By Matt Lamanna
I’m a child of the 1980s. When I was a kid, one of my favorite movies was Back to the Future, where Doc Brown turns a car into a time machine that sends Marty McFly into the past. I’d watch that movie and think, “How cool would it be if time travel were real?” We could go back in time and, say, hear Abraham Lincoln deliver the Gettysburg Address, or watch Michelangelo paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. We could gaze in wonder at the Great Pyramid under construction, marvel at a herd of passing mammoths, or witness a ‘Lucy’-like creature take humanity’s first steps. We could even go all the way back to the Mesozoic Era – the Age of Dinosaurs.
Sadly—spoiler alert!—time travel is still not possible, at least not in the literal way that the creators of Back to the Future imagined. But there is another way to see dinosaurs in the flesh. One only needs a talented artist.
Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to have worked with many artists to (virtually) bring dinosaurs and other extinct creatures back to life. From my old buddy the ‘Wookiee’ Jason Poole, to dynamic husband-and-wife duo Bob Walters and Tess Kissinger, to dino-sculptors extraordinaire Dan Pickering, Gary Staab, and Bruce Mohn, to rising stars Taylor Maggiacomo and Lindsay Wright, and others, each of these gifted natural history artists has graciously shared their time and talent to help my scientific collaborators and I breathe life into ancient bones.
Two artists deserve special mention here. For more than a decade, from 2004 to 2015, I was blessed to be able to work with Mark Klingler, the long-time Scientific Illustrator here in Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Section of Vertebrate Paleontology. Mark and I worked together to give the world its first look at many new fossil discoveries, such as the semi-truck-sized dinosaur Sarmientosaurus, the bizarre ‘Chicken from Hell’ Anzu, and the ~120 million-year-old bird Gansus.
Mark gave the museum and I one final gift prior to his departure in 2015: he hosted an intern, Andrew McAfee, then a newly minted graduate of the Science Illustration program at Cal State University Monterey Bay. Andrew continued to volunteer at the museum after Mark left, and did such a fantastic job that, in 2016, we hired him as Vertebrate Paleontology’s new Scientific Illustrator.
Like Mark before him, Andrew is meticulous when it comes to reconstructing a prehistoric species and its habitat. Case in point: our hot-off-the-presses predatory dinosaur from Patagonia, Tratayenia, which was formally announced by my Argentine collaborators and I yesterday morning. Tratayenia is a fascinating dinosaur, and was undoubtedly a terrifying beast in life, but unfortunately, we paleontologists don’t have very much of it – its fossils are pretty incomplete. So how, you ask, was Andrew able to produce the image above?
Well, he and I first had to build a picture of the dinosaur itself. Tratayenia is a megaraptorid, a group of mysterious hunters that roamed South America, Australia, and probably other Southern Hemisphere continents during the Cretaceous, the third and final time period of the Mesozoic Era. Using the bones of other megaraptorids, we made educated guesses as to what the missing pieces of the Tratayenia skeleton may have looked like. From there, we used our knowledge of the closest living relatives of dinosaurs—birds—to put meat, skin, and feathers back on the bones; in other words, to reconstruct the parts of the body that are rarely found as fossils. Finally, since we have almost no idea what color Tratayenia may have been, I encouraged Andrew to get creative here. The pattern he came up with seems suited to an animal that probably relied on stealth and camouflage to ambush its prey.
After we had Tratayenia to the point where it looked ready to jump off the screen and bite us, it was then time to put the animal back into its 85-million-year-old world. To do so, I scoured the scientific literature on the rock formation that yielded the bones of the new dinosaur, looking for clues as to what its ancient environment was like and what other species called it home. Andrew painted several of these plants and animals into his reconstruction. Look for a thigh bone of the giant herbivorous dinosaur Traukutitan and plants such as ferns, horsetails, flowering herbs, and a conifer belonging to the group Cheirolepidiaceae.
We can’t go back in time to the Age of Dinosaurs, not really at least. But through the skill and vision of natural history artists, working in tandem with paleontologists, we can catch glimpses of what these extraordinary animals and their long-vanished worlds may have been like. Andrew and I are already revving up the DeLorean for our next trip to the Mesozoic.
Matt Lamanna is a paleontologist and the principal dinosaur researcher at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.
Read more about Tratayenia on Reuters.