Sunday, 7 March 2010

The changing face of Allosaurus, a century of media from 1900 to 2000

How did Allosaurus get from this?

Named in 1877 by Othneil Marsh Allosaurus has become an icon in our media and in the field of palaeontology. Thanks to numerous remains and the fantastic preservation of fossils in the Morrison formation Allosaurus is the second most well known large meat eating dinosaur and definitely the most well represented in the fossil record.

The first fully fleshed out reconstructions of Allosaurus included those paintings by Charles R Knight in 1907. These show a rather robust animal with relatively short legs, a broad fat tail and the typical early 20th century kangaroo like posture of an upright and tail dragging nature.

This pattern is copied in Rudolph Zallingers mural at the Yale Peabody Museum of 1945 where Allosaurus is even fatter and has an even shorter, broader tail. This trend was not continued in later artists and it is clear that Zallinger had based his Allosaur on that of Knight's earliest piece, also mirroring its posture when tearing at a chunk of flesh.

Knight eventually rejected his short legged, ridge backed Allosaur and in subsequent reconstructions Allosaurus appears in the same position as its artistic predecessor, but with no back spines, longer legs and a less monstrous tail held off the ground in a more modern position.

Knight's more skinny and less spiky Allosaur persisted. In 1952 a book called Animals Of Yesterday has a series of wonderful illustrations by Frederick E. Seyfarth. His Allosaurus has a relatively upright posture and slender build with a wonderfully sinister grin. You can tell that the artist has based a lot of this animal's body on that of a bird. It has large wide feet that seem to spread out in a gape as well as ridiculously large hands. These hands are completely wrong as the middle finger is way too large, but a second and accompanying illustration depicts the Allosaur attacking a Stegosaurus on all fours with one hand grabbing the prey. Perhaps this is a misunderstanding gained from Knight's reconstructions showing it in a deceptively four legged stance whilst bent over to feed.

In the 1960's Allosaurus begins to look more convincing as Edwin H Colberts book The Age Of Reptiles (1965) shows it walking with its back held parallel to the ground and its tail pointing straight backwards rather than dragging. This is the first large Theropod reconstruction I know of to depict a large carnivorous dinosaur in that posture and we now know this posture to be accurate. Unfortunately Colbert was before his time and artists continued to depict Allosaurus as a tail dragging lumberer. It would have been the most accurate Allosaurus picture of its day had it not possessed the froggy eyes and flat, lizard like nose of a salamander.

By 1969 when the movies got hold of Allosaurus things were much the same as they had been for the last fifty years, except that the back was held in a horizontal position. People were beginning to warm to Colberts ideal, but they still couldn't manage to get that tail off the ground and swinging in the air. Inaccuracies aside Ray Harryhausen's stop motion is artwork in its own. In the 1980's things began to look up with the likes of Gregory S Paul and Robert Baker scratching away with their pencils. At this time accuracy became very important in paleo art and as a result people began to look at skeletons more closely. Finally the tail of Allosaurus was lifted up off the ground and into the air!

By the 1990's Allosaurus had evolved from a slug like tail dragger to a spritely and muscular predator. By 2000 it gained media immortality in the hit BBC TV series Walking With Dinosaurs where it was reconstructed using new CGI animaton tecniques. Stop motion was a thing of the past and Ray Harryhausen entered into the history books. Its interesting to look at how much Allosaurus has changed over the last 110 years and how much it will change in the next century. For all we know it may end up a thick covering of seep-like wool and a double chin. People like me will look back on 2010 saying how innacurate current paleo art is.

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