Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Evolution of the Dinosaur (Book)

The five books in this photo span a period of 44 years and represent just how differently experts have come to think about dinosaurs in my life time. They're arranged in order from oldest to newest. I got the first - Dinosaurs of the Earth by John Raymond - when I was about seven or eight years old. That would have been 1968-9 when the book was already five years old. Dinosaurs had fascinated me since I was a toddler - mostly thanks to the films of Ray Harryhausen - but this book lit the spark under my interest and it became a raging fire that's never gone out. Since then I've bought and read pretty much every decent dinosaur book that's been published. The newest, the fifth book at bottom right - Dinosaurs: The most complete, up-to-date encyclopaedia for dinosaur lovers of all ages (deep breath) by Thomas R Holtz and Luis V Rey, arrived this morning from Amazon. A comparison between the oldest and newest books amused me for ages.*

When I got Dinosaurs of the Earth, our view of these fabulous monsters was that they were lumbering reptilian imbeciles, cold-blooded and pea-brained. Brontosaurus (sadly no longer with us as the fossil turned out to be parts of two already identified dinos mixed up together) and its sauropod relatives were depicted as titanic whales-out-of-water; so large that their legs couldn't support them for long and, as the book says, '... so heavy that they had to stay in water most of the time because it helped to support the weight of their bodies'. They were described as 'slow-moving, dull-witted animals', so stupid that they dragged their long tails along the ground despite the damage and pain this would cause them. The predatory Allosaurus, by comparison, was depicted as 'cunning' and 'ruthless'. And, as was the fashion of reconstructions at the time, he seemed to walk with a curious tottering, upright, penguin-like stance that kept his tail firmly on the ground. It made him and all the other upright dinosaurs appear that they had something stuck up their bottoms. None of the pictures were at all dynamic. The dinosaurs were posed, static. And, of course, every dinosaur looked as if it had been dressed by a British gent's tailor: dull greys, greens and browns - nothing too colourful please. The book is hilarious to read now and the pictures are laughable, but back then I was spellbound.

The next big jump in my understanding of dinosaurs came with Z F Snipar's Life before Man, brilliantly illustrated by the great Zdenek Burian. What Burian did, that no illustrator had done before, was to place his creatures in accurate environments. We could now see where they lived. Yes, they still looked like they were posing for photographs and they may still have been the colours of a rainy day in March but now they seemed much more like real animals. They were surrounded by plants and trees and other dinosaurs. The landscapes were huge, lush, arid, volcanic, alien. The interrelationships between the various species started to make sense.

That's Burian's Tarbosaurus above (a close relative of Tyrannosaurus). Life before Man was published in 1972 when I was 11 and I got the book for Christmas. I spent hours trying to copy the illustrations and failing dismally. But it does explain why I can still draw a Pachycephalosaurus from memory but can't draw people very well. I did read the books - I didn't just look at the pictures - and learn a lot from them but, primarily, it was the artwork that drew me in. My desire to draw dinosaurs became even stronger with the 1981 arrival of William Stout's The New Dinosaurs.

Stout turned his dinosaur pictures into real art, jumping nimbly from oils to pencil sketches to exquisite pen and ink work. He would mimic fine art movements producing Impressionist dinosaurs or Art Nouveau style dinosaurs. Some even looked as if they'd stalked from the pages of Marvel comics. Throughout it all, though, was realism, accuracy and, above all, dynamism. Stout's creatures were alive; they ran and jumped and swam and shagged and pooped. Inter-species punch-ups looked bloody and bruising as they would have in real life. Veggie dinosaurs nuzzled their hatchlings. Mud-trapped and doomed Hadrosaurs howled in anguish and fear. It was staggering stuff.

Towards the end of the 80s I met Natural History Museum uber-sculptor John Coppinger and we became great mates. John was responsible for many of the dinosaur reconstructions on display in the museum and he introduced me to the hyper-realistic paintings of John Sibbick whose work he often used as reference. One of John's very well-used, dog-eared books was Dr David Norman's Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Dinosaurs (1985). It was stuffed full of Sibbick's work, like this T Rex:

I had to buy a copy (Sibbick also illustrated a companion encyclopaedia of Pterosaurs by Dr Peter Wellnhofer which is brilliant. If only they'd completed the set with one about the sea monsters. Sigh).

All of which brings us bang up to date. In recent years, extraordinary new finds in China have changed our view of dinosaurs once again. These fossils are extremely well preserved and so much detail has been captured that we now know that many dinosaurs had feathers - the so-called fuzzy dinosaurs. A recent dinosaur 'mummy' gave us a glimpse of skin textures and bony plates. And an amazing fossil of a tiny Yale doorkey-sized dinosaur called Scipionyx has preserved the structure of internal organs. We know so much more now than we did 44 years ago. The evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds has been pretty much accepted as fact and we've had to re-evaluate how these creatures looked and acted. And, at last, the boring colour schemes have gone! Look around you at the birds we share our planet with. They come in an amazing range of colours. So now we can imagine dinosaurs in the same way; vivid colour patterns, wattles and crests and big, showy feathers ... would you think of anything quite as remarkable as a Peacock's tail if all you had to work from was a skeleton? Probably not. But a new generation of paleo-artists are doing just that. Among them is Luis V Rey, the co-author of the book I recieved today. Here's his take on Velociraptor's big cousin Deinonychus.

There are many other books and many other writers and artists I could mention like Alan Charig, John Ostrom, Angela Milner, Wayne Douglas Barlowe, Douglas Henderson, Bob Bakker, Dougal Dixon, David Lambert and the wonderful Mark Hallett. But I had to whittle it down and these five books are enough to really show the evolution of dinosaur-interest books during the past 40 years.

It makes me wonder what such books will be like in a further 10 years. Will there even be dinosaur books? New media may allow us to not only view dinos in their habitats but interract with them too. I can't tell you how excited I was when I saw Jurassic Park on the big screen - despite all of its hideous innaccuracies - but imagine a holographic 3D presentation where you could actually walk under and around these fantastic beasts. I just hope I can live long enough to experience it. Meanwhile, new discoveries are being made almost daily. Fossilisation is such a haphazard and unlikely event that the fossils record can only ever be a tiny cross-section of the number of species that have inhabited the Earth at some time. But there are plenty more to be discovered yet and who knows what new secrets they'll bring with them?

My bookshelves are waiting.

*Note that the term 'dinosaur' technically only describes one type of life form. Of equal fascination were the flying pterosaurs, the sea-going plesiosaurs, icthyosaurs and mosasaurs and the various other creatures that inhabited the prehistoric world. I love 'em all.


Me said...

Of equal fascination were the flying pterosaurs, the sea-going plesiosaurs, icthyosaurs and mosasaurs ...... to? If only I knew what you meant!!

Guely of Sweden said...

This was a very interesting reading. Even if my life passion goes for big cats, I had my heart for big lizards as well. I didn't know about the brontosaurus (but actually i was missing the name from newer books) and expended a few hours reading about. Interesting(because i share the love for books as well). But what about Charles Knight?

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this article! I had lost track of 'Life Before Man' - gave it away to a friend 20 years ago and since had forgotten the title.
All I had was my memory of the illustrations and the incredibly rendered prehistoric vegetation which you don't tend to see in any modern dinosaur books.
And then I found it here in your blog article!!

Thanks for helping me get back on track
South Australia