Turns Out, Dinosaurs Probably Had Feathers. This Artist is Using Science to Draw More Accurate Pictures.
What does a Tyrannosaurus rex actually look like? You might immediately think of the iconic, roaring lizard from the Jurassic Park films. But scientific illustrator Gabriel Ugueto turns to paleontology studies and fossil finds—poring over the science to accurately reimagine creatures that no longer exist today. And what he renders might surprise you.
Ugueto, a former herpetologist, is a paleoartist, or an artist that creates representations of animals that have gone extinct. He has illustrated everything from extinct marine reptiles, insects, mammals, flying pterosaurs, and—of course—dinosaurs. His work helps scientists better understand and visualize the species they study. But bringing these animals back to life takes just as much imagination as careful precision. Ugueto draws upon the latest research, looks to fossilized bones, and collaborates with researchers to get a little closer to what these animals may have looked like when they roamed Earth. His more scientifically accurate reconstructions of chubby, scaly plesiosaurs or fluffy, feathery dromaeosaurs might not match the terrifying, reptilian dinosaurs of pop culture.
More recent discoveries provide scientists and artists a new perspective on dinosaurs, Ugueto explains. “Contrary to popular media and what we’ve shown in movies, in paleoart, there is a huge renaissance to make these animals more accurate as to what they would have looked like,” Ugueto tells Science Friday.
Ugueto, profiled in the latest SciArts video, explains the challenges and wonders of his craft and breaks the stereotypes of how dinosaurs are depicted in popular media with guest host Flora Lichtman. View an animated breakdown of some of the important steps in Ugueto’s illustration process below.
It Begins With A Bone
“When I get an assignment, I first try to look at the bones,” Ugueto says. “You start with the bones and then work outward from that.”
For example, “right now, I’m reconstructing a series of birds from the Cenozoic, and a lot of those birds are just known from one bone, a thigh bone. So I have to basically reconstruct the rest of the animal knowing what it could look like based on what animals it is closely related to.”
Finding Modern Inspiration
Since he often receives fragments of remains or photographs of the fossils, Ugueto then tries “to see what the animal that I’m going to reconstruct was related to,” he says. “It’s very important to have reference material from modern-day animals and to be very familiar with anatomy of modern-day animals when you try to reconstruct something from the past. Because not only will it give you analogues to what they could have looked like, but also, in a way, we’re all related at the end of the day. It’s important that we are familiar with that. For dinosaurs, for example, we know that birds are dinosaurs. So they probably share a lot of things in common.”
Feather-covered dinosaurs continue to be a controversial conversation. But, scientists have evidence that many groups of non-avian dinosaurs, including several dromaeosaurs, had different types of feathers. Some suggest that certain species may have even had feathers “exactly like the feathers that you would see on a pigeon,” Ugueto says.
Fleshing Out Muscles
Understanding anatomy, like how muscles attach to bones, is important in accurately capturing different animals, Ugueto says. You can visualize how Ugueto carefully draws muscles and flesh in the illustration of a shringasaurus above.
“You definitely have to have a detailed knowledge of how muscles attach to different bones in different animals, because it’s not the same muscle attachment in mammals that it is for birds or reptiles,” he says. “After I’ve decided what position I’m going to put it in, I do a full skeletal reconstruction and then I try to see where the muscles could have attached. I continue with the reconstruction of putting skin, bones, and colors.”
Setting The Scene
The ecological backdrop is just as essential to depict correctly as the animal itself. Here, Ugueto poses a proceratosaurus dipping for a drink of water.
A big part of the process “is thinking where the animal lived [and] at what period in time, because there are different climatic conditions at different times during the history of life. Based on suggested habits of the animal, I think about what integument or covering I’m going to use, my coloration and all that.”
Basking In The Beauty
“I think [scientists] all have an idea of what the animal is going to look like, because you have to remember that these are people that have been looking at these bones for a long time, much longer than I have,” Ugueto says. “They have an idea of what the animal could have looked like, but I do get this feeling that they are pleased and very happy to see the animal finally fleshed out, with flesh, and bones, and muscles, and color, and looking alive.”
“I would have loved to see it alive,” Ugueto says.