Saturday 30 December 2023

Eurhinocaulus: The Sawfish Lepospondyl

Click to enlarge

Another round of speculative fun with prehistoric animals. What you see here is not a reconstruction of a real fossil, but a purely hypothetical relative or descendant of the famous lepospondyl Diplocaulus, an "amphibian" from the Permian ("amphibian" is in quotation marks since Lepospondyli, even if they did have similar physiology and lifestyles, are generally considered to have been members of Reptiliomorpha, therefore more closely related to us than to the actual modern (liss)amphibians). 

The lifestyle of this creature can be imagined quite straight-forwardly: It lies in wait on or inside the riverbed and when suitable prey is located, it lifts its head, its "skullwings" acting as hydrofoils to quickly dart the predator up (as they are theorized to have done in the real Diplocaulus). Once in reach, the toothed sword-nose is used to strike at the prey and incapacitate it, much as in sawfish.

This is simply a one-off creature without any wider context... for now. Who knows, perhaps it could become part of a future project.

Edit: Well, it happened!

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Friday 8 December 2023

My First Book: The Saurus Family and the Little Trilobite

Well, as you have probably noticed, I have not made as many blogposts this year as in the previous ones. This was due to a lot of reasons, like work, study, new hobbies and some personal struggles. But one of the more pleasant reasons was that I have in fact been working on a book! Now what could this book be? A compilation of Manospondylus posts? A history of paleontology? A spec-evo book? A science fiction novel? An encyclopedia of Swiss fossils? NOPE, none of the above. It is a children’s book about cartoony prehistoric animals! Illustrated all by myself.



The Saurus Family and the Little Trilobite follows an odd week in the life of Mr. and Mrs. Saurus, a married couple consisting of an Ichthyosaurus and a Plesiosaurus living on the coast of Vindelicia. One fateful day they find a trilobite in their underwater garden, which they soon realize is an animal which should not exist anymore in their time. The news of their major discovery spreads and various parties become interested in the little arthropod, but not for any good reasons. What will Mr. and Mrs. Saurus do now faced with this situation? Keep the critter as a pet? Sell it? Eat it? Well, that is for you to find out.

Now, of course, this is a silly story with a lot of factual errors (dinosaurs did not use forks to eat, for example). So, in addition, the book has a second half, which offers information on the real-life background behind all the animals that appear in the story, including more naturalistic illustrations. While this book is aimed at younger audiences, I hope some of the information will also be new for some of the more mature audience. Have you for example ever wondered what the longest fossil invertebrate was? Or how thalattosuchians moved on land? In addition, expect a lot of paleo-insider gags sprinkled throughout the whole book.

The book measures 21 x 21 cm and is 84 pages long. It is currently priced at 15.99 €‎ or 16.99 $. I published it through Amazon’s self-publishing service and it should be available on all storefronts. There are some coloured images in it, which (for reasons unclear to me) the Australian and Japanese storefronts will unfortunately not be able to print in full colour. My location in Switzerland has also made it difficult to send myself test-versions, so if there are any unforeseen printing errors because of that I apologize in advance and promise to fix those as soon as possible. A German version is now also available.

This is the first ever book I have published, so I hope you all like it. I am looking forward to your thoughts, opinions and constructive criticism.

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Thursday 30 November 2023

Sauriermuseum Aathal - 2023 Update

It has been a while, hasn’t it? Not just on this blog (I have been quite busy, both with work and art), but also at the beloved Sauriermuseum Aathal, where a lot of things have been updated. If you have missed it, I have made four posts talking about the museum as of 2021. Now a lot of things have already changed again, in part because of the great migration of some of the original Howe Quarry fossils to the Zoological Museum of Zürich where I work at.

One big change is already visible at the entrance. The old Stegosaurus model that used to stand here has now been graced with a brand new Spinosaurus! What a magnificently made, short-legged croco-duck. Let us see how long it will take for it to become outdated.

In the Howe Quarry Hall not much has seemingly changed, but that is deceiving. The three skeletons of Big Al II, Barbara (Nanosaurus) and H.Q. 1 (Diplodocus) have been replaced with replicas, because this year they went on tour in Hong Kong and next year in March they will stand in the museum in Zürich.

A new exhibit (replacing the old one about dinosaur footprints) is dedicated towards fossil fish from around the world. This one was pretty great, not just because the specimens were all quite fantastic, but because it also went into the evolution of fish and the origin of tetrapods. All-around great stuff.

Now, the real reason why I returned was the new exhibit all about everyone’s favourite dinosaur, Allos… I mean, Tyrannosaurus rex. This was originally only supposed to last until the end of August, but was thankfully extended to the end of 2023, which allowed me to still see it in time. Originally, this exhibit coincided with the presentation of the skeleton Trinity at Zürich’s auction house in March. If you have been following this blog since then, you will know that said skeleton has since been sold to the Phouebus Foundation, which plans to place it in a museum in Antwerpen. But said museum is still being built, so where will Trinity stay until then? I have actually been informed by direct sources, but I am not allowed to tell (yet).


This year’s T. rex exhibit was actually too large for the museum, so it had to be built in a room in the neighbouring restaurant, which of course profited from the endeavour by renaming itself “Dino Beizli” (Beiz being Swiss-German for a bar or saloon). The centrepiece of the exhibit was the skeleton of “Rocky”, a teenage T. rex first discovered in 1998 in South Dakota. He was surrounded by skulls of others tyrannosaurs (replicas). Among them were Scotty, AMNH 5027 (aka, the one used in the Jurassic Park logo), Stan and Sue.

In addition to the skeleton of an Alioramus, there were also skulls of other tyrannosauroids, like Tarbosaurus and Albertosaurus. What will probably ruffle some feathers is that the skull of Jane (BMRP 2002.4.1) was labelled (probably correctly) as a juvenile T. rex while CMNH 7541 was presented as Nanotyrannus, without much comment as far as I can remember. Feel free to spam the comment section about this. 

Also in the room was a couch in front of a projector which played some low-budget CGI documentary about the tyrant lizard. The narrator, I was pleasantly surprised, was Otto Clemens, who some readers may also know as the narrator of the German dub of Walking with Dinosaurs and its spin-off shows. To any Anglo-Saxon readers unfamiliar with him, seriously listen to this version, Kenneth Branagh is milquetoast compared to his voice. As a little kid I always had the impression he was God himself talking about his own creations.

And with these images of T. rex paraphernalia I leave behind Novemeber. Stay tuned for another post soon, since I have some big news from my side to announce!

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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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.

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  • 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.

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