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Friday, 18 August 2017

The convention of shrink-wrapping: thoughts for artists

Europasaurus holgeri - twice. These portraits are of the same animal using the same specimen and the same view, but one is restored with extreme shrink-wrapping (above) and the other has a more generous amount of facial tissue (below). But which one is more plausible, and can we even tell from fossil bones alone?
You can't move around palaeoart circles on the internet nowadays without someone being criticised for 'shrink-wrapping' their reconstruction. This refers to the convention of restoring extinct animals with minimised soft-tissues, allowing details of muscle layouts and major skeletal contours to be seen in allegedly healthy living animals. At its most extreme, this includes clearly visible ribs and vertebrae, tissues sunk into skull openings, ultra-prominent limb girdles and skinny, sinewy legs. We owe the term 'shrink-wrapping to sauropod expert and SV:POW author Mathew Wedel who, in a 2010 article, compared the contour-hugging soft-tissues of these restorations to items wrapped in tight plastic for transport.

Shrink-wrapping is a well known convention among those interested in palaeoart but is a relatively modern invention. Palaeoartists restored ancient animals with relatively bulky soft-tissues until the end of the 20th century to an extent where visible deep-tissue anatomy is genuinely exceptional in pre-modern palaeoart (a well known exception are ichthyosaur sclerotic rings, reflecting erroneous interpretation of these structures among early palaeontologists - see Buckland 1836). Shrink-wrapping became popular as conservative reconstruction approaches became dominant in the 1970s and went on to become a standard palaeoart convention soon after. Many, perhaps most, of the restorations produced by late 20th century artists employed shrink-wrapping and it remains conspicuous in artwork produced today. It has even spawned related traditions, such as tightly cropping fur and feathers to ensure animal shapes remain obvious, and has influenced approaches to restoring colour and skin texture, these elements being used to outline the topography of underlying bones. Famous shrink-wrappers include artists like Gregory S. Paul and Mark Hallett, who tend to be on the less dramatic side of the tradition, showing slight contours of the skull features alongside lean, though well-muscled, bodies and limbs. More extreme shrink-wrappers, like Ely Kish and William Stout, have works where shrink-wrapping is taken to a wholly unrealistic level. Gaping vacuities exist between neck vertebrae; rib cages and limb girdles bulge from the torsos; limbs are extremely thin and faces are lipless and gaunt. It’s difficult not to look at some of these works and not think of starving animals or even decaying remains: they do not look like healthy, virile beings.

William Stout's Quetzalcoatlus, posted at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs, has to be the most shrink-wrapped being ever rendered in paleoart. If it had any less tissue we'd be looking at moulds of the internal organs.
We might assign three reasons for the popularity of shrink-wrapping. The first is that its development coincided with a reinvention of dinosaurs as bird-like, active and powerful animals rather than oversized, under-muscled cold-blooded creatures. The athletic appearance of shrink-wrapped dinosaurs chimed with this renaissance and contrasted newer art from the plodding, perhaps over-voluminous animals of previous generations. Shrink-wrapping is not a dinosaur-exclusive tradition of course, but the popularity of these reptiles means that palaeoart conventions applied to dinosaurs are inevitably followed in artworks of other species. Secondly, images of prehistoric animals as heroically-built, powerful beings are preferred by many merchandisers and palaeoart fans, these interpretations most closely matching the erroneous but popular portrayal of prehistory as a savage struggle for survival, where only the most powerful animals survived. Thirdly, shrink-wrapping allows palaeoartists to ‘show our work’, demonstrating that the anatomy underlying the skin of a restored animal matches the osteological information provided by fossils.

How shrink-wrapping became unfashionable

Nowadays, shrink-wrapping is losing popularity among some parties as scientists and artists note a simple, but obvious problem: modern animals are generally not shrink-wrapped in the way we draw their extinct relatives. The most famous counter-shrink-wrapping arguments are in All Yesterdays (Conway et al. 2012) but something of an anti-shrink-wrapping movement was underway from the mid-2000s onward. Some now argue that, while champions of the rigorous reconstruction movement were right to draw attention to the true shapes of fossil animals and to emphasise their form in art, they might have gone too far in thinning out skin, muscle, fats and other tissues. Few animals have deeply sunken tissues over skull fenestra or distinctions in skin colour and texture correlating with skeletal anatomy, and no animals witnessed outside of veterinary clinics have detailed limb bone outlines projecting through their skin. Even reptiles - meant to be the living poster boys of shrink-wrapping - have a suite of elaborate, contour-altering soft-tissues. They include voluminous fat deposits; large amounts of wrinkly, saggy skin; eyes which bulge prominently from their sockets; deep lip tissues which fully sheath their teeth; jaw muscles which completely fill and swell from their skull housing; thick or pointed scales and, in some species, even expansive, mostly cartilaginous noses.

Matt Wedel's touching plea to end shrink-wrapping, from 2011. The struggle is still real: if you have spare paint, pixels clay or graphite, please donate generously.
Nowadays, many view skeletal elements as providing an important palaeoartistic foundation for soft-tissue shape, but concede that overlying tissues must have smoothed-over skeletal contours to produce 'softer' body forms. Indeed, there's something of an collective interest in knowing how deep extra-skeletal tissues can get. The answer, it seems, is 'very'. The necks of many birds and mammals are often flexed at much higher angles than we would assume based on their external appearance because their overlying tissues are so thick that the entire neck skeleton posture is hidden (Taylor et al. 2009). The muscles and bones of major anatomical elements – such as necks and proximal limb segments – can also be obscured under skin, fat and integument. Contour-altering structures like horns, spikes, spines, combs, humps, armour, fins, and webbing are often composed of soft-tissue, and the large, savage-looking teeth of mammals and lizards can be completely obscured by facial tissues. We need only look at x-rays of living animal species to see their often-startling lack of correlation between external appearance and internal anatomy.

Even seals get in on this action, as evidenced from this Irish Seal Sancutary x-ray. Their site appears to be down at time of writing, but SV:POW! has this image hosted there for the time being. 
It's from this general train of thought that a  push for more bulk, fuzz and fat in palaeoart has been born, and this general philosophy is lining up well with fossil data. We have direct evidence that the bodies of ichthyosaurus (Stenopterygius) and mosasaurs (Prognathodon) bore tall fins and paddle extensions that vastly exceeded the limits of their skeletal margins (McGowan and Motani 2003; Lindgren et al. 2013). Preserved body outlines of ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs show deep tissues which created smooth, streamlined torsos that are much bulkier than the underlying skeleton (Frey et al. 2017). Fossils of early horned dinosaurs (Psittacosaurus), Tanystropheus and ‘mummified’ hadrosaurs (multiple taxa) show extensive muscle volume that bury their skeletons as well as elaborate structures – soft-tissue filaments, combs and skin membranes – that defy ‘shrink-wrapping’ conventions (e.g. Mayr et al. 2002; Renesto 2005; Bell 2014). The feather outlines on innumerable fossil theropods show that they were just as densely feathered as modern avians, and the fuzzy ‘halos’ of fossil mammals and pterosaurs suggest they too were also adorned with deep layers of filaments. Several pterosaur fossils (PterodactylusPterorhynchus) also preserve unexpectedly broad neck tissue outlines which contrast against their thin, tubular neck vertebrae, as well as elaborations of crest tissues that create body outlines more voluminous than those predicted from musculoskeletal restorations (e.g. Frey and Martill 1998; Czerkas and Ji 2002). The 'shrink-wrapping hypothesis' is being falsified with regularity.
Select fossilised body outlines of exinct taxa: no shrink-wrapping here. A, plesiosaur Mauriciosaurus fernandezi, B, ichythyosaur Stenopterygius quadriscissus; C, dromaeosaur Sinornithosaurus millenii. A, after Frey et al. 2017; B after McGowan and Motani 2003.


But while cries of 'bulkier, deeper, fuzzier!' are generally well-placed in palaeoart discussions, we should be careful not to overshoot the mark. Amid the cry for deeper tissues, we might be overlooking the fact that some living creatures are somewhat shrink-wrapped - at least in some regions. In fact, virtually animals have areas where their extra-skeletal tissues are shallow and skeletal contours are visible. Common areas of thin tissue include the ends of limbs and tails; the midline of the sternal region; and some areas of the face, such as the frontal and nasal regions; the ‘cheek region’ (over the jugal in birds and reptiles, and the zygomatic arch in mammals), and the lower margins of the bottom jaw. Our own anatomy is no exception to these trends, as is borne out by the extremely well-studied tissue depths of human faces (e.g. Stephan and Simpson 2008) or the simple act of looking in a mirror. The osteoderms of sauropsids are another example of close interaction between skin and bone: as with modern armoured reptiles, extinct scaly sauropsids with extensive osteoderm arrangements probably looked pretty darn like their fossil remains - in other words, kinda shrink-wrapped.

There is no tissue, only Zuul.
In reality, there is a spectrum of tissue depth in living species and some are more 'shrink-wrapped' than others. While no healthy living animal attains the most extreme levels of shrink-wrappery portrayed in palaeoartworks, certain lizards, fish, and crocodylians have anatomies which are more shrink-wrapped than average, possessing large areas of relatively thin, skull-hugging tissues which recall shrink-wrapped art. These thin tissues are highly characteristic of these species and are something something palaeoartists would want to capture if restoring these animals from fossils. We would miss this, however, if we assume that all animals have their tissue volume settings cranked up to maximum.

These observations mean we have to be careful with applying a general philosophy to shrink-wrapping rather than scientific investigation. Tissue depth is evidently not a matter of palaeoartistic style or fashion, but a biological variable we should be aiming to predict and infer. If we're aiming to approach this topic like scientists, we should look to see what fossils and comparative anatomy can tell us about tissue depth to make informed, specific predictions about extinct animal appearance and avoiding a one-size-fits-all 'anti-shrink-wrap' philosophy. So, is there anything in the fossil record that elucidates how deeply buried animal skeletons were under muscle, skin and so on?

Looking for clues of 'shrink-wrapped' tissues

Frustratingly, one of the first lines of evidence we have to jettison are those body outline fossils. As great as they are, they can be of limited use for determining subtle variation in tissue thickness as their shapes are readily altered by taphonomy, preservation styles and even our own preparation work. Regions of thin tissue depth will be were especially sensitive to destructive processes and are easily obliterated by imperfect preservation or human error, so their chances of preservation are minimal. Phylogenetic bracketing is also of limited utility because the vastly different cranial architecture of extant and extinct animals makes such investigations almost meaningless. Non-avian dinosaurs, for instance, have skulls which are neither truly croc-like or bird-like, and it's probably not sensible to assume their extant relatives provide reliable insights into their facial tissues.

Predicting regions of thin tissue is thus largely left to comparative anatomy - predicting minimised tissue volumes using fossil bones and the living structural analogues. Among extant species, we see shrink-wrapping largely applying to animal faces, so if we investigate the skulls of ‘soft-faced’ animals like mammals, monitor lizards, snakes, and certain birds, and compare them to species with shrink-wrapped faces, like turtles, crocodylians, chameleons and well-ossified fish, we might find characteristics that correlate with facial tissue depth. These will then give us some criteria to assess tissue depth in fossil species. I've had a go at this, and suggest that osteological attributes related to facial tissue depth include:

How might we predict shrink-wrapping in fossil animals without good soft-tissue remains? It's challenging, but these attributes might give a general idea. From top to bottom: Burchell's zebra (Equus quagga burchellii); water monitor (Varanus salvator); Alligator mississipiensis and Arrau turtle (Podocnemis expansa).
Openness of skull architecture. The skull openings of softer-faced animals - including the temporal muscle openings, orbits and nares – tend to be large. At their most extreme these openings are not fully bordered by bone (e.g. many mammal orbits and nares, the lower temporal fenestrae of lizards). Larger skull openings necessitate a larger fraction of face structure be composed of soft-tissue, such as muscle, organs, and cartilage, and this overwhelms the contours of the bony skeleton to make a 'soft-faced' species. The nasal cartilages of monitors and mammals, as well as bulging mammalian jaw muscles, are examples of this. Conversely, shrink-wrapped species have smaller cranial openings, which impose physical limitations on how much soft-tissue can form the shape of the face. Muscles and organs might protrude from these somewhat, but their impact on facial structure is less than that of species with large skull openings, and more of the face shape reflects bony contours

Rugosity. Soft-faced animals tend to have smooth bone textures with limited or no areas of rugosity, whereas the skulls of shrink-wrapped species have large areas of rugose textures, often corresponding to specific epidermal features (e.g. scales or keratinous sheaths - see below and Hieronymus et al. 2009). This factor largely seems to reflect the proximity of epidermal tissue, which can leave characteristic textures in species with tightly-bound skin. Soft-faced species generally lack this rugosity because muscles, fat and voluminous integuments (fur and feathers) don’t leave broad osteological features (Hieronymus et al. 2009), or simply because their skin is displaced far enough from the bone that it doesn't alter its surface. We might also note that the skull contours of soft-faced species are generally more rounded than those of shrink-wrapped species, which can be crisp and sharp. Rugosity is a particularly useful criterion because it can show the presence of tight skin tissues with some precision. If one part of a skull is rugose, and another isn’t, there’s a good chance that the smoother region had a different tissue configuration which could - among other things - reflect a deeper or 'softer' facial covering.

Fossil skulls - like those of the centrosaurine Centrosaurus apertus - are covered with features that allow us to predict aspects of their facial skin. Often - as is the case here - they suggest fairly low-volume structures, like scales and horn sheaths, which generally don't deviate too much from the underlying bone (yes, I know there are exceptions, but we're looking for major trends here). Centrosaurus skull redrawn from this Wikipedia photo, data on facial tissue correlates from Hieronymus et al. (2009).
Pits, grooves and foramina. Shrink-wrapped species tend to have large numbers of perforations in their skulls, while soft-faced species show the opposite (Morhardt 2009). This is particularly evident around their jaws and presumably reflects the greater capacity for soft-faced animals to carry nutrients and sensory information through their soft-tissues, whereas shrink-wrapped animals are forced to run nervous and vascular networks through their face skeletons.

Correlates for epidermal projections. Elaborate skin projections – such as soft-tissue horns or crests - leave characteristic osteological signatures (Hieronymus et al. 2009). Given that these projections can alter animal faces quite substantially from the underlying skull shape, the presence of these is a clear indication that the species was not shrink-wrapped. We would expect a lack of correlates for epidermal projections in shrink-wrapped species.

As is often the case with zoological topics there are exceptions to these observations that preclude using any one of these criteria in isolation to determine tissue depth (e.g. smooth bone textures can underlie thin naked skin, so are not always a hallmark of deep tissues). However, applied collectively, they might give a general insight into how shrink-wrapped or 'soft-faced' an extinct animal was. I'm encouraged to see that these proposed osteological features of soft- and shrink-wrapped faces covaried in the past as much as they do for modern species. This doesn't mean these criteria are 'correct' as goes their relationship to tissue depth, but at least shows there's variation in their skull architecture that we can recognise as equivalent to that of modern species, and it isn't unreasonable to think the variance might reflect the same anatomical factors.

If we apply these criteria to some fossil taxa, what predictions might we make? The roomy, smooth-boned and foramina-lite skulls of cynodont-grade synapsids and fossil mammals match predictions for ‘softer-faced’ species, and this might be true of some fossil reptiles – like sauropod dinosaurs - too (this is not a new conclusion: both Matt Wedel and Darren Naish have been saying similar things about sauropods for years). If right, the 'soft-faced' sauropod that greeted you at the start of this post might be more likely that the shink-wrapped toilet-headed version we're so familiar with. At the other end of the spectrum, the highly textured, pitted bones and solidly-built skulls of ankylosaurs and anamniotes meet our criteria for shrink-wrapping very well, and they likely had facial anatomy tightly conforming to their skull shapes.

Applying the criteria outlined above might help us roughly sort predict 'shrinkwrapped', 'soft-faced' or intermediary conditions in extinct taxa. The placements of the animals here are only rough, but give an indication of their relation to the tissue-depth criteria outlined above. Fingers crossed that some of these will be corroborated or refuted with soft-tissue discoveries in future.
Careful examination of fossil skulls allows us to also predict partial or regionalised shrink-wrapping in species where some aspects of their facial anatomy conformed to the underlying bone, and others did not. An example of this configuration is demonstrated in some living lizards, like gila monsters, which have skull textures strongly indicating minimal tissue depth over much of their skull but smooth, foramina-lite jaw margins. In life, these animals have shrink-wrapped dorsal skull regions and snouts, but vast, fleshy lips, which is what we might predict based on their skull anatomy.

Partial facial shrink-wrapping seems apt for many fossil species. Gorgonopsians, for instance, might not have soft faces like living mammals as their snouts and foreheads are quite rugose and their nasal openings are small (e.g. Kammerer 2016). These features might indicate the presence of tighter skin over the snout. However, they have few jaw foramina and relatively open regions for jaw musculature, so they might have been fleshier around their jaw margins and at the back of head (below). Tyrant dinosaurs have skulls with relatively small openings compared to some of their theropod relatives, rugose snout textures, several hornlets (Carr et al. 2017), as well as a slightly elevated foramina count (Morhardt 2009). This cranial anatomy is consistent with tighter tissue depth in several areas, if someway short of a fully lipless, crocodylian-like degree of shrink-wrapping. Many pterosaurs show pitting and vascular canals embedded into their jaw margins, and some species have indications of tight sheathing on their crests and jaws, but the presence of striated bony crests – correlates for epidermal projections – as well as large skull openings and smooth bone textures in other parts of the skull, indicate that their faces might not have been entirely skeletal.

Was gorgonopsian Inostrancevia shrink-wrapped or soft-faced? According to the criteria of this post, maybe a little from column A, a little from column B. 
Time and testing will tell whether these criteria are a genuinely useful means to predict facial anatomy. I hope - as with other aspects of extinct animal appearance - that genuine research into this issue will be carried out one day. Criteria to predict tissue-depth are a desirable tool for any palaeoartist as it's simply more honest and scientific: if we're serious about this reconstructing extinct animals gig, predictive methods and sound hypotheses are infinitely better than sticking to our personal hunches, guesses or erring on what looks coolest. Regardless of whether we can predict tissue depth or not, the take home here is that we should not approach our artwork having already decided how thin or fat the tissue volumes of our subjects will be. There is probably not a single ‘universal truth’ that can be said about restoring tissue depth for all animals, whether we err toward thicker or thinner: the right tissue depth is the most defensible and best rationalised on for each subject and its constituent body parts.

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