Thursday, February 20, 2014

Top 10 Fictional Birds Based on Real Birds

Voracious birders tend to look for birds wherever they go, and that includes in fictional sources. For a serious birder, a movie bird is just as much of an opportunity to exercise the ID skills as a legitimate birding trip is. Over the years, movies and video games have included an embarrassing share of "generic" birds that aren't much of anything: usually a boring small passerine, often monochrome. However, a handful of well-known birds in popular culture are probably based on actual species, though it sometimes takes some considerable inference to figure out exactly what. So here is Jon's and my list of Top 10 Fictional Birds Based on Real Birds, in chronological order.

1. Eagles of Manwë from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit: Golden eagle (first appearance: 1937)

These giant, mysterious, immensely powerful birds of prey are a sort of deus ex machina in the Middle Earth world, always showing up at exactly the right moment. While they are clearly not actually supposed to be golden eagles - they are much larger, sentient, and exist in a fantasy universe - they are probably based on them. One of the first renditions of the giant birds was painted by Tolkien himself and appeared with the original version of The Hobbit. This illustration clearly resembles a golden eagle, and according to Tolkien's son Christopher, the painting was based on a picture of an immature golden eagle by Archilbald Thorburn. With a bit of digging, we found the original painting.

Left: original illustration of an Eagle of Manwë by J.R.R. Tolkien. Right: the painting on which it's based, a golden eagle by Archibald Thorburn (public domain). Interestingly, Thorburn also produced bird illustrations for William Beebe's books (see entry #9 below).

Subsequent renditions of the giant birds are also consistent with this imagery. The officially licensed "Fell Beast vs. Eagle" diorama shows the bird clearly modeled after a golden, including the diagnostic whitish "ankle" fuzz that all golden eagles have (many eagles' leg feathers stop at the ankles, but goldens have feathers all the way down to the feet). The rendition of these eagles seen in the new Peter Jackson Hobbit films is also consistent with this depiction.

Tolkien, in other writings, implies that these eagles might in fact be Maiar - spirits taking a biological form in order to address some important task on Middle Earth - using a bird-shape. If so, it would make sense that such a powerful creature would choose a form inspired by a golden eagle, as golden eagles are known all over the world as being legendary for their power and majesty.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Greatest Microraptor Swag

This post is devoted to some amazing Microraptor swag I've acquired - as commissions and gifts - since around the holidays. All of the people and companies listed below are definitely worth checking out and are very highly recommended!

First, Rebecca Groom of PalaeoPlushies sent me this INCREDIBLE Microraptor plush Christmas tree ornament. Its arms and legs are kind of posable, so it can glide sprawling or biplane! The remiges are even made out of a kind of iridescent material! And the bell around its neck, omg. IT IS THE CUTEST THING EVER AAAA

Go visit her Etsy store! She is awesome.

Next, this absolutely fantastic field bag was created by Angie T of Miskatonic River Valley Leatherworks and was completed just before Christmas. It is entirely hand-made of real leather and is extremely durable.

The design also features Microraptor, the famous holotype with feather imprints. I am totally in love with this bag and could not be more pleased! Check out Angie’s blog (linked above) if you’re interested in the process details, or if you’re interested in commissioning a custom field bag for yourself.

And lastly, I am now the proud owner of THE COOLEST custom iPhone 5S phone case that ever existed!

This beautiful case was laser-engraved by, which is a quite lovely small business offering a variety of very high-quality real wood phone cases with an option for custom designs. The design is carved on redwood burl wood which has a gorgeous natural grain pattern.

The design is again the famous Microraptor holotype, and more specifically is a stylized vector image created by my partner Jonathan (who is also an absolutely amazing dinosaur poet, so click on his gallery and check it out) in Illustrator. It will eventually be used as part of the cover for our upcoming anti-creationism book!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Holiday birds!

We three kings of avian are
Migrant birds who travel afar.
Fluff and feather, snowy weather,
Pooping on yonder car.

(Belted kingfisher, eastern kingbird, golden-crowned kinglet)

My holiday card design this year! Featuring ridiculously dorky bird humor.

You can purchase this design on a holiday card from my Zazzle shop!

Saturday, November 23, 2013


Here's my rendition of the new Hell Creek velociraptorine dromaeosaur. It's known only from the maxilla and dentary, so I decided to only draw the business end of the animal (that, and I didn't really have the time for a full reconstruction). It's depicted staring at a hispine beetle, of which there is abundance evidence (Johnson et al 2000) from Hell Creek ichnofossils.

The animal has been known from teeth for many years, and was only recently finally given a name, Acheroraptor temertyorum, after the underworld Acheron of Greek mythology (Hell Creek reference and so on). Phylogenetic analysis recovers it as a velociraptorine, the most basal member of the group containing Velociraptor, Adasaurus and Tsaagan.

I had a bit of consternation on whether or not to depict the animal with lips: the original version lacked full lips, and I drew the upper teeth overlapping the dentary. Ultimately I decided to add lips and the result is the above image. The original can be seen to the right.

Evidence for lips on theropods is still debated, but it seems to be mounting over time. I've been wishy-washy about lips: my preferred state of depicting dromaeosaurs, at least, was with a sort of "in-betweenish" lip situation, where lips covered around half the vertical distance of the upper teeth, but the upper teeth still overlapped the dentary somewhat. Jaime Headden has a great post on the complexities of dinosaur lips and why some options aren't really satisfactory without more information.

Photoshop CS4, ~2-3 hours

Thursday, September 26, 2013

All Your Yesterdays!

Every other paleo-nerd with a blog is posting about this, so I guess I'll join the bandwagon!

All Your Yesterdays, a new book by C.M. Koseman of Irregular Books, has just been released and is now available for download! Brought to you by the same group that published the game-changing paleoart book All Yesterdays (see my review of that book here), All Your Yesterdays is a compilation of paleoart from dozens of different artists that seek to explore unusual aspects of rational paleontological speculation. I have three pieces in the tome: two Microraptors doing unusual but plausible things, and a Utahraptor being unusual just by virtue of not trying to kill anything. Many other aspiring and talented paleoartists have tackled such scenarios as lactating stem-mammals, polycephaly and cancer in dinosaurs, and many unusual - though often quite reasonable - display structures.

The book is available for free download, but please consider donating to keep the fine folks at Irregular Books producing fabulous work!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Deinonychus Family

This is a very small watercolor "sketch", part of which was for a friend, and the scene inspired by Jon's novel-in-progress...

Obviously this is a very speculative scenario, perhaps a bit All Yesterdays-esque, and is speculative in a number of ways:

1. Family groups in dromaeosaurs are definitely not outside the realm of possibility, and may be more likely than the tired "pack" scenario, at least until the young disperse (fledge? Wean?). Here, the male and female are depicted in a monogamous pair-bond, and jointly care for the young.

2. The male is the more brightly-colored of the two, and the female is similarly-colored but a bit duller, and with more banding. The display feathers in the male are green due to a pigment molecule similar to the pigment turacoverdin, the only known green pigment in birds, and the pigment responsible for the green coloration in turacos. There is evidence to suggest that turacoverdin - or a molecule structurally very similar to it - arose at least twice in modern birds, once in turacos and once in the northern jacana, a totally unrelated bird. Therefore it's not totally outside the realm of possibility that a similar compound evolved independently in dromaeosaurs as well. Turacoverdin is copper-based porphyrin and turacos derive their copper from the fruit they eat, but Deinonychus could derive its copper from the livers of its prey, which is also high in copper.

3. The female is carrying its young on its back, much in the same way that some waterbirds like loons and grebes, as well as crocodilians, do with their young. The idea is that Deinonychus occupies a large territory and would needing to constantly hunt to feed the brood, and would be moving location too frequently for young to easily follow on foot. Here, one chick is using WAIR to climb up its father's back, which is something that some modern young birds also do.

4. The chicks are patterned similar to baby ratites, which are often streaked or spotted until they get older.

5. The feathery toes, while not terribly unique due to finds like Anchiornis, are loosely based on Matt Martyniuk's new post on dinosaur foot scales, which indicates that scutes may have evolved from feathers, rather than the opposite. The chicks here don't have feathery feet because the animals would have evolved from an ancestor that had pebble-scaled feet without feathers or scutes, and ontogeny occasionally very loosely recapitulates phylogeny. (Alternately, I could have depicted the chicks with voluminous legwings, since legwings may have been an intermediate stage between pebble-scale feet and scuted feet).

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Most Accurate Inaccurate Utahraptor

This is a commission of a Utahraptor "reference" for a friend. It is entirely based only on material that is currently-published, and is therefore technically inaccurate considering the existence of unpublished material. However, my client wanted an image of Utahraptor that is "as accurate as possible" based on the knowledge we've had on the critter up to this point. Once the new material is released to the public, this image will be modified to reflect the updated anatomy, and will therefore serve as an interesting "before" and "after" for the animal.

Anatomy is based on Scott Hartman's technically-outdated Utahraptor skeletal diagram.