Wednesday, 25 December 2019

The Alien Prehistoric World Trope: Part 3 - Technicolor Thecodonts

This is part three of a series. If you have not read part two, please do here. Last time we entered the realm of dinosaurs in cinema and for now we will remain there. In 1940, seven years after King Kong, another important and influential movie featuring dinosaurs came into cinemas. I am of course talking about Walt Disney's Fantasia. It was the studio's third major feature, coming out after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio. While those two were based on popular children's stories and therefore mainly attracted a younger audience, Walt attempted with Fantasia to break a trend that still plagues animation to this day. What is often called the "Animation Age Ghetto" is the thought that animation is a lower art-form only meant for children, more similar to comics than to actual movies. Fantasia was an (in my opinion successful) experiment in elevating it into high art and using all the advantages of the medium. The idea was both simple and brilliant: The animators were to take classic pieces of music by masterful composers and to their melody animate their vision of the story that they imagined the music is telling. The idea had its origins in the earlier Silly Symphonies shorts and originally started out with just one short, The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Paul Dukas, in which Mickey Mouse reenacts the events of Goethe's classic poem Der Zauberlehrling (which I actually had to memorize in school once). The short became too expensive, so Walt had the idea of expanding it into a feature-length movie by adding more shorts based on classic music. The segments that were added, all conducted by Leopold Stokowski, were Toccata and Fugue in D minor by Johann Sebastian Bach, which shows abstract animation of geometric shapes, The Nutcracker Suite by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, which shows scenes of nature and seasonal changes, The Pastoral Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven, which shows scenes of Greek gods and centaurs, Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponichielli, which shows a humoristic ballet of hippos and alligators, Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky, which shows a Satan-Ersatz emerging out of the depths of hell, and...
  Fig. 1: Walt Disney (left) and Igor Stravinsky (middle) look at concept art for the Rite of Spring segment of Fantasia. Stravinsky was the only artist still alive whose music was used for the movie. According to John Culhane he was allowed to take a little model of Hyacinth Hippo as a souvenir during his visit at the studio. I find it fascinating that ammonite-species as obscure and weird as Ancyloceras (the saxophone-shaped one) were considered for the movie.
The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky, also called Le Sacre du printemps. The original, written by Stravinsky in 1913, was a ballet telling a tolkienesque story of Slavic pagans sacrificing young girls to nature deities. How did Walt and company adapt it? Disney's original idea was apparently to make it about space and space-travel, showing the immenseness of the cosmos before zooming down to Earth. While this idea is still present at the beginning of the segment, it evolved further and changed. The music eventually made them think of prehistory and Walt came to the idea to make it about dinosaurs. The segment now revolved around retelling the formation and history of prehistoric Earth to Stravinsky's music. Paleoart-history was made. The overall idea proved more challenging than one might expect. Stravinsky's piece was highly controversial at the time after its first performance proved to be a disaster, which is why Disney originally wanted to use his other piece, The Firebird. Then there was also the problem that since 1914's Gertie the Dinosaur, prehistoric animals in animated movies were purely used for comedy's sake, which would not fit well with the music. The biggest problem however was that the animators had to draw things that up to that point barely anyone or nobody had seen in person, and by that I do not just mean living dinosaurs. They still went through with it and attempted to make a piece of cinema that was not only highly artistic, but also serious and educational, apparently some of the animators even hoped that it could be shown in schools as a documentary. For that purpose the studio had a strong correspondence with various prominent scientists at the time, such as Barnum Brown, Roy Chapman Andrews, Julian Huxley and Edwin Hubble, who all were very enthusiastic about the project. Imagine making a movie featuring Tyrannosaurus and getting to talk with its discoverer in the process. Such cooperation between scientists and filmmakers on a dinosaur-movie meant for mass-audiences would probably not be seen again until the first Jurassic Park in 1993. While of course some artistic license was taken (as we will see), Fantasia is therefore a pretty good representation of science at the time. More importantly it had a huge influence on the general public and likely even some later paleoartists.
Fig. 2: The galaxy and Earth from
space as shown in Fantasia, over a
decade before spacecrafts would
leave Earth.

To best see how how the segment had its influence on the APW trope (and probably many other paleoart-memes) I think it is best that we go through its sections bit by bit. We begin with an outside look of the milky way galaxy and gradually zoom in on nebulas and an angry sun that spews out literal flames (the idea that stars were powered by nuclear fusion was still new at the time and preceded by the thought that they were basically huge balls of gas or coal burning out). Comets whiz by and we zoom onto a prehistoric, red Earth.  What is remarkable about this sequence is that nobody at the time had actually seen Earth from space, as it would be another 21 years until Yuri Gagarin's journey and the space race. The animation is therefore largely based on well-educated guesses of the time and for that it is very impressive for how close it came to reality. We enter the planet's atmosphere and see red and pink clouds. The music gets more dramatic as we arrive at the surface and see a red and black world dotted by volcanoes, which violently eject so much lava that it accumulates into a large stream. The river of lava flows through the landscape, destroying every rock formation in its way, until it runs over a cliff where it joins the ancient sea and is violently stopped by the floods. This segment is most likely supposed to depict Earth during the Hadean eon 4 billion years ago (although it was not called that yet), long before any animals, let alone dinosaurs, appeared. Accordingly we do not see any lifeforms yet in this scene. Nonetheless, I still have my suspicion that this movie is partially to blame for the common association between volcanoes and dinosaurs. As we have already seen in the previous parts, the idea of depicting volcanoes in the background of prehistoric scenes already existed in paleoart like that of Charles R. Knight or Gerhard Heilmann. Unfortunately I never found a concrete source saying why these artists thought the ancient past was particularly volcanically active. The best that I could gather is that the thinking was that since the Earth was younger, its interior was more heated and therefore the planet was more geologically active. From a modern perspective this is true, but only for the first billion years of the planet's formation, long before dinosaurs arrived on the scene. But before 1956 the true age of the Earth was not yet known and some scientists thought the planet was at best just 40 million years old, with the dinosaurs just living 6 to 8 million years ago. This compressed view of geologic history made the image of a super-heated early Earth roamed by dinosaurs more credible. Outdated geology does however not explain how we can even find volcanoes in pre-scientific illustrations of antediluvian times, if you remember part 1 of this series. Volcanoes are a powerful image. A mountain that spews fire and ash is impressive, terrifying and among the best ways to show the raw power of nature and primordial chaos. Perhaps it is this reason why they are often used as an element to depict uncivilized times or places. Another reason might be the association that some people have between dinosaurs and dragons (it should be mentioned that before the discovery of dinosaurs most depictions of dragons looked more like chimaeras of big cats, birds of prey and snakes than anything, only afterwards did their designs start to be inspired by dinosaurs. The Ancient Greek and Latin words for dragon originally meant large African snakes, like pythons, while the fire-breathing aspect likely originated in medieval mistranslations of snake-venom). What role does Fantasia play in all of this? I think the movie only indirectly added to this trope. Its depiction of a volcanically active Hadean is largely correct and there is no dinosaur in sight in this scene. The problem is perhaps rather that the scene that separates the volcanoes from the dinosaur-scenes does not particularly stand out. This is likely why most people only remember volcanoes and dinosaurs about this segment of Fantasia, likely not realizing that the scenes are meant to represent entirely different time periods. On a last note, I found that as far back as 1988 scientists like Gregory S. Paul seem to have been aware that dinosaur-times were not particularly more volcanic than modern day (Paul 1988, p. 232), so the persistence of this trope to this very decade is a bit puzzling and likely speaks to the sluggishness of change in popular paleoart.
  Fig. 3: Primordial Earth

The volcanic cataclysm is followed by a literal deep-dive into the early oceans. We see the first unicellular organisms swimming around and form into multicellular creatures. This part is dark and murky, the music becoming ominous, and every evolutionary step is bookended with a mud-avalanche. We go from hydra-like cnidarians to worms and trilobites to the first fish, which are threatened by jellyfish and ammonites. Violence is as much part of Fantasia's prehistoric scenes as it was in all other paleo-media we have seen so far. This is actually intentional. The original Stravinsky ballet was about human sacrifices and it was conductor Stokowski's idea to preserve this theme, as he viewed the violence present in nature and life as a form of sacrifice too. The scene ends when a fish escapes the arms of an ammonite and evolves its fins into primitive legs. It crawls toward the shore and sticks its head out of the water. In case you were curious, in external material this fish is identified as Polypterus (Culhane 1983, p. 107), which is not actually extinct, but a modern species of lungfish. It is however interesting that the filmmakers chose to depict the evolution of legs before the fish actually gets on land. In classic depictions of tetrapod-evolution it is usually the other way around, but modern finds do indeed suggest that legs evolved before tetrapods actually started walking on land. The segment is ended with a fade to black and the next shot opens with a primitive turtle crawling onto land. In the background we see plesiosaurs, fishing and holding their necks in the typical, outdated Nessie-posture. We are now clearly in the Mesozoic. We zoom onto a pod of mosasaurs, which sport a prominent row of spines along their back. Depicting mosasaurs with spines or frills on their back is a tradition that originated with Samuel Williston's misinterpretation of trachaeal cartilage in a fossil and was popularized by Charles Knight's 1899 depiction of Tylosaurus. Today we know that mosasaurs had a smooth, perhaps blubbery and whale-like outline and, being close relatives of snakes and monitor lizards, their scalation was also smooth and uniform. Jurassic World chose to ignore both the old and new reconstruction and instead gave their mosasaur crocodile-scutes along its back, which will likely and unfortunately inspire many more popular depictions of these animals to do the same. After we watch the marine reptiles swim around we focus on a colony of Pteranodon. They are shown hanging upside down from a cliff-roof with their feet. This was a popular way of depicting pterosaurs once, with the idea being that due to their size they could only become airborne by throwing themselves off cliffs. The behaviour also was very obviously inspired by bats. Today we of course know that pterosaur-feet were terrible at grasping anything and that they could launch perfectly fine from the ground or even from water. All that said, the Pteranodon are depicted as very beautiful and elegant animals here, which I find surprising. In old depictions, especially from this era, pterosaurs were usually drawn as malicious gargoyles, with skeletal heads and sometimes even with inaccurate, demonic bat-wings. In a popular children's book from 1953, famous paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews writes about Pteranodon: "He was a fantastic, goblin-like creature. I always think of him as a witch on a broomstick that sailed through the sky" (Andrews 1953, p. 122). There is none of that here and instead the pterosaurs look sleek and colorful, glide gracefully through the sky and pick up food from the water. The scene ends when a Pteranodon that just grabbed a squid gets snatched out of the air by a lunging mosasaur, which is a motif so old and commonplace that nobody knows anymore who started it. Examples of it can be found all the way back in the nineteenth century and it was carried over to a ridiculous degree in 2015's Jurassic World. How likely such act of predation is you can imagine yourself. When was the last time you saw an orca jump out of the water to catch a pelican mid-air?

Fig. 4: Mosasaurs snacking on Pteranodon is a trope as old as time. Upper left is a 19th century reconstruction, upper right from Disney's Fantasia. Lower left is from a 2005 companion book to BBC's Walking with Dinosaurs, lower right from 2015's Jurassic World. 
We finally depart from the sea and move through the prehistoric jungle. One of the first creatures we see is a pair of Dimetrodon, which was not a dinosaur nor did it live at the same time as dinosaurs. We see nothosaurs fishing, an ankylosaur resting at a pond and a Triceratops pushing its way through the thicket. We end up with a small pachycephalosaur preying on a small, feathered reptile, which then flies away. According to some external material the small pachycephalosaur is supposed to be... Troodon? Yes, the dinosaur that is today better known as a small carnivorous maniraptoran (that should actually be called Stenonychosaurus). Back then it was only known from teeth and was interpreted as a small ornithischian similar to Stegoceras. The feathery foe it eyes might be identified as an Archaeopteryx by the casual viewer, but the way it looks and moves makes it more likely to be either Heilmann's Proavis, William Beebe's Tetrapteryx or a mix of the two. Both aren't actual species from the fossil record, but are instead hypothetical models of what the ancestor of Archaeopteryx could have looked like. As the proto-bird flaps away, we move to a herd of brontosaurs, which in true Dino Doldrums fashion are shoulder-deep standing in a swamp and eating algae. They are being quite rude to each other and try to snatch each others' food away. Something similar repeats in a later scene with hadrosaurs. In general, when the dinosaurs are not trying to kill each other, they either act asocial or unfriendly towards each other in this segment. We are reminded of the idea of a sinful, ruthless antediluvian world we looked at in part 1. After the brontosaurs we see a flock of ornithomimids come to the watering hole to catch a sip. Their bobbing head-movement, their long legs and the dragging tail makes them look very bizarre and alien. An extremely lardy Stegosaurus crawls through the jungle, its back-plates disturbing a group of hypsilophodonts sitting in a tree. The idea that small ornithischians like Hypsilophodon or Nanosaurus were arboreal animals similar to tree-kangaroos was popular until the 90s, still appearing this way in Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park novel, but is seen as implausible today given their foot-structure. After them we see Parasaurolophus, sporting a prominent flap of skin spanning between its crest and neck, giving it a bizarre aquatic appearance. While there is no strict evidence against such a flap, this has come out of fashion in modern reconstructions as it would make it very difficult for the animal to turn its head. We go on and see a Triceratops with its two young and a group of Trachodon (or Edmontosaurus in modern terms), one of them strikes a pose taken right from a Charles Knight painting. Lastly we see two creatures rarely depcited in popular media: a herd of Plateosaurus digging for food and the Triassic synapsid Kannemeyeria, which cheekily steals a tuber from the plateosaurs as they are distracted by a noise in the distance. That noise turns out to be Tyrannosaurus rex and as it enters the scene all hell breaks loose. It angrily stomps into the swampland, its jaws snatching after small pterosaurs, while all the other dinosaurs try to run away or flee into the water. Stegosaurus is not fast enough and gets caught up into a fight for its life. While it manages to strike the T. rex with its thagomizer a couple of times, it ultimately loses. The other reptiles watch in shock while the king of the dinosaurs devours its prey. It is a fight as iconic as it is inaccurate. Not only did T. rex and Stegosaurus live around 84 million years apart, but the former is also depicted with three fingers instead of the usual two. Legend has it Walt Disney was aware of this, but chose the three-fingered appearance on account of it looking more dramatic. Stegosaurus was also chosen instead of Triceratops as its tail-spikes would allow for more action. Ironically the T. rex with its three fingers could be mistaken for an Allosaurus, which was a contemporary of Stegosaurus, so in a way the two inaccuracies accidentally cancel each other out. The heyday of the dinosaurs, as depicted in Fantasia, has a lot of elements we have already seen in previous dinosaur-depictions: Violence, anachronisms, bizarre-looking and contradictory anatomy, weird swamp-worlds, fog and general murkiness. What is new is the addition and mix of colour and motion, which I think are the main factors that made Fantasia add to the Alien Prehistoric World Trope. Not in one single scene is the sky of early Earth depicted as blue. The entire palette of the segment is a mix of murky, otherworldly colours that just make you feel like you are not on Earth. In fact, the coloration of the creatures and landscapes is similar to Disney's other movie Mars and Beyond from 1957, where in one segment the animators imagine what life on the red planet might look like. There is also another factor that adds to the alienness, but we will get to that.
Fig. 5: A scene from the movie, showing the otherwordly colouration, landscape and creatures. Ornithomimids like these were among the first dinosaurs for which an erect tail-posture was proposed, but that was often ignored in classic art to make them a strange mix of bird and kangaroo.
After the battle we go forward in time. The jungle and the swamps are gone, the world has become a giant desert with only a few watering holes and dried up plants remaining. The dinosaurs are still there, but barely holding on and desperately searching the ground for food and water. As conditions get even worse they form a big trek and migrate through the Mad Max-style desert. Many collapse from exhaustion, others get stuck in mudpits and harrassed by predators, all while Stravinsky's music aggressively beats them down and makes them howl for mercy. We see the once mighty Tyrannosaurus rex marching along with the other dinosaurs, unable or unwilling to attack them due to its own weakness. At last it also collapses and dies from exhaustion. We still see some dinosaurs marching on, but they disappear into a sandstorm. We know they are walking into a doomed future. This segment accurately displays what at the time was thought to be the most likely explanation for the extinction of the dinosaurs. As it was thought that dinosaurs were swamp-dwellers like turtles or crocodiles, the culprit of their demise must have been a loss of habitat as the world got cooler, drier and more suitable for mammals. An explanation for this global cooling/drying was sometimes the formation of modern mountain-chains (Andrews 1953, p. 137-138), but this is omitted in this scene, which gives it an aura of mystery and ominosity. While I never found any source confirming this, I cannot help but think that this scene was also partly inspired by the Dust Bowl event that was still going on when the movie was released (for crying out loud, Deems Taylor even calls the extinction a dust bowl when introducing the segment). Due to mismanagement of farming on the Great Plains during the previous decades, a series of catastrophic droughts and duststorms began during the 1930s, which caused great economic and ecological collapse in US states such as Oklahoma and Kansas. Tens of thousands of people had to abandon their homes and livelihoods and migrated to California and other states (where the economic situation was only marginally better thanks to the Great Depression). A movie-goer in 1940 watching Fantasia must have surely been reminded of these events when he saw the dinosaurs desperately treking through the duststorm-ridden desert. While in the previous scene the dinosaurs were just bizarre-looking and brutish aliens, in their extinction one suddenly feels empathy for them, as you are reminded of real-world, current struggles. Without any sound-effects, dialogue or anthropomorphisation the Disney animators managed to humanize the dinosaurs in a way I have not seen since. 
Fig. 6: Concept art from the iconic fight between
Stegosaurus and T. rex.

The next and final scene is one that still confuses me to this day. We do not continue with the creatures that survived the extinction, in fact nothing seems to be alive anymore at all. Instead we see a barren wasteland littered with the bones of dinosaurs. The camera zooms in on the dried up skull of T. rex, while the music plays an almost mocking tune. Then there is silence, which is suddenly broken up as the music gets increasingly more chaotic. The ground starts shaking, a seismic wave rolls across the land. Mountains burst through the ground and the bones are crushed and buried by falling rocks and tectonic cracks. A giant tidal wave approaches and rolls across the land until the continents are completely covered by the sea. The moon pushes itself in front of the sun until a total solar eclipse is formed. The last shot is again an orbital view of Earth with the eclipse in the background. Everything on the Earth's surface seems barren, as Stravinsky's music drones on omniously. With this the Rites of Spring segment of Fantasia ends. Originally Walt did not want this segment to end on such a depressing note. After the extinction of the dinosaurs there was supposed to be a scene depicting the Age of Mammals, which would then end with the first humans discovering fire and dancing happily around it, somewhat similar to Stravinsky's original ballet. This idea was scrapped, as Disney feared that Fantasia, a movie that already had troubles with distribution, would face backlash from Christian fundamentalists for connecting evolution to humans. Thus the end-scene was replaced with a more cryptic end, while both the segment and soundtrack were shortened. The latter greatly upset Igor Stravinsky, who had previously enthusiastically cooperated with Disney on the movie. Another consequence was the lack of any mammals in the entire Rites of Spring segment. In fact, there are no animals that would seem familiar to a modern human, except for the fish, turtle and perhaps the proto-bird (although it looks more like a weird lizard with glued-on feathers). No shrew-like mammals, crocodiles, snakes, lizards and so on. This makes the prehistoric world depicted here feel very removed from today, like the dinosaurs are living on their own planet and ecology, further adding to the alienness. What I also find fascinating is that while the actual extinction of the dinosaurs is shown as a gradual, strenuous process, their actual end, the destruction and burial of their bones and world, is brought about by a catastrophic great flood. This way Fantasia combines the unformitarian view of geology at the time with the earlier, religiously inspired, catastrophist one, separating the prehistoric world from our modern one again through a literal deluge of biblical proportions. The only difference to earlier depictions of the antediluvian world is that there are no survivors this time. May I remind you that this is a Disney movie?

Fig. 7: The once mighty Tyrannosaurus rex, now reduced to dry bones.
Walt Disney had great plans for Fantasia. Originally he wanted to re-release it every year, every time with two new segments added that replaced older ones, constantly updating the movie. It was the first movie to use stereophonic sound, but Walt also discussed the possibility of presenting some of the segments in 3D and even using flower-scents wafted into the cinema-halls during specific scenes for better immersion (foreshadowing our modern 4D-cinemas). Alas, despite its innovations, fate would not have it succeed. The beginning of World War 2 blocked the entire European market for the company, which previously made up 45% of its income, and critics hated the movie. On its initial release Fantasia could therefore not make its money back and the company had to survive the rest of the decade by making propaganda cartoons for the US government and military. Only during its re-releases in the 50s and 80s could it make a profit. The movie, especially its prehistoric segment, nonetheless left a big impact ever since its initial release. The most obvious one is the linkage of stravinskyesque music with scenes of prehistory. Listen to to The Rites of Spring and then go back to any post-1940 dinosaur-movie and I can guarantee you you will hear similar tunes. John Williams for example put a very subtle hommage to it in the raptor-theme of the first Jurassic Park. A more recent example is the beginning of BBC's Walking with Monsters where we hear Stravinsky's music as we see early Earth collide with the proto-planet Theia. As Jane Davidson notes, Fantasia may have also had an influence on some of Charles Knight's paintings that came out after the movie, especially in landscape and colour (Davidson 2008, p. 160-162). The Rites of Spring segment was also edited and had commentary added so it could be shown as an educational movie in schools. A young schoolboy who saw this version would be inspired by it to study paleontology and would grow up to be the famous evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. We shall meet him again in a future part. The next famous piece of dinosaur-animation, 1989's The Land before Time would heavily borrow elements from it, perhaps since it was made by former Disney-animator Don Bluth. The 3D-animated Disney movie Dinosaur from 2000 also seems to draw elements from it, with many scenes of dinosaurs desperately migrating through a desert, but it is a lot more cartoonish and anthropomorphized. With its successful re-releases, Fantasia eventually gained new appreciation among audiences, until it finally got a sequel in 1999, which was Fantasia 2000. While still a very good movie, most would probably agree that it did not live up to its predecessor, in part due to its odd inclusion of celebrity-guests and feeling of pretentiousness. Since then Fantasia seems to have been largely forgotten by the company, which is a shame. In today's age, with all these fancy, but pointless live-action remakes Disney makes of their beloved classics, why not pay this masterpiece a revisit? Imagine if the technology and ressources used to render the animals in 2019's Lion King remake were instead utilized in a new version of Fantasia to create scenes of dinosaurs as photorealistic and scientifically accurate as possible, again to the fantastic music of Igor Stravinsky. You could have a piece of cinema with the capability to dethrone Jurassic Park. But perhaps, even with the best intentions, graves should not be defiled. As Walt Disney himself said: "Fantasia is timeless. It may run 10, 20 or 30 years. It may run after I'm gone. Fantasia is an idea in itself. I can never build another Fantasia. I can improve. I can elaborate. That's all."

With that I want to end this post. In the next parts we will look at the art of Zallinger and Burian and will finally come to the Dinosaur Renaissance. Thank you so much for reading this, happy holidays and a smooth leap into the new year to you. 


Literary sources:


  • Andrews, Roy Chapman: All About Dinosaurs, New York 1953.
  • Bakker, Robert Thomas: The Dinosaur Heresies. New Theories Unlocking The Mystery of the Dinosaurs and Their Extinction, New York 1986.
  • Culhane, John: Walt Disney's Fantasia, New York 1983.
  • Davidson, Jane: A History of Paleontology Illustration, Bloomington 2008.
  • Everhart, Michael J.: Oceans of Kansas. A Natural History of the Western Interior Sea, Bloomington 2005 (Second Edition).
  • Knight, Charles Robert: Life through the Ages, New York 1946 (Commemorative Edition).
  • Knoll, Andrew: Life on a Young Planet. The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth, New Jersey 2003 (Second Paperback Edition).
  • Paul, Gregory Scott: Predatory Dinosaurs of the World. A Complete Illustrated Guide, New York 1988.

Online sources:


Image sources:

  • Fig. 1: Culhane, John: Walt Disney's Fantasia, New York 1983, p. 110.
  • Fig. 2: Culhane, John: Walt Disney's Fantasia, New York 1983, p. 108.
  • Fig. 3: Culhane, John: Walt Disney's Fantasia, New York 1983, p. 121.
  • Fig. 4: UL: Wikimedia, UR: Fantasia, Walt Disney Productions, LL: Chambers, Paul/Haines, Tim: The Complete Guide to Prehistoric Life, London 2005, LR: Jurassic World, Universal Pictures.
  • Fig. 5: Culhane, John: Walt Disney's Fantasia, New York 1983, p. 119.
  • Fig. 6: Culhane, John: Walt Disney's Fantasia, New York 1983, p. 122.
  • Fig. 7: Culhane, John: Walt Disney's Fantasia, New York 1983, p. 127.


Monday, 25 November 2019

Whatever happened to kangaroo-kicking dinosaurs?

While I am waiting for a certain piece of literature to arrive in my mail so I can write part 3 of my APW trope series, I decided to bridge the time by writing something completely different and hopefully shorter. A few months ago I read Predatory Dinosaurs of the World for the first time. Apart maybe from The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs, this 1988 book is probably the most famous work by paleoartist and freelance researcher Gregory S. Paul. There's a lot that can be said about it, like how the art-style has influenced mainstream paleoart, Paul's controversial theories and how much of an influence he may or may not have had on Jurassic Park-author Michael Crichton. But we will discuss none of that for now and instead focus on an image that has immediately captured my curiosity:
  Fig. 1: A Ceratosaurus attacks a pair of Allosaurus by rearing up on its tail and preparing to kick. The allosaurs with their flimsy tails look mightily impressed. I would be too if I saw a half-ton predator doing this.
This was apparently Paul's first officially published dinosaur illustration, first appearing, if I read the bibliography correctly, in a 1978 article by a certain J. L. Marx in an issue of the journal Science. What it depicts is a hypothesis by Robert T. Bakker, for whom Paul worked as an assistant and illustrator. Bakker's observation was that more primitive theropods, such as Ceratosaurus, had larger foot-claws and stouter tails than later ones such as Allosaurus, so he suggested the idea that they may have occasionally balanced on their tails and kicked with their feet during fights, much like kangaroos do today. What I find so fascinating about this is that this was the first time I ever heard of such an idea as I have never seen it addressed in any other work. I did try to do some research on it, but all I found is that this became a minor paleomeme, as some artists copied (or, if you will, plagiarized) this image in their works. This of course gives no indication about the scientific accuracy of the scene, as even today artists in a hurry do not tend to do their research and just copy whatever fits the page of a children's dino book. This leaves me incredibly curious. Has this ever been debunked or confirmed by a later study? My gut-feeling tells me that no dinosaur-tail should be able to bend this way, but I am of course not an expert on these biomechanics and the tails of ceratosaurs may have significantly differed from other theropods. Ceratosaurus' tail was apparently unusual enough that Bakker also proposed that it may have used it to swim like a crocodile, but unlike the kangaroo-kick, this idea has at least met criticism. If you know anything more about these matters, please tell me. Is this just another piece of 70s/80s Dino-Renaissance weirdness, like viviparous, trunked sauropods and frill-humped ceratopsians, or is there more to it?

Fig. 2: Robert Bakker reconstructed Stegosaurus (both times shown without the iconic back-plates for better clarity) as being capable of occasionally assuming the classic tripodal stance and interpreted it as an active high-browser. As evidence he shows that it had an anatomy better suited to this than, for example, an elephant, which is also capable of rearing up. Brontosaurus gets the same treatment.
What also makes this interesting, from an art-historic viewpoint, is that it seems to be an inversion of a classic trope in dinosaur reconstruction. Kangaroos are the only large animals around today that are bipedal and have long, muscular tails. Before it was realized that non-avian dinosaurs are close relatives of birds, they were therefore often used as reference when reconstructing the posture of bipedal dinosaurs. Until the 1970s it was the norm to reconstruct theropods and other dinosaurs like kangaroos... if they were fat, lazy lizards. The main trait that was often carried over was that kangaroos use their tail as a sort of third leg when standing upright. However, dinosaurs were not envisioned as hoppers and instead portrayed as awkwardly waddling around in this tripodal stance. They were therefore left with all the awkwardness of a kangaroo and with none of the dynamicity or gracility. What Paul and Bakker did here seems to be an inversion of this trend, giving Ceratosaurus one of the most dynamic and characteristic movements of a kangaroo and none of the awkwardness. This type of "rebellion" is sort of typical of the Dinosaur Renaissance, as we often see old, orthodox ideas of dinosaurs being subverted or inverted. In 1986's The Dinosaur Heresies, Robert T. Bakker did perhaps something similar with another dinosaur. Contrary to the view up to that time, which saw Stegosaurus as a lardy, slow and tortoise-like low-browser, Bakker instead chose to reconstruct it as a high-browser that could occasionally rear up onto its hind-legs and use its tail as a third leg to reach higher tree-branches. Here the ability to stand in a kangaroo-like tripodal posture is utilized to paint a dinosaur, otherwise portrayed as lethargic, as an active, dynamic animal. Bakker's reconstruction made sense in the 80s, as Stegosaurus was reconstructed with significantly longer hind-legs than fore-legs. Thanks to new fossil finds we now know that its hind-legs were somewhat shorter than thought, but also that its neck was longer, making it more similar to other stegosaur species. I therefore wonder how much Bakker's reconstruction still holds up, although I suspect it is still largely salvageable. 
Fig. 3: The jerboa-like pterosaur-relative Scleromochlus, as illustrated by Mark Witton.
There is of course more that could be said about the history of dinosaur-kangaroo comparisons. The idea that some dinosaurs may have actually hopped like kangaroos has come up on occasion. Edward Drinker Cope originally thought Trachodon and Laelaps moved in such a way, though this was later abandoned in favour of a more awkward reptilian shuffle. An infamous example comes from 1984, when Bernier et al. identified a trace-fossil, which they named Saurosaltopus (literally "lizard-jump-foot"), as footprints left behind by a small dinosaur that hopped similar to a wallaby. It later turned out that Saurosaltopus was not made by a dinosaur at all, but was actually produced by the flippers of a sea turtle dragging itself along a beach. To my knowledge there is currently no evidence of any member of the clade Dinosauria having moved primarily in a hopping motion. The feet of kangaroos, which enable them to locomote in this fashion, are plantigrade, meaning they primarily stand on the soles (or metatarsals if you want to be technical) of their feet, just like us. The feet of most bipedal non-avian dinosaurs were digitigrade like those of avian dinosaurs (birds), meaning they walked on their elongated toes (I say most, because some noasaurids seem to have walked on just a single toe, somewhat similar to horses). While small birds do hop on occasion, this is of course not comparable to the movement of a kangaroo. Things become more interesting if we move outside Dinosauria and look at other Avemetarsalia (the clade that includes the last common ancestor of pterosaurs and dinosaurs and all its descendants). It has frequently been proposed that some dinosauromorphs and dinosauriforms, like Lagerpeton and Lagosuchus, and other ornithodirans like Scleromochlus, had plantigarde feet and moved similar to small, saltatorial mammals, like jerboas, wallabies or rabbits (Lagosuchus even means rabbit-crocodile). The strongest case for a saltatorial locomotion can be made for Scleromochlus, followed by Lagerpeton. It is interesting to think that dinosaurs may have evolved from a hopping archosaur similar to these, but current cladistic models show them being the closest relatives of silesaurids, which were quadrupeds. Scleromochlus however is often theorized to be a close relative to the ancestor of pterosaurs and its hopping gait may have been a pre-adaptation for their flight-capability. In 2015 Mark Witton illustrated Scleromochlus interestingly as fuzzy and hopping through a desert, very similar to a jerboa or desert-kangaroo. The fuzz is speculative, but reasonable given how we know pterosaurs had such integument, called pycnofibers. More recent studies also suggest that pycnofibers and the proto-feathers of dinosaurs are one and the same and go back to the common ancestor of both groups. Like the works of Paul and Bakker, the illustration uses kangaroo-like characteristics to portray the animal as fast and active, not slow and ungainly like would have been done in older art.
Fig. 4: As a reward for reading to the end: Bennett's wallabies (Macropus rufogriseus rufogriseus) being cute and doing wallaby-things at the Zoo Z├╝rich (image taken by me). Personally I have never seen them in a fighting or aggressive mood. However, the emus that they share their walkthrough-exhibit with do seem to have fun harrassing little children. 
Literary sources:
  • Bakker, Robert Thomas: The Dinosaur Heresies. New Theories Unlocking The Mystery of the Dinosaurs and Their Extinction, New York 1986.
  • Barrett, Paul/ Naish, Darren: Dinosaurs. How they lived and evolved, London 2016 (Second Edition). 
  • Barret, Paul: Stegosaurus. An extraordinary specimen and the secrets it reveals, London 2017.
  • Desmond, Adrian: The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs. A Revolution in Paleontology, London 1975.
  • Paul, Gregory Scott: Predatory Dinosaurs of the World. A Complete Illustrated Guide, New York 1988.
  • Witton, Mark: Pterosaurs, New Jersey 2013.
  • Witton, Mark: Recreating an Age of Reptiles, Marlborough 2017.
  • Witton, Mark: The Paleoartist's Handbook. Recreating prehistoric animals in art, Marlborough 2018. 
Online sources:
Image sources:
  • Fig. 1: Paul 1988, p. 35.
  • Fig. 2: Bakker 1986, p. 189-191.
  • Fig. 3: Witton 2017, p. 77.