Ceratopsian Madness!

Posted by Nima On Monday, March 23, 2009 25 comments

Great things come in twos - and so following the completion of the Pachyrhinosaurus, I was elated to find out that not only was Prehistoric Times magazine asking for artwork for its upcoming Styracosaurus edition (issue #89), but also that the ArtEvolved blog had a Ceratopsian gallery! And this time Styracosaurus was definitely looking like the most likely pick to be the star attraction.

There was only one problem - NOBODY on the internet seemed to be able to draw it right. (Well ALMOST nobody - I'll admit I didn't see Angie's lovely painting of Styracosaurus when I was working on my own restoration of this amazing beast.)

There are two good skulls of this bad boy known - one is the HUGE type specimen, Styracosaurus albertensis, shown below left. The other one is the "Styracosaurus parksi" specimen, a smaller skull from a complete skeleton mounted at the AMNH (below right).


I used both of these skulls for reference, though I planned to make my version more like the S. albertensis skull at left (despite the reckless revisionism of some in the field, I still consider the two to be separate species due to major variations in the frill openings [fenestrae for all you formal nitpickers out there] and the frill spikes.) Notice that the type specimen has the outer four spikes fused into pairs, joined for part of their length. This trait is somewhat weaker in the S.parksi skull, but regardless, it is often totally overlooked.

But there's one big problem with the type specimen on the left - it's badly crushed. And many artists unfortunately tend to restore the live animal the same way - with a flattened shovel-like head and a drooping frill on the same angular as the front half of the face. This - as we can tell from the S.parksi specimen and MANY other uncrushed skulls from other ceratopsian genera - is NOT how the animal should have appeared in life (it also would have limited the creature's jaw-opening ability more than is realistic, but that's another issue for another post). In REAL LIFE, the frill would have pointed a bit more upwards relative to the snout.


LEFT: an outdated (and rather ugly) restoration of Styracosaurus based on the crushed skull, with the incline of the snout and frill shown in red along the skull roof line and the nostril line. Also, notice how the dino is straining to cover its back with that frill like a turtle retracting its head into its shell. Yet the very fact that the frill was mostly filled with soft tissue made it useless as armor - it was primarily a display device! I doubt the animal could even hold its neck in such a strained position. The artist is a "C. Douglas", a name which does not ring any bells. Sadly, most dinosaur books show Styracosaurus in a similar "duck-and-cover" position.

RIGHT: a much better (and newer) restoration of Styracosaurus by Greg Paul (circa 1988). The frill is shown in its live (un-crushed) state, where it has nearly a 45-degree difference with the angle of the snout; and the neck is no longer crouched back, but held out straight as it should be. The frill is held high, and the snout is lowered - the ideal NATURAL galloping/charging position. Also note the fused bases (circled) of the outer two spikes on either side of the head. Most illustrations of Styracosaurus (and by most, I mean over 99%) leave out this MAJOR feature. If you're drawing S. parksi, this isn't as big of an issue, but we're talking about the type species, where it IS.

You might also notice the sprawling (and thus dislocated) arms in the old restoration on the left, but it goes without saying that such an error isn't even debatable.

So here we got something interesting - To draw a DECENT Styracosaurus, you got 3 rules:

1. The frill is angled upward from the incline of the snout (as much as 45 degrees!)
2. The outer spikes are fused at the base into pairs
3. No sprawl (duh!)


For the actual drawing, I wanted a complete background - all the trees, rocks, etc. that one might expect from the Late Cretaceous. That means both conifers and angiosperms. And the angiosperms, based on fossils, were small, not much more than a foot (30 cm) in diameter. I also put lots of leaf litter on the ground and pebbles in the river. I wanted this place to look like there were DECADES of deciduous leaf shedding and post-flood erosion already there. Then there was the icing on the cake - a river simulating the effect of some very clear, cool water. This was probably the trickiest and most tedious part, and made drawing the dinosaurs look effortless.

I also initially went for a fog effect and light shading (but later I decided to make things darker and fill up the foggy spaces with more plants and Styracosaurus). I decided to make the outer spikes slightly less fused than Greg Paul's version (some of the compression of the spikes in the type specimen is due to vertical crushing of the entire frill, but they are still fused at the base, so I took that into account).

I decided not to add any crocodiles or pterosaurs here - the scene already seemed crowded without them. I also debated whether to put in a predator (most likely an Albertosaurus/Gorgosaurus). But I figured that since Greg Paul had already used that idea TWICE, I wanted to keep this picture original and simple. So there is no predator in the drawing, the assumption being that the predator is YOU. That's right, the alpha male of the herd is pointing his nose horn straight at you (I gave him a pretty intense frill pattern beyond the standard eyespots you see in most new restorations of Styracosaurus).

And yes, I said alpha male - shamelessly at that ;) I don't see any reason to assume that ceratopsians HAD to have a matriarchal herd structure like elephants or other big herbivores today. There is really no one universal social structure among all species of birds today, and the same was likely true of dinosaurs. And in the absence of enough specimens to prove sexual dimorphism in Styracosaurus bone beds, my guess is just as good as anyone else's.

To up the realism a bit more, I added some babies, and some fish in the river. Oh yeah, and some annoyingly meticulous eraser sunbeams and splash effects.

Whew! So here AT LAST, for your viewing pleasure, is my Styracosaurus herd.

This will also be published in Prehistoric Times, so keep an eye out for issue #89!

And here's a close-up shot.


25 comments:

Demetrios Vital said...

Beautiful! I'm really glad you decided to make the piece darker and less foggy. Though I can see what you are going for, the darker values add important depth to the piece. It's also nice that you chose to keep the drawing monospecific, because most animals hang out by themselves except for the occasional predatory attack. Species interaction is very overrepresented in dinosaur art!

About the sprawl, or lack thereof, in the forelimbs. Protoceratops certainly did not need to sprawl, but didn't the 2001 Smithsonian installation of its Triceratops accompany a computer modeling paper which settled on a high semi-sprawl for ceratopsians?

Nima said...

That's true, they did. But I didn't see these computer technicians consulting any WELL-KNOWN names in the field of dinosaur anatomy and osteology. Only Bakker and Paul have done what can TRULY be considered high-fidelity reconstructions of Triceratops skeletons, and they both reached the conclusion there was a very SLIGHT bend in the elbows, less than 30 degrees, but the hands were not further apart than the shoulders (therefore NOT even a slight sprawl). And their diagrams were meticulous in covering all of the projections and muscle spikes that would have affected posture.

The Smithsonian guys, by contrast, used a computer model which didn't account for the elbow's similarity to that of modern rhinos (nor did they account for the skeleton being a composite, but that's a different matter altogether). They rotated the humeri too far forward, which caused them to shift the elbow joints into a sprawling posture with an elbow angle of over 45 degrees, and the rear of the hands facing out away from the body - meaning that as the animal walked, its front end would be jostling violently sideways from one arm to the other. Conveniently, this skeletal joke is the ONLY possible result when you rotate the humeri so far forward.

There is no reason to rotate the humeri like that, unless they can PROVE that ceratopsians had a very long, super-flexible torso like komodo dragons, and hence were able to twist sideways to compensate for the jostling, so that sprawling would not cause them to trip up and fall on their faces. And that SIMPLY isn't the case.

There are HUGE gaps of dislocation even in the new version of the skeleton (and, I'm sorry to say, huge gaps of logic when it comes to the Smithsonian itself - I grew up in the area and went there every year from 1994 to 2001 - and despite millions of dollars in renovations, most of the dinosaur hall STILL looks like a page out of the endothermy-phobic tail-dragging textbooks of the 50s) .

But thanks for bringing this up, Demitrios. I always welcome questions, and this is still a strangely contentious issue in paleontology. Indeed, I think this issue deserves a post! Or at least part of a post.

Zachary said...

Do you have the reappraisal of S. albrtensis by Michael Ryan? It's a great paper that describes a new skull. I think I have it, if you want a copy...

Nima said...

Yeah, by all means post the link or email it to me (Nima_Sassani@yahoo.com). I've seen the paper before but I don't have it. I think the gist of what Ryan argues is that S.parksi is a junior synonym of S. albertensis.

I just happen to disagree with his conclusion. Apart from the size variation, the frill structures of the two specimens are very divergent. The frill of S.albertensis has longer spikes, MUCH smaller and less flared side-studs, and more downward-oriented squamosal hooks (the little curved spikes below the main set) - see the Greg Paul painting for a better idea of how this looked in profile. Plus, the big spikes show much more fusion in the outer pairs, and much less root definition. And let's not forget that S.parksi has those Centrosaurus-like forward-pointing fenstral hooks on the front of the frill - something that S.albertensis totally lacks.

Of course these COULD simply be genetic variations within a single species, which is what Ryan appears to argue. But the new skull might clear up some of that, so I'd definitely appreciate another look at the paper. In any case there's no dispute over the taxonomy of the type specimen, which is what I based my drawing on. As for where S.parksi belongs, it's that age-old "splitter vs.lumper" debate. Here's a thought: If the skull of an early human-like creature differed from ours by a similar degree, would we label it as "homo" or as "australopithecus"?

Zachary said...

I tend to be a lumper, just because modern animals tend to have "lumped" taxonomies.

Nima said...

That's interesting. When it comes to species, I actually think splitter-ism prevails in most modern animals. There are many species of birds that share the same genus, same size and color pattern, they LOOK nearly identical (and in skeletal terms, they are) but can not breed genetically viable offspring and so are different species.

Most rorqual whales (but not humpbacks) are members of the genus Balenoptera, they are anatomically very similar but in the flesh look different. We only know they are different species based on live observation. Were they extinct creatures, we would assume that Blue whales, Fin wales, Minke whales, and all of their kin were simply big and small individuals of the same species.

I'm not really a splitter or a lumper either though - I think somewhere in the middle is about right. I accept 3 species of Triceratops based on skull anatomy (not one species, and not 20 either like there used to be). I'm a bit cautious about splitting Brachiosaurus into two genera, but I'm fine with having two species... and so on.

With Styracosaurus, I'd keep albertensis and parksi as two species for now. They don't look like separate genera, but are not quite the same species either. I think more remains are needed, the diversity of this beast is not so well known as, say, Centrosaurus.

BTW, I think I deleted your email by accident. So if you sent me the paper, please try sending it again.

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