As readers of this blog should know all too well, palaeoart is a field where copying other people’s work is commonplace. This is especially true if a nonexpert artist has been commissioned to cook something up on the cheap. How many books have been reviewed here whose artwork can be traced back to the old greats? How many lesser artists have we seen who’ve copied the work of originals like Charles Knight, Zdeněk Burian, Robert Bakker, Greg Paul or John Sibbick?
So when everyone is copying everyone else, you get palaeoart memes. Infamous cases include the Mohawk Syntarsus, the Freaky Giraffoid Barosaurus and, often spotted in our own archives, the Gangly Dork Parasaurolophus. The fact that we mostly cover Vintage Dinosaur Art means we mostly see Vintage Dinosaur Memes, but that doesn’t mean new palaeoart memes, unique to the 21st century, aren’t springing up under our noses as we speak.
Which brings me to my favourite smalltown dinosaur park, where I recently had to do a double take seeing the new addition…
Believe it or not, this is supposed to be Olorotitan, that charismatic Russian lambeosaurine hadrosaur with the uniquely hatchet-shaped headcrest. You know. The crest that is laterally flat, and certainly doesn’t look like the head frill of a ceratopsian.
So what’s up with that animatronic up there? How did we get a hadrosaur with a ceratopsian head frill? How many people think this fanciful creature is, in fact, what Olorotitan looked like? Do we now live in a world where pop culture believes Olorotitan to be some sort of bizarre ceatopsian/hadrosaur chimaera? Is this our new normal?
A round on Google reveals that this, indeed, seems to be the case! All those drawings and paintings of Olorotitan look fine, but all pictures of animatronic Olorotitan, be they for sale or already standing at a dinosaur park, are all variations on the head frill theme. You know what that means: It’s A Meme Now. Alas, we are too late! Many kids will go home now, believing there lived, at one point, an ornithopod with ceratopsian headgear. So how did we get here?
The fact that they all broadly share the same colour scheme is a definite clue. It is obviously the colour scheme used by Dmitry Bogdanov, a Russian palaeoartist who has illustrated countless dinosaurs andotherprehistoricanimals for Wikipedia. One builder must have based their model on Bogdanov’s reconstruction, while all the others based theirs off off each other’s.
I wouldn’t know where to begin if I were to try to trace back where this meme originated; I don’t understand Mandarin for one thing. But I imagine it must have gone something like this:
Imagine you’re an engineer at a Chinese robotics firm. You don’t know much about dinosaurs, but you have spent quite some time making hackneyed T. rex, Triceratops and Parasaurolophus models. Your dinosaurs may not be very scientifically informed, but they are crowd-pleasing enough for you to make a living. One day, someone commissions you to make a model of Olorotitan. It’s quite the new thing, that Olorotitan! You’ve never heard of Olorotitan, and being Chinese your access to Google is somewhat limited. So you take to Wikipedia, one of the few sources available to you (though read on). You nab the first image you see as your reference and immediately get to work. In lateral view, it’s fairly ambiguous what the animal’s headgear should look like in 3D, but you’ve made dozens of Triceratops, Protoceratops and Styracosaurus in your time. Surely it’ll look something like that, right?
And so the first robotic Olorotitan arrives on the scene. Other firms see it. And, because the robot dinosaur industry is a ruthless, cutthroat business (one assumes), they will unscrupulously put op pictures of your dinosaur on their website. This is of course to make it seem like they’ve broadened their repertoire; they don’t want to fall behind! They will then be commissioned one and will scramble to bootleg their own version of it. It’s a copy of the previous one, only ever so slightly different. A meme is born.
In an environment like this, there is no incentive to do any research of your own, but every incentive to copy your rivals and to do so quickly. It’s extremely fertile ground for memes and myths to proliferate. Next thing you know, there’s Olorotitans in kitschy dinosaur parks all over the world. Olorotitans with Triceratops’ headgear. Kids see it and think that’s what the real thing looks like. Thanks to the efforts of cheap Chinese robotics, we can now add the Robot Olorotitan With Ceratopsian Head Frill Meme to the list of Palaeoart Memes. If anyone has a catchier title for it, I’d love to hear it. Oloroceratops?
Many palaeoartists – not least our own David Orr – are calling for a push away from simple, lateral reconstructions of dinosaurs. There is a place for such businesslike, schematic views of extinct animals as reference material – Scott Hartman’s work is the obvious example – but we see now how a lateral piece of paleoart can be completely misinterpreted as it is brought into the third dimension. I’d argue here for more depth (both literally and figuratively) in paleoart on Wikipedia, but seeing as how Wikipedia has been blocked in China as of 2019 the point is moot. Don’t expect the mean quality of Chinese robot dinosaurs to improve anytime soon.
So, as the Oloroceratops now joins the ranks of Freaky Barosaurs, Mohawk Syntarsus and Dorky Parasaurolophus, the best thing we can do is have some fun with this. Spot an Oloroceratops in the wild? Let us know!
(This is an expanded version of a post that appeared earlier this year on my Nielsaurus blog)