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Vibrant skin patterns and colorful feathers: an impressive paleoart shows what dinosaurs really were like



Written by Jacopo Prisco, CNN

To keep up to date, Culture Queue is an ongoing series of recommendations on timely books to read, movies to watch, and podcasts and music to listen to.
Crystal Palace Park, in south London, is still home to the world’s first dinosaurs sculptures. They were created in the 1850s from what were then very recent scientific discoveries: fossils, discovered in England only decades earlier.

Scientists struggled to make sense of the creatures, and the sculptures were the first attempt to visualize them in real size. They were depicted as giant, mammal-like, heavy, four-legged beasts, an already revolutionary idea compared to earlier ones that imagined dinosaurs essentially as huge lizards. But it was just as bad.

View of the Crystal Palace exhibition with the fantastic dinosaur reconstructions by Richard Owen in the foreground, by London printer George Baxter. Credit: Welcome Collection

Today we know that dinosaurs bore no resemblance to the scaly versions of Crystal Palace. For decades, however, the sculptures, as well as many other later representations, vaguely influenced the public’s view of these extinct giants. The new book by renowned paleontologist Michael Benton, “Dinosaurs: New Visions of a Lost World”, however, it offers the latter interpretation.

“It’s the first dinosaur book where dinosaurs really look like they had,” says the author, who worked with paleoartist Bob Nicholls to bring the creatures to life. “All the details, as far as possible, are justified by evidence. We have tried to choose well-documented species, so that in the text it can indicate what we know and why we know it.”

Paleoartist Bob Nicholls brought the creatures from Benton’s book to life, included on the cover shown here.

Paleoartist Bob Nicholls brought the creatures from Benton’s book to life, included on the cover shown here. Credit: Thames & Hudson

Much of the evidence comes from the most recent fossil discoveries in China, which from the 1990s changed the way we interpret the appearance of dinosaurs. The 1996 discovery in Liaoning Province of the country of a fossil with feathers, for example, created a direct connection between dinosaurs and birds.

“I think we can say that feathers originated much earlier than we thought, at least 100 million years ago, so at the root of the dinosaurs,” Benton said.

A skeletal restoration of Hadrosaurus foulkii based on the original Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, the first museum mount of a dinosaur that was also, correctly, upright.

A skeletal restoration of Hadrosaurus foulkii based on the original Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, the first museum mount of a dinosaur that was also, correctly, upright. Credit: Archives of the Smithsonian Institution

Not everyone liked the idea that dinosaurs had feathers. Famously, the “Jurassic Park” franchise, which debuted in 1993 before lead dinosaur fossils were first discovered, has flatly refused to include them in its most recent films.

“They characterize it by saying they don’t want the T-Rex to look like a giant chicken. But it’s a shame,” Benton said.

Even more recently, Benton and his team at the University of Bristol in the UK have pioneered one way, finding pigment structures embedded deep in fossilized feathers, to identify the color patterns of a dinosaur from fossils. “We were the first to apply this method in 2010, so the book mainly documents studies from the last 10 years that analyzed the skin, scales and feathers of fossils, to get the color.”

This result is shown through illustrations of 15 creatures that appear in the book, not only of dinosaurs, but also of birds, mammals and prehistoric reptiles, adorned with vibrant skin patterns, a lot of multicolored feathers and some with iridescent heads.

Looking at these creatures shows how much our knowledge of dinosaurs has improved and how far it can still improve. “A few years ago, I thought we’d never know about the color of a dinosaur, but now we know,” Benton said.

“Don’t draw boundaries, because sooner or later, a smart young man will say, ‘Hey, guys, we can work this out.’

“Dinosaurs: New Visions of a Lost World” is published by Thames & Hudson.

Add to the queue: Dino-mania

If you want to know the whole history of dinosaurs, look no further than this “biography of dinosaurs” from one of the world’s foremost paleontologists, Steve Brusatte. The book tells the 200 million year history of dinosaurs, from the Triassic to the Jurassic to the Cretaceous, when their domain ended in mass extinction caused by a comet or asteroid. Narrated as an epic saga that illustrates the modern workings of paleontology, it is based on very recent research.

This classic documentary series, produced by the venerable BBC Natural History Unit and broadcast by Discovery in the US, had the distinction of being the most expensive documentary ever made when it was released in 1999. It won three Emmy, spawned two sequels and portrayed dinosaurs in their natural habitats, with a true documentary style, using a mix of computer graphics and animatronics. He was avant-garde for his time and still has a lot of entertainment and educational value, even though part of science is now obsolete.

This mix between paleontology and political drama is woven throughout the history of Sue, the largest and most complete T. rex skeleton ever found. After being discovered in South Dakota in 1990, the fossil became the center of a legal battle for years over its ownership, illustrating the fractures that can arise between paleontologists, fossil collectors and proprietary governments. of the land where the fossils are found. Spoiler alert: Sue is now on display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

The favorite podcast for dinosaur lovers, “I Know Dino” is directed by Garret Kruger and Sabrina Ricci, a team of husband and wife of dinosaur enthusiasts. Each one-hour episode focuses on a species, which is discussed and explored in detail with the help of guests. The podcast, which began in 2016, is now approaching 400 episodes.

This Steven Spielberg classic remains the benchmark of popular culture for dinosaurs. It was the first film to portray them as intelligent, dynamic, fast-moving creatures. (Who could forget the famous scene with T. rex fighting Velociraptors?) Even though it was done almost 30 years ago, the film’s CGI still holds up to scrutiny. Scientific accuracy has waned over the years, but it remains an entertaining film to watch, with major performances by Laura Dern, Sam Neill and Jeff Goldblum.

Top image: Reconstruction of a Psittacosaurus, an illustration that appears in the book “Dinosaurs: New Visions of a Lost World”. A fossil find of this creature contained preserved soft tissues, including skin and a series of reed-like feathers on the top of its tail.


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