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Mud Dragons, Tully Monsters, And Toothed Whales: The Best Paleo Art of 2016

As chosen by an artist who draws dinosaurs for a living.

I pay a great deal of attention to paleo art—which interprets scientific research to depict scenes of prehistoric life—because I make my career out of it. I work as the technical illustrator in the Palaeontology department at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, in the David Evans lab. My days are spent photographing, illustrating, reconstructing, and interpreting the specimens that we study there.

Every year, what we think we know about Earth's prehistoric fauna gets thrown for a loop. We are developing finer lenses to peer into the past, but there are still more questions than answers. With each year of fieldwork and hard months of digging, new specimens are pulled from the ground that make everyone's jaw drop in awe.

Along with the research is the other essential piece: the art. And 2016 was a year that gave us plenty to ogle and muse over, sending our minds racing backwards to imagine the world as it once was.

Here are a few of my favourite pieces of paleo art that came out this year to accompany some truly fantastic research.

Tongtianlong limosus by Zhao Chuang

Image: Zhao Chuang


I'm especially fond of paleo art that also tells a story, and even better when it's the tale of how the animal lived and died. This one's rather tragic. This new Oviraptor specimen got mired in the mud, and was beautifully preserved in its death-pose.

The artist captured the animal's anatomy with gorgeous accuracy. The environment looks so real that you wish you could reach in and try to haul it out. The research is an interesting example of taphonomy, or the study of the conditions and process of fossilization.

Rativates evadens by Andrey Atuchin

Image: Andrey Atuchin/Cleveland Museum of Natural History

This species, named Rativates evadens, is from about 76 million years ago, in the Dinosaur Provincial Park of Alberta. Ornithomimids are known for being curiously ostrich-like, of more specifically ratite-like (a group of birds that also includes emus and kiwis: hence the name). They also have a bit of a reputation of being one of the least exciting theropods. This painting, to me, challenges that assumption. Not only has Andrey Atuchin managed to make this elegant creature look entirely believable, but he managed to fit five very large animals, three tiny animals, and five species total in one image, without making it look like a sticker book.

Spiclypeus shipporum by Mike Skrepnick

Image: Mike Skrepnick

I, for one, am immensely fond of Ornithischian ("bird-hipped") dinosaurs, especially because they are so much further removed from anything today compared to the Saurischians, or "lizard-hipped dinosaurs," from whence birds sprang. (Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of oddities on that side too!) Just look at this new ceratopsian for example: Spiclypeus shipporum. Try saying that three times fast, I dare you.

Mike Skrepnick's take on this new Chasmosaurine from Campanian Montana captures all the eccentricities of this group, while still convincing us that its appearance is completely plausible. This traditionally painted piece keeps a rich, earthy colour scheme and a lushly detailed environment, though the animal itself is exciting for its boldly audacious horns and markings. Some might say it's quite bodacious!

Tullimonstrum gregarium by Sean McMahon

Image: Sean McMahon / Yale University

Let's dive a little further back, shall we? Okay, a lot further back. This is what's known as the Tully Monster. The name makes sense. A tiny fishlike body? Eyes on stalks? And a proboscis with a claw-arm at the end? This is just completely ridiculous as far as what we expect to see in animals.

But indeed, it lies deep at the bottom of the fish phylogeny, from 307-million years ago... I love the depiction of it. These tiny monsters are very, very distantly related cousins to us vertebrates, and present an interesting branch between invertebrates and vertebrates back when evolution was in an experimental phase.

Microleo attenboroughi by Peter Schouten

Image: Peter Schouten

Dinosaurs are great, but mammals stole the show on several occasions this year, too. This one here, a little marsupial lion hailing from the Early Miocene of Australia, is a dashing animal with very specialized teeth. Peter's art depicting it is so rich, vibrant and traditional. It's a painting that retains realism while still giving us a sort of loose, painterly, dreamy quality in the background.

Little Microleo, who lived around 18 million years ago, has just the tiniest open-mouth gap to hint at its shearing teeth, but for once, this animal group isn't depicted with its mouth cranked wide open! (Really, just google its bigger cousin Thylacoleo, and you'll see what I'm talking about: nothing but big chompy mouths.)

Echovenator sandersi by A. Gennari

Image: A. Gennari

Cetaceans have such an incredible history, and what's more, we have ample evidence of their gradual evolution from land into the sea. This illustration grabs my attention because it's doing double-duty: looking really fantastic, and delivering key information. This is what I love about technical illustration: the ability to communicate.

It's a beautiful scene depicting the hunting strategies of this toothed whale from the Oligocene of South Carolina, all the while showing just what's going on in those ears for the first time in the known lineage.

Psittacosaurus sp. by Bob Nicholls

Image: Bob Nicholls

Psittacosaurus, a small ornithischian dinosaur from the Jehol formation of China, has already been collected in droves. However, never before have we seen one so very well-preserved as this one.

Not only is it beautifully articulated, but it's also just covered in integument! We get a smorgasbord of skin and quills on the tail, and what's more, it has been analyzed for its preserved melanin, revealing its colour and patterns. Bob Nicholls did it justice by creating this phenomenally cute sculpture, because a 2D rendering simply wouldn't be able to translate all this information.

Spinosaurus aegyptiacus and Sigilmassasaurus brevicollis by Sergey Krasovskiy

Image: Sergey Krasovskiy

Spinosaurus has made quite the splash over the past couple years. Since its initial discovery, it has gone through several iterations of body plans and postures, but we were all thrown for quite a loop when a paper was published this year stating it was a quadupedal, semiaquatic theropod.

There was much debate about the correctness of just how its body parts were scaled and assembled from multiple specimens, but this new paper suggests that there was not one, but two spinosaurid species coexisting in the Cenomanian Kem Kem beds of Morocco. The biota from this locality is known for being diverse, rich, and best of all, huge. Sergey does an exquisite and highly detailed job of representing a scene bursting with life. I'm quite in love with the incredibly crisp detail and form.

Coelurosaur by Chung-tat Cheung

Image: Chung-tat Cheung

Earlier this year, our minds were blown when a forelimb or wing of a small theropod dinosaur was found preserved in amber. As incredible as it was, it was still within the realm of what we can relate to in the modern world. After all, we still have winged dinosaurs flapping around in every ecosystem on Earth.

Now, as the year closes, we are given the greatest treat any enthusiast of prehistory could ask for: a preserved juvenile theropod tail in amber. This little coelurosaur had a tail covered in simple feathers just like we see in down. This charming painting gives us with a potential scenario of this young dinosaur, hunting on a bright sunny day for a snack fit for its wee stature, while the sap from a tree threatens its soft fluffy tail. Careful, little guy! Too late now, I suppose.

Apatoraptor pennatus by Sydney Mohr

Image: Sydney Mohr

Sometimes, simplicity is the way to go. This newly described caenagnathid from 70 million years ago in the Hell Creek Formation of Montana is strutting some very believable colours. It stands alone so beautifully with a simple vignetted body of water that it is gracefully stepping through. I'd almost expect to see one in the reeds by a lake. Why complicate a good thing?

Hell Creek Theropods by Danielle Dufault

Image: Danielle Dufault

I just thought I'd post one shameless plug! I really loved collaborating with the authors to get things right on this painting, depicting the late Cretaceous diversity in small theropods in the Hell Creek Formation. Here's to another great year of fieldwork, discoveries, research and paleo art!

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