Wednesday, 17 May 2023

Was the first piece of paleoart a shitpost?

Illustrations of fossils go back at least to the Renaissance, if not further. However, reconstructing those fossils as they may have been in life, the thing we generally refer to as paleoart, is a relatively recent practice.

Fig. 1.: Duria Antiquior - A more Ancient Dorset, 1830. Take notice of the defecating animals.

Often regarded as the very first piece of paleoart that tried to show fossil animals as they may have been in the flesh is Duria Antiquior - A more Ancient Dorset, by Henry De la Beche, from the year 1830. De la Beche’s watercolour portrays the Jurassic ecosystem that has been uncovered over the years by his friend Mary Anning, showing the different kinds of marine reptiles all interacting with each other (mostly through violence) in their natural environment. The piece was made to be sold to academic institutions as a teaching instrument, the money going to Anning, who had unfortunately fallen on hard times (Davidson 2008).

Fig. 2.: A Coprolitic Vision, 1829,  proving that humour has not changed much over the centuries.

But is this really the first piece of paleoart, in the sense of depicting fossil organisms as living beings? No, at best Duria Antiquior was the first one used in an academic/scientific context. What some people may not know is that Henry De la Beche was also a passionate caricaturist and one year prior he had created quite a daft piece titled A Coprolitic Vision. What it depicts is William Buckland, in full academic attire and geologist’s hammer in hand, at the entry of a cave, where he sees living prehistoric mammals, flying pterosaurs and marine reptiles… just defecating all over the place. The cave itself looks like the inside of a digestive tract, with the pillars holding it up resembling, well… you know. What this was meant to satirize was Buckland’s then current obsession with coprolites (fossilized feces), which resulted in multiple works on the matter. This itself has had a large influence on Duria Antiquior. If you look closely at that later painting, you can also see various animals, especially the ichthyosaur in the foreground and the plesiosaur in the centre, dropping logs into the water. In his recent book Ancient Sea Reptiles, Darren Naish claimed that this was supposed to show an instinctual fear response, but it seems far more likely that this is a nod to both A Coprolitic Vision as well as the fact that De la Beche had used Buckland’s work on coprolites as a basis for speculating what the foodweb in ancient Dorset may have been like, helping him determine which animals in the painting should feed on the others.

Fig. 3.: William Buckland sticking his head into a not-quite-extinct Kirkdale Cave, 1822.

So, is A Coprolitic Vision the oldest piece of paleoart then? It may very well be the very first life reconstruction of Mesozoic marine reptiles, but not of prehistoric animals in general. We can go back a lot farther to find that. In 1822, for example, William Conybeare produced another satirical piece, which again shows William Buckland exploring a cave (De la Beche may have been deliberately riffing on Conybeare). This time it is the real life Kirkdale Cave in North Yorkshire, where he is greeted by a group of cave hyenas. The cave was originally a big mystery, due to containing the bones of a wide variety of animals, such as elephants, hippos, rhinos, hyenas and bison, which (it was thought) were not native to Britain. Buckland first analysed the cave under the belief that the bones were remains from the deluge, having been swept into the cave by the great flood from elsewhere on Earth. But as time went on, he realized that the cave never had an open roof and that its only entrance was too small to have fit in the whole bodies of most of the animals found in it. Then he discovered that most of the bones had bite marks that fit the teeth of the hyenas at the site. A suspicion grew, which was further supported by Buckland finding objects in the cave that looked to him like petrified hyena droppings. To confirm that this is indeed what it is, he went as far as comparing the coprolites with the dung of living hyenas that he observed in British menageries. Thus, it became obvious that all the remains at the Kirkdale Cave were not swept in by the deluge but came from animals that had actually lived close to it and were dragged into the cave by a hyena pack that inhabited it. Rather than mocking him, Conybeare’s drawing is meant to celebrate this discovery, as Buckland's study was the first reconstruction of an ecosystem from deep time. Aided again by coprolites. One may question though if Conybeare’s drawing would have actually counted as the restoration of an extinct animal at the time he made it, as it was only just then being debated if the European hyena bones in question were from the extant spotted hyena or belonged to a separate, extinct taxon. In that light, depending on his view, he may or may not not have been illustrating an animal he regarded as extinct, but rather one he thought was still alive but has just lost its former range (which would be true from a certain point of view, as the cave hyena is today regarded as simply a sub-species of the spotted hyena).

Fig. 4.: A mammoth mistake, 1805.

Going even further back, we come across Roman Boltunov’s reconstruction of a frozen mammoth carcass that Ossip Shumachov had discovered in the delta of the river Lena in the year 1805. As is evident, he was apparently unaware that Georges Cuvier had already determined by this time, based off the few fragmentary mammoth bones that had made their way into Western Europe, that this animal was a distinct species of elephant. Instead, Boltunov shows it as some kind of giant… boar? Maybe? It is certainly quite an odd-looking construct. Boltunov was neither an illustrator nor a paleontologist, but an ivory merchant, so the purpose of this drawing was first and foremost advertisement, transmitted through private communications between him and his contacts in St. Petersburg. He had bought the carcass' tusks off Shumachov and was looking to sell them further, which is how Michael Friedrich Adams got to know about the find (which is now named the Adams mammoth). Adams was able to buy the tusks off Boltunov and also retrieve the rest of the skeleton, including its frozen skin and other soft bits, which were all assembled together in the Zoological Museum of St. Petersburg.

Fig. 5.: Johann/Jean Hermann's mammalian pterosaur, giving the viewer a full-frontal assault, 1800.

The absolutely oldest known, incontrovertible piece of art that tried to depict a fossil how it would have looked in the flesh comes from Johann Hermann (Witton 2018). This drawing from the year 1800 depicts his interpretation of the Bavarian fossil Pterodactylus, interpreting it as a flying mammal, which, if you have been a long-time reader, you will know was a popular idea among Central European paleontologists at the time. He shows it with fur, cute ears and external genitals similar to a bat, while faint lines indicate where he thought additional membranes may have attached or how the wing may have moved. This was sent in private along with his writings on the fossil to Georges Cuvier and was apparently never meant for official publication. In fact, only in 2004 was it rediscovered that this drawing even existed.

So, what we can say in the end is that while the first piece of paleoart in history was not a shitpost, if we consider that the very first one was never published for over two centuries, the second one was an odd curiosity among Siberian ivory merchants and the third one just showed quite modern animals, De la Beche's coprolitepost could very well have been many people’s first introduction to restored animals from deep time. The backstories of the two caricatures discussed here are also a testament to the influence that the study of coprolites has had on the history of early paleontology and paleoart, the effect still being felt right up to Duria Antiquior.

I think most of us can also agree that Hermann’s Pterodactylus and Butanov’s mammoth have a certain shitpost energy to them.

If you liked this and other articles, please consider supporting me on Patreon. I am thankful for any amount, even if it is just 1$, as it will help me at dedicating more time to this blog and related projects. Patrons also gain early access to the draft-versions of these posts.

Related Posts:


  • Davidson, Jane: A History of Paleontology Illustration, Bloomington 2008.
  • Pemberton, George; Mccrea, Richard; Gingras, Murray; Sarjeant, William: History of Ichnology. The Correspondence Between the Reverend Henry Duncan and the Reverend William Buckland and the Discovery of the First Vertebrate Footprints, in: Historical Biology, 2008, 15, p. 5 – 18.
  • Rudwick, Martin: Bursting the Limits of Time. The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution, Chicago 2005.
  • Taquet, Phillipe; Padian, Kevin: The earliest known restoration of a pterosaur and the philosophical origins of Cuvier’s Ossemens Fossiles, in Comptes Rendus Palevol, 2004, 3, p. 157 – 175.
  • Witton, Mark: The Paleoartist's Handbook. Recreating prehistoric animals in art, Marlborough 2018.

Image Sources:

Saturday, 22 April 2023

An update on Trinity

April 18 has passed and if you have read the last post, you are now probably wondering what happened to Trinity, the first T. rex skeleton that was auctioned off in Europe. It was sold to the highest bidder for the price of 4.8 million Swiss francs, which is somewhat surprising, as the value of the skeleton was estimated to be within 5 and 8 million. But who bought it? For the first few days the buyer was kept anonymous, with various media reporting that it was either an American or Swiss person. I had a feeling that, like with Stan, they might never get revealed.

But now the new owner of the skeleton has made themselves known. It is the Phoebus Foundation, a philanthropic organisation dedicated towards the conservation and restoration of artworks and cultural objects. Apparently they are constructing a brand new culture center in the Boerentoren tower in Antwerpen (which lies in a country with noticeably inferior chocolate), where they eventually want to put Trinity to make her accessible to the public, as well as scientists. As the center is not yet finished, they plan to lend Trinity to museums in the meantime.

So, at least in this case, we can lay our fears about private fossil auctions to rest, as this is probably the best-case scenario anyone could have hoped for. What is pretty funny is that we ended the last post with a quote by Dennis Hansen, where he compared private fossil collecting to private art collecting, and now Trinity was literally bought by an art foundation. There is something quite poetic in this.
Dr. Spondylus is thrilled about the news!

Saturday, 15 April 2023

Speculative Marine Reptiles I

Click to enlarge

The Triassic was full of all kinds of strange and wonderful reptiles, most of which unfortunately went exitinct at the end of that period. Phytosaurs are one of those groups. Phylogenetically, they have gone back and forth between being true croc-line archosaurs or being more archaic archosauriforms that merely resembled modern crocodilians through convergent evolution. Although quite successful throughout the whole Triassic, they left no descendants into the Jurassic. Or did they?

Presented here is Iniasaurus, a speculative phytosaur that survived into the Early Jurassic. Some real life phytosaurs, such as Mystriosuchus or Diadongosuchus had already adapted towards a mostly marine life and, perhaps, these were not failed experiments as we would like to think. Descending from a Mystriosuchus-like ancestor, I imagine the line leading towards Iniasaurus surviving the mass extinction (as well as potential competition with pseudosuchians) by giving up the freshwater environments and increasingly adapting towards fully marine life, where the extinction of archaic sauropterygians and large ichthyosaurs has opened up new niches. Its tail has developed into a proper fluke and the hindlegs have become vestigial, only used during mating. Mostly unable to walk on land, it gives live birth, much like other marine archosauromorphs such as Dinocephalosaurus or the metriorhynchids.

Calling Iniasaurus a marine reptile is however no longer entirely accurate, as it has begun advancing back into the freshwater habitats from which its ancestors came. I imagine it like the Mesozoic equivalent of a river dolphin, swimming through murky rainforest rivers and estuaries in search of fish, which it catches with its gharialous jaws. Instead of echolocation it perhaps uses electroreceptors at the snout-tip to detect its prey. The clawed flippers come in handy when clambering over sunken treelogs, while the ancestral dermal armour makes for good protection against the theropods which now dominate the land.

Iniasaurus is accompanied by an (admittedly more fanciful) creature, another Triassic survivor. Neohescheleria (or alternatively Nothocadborosaurus if you want to be cheeky) is a rainforest thalattosaur. Its bizarre-looking skull is actually quite archaic and still close to that of its clam-eating predecessors such as Nectosaurus or Clarazia. Yes, their heads really were just that weird, which makes them all the more underappreciated. The derivation is instead observed in its body: Taking anguiliform swimming to a whole new degree, Neohescheleria has lost its forelimbs and swims much more like a sea serpent. Similar to the Cretaceous pachyophiid marine snakes, the hindlimbs still remain and are used in steering or giving quick escape-bursts. The serpentine trunk greatly helps in navigating the cluttered river environment and probing deep into crevasses and burrows where the animal can pick up and crush freshwater clams and crustaceans.

Like many bursts of my creativity, Iniasaurus is inspired by a new book I just read, Darren Naish's brand new Ancient Sea Reptiles. Particularly this short passage from page 80:

"On that note, it is surprising that phytosaurs only took to marine life twice, since they look ideally suited for it. Maybe the existence of during the Triassic of ichthyosaurs, sauropterygians and other groups prevented their movement into the marine realm."

What Naish is probably referring to here is the fact that phytosaurs had retracted their nostrils so far up their skull that they sat right in front of the eyes. Not too dissimilar from the blowhole of cetaceans, this would have been a perfect pre-adaptation for a fully marine life. Compare that with the Jurassic-Cretaceous marine crocs, which always had their nostrils at the snout-tip, which some have even singled out as a reason for their eventual extinction. It really makes you wonder why something like Iniasaurus never existed... or maybe it did. Rainforest environments are usually quite bad at preserving vertebrate fossils.

My fascination with thalattosaurs goes back a fair bit longer, in part because in the museum I work at we actually have some original fossils from Monte San Giorgio. If you want to learn more about them and other marine reptiles from the Ticino region, I can greatly recommend Mesozoic Sea Dragons by Olivier Rieppel.

If you liked this and other articles, please consider supporting me on Patreon. I am thankful for any amount, even if it is just 1$, as it will help me at dedicating more time to this blog and related projects. Patrons also gain early access to the draft-versions of these posts.

Related Posts:


  • Butler, Richard; Jones, Andrew; Buffetaut, Eric, et al.: Description and phylogenetic placement of a new marine species of phytosaur (Archosauriformes: Phytosauria) from the Late Triassic of Austria, in: Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 187, 2019, p.198–228.
  • Naish, Darren: Ancient Sea Reptiles. Plesiosaurs, Ichthyosaurs, Mosasaurs and More, Washington 2023.
  • Rieppel, Olivier: Mesozoic Sea Dragons. Triassic Marine Life from the Ancient Tropical Lagoon of Monte San Giorgio, Bloomington 2019.

Monday, 3 April 2023

My evening with Trinity, the first T. rex to be auctioned off in Europe

Yours truly, up close with Trinity.

Lately, it really feels like the paleontology scene in Switzerland is booming. A bunch of new finds are being made in the Jurassic mountains and the Alps, completely unexpected taxa are being discovered, brand new species and genera are being named from old material that has been re-examined and now the world of private fossil collections has also had its one-of-a-kind spotlight (if the latter is a good thing we will get back to later).

While not the first major dinosaur skeleton in general (that honour goes to some allosaurs and diplodocids in Paris), “TRX-293 Trinity” is the very first Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton to be auctioned off in Europe and has thus had quite the media attention. Koller Auktionen displayed the fully assembled skeleton in the Tonhalle Zürich, where people (including potential buyers) could book a visit to inspect the skeleton before its official auction on April 18. I had the great opportunity to go look at it too, which I used to take as many photos of it as possible, far more than I could fit into a single post. I have some extra ones on my Instagram.

The skeleton is being sold by the Wunderkammer Gallery of Zürich, whose current head is one Christian D. Link, who apparently had worked beforehand as a magician for twenty years. Trinity is part of a wider auction gallery called “Out of this World”, which will also sell a variety of other curiosities, including fossils, meteorites, vintage astronaut gear and movie props. How exactly the gallery had acquired the bones which make up Trinity has been a bit difficult to discern from the information that has been available to me, though it seems to have originally been part of a private collection from the United States.

Click to enlarge

TRX-293 consists of 50.17% original fossil material. The full skeleton is 11.6 metres long and stands 4.37 metres tall. It is called Trinity because the original bone material is actually composed of three different specimens. Most of the body comes from the specimen “Garfield County 2”, which was excavated in 2013 in the Hell Creek Formation of Montana. This was supplemented with material from “Garfield County 1”, which was found one year earlier from the same formation. The skull comes from the third specimen, which was found in 2013 in the Lance Creek Formation of Wyoming. Apparently some additional vertebrae and parts of the hindlegs from the same formation were also added (which makes one wonder if there are more rexes in Trinity than just three). The mount was assembled by fossil preparator Nils Knötschke, former scientific director of the Dinosaur Museum Münchenhagen. I briefly met Nils in person once during the test-assembly of Victoria at the Sauriermuseum. He’s a nice dude, check out his Instagram.

The exhibition of the skeleton was quite the event. There were a lot of people and even security guards. There were also two balconies of different heights from which I was able to photograph the skeleton. On the tables laid booklets containing the skeleton’s information, as well as flyers by the Sauriermuseum (which helped out with the assembly), advertising their new T. rex special exhibit, which you will probably get to read about here in the future. What was a bit odd about the exhibit was the music they chose to play in the background to create atmosphere. The use of the Jurassic Park theme was pretty obvious, but I also heard tunes from Jaws, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Pirates of the Caribbean and… Shrek? Do not get me wrong, I love Shrek, but what does he have to do with dinosaurs?

Commenting on the mount itself, everyone involved has done a pretty fantastic job. The original bones have been excellently preparated and the dinosaur is posed in a naturalistic striding pose. As gleaned from interviews, Nils also took great care to pose the arms in the correct, inclined position instead of the dreaded pronated bunny hands that still plague many older mounts.

Oh yeah, and I also took that hand-puppet I got from London with me. His name’s Dr. Spondylus and he was thrilled.

The T. rex in the room

Of course, this reportage would be incomplete without addressing a quite controversial topic, which is the question of how ethical it is to auction off a fossil of this calibre to (likely) private buyers. I have commented surprisingly little on this topic before, even though I myself own a little collection of fossils I found or bought myself. But most of that consists of invertebrates, which barely anyone cares for. Privately owning entire dinosaur skeletons is a whole other level that understandably has some quite problematic aspects to it. These are specimens that are exceedingly rare and often of high scientific value, so it becomes quite frustrating when they are owned by private, often anonymous people who sometimes do not even offer the possibility of having the specimens be examined by researchers. Some quite notable specimens that would offer us great insight have been blocked off from scientific study that way. On the other hand, sometimes public museums simply do not have the means or finances to dig out such specimens or to preparate them, potentially leaving them exposed in the ground to erode away forever. Here I would like to quote Dr. Dennis Hansen (my boss) from the Zoological Museum of Zürich:

For wealthy people who don’t know how to dig for dinosaurs, but who are still interested in dinosaurs and want to buy them, I see it the same way as art collecting. Art historians would also like every single important painting to be in the public realm. But experience has shown us that sooner or later that happens anyway. There are enough dinosaurs out there for everyone. Basically, there are just not enough people digging for them at the moment. And any dinosaur that is unearthed in the US, at least on private land, is fair game for sale. If it’s bought by a private collector, sooner or later, experience shows time and time again that it ends up in a public museum anyway. Many of today’s large public museums in major cities were started by private collectors, or their collections were built up around private collections. You need to have both private and museum collectors, because it’s a little bit of a symbiosis, and simply seeing it as black and white is really not productive to my mind. And dinosaurs are not dug up from deep below the surface. When you find a dinosaur, it’s because it's already eroding away. If no one comes to along to dig it out within two or three generations, it will completely disappear anyway. So if we have to wait two or three generations for a private collector or their grandchildren to donate it to a museum, that’s fine. I mean, the dinosaur is already 66 million years old. What’s a few human generations between friends?”

While I do not fully agree with Dennis that it is purely a question of time*, he at least offers a more positive outlook. After all, the T. rex Stan, who in 2020 was sold to an anonymous buyer for almost $32 million is now planned to return a museum again (the Natural History Museum of Abu Dhabi, which is still under construction), so there are plenty of precedents for this even in recent times. One also has to ask how much scientific value Trinity offers, given how, unlike Stan or Sue, it is not a single near-complete skeleton but a chimaera of multiple individuals. Of course, each individual bone offers data that is of value, depending on what one is looking for, but a complex life history can probably not be gleaned from this specimen as can be done with complete dinosaurs like Big Al. Similar to Dippy, Trinity is more of a showpiece.

*One has to ask for example what happens when a rich family simply refuses to donate a specimen even if the original buyer dies, they somehow lose it, damage it or do not keep up with its documentation. Legally, there is nothing that would prevent one from buying an original Van Gogh and scribbling a bunch of stickmen on it, since one can do with their property what they want.

Trinity will be auctioned off on the 18th of April. Its estimated value is between 5 and 8 million CHF (5.4 – 8.6 USD). Included with the skeleton will also be a bone-map of the mount, photos from the field and the dig sites, a quarry map of one of the specimens and the right to reproduce the original bones. The bidding, I heard, will start at 4 million. Who do you think will buy it? Who do you hope will buy it? What would you do with this skeleton if you could have it?

If you liked this and other articles, please consider supporting me on Patreon. I am thankful for any amount, even if it is just 1$, as it will help me at dedicating more time to this blog and related projects. Patrons also gain early access to the draft-versions of these posts.

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