassic World movie has again ignited debate over the accurate portrayal of dinosaurs. Some people – including myself – are not happy with the depiction of some of the dinosaurs in the movie, but then getting that depiction right in the first place has always been a challenge.

While generations of researchers have pieced together an astounding view of the Mesozoic Earth, it is the artists who turn dry technical descriptions into the public vision of a world ruled by dinosaurs.

As knowledge improves with new discoveries and interpretations, so too has the accompanying artwork evolved over time.

Take the image (top), a reconstruction of mine of the feathered tyrannosauroid Yutyrannus and you can see the fruits of multiple scientific disciplines converged in one picture.

During preparation, I consulted with palaeontologist Xing Xu, examined fossils, read palaeobotanical texts to get the plants right and noted palaeoclimatic studies which suggested a chilly setting.

The first dinosaur park

Within Crystal Palace Park, in south London, are some massive sculptures that are the work of the most influential of the first generation of dinosaur artists, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. Their anatomy is woefully outdated by today’s standards but, when unveiled in 1854, they created a public sensation.

Iguanodon sculptures by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, at Crystal Palace, London. Brian Choo, Author provided

The most iconic of the Crystal Palace statues are the Iguanodon, and different depictions of this creature mirrors our growing understanding of dinosaurs.

During the mid-1800s, the available fossil record was scant. In 1834, the British fossil hunter Gideon Mantell (who named Iguanodon a few years earlier) presented a restoration based on a partial skeleton. With only modern animals for reference, he produced basically a scaled-up iguana with a nose-horn.

Eminent British anatomist Richard Owen took account of the structural requirements of a massive body and it was under his supervision that Hawkins created the bulky Crystal Palace quadrupeds, plodding on elephantine legs.

Changing with new discoveries

Everything changed in 1878 with the discovery of 38 complete skeletons in Belgium. This revealed an animal with forelimbs shorter than the hindlimbs, while the nose-horn turned out to be a thumb claw.

Belgian scientists had the first complete dinosaur skeletons, but with nothing in the fossil record to compare them with, they again used modern animals (wallabies and cassowaries) as a guide. The result was an upright, tail-dragging biped that served as the basis for depictions in the late 1800s through to the mid-20th century.

(Left) late 19th century reconstruction of Iguanodon as a tail-dragging reptilian biped, and (right) modern reconstruction of Iguanodon as a muscular quadruped with tail held aloft. Left image by Josef Smit, right image by Brian Choo, Author provided

With an improved understanding of anatomy, the study of fossil trackways and a re-examination of the Belgian material, it was recognised in the 1960s that Iguanodon walked mainly on all fours with the tail held out straight.

This is the current view as presented in the TV series Walking with Dinosaurs and the 2000 Disney movie Dinosaur.

The Disney movie features Aladar, an Iguanodon.

War and depression stifled palaeontology and, for much of the 20th century, depictions remained static and often copied from a few iconic artists such as Charles Knight. Viewed as evolutionary failures, dinosaurs were bloated sluggish beasts in primordial swamps.

Charles Knight working on Stegosaurus in 1899. Wikimedia

A new vision evolves

A turning point came in 1964 with American palaeontologist John Ostrom’s discovery of Deinonychus, an active, sophisticated, bird-like predator that turned the old stereotypes on their heads. Ostrom’s protege, American palaeontologist Robert Bakker, produced sketches of Deinonychus and other dinosaurs in highly dynamic poses while depicting bird-like musculature instead of flaccid reptilian limbs.

Renewed interest fuelled fresh research, reinventing dinosaurs as highly successful animals that are still with us today as birds. A flurry of new discoveries, from dinosaur metabolism to parental behaviour, fed growing public demand for illustrations.

Talented new artists, among them Mark Hallet, Greg Paul and Doug Henderson, appeared in the 1970s and 1980s who committed those findings to canvas.

Today the sheer volume of fossil data is staggering, as are the range of tools and disciplines being employed by researchers. We glean molecular data from soft tissue, delve into bone cavities with CT scans and build virtual models to test ranges of motion.

Modern feathered reconstruction of Deinonychus preying on Zephyrosaurus. Wikimedia/Emily Willough, CC BY-NC-SA

The digital revolution applies to many current artists as well, for example Julius Csotonyi, Emily Willoughby and myself, who rely at least partly on digital media to produce illustrations.

The rate of discovery today is such that artists have to tweak their images regularly to incorporate new data.

In 2011, I provided a reconstruction of the feathered Chinese dinosaur Microraptor to accompany a discovery made by my colleagues at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in China.

A new skeleton revealed the dinosaur had eaten a small bird, providing clues about the lifestyle of this predator. For reference, I examined the specimen along with additional fossils and was determined that my image conform to our current understanding of this animal.

My 2011 reconstruction of a Microraptor preying on a bird. At left is the original version, on the right an updated version incorporating fossil pigment data. Brian Choo

For colour I used modern birds-of-prey as a guide. My Microraptor was brown with spotted wings and a pale underside. Yet only a few months after the picture was released, another team, having examined the fossil pigments on a different specimen, determined that the life colouration was uniformly dark with an iridescent sheen. I promptly incorporated this new finding into an updated version my image.

Back to the movies

Depictions of dinosaurs in movies, which are primarily made for for entertainment rather than education, tended to lag behind the science. Steven Spielberg’s 1993 movie Jurassic Park – based on Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel of the same name – set a new standard for dinosaurs on the big screen.

For the first time, according to concept artist Mike “Crash” McCreery, the idea was:

[…] to get as far away from people’s perceptions of dinosaurs as possible, the upright bulky, clumsy kinds of creatures that have been seen in previous movies. The idea was to show that we were up-to-date on the current thinking that dinosaurs were probably warm-blooded and birdlike, rather than cold-blooded and lizardlike.

Allowing for artistic licence (the frilled spitting Dilophosaur), Jurassic Park introduced current scientific thinking to the masses as Hawkins’ sculptures did over a century earlier.

As for this year’s Jurassic World, the fourth movie in the Jurassic Park franchise, I found it to be extremely entertaining.

But the meticulous care that helped make the 1993 dinosaurs so revolutionary seems to have been lost. Much has already been said about the recent movie’s failure to keep up with with the science (especially the absence of feathers). Even granting the need for visual continuity with the previous movies, the Jurassic World dinosaurs are anatomically worse off than their original movie counterparts.

For example the long forelimbs and slender digits of Gallimimus were correctly depicted in the 1993 stampede while the Jurassic World examples have short, chubby arms that are mounted too high on the body.

It’s a little disappointing that Jurassic World ignores so many of the leaps in our understanding of how dinosaurs looked, even though the movie itself does acknowledge these are not actual dinosaurs but genetically modified recreations.

A few recent films have featured well made dinosaurs, including the Walking with Dinosaurs movie and the Australian produced Dinosaur Island, though none have been box office smashes.

When I see the Crystal Palace dinosaurs today, I still draw inspiration and cannot fault Hawkins for anatomical errors that have accumulated with each successive discovery.

He looked at the available fossil evidence, consulted with experts, took note of the anatomy of living animals and used educated guesswork plus imagination to fill in the blanks. This is the same process that good paleoartists use today.