Among the most recognisable staples of popular prehistoric animal books is the multi-spiked North American ceratopsian dinosaur Styracosaurus albertensis, discovered in Alberta in 1913 and described and named later that same year by Lawrence Lambe.
One of my several memorable childhood encounters with Styracosaurus was in the 1975 movie The Land That Time Forgot, a World War I adventure film based on a 1918 novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. If you haven’t seen The Land That Time Forgot, it revolves around the discovery of a lost land called Caprona by the crew of a German U-boat. The main cast are not all German, since they’ve taken aboard a bunch of British people and even an American, all rescued from their own sinking merchant vessel. Doug McClure is the main star.
At least some of my childhood takes on prehistoric animals and their world were inspired by that film, and one scene I remember in particular is a night-time segment in which two unlucky styracosaurs are fired upon by the U-boat. One is hit (one of its characteristic frill spikes is blasted off) and dies, a symbolic tear trickling from its eye. It was thus a great thrill for me to recently see this model, at the 2019 Portsmouth Comic Con. Yes, it’s the intact one of the two The Land That Time Forgot styracosaurs.
Why was this model at Portsmouth Comic Con? Because movie model-maker Roger Dicken was there, and I got to speak to him. Roger’s IMDB page gives some idea of how many movies he’s been involved in during his long and illustrious career: he made the original Alien chestburster, among many other things. In speaking with him, I was finally able to confirm something I’d always suspected: the styracosaurs in the movie were based very specifically on the ones illustrated by famous Czech palaeoartist Zdeněk Burian (1905-1981) for his grand 1972 book with Zdeněk V. Špinar, Life Before Man (Spinar 1972). Burian illustrated Styracosaurus several times during his career, but this painting (actually produced in the 1940s, not the 70s) is the most familiar and most reproduced. The animal is broad across the muzzle, has distinct sunken regions on the frill, and the spikes on the frill (in the background individual) closely follow the contours of the shoulder and back.
Burian’s art was – and arguably still is – highly influential, not just because it’s wonderful and looks amazing but also because it was just about the only palaeoart accessible to a large sector of the interested public during the 1960s and 70s. It’s no surprise that the look he favoured for a given animal often became the standard template for the species concerned. But how did Burian himself work out what ancient organisms looked like? He was working at a time when information was scant, experts were few and hard to communicate with, and literature non-existent or highly technical. We know that Burian consulted extensively with Špinar, and also that he used measurements and images of fossils to inform the reconstruction process.
As recently realised and brought to my attention by Mark Witton, it turns out that Burian’s take on Styracosaurus wasn’t exactly unique. Look at this image (above) by Vernon Edwards, apparently made during the 1930s. Edwards made a huge number of dioramas depicting prehistoric animals in landscapes, many of which are depicted in books of the early 20th century (my main source for these images being the 1941 The Miracle of Life, which I’ve written about before [images now removed from article, well done SciAm]). The similarities between the Burian and Edwards scenes are many. The composition and landscape is similar, the animals are posed the same way as goes the angles we see, and there are lots of anatomical similarities. All those features I mentioned above are visible, and note also the bulging neck creases visible on the animal we see in profile.
So - is this a case of Burian basing his work on that of a previous artist? As noted above, Burian’s styracosaur scene is from 1941 (the date is obvious in good versions of the image; see above). Edwards’s scene is supposedly from the 1930s, but the oldest published version I’ve seen is from 1941. Could it be, then, that Vernon Edwards produced this image in 1941 - not during the 30s - and that it was based on Burian’s scene, not vice versa? I honestly don’t know and haven’t been successful in working out the exact details on what happened.
If Burian did base his work on the image by Edwards, this might be - as Mark stressed in a twitter exchange - the only case in which Burian based his work on that of another palaeoartist. It’s not as if we’re saying that he was a regular plagiariser or anything.
As mentioned earlier, Burian’s work was so influential that it was widely used by other artists. At this point I could write a great deal about Burian-inspired images of this dinosaur, but I’ll finish by discussing one in particular. I don’t know how familiar Ladybird books are outside of the UK (non-UK readers, let me know), but – in the UK – they’re among the most beloved and cherished of books to people who grew up between the 1950s and 90s. My favourite was always, and still is, the 1974 Labybird leader book Dinosaurs, authored by Colin Douglas and illustrated by Bernard Robinson (Douglas 1974). And there on page 38 we find this striking image, featuring a stormy sky and a totally anachronistic Tyrannosaurus (Styracosaurus is some millions of years older than Tyrannosaurus)…
Such was the popularity of this book that an enlarged and augmented edition – titled Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals – appeared in 1978, with extra illustrations and much more text (Wellfare 1978). It enabled the art to be shown at larger size but features many of them in cropped form such that their relationship to larger scenes is unfortunately ruined. Anyway, here’s the spectacular styracosaur again. It has a fantastic eagle-like glint and hint of simmering rage in its eye. The spines around the edge of the frill look to be based on Burian’s painting more than on an actual styracosaur fossil, and the scaly edge to the beak - again, inspired by what Burian depicted - is an interesting touch since it shows that the artist was seemingly unaware of the presence of keratinous beak tissue in these animals (a thing they surely had).
How has the Burian-esque view of Styracosaurus fared in more recent decades? Our improved understanding of ceratopsian musculature and skin texture – combined with our rather more dynamic view of what Mesozoic dinosaurs were like overall – means that any good modern take on Styracosaurus shows a more active beast with more erect limb carriage and more elevated head and neck. The snout shouldn’t be massively wide and turtle-like as Burian (and Edwards) showed, but narrower and deeper, and it should also be more obvious that the spikes around the edges of the frill are distinct, independent structures, not outgrowth of the frill’s main body.
I included a section on Styracosaurus in my 2009 book on the history of our building knowledge on dinosaurs, The Great Dinosaur Discoveries (Naish 2009). It’s a decent potted history of what we know of Styracosaurus, culminating with the revision and redescription of the styracosaurs published by Ryan et al. (2007). Ryan et al. (2007) recognised two Styracosaurus species but the second of these – S. ovatus, named in 1930 – is currently regarded as belonging to the distinct genus Rubeosaurus.
Little known away from the ceratopsian research community is that the lower jaw and skeleton of Styracosaurus wasn’t collected from the field until 1935 (remember: this dinosaur was named and described in 1913). The nasal horn of the original skull was broken. Lambe thought that this break had occurred half-way along the horn’s length, and reconstructing the missing tip accordingly, the result being a ceratopsian with a very long and straight nasal horn perhaps 60 cm long. More recently discovered specimens show that his assumption – while sensible – was incorrect, and that the horn was actually shorter and blunter than he’d concluded, and that 30 cm would be a more realistic length (Ryan et al. 2007) (caveat: I’m talking here about the bony core of the horn, not the keratinous covering). Old reconstructions therefore exaggerate the length of that horn.
That’s where we’ll end things for now. There’s tons more to say about how ceratopsians have been depicted in life and on what we think we know about their anatomy and biology. I’ve written a lot about these issues in the past, but nearly everything has been ruined due to the removal of images at ScienceBlogs and SciAm.
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For other TetZoo articles on ceratopsians and related palaeoart-themed issues, see…
A very alternative view of horned dinosaur anatomy, April 2009 (but now lacking all images)
Dinosaurs and their exaggerated structures : species recognition aids, or sexual display devices?, April 2013 (but now lacking all images)
Palaeoart Memes and the Unspoken Status Quo in Palaeontological Popularisation, February 2017 (paywalled for me as I’ve used up my SciAm quota)
The Ridiculous Nasal Anatomy of Giant Horned Dinosaurs, November 2016
Refs - -
Ryan, M. J. Holmes, R. & Russell, A. P. 2007. A revision of the late Campanian centrosaurine ceratopsid genus Styracosaurus from the Western Interior of North America. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 27, 944-962.
Špinar, Z. V. 1972. Life Before Man. Thames and Hudson, London.
Wellfare, G. 1978. Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals. Ladybird Books, Loughborough.
I’ll just leave this here. The image at top is (c) Robert Bakker, and was produced in 1971. The image below it is by Burian and is dated 1976. Montage from here at Earthling Nature.