Lately I’ve become quite fond of those really weird depictions of fossil animals that were utterly, utterly wrong, yet somehow managed to persist in the literature for decades. Last time round, we saw how the meme of the ‘demonic Quetzalcoatlus‘ passed from artist to artist, and had its genesis in a single, speculative illustration. Here’s another example of the same sort of thing: during the 1970s, 80s and 90s the diplodocid sauropod Barosaurus was repeatedly depicted as a very, very strange beast…
Above is the oldest of these renditions I’ve been able to find: it comes from the multi-authored 1975 volume The Prehistoric World (Bartram et al. 1983; first published 1975); I’m afraid I haven’t been able to find out who the artist was (the book is interesting for palaeo-art fans in including some particularly early John Sibbick pics). We’ll call it the ‘Cox 1975’ Barosaurus for convenience (as Barry Cox’s name is at the top of the credits page: he was advisory consultant). Check out its grotesque freakishness. The nostrils on the forehead are forgiveable, given that everybody thought that this is where they should go until quite recently. But look at the flexible tongue, the disturbing veininess on the neck (I’m going to hope that the artist had been looking at thoroughbred racehorses for inspiration there), the weird frilly line of tissue that runs along the ventral surface of the neck and chest, the massively muscled shoulders, and the short tail. And, yes, the animal is meant to be galloping: the accompanying caption states that “it is obvious from its bones that it held its neck upright and could gallop away from danger like a reptilian giraffe” (Bartram et al. 1983, p. 110).
Of course, if you know your dinosaur history, you’ll recognise the probable inspiration for the ‘Cox 1975’ barosaur: during the 1970s, Robert Bakker was suggesting in magazine articles and such that sauropods were not just terrestrial, endothermic ‘elephantine giraffes’, but also that they could gallop, that they held their necks up, and that they were supercharged, muscular creatures. Bakker’s iconic pencil drawing of two fast-walking barosaurs is the obvious genesis of this meme: his sauropods had muscular, erect necks, the suggestion of a seam or skin fringe along the neck’s ventral midline, and they were shown moving at what appears to be a reasonably fast pace. This illustration has appeared lots of times in the literature, but I know it best from a news piece (Anon. 1971) that accompanied Bakker’s Nature article ‘Ecology of the brontosaurs’ (Bakker 1971), and from Adrian Desmond’s The Hot Blooded Dinosaurs: A Revolution in Palaeontology (Desmond 1975), where it appears as Fig. 48.
Barosaurus – like other diplodocids – was a particularly long-tailed, long-necked sauropod with proportionally short forelimbs. Its skull is unknown* but – like its close relative Diplodocus and its more distant relative Apatosaurus – it almost certainly had a fairly long head with a ‘squared-off’ mouth. Bakker knew all of this, and the animal he showed in the background of his drawing clearly has a long tail. The one in the foreground is obviously meant to have been affected by foreshortening.
* Though McIntosh (2005) suggested that some skull material referred to Diplodocus may belong to Barosaurus instead.
I assume that some authors misinterpreted the drawing, however, and went away thinking that Barosaurus had a short, brachiosaur-like tail. A shortage of information on Barosaurus may have contributed to this idea, as perhaps it wasn’t clear to everyone at this time that Barosaurus was a long-tailed Diplodocus-like form: I note that a 1977 mural (depicting dinosaurs of the Morrison Formation) by Mark Hallett (and not showing any obvious indication of being based on Bakker’s drawing) shows Barosaurus as noticeably shorter-tailed than Diplodocus (Hallett 1987).
Anyway, after the ‘Cox 1975’ barosaur’s debut, the meme of the ‘freaky giraffoid Barosaurus‘ then showed up in David Lambert’s 1978 book Dinosaurs (I previously used this scene back in April 2008, when advertising the Dinosaurs: A Historical Perspective conference*). This version shows a whole herd of the creatures: the animal at far left is obviously based on the galloping animal from the ‘Cox 1975’ illustration, while an individual seen in left lateral view, over on the far right of the scene (detail below), is obviously based on the background animal from the ‘Cox 1975’ piece. Again, I’ve been unable to track down the name of the artist: I think the piece was produced by an agency (the book used the work provided by several: The Tudor Art Agency, Linden Artists, The Garden Studio and Temple Art Agency); if so, it’s likely that the artist concerned was not a prehistoric animal specialist (picture agencies here in the UK typically use people who are reasonably good painters – and sometimes reasonably good painters of living animals – but they tend to know nothing whatsoever of the dinosaurs they are often asked to portray).
* The multi-authored volume resulting from this conference is due to be published in September 2010.
Having said that the 1978 version may have been the first to appear after the ‘Cox 1975’ one, it was actually preceded by a painting produced in 1976 [shown here]. However, this painting wasn’t published (so far as I know) until as recently as 1995 (Špinar & Burian 1995). What makes it particularly interesting is that it was produced by none other than Zdeněk Burian, one of the greatest artists of prehistoric animals. Life Before Man, the book that includes the painting (p. 119), was republished several times after its first, 1972 appearance, but (so far as I can tell), the Barosaurus only appeared in the 1995 edition (it does not appear in the 1977 edition, and there weren’t any other editions issued between then and 1995.. at least, not in English). Burian’s barosaurs (said in the accompanying caption to be an ‘Original reconstruction by Špinar-Burian’) are presumably based on Bakker’s; while one is reaching up to feed from the crown of a tree, the other has just plucked a fish from an adjacent pool! By the way, I’m not 100% that the painting really does date to 1976 – what appears to be ’76’ is written below the signature at bottom left. If you own the book, have a look and let me know what you think.
Bernard Robinson showed the ‘background Barosaurus‘ from the ‘Cox 1975’ picture again in this illustration [above] from 1978: this version comes from David Lambert’s The Age of Dinosaurs, republished in 1987. The barosaur is in the middle ground of a Morrison Formation scene, with centre stage being taken by a very rotund Apatosaurus. Diplodocus is in the far distance (incidentally, this illustration includes another of these historical memes: the ‘magpie Archaeopteryx‘). Again, we see that distinctive mast-like, vertical neck, a skin fringe of some sort along the neck’s ventral midline, and a comparatively short tail.
You’ll probably know that I’m all for the idea that sauropods routinely held their necks in raised postures (Taylor et al. 2009), but the mast-like neck, trim body and horizontal, well-off-the-ground tail of this barosaur stands in real strong contrast to the massively fat apatosaur with its thick, elephant-like skin (ugh) and the droopy-tailed Diplodocus in the background (shown close to a lake; certainly a nod to the fact that Diplodocus was always shown as an amphibious lake-dweller). It’s as if the Barosaurus is an inter-dimensional tourist, just in from a parallel ‘1960s Bakkerian’ universe and now strangely juxtaposed against the flabby, massively over-weight swamp-dwelling behemoths of the Zallinger era (hey, great idea for a comic).
If I’m right that all of these artistic renditions of Barosaurus – none of which look at all like the real thing – are connected and form an ‘artistic meme’, then this one hung around for three decades, just like the Quetzalcoatlus one we looked at previously. I recall the ‘freaky giraffoid Barosaurus‘ from childhood (I first saw it on the wall of the Dorchester Dinosaur Museum during the 1980s), and I thought then that it was very odd and not at all like the sauropods I’d seen in art before.
For previous articles on the whole ‘historical meme’ thing, see…
- Quetzalcoatlus: the evil, pin-headed, toothy nightmare monster that wants to eat your soul
- Origin of the evil, demonic Quetzalcoatlus revealed
- It would seem that my new book is out
- A very alternative view of horned dinosaur anatomy
- Junk in the trunk: why sauropod dinosaurs did not possess trunks
- The Crystal Palace monsters, armoured tyrannosaurs and lurking sauropods: a look back at ‘Dinosaurs – A Historical Perspective’ (part I)
There could be a book in this, but how the hell I’d get round copyright is a problem.
Refs – –
Anon. 1971. Changing dinosaurs – but not in mid-stream. Nature 229, 153.
Bakker, R. T. 1971. Ecology of the brontosaurs. Nature 229, 172-174.
Bartram, A., Booth, B., Chinery, M., Clarkson, E. N. K., Cox, B., Edwards, D., Maynard, C. & Rolfe, W. D. I. 1983. The Prehistoric World. Galley Press (London).
Desmond, A. J. 1975. The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs: A Revolution in Palaeontology. Blond & Briggs (London).
Hallett, M. 1987. Bringing dinosaurs to life. In Czerkas, S. J. & Olson, E. C. (eds) Dinosaurs Past and Present, Volume I. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County/University of Washington Press (Seattle and Washington), pp. 96-113.
Lambert, D. 1978. Dinosaurs. Grisewood & Dempsey (London).
– . 1987. The Age of Dinosaurs. Kingfisher Books (London).
McIntosh, J. S. 2005. The genus Barosaurus Marsh (Sauropoda, Diplodocidae). In Tidwell, V. & Carpenter, K. (eds) Thunder-Lizards: The Sauropodomorph Dinosaurs. Indiana University Press (Bloomington & Indianapolis), pp. 38-77.
Spinar, Z. V. & Burian, Z. 1995. Life Before Man. Thames and Hudson (London),
Taylor, M. P., Wedel, M. J. & Naish, D. 2009. Head and neck posture in sauropod dinosaurs inferred from extant animals. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 54, 213-220. [free pdf]