Friday 28 June 2013

"All yesterdays" by Conway, Kosemen and Naish

This post departs a bit from my self-imposed limit of life on other planets. That was not a strict limitation anyway, as I have also written about future evolution. But both are easily classified as 'speculative biology', and the subject of this post, the reconstruction of extinct animals, is not usually regarded as such. Reconstruction of extinct animals feature in almost any book on the history of life, and there are even some books devoted completely to the imagery of extinct life forms. This specialised form of nature illustration has even acquired its own name: palaeoart. If you would like to see examples of recent -mostly- excellent art, consider this book. It leans heavily towards the current photorealistic style, whereas I personally find a painterly style much more evocative. If you are interested in the early history of palaeoart, I recommend this one ( I think it was the first to coin the term 'deep time'). Sadly, there is no name yet for the 'art of depicting speculative life forms on planets other than Earth', so perhaps one should be invented, even though the number of such books is sadly low. Possible contenders are 'astrobioart' or 'exobioart', not to be confused it with 'biofuturart' (the last one definitely needs to be improved).

The reason to pick out one particular palaeoart book is that this one stresses the speculative aspect of palaeoart, and shows that palaeoart is in fact fairly close to speculative biology. The book is written and illustrated by Darren Naish (from Tetrapod Zoology), Mehmet Kosemen (from Snaiad), and John Conway, a palaeoartist with a refreshingly original style (and a painterly one at that!). The three of them should be able to come up with something very original and they did. The book can be obtained in digital as well as a printed form. The book appeared in 2012, so this is not exactly a quick review. I do not care that much; with food the 'slow food' movement has things to say about eating, and many other things deserve the 'slow' treatment as well; some things are worth being savoured. 

The introductory text of 'All Yesterdays' discusses how palaeoart should be based on a thorough understanding of animal anatomy, but is limited nevertheless because so much of an animal's appearance is determined by its integument. As you know that can range from smooth and shiny through dry and scaly to shape-distorting feathers and pelts for Earth tetrapods. The authors then proceed to play with that idea in two ways, and those are what make the book interesting.

Click to enlarge; copyright John Conway

In the first part of the book, the authors take on Mesozoic animals and add a twist to conventional 'wisdom' of animal reconstructions. They add fatty humps to animals with large vertebral spines, where convention simply stretches a sail between the spines. They seem to have a particular dislike of the 'skinny' way of reconstructing animals, in which the skin is stretched tautly over an animal's skeleton. I agree with them that this style has been overdone. I suppose the underlying reasons to stick to skinny reconstructions for dinosaurs are lingering ideas about them being 'reptiles', and perhaps by a wish to conserve weight. Well, here you will find fat dinosaurs, with stumpy legs emerging from mounds of meat. The image above shows a rather rotund triceratops, which besides being less then athletic also has a range of spikes protruding from its hide.

Click to enlarge; copyright John Conway
The authors also play around with animal behaviour,  a field where reconstruction is nearly entirely  guesswork. Many artists paint Mesozoic landscapes with more animals than there are people in a city park on a sunny Sunday; Here, you find a lone animal on a hillside, with not even one single rampaging predator coming toward it full throttle. There are also plesiosaurs displaying who can lift its neck the highest out of the water; a very nice idea. The image above shows the cover of the book, showing protoceratops in a tree. In a tree? Well, yes. After all, you would not guess that goats could climb trees, but they can. The reasoning here is largely that they have climbed the tree because they could...  

The second part of the book is the truly original part. Here the authors take remnants of present day Earth animals and have some palaeoartists of an undetermined species in the far future have a go at reconstructions.

Click to enlarge: Copyright John Conway
The above is a cat... Very well, a cat whose skull was apparently preserved, but the palaeontologists could only guess at everything else. They came up with this fictional scaly and skinny hide, without cheeks or fur. I like this concept very much, and am tempted to find images of animal skulls and have a go at such fake restorations myself.

Click to enlarge; Copyright CM Kosemen
And this? Well, you are probably familiar with the extinct amphibian whose remains where first taken for those of a human drowned in the biblical great flood. In fairness, that particular mistake was made in 1726, well before palaeontology was underway, and before Linnaeus introduced his biological classification. The animal was later formally classified and named after its inventor, Johann Scheuchzer: it is now Andrias scheuchzeri. In 'All tomorrows', Mehmet Kosemen produced the image of a salamander man shown above, as an example of mistaken identity. The authors label it 'Homo diluvii', the 'man of the deluge'. Spelled with a capital 'H' the name looks like it is an official zoological name. So far I had always seen it referred to as 'homo diluvii testis'. The literal translation of that phrase is 'man, of the flood a witness' (the Romans were not at all particular about word order). That suggests that we are just dealing with a description in the scientific language of the time, not with a formal scientific binomen. I tried to find the scanned book on the internet to check the source but failed. It matters little; this is a great 'Salamander Man'!

All in all, this is an amusing book that makes you think. Mind you, I am not one of those people who think that 'amusing' has a belittling connotation. The combination of amusing and thought-provoking should appeal to everyone interested in speculative biology. The book provides an eye-opener in showing how much of palaeoart, an as yet more 'respected' genre than astrobioart, is full of speculation. In many cases we have become so accustomed to ways of portraying dinosaurs that it has become difficult to look at the reconstructions anew. It is very likely that speculative biology is equally full of such 'familiar faces', and it may be equally difficult to forget them. Still, that may be necessary to take a fresh look. Now, where is that large completely empty sheet of sketching paper?  

Saturday 8 June 2013

Spidrids and rusps: works in progress

The main Furaha site hasn't seen any significant change for quite some time now, which makes me feel a bit irresponsible. I have devoted the time I spend on this project wholly on the blog and on new paintings. As for the site,  I will get around to a complete 'redecoration' one of these days, and the blog is what you are reading right now, so there.

I am keeping the new paintings for the book but can show you bits of works in progress now and then, both of paintings and of blog material. In this post I will show progress on two themes, not that odd as I usually work on several themes at once (a major interest at present is working out which aspects of plants can be tweaked on other worlds, and what the results would look like; that is progressing nicely).

Copyright Gert van Dijk

I have discussed spidrids here several times, the last time here. That post showed them walking on uneven terrain in a variety of gaits. Those animations, done in Matlab showed how an animal with radial symmetry changed direction without turning. Although the animations showed that well, a proper 3D animation would be better. I am not aiming to achieve the quality of Avatar or Walking with Dinosaurs, but getting to a point in that general direction would be nice. The challenge then was to translate sets of coordinates of one system (matlab) into rotation and translation values for objects in a completely different format (Vue), and then controlling Vue to make an animation one frame at a time (Python). I won't bother you with the details. As you can see above, I am now at the stage where I can control the legs and have them end up on the right orientation and position. It really looks much better at a larger size, but blogger does not allow that. The low light was chosen so I could see whether the feet end up on the correct spots of the surface: their shadows just touch them, so that works! But when the innermost segment moves beyond the vertical, that segment flips around, so my rotation subroutine isn't quite right yet. I'll solve it. Meanwhile, it's starting to look real, isn't it? Now just imagine a body in between, texture on the ground, plants and shrubs with leaves swaying in the breeze, the sound of spidrid legs on the floor, and the occasional 'chikking' of the spidrid itself. I can see it already; perhaps imagination is better than animation...

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
Rusps! After my last encounter with them I thought some more about a possible painting. I decided it would look good as a double page spread, occupying the top of both pages. That results in a very wide format, just the thing for an animal that is itself long and horizontal. I decided to 'stagger' successive legs: segment x has the legs placed a bit to the inside, and segment x+1 has the placed to the outside, x+2 to the inside again, etc. In that way the stride might be long without the animal knocking its legs together. As there are so many legs, each one can be skinny. So I took the 3D model of a segment I did earlier, strung them together and starting playing in Vue with positions and curves. But I also needed a head, so I sculpted one roughly in Sculptris. I do not need a detailed sculpt as the sculpt is only a simple aid to produce the painting, not an end in itself. (Then again, if I did that, I could perhaps sell you models of spidrids and rusps). That is what you see above.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
Here is another view of the rusp head. You cannot see the inner design of the snout, but the story is as follows.This particular rusp species, Megacrambis brucus, is very large and has an accordingly large head. It always pays to conserve energy, so moving that massive head or even the entire body to eat one bite is wasteful. It is better to stick a small head on a long neck (sauropods) or extend the reach in another way (arms, trunks, hooks). Inside the rusps' snout, technically a  'rostrum', there are rings connected to one anther at right angles to allow pointing the rostrum in all directions. Then there is one of those intriguing linkage systems that fish in our world excel at. Putting that in action extends the reach of the rostrum two- to threefold. Finally, at the end there are some grasping mouthparts. I put some more conventional mouth parts underneath; they are probably part of the overall rusp design.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
Anyway, I put all he 3D parts together in Vue and played some more, seen at the top. Below you see  a quick over painting of the result. I was aiming for an overall diagonal effect in the composition, of which the shadow falling over the rusps's body is a part. I am not certain whether I will keep it though. I will keep the strong light against the dark clouds, as it helps to highlight the front whip. Megacrambis' English name will be 'Mammoth rusp', but I am not certain yet. Furaha was first discovered by Swahili speakers, so some of their names survived. I am also considering 'Mdudu Mzee' , roughly translated as 'respected elderly bug'. Any preferences?