Fleshing Out the Past: HMNS Hall of Paleontology

There’s a reason that it’s been a long time since the last Evolutionary Routes post. When I’m not writing about the results of funky scientific research, my artistic alter-ego takes on scientific illustration projects with museums and book publishers. In fact, these days, scientific illustration (especially a subset focusing on prehistoric subjects and coined ‘paleoart’ by paleoartist Mark Hallett) makes up the bulk of my work.

For the last several months, I’ve been collaborating with the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Texas to roll out their enormous new Hall of Paleontology, which is set to be one of the top five paleontology exhibitions in the United States. It opened on June 2 amidst near record-breaking Houston temperatures. At around 36,000 square feet, it’s bigger than a football field, more than 50 feet tall and packed with over 30 dinosaur skeletons, plus hundreds of smaller critters, all mounted in dynamic poses apparently ready to pluck unwary visitors from the labyrinth of hall below.

The skeletons, trace fossils, text and murals chronicle the evolution of life on earth from the Precambrian to the Holocene. My part in the project was to create fifteen colorful back-lit murals, each as tall as a person, to flesh out the prehistoric creatures and their environments, helping visitors to visualize what these other-worldly living things looked like in ages long gone. This exhibit is definitely a must-see, and the short safari on which I’ll take you here only highlights an aspect of one facet of the exhibition, namely the development of the murals.

Yours truly at the opening of the new Hall of Paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, performing the rarely photographed “hand waving” behavior that is characteristic of scientists when laying out the details of a topic about the lack of which they know an immense amount — in this case, the ecology of the Permian in Texas.

In a museum commission like this, a lot of effort is put into ensuring as great scientific accuracy as possible. This is where the dialogue with experts begins, well in advance of the first rough sketch. The interaction takes two forms: studying published scientific research and dealing directly with curators. There are reams of fascinating research papers on several ancient ecosystems and the biological elements that constitute them, taking out a lot of the guesswork about how these environments would have felt to walk through. However, many fossil ecosystems are relatively new to science. In these cases, it is helpful to gain additional insight and fill in some of the gaps of knowledge by talking directly with the scientists who are involved in doing the first-hand work to uncover the ancient past.

Devonian mural. A pair of Dunkleosteus spar while Acanthostega takes cover midst the Archaeopteris debris.

I love working with museums to endeavor to create works of art with high scientific fidelity. The diversity of people with whom I get to interact is very great, and there are some highly memorable characters. Possibly the personalities that fall at the farthest extremities of the normal curve are the scientists. We’re an eccentric lot, and paleontologists  are no exception. Torrents of enthusiasm can bubble to the surface when they describe the worlds that their work reanimates in their minds.

Permian mural (1 of 2). Sail-backed synapsids such as Dimetrodon feast on the shark Xenacanthus, while more basal tetrapods such as Eryops hunt boomerang-headed Diplocaulus in ephemeral streams also inhabited by Trimerorhachis.

As an artist, it’s very entertaining and inspiring to talk with people such as Dr. Bob Bakker (Curator of Paleontology, and one of the main scientific minds behind the exhibit) when they elucidate, say, the likely goings-on of a typical day in Permian Texas. I always feel motivated to illustrate after such discussions. Even on the phone, I can practically hear him gesticulating enthusiastically as he describes giant sail-backed predators snacking on sharks in crowded streams.

Permian mural (2 of 2). A pair of wolf-like gorgonopsids called Inostrancevia scuffle over the carcass of a dicynodont.

And it’s not just words that are exchanged. Anyone who’s read his works such as “The Dinosaur Heresies” knows that Dr. Bakker is also an accomplished paleoartist. He provided numerous concept sketches for the exhibit, establishing the intended postures in which the animals’ skeletons were to be mounted. (It’s no coincidence that many of the skeletons on display remind one of his drawings.) I often based the postures of the species in the murals on such sketches. One of the best examples is the Dimetrodon/Xenacanthus reciprocal attack tableau in the Permian mural.

Triassic mural (1 of 2). The archosaur Smilosuchus lunges from the water in an effort to snag the dicynodont Placerias for breakfast.

Once everybody on board is happy with the planned content of a scene, I generate the first rough draft of a mural. At this point, a good dialogue between artist and experts is vital, because the first draft usually requires a lot of revision until it’s given the nod of approval. Everything from the relative position of animals to the thickness of a snout based on new fossil evidence can require alteration of the rough draft, and usually several rounds of review and revision take place.

Triassic mural (2 of 2). A hungry rauisuchian, Postosuchus, attempts to sidestep the spiny armour of its intended meal, the bizarre herbivorous crocodile-related aetosaur known as Desmatosuchus.

Most revisions simply increase the accuracy of the images. However, there are other factors to consider, some of which you just don’t see coming. In what is by far the most unusual example, the Triassic scene depicting a hungry Postosuchus attacking an armoured Desmatosuchus was based on a dynamic concept sketch by Dr. Bakker in which the former steps over the tail of the latter during the scuffle. My rough draft of the mural rotated the scene so that the viewer sees the action from behind and below, allowing for some interesting compositional effects. However, my draft was just slightly ‘off’ in the animals’ mutual proximity, and an unintended side-effect of the particular angle chosen was that the animals could potentially be interpretted as engaging in amourous rather than predatory behaviour; by offsetting them slightly from each other (it was hoped), potential misunderstandings would be averted.

Terrestrial Jurassic mural. In this Morrison formation scene, a protective mother Stegosaurus provides four good spiny reasons for an Allosaurus to move along while a pair of Diplodocus browse in the background.

Once the revised rough draft is given a unanimous thumbs-up, I proceed to rendering the details in high quality. Although I frequently cater to clients’ requests to provide work that has a specifically ‘painted’ feel (watercolor, acrylic, etc., such as my  Cretaceous murals in the new Dinosaur Hall at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History), my preferred artistic style is characterized as hyper-photorealistic. I achieve this by harmonizing a variety of digital techniques, from digital painting to photographic compositing, as in the movie industry. The latter requires me to acquire photographs of the geological, floral and faunal elements for the images, not only for visual reference but also incorporation of image content.

Marine Jurassic mural. Amidst a hanging garden of the crinoid Seirocrinus (one interpretation of the configuration of such fossils), a Stenopterygius mother is orbitted by six of her young as she dispatches a Harpoceras, while the marine crocodile Steneosaurus eyes a lone young ichthyosaur that has wandered off to investigate another ammonite.

But I can’t just snap a photo of a grassy field, smack a Triassic animal into it, and grin with satisfaction. A scientific illustrator must strive not only to portray anatomically accurate animals, but also geologically appropriate associated paleobotanical communities. Plants matter as much as animals, despite the tendancy of some artists in the past to focus almost exclusively on the animals, either placing them in a “parking lot” devoid of plants, or depicting anachronistic plant communities (such as grass in the Triassic).

Terrestrial Cretaceous mural. A species rich image that spans a time from the Campanian (right) to the Maastrichtian (left) in North America, this mural depicts several tableaus of activity, including a confrontation between a Tyrannosaurus and the wonderfully preserved mummified Triceratops known as “Lane” (center). The integument of Lane’s back is a mosaic of large polygonal scales, interspersed with giant plate-like scales that possess raised knobs in the center, some of which appear to be the broken bases of structures that may have been longer projections. Discussions with the paleontologists involved in the project led to the depiction of this Triceratops with bristles emerging from these enlarged scales. This interpretation is speculative, but the presence of long quill-like or filamentous structures is precedented in the skin of some other ornithischian dinosaurs, such as the ceratopsian Psittacosaurus and the heterodontosaurid Tianyulong.

Attention to this kind of detail while maintaining photorealism requires me to travel to places on earth that host what are known as analog communities, whose overall structure and species composition closely resemble certain prehistoric communities. For example, the Taxodium (swamp cypress) communities depicted in the Maastrictian (latest Cretaceous) half of the terrestrial Cretaceous mural come from photos of swampy or slow-flowing river locations in eastern Texas and South Carolina. Some ecosystems from the Cretaceous looked a lot like certain subtropical or temperate forests and wetlands of today. Such landscapes may only require small adjustments to agree with scientists best models of the compostion of prehistoric ecosystems.

Marine Cretaceous Mural. The Western Interior Seaway teems with reptilian life, including the giant marie turtle Archelon, which nips at a flipper of the giant mosasaur, Tylosaurus, a colossal relative of the living komodo dragon.

However, one of the neatest things about prehistoric biological communities brought about by evolution is that the farther back in time you look (i.e. the deeper in the strata of the geological column), the less familiar and more alien the landscapes look. This is not only because the composition of species differed, but also because the representatives of familiar goups of plants looked very different from those of today. There has been a lot more time for evolution to mold the appearance of these organisms since their deepest ancestors. Therefore, in many cases, I cannot simply photograph an existing landscape and only slightly modify this analog to make it agree visually with what we expect to have seen millions of years ago in the living version of the fossilized ecosystem. When the very plants themselves have no visually similar living representatives, I must build up these species from scratch, and then incorporate the elements of my work in an appropriately arranged community. Some mural landscapes are therefore much more a mosaic of work than are others. The Triassic and Permian murals are good examples of this process. Notice the segmented Neocalamites and Equisetites trees. They’re relatives of today’s horsetail plants, but they grew to around 20 feet (6 m) tall, and looked considerably different from modern horsetails.

Eocene mural. The Green River formation hosts a plethora of early mammals (such as the weird sabre-toothed Uintatherium) and other animals that shared their lakeshore environment, including the large armoured gar Atractosteus, the freshwater ray Heliobatis, the giant ‘terror-bird’ Diatryma, an early snake known as Boavus and one of the earliest bats, Icaronycteris.

Even the appearance of the nonliving parts of the landscape must be tailored, for paleontologists and geologists can deduce from the chemical composition and physical structure of the matrix material containing fossils what the ground and landscape were like at the time that the sediments were deposited. For example, sandstones sometimes indicate dunes whereas shales generally result from muddy surfaces. The matrix and state of preservation of fossils within it can even tell us about the climate that predominated when the creatures died.

Oligocene mural. The White River formation preserves a strange ecosystem in which giant carnivorous relatives of pigs, known as entelodonts (here represented by Archaeotherium, center) probably chased down diminutive ancestors of familiar modern mammal groups, such as the early horse Mesohippus.

Physical and chemical cues within the rocks (as well as the species compositon of plants and animals whose fossils exhibit adaptations to certain environmental conditions) tell paleontologists that, for example, the Permian beds of Texas that yielded the Dimetrodon nicknamed “Willie” were deposited in a region that experienced seasonal peaks in precipitation. These monsoon-like rains periodically generated streams in which feeding frenzies appear to have taken place during the emergence of some animals from drought-evading burrows in the mud (just as lungfish do today). Such a ‘breakfast bonanza’ is depicted in the Permian mural, where sail-backed synapsids (relatives of early precursors of mammals) devour bizarre spined eel-like freshwater sharks known as Xenacanthus.

Miocene mural (1 of 2). The world’s largest known shark, Carcharodon megalodon, stalks an early proboscidean, the ‘shovel-tusker’ known as Platybelodon, in the shallows of a lagoon. The gape of the shark is 11 feet (3.3 m) wide.

At the risk of aggravating paleobotanists, the illustration of animals often receives special attention. Some of what drives this faunal focus is that charismatic animal fossils are often placed at the center of displays, and murals tend to highlight these stars of the show. Patrons are generally more excited by animal fossils than those of plants. This is like the phenomenon of children peering into terrariums in search of animal life (especially active animals) and looking straight past the fascinating plants. In some ways, it’s too bad that so many of us seem to take a much greater interest in fauna than flora, because we thus miss out on a tremendous number of brow-raising tales of botanical natural history. To that end, I would be very interested in illustrating an exhibit that focused primarily on prehistoric plant communities. Still, despite the abundance of faunal fossils, the HMNS team did a very nice job of placing the animals in the proper ecological context, which is a gratifyingly increasing trend in many museums today.

Miocene mural (2 of 2). In this semi-arid steppe landscape of ancient China, one member of a herd of the tusked rhinoceros Chilotherium munches on blooming composites while another harasses a much larger mastodon, Mammut. A pair of the horse Hipparion protest the disturbance.

To flesh out the animals in the murals, I relied on a number of techniques, from digital painting to sculpting to photographic compositing. When you can’t go out to photograph a 70 million year old Cretaceous mammal, you need to be resourceful to get the job done. In the case of the Didelphodon that appears in the terrestrial Cretaceous mural, I used as a model our Corgi/Jack Russell dog, Wiki (from a Hawaiian word meaning ‘fast’ or ‘quick’, a very apt name for her). In one photoshoot, we persuaded Wiki to engage her ‘begging mode’, which reasonably closely approximates the clam-clutching bipedal stance of one of the Didephodon skeletal mounts in the exhibit. By working from these photographs as visual reference for the way that lighting falls on different parts of a small furry animal while relying on the Didelphodon skeleton as guide, I was able to build up an anatomically and posturally accurate reconstruction of Didelphodon in a photorealistic manner.

Pliocene/Pleistocene mural (1 of 2). One of a pair of murals depicting the great American interchange of mammals, in which many species migrated between North and South America to establish more modern species distributions between the continents when the land bridge formed. Here, a Xenosmilus leaps out of the way of the armoured club-like tail of the giant armadillo relative Glyptodon, while the aptly named bird, Titanis, lopes off to the left.

To be sure, a lot of pressure can build up as the deadline for submission of artwork nears and when it still feels like I am months away from completion. Inevitably, the candle begins to burn not only at both ends, but at several points in between. Nevertheless, the best indicator that tells me I’m in the right field of work as a scientific illustrator is that even at the peak of this pressure cooking, I still draw enjoyment from the work of illustration itself. Perhaps it is this gratification from the exciting nature of my job (I get to paint dinosaurs for a living; that never gets old) that helps me reap the energy I need at the home stretch to keep delivering the materials on time, which is crucial to a timely opening.

Pliocene/Pleistocene mural (2 of 2). In the second in the American Interchange murals, the huge short-faced bear Arctodus faces off with the sabre-toothed Smilodon, as the gazelle-like camel Hemiauchenia ambles out of the way. The giant ground sloth Eremotherium rises to full height on its hind legs.

The new permanent paleontology wing has grown from a twinkle in the developers’ eyes about five years ago, to a reality today. It was a pleasure to work with the paleontologists and exhibit designers to create the colorful visual elements of these murals, which depict about 90 species of prehistoric animals all told. The HMNS Hall of Paleontology is a permanent exhibit, viewable at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Hermann Park, located in central Houston, Texas.

Featuring more of my murals, another exhibition, “Ultimate Dinosaurs: Giants from Gondwana” opens later this month (June 23, 2012) at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada for a limited time.

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9 Responses to Fleshing Out the Past: HMNS Hall of Paleontology

  1. Pingback: Time to colour the fossil record… | triassica

  2. Li Stelea says:

    Woo-haa! That is so cool! Congratulations! And Dr. Bakker is a living legend. But I wonder, I can’t help thinking that he animates his subjects too much? Too spectacular, but kids enjoy that.

    • Thank you Li! Indeed, it was a great honour to be chosen to work with such a great team to produce a major part of this museum exhibition. It’s true, Dr. Bakker’s animals are very dynamic; my understanding of his objective both in illustrating his books such as “Dinosaur Heresies”, and in guiding the development of the murals in this exhibit was to capture those rare moments of maximum action that many photographers strive to acquire in photographs of wildlife. In this sense, the images are not intended to reflect the average views that we may experience if you or I were transported back to prehistoric times, but rather those decisive moments that most actively illustrate ecological interactions between animals, such as predation. And of course, because these murals are meant to support a specimen-rich museum exhibit featuring a plethora of charismatic megafauna, the murals often depict an unnaturally high density and diversity of animals in any one scene. I would also have enjoyed producing murals that more accurately reflected the density of animals while retaining the richness, but then I think that the museum walls would need to have been an order of magnitude larger to support such murals, and I doubt that I could have convinced the museum staff to find the coinage necessary to pull this off. And yes, many people might have lost interest looking for all the animals hiding among the plant life, important as I feel the paleoflora is. In the end, museum murals try to balance ecological accuracy with maximum impact.

  3. C-Rex says:

    All of these are amazing, Mr. Csotonyi, I’ve always been a fan of your work and it keeps getting better. I’m really loving those patterns on the Hipparion and Mesohippus; normally, when you see prehistoric horses, you just get like a basic brown or gray coat, and the horses shown here are one of the few exceptions. The Megalodon stalking the Platybelodon is great as well; I think I’d be scared out of my mind if I was swimming then noticed a bus-sized shark behind me! And I personally want to think that Archelon is avenging the death of a relative. Just amazing.

  4. Pingback: Milestones | Evolutionary Routes

  5. Jaimie says:

    I’m just some random person who stopped by the exhibit today. I was just telling someone how much I loved how the artwork brought the bones to life and stumbled on your blog. Great work! I really, really enjoyed it.

  6. Ted says:

    Very nice post !

    How large was described the tots size of the megalodon shark at the Hall ?

  7. Pingback: Interview with Julius Csotonyi « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings

  8. Jim says:

    God is clueless

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