Welcome to Jurassic Art Redux

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
When we look at the world around us, our minds are trained to fill in visual gaps to form a more complete mental picture. So if you see the peak of a mountain in the distance, chances are pretty good there’s like a whole mountain below it.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, and for the most part, that kind of mental extrapolation is really useful. When we notice part of a thing out in the world, our brains automatically help us see the bigger picture.

Roman Mars:
That’s 99pi’s own Kurt Kohlstedt. And so, before we launch the bigger episode for today, Kurt and I recently encountered a small story that dovetails with something we’ve covered before. It’s about how our imaginations, while trying to fill in those gaps, can sometimes lead us astray.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
They do and even with things that we think we visualize well like, for example, icebergs. Anywhere you look from like an inspirational poster to a kids’ illustrations, we think we know what icebergs look like. They, you know, look like this rounded mound on top and this sort of spike going into the water below, sort of like a big ice cream cone.

Roman Mars:
Right. I’ve definitely seen that before! I mean, that’s the whole expression — tip of the iceberg. You see that little mound, that deep spike and that’s the whole point of the visual metaphor and the metaphor metaphor.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
And I’ve thought about that before and I’ve used it alot myself but I never really considered it literally, as in just seeing just the tips of icebergs and what that really means, until I saw this image posted online by a glaciologist. Here. Just take a look.

Roman Mars:
Okay so this is an iceberg, I’m assuming. It’s kind of a watercolor drawing, and it’s pretty simple but it’s basically just a lump of ice. It’s a bit smoother than the icebergs that we were picturing in our heads before. It’s more like a stone in a river. And like we were told about icebergs in school, most of it sits below the surface of the water. But it doesn’t really look like that big cone, that deep vertical root. It really is like a scoop of ice cream rather than a cone.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Exactly. And part of that is what you’d expect, right? You expect only a small part of it to show up above the water. But the rest, what you see below, it’s nothing like that cone shape, right? And the woman who drew it, her name is Megan Thomson-Munson and she’s a glaciologist. And she posted this watercolor online with a really specific call to action. Basically, she argues that we need to rethink how we represent icebergs.

Roman Mars:
Hmm, I think I can see the problem just in her drawing itself. We’re taught that 10% is above water. And this shows, you know, basically 10% is above the water but it doesn’t have that deep vertical configuration because, when you think about it, that doesn’t make any sense. If you put like a pool noodle in a pool, it wouldn’t stand upright. It goes on its side.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Exactly. And that’s her point, right? It’s like, once you think about it, you kinda get it. But you have to think about it first. So in light of this misconception, she’s urging other scientists to think about it and to draw icebergs in “stable orientations”

Roman Mars:
So this is just one example and all icebergs are presumably different. How do you know what the orientation should be, what you should be picturing?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Well, that’s the thing. Once she put this image up online, right, this software developer came into the thread and his name is Joshua Tauberer, and he was basically inspired by her post to make a little website called ‘Iceberger.’ And it’s really simple. It just lets you draw ice shapes and see how they float. So for example, if you draw a cone, it will slowly reorient that cone to float on its side. And you can sort of see that shift in slow motion too. So you kind of see the physics in action and, in the end, it winds up in a stable orientation.

Roman Mars:
Huh, that’s so cool. Yeah, this is like… you’re showing me a picture of a cone and now it’s definitely a cone that is sadly on its side. So the idea with Iceberger is you just trace out any shape and it will just rotate until it finds its level. That’s how it would behave in nature?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Exactly. That’s exactly it. The site has some disclaimers like real icebergs are three-dimensional complex, their densities are going to be a little different… So the website is sort of a simple intuition aid more than a scientific tool. And the main point is just to give you a better idea of what might happen, roughly speaking, to various shapes. Like this one…

Roman Mars:
(Laughs) This is a cat, this is a drawing of a cat. And so this is like what if there was a cat-shaped iceberg and when you see it, it’s actually surprisingly a stable configuration. The cat’s head above the water and the tail above the water but it’s pretty funny.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, it is. And odds are maybe some part of this would break off, like the tail, in real life but who knows. But it does give you an idea like, okay, what you see above the surface and what you imagine underwater can be very different, right? And it’s just kind of funny.

Roman Mars:
But so, other than getting an accurate scientific picture to sort of combat this proverbial vision of what we have of icebergs, why is it important for us to visualize icebergs properly? Why was this Megan’s hill to die on?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Well, I think it was her glacier to die on in part because she’s a glaciologist, right?

Roman Mars:
Right.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
And practically speaking? Okay, there’s not a whole lot of application for this, right? But if you’re boating close to an iceberg, it is good to know that the iceberg could spread out a ways under the water. That way you might avoid hitting it. But really it speaks to this larger issue. In many sciences, like geology, where so much of the world is invisible to us, right? So my dad, for example, is a geophysicist and when he’s explaining big planetary physical phenomena and change over time — like how tectonic plates shift around the world — visual aids are completely essential.

Roman Mars:
So the bigger issue is representing things more scientifically in general — whether it be in icebergs in pop culture or scientific diagrams in textbooks or scientific diagrams on the news or something like that.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right. It’s like as long as we’re going to try to represent these things, we might as well get it right for the sake of education, for the sake of really understanding the world around us.

Roman Mars:
Sure.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
And what this fairly specific and smaller story made me think of was Emmett’s 99pi episode on dinosaurs. It’s about how drawings have both been shaped by but have also shaped the discipline of paleontology. And, you know, like glaciologists or geologists, paleontologists have this important role in helping us visualize things … but like these other scientists, they have to extrapolate at times too, based on whatever evidence they have.

Roman Mars:
So evidence like the fossilized bones of dinosaurs or even those sort of modern genetic relatives of dinosaurs. That’s how we extrapolate what they looked like.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, exactly. And so, icebergs are kind of this great contemporary physical example but they’re also this useful analogy, right? It’s really easy to use icebergs to explain how we sometimes can’t see what’s below the surface. And they hint at this larger challenge that scientists face more broadly — how do we picture what we can’t see? And, it turns out, that’s a much deeper question.

Roman Mars:
On that note, we’re going to revisit Emmett FitzGerald’s story, called ‘Welcome to Jurassic Art.’ And while listening, you may want to keep other scientific disciplines in mind because it probably applies to most of them.

———

Roman Mars:
Anyone who has had kids knows that they go through obsessive phases that can last anywhere from a few days to several years.

Emmett FitzGerald:
I went through a lot of phases growing up.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer Emmett FitzGerald.

Emmett FitzGerald:
There was a brief train phase. Then in preschool, I was obsessed with farming equipment. I could list obscure European tractor brands off the top of my head like an old Italian wheat farmer. But I think my most intense obsession, like many kids, was dinosaurs. I knew more about dinosaurs at the age of five than I do now, and I was all but certain that I would one day become a paleontologist. I don’t know exactly where this dinosaur obsession came from, but I think part of it was just that dinosaurs looked so cool. I had all these books filled with incredible drawings of colorful dinosaurs leaping around, roaring, and tearing into one another. I fell in love with the artwork in those books.

Roman Mars:
And, at least for the time being, art is the only way we experience dinosaurs. We can study bones and fossils, but barring the invention of time travel or some Jurassic Park resurrection scenario, we will never see these animals with our own eyes. There are no photos or video, which means that if we want to picture how they look, someone has to draw them.

Dr. Robert Bakker:
Hello, I’m Dr. Robert Bakker, known to the folks in North Texas as “Jurassic Bob.” I dig bones, dinosaur bones.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Bob Bakker is one of the most famous living paleontologists, and he also happens to be a very skilled paleoartist. He thinks the two go hand in hand.

Dr. Robert Bakker:
Art is very important in teaching natural history science; maybe all science. Teach everyone art, and everyone music, too! Patterns! Jeez!

Emmett FitzGerald:
I like Bob a lot. When I interviewed him in a studio in Boulder, Colorado, he showed up an hour early and he brought his own snacks.

[UH, HE’S GOT SNACKS HERE. HE’S GOT COFFEE AND SOME APPLE PIE.]

Dr. Robert Bakker:
Free-Range apple pie! This is so liberal this place, this is so Boulder. Cage-free apple pie!

Emmett FitzGerald:
Once we got started our interview, Bob said that like me, he got obsessed with dinosaurs and dinosaur art pretty early on.

Dr. Robert Bakker:
How I got hooked was a piece of journalism from 1953, Life magazine, a cover story called “The World We Live In” and had pictures of dinosaurs and whatnot.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The cover image was the head of a long-necked dinosaur sitting in a swamp, munching on grass with a stegosaurus in the background, staring off into space. And inside was this long article about evolution.

Dr. Robert Bakker:
After two hours with that Life magazine, I announced to my startled parents, “Mom and dad, I want to grow up and be a vertebrate paleontologist.” And dad had no expression. And mom smiled and said, “That’s nice dear. It’s a stage you’ll outgrow.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
But unlike me, dinosaurs weren’t just a childhood phase for Jurassic Bob. By the time he headed off to college, a career in vertebrate paleontology was still the game plan.

Roman Mars:
But it was kind of a strange time to be entering the field. In the mid-twentieth century, American dinosaur science was in a bit of a rut. Dinosaurs were considered big, dumb, cold-blooded reptiles. Evolutionary failures destined for extinction.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And that view of dinosaurs affected how they were painted and drawn.

Dr. Robert Bakker:
Most of the paintings of dinosaurs, they’re not moving. They’re not interacting with each other. There’s no spark of uh, intelligent social life.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And their bodies were like hulking masses of flesh.

Dr. Robert Bakker:
The way Brontosaurus and Diplodocus, the biggest dinosaurs, were illustrated, they were like giant, gray vacuum cleaners with very very short legs and they were slowly pulling themselves across the landscape, or sitting neck deep in a fetid swamp.

Roman Mars:
Dinosaurs were often drawn sitting in swamps, like on that Life Magazine cover. The thinking was they were so large they couldn’t possibly hold up their own body weight.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And if they were drawn on land, they usually dragged their fat tails behind them as they walked.

Dr. Robert Bakker:
And that’s where we were in the early 1960s. Dinosaurs were sad, cold-blooded, dead ends in the history of life.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But paleontology was about to go through…

Dr. Robert Bakker:
A spectacular and unanticipated U-turn!

Emmett FitzGerald:
And a young Bob Bakker, just off to college, would find himself right in the thick of the action.

Dr. Robert Bakker:
Freshman year the Yale geology department took me and a bunch of other freshmen out to dig!

Emmett FitzGerald:
The trip out West was led by one of Bob’s professors at Yale, a paleontologist named Jon Ostrom.

Dr. Robert Bakker:
And among other things, we dug up four raptors.

Roman Mars:
They were new species of raptor that Professor Ostrom named Deinonychus.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Meaning “terrible claw.”

Roman Mars:
And the bones were found really close together.

Dr. Robert Bakker:
Presumably, they lived together. They were a pack, maybe intelligent?

Emmett FitzGerald:
But what really got Professor Ostrom excited, was the anatomy of the skeleton. After studying the fossil remains back at Yale, Ostrom concluded that Deinonychus had not been a slow, plodding, swamp creature. It had been fleet-footed, agile, and extremely active.

Roman Mars:
Ostrom began to argue that if you really looked at the anatomy of many dinosaurs, they looked less like lumbering lizards and more like super athletic birds.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And his student, Bob Bakker, found this idea really compelling. He remembers looking at a skeleton of a different dinosaur called ornitholestes.

Dr. Robert Bakker:
It really did look like a roadrunner with a long bony tail and teeth, but wow, it just spoke agility. But then you read the textbooks and you’re not supposed to believe that.

Emmett FitzGerald:
As an undergraduate, Bakker dissected modern animals in an effort to better understand dinosaur musculature. And he concluded that the old stereotypes about stupid, sluggish dinosaurs just didn’t hold up.

Dr. Robert Bakker:
They weren’t slow and sloppy.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Now, this idea wasn’t totally new. Bakker says that going back decades, as early as the mid-nineteenth, there had been people saying that dinosaurs were smart, active, and birdlike but…

Dr. Robert Bakker:
These facts were forgotten about, really. They dropped out of textbooks.

Roman Mars:
So Bakker decided to publish a paper in a Yale journal and his editor says….

Dr. Robert Bakker:
“I know what you should call this study,” and I said, “What?” She said, “You should call it the Superiority of Dinosaurs.” I said, “Yeah! That’s it.” They weren’t evolutionary has-beens. They weren’t dead-ends in the flow of Darwinian process. They were top of the line. They beat everybody.

Roman Mars:
But convincing people that dinosaurs were actually totally different than they had been depicted for the past sixty years was going to require more than a few good academic papers. To really change people’s minds, sometimes you gotta show instead of tell.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And remember, Bakker was a skilled illustrator as well as a scientist. And so when Jon Ostrom wrote his definitive paper on Deinonychus, he asked Bakker to do the illustration.

Dr. Robert Bakker:
And I positioned the bones as if his Raptor was running.

Roman Mars:
In the picture, the raptor is nearly parallel with the ground, its left leg springing forward, its right leg curled tightly against its torso, preparing for the next stride. The tail is high in the air. It’s beautiful. And kind of terrifying.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Ostrom put the picture right on the front of his paper, and it quickly became an iconic drawing. No one had ever seen anything like it.

Darren Naish:
Bakker is like a renegade.

Emmett FitzGerald:
This is Darren Naish, a paleontologist based in the UK.

Darren Naish:
He’s got like a flamboyant appearance. He insists on wearing a cowboy hat all the time. He’s got a giant bushy beard. And right from the late 60s when he’s you know, starting to talk about this stuff, he’s drawing these agile, active dinosaurs.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Bakker finished up at Yale and went off to graduate school where he continued to speak truth to the slow, dumb dinosaur establishment. He wrote academic and popular articles about how impressive dinosaurs had been. And he illustrated them all himself. He drew dinosaurs bounding across the prehistoric landscape like track and field stars with lithe, muscular bodies.

Darren Naish:
So prior… prior to this time, an animal like Tyrannosaurus would have been drawn as like a Godzilla-type animal, dragging its tail on the ground. It’s not a particularly attractive beast, but under Bakker, you’ve got this thing shown with massive bulging muscles.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And Bakker’s athletic dinosaurs became a model for other paleoartists.

Dr. Robert Bakker:
So when my Deinonychus drawing appeared, some artists – younger than I – said, “Huh, okay. Now we can do it!”

Emmett FitzGerald:
Artists like Gregory Paul embraced this new exciting vision of dinosaurs. They started giving their dinosaurs vibrant colors and occasionally feathers to really emphasize their bird-ness. Soon, images of athletic, colorful dinosaurs were everywhere.

Roman Mars:
And they helped fuel the revolution that was taking place in paleontology.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Throughout the 70s, more and more paleontologists got on board with Ostrom and Bakker’s theories. They found new fossils and footprint evidence suggesting that dinosaurs had been warm-blooded, intelligent, and bird-like.

Roman Mars:
This period has become known as the Dinosaur Renaissance, a moment when we totally rethought all of our assumptions about these incredible prehistoric animals, and Darren Naish thinks art was a huge part of its success.

Darren Naish:
I think that part of the reason that the dinosaurs of the Dinosaur Renaissance – the dinosaurs of Ostrom and Bakker – drew in so many scientists in the 60s and 70s was because it was accompanied by brilliant visuals.

Roman Mars:
If anyone missed out on this scientific revolution and still thought that dinosaurs were slow and stupid, that ended in 1993.

[JURASSIC PARK THEME SONG]

Roman Mars:
The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are very… active.

[DINOSAURS ROAR]

Darren Naish:
The dinosaurs of Jurassic Park 1993, they are the Dinosaur Renaissance dinosaurs.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And when that movie came out the whole world got to see these fierce, athletic, creatures running through kitchens and eating lawyers off of toilets.

[DINOSAUR DEVOURING PREY]

Roman Mars:
And once you’ve seen the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, you can’t unsee them.

John Conway:
I think it cemented the notion of athletic dinosaurs.

Emmett FitzGerald:
This is John Conway. He draws dinosaurs for a living.

John Conway:
I’m a paleoartist which means that I draw and paint prehistoric animals.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Conway got interested in paleoart after reading Bob Bakker’s book “The Dinosaur Heresies.” And in the early part of his career, he drew dinosaurs that looked a lot like Bakker’s, super lean and muscly. But after a while, he started to feel kind of funny about it. He says that all of his dinosaurs looked like they had been shrink-wrapped.

John Conway:
You know those suction packs? You pack your clothes in, and you put the vacuum cleaner on it and you suck all the air out? And it shrinks it down? That’s sort of what we were doing with dinosaurs, we were sort of putting skin on them, and then vacuuming out anything that was in between that skin and the muscles.

Roman Mars:
Now paleoartists weren’t just doing that to make their dinosaurs look all cool and buff. They were trying to be accurate.

John Conway:
I am part of the generation of paleoartists that grew up from a young age, when we first started, to think that it really mattered to get things right.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And to get things right, you want your art to be rooted in real scientific evidence, and the main piece of evidence is often a skeleton. Paleoartists would base the shape of their dinosaurs on an accurate skeleton. The bones give you a pretty good idea where the muscles should go, but soft tissues like skin and cartilage and fat are much harder. Fat usually doesn’t survive for millions of years in fossils, and so without any evidence of it, paleoartists tended to be pretty conservative about how much fat they gave their dinosaurs.

Roman Mars:
Which makes total sense. You’re not going to add something you don’t have evidence for.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But the result was that all of these dinosaurs looked like they went to the gym three times a day and drank protein shakes for every meal. John Conway says it began to feel as though paleoartists had replaced one orthodoxy with another.

John Conway:
At some point I thought, you know, we can’t just keep doing this. This is not interesting in many ways. And is it even right? Is this conservative approach really giving people the right notion about what dinosaurs looked like?

Emmett FitzGerald:
Just because fat didn’t survive for millions of years, doesn’t mean that a dinosaur didn’t have it. They are animals after all.

John Conway:
Animals have fat, and they have it all over the place, and some places they have really big fat reserves which changes their shape fairly drastically.

Emmett FitzGerald:
To underscore this point, Conway asked me to consider a thought experiment.

John Conway:
If we reconstructed modern animals like we reconstruct dinosaurs, what would they look like?

Emmett FitzGerald:
In other words, if some alien paleontologist from millions of years in the future was to try and draw a modern animal, like say, a whale or a camel, just from their fossilized skeleton, how would it look?

John Conway:
Well, if you actually do it, the modern animals look ridiculous.

Emmett FitzGerald:
If you draw a bowhead whale, for example, just from the skeleton, without a lot of fat or blubber, it looks kind of like a giant tadpole with a bulbous head and long snake-like tail.

John Conway:
I mean, you take away all that stuff and you’re not left with much whale. Because whales, their shape is defined by fat.

Roman Mars:
Dinosaurs also had fat, and John argues that it would have changed their shape pretty dramatically. Who knows, some might’ve even had humps, like camels.

John Conway:
Yeah, you could take one of the most familiar dinosaurs, that dinosaur could have camels humps and we wouldn’t know, right? Because you can tell from a camel’s back that it has humps. We just can’t. There’s not really anything there. Brontosaurus could have had humps, we don’t know!

Roman Mars:
Now scientists do sometimes find dinosaurs fossils with the soft tissues intact. And when they do, they can completely change our image of the animal.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The dinosaur psittacosaurus, for example, used to be depicted in a standard shrink-wrapped kind of way, until paleontologists found this amazing full body fossil where lots of the fat and the skin and the different soft tissues had been perfectly preserved. Turns out-

Darren Naish:
The fleshy outline around the body was quite extensive. It was quite a chubby creature. There’s striping all over the place, all over the body. And growing off the top of the tail, he’s got like a hundred long, curving quills. They look kind of like floppy porcupine quills. And you add all that together and that’s a creature that we just would not predict that based on just finding bones alone.

Emmett FitzGerald:
In recent years, fossils have been found with fat, and frills, and thick coats of feathers — way more than anyone had predicted.

John Conway:
So it turns out everytime we discover something like this, it’s weird. And that got me thinking, so if all the ones we’ve discovered so far have turned out to be weird, what does that tell us about the rest of them? There are bizarre possibilities out there that no one’s looking at and I thought, well I’m going to start drawing some of these things.

Roman Mars:
So John began to try something new with his art — he started to speculate.

Emmett FitzGerald:
He started drawing pudgy dinosaurs, and dinosaurs with humps and quills and weird skin flaps.

John Conway:
And that was my rule. It was, how far can we go? What’s the most outrageous thing I can do, that we know we don’t know isn’t true, right? It’s still within the realms of possibility, it’s not falsified.

Emmett FitzGerald:
John wasn’t just making stuff up out of thin air. It was like there was a standard conservative dinosaur at the center of his drawings, then Conway would cover it with more speculative elements. He wasn’t claiming that every drawing he did was perfectly accurate, but he wanted to show people that dinosaurs as a group probably had a lot more weird variety than we think.

John Conway:
And so, to get the overall picture of dinosaurs right, I think you need a healthy dose of speculation in there.

Roman Mars:
Conway says that dinosaur art should always reflect the latest science — what we know for sure. But we’ll never know everything.

John Conway:
And I think the speculation is about what extra bits of weird beauty were in the world back then that we’ll just never know about. The role of the artist is to bring back some of that real magic of the prehistoric world that was certainly there.

Roman Mars:
John eventually decided to give the world some of that magic in the form of a book. He teamed up with Darren Naish and another paleoartist named Memo Koseman, and published a slim little paperback called “All Yesterdays.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
“All Yesterdays” is filled with dinosaurs that look very different from what you’re used to. There’s a Triceratops that’s covered in spines, a Majungasaurus with skin that camouflages it against the forest floor, and a Therizinosaurus that is so covered in feathers it looks like a haystack. And next to each image the artist describes why they drew it that way. The camouflaged dinosaur is drawn that way because the artists reasoned that it’s oddly-proportioned body might have made it vulnerable to predators and in need of some kind of defense strategy.

Roman Mars:
“All Yesterdays” was a big hit. And it helped spark a little movement for more speculative paleoart.

Darren Naish:
We talk about the “All Yesterdays” movement as like the new frontier of the way we should depict prehistoric animals.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Darren Naish says it’s more acceptable now to draw a dinosaur based on a hypothesis.

Roman Mars:
For example, horned dinosaurs like Triceratops have these absurdly large nostrils that have confused paleontologists for years. There have been a few different hypotheses put forward by scientists. And one of them is that the dinosaur may have had inflatable nose balloons.

Darren Naish:
Kind of like elephant seal or hooded seal inflatable pouches, but just would look weird and grotesque and utterly alien to us, but that’s a very real possibility.

Roman Mars:
Now, 20 years ago if someone were to draw a Triceratops with nose balloons, they would have been laughed at.

Darren Naish:
But I would say that what we call the “All Yesterdays” movement means that it is now quite reasonable for an artist to say, I’ve shown my Triceratops with giant inflatable nosed balloons for this reason. And you could say, no, don’t do it, that’s too speculative, but it would be equally justifiable to say, okay. For the time being that’s okay.

Roman Mars:
That doesn’t mean that Triceratops definitely had nose balloons.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But by drawing it that way, it’s like the artist is asking us to keep an open mind. Because even though we know a lot about the prehistoric world, and more and more everyday, the science is always changing. The past is always a moving target.

Roman Mars:
Paleoart is not just about drawing dinosaurs with stripes and nose balloons. Illustrators also depict dinosaur behavior which may have a greater impact on how we imagine extinct animals. More on that, after this.

[BREAK]

Emmett FitzGerald:
Hello, this is Emmett. I’m back with Roman in the studio to talk a little bit more about paleoart. Hi, Roman.

Roman Mars:
Hi.

Emmett FitzGerald:
In this piece, we focused a lot on dinosaur appearance, like the look of their physical bodies. But there’s like another pretty important issue with this, which is dinosaur behavior. Like if you’re going to draw a dinosaur, you’re going to draw it…

Roman Mars:
Doing something.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Doing something, right. And so, like, when you think of dinosaur art, what are the dinosaurs usually doing?

Roman Mars:
Usually, the T-Rex is tearing something apart. Usually, the – at least when I was a kid – the Brontosaurus, as we mentioned, was standing in a swamp with leaves sort of hanging out of its mouth.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right. Like if it’s like a meat-eating dinosaur, it’s probably eating another dinosaur or attacking another dinosaur. If it’s a plant-eating dinosaur, it’s probably being attacked or like running away in some kind of way.

Roman Mars:
Or eating a plant. I mean, it sort of seems to be like whatever you ate as a dinosaur is what you should be depicted doing at any moment of its being depicted in a form of art.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Which like, you know, I mean, in some ways it’s not just the dinosaur thing. Like if you think about nature documentaries, we like to depict action.

Roman Mars:
Totally.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Like, when was the last time you saw a cheetah doing anything other than running down a gazelle and like, biting its throat?

Roman Mars:
Right.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But like, cheetahs do a lot of other things. They have a complex life. And that’s like a real point, though, with art for people like Darren and John who are in our piece, it’s like they think the lives of a lot of animals, including dinosaurs, are a lot less action-packed than it feels like when you are just looking at the art.

Darren Naish:
They’re not opening their mouths and roaring at the camera all the time. They’re not just killing and fighting. They’re doing things that living animals do. They’re like, you know, moving around and sleeping and finding food and being boring a lot of the time.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And you mentioned this earlier, but I feel like of all the dinosaurs that we don’t associate with that kind of boring activity, Tyrannosaurus Rex ranks pretty high.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Like of all the ones we associate with, like action and violence, it’s T. Rex.

Roman Mars:
Absolutely. It’s always chomping at something. That’s its role. Even the end of Jurassic Park, its role is to end the movie by chomping a dinosaur.

Emmett FitzGerald:
RIght. Right. And so when Darren and John were writing the book “All Yesterdays,” they obviously wanted to put a Tyrannosaurus in there. And John based his T-Rex painting on this one skeleton, this kind of famous skeleton that scientists have nicknamed Stan.

Darren Naish:
Stan is quite an aggressive-looking Tyrannosaurus, in a way. It’s got quite a large, long, scary-looking head. And so Stan is traditionally depicted doing very nasty things to other animals.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But John is also like pretty adamant. Like, that’s not the whole truth of, like, who this creature was.

Darren Naish:
They’re probably going to kill something once every two weeks, you know. They spent the vast majority of their life asleep, probably with a great big full belly, just sleeping on the ground. And so that’s how I painted him.

Roman Mars:
So do you have that picture in the book?

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah. Yeah. So here’s the book.

Roman Mars:
Oh, he looks so peaceful.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah. It’s almost like a cute image.

Roman Mars:
It’s very cute. Yeah. Just… it’s like slightly curled up with its little tiny T-Rex arms up by its chin.

Emmett FitzGerald:
This is like one of John’s favorite pieces from “All Yesterdays” and he calls it “Sleepy Stan.”

Roman Mars:
Well, in fact, I mean this picture, it doesn’t even show his teeth. Well, it’s sleeping.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
Which I don’t think I’ve ever seen a T-Rex picture without it baring its teeth.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right.

Roman Mars:
Which is just stunning to think about that I’ve never… but I now as I see it, I know it’s true… I’ve never seen one without its teeth being shown and how long they are and probably ripping into flesh. But yeah, we just, we don’t show Tyrannosaurus just relaxing and that’s what they did most of the time.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right.

Roman Mars:
That’s probably a pretty good life.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Sleepy Stan.

Roman Mars:
Sleepy Stan, curled up. That’s awesome.

Emmett FitzGerald:
So if you flip, Roman, to like the back of the book, there’s one more thing that I want to show you. So that this back section of the book is actually called “All Todays.” And the idea behind this part of the book is it’s sort of the actualization of that thought experiment that John Conway asked us to do.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Where, you know, you’re imagining an alien paleontologist from the future who is trying to piece together what the contemporary world – the animals of the contemporary world – look like based on fossil evidence.

Roman Mars:
Right. So there’s this picture I’m looking at now is a manatee, but it’s a land, a grazing land herbivore.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right. Can you read the description they have there?

Roman Mars:
It says, “A solitary manatee is shown grazing in its mountain home. We only know the skull of this enigmatic herbivore.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
So basically, like in this case, they’re saying like, so with this animal, maybe the only thing we ever got was the skull. And so, like, from that you’re trying to make… you’re like, oh, this looks a little bit like a cow skull.

Roman Mars:
And it’s totally common in dinosaurs, that they only find one little section. It’s very rare that we find full skeletons to tell you everything about them, but we pick up a manatee skull and sure enough, you would think that’s a cow.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And even if you do find a full skeleton, there are other things that you could still miss.

Roman Mars:
Totally. Oh, and this elephant… you wouldn’t have a trunk as evidence. So this elephant is just the snub-nosed, weird-looking thing. Oh, my God. Oh, that’s so true.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right? So like a camel, the same way that we don’t know that we wouldn’t necessarily know that a camel had had humps. You wouldn’t know that an elephant had a trunk, which is like such an iconic weird piece of anatomy in the world.

Roman Mars:
It’s the thing that you define elephant by. But it’s not there. And therefore it doesn’t look at all like an elephant and it just looks absurd. I really like it. It really sells it, especially with these speculative imaginings of modern animals, really sells the idea of it a lot.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right. And they go… I like their text on some of these. So like, if you’ve read the swans…

Roman Mars:
It says, “Two swans are seen with their long scythe-like forelimbs which they must have used to spear small prey items. One of them has just caught a tadpole, one of the mysterious fish of the past.” Oh, it’s so perfect.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right. They really embody this like, you know, this futuristic scientist who’s trying to sort of piece together the world that we currently live in now and is making these kind of conceptual leaps from evidence to, you know, painting a real picture of what the world actually looked like.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, but they’re still… everyone’s doing their best. It’s not like making fun of them. It really is. It just has to do with the limited information we have. This is what we create.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right.

Roman Mars:
And really shows the limits of that information. Oh, it’s so cool. It’s such a good idea to think this way. It dislodges the iconography from your mind to be free, to think about them in lots of ways. And that’s, that’s really… and it really sells it when you see a modern animal depicted in the sort of traditional dinosaur way. That, I kind of love that aspect of it.

———

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Emmett FitzGerald in 2018. Mixed By Sharif Youssef. Music by Sean Real. Delaney Hall is the senior producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the current team is Christopher Johnson, Vivan Le, Joe Rosenberg, Lasha Madan, Katie Mingle, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars.

We are a project of 91.7 KALW and produced on Radio Row, which is scattered across the continent, but will always be in beautiful downtown Oakland California. We are a founding member of Radiotopia from PRX. Listen and support them all at radiotopia.fm

You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show at @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. We have cool pictures of dinosaurs and really goofy pictures of dinosaurs at 99pi.org.

 

 

 

  1. Corinne

    Hello, I wanted to let you know that I used the information I learned from the dinosaur podcast tonight in a Cub Scout den meeting! Our 2nd grade Wolf den was learning about dinosaurs, and one of the tasks was to create their own dinosaurs. I showed them the pictures on your website and talked about how the drawings have changed over time and how dinosaurs may have looked very different from how they are drawn today – gave the examples of camels, elephants and elephant seals. They loved the idea of a dinosaur with a trunk. It was a perfect way to get them thinking before they drew their own creations. Thanks for the great content!

  2. My problem with Sleepy Stan, based on recent personal experience (alas), is I find it tough to imagine how he’d get the leverage to stand up from that posture. Either he needs some sort of elevated bed, or he needs a tree or rock face to leverage against. He sure can’t use those small arms.

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