Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Reconstruction Tips: Flukes Part 3

We present for you yet another edition of...

Time for another installment of Craig's ongoing palaeo-art (mis?)adventure...

Flukes go on Whales... NOT in your Art!

Previously on Flukes (imagine catchy suspense music, just like an awesome cliffhanger multi part TV show)
Part 1- I decided to try and create some palaeo-art for New Zealand Palaeontologist Ewan Fordyce. This was unrequested art, and this is probably a good thing considering what I first produced! Find out the HUGE mistake I made and the first lesson you should learn from my folly.
Part 2- After regrouping from my first embarrassing version of the Shark Toothed Dolphin, I proceeded to try and rework it. However with this second attempt my strengths and preferences from usually creating Dinosaurs created an odd reptilian-whale hybrid. This has yet another key lesson to learn here.
Now the continuation...

So after two months of playing with my Squalodon, I ended up with this the "Dolphinsauriod"...
At the time, I just viewed this particular incarnation of the model as just another mistake.

Looking at it now, the Dolphinsauriod marked the end of an era in my art. This was my last truly amateur approaches to reconstructions. As of April 2009 onward I would use one sort of reference or another when recreating anything, and thus have some degree of credibility in it.

However when starting the project in early 2009 I did not have many references for Squalodons. Even now having done extensive research on the family I've only managed to come up with a dozen or so. Of those only a few are worth looking at.
Bringing me to the first lesson of today's post...
Rule #3 of Scientific Restorations: There is no such thing as "enough" references. Track down as many pictures, drawings, photos, and restorations of a prehistoric subject's skeleton, body, and fossils. There is always another aspect or idea to be found in a new reference (even if it is just not to do it like a different recreation), so get as many as you possibly can!
This can be hard with less popular and obscure critters, like say Shark-Toothed Dolphins. So I'll take you through the useful references I managed to track down, and why I thought they were worth looking at.

There were several overly simplistic restorations, and of these I found this cover page by Alton Dooley for his description of Squalodon whitmorei to be any good.

Though the prey dolphins in this particular piece are a little too minimalist to reference, the Squalodon chomping down on them is surprisingly accurate. The overall proportions of the skull, fins, and body are all perfect. Making this useful for scaling my model.

If for nothing else, this picture also gave me some confidence. If this was among the top 50% of Squalodons out there, then I had a good shot at creating a new addition to this elite group of artwork.

Perhaps the most influential of all Squalodon recreations was this one by Geoffrey Cox. This comes from his amazing little popular science book Prehistoric Animals of New Zealand. (Though sadly out of print, this book is by far one of the best ever released on New Zealand fossils, and definitely has the best palaeo-art to accompany it. So if you are interested in the subject try to track down a copy).

I consider this the "type specimen" artwork of Squalodon from which most other palaeo-art restorations are based. Often in palaeo-art I find that someone will do one key version of an animal, and then 90% of later artists approaching the same subject tend to copy or borrow heavily from this first "type specimen". I'm planning on doing a post on this phenomenon later, but that is the general idea.

One of the most clear examples of this derivative referencing (which is not necessarily a bad thing, I point out, but it is just important to acknowledge) is Arthur Weasley's Squalodon from wikipedia. It is a nice piece, but where it is accurate it incorporates all of Cox's features.

Weasley's body and fin proportions are not very well measured, and so I didn't really use this picutre at all. It is worth crediting this piece with a pretty accurate skull though. At the same time I didn't use it as it rehashs all of Cox's ideas. It has the same skinny long slender snout, and the relatively spherical melon organ (what makes a whales forehead) as Cox's.

My favourite of the "Cox"ian Squalodons is Rob van Assan's version here. Again we see the same general head configuration with the long beak and very small round melon organ.

Not that I'm saying one has to reinvent the wheel with palaeo-art, especially if a pioneer artist captures something scientifically critical to an animal in their earlier version. However Squalodons' heads did not necessarily look like this. Dr. Fordyce has directed me to create a completely novel vision of Squalodon compared to the Cox idea (wait for this in Part 4).

Highlighting the fact that the look of Squalodons is not completely agreed upon, you'll notice Mr. Assan has put his own spin on the Dolphin. Instead of a dorsal fin he has added a river dolphin (the closest living relatives of Squalodons) ridge along the back. This gave some food for thought, and prompted Dr. Fordyce's opinion on the fin (again coming in Part 4).

A radical departure from the Cox model, is this rather Bottlenose Dolphin looking Squalodon by the Aquaheart Museum (as the majority of this site is in Japanese which I don't read, I couldn't find an artist's name. If you know the artist who created this piece of art please let us know in the comment section or email us at

Though pretty much everything about this piece runs against what we know of the Shark Toothed Dolphins (in particular the lack of said shark-like teeth) as it is trying to mimic a modern Dolphin, the extant looking melon organ turns out to make this one of the key Squalodons I came across.

The best two sets of references I found combined aspects of both styles. The one set of pieces by Chris Gaskin I was asked not to post, as they are the property of Otago University. Chris Gaskin created the pieces for Dr. Fordyce in the 1990's, and so I found them a good guide to what the good doctor would want in his renditions (though as I'd find out, Dr. Fordyce's views on Squalodons have changed in the last 15 years).

The other pictures, such as the Waipatia above (a relative of Squalodons), came from a book accompanying a fossil whale exhibit from Japan. Sadly I only had access to Dr. Fordyce's copy, and the majority of the writing was in Japanese, so I was unable to get the artists name. If you know the artist who created this piece of art please let us know in the comment section or email us at

In both sets of pieces the long unusual snout of Squalodon and its enormous teeth are mixed with a much more modern Dolphin face (unlike the basketball Cox look).

Of course had I not been working with Dr. Fordyce my decisions as what to take from these different interpretations would have been difficult. It illustrates the common problem with palaeo-restorations already covered here at ART Evolved. When looking at references with no proper scientific input, it can be tricky.

The most trust worth reference you are ever going to get is the fossil material itself. In my case this was just the skull. Only a few complete Squalodon skeletons have ever been collected, and none were from NZ or easy to access from here.

With each new approach I've taken on the whale since the first (in Part 1 of Flukes) I have ended up referring to the skull more and more. By my last rendition of the Squalodon (coming up in Part 4) the skull was my centre referral point. Which would be my other key piece of advice...

Rule #4 of Scientific Restorations: No matter how other references you find and how much you like other artists takes on a subject, always make sure the original fossils are your main guide. This way you can separate the "facts" in your other references from the "artistic licence and/or style" flavouring the artists may have injected into their piece.

So coming back to my art. This was the Dolphinsauriod. Despite its reptilian flavour, many of the key Squalodon features were starting to take form. I had the long snout, I had the large teeth (though at this stage they were a little too exaggerated), I had something of a melon organ (though not correct in Dr. Fordyce's opinion).

A rough comparison between the Dolphinsauriod and the skull showed that my snout was not quite long enough, and a new factor not mentioned on the other restorations before (as they all got it correct) was the eye was far too high on the face.

The other key issue, causing my whale to look more like a marine reptile, was how I was lacking a proper Dolphin cheek.

After referencing the Japanese artwork and Gaskin, plus some modern Dolphins, this is the fix I came up with.

Though it is quite rough in these early pics, already my Squalodon was looking a lot more mammalian. It was these finer tune details that I would learn much more about in the coming months and attempts.

For the time being (at the time) putting the teeth back into the skull made difference between mammal version 1 and Dolphinsauriod quite remarkable, despite the lack of polish on version 1.

Using my very crude model to fossil comparison, the new model was looking good. This technique however was very crude, and i was going to find out that I needed a lot more fine tune work. You can check out a preview of my new method of art to fossil comparisons here.

Finally I was onto the base of the good copy...

Of course that still wasn't quite the same as having the good copy...

More on that in Part 4!


Albertonykus said...

You're right, the most useful references are the fossils themselves! Restorations can be wrong, but rocks never are.

Dinorider d'Andoandor said...

cheeks change the panorama a lot!

planeetanihmeet said...

This has been an interesting series. I'm waiting for the next chapter.

However, the paleoartist found in Wikipedia used to go with the nickname "ArthurWeasley", but that's not his name. Arthur Weasley is a character from Harry Potter books. The name of the actual artist is Nobu Tamura, and more of his work can be found here:

Weapon of Mass Imagination said...

planeetanihmeet- Thanks for the kind words on the series.

Tahnk you as well for providing me with Mr. Tamura's name. I was certain his name wasn't the same as the Harry Potter character, but due to Wikipedia's terrible layout it is not very straight forward on how to track down an artist bio. In all my efforts I typically end up in pages that include useless links to other articles or just outright html. They need to make a better system to credit and highlight their photographers and artists in my opinion.

Hopefully we'll catch you on part 4, and I'll pop by Nobu's deviant page and drop him a line.

Glendon Mellow said...

I follow Tamura on Deviantart. Very clear scientific illustration, and his output is incredible. Works really fast.

Craig, I like the pattern you are trying on the sides here. Effective and original.

It's interesting too, how due to convergent evolution, an artist like yourself can be concerned with a mammal looking too reptilian. Natural selection forces scientific illustrators to pay attention to the tiny details, leading to more and more accurate work!

Rachael said...

Once again a very interesting insight into your processes Craig. Definately lookin more mammalian in this one. I'm never ceased to be amazed how just small details like cheek shape can give such credibilty and weight to a creation.

I'm always worried about eye positioning in my work- especially if there is a large eye socket and the eye could sit almost anywhere on the face (although I'm sure there must be an anotomical pattern for every creature as to eyeball placement within large sockets? Are eyeballs always central to the socket?)Eye position changes the look drastically. Similarly nostrils can be a tricky one also.

Did you stretch a dolphin image to fit the skull as you did with the mosasurs and monitor lizards?

Weapon of Mass Imagination said...

Albertonykus- Funny enough I have, through working with Dr. Fordyce, hit a challenge to the rocks are never wrong ideal we both wish were true. The Kiwi Plesiosaur Kaiwhekea's skull presents some real challenges on this regrad, but stay tuned for more on that after the Jan gallery.

Glendon- Thanks. I'm assuming the patterns on the side you mean are the whale's colouration. I was inspired by my favourite Dolphins the Dusky and Pacific White Sided, as they have such beautiful but business like patterns.

As for the details being the make or break in scientific accuracy, man oh man. If I only knew before getting in there!

Convergence is such a powerful force in nature. I'm encountering it everywhere I go in my Australasian adventures right now. Looking at the skeleton of a Leopoard Seal in the Tassie museum I was astounded at how much like a Mosasaur it is in parts...

Rachael- Much like you, I have these questions about eye size and position inside the socket.

The nice thing about Dolphins is that they have very minimal sockets, and essentially their eyes perfect fit into them. (Fun side fact I discovered in my research, at least Orcas [though it is suspected many other toothed whales] have the ability to slightly project their eyes out of the sockets and in effect stick them out the sides of their heads [surrounded by tissue and such]!)

Sadly I didn't really try my Mosasaur stretching technique on the whale. The final version of the whale was created the day before I played with the Mosasaur (hence starting a new project). From what I now know it would have been extremely handy for the melon organ (aka forehead and blowhole), but disasterous for the jaws overall, and the eyes detailed placement.

I may try it as a test case if people are interested. It could produce some interesting results to show how useful the technique really is.

squalodon1969 said...

I did the artwork for the cover illustration on the Squalodon whitmorei description. My limited artistic skills are obvious (and this was my first significant attempt at such an illustration), but the museum doesn't have the budget for a professional artist, so we do what we can!

My main source for the illustration were the specimens themselves; I made almost no reference to prior squalodont reconstructions. Compared to modern odontocetes, S. whitmorei seems to have relatively small ribs compared to the size of its vertebrae, so I made the body rather slender (S. whitmorei is also found in relatively warm-water deposits, so it may have had less blubber). I believe Squalodon had little to no melon, so I think the head was rather crocodilian in appearance. The nostrils were fully telescoped, but I think I placed the blowhole a bit too far back on the head. Squalodon also had a relatively long neck, and none of the cervical vertebrae were fused, so I included a slight constriction in the neck area. The forelimb of S. whitmorei is unknown, but Squalodon calvertensis had a quite large forelimb, so I went with that. The broad paddle-shape of the flipper was somewhat speculative; I modeled it on a killer whale. No complete squalodont caudal vertebra series has been described, but I suspect it was rather short; I gave it broad flukes (and flippers) in part based on the assumption that it would need to accelerate and maneuver well to catch prey such as smaller dolphins (my notions of its habits clearly influenced my reconstruction). The dorsal fin was completely speculative.

The original illustration was in full color rather than 2-tone (we couldn't afford to print the full color version). The full color one is posted at:

Alton Dooley

Weapon of Mass Imagination said...

Alton- Thanks for the clarifications!

To begin with, I am again quite fond of your picture (in case that wasn't clear in the post). Though it might be simplistic in composition, it proved to be a very useful image.

Additionally sometimes simpler is better. The minimalism in your restoration, artistically, admits to how much we don't know about fleshing out these whales, compared the other pieces I include in this post (which make it seem like we know everything about them).

Dr. Fordyce also thought very highly of your cover, as it was among the 3 references he personally directed me towards (I hunted down others on my own, as this was my first whale).

I am quite interested in these details about Squalodon whitmorei. I have only read about Squalodon calvertensis in any detail (I admit I've ventured away from whales lately, and I probably should get back into reading about Shark Toothed Dolphins).

On the subject of ribs, Dr. Fordyce has some interesting thoughts on how many people have probably been exaggerating their placement in fossil whales, based on his recent work dissecting modern cetaceans (I'm not implying you have... Dr. Fordyce took me through how he wanted the ribs on this Squalodon to be made as compared to the fossil skeletals I had been using. More on that in Part 4 coming soon!)

Sounds like you and Dr. Fordyce have opposite opinions on the Melons. I don't pretend to be expert enough to comment myself. I am merely trying to give the good doctor the Squalodon of his dreams. Can't wait to see how this all plays out in the literature though (when he publishes... which I'm hoping is sooner than later!).

Again thank you for stopping by, and hope to see you come by the site again!

I'm fixing the credit on that picture right after posting this comment...