The Importance of Having Soft Tissues

Everybody knows dinosaurs are awesome, but it’s also commonly known that scientists and artists are extrapolating heavily from the available fossilized remains – in other words, reconstructing the Jurassic past requires a lot of guesswork. What we think dinosaurs look like is a carefully estimated probability of which muscle attached where, based on the (sometimes very) few bones that are found.

However, from time to time the circumstances align just so and some soft tissues are also preserved – as formerly squishy soft things and also in the bones of dinosaurs.

Anyway, the whole point here is that I like to look at paleoart. But how do we know they are right? (Spoiler: we don’t, not really.) What C.M.Koseman has done is examine some modern day animals and try to reconstruct them from the point of view of a fossil hunter millions of years in the future (personally, I think there might be a multi-leg bias in future interpretations, but Koseman has done his best):

C.M. Kosemen is an Istanbul-based artist and author (along with John Conway and Darren Naish) of the 2012 book, All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals. A long-time creature designer, Kosemen had always had an interest in dinosaurs, but he embarked on his book with Conway after they began to realize that something was a bit off. “We were both dinosaur geeks, but the more we looked at these skeletons, and the more we looked at the pictures, we noticed that most mainstream dinosaur art didn’t look at dinosaurs as real creatures,” says Kosemen.

Most serious paleoart bases itself on the detailed findings of paleontologists, who can work for weeks or even years compiling the most accurate descriptions of ancient life they can, based on fossil remains. But Kosemen says that many dinosaur illustrations should take more cues from animals living today. Our world is full of unique animals that have squat fatty bodies, with all kinds of soft tissue features that are unlikely to have survived in fossils, such as pouches, wattles, or skin flaps. “There could even be forms that no one has imagined,” says Kosemen. “For example there could plant-eating dinosaurs that had pangolin or armadillo-like armor that wasn’t preserved in the fossil. There could also be dinosaurs with porcupine-type quills.”

I think he undervalues the vast majority of the artists who do draw prehistoric art, because the process involves a lot of imagination and creativity, with the added pressure of scientific accuracy. Certainly we don’t know the outer shapes of dinosaurs or other prehistoric creatures, so artists must work with what little scientific information they do have, and look at animals existing today, and then add layers of interpretation – not easy by any stretch. If Koseman is just arguing for more flamboyance, though, I’m 100% on board.

Anyway, the Atlas Obscura article has some examples from C.M.Koseman, and they are suitably creepy:

How a baboon skeleton might be interpreted by future paleoartists. via Atlas Obscura

My favourites are the swans, though – not going near those anymore!

Swans imagined as though they were featherless dinosaurs. via Atlas Obscura

Are these overexaggerations? Maybe. But until we see some real dinosaurs (someone invent that time machine and make it back alive, please), there is no way to know how accurate today’s interpretations (which have already changed so much).
The closest we can get, though, are the afore-mentioned paleoartists, and one of my favourites is Mark Witton:
Two main aspects of my life have, for as long as I can remember, been art and palaeontology. I’ve been drawing since I could hold a pencil and have stubbornly refused to grow out of the dinosaur/palaeontology craze that afflicts most children. The latter proved so hard to shake that I studied for a degree in Palaeobiology and Evolution between 2002 – 2005 at the University of Portsmouth, UK and stayed there for my PhD studies between 2005 – 2008. I have since held a research position at Portsmouth. In 2010 I was honoured to be part of a joint University of Portmsouth/Royal Society exhibition which installed several models of giant flying reptiles in the centre of London (image of me and Bamofo, one of our giant azhdarchid models, right). In 2013 my book, Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy was published by Princeton University Press to critical acclaim. I now make a living as a technical consultant on palaeontological documentaries, palaeoartist, graphic designer and author.
He’s got a great collection of prints and books, and… household products. There’s a certain appeal to hiding behind a large T.Rex while enjoying a hot shower, I have to say.
Do check out his gallery, I will end with a small sample here:

Go look at more.


  1. voyager says

    Very interesting.
    It’s amazing how much knowledge we’ve gained, just in my lifetime, about dinosaurs.

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