Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Back to the Drawing Board, Steve Spielberg! Scaly Spotted Feathery Frilled by Catherine Thimmesh

What did the dinosaurs really look like?

Since none of our kind were around to make cave paintings for us, modern paleontologists have only the fossils found all over the earth to go on. Since bones fossilize readily, most of our first ideas of dinosaurs came from skeletons, sometimes only a few bones, from which to conceptualize what the size, shape, and gait of a living dinosaur might have been.

But in the past few decades new discoveries have amazingly altered our concept of what dinosaurs were. The study of Deinonychus, with its huge curved-clawed left hind foot, convinced scientists that they must have been fleet-footed raptors, able to dispatch their prey while hopping on one leg and slashing with the other, and therefore must have been, not slow-moving, cold-blooded reptiles, but warm-blooded super athletic hunters. Then, the discovery of fossilized and later mummified dinosaur skin, including the amazingly feathered Sinosauropteryx and the melanosomes (pigment bodies) for red and brown striping on its tail, radically changed our ideas of how these beasts actually looked. While much remains to be learned about the external appearance of dinosaurs, the combined sciences of anatomy, physiology, and biology together make for much more certainty in imagining what those creatures must have looked like back in the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous eras.

Enter a new member of the dino team--the paleoartist.

"Scientific reality drives the visual image," explain Sylvia Czerkas, half of the famed Czerkas paleoart team. "It's very important for us to start with the science and then put into the image what we've learned."

Paleoartists use the fossil bones, and the plant studies, rock studies, and all the other bits of evidence discovered by the various scientists. Then they attempt to bridge the divide between "knowns" and the "unknowns."

Clearly, paleoartists have to be scientists themselves. Fossil bones show evidence of the long-gone muscles that moved them, suggesting the size and shape of the beast. Knowledge of basic anatomy, especially current related animals, help them sculpt, in their imaginations, how the creature was adapted to movement in its environment. Study of trackways, series of fossilized footprints add clues to the animal's morphology, and study of fossilized tissue, especially skin, give clues to how the animal's hide might have appeared. For example, some dinosaurs had scales, but they appeared to have not been overlapping like a snake's, but beaded, "semi-hexagonal" "a rosette-type pattern," not unlike parts of the modern-day Jackson's chameleon. Until more is discovered about the cells producing color, paleoartists can assume that dinosaur scales or primitive feathers were adapted to blend with their surroundings as do living animals today.

When Steven Spielbeg produced Jurassic Park back in 1993, his frightful raptor, Deinonychus, raced across the set clad in mottled scales, but with what we know today, if he were to film Jurassic Park IV, Denonychus would be a much different movie monster:

"At the time of Jurassic Park, feathers were unknown for any dinosaur. But now the evidence is undeniably clear that Deinonychus and many types of dinosaurs were feathered," says paleoartist Steven Czerkus.

The notable nonfiction author, Catherine Thimmesh's Scaly Spotted Feathered Frilled: How do we know what dinosaurs really looked like? (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) gives middle readers who have moved beyond the "Yikes!" phase of fascination with the monster dinosaur an absorbing look into current dinosaur science and the work of the paleoartist in depicting its exciting findings. Filled with detailed schematic drawings and detailed full-page color paintings, Thimmesh's just-published book introduces upper elementary and middle school readers to the cutting-edge science which helps the artist to flesh out those creatures, inspiring kids who love science and love to draw an insight into how art and science can work together in the advancement of knowledge.  As the author says, "Still, somewhere out there, there is more evidence; there are more pieces of the puzzle--as yet undiscovered, as yet not fully understood.  Something unheard of today might become known tomorrow. Tomorrow's discoveries might upend what is known today." And the kid who reads this book today may be the one to make those discoveries.

Thimmesh provides a handy appendix, with thumbnail information about noted paleoartists, a bibliography, a very necessary glossary, and full index to fire the imagination of even the armchair paleoartist.

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