Saturday, December 27, 2014

Don't Draw Celibate Cycads!!

One does not have to look far to get into the well documented, especially on the paleoblogosphere, interplay between paleontology/paeoartistry/plagiarism/tropes etc. etc. Chances are if you read this blog you are aware of this crucial and ongoing debate especially as it pertains to certain tropes or memes that seem to get repeated, maybe even subconsciously, with regards to certain peculiarities or assumptions about the life appearance of extinct animals (esp dinos). And I don't really want to bother with a list of links to this ongoing discussion here although for starters there is the All Yesterdays movement, The Paleopolice FB/deviantart group, Support original Paleoart, and so on and so forth. What I want to do on this post is focus on the dilemma of "the celibate cycad".

A bit of a qualifier here. Not that there is anything particularly wrong with depicting a cycad alone on the landscape or even utilizing what I refer to as "the big three" (ferns, cycads, conifers) in Mesozoic landscape - it is a question of representation and over utilization, especially when alternate views are more or just as defensible. In the past I made the same argument with dinosaurs always conveniently framed on a bare patch of dirt. Now, truth be told I can't take 100% credit for noting that very common trope - I recall first hearing it mentioned in an online discussion somewhere - but I do think it is worth noting and it is unabashedly common once you start looking for it. Again, not that there were no bare patches of ground in the Mesozoic and not that dinos did not stand on them - conveniently framing themselves - it is a question of this view being over represented. And, while it is true that this meme repeats so often as a function of the artist framing the main subject which is the animal, after a while this repetition becomes a disservice because it does not speak to the full mosaic of ways in which animals, even large ones, clamber through, hide in, and engage with the vegetation in their respective environments.

(c) Gregory S. Paul
(c) Conway
(c) Troco
All three above images, beautiful and illuminating in their own rights, all depict the dinosaur conveniently framed on a bare patch of soil meme.

And so onto the problem of "celibate cycads". I first heard the term "celibate cycad" in an article by Jennifer Frazer titled Are Cycads Social Plants? Now I have discussed this concept of large herbivore mediated cycad dispersal before here but to recap cycads are a bit of an enigma - slow growing, toxic foliage and large seeds with a fleshy, nutritious outer coating called a sarcosta but somewhat analogous to angiosperm "fruit". It has been surmised that the large seed serves two purposes - small dispersers such as monkeys, possums, rodents etc etc. will tend to move the seed not too far from the parent plant. This increases the chance of the seed growing up in the vicinity of other cycads and, because they are "sexed" plants with a male and female plant and pollinated by insects, enhances the chances of reproductive success. This explains why cycads do not invest in bountiful numbers of cheap, small seeds which would tend to be dispersed further from other cycads and thus grow up isolated and celibate. For large dispersers - flightless birds, giant marsupials, dinosaurs - many "fruits" can be swallowed whole and then deposited en masse in the animals dung and thus setting up the potential for a new grove. What is important to keep in mind is that whether it be via small or large animal mediated dispersal grove formation is encouraged in both scenarios. Further supporting this scenario is the tendency of cycads to mast reproduce concurrently to attract pollinators and dispersers in numbers.

2013. Hall & Walter. Macrozamia Miquellii. Mount Archer Park, Australia

And so this tendency to grow in groves and reproduce concurrently is an attribute that paleoartists should take note of when depicting Mesozoic landscapes. It is especially important if one makes the defensible speculation that dinosaur herbivores/omnivores were commonly attracted to these mast cycad fruiting events as a source of food. Or possibly pterosaurs, mammals, sphenodonts, and crocs as well.

Arjay Bee
So are "celibate cycads" a problem in paleoart? I would say after looking over the vast majority of paleoart that no, most artists get cycads right with regards to depicting them most commonly in groves. But it is something to be aware of. I would love to see more of an emphasis on cycad groves as a common micro-habitat in Mesozoic landscapes.

However I would be remiss not to highlight the growth in popularity and utilization of digital artwork, especially per the influence of Julius Csotonyi, and possible problems there of. One of the main flaws in Julius' work as it pertains to vegetation is his plants are often vibrant green and look maintained as if in a park or garden - and this may have to do with the source photograph was from a park/garden. I have heard this criticism before but it bears repeating. Case in point here where the cycads are missing a skirt of old/dead dying leaves and some are borderline celibate. Also this one here which depicts several possible celibate cycads. And given their slow growth rates I don't place a lot of faith in cycads being common plants near riparian areas and dinosaur nesting grounds which are both prone to disturbance. And Julius also loves to put his dinos on a bare patch of dirt. Now I don't want to pick on Julius too much - I am not the hugest fan of digital art but Julius does a better job than most with it and I am a fan of his & his book -  but we should not be caught unawares that when certain artists get heralded as the "top of the line" that it is these exact artists that are the ones that most need to be looked at under a critical eye. This is due to the simple fact that these artists will have a proportionately greater influence than others over time. Whatever biases and flaws are imbued in their work, and history suggests that there are always some (see GSP and shrink-wrapping), will be co-opted by future artists. And this constant nit-picking of the top of the line artists will further refine the interplay of science and art in the future.

Cycas media. Tanetahi

Coming Soon: Don't worry loads more plesiosaur machinations coming up, if you liked the first two then lots more where they came from and IMO will get better and more interesting with time. Also if I don't post anything new before the New Year loads of more stuff planned for next year including some thought pieces and interpretations brand new!! Thanks for spending your time here consuming content when you could have spent it elsewhere in the unlimited free content world we live in. About to hit a quarter million unique page views!! Thanks

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Chaparral Earth said...

Hmmmmm, I'd stay far away and out of the Photo at site "B", looks like perfect Velociraptor habitat to me

Robert Haan said...

You're welcome Duane, this blog has been one of my favourite places to hang out on the interwebz over this past year, the views and information featured certainly helped reshape my viewpoint on the whole paleo landscape even if i may not always agree with your standpoint.

Besides its a heck of a lot better than sitting through countless lines arguments on why "my dino" is stronger than yours.

Duane Nash said...

Thanks for comment Robert. One of my chief goals of this blog was to make it unique and offer new perspectives. And never let it devolve into demi-god monster worship or carnivore wars battle royale. But for the record t-rex would whup on spinos' ass.

Robert Haan said...

LOLz Spino's just such a totally different dinosaur that it just wouldn't make sense to pit it against the typical landlubbing theropod. Sort of like pitting a great white against a grizzly bear, it just won't work ! at least, not as a proper fight.

One of the reasons i was ecstatic about the findings of Ibrahim et al 2014 is that it would finally ut an end to the decade old T Rex -Spino war , but.... apparently not so.

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