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Episode 9: What Did The Dinosaurs Look Like?


Welcome back to the beautiful Big Horn Basin and the New Jersey State Museum’s Ask the Experts Video Learning Library, where we’re digging into some of the most common questions people ask paleontologists about what we do and how we do it. Last time you joined us you learned all about how we identify fossils - where in the body the bones are from and what dinosaur it belonged to. Over the decades, we’ve found countless bones from hundreds of species of dinosaurs, so we have a really good idea of what their skeletons look like.  But there is a lot more to these amazing creatures than just their bones.  What did they look like when they were alive?  What color were they and what did their skin look like?  How can we even know any of that?  Well, before we start digging in to those questions, we better get a little help from a friend of mine. Let’s go meet him.

I’m here with my good friend Jason Poole. In addition to being a great paleontologist and phenomenal fossil preparator, Jason is also a well accomplished paleoartist. Jason, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what exactly it is that a paleoartist does. 

Thanks Jason. So basically, as a paleoartist, what I try to do is I take fossils and try to flesh them out, putting muscle, skin, figuring out what color they are, basing as much of what I’m doing on the actual fossil as I can, but also taking cues from live animals, things that are around today that can help inform me as to how these things looked. So the neat thing about this is this is the only way we really have of visualizing these animals. So when we’re working with bones, they’re bones, and we’re very much looking at what they bones can tell us, but it’s helpful and sometimes insightful to have a reconstruction of what that animal would look like with the skin on, to put it in the context of its environment.

When you’re drawing a dinosaur, how do you know what colors the dinosaurs were, or how fat their bellies may have been, or anything like that?

What I try to do is get as familiar as possible with the fossil. I spend a lot of time sketching from the actual bone, from the fossils that are available that are going to be the basis for the reconstruction.

Plant fossils, skeletal elements, possible behaviours based on conversations with the researchers and observations of living animals all play a part in any depiction of dinosaurs or any extinct organism. Footprints and skin imprints as well as eggshells and nests are types of trace fossils that can add to what is known about dinosaurs beyond their skeletons and what we can learn from them. Color is not something we know even a little bit about right now although lots of really cool work is being done to decipher what we can and we will know more in the next few years. Color patterns are observable on some exquisite specimens but those are few and far between and those show patterns not the colors that those patterns would have had. I like to base color choices on living animals that might have something in common with the dinosaur I am working on. Sometimes the colors and patterns I pick as an artist can help tell the story I am trying to capture in the art I am creating.

Bones tell great stories if you know how to read them. Shape of bones can tell you about how they move. The muscle scars can give you clues as to where large muscles connect from bone to bone. Bumps, holes, strange bends in the bone can often be due to pathologies, broken bone that’s healed. These all tell us stories about how the dinosaur was and some of them, what they were doing while they were alive.