Monday, 28 August 2017

Prehistoric Life, As Rendered In Lego

Lego: The Building Blocks Of Simulated Life

An introduction to Lego might seem totally unnecessary, but in the event that this blog outlives the famous brick system, here's a tweet's worth of description for future readers:

@Lego is a line of plastic construction #toys consisting of colourful interlocking plastic bricks, gears, figurines and various other parts.

There you go. A description so concise, even a world leader couldn't fail to stick with it to the end. But Lego is more than that. Lego is manufactured by real Vikings and for a good few years it barely sported any English on its packaging. Even so, it's taken a surprisingly strong hold in English-speaking countries, eventually shedding the remnants of its continental look, and making every third set a Disney-controlled-Hollywood-movie tie-in (and then there's all the DC stuff). Old duffers like me yearn for a time when there were fewer unique pieces, but you can't fight evolution, and Lego doesn't fight market changes.

Luckily, Lego whizz, Warren Elsmore, was on hand to remind us that Lego can still be more than just Star Wars and lazy, gender-specific faux pas.

Dinosaurs: The Universal Language For Cool

Before a chance visit to Preston's Harris Museum & Art Gallery last week, I'd not heard of Warren Elsmore (he tweets here). Everything I now know has been gleaned from the web, and it's clear that he's not built (BUILT!) his Lego career just so he can fill the world with dinosaurs. And that's okay. Dinosaurs aren't everybody's cup of stuff, and making a living out of them is hard work. Warren has turned his engineery talents to several disparate areas, which are all incredible and covered in detail at his site, but what got my palaeosenses tingling is his current touring exhibition, 'Brick Dinos'.

The Dinosaurs Take Preston

Now, it's almost a given that something with dinosaur in the title, and intended for general consumption, will actually feature a fairly broad array of dinosaur and non-dinosaur palaeontological critters. Practically nothing else rolls off the tongue, and as any marketing consultant will tell you, buzz words work (even if they make experts twitch).

Ammonite. A good fossil is worth its weight in Lego. (Copyright © Warren Elsmore; photo: Gareth Monger)

Warren's 'palaeoLego' displays themselves were placed within a couple of decent-sized galleries, and could be divided, broadly, into two types. A dozen or more glass cases held dioramas and replica specimens, such as plant and ammonite fossils. The dioramas resembled regular kits in terms of scale. I could almost have imagined that these were off-the-shelf Lego kits - and that's not to suggest that there was anything run-of-the-mill about them, simply that were very-well conceived and honestly looked as if Lego's designers had signed them off. And that should come as no surprise, since Lego bricks is what Warren's famous for.

A pair of seagoing "pterosaurs" - presumably Pteranodon. Honestly, those two kids' smiles were totally genuine! (Copyright © Warren Elsmore; photo: Gareth Monger)

Naturally, there's a resolution issue here. There's a bottom end to the scale, and the only real way to introduce palaeontologist-pleasing detail is to go big. You don't really get to include integumentary structures such as feathers when you're working in Lego. That doesn't mean Warren doesn't try. His ornithomimid - I think it was Struthiomimus - certainly had some attractive downy fluff cascading down its sides.

Struthio-/Galli- + mimus(Copyright © Warren Elsmore; photo: Gareth Monger)

As this was a flying visit and I didn't know the exhibition was happening, I didn't take many notes, so I honestly don't recall whether this was Struthiomimus or Gallimimus. And that illustrates the resolution issue. The level of detail attainable at this size is limited, so this could be any ornithomimid. On the other hand, this isn't an exercise in scientific accuracy, so who cares? And it is nice to see a non-avian theropod, as part of a pop culture exhibit, adorned with feathers.

(Speaking of feathers, there was also an Archaeopteryx, but it wasn't very convincing, even bearing in mind it was made in Lego - so I didn't bother to photograph it. Again, it's a resolution issue. Bricks are just too, well, bricky to convincingly depict an animal famous for its avian-esque qualities. Also, it seemed to have a short tail.)

Tyrannosaurus(Copyright © Warren Elsmore; photo: Gareth Monger)

It would be weird if there wasn't a hulking great Tyrannosaurus in this display, so it was no great surprise to find one skulking around in the Lego scrubland of one of the glass cases. This one raised smiles with its bloodied kill's remains strewn across the ground. Oh, and look those manus! No bunny hands here! Hats off to them for getting that right.

Ankylosaurus grazes next to a seasonally-dry riverbed. (Oops - it's not dry.) (Copyright © Warren Elsmore; photo: Gareth Monger)

It's worth drawing attention to the landscapes in Warren's sets. There's no Cretaceous hothouse tropiness going on. No baked deserts with an obligatory backdrop of lava-spewing volcanoes. The leaflet boasts that Warren worked closely with a palaeontologist, and that's evident. These are Lego renderings of living animals and it shows. These are not '60s caricatures of cold-blooded, tail-dragging lizards, smashing their heads into rocks and fighting each other because they don't know how to do anything else. I walked in vaguely curious, but ultimately not expecting much, and I came out wanting to blog about it.

Sauropods (Diplodocus?) drink at, perhaps, the edge of a lake. (Copyright © Warren Elsmore; photo: Gareth Monger)

The Big Stuff

The second type of display, after the dioramas, is the full-scale sculpture. Understandably, there weren't as many of these, and how do you decide which dinosaur to tackle? And, importantly, where do you draw the line when it comes to size? Cleverly, a large diorama into which one places a medium-sized dinosaur is still an imposing sculpture! Masiakasaurus is an interesting theropod from Madagascar with weird, sticky-outy teeth which suggest that it may have gone after fish and other small animals.

Not everybody wants to get to know Masiakasaurus. (Copyright © Warren Elsmore; photo: Gareth Monger.)

Most palaeo workers agree that too small a selection of palaeontological animals get too big a share of the attention. That most of those animals are dinosaurs is also a massive bugbear for palaeo workers. Dinosaurs are the 1%. If you asked a hundred different palaeontologists to nominate an extinct animal to feature in this diorama, you'd receive a thousand different nominations - and you might get a dinosaur among the mammal teeth. But this isn't SVPCA, it's the Harris in Preston, and its target audience includes an enormous number of kids, all desperate to rattle off every dinosaur name they know in front of proud parents.

Despite this, it's still fun to see something a little more 'out there' than the usual 'T-REX', or mis-scaled Velociraptor, even if it is another theropod. Masiakasaurus isn't your usual theropod, at least not at the sharp end, and it's nice to see that extra effort went into avoiding a dinosaurian cliche.

Given that this was the only full-size Lego model of a theropod in the display, I would have loved to have seen an attempt to add some sort of feathery coat, perhaps not fully-veined feathers given its position on the theropod family tree relative to those more closely related to birds, but some hint. Or maybe, given that Warren clearly isn't adverse to the idea of feathered dinosaurs, his consultant nudged him away from that headache.

Another "pterosaur", presumably a female Pteranodon. Seriously, why don't the pterosaurs get to use their generic names? That happened in the WWD movie, too. (Copyright © Warren Elsmore; photo: Gareth Monger.)

Again, I feel like I'm nitpicking. An important aspect to displaying dinosaurs is conveying their size - especially the larger examples - and this is something you don't necessarily get from their skeletons, since they are reduced to hollow, lightweight frameworks, with museum lighting reaching through a complex of negative space. A solid, fleshed reconstruction takes us that bit further, and we can appreciate the mass of an animal, even if it is demonstrated in Lego, minus a bit of fluff.

During my short visit, I saw children awed, and occasionally scared, by Warren's incredible models. Interactive displays and activities enabled visitors to fully engage, and an art competition will extend the enjoyment that bit longer for one lucky visitor. If you're in the Northwest, you've got 'til September 17th (2017) to see this exhibition, after which it goes extinct, though perhaps not forever. For more information, go here or here.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Conodonts: 520 Million Years Long in the Tooth

Decent conodont fossils are frustratingly rare. Sure, their 'teeth' are so well known they're used as index fossils, id est, the distributions of particular types are used to gauge the age of the rocks in which they're found. Lacking the hard, bony skeletons of 'vertebrates proper', they don't leave so much to fossilise; ergo, only a handful of not-teeth-fossils are known. It's hardly surprising, then, that the arrangement of the hard elements within the head isn't fully understood. The animals are generally pretty small, ranging from 10mm to 400mm, and the teeth are only rarely found associated with the animal which used them. It's not even clear from the remains themselves how they were used, with a variety of feeding methods proposed, including filtration, crushing and actively grabbing hold of small prey. It's not hard to imagine conodonts as analogous to extant eels, and eel-like lampreys and hagfish - after all, they share a broadly similar form - but the feeding methods employed by those animals are disparate to say the least.

Given the poor preservation of the soft tissue elements of conodonts, many reconstructions are understandably pretty basic represented by little more than line art (and there's nothing wrong with that). However, Davide Bonadonna has put together this incredible image, which is probably the nearest anyone is going to get to a face-to-face encounter with our fishy (fishesque? fishish?) friend. Mercilessly terrifying, mercifully small.

Rocking the 'someone stepped on my tail' look: Clydagnathus. (Copyright © Davide Bonadonna.)

So Davide's pop-eyed conodont inspired something a little less scientific from me, in the form of this Alien3-Clydagnathus mash-up, and is available on products at my Redbubble store, here. And if you prefer something a little more scientific, you can buy Jaime Headden's instead.

The conodont Clydagnathus, which, were it alive today, would gestate in your chest and eventually smash through your ribcage. Why? Because pop culture. (Copyright © 2016 Gareth Monger)

Big thanks to Davide Bonadonna for allowing the use of his work in this glorified advert. If you're unfamiliar with his incredible work, correct that immediately!

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Blackpool's Place In Illustration History, The Passing Of Wildlife Artist David Johnston And Grabbing Your Reference When You Can

The seaside town they forgot to close down...

BA (Hons) Scientific and Natural History Illustration was a successful degree course with an international reputation and was run at Blackpool and the Fylde College of Art and Design until only a few years ago, when short-sighted management decided to turn an important college with students from all over the world into a very average one which tends only to the needs of the local populace. People hardly need a reason to avoid Blackpool; after all, it's an end-of-the-line seaside town with no pre-tourism industry to speak of (and precious little pre-tourism history), and a local government which has no firm long-term plans. It also finds itself high up in national rankings for deprivation, suicide and low life expectancy.

Two shoppers wait for Primark to open against the stunning backdrop of Blackpool Tower and the Fylde coast. (© Twentieth Century Fox.)

A marriage of science and art

The degree, which we used to refer to as 'Sci Ill', was initially taught by a former Technical Illustration student, Dave Johnston, who would become a world-renowned wildlife artist. Although he left the college the year before I started, I would get to know him at the print shop where I work, printing for him hundreds of reference images of myriad extant dinosaurs, but mainly corvids, larids and sternids. Though in his sixties, Dave still valued fresh reference material, though I was always a little surprised that, given his insatiable appetite for photography, there was still any photographic reference left for him to collect.

Die-hard Dougal Dixon fans may remember Dave as one of the two illustrators (the other being Andrew Robinson) who provided images for Dixon's The Illustrated Dinosaur Encyclopedia which was published by Hamlyn in the late '80s. Although I doubt the artwork blew anybody away, the treatment of many of the dinosaurs, especially the ceratopsians, did make them look 'fuzzy', albeit unintentionally, a long time before most palaeoartists were feathering anything other than Archaeopteryx and the odd segnosaur.

The Illustrated Dinosaur Encyclopedia by Dougal Dixon, illustrated by Dave Johnston and Andrew Robinson. (Not to be confused with The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Dinosaurs, by David Norman). Section of stolen blue pallet for scale.

Dave Johnston died unexpectedly last month, which ended one chapter in Blackpool's part in the story of British wildlife art - and it was quite a colourful chapter. His humanist service certainly had a 'rock star' vibe and many of those in attendance had that 'lived in' look. Blackpool has its characters; I think most of them were at Dave's funeral.

Sci Ill was set apart from similar courses in that it employed a full-time biologist (Mike Clapham) who was on-hand to tutor students in biological processes, but his main role was to level the playing field by teaching everybody how to effectively research their subject matter. This was combined with photography tuition; the theory went that your illustrations could only be as good as your reference.
This was a time when digital photography hadn't quite kicked film of its perch, so the entire class went out and purchased a tonne of 35mm camera gear. Every photoshoot ended with a trip to the local film developer, and if you didn't get it right, you had to do it all over again. Not really a problem if you're making clay dinosaurs, but if you're shooting something that's more time and location-sensitive, like the annual Fen tiger migration, it can be a real pain in the wallet. You kids don't know how good you've got it.

Cameras, cameras everywhere...

...and still no convincing thylacines or yetis. In 2016, of course, many of us don't go anywhere without at least a basic camera. Most mobile phones come with cameras as standard, and the quality of these has increased dramatically since they became commonplace some time in the '00s. Better lenses, better resolution and camera apps have between them provided people with the digital equivalent of the Instamatic. You don't really need a dedicated point-and-click camera if you own a mobile.

For artists, mobile phone cameras are pretty handy in that should you come across a scene or plant or something else not so easily or ethically brought back into the studio, you can photograph it with minimal fuss and add it to your reference library. You can record compositions and colours, organisms which you may wish to identify later, and, as was suggested to us during a field trip, evidence of illegal poaching and landscape destruction.

The highlight of my day: a dead bird. (Copyright © 2016 Gareth Monger.)

Whilst out on the school run, I noticed this unfortunate infant theropod in the middle of the pavement, tens of metres away from any obvious nest sites.  We can only speculate about how this animal found its way here. It certainly didn't fly itself there. But whilst I did have my trusty phone with me, I didn't have any means to transport the corpse back to my lab open-plan kitchen/lounge where I could take a better set of reference photos, and maybe ID it. From now on I carry a few plastic sandwich bags - just in case.

(I was going to offer a paragraph or two on the possible reasons for the liberal scattering of dead baby birds upon pavements, parks and gardens, but of course the second I searched the net, I see Darren Naish has already done it! - see here.)

Sunday, 20 March 2016

The Rocky Transition From Paint To Pixels

Orca flies the flag

Last March, noted zoologist and living-encyclopaedia-on-tetrapods-and-selected-fish, Darren Naish, sent me some outlines to colour for Tetrapod Zoology's April Fools article. Cetacean Heresies detailed the bright colouration of extant cetaceans, and how those colours go undetected by the pitifully inadequate human eye. That black-and-white orca in your ornamental pond? Fringewhiner's Chromatic Truthometer shows it for what it really is: a gay rights poster boy. It's rainbows all the way. Rainbows are good.

Peponocephala and killer whale pod. (By Darren Naish and Gareth Monger; CC-NC-SA 2.0)

Special offers on piss-taking

The article was good fun, and was a veritable 2-for-1 deal; it parodied both a well-known fringe science blog, and one of those inexplicably popular (and subsequently internationally famous) internet memes - a photo of a blue-and-black dress which appeared to some internet users as a white-and-gold dress. In one of those bizarre twists, the woman who originally photographed the dress then came into the printshop where I work to run off a few copies of the photo, and STILL wasn't sick of talking about it.

Skamps (I think that's what we called these at uni) of generalised mosasaurs in different poses and angles. Pencil on paper. (Copyright © 2016 Gareth Monger.)

So why am I milking whales, ten months on? In short, it was the first time I'd used a digital package to put together a full-colour illustration, albeit in a rather rushed manner. At the time, nearly all of my work was coloured by hand, using gouache. (If you're not sure what that is, read my article on gouache at ArtDiscount.) If you are an experienced gouache user, you'll know it's no slower a medium to paint with than anything else, the main limitation to speed being how much detail you want to put into your image. It's considerably quicker to work with than oils, it dries reasonably quickly, and can be forgiving. However, there's a basic set-up time associated with it, namely the time taken to stretch paper, which can, if you're lucky, be as short as a couple of hours. There's nothing better than seeing a perfectly stretched sheet of 140lb Arches watercolour paper, ready to receive its first pencil mark. Conversely, there's nothing worse than seeing that your adhesive tape has failed on one side of your paper, and you've got to redo the whole damn thing. (For hints on paper stretching, see my dA post, here.)

Preliminary sketch (top) of a pair of Platecarpus, with soft tissue outline based on Lindgren et at, 2010. Revised outline (bottom) tweaked to reflect social media comments by palaeontologist Nathan Van Vranken. Note the shorter intermediate caudals' section. Pencil on paper. (Copyright © 2016 Gareth Monger.)

Material costs

This time, however, I heeded advice regarding digital illustration, and figured that these kinds of non-commercial, tight-deadline jobs would benefit from employing a more-speedy process. Material costs are also a consideration, and when a single sheet of paper costs upwards of five pounds, digital art offers a cost-effective alternative. That's not to say I've fallen out of love with toxic pigments and plant-based substrates, it's just that digital painting is very, very convenient. Also, I may go a couple of months without breaking out my paints and, inevitably, they dry out. Yes, they're water-based, but they're also awkward to rehydrate whilst in the tubes. The easiest way to get any use out of dried gouache is to slit open the metal tube and use it in the same way you would a watercolour pan. Of course, you're not really using it as gouache, but it eases the pain of seeing expensive paint dry out.

Pencil outline after some clean-up, and an initial pass through Photoshop to add some body-forming shading. Pencil on paper/digital. (Copyright © 2016 Gareth Monger.)

Going Digital, Sorta...

And so, with last year's April 1st in mind, and probably also inspired by seeing Amin something-or-other's passive-aggressive, and generally unwarranted, comments about Nic Grabow's (I think) deviatART mosasaur, I decided to knock out a quick full-colour render of a mosasaur, complete with background. Google's luck-of-the-draw-type results would determine the genus, which ended up being Platecarpus. Back in 2010, Johan Lindgren, Michael W. Caldwell, Takuya Konishi and Luis M. Chiappe published in PLOS ONE a paper on convergent evolution in aquatic tetrapods, focussing on a specimen of Platecarpus which displayed some excellent soft tissue preservation, and which suggested that a crescent-shaped caudal fin was present in life.

 Lindgren, et al (2010). CC-BY-2.5

A reconstruction in Lindgren et al (2010) (left) suggested a possible soft tissue outline for Platecarpus, based on the specimen discussed in the paper. The dorsal portion of the fluke is only tentatively restored, as implied by the fuzzy margins, but it's enough to offer a hint on how to progress with an illustration for a palaeoartist. Scott Hartman also writes about this at Skeletal Drawing, in the article 'Mosasaur Tails - Teaching the Controversy', and offers a handful of likely shapes which a palaeoartist may wish to adopt. Whatever the case, the traditional view of mosasaurs as having essentially lizard-like tails, albeit laterally compressed and ribbon-like, is out of vogue, especially for later genera, and shows that a more (superficially) traditionally-fish-like fluke was adopted by secondarily aquatic reptiles in several disparate groups. Oh, and dorsal frills are out too, having been mercilessly copied from Charles Knight's Tylosaurus for decades. Hey, I did it (over a decade ago, mind).

A pair of Platecarpus, lured into posing for this image by the promise of a David Attenborough voice-over. Digital. (Copyright © 2016 Gareth Monger.)

So here's my full-colour illustration of two Platecarpus, swimming around calmly like obedient Seaworld killer whales. The original layout was an evening's work; the colour work took a second evening. On the whole, I'm pretty pleased, and yes, of course, there are things I would change/add. Integumentary structures, for example, aren't evident, but then they might not be at this distance. The foreshortening on the caudal fin caused some confusion, with some commenting that the fluke angles were incorrect. They weren't, or, at least, they were based on the aforementioned reference, and it was the foreshortening causing them to appear unfamiliar. But that's to be expected when most pictorial reference is in diagrammatic, lateral view. One noted mosasaur expert didn't like the blubbery look; another palaeontologist figured it simply denoted healthy individuals. There was a speculative angle to this, which was to show a more fluid outline in an animal which spends its entire life in fluid.

But on the whole, not so bad for a couple of evenings' work.


Hartman, S (2016) Mosasaur Tails - "Teaching the Controversy"

Lindgren J, Caldwell MW, Konishi T, Chiappe LM (2010) Convergent Evolution in Aquatic Tetrapods: Insights from an Exceptional Fossil Mosasaur. PLoS ONE 5(8): e11998. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0011998

Naish, D (2015) Cetacean Heresies: How The Chromatic Truthometer Busts The Monochromatic Paradigm.

Want to support me?

If you like what you're reading and you want to help me keep this going, maybe take a look at my Redbubble page? Here's a mostly-relevant mosasaur (Globidens, not Platecarpus, but who cares?):

Globidens, Haida-style, available on t-shirts, mugs, and a butt-load of other stuff, via Redbubble.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Stuck For A Palaeo Gift? Decision-Making Just Got Easier...

Picky Palaeo People

This is shameless self-promotion whereby I suggest you buy my art on t-shirts, mugs, hoodies, and whatever else Redbubble keeps in stock, and as such, I'll not be spamming the Facebook groups (just the Twitter hashtags). If you're one of those people who is lucky enough to count a palaeontologist amongst the inhabitants of your Christmas gift list, then you could do far worse (I think!) than take a look at my Redbubble gallery and peruse the palaeo-themed graphics and doodles which populate its pages.

An ichthyosaur, plesiosaur and pterosaur, in the style of Pacific Northwest Amerindians, plus Yi qi in the style of the crows from Disney's Dumbo. (Copyright © Gareth Monger.)

Is there an ichthyosaur nerd in your life? Sorted! Do you know of a plesiosaur fancier out there who's still wearing the shoddy transfer t-shirt they made at college in 1990? Upgrade them! Are you sick to death of hearing your neighbours argue because one of them is perpetually frustrated by the lack of Yi qi apparel in the palaeoverse? This might be the fly-remover for their ointment!

(L-R) The Palaeoplushies Queen, Rebecca Groom, wearing the Haida ichthyosaur; 'How Train Your Velociraptor'; a road sign we'd all like to see more of; 'tyrant teen', Tristan Stock, looking buff whilst wearing 'The Membraned Crusader'. 

So pop along to the 'GaffaMondo' gallery at Redbubble and take a peek. There you will find a good chunk of the supporting graphics, doodles and cartoons which I generated over the last twelve months, which is, coincidently, Pteroformer's first year online. With luck, I'll be able to add to this collection over the next twelve months, perhaps producing images to commemorate further new discoveries, as I did for Yi qi. Needless to say, Pteroformer isn't a commercial site (in the sense that I'm not paid to write it) so any money made on the back of it is very gratefully received - plus it means I can keep it ad-free. And don't forget, you'll be supporting original palaeoart, which means that you're joining the good fight against shitty broken-wristed raptors clad in ill-fitting snakeskin pyjamas. Not so good if you have a feather allergy, but it's a small price to pay to get away from 1990s shrink-wrap hell.

Support Original Palaeoart

You'll notice the Support Original Palaeoart graphic - it doesn't mean I'm endorsed, just that I'm one of many supporting the movement, spearheaded by Mark Witton, John Conway and Darren Naish. You can read all about it over at Mark's blog, here.

Late Announcement!

David Orr has just published an article at Love In The Time Of Chasmosaurs, giving a brief run-down of some of the palaeontology-themed artwork, books and other bits you can buy, including work by Ricardo Delgado, Fred Wierum, Levi Hastings, Jon Davies, Juan Carlos Alonso, Matt Martyniuk, Brynn Metheney and Angela Connor. Happily, I got a mention too - as did David's, and his wife Jennie's, great early learner's book, Mammoth Is Mopey. I've got a copy; one day I might let my kids look at it.

Next up: Celebrating 20,000 page views with pterosaur papercraft!

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Skimming Rhamphorhynchus (or Rynchops For The Win)

Tropy Palaeo-Cliché

There are plenty of palaeoart examples of Rhamphorhynchus skim-feeding in the style of the extant tern-like bird, Rynchops. It's understandable - after all, Rhamphorhynchus is a seagoing pterosaur with a mouthful of forward-pointing teeth, occasionally preserved with the remains of its fishy meals within it. Factor that stuff together, and it's easy to imagine Rhamphorhynchus zipping along just above the surface of some shallow Jurassic sea, thrusting forward with its mandible slicing the water's surface, and snatching morsels of food as it finds them.

Humphries and Chums' 'Just Say No!' Campaign

In a 2007 paper investigating the possibilities of pterosaurs engaging in skim-feeding, Humphries et al found few adaptations towards this method of prey-capture, with the skull lacking the types of reinforcement seen in Rynchops. Read the paper here. Despite the refutation of the idea, it's a persistent one in palaeoart, probably in part because it makes for attractive images. Thanks to Humphries et al, this is probably as close as I dare get to showing a rhamph skimming:

Rhamphorhynchus experiments with skim-feeding, remembers why it doesn't. (Copyright © 2015 Gareth Monger)

Anyway, none of that is what you'd call new news - I just wanted to draw a cartoon of a pterosaur.


Humphries S, Bonser RHC, Witton MP, Martill DM (2007) Did Pterosaurs Feed by Skimming? Physical Modelling and Anatomical Evaluation of an Unusual Feeding Method. PLoS Biol 5(8): e204. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050204

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Groovy Swan Beaks

Blogged out

Here's a drive-by blogging, just to get things warmed up after a few quiet weeks. Truth is, the art retail company I work for got wind of my non-day-job blogging and the inevitable happened: yup, I'm now blogging for them, too. Not that that's a problem, you understand; it's all in work's hours and there's no overlap in subject matter, so I'm not repeating myself. Despite having had two or three Pteroformer articles pretty much ready to go for some time, I have felt somewhat 'blogged out'.

TetZoo Time! and Beware! the Zine

That's not to say I've done nothing else. I shot out a brief TetZoo Time! strip to keep things fresh there, whilst Alberta Claw and John Turmelle were between academic years and I also continued work on another blog, Beware! the Zine, which I run with longtime co-conspirator, Andy Brain. Keep an eye out for TetZoo Podcats references (hint: they're here and here). There are also a couple of books in the works, which I'll come back to nearer to the times of their respective completions - if only because I find estimating end dates for such projects rather difficult! On top of all that frantic activity and inactivity, I was happy to notice a couple of my diagrams used in an article at an infamous fringe paleo site (even if it was just to point out how silly they are) but not so pleased to see that attribution seemed too difficult a step.

Got close to swan; arms not broken

Despite the considerable risk to my personal safety, I recently baited a rock with bird seed and photographed Britain's most dangerous extant theropod feeding, up close. Forget cassowaries, even maximum ones. I don't know what kids are taught in the rest of the world, but in '70s and '80s Britain, children found themselves herded into school sports halls so that government-sponsored liaison officers could expound the dangers of getting too close to swans with families. "A fully-grown swan can break a man's arm with its wing!" was what we were all told, without a hint of irony. The girls were safe, seemingly. So too were the boys, at least until they had got puberty out of the way. Swans only target men's arms.

During the '80s and '90s, I attended a local branch of the Scouts, and we would visit the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust in Welney, Cambridgeshire, where thousands of waterbirds would overwinter during the seasonal floods. WWT staff were mostly female in those days, owing to the disproportionate number of men injured in horrifying attacks by mute swans. We can only speculate that they never heard them coming. In fact, archaeological evidence has shown that over half of the adult male skeletons in Romano-British cemeteries for the Fens had healed or healing fractures of their humeri, radii and ulnae, some still with the imprints of swan feathers on their surfaces.

The business end of the swan

Leaving fantasy aside for a moment, one particular photo of a mute swan is worth a share. St. Anne's-on-the-Sea in Lancashire has a biggish ornamental pond situated in Ashton Gardens, its main park. Several species of a wetland bird call it home, including swans, mallards, moorhens and canadian geese. Excepting the moorhens none of them are particularly skittish, which is a shame since it's not too long since an unleashed terrier took the head off one of the swans. On the plus side, it makes getting close to them a bit easier, and they'll readily take food, with younger ducks happy enough to take it from your hands.

A swan. A swan and its pigeon prey. (Copyright © Gareth Monger.)

Now, I've not spent much time staring down the barrel of a swan, basically for the reasons mentioned above. A lot of people are familiar with the 'teeth' of ducks, geese and swans, and a good chunk of those people are aware that they're not true teeth.

Mute swan (Cygnus olor) displaying lamella and corresponding grooves (unless the corresponding grooves are also called lamellae - available diagrams didn't seem to agree). (Copyright © Gareth Monger.)

Mute swans (Cygnus olor), like the one in this photo, are generally herbivorous, and use an array of lamellae in their beaks to gather aquatic plants and separate inedible material from the mix. These rib-like projections in the upper and lowers beaks interlock neatly, though they're not always obvious from the outside. After all, unlike Hollywood's dinosaurs, extant dinosaurs don't spend every waking hour with the mouths hanging open, screaming at stuff.

Highly-detailed and extremely serious scientific diagram, showing a duck's head with lamellae exposed. Note fleshy projections forming a fringe on the lateral margins of the tongue. (Copyright © Gareth Monger.)

So there you are. Swans, geese, ducks, and a bunch of other birds, have weird rib-like features lining their beaks, improving their ability to grip food and separate out the nice bits from sediment and other, less interesting, items. Some birds take it further than others, such as flamingos, which have an arrangement which allows them to filter small invertebrates from the water. A bit of a long blog when all I wanted to do was wave a photo under your noses, but hey, it's been a while. See you soon.