Friday, 17 May 2013

Back to future evolution in Brussels

In 2009 I wrote about a paper in a Belgian magazine showing models of future animals in the Brussels Museum of Natural Sciences. The animals later also appeared in Darren Naish' Tetrapod Zoology blog. For me, discovering the Brussels animals had as an unforeseen effect that I got to know the makers of the models, for whom designing future animals proved to be more than a single occurrence. Marc Boulay and Jean-Sébastien Steyer have been working on a book on future evolution at least since 1999. The book will be published by Belin in 2014 (in French). There are glimpses of animals as yet unseen by others on Marc's site, by the way.

Back to the future, or back to Brussels, whatever the case may be. I have now finally visited the museum; it is quite good as Natural History museums go, and specialises in dinosaurs. There is an impressive display of nine mounted specimens of Iguanodon bernissartensis, and that alone should be worth the visit. Belgium is famous for its rich supply of Iguanodons, found around 1878 in a coal mine.

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As you can see, the Iguanodons are standing upright in the tripod position favoured at the time when the skeletons were mounted in 1883, not with their vertebral columns and tails horizontally as would be the case today. This is not because the museum is not up to date; it is  as far as I can tell, so I suppose they are just wary of the cost of remounting various very large dinosaur skeletons. Or perhaps there is a risk of harming the priceless skeletons, or perhaps there is an historical continuity in keeping the Iguanodons mounted according to yesterday's ideas.

The museum has a gallery of evolution, illustrating some major events and their consequences in evolution, such as the developments of eyes, of jaws, of armour and fins. There is a nice video illustrating evolutionary branching, ending for once not with man on top but with many species at the same point in time; if any species is singled out, that is -jokingly- a penguin! At the very end of that gallery there is a small group of models, and those are the animals of the future. That part of the exhibition is rather small and has not got much in the way of explanation. There is a video showing continental drift for the next 50 years, but that is about it. There are no plaques stating what is special about these animals. In fact, I saw a group of children walk by, probably ignorant of the fact that there were fundamental differences between these displays and the multitude of stuffed animals in the museum. There was a sign saying that some items had been removed from the display because of changes being made to the room's climate system; as far as I can tell a snake and a gliding mammal (Trichopteryx dixoni -surely I do not need to explain who that animal is named after-) were missing. Perhaps this also explains the lack of explanations. In this post I will add some explanations, obtained in part from the interview with Jean-Sébastien Steyer in 2009, and to a larger extent directly from his and Marc's comments on a first draft of this post.

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Corticochaeris gouldi
This is a descendant of the capybara, today's largest rodent. It has become larger, with a disproportionate growth in its teeth, head and front quarters. The magazine text states it is a forest dweller, and its colours seem quite appropriate for that, mimicking spots of light falling through a leaf cover.

I had not seen the species' part of the various names before, as these are only mentioned on small plaques in the museum. The species' names reveal something about the designer's taste in biology and illustration, so they deserve mention. The name 'gouldi' is an homage to the late Stephen Jay Gould. He is considered one of the best writers popularising science of the last century, so I am glad I the designers must have felt similarly.

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Propellonectes russelli
This is a one meter long descendant of the Northern Giant Petrel, Macronectes halli. As you can see it has evolved into a large flightless swimming bird, propelling itself with its feet by way of flaps on the toes that no doubt fold back with the feet are pulled forwards and that spread out when the feet move back. 

'Russelli' denotes Dale Russell, the Canadian palaeontologist who proposed that dinosaurs might have evolved into an intelligent dinosauroid.

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Neopygoscelis dentatus
This is a toothed descendant of the penguin species Pygoscelis papua, so its formal name means 'toothed new brush-tailed penguin'. The teeth are apparently not just serrations of the edge of the beak, but proper teeth: the magazine interview states that birds still have the genes for teeth, and that it is not impossible for these genes to regain their expression. Neopygoscelis is an impressive four meters long. Its feet have evolved into large paddles and its wings/flippers have decreased in size, it would seem. That is odd: current penguins have very efficient flippers, so I wonder whether their continued evolution would promote feet at the cost of flippers. The animal appears not to need to climb ashore any more, which would certainly free the feet from their current restrictions as walking appendages. That would make them susceptible to evolution in another direction, but a drive towards them serving as propulsion aids has to start with a propulsion advantage right now, not a future advantage its descendants may gain from enlarged feet. Because of that, I would expect the flippers to stay in place as near-perfect propulsion limbs, and the feet would, well, what would the feet do? Turn into rudders? Disappear altogether? Turn into sexual aids? (In zoology that can always happen...)

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In the magazine, Neopygoscelis was shown in a penguin-like black-and-white coat (top), but in the museum it is an overall grey colour (bottom). With the magazine in the one hand and my photographs of the museum version in the other, it became clear that the two do not represent the same model at all! Jean-Sebastièn and Marc explained that the process of having the digital designs converted into an actual model had to be done in a hurry to get the models ready for the opening of the exhibition. The result of this was that there was unfortunately not enough opportunity for interaction with the model maker, so the museum models ended up rather different from the original designs. I suppose that that explains the 'feet vs. flipper' exchange in size, which probably reflects a choice of the local model maker. 

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Helicopodus buriani
For this species and the next, there is nothing in the paper and no explanation in the museum. The model confused me a lot: I could see that it has a segmented body and jointed exoskeletal legs, so it can only be an arthropod. Still, its head looked very unfamiliar, and its eyes certainly look like camera eyes, although it is hard to be certain. Again, it appears that the design suffered from a lack of time for cooperation between the designers and the sculptor. Luckily, I had help from the creators of this odd animal: what we have here is a centipede with a flattened body allowing it to glide through the air. Now that is a neat invention; of course, animals from very diverse groups developed gliding forms, including mammals, lizards, squid and insects, so why not centipedes?

It really is a pity that the museum provides so little information, not even stating that the animal is a glider! (This is a pet peeve of mine: why do museums usually only provide meagre information at infant level? With modern media it should be possible to provide information on many levels, so visitors should be able to choose the level and extent of information they want!)      

'Buriani' refers to Zdenek Burian, whom I consider to be one of the world's best painters ever of prehistoric life forms (and I am not alone in this).

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Rhombosepia gregaris
The shape and name help here: the 'communal rhomboid-shaped squid'. These are apparently  descendants of cuttlefish swimming head first instead of backwards. Drawing attention to 'swimming head first' may seem strange as it seems the normal direction; true, but squid generally swim with their tentacles trailing them, meaning that anatomically they swim backwards. In fact, many can swim either way. Swimming with the tentacles pointing the way means the tentacles have to be pressed together to form a smooth surface so as not to impede movement. As far as I remember, the thing about Rhombosepia was that its tentacles had fused. I did not check that with its inventors, but relearned that from people commenting on my own blog, who had followed links towards more information on this variant of future evolution. When I checked now, many of those links did not work any more. Those posts were only a few years old, and yet the information has been lost already. With such a quick loss of information in mind, perhaps the guardians of the Brussels museum did well in keeping their Iguanodons in their old-fashioned tripod stance. Concepts of Iguanodon stance are no older than about 125 years, but the skeletons have been underground for more than 500,000 times that length of time.

Having said that, I still find it very difficult to wait for about ONE more year for the book showing us these future animals...


Evan Black said...

Must buy ticket to Brussels...

Must learn French (I might be able to survive in a French community, but certainly not grasp biological terminology...)

The upright Iguanodons don't surprise me. It could be that making the changes is risky or not cost effective, or that they're interested not only in preserving records of prehistory but of the speculative influence of early paleontologists. I can appreciate an effort like that.

I had an opportunity some years ago to go to the Lowell Observatory some years ago, and enjoyed a silent amusement as the tour guide (who seemed to have more experience in scientific matters than in dealing with a tour group) attempted to explain that pointing out Lowell's mistake as bad science didn't mean that he didn't appreciate the man's contributions to astronomy. It's a tricky thing to explain sometimes.

Anyway, if the museum wants to avoid armchair experts coming in and decrying their display, they could always hang some fake foliage from the ceiling and say the Iguanodons are hungry. :)

I'm always delighted to see speculative biology presented in any medium. The sparse explanations and the discrepancy between the designers' intentions and the final models that you describe suggest to me that this wasn't a central gallery for the museum, but something put together quickly to test out the concept on visitors, and perhaps even to fill space.

I think all this is just another example of how the 'field' of speculative evolution is really a niche interest, even though it plays a role in both paleontology, astrobiology, and others. Almost every documentary I see involving invented or imagined creatures takes time to address the question, "Why are we bothering to do this? What point does all this serve?"

That very fact is evidence that, generally speaking, people don't understand that speculation is an intrinsic part of science. Those Iguanodons aren't accurate presentations of how the creatures really were in life, they were only interpretations of the scientists involved. Likewise, skeletons of Iguanodons assembled today are interpretations of modern scientists, albeit refined by modern understanding. Every documentary on dinosaurs or prehistoric beasts, or programs on future evolution or the possibilities of aliens have that in common: they are presentations of how a scientific team has imagined them to look. Every scientific discovery- even the current paradigms- are not explanations of "how it is" but are concepts filtered through the psychology and zeitgeist of the scientific community, and culture as a whole. We're really good at accepting that what scientists tell us is just "how it is," but we forget that, whatever reputation one may have for careful, stringent adherence to objectivity, every scientist can be fallible.

Hey, at least the Iguanodons didn't have their thumbs on their noses...

Anonymous said...

I just found out about a magazine issue (french I believe)that talks about these animal and more on Marc Boulay's webpage ( . Here a link to the magazine that talks about that issue ( . you may need to translate but If you can find that magazine issue you could a lot more info on Marc's future evolution project.

Bewildermunster said...

Really interesting future specimens! :) It is too bad about the lack of in depth info.

Nicky said...

I am now uber-jealous that the models had only appeared in Europe, and here in the U.S. I hope they get here soon.

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Evan: You are quite right about the importance of speculation. There is a nice book, 'All Yesterdays', by Naish Conway and Kosemen (yes, that is the Kosemen/Kösemen a.k.a. Nemo Rmjet), that plays with accepted conventions in dinosaur reconstructions by challenging them. It's not about exolife, otherwise I would write a post about it. Or should I do so anyway?

Anonymous: I found that advertisement for 'La Recherche' too. It is indeed in French. Unfortunately, the pages we are interested in do not appear in the advertisement. But I think I can offer you some other glimpses of the Boulay/Steyer book soon...

Bewildermunster: I was surprised too. You would think that, if they go to the trouble of ordering these models, some signs would not pose a problem. Perhaps there was too much rush to get it all ready, and afterwards they left it at that. Who doesn't know that sensation...

Nicky: I am sorry, but that does not seem likely, as the models are part of a permanent exhibition, not a temporary travelling one.

Anonymous said...

Sigmund: Maybe you can buy that issue, translate those specific pages for us and then post them on your blog. Just a suggestion.

Anonymous said...

You think waiting a year is bad? Try waiting even longer for an English edition!

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Anonymous 1: I could, but there's more original work to do, and life is so short already...

Anonymous 2: I'm really having difficulty telling the 'anonymouses' apart.
I appreciate your remark, but there's a serious side behind it. Without the very specific French background of the work discussed here, there would not be such a book at all. Mind you, I have often searched for speculative biology on the internet in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish - and Dutch-, and attempted searches in other languages through translation aides. Some languages/cultures seem to be closed completely to the mindset conducive to such works of fiction, whereas others seem to ravel in them. Be happy that there are independent sources of imagination out there.
So, there is a waiting period because of the French background of the 'demain' book -which is progressing nicely!- , but without that background there would probably be no such book...

PS French only takes about three to four years of work to learn properly....