Reconstructing prehistoric animals

This post is based upon the book: All Yesterdays, unique and speculative views of Dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals by John Conway, C.M Kosemen and Darren Naish. I recently read this book and would recommend it to anybody studying archaeology and anthropology. The book raises the issues of clothing bones in tissue (e.g. skin, muscles, fur and feathers) or in other words bringing the animal back to life in art.

The problem with paleoart is the relationship between speculation and hard data, for example bone structure can tell us a lot about the size and structure of muscles attached to them but this is only the first step in reconstructing the animal and the real issues start with integument – the covering that involves the skin and all things attached to it. This is because the preservation of soft tissue is rare or of a poor quality.

The ambiguous nature of this is perhaps best portrayed by the appearance of Velociraptor’s in Jurassic park. They are shown as scaly monster-like animals, though I suppose we must allow for some Hollywood dramatization of them (nobody would be scared of an overgrown chicken). However the fossil evidence shows that they were almost certainly covered in feathers, on the arm bones there is a row of bumps identical in size and shape to the quill knobs of living birds which are the anchor points for feathers.

Sticking with birds for another example of the problem of integument; the necks of modern birds are long and slender but overlying skin and feathers obscures this and makes the neck thick to look at. This is not reflected in the osteology and if you were to be offered a skeleton of a parrot you could be forgiven if you were to draw it with a thin neck. This extends to mammals where skin, fat deposits and thick furry coats are not suggested to be present by the skeleton.

An interesting point raised in the book is to consider what might happen were hypothetical non-human scientists were confronted with the remains of modern animals. Would they reconstruct the animals as they look or would they end up with a bizarre fabrication? While there is such a thing called osteological correlates that one can use (with some reliability) to deduce soft tissue this is however only something we know from studying the skeletons or modern animals compared to what we know is correct, but With animals such as Dinosaurs there is no possible way to correctly know what they look like.

With an issue such as this, speculation when based upon sound empirical knowledge must be allowed and even necessary.


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Biologist. Archaeologist. Aspiring writer.

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