Because at least a couple of people requested it, here’s a third outing for The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs (not that one). And this time, Heterodontosaurus would like to give you a lovely big hug.
Christopher Santoro’s Heterodontosaurus follows in the proud ’80s and ’90s tradition of giving the animal rather unsettling arms and hands – oddly humanoid, with gnarly, grasping fingers and claws. Of course, this illustration can’t come close to Neil Lloyd’s Hetty as featured in Dinosaurs!, which sported the sort of Nosferatu digits that one might expect to find curling out from underneath a coffin lid, but it’s fairly off-putting nonetheless. That said, Santoro has given this creature a rather decent head,with a superbly shaded bulging eye and well-observed dentition. It’s not a Sibbick clone, either (in spite of having quite Sibbickian skin) – always a plus.
Perhaps the most adorable creations in this book are a flock of puffin-like Dimorphodon, all of which appear to be smiling joyously, and none of which resemble the sort of freakish, skeletal, leather-skinned nightmare beast that has all too often appeared in popular books (and, latterly, movies). Granted, giving Dimorphodon a puffin-like schnozz is something of a trope in itself, but at least they are here depicted sympathetically as living animals and not gargoyle-like monstrosities.
But what is Dimorphodon, from the Jurassic, doing in a scene alongside three Triassic animals – Tanystropheus, Nothosaurus, and Icarosaurus? Beats me – presumably, it’s just a mistake, or they were regarded as being close enough in time for this to be an acceptable bit of artistic licence. Tanystropheus and Nothosaurus aren’t too bad (love the dark green spots on the latter), but someone appears to have told Santoro that Icarosaurus was a pterosaur – it almost resembles Dimorphodon‘s cute baby cousin.
Speaking of the Triassic, Plateosaurus naturally puts in an appearance, and it really isn’t half bad – its scaly skin has been very nicely rendered, with excellent varied scalation and subtly blended brown patterning. You’ll note the pleasingly evident musculature, too. Even the plants look period-accurate enough to me, although I’m about as fit to judge that as I am the dresses in a Regency-set period drama. Perhaps most importantly, while one animal is shown rearing in that classic ’80s plateosaur pose, an individual in the background is depicted walking bipedally! So, it really has aged quite well. Although if you happen to own, or get hold of, a copy of this book, disregard everything that appears on page 13.
While the plateosaurs are very typical for the era, Sanotoro’s ankylosaurs do deviate from the norm in one relatively minor detail. While they resemble other contemporary reconstructions for the most part (and are a little bit toy-like in places, what with their rather formless chonky limbs), their heads appear to lack the usual beak – instead, the animals’ cranial ornamentation simply continues all around the mouth, making them look a bit like The Thing (from the Fantastic Four). The animals do appear suitably wide and spiky in all the right places (the armour of Euoplo…er…Scolosaurus is reproduced quite faithfully), but those parched lips are little distracting when one is so used to seeing Chapsticked beakiness on the front end. Do let me know what you think.
Among other Late Cretaceous dinosaurs, Triceratops puts in an appearance, naturally. Yes, that one on the right really does look like Torosaurus, and therefore would surely receive the Jack Horner Seal of Quality. (It might just be a perspective fudge.) However, take a close look at the hands of the individual on the left. That’s right – it has clearly separated digits and only three of them have claws. For the 1980s, that’s really very good going; rhino paws were definitely still the norm. It also has a squareish frill which, again, is well-observed for the time.
Rexy drops by once again. He’s only trying to introduce himself to his new neighbours, yet is met with a spiky wall of unflinching ceratopsian prejudice. For shame.
Another animal correctly sporting a mere three hand claws (I should probably stop desperately trying to link these paragraphs) is Pachycephalosaurus. These reconstructions essentially follow contemporary thinking in making the animals’ heads a little small, or rather, their bodies very much too large. In this case, though, there is little else around on the page to provide scale, so it’s an illustration that hasn’t aged as badly as it might have. Seeing a steroidal Pachycephalosaurus absolutely dwarfing some of its relatives, or other Hell Creek fauna, is a rather jarring aspect of ’80s and ’90s palaeoart that we’re spared here. Having said that, there is a very wee (and attractively coloured) Micropachycephalosaurus on the opposite page.
In addition to the head-clashing individuals, a close-up of an animal’s head is also provided. It’s an idea that pops up a lot in popular dinosaur books, and why not? It’s a chance to show off the fact that lovely, detailed reference material has long been readily available. Just check out all that gorgeous detailed knobbly ornamentation. Wonderful.
It’s often been said that humans – even those trained in the relevant sciences – simply lack the capacity (not to mention, longevity) to truly understand deep time. Our recorded history represents a fraction of the time in which our species has existed, itself but a small fragment of the time that has elapsed since the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs. The Cretaceous period alone is longer than all of the time since, with even the Late Cretaceous lasting close to 35 million years. Existence is fleeting, the belief in immortality through worldly deeds a desperate human vanity.
Where was I? Oh yes, there was plenty of time in the Late Cretaceous for all sorts of funky animals to evolve, some of which are depicted here. There was “Phobosuchus”, aka Deinosuchus, the fear/terrible crocodile (one might say, the Enormous Crocodile) here resembling a novelty pond ornament. There was Elasmosaurus, craning its neck out of the water as it was wont to do before researchers worked out that it probably couldn’t do that. There was Quetzalcoatlus, really not looking all that bad for 1988, complete with head nubbin. Striding about the shore was Ornitholestes, also rather nicely reconstructed and certainly well-proportioned, thank you.
Relatedly, there was the famous oddity Deinocheirus. Santoro takes a wonderfully inventive approach in incorporating the only known parts of the animal at the time – those dang arms – into the scene. They are simply shown as incomplete, disarticulated remains, the merest hint of the rest of the animal poking up out of the water’s surface. Of course, Deinocheirus remains being found on a North American shoreline is rather improbable, but, you know, artistic licence. (I don’t care about that, nor the weird hand bones, just because it’s such a fun way to include it.)
And finally…the dinosaurs died out, or rather, they didn’t entirely. Santoro’s Gastornis is very obviously Burian-like, although the added flash of bright red skin on the throat is a nice touch. Alas, the animal isn’t even named in this book, appearing as part of an introduction to the Age of Mammals.Having said that, the last sentence of the text is quite lovely. To wit:
“Dinosaurs never developed very big brains, but the brains they had were good enough so that they got along very well in their world. Thanks to your thinking cap, you can get along in our complicated world and even spell Micropachycephalosaurus.”
If you’ve read this far, then thanks very much – it feels like it takes me a lot more effort to write these things now than it has at any point over the last 10 years. It’s good to know that people still appreciate it. Stay tuned for something very bloody and Italian, as well as something brand new.