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365 Million Years of Design

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PANGAEA

Every reconstruction brings its own unique challenges.  How do we reconstruct a life-like creature from evidence left hundreds of millions of years ago?  The question we get asked more than any other at Pangaea...

How do we get from this...

...to this?

 Read the stories below to find out! 

The Bare Bones:

Begin at the Beginning

Few fossils are as well-preserved as the beautiful Archaeopteryx above, but even this lovely specimen is distorted and compressed by a combination of tons of rock and millions of years.  Complete fossils are incredibly rare; many extinct animals are known only from one or two preserved bones.  And obviously, except in cases of fossilized mummies, no soft tissues remain.

Our reconstruction process begins with hours of research to collate all available information on our subject.  In addition, information is gathered about known relatives of the animal, and even modern animals who may occupy a similar niche or exhibit similar lifestyles.  We spend weeks filling in the gaps to gain an understanding of how our subject may have lived.  One has to enjoy highlighting one's way through hundreds of pages of scientific papers!

This illustration by Mick Ellison is used to propose preliminary posing, patterning, and the overall look of the animal.

The cast of a beautiful but crushed Velociraptor skull (top) is painstakingly reconstructed to give it width.  Each bone in the skull is measured, compared to others, and the distortion removed before the skull is reassembled (bottom).

Meanwhile, Pangaea's artists are putting the research together in sketches like the Velociraptor above.

When we're lucky, we have access to casts or original materials from the excavation.  Otherwise, we work from illustrations and hundreds of careful measurements done by scientists who study the creature in question.  In either case, a cast or accurate copy of the skeleton is created, removing the distortion and replacing any missing pieces resulting from the fossilization process.  The amount of information that can be gleaned by studying bones is both staggeringly broad and frustratingly limited.

Fossilized bones can give us so much valuable information.  Scars on the bone can show us where muscles attach and how big they were.  We get clues about the size and shape of sensory structures, range of motion of joints, and estimate the location and quantity of major nerves and blood supply.  We can also learn about the animal's lifestyle: are the bones robust or gracile?  Are the teeth all the same shape or differentiated?  Does the animal have binocular or monocular vision?  All of these teach us about the living animal's form, which helps us to understand function.  In the case of Velociraptor, the skull tells us we're dealing with a small and relatively lightweight but tough, quick predator.  Its long legs and tail show us it's an agile mover and may have been a sprinting hunter, not entirely unlike an avian cheetah.

Much like cheetahs use their spring-like spines, flexible tails, and large feet to outmaneuver their prey, Velociraptor may have used its stiff tail and feathered arms to make quick direction changes when pursuing prey.

With no evidence at our disposal, we must make educated guesses at the look of soft tissues such as eyelids, lips, ear openings, and nostrils.  All of these remain hotly contested among paleontologists and anatomists.  After making sure our model aligns with current thinking on these structures, the client usually has final approval of the animal's design.

What can't the bones tell us?  Fossilization is rare to start with; conditions must be just right to mineralize organic tissue.  If a very small percentage of living things are fossilized, a very small percentage of those are discovered, and a very small percentage of those show evidence of external soft body tissues, how do we create them?  Although soft tissues may fossilize and have been found very occasionally, this evidence is incredibly rare and is not often included with Pangaea's specimens.  So we must extrapolate, and this is where our knowledge of several fields comes into play.  Combining paleontology, comparative anatomy and ecology, physiology, and an artistic eye, we use techniques similar to those used by forensic artists that reconstruct faces from human skulls.  Placement and depth of tissues are estimated based on extant animals, muscle and connective tissue are applied to the cast or sculpted skeleton, fat and skin are added, and finally structures like the external ear, claw and horn sheaths, eyelids, lips, tongues, and decorative structures are applied.

Velociraptor feathered reconstruction dinosaur

And finally, our Velociraptor is ready for feathers.  Feathers are relatively energy-intensive to grow and maintain, but as the fossils of many therapods show, they're useful for much more than flight.  Velociraptor's feathers would have kept it dry and warm, helped it change direction while pursuing prey, provided perfect display and camouflage structures, and could be lost and replaced.  We obtain real feathers of extremely high quality for our dinosaurs and apply them one-by-one, starting at the tip of the tail, layering them like roof shingles.  Each feather is individually selected for appropriate placement; the kinds of feathers that grow on a bird's face are very different from those that grow on its wings.  Yes, this does take forever.  Yes, the results are worth every moment!

Archaeopteryx:

Glimpses of Life

Flighted birds were a relatively new sight on the tropical islands of Jurassic Europe.  With a shallow sea full of marine sharks and enormous predatory reptiles like mosasaurs, therapods that could fly or glide between islands in search of food and mates had a distinct advantage.

The incredible Berlin Archaeopteryx fossil is iconic, recognized around the world.  Its pristine spread wings leave no doubt of the relationship between therapods and modern birds.  Like the rest of the world, we at Pangaea are enchanted by this specimen, and have had the privilege to reconstruct this amazing animal twice.

The breathtaking Berlin Archaeopteryx has captured our imagination for decades.

It may seem obvious, but each fossil we find represents an individual animal that, long ago, lived and breathed on our same planet.  Dinosaurs didn't spend all their time posing majestically in front of volcanoes--they ate, bred, rested, and socialized.  They had behaviors and traits all their own of which we know nothing.  With this sense of wonder at a long-gone natural world, we've reconstructed our Archaeopteryxes as intimate snapshots.  The animal to the left is preening its flight feathers, an activity that takes up much of a modern bird's day and surely occupied a lot of Archaeopteryx's time.  Its well-developed, asymmetrical flight feathers--which share many traits with those of modern birds--would need regular care and attention.

This Archaeopteryx is watching its brood hatch.  Nothing is known about these raven-sized dinosaurs' nesting habits, and no evidence of nestlings has yet been found.  Keeping vulnerable eggs and young in a tree, camouflaged and out of reach, gives our little flightless nestling a good chance to survive.  It has a safe place to grow and build the muscles it will need for flight.  It's reasonable to assume that, much like modern birds, young Archaeopteryx may have hatched underdeveloped and dependent on a parent to care for them.  Our nestling has yet to grow its parent's grand plumage, making it look more like its flightless therapod relatives.

Coloration and a

Man-Sized Sea Scorpion

Pangaea has experience reconstructing all kinds of extinct life, but this piece of 460-million-year-old rock (right) holds something truly unique, even by our standards.  Here you can see two of about 150 fossil pieces found in 2015 in Iowa.  The well-defined serrations hint at the exquisite predator who left them behind.  Our work frequently starts with photos like this one, and we tend to get very excited when we receive them.  Without evidence like this, discovered and excavated by scientists in the field, Pangaea would have nothing to do.

When the pieces were painstakingly reassembled, the remains were identified as belonging to a new species of Eurypterid, or sea scorpion, Pentecopterus decorahensis.  By comparing the pieces of this animal to other known specimens, scientists realized they were dealing with a monstrous arthropod.  This eurypterid was nearly 7 feet long!  Pangaea was contacted to reconstruct this incredible specimen, and our work began.

Our first landmark in reconstructing an extinct animal is the creation of a sketch.  Hours of research and discussion go into these simple drawings.  This is how we "get to know" our newest critter.  Our first stop is the animal's classification, from which we can gather information about known relatives.  Eurypterids were arthropods and are classified as Chelicerata, the subphylum that contains arachnids, sea spiders, and other extinct creepy-crawlies.  The fossils we saw represented bits of the eurypterid's exoskeleton.

Next, in cooperation with our client and scientists specializing in the creature in question, we propose posing and coloration.  When we're lucky enough to have the original or cast fossils on hand, we're able to recreated a skeletal range of motion to help guide the posing.  In this case we didn't have access to the fossils, but we had exhaustive measurements from the paleontologists.  We blew up the sketch to life-size (above left), and rebuilt the animal's exoskeleton in foam.  We could then manipulate the 

plates and joints to understand how the living animal could move.  When our pose was approved by the client, we coated the foam in smooth epoxy to create the animal's shell.  Then we added details, gill slits, a mouth, eyes, and other bits and pieces the animal would've needed in life.

The final step in bringing this beautiful animal back to life was to paint it.  From our research, we knew that Pentecopterus was a shallow-water, opportunistic hunter of smaller arthropods, fish, and whatever else would fit in its mouth.  We compared it to animals that feed the same way today and discussed how their ways of living affected their coloration requirements.  There are many broad "rules" as to how coloration is used in aquatic environments--for instance, many animals that live in the water column have pale undersides to mask their silhouettes from below and mottled or striped patterns dorsally to break up their outlines from above.  Many of the eurypterids' extant shallow-water relatives have bold

coloration.  And an adult animal this size with few predators would have a lot of "real estate" for displaying to others of its kind.  Our Pentecopterus is brightly colored to show off to any potential mates or rivals that might happen by, but stealthy from underneath so it won't be spotted by potential prey.

Form and Function:

A Fuzzy Predator

This adorable little guy is Sinosauropteryx, a small compsognathid therapod from China.  It may seem strange to think of a pile of mineralized bones as "cute," but look at those big eyes, those little grasping hands, that filimentary fuzz!  This Cretaceous critter was only about 3.5 feet long, and would've been the dinosaur equivalent of a raccoon, complete with a striped tail.  Paleontologists have found evidence of cellular melanosomes, or color-bearing structures, in this animal's feathers.

sinosauropteryx fossil dinosaur
sinosauropteryx reconstructon feathered dinosaur death pose

The first Sinosauropteryx we were contracted to reconstruct was a representation of the holotype specimen at the moment of its death.  Using measurements directly from the fossil, we rebuilt the little dinosaur's skeleton in three dimensions.  Then, using our knowledge of saurian and avian anatomy and physiology, we added musculature, claws, skin, and feathers.

The next time we were able to build Sinosauropteryx as a living animal.  It's been proposed that the striped tail may have been used for camouflage, but we came to a different conclusion.  While examining the fossil, we realized a modern animal shares many outward similarities with Sinosauropteryx.  The coati of Central and South America is about the same size, occupies a similar ecological niche, lives in dense undergrowth, and importantly, its striped tail is of similar proportion to its body length.  Coatis use their long tails as "flags" to signal to others of large family groups, to keep in contact and communicate as they browse for insects and small prey.  Their social structure keeps them safe, and a large group of coatis make for a formidable enemy to their predators.  It's easy to imagine a large family of Sinosauropteryx traveling together, foraging, and chittering among themselves while waving their long tails above the foliage.