Friday night topic: how dinosaurs probably looked

There's a new Jurassic Park movie coming out soon, over 20 years since the first movie and Michael Crichton's books changed the popular image of dinosaurs from slow-moving reptiles to quicker, warm-blooded animals. The academic consensus on dinosaurs has changed quite a bit since then, largely because we've come to accept that dinosaurs are closely related to modern-day birds.

Like it or not, the new movie will not follow in Crichton's footsteps by reconfiguring its dinos to look as we now suspect they did: frequently covered with feathers or downy proto-feathers, perhaps with brightly-colored plumage and display structures made of keratin. I think it's a missed opportunity to put some incredibly talented people in Hollywood on the path of a particularly difficult challenge: to imagine and illustrate how dinosaurs actually looked based on the best current evidence.

This challenge has been met with some pretty poor work, by and large. We've all seen the illustrations in books and such. Now have a look at this hilarious set of example images showing modern animals illustrated in the "paleo art" style. I think the killer whale is my favorite, because it best captures the difference between the skeletal tracing artists have done and the bits that happen in soft tissue.

This sketch elicited immediate recognition from me. The paleo-art style is hilariously off the mark. Makes you wonder what we're missing with our current conceptions of popular dinos.

Some folks have done better work attempting to give us a sense of how feathered, bird-like dinosaurs may have appeared. For example, have a look at these intriguing paintings by Emily Willoughby. Given their size, the bad guys in the original Jurassic Park were probably utahraptors, not velocipators, and Willoughby's rendition of utahraptor looks perhaps even more menacing than the movie originals, if for no other reason than its plausibility as a real creature.

We may never know exactly how dinosaurs really looked, but it seems to me we've learned a ton about the probabilities in the past couple of decades. Do you think we'll ever know how the actual animals looked and behaved, or is it all guesswork?

Beyond that, should we adjust our popular conceptions to match what we now know, or do you prefer your Jurassic Park populated with cira-1993 renditions?


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