The word “dinosaur,” as we all know, comes from the Greek for “terrible lizard.” It was coined in 1842 by paleontologist Sir Richard Owen and it stuck more or less because it sounds cool and conjures images of scaly, reptilian, otherworldly monsters. For many, if not most, those are still very much the associations with the term. Not for paleontologists though — and certainly not for paleoartist John Conway, who’s devoted a lot of time and paint to changing our collective notion of what dinosaurs looked like and the world they inhabited.
It was first suggested that today’s birds are dinosaurs in 1868 by British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, within a decade of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Even then, the bird-like features of dinosaur fossil skeletons were obvious. Today, it’s commonly accepted that birds are dinosaurs, and that dinosaurs never truly went extinct. Still, in the popular imagination, birds and dinosaurs don’t look a thing alike. The beak of the finch and the beak of the hadrosaur are mostly imagined and depicted differently. But that could change.
“Dinosaur fossils have been catching up with paleoart — and that’s quite nice, that the fossil evidence actually is lagging behind the art,” Conway tells Inverse.
Conway has been drawing dinosaurs since he was four, but started doing it seriously in his teens, after reading The Dinosaur Heresies by Robert Bakker. “It was the first book that I read about science that suggested that scientists disagreed about things,” says Conway. “And I didn’t really know that as a kid, as you don’t — you think that the world is a bunch of facts, people discover facts and that’s that.”
The book outlined the evidence for dinosaurs being warm-blooded, and much more similar to today’s birds than today’s reptiles. Today, these ideas are widely among paleontologists, and yet our idea of the terrible lizard still dominates, even 30 years later.
The next “aha” moment for Conway came after he read an article by paleoartist Gregory Paul in the 1987 book, Dinosaurs Past and Present. The essay examined how much could be known, or at least inferred, from dinosaur skeletons — and the many ways which people doing dinosaur reconstructions were getting it completely wrong. “It is often assumed that because we cannot observe live dinosaurs we can at best restore them only approximately,” wrote Paul. “This recalls the assertion of Comte that since astronomers could not directly sample stars they would never be able to know what they are made of.”
“When I first looked at these pictures, I thought, ‘What are these crazy things? They don’t look like dinosaurs at all, they’re weird and skinny and oddly shaped,’” recalls Conway. “And then I found out, that’s because they’re based on the bones with a reasonable musculature on them.”
Before that, it was common for artists to just look at a skeleton, imagine a loose blob of flesh around it, and call it a day. The result was the flabby, bumbling giants that dominated the idea of the dinosaur until about the 1980s.
Paul is widely credited for the new look of dinosaurs — lean, muscled, athletic. His images weren’t guesses, but reconstructions from the bones out, based on the best evidence available. He looked not only to the fossils themselves but to what we know about the anatomy of animals in general, and how their bodies work.
But while this new idea of the dinosaur caught on, it took longer for another idea that Paul was pushing to catch fire — the feathered dinosaur. Before the 1990s, there were only a handful of fossilized dinosaur skin impressions, and they were all scaly, not furred or feathered.
As a result, the dominant view was that dinosaurs were covered in scales. But for Paul, that wasn’t good enough — birds are dinosaurs, and they have feathers, after all. If you look at the common ancestor of a bird and a dinosaur known to have scales, it follows that that animal could have had feathers or scales. If you add on top of that evidence that dinosaurs were warm-blooded, it pushes the needle further in the direction of the feathers.
And so Paul drew feathered dinosaurs — especially small theropods in the lineage of the birds. Lo and behold, in the 1990s a trove of fossilized dinosaurs feathers was unearthed in China, and the discoveries continue to this day.
“The feathered dinosaur revolution, which happened because of feathered dinosaurs coming out of China, was actually presaged by Gregory Paul doing the rational thing and putting feathers on a lot of these small theropods,” says Conway. “It made sense. And it was interesting that people were so dismissive of it, beforehand. It was nice to see the fossils catch up with the theoretical speculation. And it was speculation, I guess, but it was reasonable speculation.”
And the diversity of coverings now shown in the fossil record are even stranger and more flamboyant than what Paul predicted, says Conway, including various sorts of hair-like filaments, fuzzy feathers, quilled feathers, and more. “Greg Paul’s pictures now look incredible conservative compared to what we know about these little ornithischian dinosaurs. They had really long quills — they looked like little porcupines or something.”
Conway is firmly hooked on busting the old dinosaur tropes, and he’s looking for ways to push it further. This recent painting of a feathered Tyrannosaurus rex and a pair of fuzzy Torosaurus latus hanging out in the snow may seem as strange as it gets to a layperson, but among his crowd of avant-gardey-type paleoartists, drawing feathered dinosaurs in the snow is the new cliché.
“We’ve all had the insight that dinosaurs don’t look very much like people imagine them, and it’s exciting to be able to challenge people’s preconceptions. And so if you want to go for maximal challenge, you go for a familiar dinosaur and rely on what we now know, and put it in an unfamiliar environment,” says Conway. “It’s the most obvious picture in the entire world to us.”
But here’s where Conway’s really testing boundaries: he wants paleoart to go beyond drawing the most likely image for each individual species, and start looking at dinosaur diversity overall. Good art, he contends, must contemplate not only the most likely scenario, but also the wildly unlikely, but still possible.
“By sticking to the script of how to reconstruct accurate dinosaurs, we were leaving out a lot of speculation, which probably isn’t true for any individual animal, but would have been true for some of them. So, really bizarre behaviors or really flamboyant display structures — these things probably did happen with some dinosaurs, and if we just stuck to the script of being conservative, and doing what was most likely for every picture, then we’d get a false impression of what dinosaur diversity was like, both appearance-wise and behavior-wise.”
Take birds for example. If you discovered a fossilized bird skeleton and knew nothing of its plumage, you would look to the birds of the world, see that they are mostly drab and brown, and outfit your bird with a similar coat. But although any particular bird is likely to be drab and brown, the occasional bird is dazzlingly colorful and ostentatious. If you paint only the most likely scenario, you miss out on the outliers — the rare and beautiful peacocks and scarlet macaws that are nonetheless part of the amazing diversity of bird life.
That insight led to Conway’s 2012 book, All Yesterdays, written and illustrated with Darren Naish and C.M. Kosemen, and based on skeletal reconstructions by Scott Hartman. The book takes a serious approach to imagining the possible, but unknown. It’s a matter of speculation, but speculation based on evidence gathered both from the fossil record and the world around us. What aspects of today’s natural diversity would fail to be preserved in fossils dug up millions of years from now? What might the peacocks of the dinosaur world have looked like?
Truth is stranger than fiction — if you want to come close to the truth, you’d better bring your imagination.