Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ankylosaur Memes or Reality?

So I was in the process of trying to recreate the Australian Ankylosaur Minmi, and I hit a few interesting questions along the way.

Photo from Kronosaurus Korner by an uncredited photographer

Here is one of the most complete skeletons of Minmi, and while it is a beautiful specimen, it leaves me a palaeo-artist with one big problem. How exactly did the bony armour look when the beast was alive? Yes the bones are certainly perfect for seeing the underlying structure of the real animal, but what about its armour?

Peter Bond did an awesome survey of Minmi art available in 2008 while reconstructing the same animal. The basic conclusion he reached was that no two were alike. I think this is a fair observation of Ankylosaurs in general in art more so than any other group of Dinosaur. Ankies are reconstructed in the most diverse range of methods.

I think a big part of this is the nature of Ankylosaur outer anatomy. Their skin was covered in literally thousands of little tiny bones. I like to think of Ankylosaurs as having a true exo-skeleton. This is not even remotely scientifically correct in terminology, but to me the concept reinforces just how alien they are compared to any other animals we know of today. While there are some animals (crocodiles, turtles, armadillos) with similar bony structures (osteoderms) none have them in the same configuration or degree as Ankylosaurs.

To literally illustrate the confusing nature of these animals to palaeo-artists I've further collected Minmi recreations from those Bond's first post to directly compare. It seems Minmi, being the most complete Dinosaur of Australia, has seen a recent surge in popularity. I remember when helping Bond look for them 3 years ago there was only a fraction of what is out there now.

To better examine this issue, I only collected pieces that were likely to have received direct scientific input of some sort. As a result I'm only looking at pieces from scientific institutions or publications with the logic being someone with some sort of professional palaeontologic knowledge vetted the pictures.

I'm curious how many of these artistic conventions are based on actual fossil proof, and how many are palaeo-art memes (recycled ideas from old palaeo-art that are solely artistic imagination in origin)?

From Australian Geographic by Xing Lida

My main focal point will be this piece, known from here on as Lida in honour of its creator. Right off the bat I absolutely love this recreation. This is my favourite Minmi I have yet to see.

Yet I have questions as to how legitimate it is. Comparing the fossil above with this, the details in armour don't work for me. I don't follow where the ridged lining of armour on the back came from. Why does the armour suddenly stop on the sides like that?

I'll go into more detail in a moment, but to me these seem based more on other Ankylosaur reconstructions and fossils rather than the actual Minmi fossil itself. However I admit right now, I state these things as a non expert.

From the Kronosaurus Korner
Reconstructions like this one from the Krononsaurus Korner museum of northern Australia are more what I see looking at the fossils (again as an amateur). The armour is not defined, and casually covers the body.

From the Australian Museum photograph by myself.

This sculpture from the Sydney museum looks like a traditional Ankylosaurus reconstruction, and I don't see how it relates at all to the Minmi skeleton. This is an old skool Ankylosaur that has removed the tail club (and the incorrect side spikes). I could be wrong, and an Ankylosaur expert might have directed the creation of this sculpture. However to me all I see in this (with fond childhood memories) is the Ankylosaurus statue I grew up with at the Calgary Zoo.

From Australian Age of Dinosaurs by Laurie Beirne

To me the most believable are the renditions by Beirne. Much like the Kroner sculpture this restoration casually covers the animal in its armour, but it actually feels like armour.

From Queensland Museum by an uncredited artist (though I think it is Laurie Beirne again, but I could be very wrong. Please correct me if you know)

Another angle of a similar style (if not different angle by the same artist... I'm not sure at the Queensland Museum website didn't list this pieces artist) This is more what I see in the fossil.

Yet my artistic and personal tastes keep drifting back to the Lida piece as my preference. Yet it is so alone in its depiction of Minmi. The Korner and Beirnes all share basic concepts in minimalism. The Lida and Australian museum ones are anything but simple, but I know the Aus Museum one is based on old skool logic (though it could be correct... I don't know).
As I'm more interested in the Lida, I'm only going to examine it. I think I have found the origin in its armour "design". If I'm right it is a good lesson in avoiding over analogising your subject, and not falling into a meme trap.

Euoplocephalus by John Sibbick

I think a lot of Lida's armour is based on Euoplocephalus. Meaning I'm going to have to look at the art surrounding Euoplocephalus (bonus!).
Euoplocephalus enjoys a rich history of recreations going back to the 1920's. The definitive Euoplocephalus of my childhood was by Sibbick. Even this one from the early 80's has back armour ridges.

The armour here goes beyond ridges and is almost like a big cover or shell, that is very defined to its composition.
"Ankylosaurus" from TYCO's Dinoriders toyline.

Heck even my key childhood Euoplocephalus toy had these. (Yes I know I said I was sticking to reconstructions with definite scientific input, but I couldn't fight this nostalgic shout out to a favourite toy lost years ago)

Euoplocephalus by Micheal Skrepnick

More modern versions while being more toned down, like this Skrepnick, still display the top armour as something more like a shell. It just isn't as structural as the Sibbick.

Ankylosaur byRaul Martin

Even Ankylosaurus gets this treatment, despite to the best of my knowledge we have no truly armoured skeleton of Ankie proper. This starts to trigger my meme detector.

When an animal is recreated with a feature like other animals it warrants investigation. So follow my round about way of trying to get at the truth.

Euplocephalus and Albertosaurus at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology my own photograph

Typically the best method here is to look at fossils and papers. However here we're talking about Ankylosaurs. Sadly this group of Dinosaurs is very hard the average joe like me to get hard facts about (scientists of course don't have the following issues). Ankylosaurs are suffering some bad coverage outside of scientific circles (I have no clue about in the circle), and hopefully if we all do our part we can help them out!

Most Ankyosaurs are mounted and displayed in museums with only the more impressive armour scutes. While this can be informative about the bigger armour, it is missing some 8 to 10 thousand pieces of armour from the animal (if my palaeo sources were correct in their statements). There are only a few exclusive museums that display whole Ankylosaurs as it were. I've been amazed that in my efforts to search the web for photos of these specimens I can ONLY find a few photos of them!

Popular books on Dinosaurs are not helpful at all. They have such a wide and differing range of Ankylosaur reconstructions I don't feel I can trust any of them. So I need the technical literature. Here I hit the huge problem (faced by non academic palaeo people everywhere) of restricted access to technical literature. While Mike Taylor of SVPOW has made many great suggestions on how you can track down scientific papers, I think I like his current rants about dismantling the restricted access model and move to open source publications better.
Speaking as an artist taking the time to track down papers that might be a help to me is sacrificing time I could make art with. The challenge is I don't care about the technical writing in this case, I need photographs and diagrams of specimens. Not all papers have these (no disrespect... I'm the one with special requirements here). So even if I hunt down papers it is a gamble as to whether they will include what I need or not...
All in all what I'm saying is Ankylosaurs are a bit nebulous at moment in the current "Dinosaur Golden Age"-Scott Sampson. Theropods, Ceratopsians, and Sauropods are stealing all the love, and it is leaving armoured Dinosaurs hard for amateurs and the public to really appreciate. So come on people spread your Dino love! Try and help bring the Ankylosaurs out into the spotlight too...

I could only find this one photograph of the BMNH "Scolosaurus" aka Euoplocephalus. This Albertan specimen collected by the Sternbergs preserves much of the back armour of the animal. Here I can certainly see where the armour lines on the back come from.

BMNH "Scolosaurus" from Arbour et al. 2011
This diagram modified from the original description by Ankylosaur expert Victoria Arbour helps really show that this is a feature of Euoplocephalus armour. So in Euoplocephalus this part of the reconstruction is based on reality.

Even on my old 80's era toy! How often did that happen in those days?!?

Now I have no idea how complete or accurate our understanding of Ankylosaurus proper's armour is, but to me it is acceptable to reconstruct the animal with these armour ripples. It is closely related to Euoplocephalus, the two come from the same geographic areas, and are close in time. So to me if this is a case of referencing Euoplocephalus it is still a reasonable one.

However Minmi is NOT from the same region, closely related to Euoplocephalus, nor that close in time. So does referencing Euoplocephalus work in Minmi's case?
Looking at this specimen in this particular photograph I see no evidence of the ridges like in the BMNH specimen of Euoplocephalus. Granted I'm not an expert, and the quality of this photograph in regard to the armour is wanting, and it is not as complete a fossil.
So despite loving the look, I'm not convinced this is an accurate Minmi.

I understand Lida's referencing an Euoplocephalus, and it certainly has created a nice look. Whether I should use the same method on the other hand is tricky. Lida has made a very solid Minmi, but a (from what I personally know) speculative one. Given my current discussion about Palaeo-art myths versus Palaeo-art memes, I do not wish to help create a Minmi meme.
I also did a quick comparison with the other fully armoured ankylosaur fossil I knew of, and that is Edmontonia. Now yes Edmontonia is an advanced member of a completely different Ankie family than Euoplocephalus (though the two lived together in Cretaceous Alberta), and Minmi is considered a primitive member of Euoplo's family, but there is debate about this.

I just wanted something else to compare my armour too.
So from the fossil we can see that Edmontonia did not have the armour ridges along its back.

By Robert Bakker

This is reflected in the majority off of reconstructions of Edmontonia.

James Gurney

I do notice in both the Euoplocephalus and Edmontonia reconstructions is that their armour is typically reconstructed as ending midway down their sides.

While I can see the possible reason for this in the fossils I've just shown, I do wonder if the armour truly ends there or is it a perservational artifact? I ask this as a non expect again.

So on Minmi I can see there being a much stronger arguement for the heavier armour ending on the side of the animal. Though I'm not certain this is a completely persasive arguement (especially since is is currently just based on my own random research here).

When I look at this fail to see any of the reconstructions of Minmi I have presented so far to be honest. To me this looks more like the really primitive armoured dinosaur Scelidosaurus (so primitive no one is sure if it is an Ankylosaur or Stegosaur ancestor). Mind you what do I know. I am curious about other people's thoughts on the subject.