Dinosaurs of the Taiga (botany for paleoartists part VII)


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Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis in winter. Illustration for the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat.

Back at the time, many people considered the Mesozoic world a constant tropical hothouse, with little variation on climate. Dinosaurs were portrayed as great lizards that required tropical climates to thrive.

Arctic dinosaurs give one more killing blow to that already pretty old-fashioned concept. They lived in a cold climate well beyond the Arctic circle – and apparently thrived. But what was their world like?

I recently wrote a newspaper article on the newly described Alaskan hadrosaur Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis. For that, I read a bunch of papers about the flora and climate or Cretaceous Arctic. I also contacted paleoclimatologist Carla Tomsich from the University of Alaska, who turned out to be an incredibly helpful and nice person. Here’s what I learned about Ugrunaaluk‘s world.

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Old Trees are Old Friends (botany for paleoartists part VI)


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In today’s world, habitats disturbed by landslides, shifting rivers, forest fires, or humans, are rapidly taken up by pioneer plants, whose motto seems to be ‘live fast, die young’. The pioneers, such as fireweed, willows, and dandelions, flourish for only a few years before being pushed away by species that represent more mature phases of succession. Here in Finland, that usually means first birches and rowens, and after a few decades, thick dark forests of spruce.

In the time of the dinosaurs, things were slightly different. Continue reading

Things I Saw in Madeira (botany for paleoartists part V)


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Cycad hybrid Encephalartos horridus x lehmanni.

I have been mulling on an article on ginkgoes and other pioneer plants of the Cretaceous since October, but I still haven’t gotten around writing it. In the meanwhile, however, I spent Christmas in Madeira (for those uninitiated, it’s a tiny oceanic island off the coast of Morocco) and saw heaps of interesting ancient plants in life. Here’s a small pictorial tour to act as inspiration and reference. Continue reading

Flora in the Time of Chasmosaurs (botany for paleoartists, part IV)


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Dinosaur Provincial Park is a fossil site spanning the time approximately between 76,6-74,8 million years ago, in Alberta, Canada. It’s a famous site with well-known dinosaurs. There are ceratopsians such as Chasmosaurus and Styracosaurus, hadrosaurs such as Corythosaurus and ankylosaurs like Edmontonia. Most famously, the area was haunted by great tyrannosaurs Daspletosaurus and Gorgosaurus.

Less famously, the site also has a fairly good record of fossil plants. At the time, the area was a flat, forested plain with dozens of sediment-laden rivers slowly meandering towards the Western Interior Seaway. The climate was warm temperate, and plenty of ponds and swamps dotted the landscape. This gorgeous and accurate painting is by Julius Csotonyi, from this PLOS One paper, with Creative Commons license.

Let’s now take a closer look at the variety of plants that flourished in the area and fed the dinosaurs.

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On Grasses and Not Exactly Grasses (botany for paleoartists part III)


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640px-Giraffe_standingIllustrating dinosaurs grazing on grasslands is considered a cardinal error in paleoart. In part, this is justified. In part, not so much.

True grasses of the family Poaecae are a late product of plant evolution, but not as late as was previously thought. They seem to have existed as early as Late Cretaceous, according to some grass-like phytoliths found in 66-million-year-old coprolite, or dinosaur dung, and pollen record on several continents.

However, the vast grasslands known today have not existed for long. For 25 million years or so after the demise of non-avian dinosaurs, grasses account for less than 1 % of all pollen in the fossil record. Grasslands only appeared after the global rainforests of Eocene Epoch receded, making way to dry-adapted plants like grasses. Evidence of large grass-dominated ecosystems appears by the Early Miocene, some 20 million years ago. (photo: Miroslav Duchacek/Wikimedia Commons)

Despite the lack of actual grasses, there is a number of other, older plants that look very grass-like even though they’re not closely related. Paleoartists often avoid depicting anything that looks remotely like a grass, but the general shape – thin leaves and/or fronds standing more or less upright, with reproductive structures on top – is fairly common and seems to work for both xeric and mesic plants. Continue reading

Fruit for the Dinosaurs (botany for paleoartists part II)


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10346553834_ee9bad1e12_hFlowering plants, including the kinds we associate with edible fruit and berries, only diversified near the end of the time of dinosaurs. For most of the Mesozoic, anything like avocadoes and grapes, blackberries or raspberries simply did not exist. Accordingly, paleoartists don’t depict these in their Mesozoic scenes.

But this does not mean Mesozoic animals didn’t eat sweet fruit-like plant parts, as flowering plants are not the only ones that produce them (photo: Juniperus communis, Sarah Gregg/Flickr). Continue reading

Not All Ferns Look Like Ferns (botany for paleoartists part I)



7080457021_8385cb3a1d_zI was recently (and rather persistently) informed that paleoartists might find this sort of articles useful: easily approachable pieces about botany as relevant to paleoart. Most paleoartists are, understandably, primarily interested in prehistoric animals. Unfortunately animals don’t often live on lifeless deserts, so depicting vegetation tends to be essential part of the trade.

Full reconstructions of prehistoric plants or even photographs of plant fossils are often frustratingly hard to find, resulting in quite stereotypical vegetation in much of paleoart. Some ginkgoes, some monkey puzzle trees, cycads that almost always tend to look like Cycas revoluta. And, of course, ferns.

But not all ferns have the nondescript green, bipinnate leaves like the ones we all think of when hearing the word ‘fern’. Paleoartists have a lot more choice than that, even when looking just at the modern diversity. Before the onslaught of hyper-diverse, overly competitive flowering plants and drying climates, ferns were probably vastly more diverse than now. Today’s ferns are pushed into marginal habitats, mostly damp and dark places like forest undergrowth layers (photo: Platycerium elephantotis in Uganda, Bernard Dupont/Flickr).

Still, ferns show a remarkable diversity of leaf shapes. Continue reading

The Horses of Arctic Eden


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Prehistoric animals often feel only slightly more real than mythical beasts. Known only from bones darkened by time and flattened to rocks, it’s hard to imagine them as living animals. How did the animal move? How it behaved? What color was it?

During the last decade or two, more and more wonderfully preserved fossils of dinosaurs have been found. Researchers have even learned to look for traces of their coloration in life. But still, the most vivid window to life in the past is that presented by the megafauna of steppe grasslands, which was skillfully immortalized by our own ancestors as cave paintings. (Painting from Chauvet Cave, France, photographed by Thomas T.)

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The Ancient Fish-dragons of Africa


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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Africa is, among other things, the land of weird fish. It has a strange combination of modern and ancient lineages and extremely odd ecologies. There are fish with lungs, fish that live underground, blind fish that look like cavefish but live in rivers instead. There are fish swimming upside down, fish flying in the air and fish singing love songs in electric pulses.

And then there are bichirs. Continue reading

The Strange Magic of Lapland



grass-of-parnassus bog-star parnassia palustris maija karala laplandLapland holds a special place in the hearts of many Finnish people. There are dozens of songs and poems, books and paintings about its beauty and magic. Thousands of people travel to this cold, barren land on their holidays, sparing no expense. What on Earth is so wonderful in there?

I have been captivated by Lapland for as long as I can remember, but I still have no idea why. Because I’m a penniless student, I haven’t been able to visit since the start of my university years. Last summer I finally got the chance and am no longer perplexed why naturalists – including Carl von Linné – tend to love Lapland. Continue reading


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