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The Bad Hair, Incorrect Feathering, and Missing Skin Flaps of Dinosaur Art

Artists gave us renderings of what dinosaurs looked like by imagining flesh on the skeletal fossils that we have. We all know what a T-rex, a stegosaurus, and a triceratops is supposed to look like. Or we did, until better fossils came along, and threw a wrench into all that art with feathers. Suddenly, Jurassic Park was no longer accurate. But could it have ever really been accurate? Artist C.M. Kosemen is among three authors of the book All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals. It tells about the assumptions scientists and illustrators make about extinct species when they imagine what the creatures looked like.

Most serious paleoart bases itself on the detailed findings of paleontologists, who can work for weeks or even years compiling the most accurate descriptions of ancient life they can, based on fossil remains. But Kosemen says that many dinosaur illustrations should take more cues from animals living today. Our world is full of unique animals that have squat fatty bodies, with all kinds of soft tissue features that are unlikely to have survived in fossils, such as pouches, wattles, or skin flaps. “There could even be forms that no one has imagined,” says Kosemen. “For example there could plant-eating dinosaurs that had pangolin or armadillo-like armor that wasn’t preserved in the fossil. There could also be dinosaurs with porcupine-type quills.”

To illustrate the point, Kosemen drew contemporary animals using the same techniques that dinosaur artists use. Believe it or not, the image above shows an elephant, a zebra, and a rhino drawn using only their skeletons as a reference. So you can imagine how extinct species might have been quite different from what we've seen in art. Kosemen explains how some of the artists' dinosaur assumptions came about at Atlas Obscura. We also get to see more of Kosemen's recreations.

(Image credit: C.M. Kosemen)

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