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Friday, 30 May 2014

Book review: The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi, Csotonyi and White 2014

From Titan Books.
The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi: Dinosaurs, Sabretooths and Beyond (Csotonyi and White 2014) is another palaeoart-focused book from Titan Books, who brought us the acclaimed Dinosaur Art: the World’s Greatest Paleoart two years ago (White 2012). Anyone familiar with this book will immediately note the very similar format and high production quality in this recent Titan release. Although slightly smaller than Dinosaur Art, this will - again - leave readers wondering how the extremely affordable price (£25) covers production costs. Csotonyi was, of course, one of the artists featured in Dinosaur Art but, this time, is entirely running the show. Fans of his work will have little doubt that he can carry an entire book by himself. For the last decade Csotonyi has been establishing himself as one of the world’s premier palaeoartists, illustrating countless press releases, books, articles and museum walls with intricate paintings or digitally-manipulated photograph composites. His work is in such demand that he is one of the few individuals globally who can make a living out of palaeoart, a status which is testament to the quality of his work.

Before we get into the review itself, I want to stress how much of a milestone this book is. Palaeoart and palaeoartists suffer a PR problem where artists are considered unimportant and interchangeable: individuals who are secondary to the scientists pushing palaeontology forward and the audience who – often superficially – experience their work. Titan Books showed that palaeoart could be tackled more seriously and respectfully with Dinosaur Art and are cementing this idea in dedicating a whole book to a leading palaeoartists. Csotonyi's position as a working palaeoartist with major publisher support is rather exclusive, but exactly the sort of treatment palaeoart needs. I hope that Csotonyi’s solo album sells well enough to kickstart a series of books featuring other artists. Intentionally or not, Julius’ artwork is a good place to start this hypothetical series: aesthetically pleasing, extremely high quality, and blending traditional palaeoart approaches with some more complex and radical compositions. As a means to test the market for these sort of books, Julius is one of the strongest candidates currently available.

As an industy, palaeoart needs all the help it can get, starting with this logo.
Right, big-picture stuff out of the way now: what of the book itself? At its most basic level, The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi is effectively an expanded version of his chapter from Dinosaur Art, juxtaposing imagery alongside an interview about Csotonyi’s art, influences and background. The interview, confined to the first 23 of the 156 pages, features intelligent questions and the interesting responses from the artist. Csotonyi’s passion for art and science are clear even before his images are displayed in earnest, as is the amount of work required to produce the large, ultra-high-quality imagery he is famous for. He leaves no doubt that many personal sacrifices are required to work as one of the world’s leading palaeoartists. This section also contains rarely-seen early works and non-palaeontological artwork, including some dedicated to astronomy. Some of the interview responses and other text features words which may be unfamiliar to lay audiences, but a glossary is provided to help readers navigate these terms.

The real meat of the book is relatively text-light so as to provide maximum space for Csotonyi’s art – large format is the only way to appreciate the detail it contains. The art is roughly arranged in chronostratigraphic order, with Palaeoazoic, Mesozoic and Cainozoic subjects separated into different chapters. As usual within palaeoart, the bulk of the artworks depict Mesozoic dinosaurs, and theropods are particularly well represented. Each piece is accompanied by brief details of the composition and commissioners, and some featuring additional comments from scientists about the subject animals. These comments mostly complement Csotonyi’s talents or spin yarns about research associated with the depicted species and, I guess, are designed to boost the scientific content of the book. I do feel a trick has been missed here because none pass particular comment on the decisions made when reconstructing the animals. Seeing as a lot of Csotonyi's art is produced alongside consulting scientists, I’d like to know what input they had. Even the most tightly constrained reconstructions of a fossil animal requires a lot educated guesswork and speculation about palaeobiology and life appearance and - in my own experience at least - not all of this is left to the artist. After all, this is a primarily a book about scientific art, and it seems that these comments could be more insightful than discussions about fossil localities, chance discoveries, or another complement for Julius' artwork (meant with all due respect, of course, but we know he's good. That's why we bought the book!).

A busy day in Permian Texas. Photo composite by Julius Csotonyi, from The Palaeoart of Julius Csotonyi. Image from here.
Csotonyi himself gives some works longer explanations about the processes involved in the reconstruction. These often highlight works with unusual compositions or viewpoints (such as the excellent ‘fish-eye’ sauropod view) and describes the way each piece was executed, often with alongside draft versions. These provide some insights into his process and will doubtlessly be useful to budding artists. My personal take-home message from these is the exhaustive consideration and research required to understand not only fossil animals, but to also reproduce realistic landscapes and lighting, particularly when odd perspectives and water are involved.

On the art itself: Csotonyi’s images are created using a range of media, including traditional and digital painting, sketches and – most commonly – digital photographic manipulation. I’m going to come clean here and admit that I’m not enormously fond of photographic manipulation. Many such works often fall into palaeoart’s own variant of the ‘uncanny valley’ or, all too often, present oddly-proportioned, strangely posed creatures which have little in common with their known anatomy. Julius’ photo composites are easily among the best, if not the best, attempts at photo-realistic 2D palaeoart out there however, and present reasonably reconstructed animals at either photo-realistic quality, or within inches of it. Some images, particularly the more ambitious, crowded scenes (fans of ‘a busy day in deep time’-type images are well served here) do bear niggles which jar the illusion, such as animals appearing too sharply defined against the background. To a certain extent, this is unavoidable: photomanipulation is incredibly difficult to pull off even remotely well, and even Csotonyi’s lesser successes are still amazing efforts. There are no overused photographic elements, no blurred skin textures, no cloning of animals to create herds of the same individual. When the photomanipulation does work well – and it frequently does – the effects are nothing short of stunning (e.g. below). The image of the resting Edaphosaurus on page 33 could easily be mistaken for a genuine, beautifully shot photograph. As with Dinosaur Art, some panoramic scenes unfold to show enormous vistas stuffed with detail. Many of these fold-outs allow those of us with empty pockets our first detailed look at the many murals Julius has created for North American and Australian museums.

Photo composite Acrotholus audeti and Neurankylus lithographicus  by Julius Csotonyi, from The Palaeoart of Julius Csotonyi. Image from here.
My favourite images in the book are digital paintings (below), such as the dancing Guanlong, the mothering polycotylid and the ceratopsid portrait gallery on pages 102-103. Not only do these show the trademark Csotonyi attention to detail but they’re wonderfully lit and composed: they feel more ‘of a scene’ than the photo composites. A neat touch is that alternative versions of well-known paintings are sometimes included. I actually prefer the near greyscale version of the Acheroraptor press release image on page 43 to the original, its dusky palate and the removal of the mammal from the hero animal’s mouth creating an entirely different tone to the more familiar version.

Digitally painted Brachiosaurus by Julius Csotonyi, from The Palaeoart of Julius Csotonyi. Image from here.
Of course, scientific accuracy is also essential for palaeoartworks to be considered successful. In this respect, the book also delivers. Thoroughly modern reconstructions of fossil subjects are presented: extensively feathered maniraptorans, diverse integuments in other dinosaurs, correctly orientated limbs and so on. In light of All Yesterdays (Conway et al. 2013), Csotonyi’s approach to extinct animal reconstruction may be considered conservative - there are no outlandish, speculative audacities here in terms of appearance or behaviour. Most of the depicted animal interactions are predatory, and the soft-tissues of the reconstructed species are not especially elaborate. Perhaps this is because nearly all of the artworks were commissioned by researchers and museums, clients who tend to favour safer, more conservative palaeoartworks. We should not lose sight of how progressive even ‘conservative’ modern palaeoart actually is. Many sights now familiar to us would have been considered heretical just a few years ago: Csotonyi shows several tyrannosaurs with variable amounts of feathering in the book with little fanfare, for instance. For dinosaurs at least, it’s becoming harder to produce wholly shocking palaeoart without unreasonably bending palaeontological science or speculating wildly. While Csotonyi’s book may lack the accessory frills, wattles and elaborate behaviours of some modern palaeoart, it acts as a fantastic milestone for how far palaeontology and palaeoart has moved in recent years. Moreover, I do not want to give the impression that the images are not interesting or novel: fishing Dimetrodon (above), Polycotylus nuzzling its offspring to the water surface to breathe and reptiles swimming between the dredging fronds of rafting crinoids are just some thought-provoking Csotonyian innovations.

The unkillable skim-feeding hypothesis lives on. Art by Julius Csotonyi, from The Palaeoart of Julius Csotonyi. Image from here.
I do have a few issues with some science behind the artwork. I’m told that an unfortunate misunderstanding resulted in the extensive discussion of Rhamphorhynchus skim-feeding on pages 136-139 (Hone, pers. comm. 2014; above. See the comment from Julius below for the sull story). This was, in fact, meant to reflect dip-feeding or surface-gleaning. Folks who keep up with pterosaur research will know that skim-feeding habits in flying reptiles has been looked into several times, consistently found problematic (e.g. Chatterjee and Templin 2004; Humphries et al. 2007; Witton and Naish 2008, 2013), and widely publicised. It’s a surprise and a shame, then, that this idea made it into the book without someone noticing, and particularly so because the science elsewhere is pretty tight. I also wonder if some of the photo composite crocodyliforms are shown with entirely accurate scute patterns, as most seem to have been taken from modern crocodylians – many Mesozoic crocs had very different, often simpler scute morphologies. And while we’re moaning, I do wonder if some more complex images would have benefited from small ‘key’ illustrations demonstrating the position of each animal. This is not only because the animals can be hard to spot in the complex, detailed scenes on offer (this is not meant as a slight – remember that many of the more complex images are intended to be hundreds of times larger on museum walls), but because linking a list of unfamiliar names to specific creatures can be difficult. Individuals intimately familiar with genera of all major vertebrate groups should be OK (they exist, honest), but I suspect they will only make up a fraction of this books audience.

These are only minor issues in the grand scheme of things, however. The intelligence and quality of The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi makes it essential for anyone interested in palaeoart, as well as more general aficionados of palaeontology, natural history, or natural history art. I have no doubt that palaeoartists will be keeping a close eye on its success, and hoping that it presents the first of a wave of similar tomes from Titan Books. That’s all to come, though: for the time being, The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi cements Csotonyi’s status as a world leader among the current crop of palaeoartists, and this book will only further his success.


  • Chatterjee, S., & Templin, R. J. (2004). Posture, locomotion, and paleoecology of pterosaurs (Vol. 376). Geological Society of America.
  • Csotonyi, J. & White, S. (2014). The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi: Dinosaurs, Sabre Tooths and Beyond. Titan Books, London.
  • Humphries, S., Bonser, R. H., Witton, M. P., & Martill, D. M. (2007). Did pterosaurs feed by skimming? Physical modelling and anatomical evaluation of an unusual feeding method. PLoS biology, 5(8), e204.
  • White, S. (2012). Dinosaur Art: the World’s Greatest Paleoart. Titan Books, London.
  • Witton, M. P., & Naish, D. (2008). A reappraisal of azhdarchid pterosaur functional morphology and paleoecology. PLoS One, 3(5), e2271.
  • Witton, M. P., & Naish, D. 2013. Azhdarchid pterosaurs: water-trawling pelican mimics or" terrestrial stalkers"? Acta Palaeontologica Polonica. (In press).

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Godzilla and MUTOs vs. birds and newts: reasons why the creatures in Godzilla (2014) are (sort of) plausible

Inside every 29 year and 11 month year-old man is a 5 year old who only watches monster movies so he can produce little doodles of them afterwards.
After much hype, Godzilla (2014) has finally stomped into cinemas around the world. It seems to have been a divisive monster movie, with some taking its slow pacing and focus on human characters as a breath of fresh air in a stale genre, and others wishing it had the wham-bam-thank-you-mam approach of Pacific Rim. Personally, I'm in the former camp, and am especially glad the new Godzilla franchise has not started with two hours of giant monster wrestling. While Godzilla (2014) is not flawless, it takes a lot of risks and feels like a modernised 'classic' monster movie, and not the focus-grouped, merchandise-led fanboy service it could have been. I should add that I'm not especially keen on the last 59 years of Godzilla movies, much preferring the genuine drama and symbolism of the original 1954 movie to the decades of monster fights which followed. Because Godzilla (2014) is tonally closer to the original than the later escapades, I'm not surprised that people just wanting two hours of skyscraper-sized wrestling are feeling a bit disappointed. Anyway, there's a lot we could say about this, but that's not quite what I want to write about  here.

A big part of updating Godzilla has been the overhaul of Big G himself, as well as bringing new creatures to this franchise. These are exciting times for monster film fans because, for only the second time in its 60 year history, one of the most famous movie monsters of all is in for a complete redesign (we all know what happened the first time) and, of course, is now free of the constraint of 'suitmation' effects - the fancy term applied to the 'guy-in-latex-suit' approach Godzilla movies are (in?)famous for. A fun fact about the original 1954 Godzilla is that the now-inconic chap-in-suit technology was a compromise, the studio initially desiring stop-motion effects like those of American-made films King Kong or The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Toho, the studio which created Godzilla, had neither the money or expertise to execute stop motion effectively, so opted for using costumes instead. Despite using their second choice, the Japanese trailer for Godzilla triumphantly declares their special effects superior to anything the American movie machine was making at the time! And it certainly worked out for Toho: after a difficult teething process, the 'suitmation' approach worked well for the franchise and wasn't tinkered with outside of the much maligned 1998 Tristar Godzilla.

For 2014, Godzilla is a fully digital and, as we all know, relatively faithful to the original designs. It has, however, been altered in ways which would be difficult to execute if we were still watching a man in a suit. A lot of these changes, as well as the design of Godzilla's adversaries, were pretty neat because they tie into what we know about animal biology, scaling and functionality, and I get the impression that the guys behind this latest Godzilla - Legendary Pictures - put a lot of effort into making half-sensible creatures which biologists, biomechanicists and functional anatomists can be relatively happy with. And yes, yes yes: there's a buttload of stuff which is clearly nonsense: there's no way these animals could be the size they are, or firing beams of nuclear fire from their throats and so forth. But that's just par for the course for a Godzilla movie, and I'm not going to jump on boring old bandwagon of highlighting how impossible the whole lot is. What's far more interesting, and what I want to focus on here, is how Legendary built their animals around standard movie monster tenets to produce creatures which are not only intriguing and cool-looking, but also chime with real animal biology and functionality.

Twinkle toes

Godzilla's stubby, new-look foot, as seen from an airport terminal. Image from the Godzilla movie forum.

One of the most striking aspects of Godzilla’s redesign is its short, stubby feet instead of the long, plantigrade feet we’re familiar with from the suitmation costumes (above). This is easily one of the best changes to make in the entire redesign. Not only does it move away from Godzilla looking like he’s wearing a pair of comedy slippers, but it makes a lot of sense from a functional perspective. Long, plantigrade feet of bipedal animals (like our own, as well as those of chaps in Godzilla suits) lift our entire body weight with every step, our metatarsals and ankles both supporting and propelling us forward. This works fine for lightweight animals like ourselves, but comparable foot anatomy in a skyscraper-sized animal would need to be immense to avoid buckling under thousands of tonnes of bending force. The superficially sauropod-, tortoise- or elephant-like foot of the new Godzilla negates this risk however, creating a more columnar distal limb structure which is not employed in lift and propulsion but instead ideal for supporting terrific weight. This has several effects on limb structure and locomotion. The foot musculature (anchored to the shin) is reduced, keeping the weight of the limb down overall, thus making movement more efficient. However, it also decreases the foot mobility, limits stride length and overall gracility. Some of these effects are countered, however, by the elongate thigh region common to all Godzilla designs, which can swing the shortened distal-leg over great distances with every step. This increased length of the proximal limb region and shortening of distal is a trend we commonly associate with larger animals, even in species which are quite active and sprightly, and descended from cursorial ancestors (e.g. rhinos). Godzilla’s enormous thighs also fit with observations that proximal hindlimb musculature becomes relatively huge in larger bipeds - see the pelves of large bipedal dinosaurs for examples - providing the powerhouses necessary to move its huge bulk around. The result is a limb which isn’t going to win Godzilla any prizes for sprinting but, more importantly, is much more suited to the animal itself than the older designs. And let’s face it, when you can take strides measured in hundreds of metres, moving relatively quickly isn’t a problem.


Gills ahoy, on the lower portion of Godzilla's neck. Image from Detroit News.

A clear departure from all other Godzilla movies is that new version can breathe underwater. They’re easy to miss, but look closely and you can spot a series of fish-like gills on the side of its neck. At certain points in the movie, you can see them opening and closing as the big chap respires. Apparently, these were added not only because Big G spends a lot of its time swimming from location to location in the movie, but also to explain how an animal as large as Godzilla could keep a relatively low profile for so long. Air breathing animals of such size would surely be better known to the world at large if they were routinely surfacing to take breaths. These are all that's left of fish-inspired designs for the new Godzilla, which also featured fins instead of rows of bony plates; fish-like scales instead of reptilian skin and so forth.

Gills on a big, adult tetrapod sound a bit crazy, and I will admit - the fish-like (bony?) gills of the new Godzilla are difficult to rationalise entirely among real animals. If we’re willing to stretch belief a bit (I assume we are, what with a fictitious 100 m tall reptile being the subject of discussion here), we can find saving grace from early tetrapods and their descendants, modern amphibians. The latter have internal and external gills in at least their larval stages with most species losing them as they become adults. These gills are supported by a series of bones behind the skull which lead to openings in the body wall which allow swallowed water to escape - these are known known as gill clefts. Some amphibians - specifically select caudatans (salamanders, axylotyls, newts etc. - see below) - famously retain gill structures into adulthood, including their elaborate external gills. We know from exquisitely preserved fossils that such gills were present in the ancestors of all modern tetrapods, some of which also retained these gills in adulthood, and others which at least maintained their gill clefts (Schoch 2009). It seems likely, then, that the possession of gills, and possibly retention of gill structures into adult life* is the ancestral condition for all early tetrapods - including, presumably - Godzilla. Amniotes, which also presumably includes Godzilla, have obviously abandoned these structures and co-opted the gill apparatus for other purposes.

An axolotl with its external gills. © Kevin Schafer /, linked from ARKive.

Could Godzilla or other creatures ever get their gills back? Well, maybe. For a long time it was thought that evolution was irreversible ('Dollo's Law of Irreversibility') and, under this concept, loss of gills would be a one way street: Godzilla would have to evolve an entirely new set of gills, which is entirely possible. However, it's now appreciated that Dollo's Law is not really a law at all, and that organisms frequently do reverse their evolution, including backtracking on complex aspects of their anatomy and life history: digits, dentitions, wings, larval stages, reproductive strategies are all examples of things which have been lost and then recovered in animals. What once seemed like a law is likely more statistical improbability: a lineage can evolve in many ways at any point in time, and the likelihood that it will directly reverse along a familiar path is relatively low. However, in theory, there's no real reason why this shouldn't happen, so long as the selection pressures are correct. It would take some hefty tinkering with genes and mountains of heterochrony, and it's difficult to think of conditions which would promote the development of early-stage gill anatomy, but I guess it's not impossible for an amphibious creature to regain its ancestral gill condition under the right circumstances. My guess is that they would look more like the gills of caudatans than they would the scale-like fishy apparatus of Newzilla, but, let's face it, big feathery gills would look incredibly silly on a city-smashing monster.

See? Less "Godzilla, King of the Monsters", more "Preszilla, Queen of the Desert". Both are scary, but in very different ways.

Has Godzilla put on weight? No, it's just in it's head

One of the key comments made about the new Godzilla design is that it’s a bit of a heffer compared to other versions. This is debatable (they’ve always been pretty chunky if you ask me), but Legendary’s Godzilla design probably appears fatter than the rest because of its proportionally small head. There are good design reasons for this move: the smaller head gives a natural taper towards the top of the animal, distorting its perceived perspective and size, and it helps avoid the comically oversized, googly-eyed heads of previous versions. It's also in keeping with the natural world. Animals show a disproportionate reduction in skull length with respect to body mass - that is to say, larger animals generally have proportionally smaller heads than smaller ones. Note that this applies to carnivores as well as herbivores (Van Valkenburgh 1990; Christansen 1999). Godzilla represents a real extreme of animal gigantism, so it makes sense that its skull and head is going to carry this allometric trend to an unprecedented limit. What’s more, whatever Godzilla actually is (the new movie, thankfully, doesn’t really concern itself with this), it’s clearly on the reptile branch of the animal tree. Reptile cranial musculature is generally less developed than that of mammals, so their skulls and heads are relatively smaller at a given body mass than equivalently sized mammals (Christansen 1999). Again, this fits neatly with the small cranium of our new-look Godzilla. Of course, making the head look even smaller are the big legs and counterbalancing tail but, as mentioned above, this is also to be expected. Bottom line: far from being fat, 2014's Godzilla is just showing the extremes of proportion that we would expect if an animal ever grew to the ridiculous sizes we see on screen, and my feeling is that we're looking at a far more 'realistically' proportioned version that we've seen before.

"I'm not fat, I just have a head of predictably small proportion based on typical animal scaling allometries which distorts your overall perception of my size!" Whatever, buddy. Image from Godzilla Movies

MUTO: Finally, a convincing giant, flying movie creature

Moving away from the main attraction: Godzilla vies for attention in the 2014 movie with another species of giant critter, termed ‘MUTO’ (below). The design for the MUTO(s) is very cool: gigantic, eight limbed, insect-ungulate-pterosaur beasts which defy easy classification. We’re shown pronounced dimorphism in adult MUTOs, the females being larger and more robust than the males, and devoting all limb sets to either terrestrial locomotion or gripping. The males, however, allocate one set of limbs to flight, bearing a spectacular pair of enormous membranous wings which recall monowing plane designs of the early 20th century (this isn't a coincidence: male MUTO wings are actually based on stealth bombers). These wings are largely unfoldable and situated on the dorsal surface of the torso so, when grounded, they extend behind the MUTO like a huge cape. Despite being the smallest creature in the film, male MUTO is still huge, so there’s little risk of it clipping its flowing wings on any structures when locomoting terrestrially.

MUTO in flight, from the Godzilla trailer.
There’s a lot to like about the male MUTO’s wing anatomy and flight mechanics. Firstly, the wings of this animal are simply enormous, as they should be for a creature of its size. Not only do they dwarf the body of the animal, but we could measure their span in metric villages. All too often, flying movie creatures are equipped with wings far too small for their body size, but - running off intuition here - these look ‘right’ for its size. As demonstrated by the birds below, wings increase in length and area disproportionately with body size because of standard rules of scaling: any linear size increases equates to a cubed increase in mass, which gives more for gravity to pull against and greater wing area requirements to achieve lift. If we are ever to expect a several-hundred tonne flying creature to become become and stay airborne, it would need significant wingage: MUTO delivers on this front.

A rule of thumb for designing flying animals: as mass increases, wing length increases faster. Demonstrated here by various bird planforms from Rayner (1988).
But it’s not just wing size that’s cool about the male MUTO: it’s flapping, or lack thereof, was also neat. Flapping amplitude - the degree of movement of a full wing stoke - decreases with wingspan in all flying creatures. The larger an animal is, the less movement is required in its wings to produce an effective flap cycle. A familiar example of this is the wing motions of flapping geese compared to pigeons: both flap their wings nearly constantly while flying, but the former move their wings around the horizontal, while pigeons swing them in great arcs. All too often, giant flying movie creatures (including several giant pterosaurs) show whopping huge flapping amplitudes well beyond necessity for flight and, probably, aerial stability. Godzilla’s male MUTO moves his wings just a little, however: he definitely flaps, but his wings move just a few degrees around the horizontal, not in huge arcs (watch the clip, below, for an example. Skip to 0:24 if you're a particularly impatient type). He also largely soars, as would be expected for any uber-large flier: flapping those wings would take a lot of effort, so soaring is the way to go. It would be loads of fun to get some basic wing size and mass data for this guy to work out some basic flight parameters - cruising speed, travelling distance etc. Given that giant pterosaurs seem capable of cruising at 100kph (Witton and Habib 2010), and yet are mere pipsqueeks at 10 m wingspans compared to the male MUTO, I reckon we’re looking at cruising speeds of several hundred kph. And that’s if he’s not in a hurry.

Finally, we get to see the MUTO launch a couple of times in the film, and each time we see something reminiscent of quad-launching. Pterosaur fans will know this trick as the best hypothesis on the table for explaining how flying reptiles became airborne, and a core factor explaining their attainment of gigantic proportions (Habib 2008). The kimeatics of MUTOs takeoff aren't quite the same - which is to be expected seeing as the limbs of pterosaurs are quite different to those of MUTOs - but it's neat to see the same basic components - a standing start, the rocking back crouch, forward thrust, upward push and leaping phase - incorporated into MUTOs takeoff. These actions are all performed with the four walking limbs rather than the wings themselves, as in pterosaurs and bats, but this also chimes well: MUTOs would need all the power they could to become airborne, so using every available limb is logical. Note that insects are an unlikely model for MUTO takeoff because, while seemingly comparable with MUTO because of their similar limb and wing configuration, at least some insects only use one pair of limbs (the mesothoracic) to launch (Trimarchi and Schneiderman 1995). This is probably because insects enjoy much better power/weight ratios than large vertebrates/skycraper-sized-monsters. 2-4 mm long fruit flies can jump up to 15x their own body lengths - about 30 mm - using their middle limbs only (Zumstein et al. 2004). This sets them apart from bats and pterosaurs, which use all their limbs in launching, and makes these the best candidates for MUTO launch models. It would be neat to know how much attention the animators and designers have been paying to bat and pterosaur research or if they came up with this launch strategy on their own. My experience of explaining quad-launch is that a lot of folks find it counter-intuitive at first, probably because we don't see many animals routinely taking off in this way, so I do wonder if the similarity between these takeoff strategies reflects research into animal takeoff.

And that's it for now. If you want to know more about how the animals of Godzilla (2014) were constructed, you should check out the concept art book which accompanies the film: Godzilla: the Art of Destruction (Cotta Vaz 2014). Closer to home, more fun with famous fictitious monsters can be found here, and for more on movie creatures - specifically those of special effects legend Ray Harryhausen, check out this.


  • Christiansen, P. (1999). On the head size of sauropodomorph dinosaurs: implications for ecology and physiology. Historical Biology, 13(4), 269-297.
  • Cotta Vaz, M. (2014). Godzilla: the Art of Destruction. Titan Books.
  • Habib, M. B. (2008). Comparative evidence for quadrupedal launch in pterosaurs. Zitteliana, 159-166.
  • Rayner, J. M. (1988). Form and function in avian flight. In Current ornithology (pp. 1-66). Springer US.
  • Schoch, R. R. (2009). Evolution of life cycles in early amphibians. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 37, 135-162.
  • Trimarchi, J. R., & Schneiderman, A. M. (1995). Initiation of flight in the unrestrained fly, Drosophila melanogaster. Journal of Zoology, 235(2), 211-222.
  • Van Valkenburgh, B. (1990). Skeletal and dental predictors of body mass in carnivores. In: Damuth, J. and MacFadden, B. (eds). Body size in mammalian paleobiology: estimation and biological implications, 18, 1-205.
  • Witton, M. P., & Habib, M. B. (2010). On the size and flight diversity of giant pterosaurs, the use of birds as pterosaur analogues and comments on pterosaur flightlessness. PLoS One, 5(11), e13982.
  • Zumstein, N., Forman, O., Nongthomba, U., Sparrow, J. C., & Elliott, C. J. (2004). Distance and force production during jumping in wild-type and mutant Drosophila melanogaster. Journal of experimental biology, 207(20), 3515-3522.

Monday, 12 May 2014

The science and art of recreating extinct life, the talk

Last week I gave a talk on the significance and methodologies of palaeoart to attendees of the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival. The presentation was filmed with the intention of being posted online but, sadly, was not quite of sufficient quality to present elsewhere. With this in mind, I've had a go at re-recording my narration over the slides, which is now clearer (though not perfect - see below) and available to check out above. There's quite a lot of stuff covered in here: the early history of palaeoart; discussions of why palaeoart is important; soft-tissue and colour restoration, All Yesterdays, and a lot more. This means that the topics are, by necessity, covered fairly briefly, but further reading is suggested at the end if you'd like to know more. Be sure to whack the quality up to 720p to see the slides in their best quality.

If videos of this sort are of interest, there's potential for several more. Like a lot of folks who do outreach and conference circuits, I've accumulated a number of talks over the years which are delivered once or twice to limited audiences and then never see the light of day again. Popping them online seems like an obvious way to maximise their potential so, if you'd like to see more of this kind of thing, do let me know in the comments below. If they prove to be popular, I'll look into investing into more substantial recording equipment to improve audio quality.

That's all for now but, if the combination of videos and palaeoart tickles your fancy, be sure to check out the rolling gallery from my last post.

Friday, 2 May 2014

The Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, 2nd-4th May 2014: heaps more palaeoart!

This weekend (May 2nd - 4th) sees the 2014 Lyme Regis Fossil Festival taking over a small portion of south Dorset and offering all manner of talks, activities, stands and experiences for palaeontological aficionados. My palaeoart exhibit, Palaeoartworks, is situated in the middle of the action at the Town Mill and will be open until the end of the festival. Sad as it is that the exhibit is coming to a close, I'm looking forward to its final days as - finally - I'm going to get to spend some time at the gallery itself, being on hand all day Saturday and Sunday to meet festival goers and - for the first time - selling small prints of my work. If all goes well, I may look into setting up a more permanent print service.

To whet your appetite, I've posted the 'rolling gallery' - effectively a slideshow of my recent palaeoartwork - above. This video has been running for a near-month in Lyme Regis alongside the framed prints to show artwork which there wasn't space and funding enough to show. Even if you've seen it, check it out again: this is a slightly updated version with some new images. One update includes a slide urging support for genuine palaeoartists over those who merely copy and derivative work from creative individuals. As discussed here, this practise is detrimental to the artistic and commercial success of palaeoart, and needs to stop. This won't be the last you'll hear of this issue around these parts.

Where there's a logo, there's a way.

But that's not all!

At 16:00 on Sunday I'll be leaving the gallery to give a talk on palaeoart in The Hub, situated on Church Street just around the corner from the Town Mill. The talk celebrates palaeoart as a wide industry rather than just prattling on about my own work, so we'll be covering what palaeoart is, how it began, and how to approach the palaeoart process. If all goes to plan, there should be time for questions at the end. Unlike the gallery, the talk isn't free, but it's as good as: tickets are £2.50 per person, or £2 concession (you can pre-book tickets here). Visitors to the Town Mill will get something of an insight into palaeoart methodology beforehand of course, thanks to the Palaeoart Case Studies left dotted around Palaeoartworks. Tasters of what we'll cover are shown below, including a short video showing the development of my recent Baryonyx painting (eagle-eyed viewers may briefly spy a few Scott Hartman skeletal reconstructions floating about as reference material).

If you can't make the Fossil Festival, not to worry: my plan is to have the talk recorded and posted online in some capacity by next week. If that goes well, I may turn some other talks of mine into videos too.

Right, that's enough for now. Hope to see some of you in Lyme Regis!