Do They Really Look Like That? The Science of Dino Art

By John Roach
for National Geographic News
March 11, 2003

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Every few years a dinosaur leaps from the signature yellow border of National Geographic Magazine and captures the fascination of readers. This month a skull of Tyrannosaurus rex shatters a bone of its prey—another dinosaur.

Cool, but is it realistic? Is that picture with T. rex's teeth glistening with the blood of the dinosaur it just devoured a scientifically accurate interpretation of dinnertime 75 million years ago?

Yes.

Enter Chris Sloan, a senior editor at National Geographic in Washington, D.C. responsible for art and paleobiology. His job is to make sure that every dinosaur picture and illustration published not only engages the eye but is also scientifically accurate.

"It is the job of the paleo artist to reconstruct a believable scene," he said. To accomplish this, artists like Sloan and the stable of painters, photographers, and sculptors he collaborates with have to learn as much as they can about their subject.

They attend paleontology conferences. They read scientific journals. They study dinosaur fossils. They talk with scientists. They go on digs. By keeping their pulse on paleontology, the artists are able to waken a world long gone extinct.

"We are very dependent on constant accumulation of new knowledge," said Mark Hallett, a paleo artist from Salem, Oregon. "One has to keep up with new discoveries and thought on how animals of the past lived."

As the scientists collect more data, publish more papers, and discuss their finds at conferences around the world, artists must pay particular attention to how this information is interpreted, said John Sibbick, a paleo artist from England.

"Everyone has the same science paper in front of them, they all have the fossil evidence, but the way they interpret it is a totally different ballgame," he said.

Since the artwork Sibbick, Hallett, and their colleagues create is ultimately an interpretation of scientific data, the details, inferences, and speculation that the scientists provide to the artists are what make a picture come alive, said Sloan.

"Art really is a reflection of science, and as sound scientific understanding of these animals has increased over the years, the art has changed to reflect that," he said.

Continued on Next Page >>


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