Patterns in palaeontology: palaeoart – fossil fantasies or recreating lost reality?

Mark Witton

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Illustrations, sculptures and animations of fossil organisms and the world around them are mainstays of palaeontology. Such restorations, known as palaeoart, are more important than they may at first seem: they help to communicate palaeontological ideas across age and language barriers; have inspired generations of scientists; and have provided the foundation of an international industry of palaeontology-themed merchandise and media worth hundreds of millions of pounds. Due to its increasing prominence and popularity, palaeoart is routinely scrutinized by scientists and the public alike. How can we infer so much about the postures, soft tissues, colours and behaviour of extinct animals when fossil skeletons — be they shells, bones or carapaces — are all that remain of them? In other words, how much of palaeoart reflects the whims and fancies of artists, and how much accurately reflects what once was?

To address this concern, we must first consider the methods employed by palaeoartists to research and execute their reconstructions. Our discussion here skims over many details for the sake of brevity, and reflects the bias of palaeoart towards fossil animals, rather than plants. However, the basic principles apply to reconstructing any extinct organism, and — hopefully — demonstrate that palaeoart is much more grounded in science than one might imagine.
Original languageEnglish
Specialist publicationPalaeontology Online
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2014


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