Today marks the return of Timur Sivgin to the blog as he meticulously disscts the work of one John McLoughlin, one of the most intriguing palaeoartists around. Check out Timur’s blog here!
John C. McLoughlin is one of the more enigmatic figures in the history of paleoart. He is most well-known for his book Archosauria: A New Look at the Old Dinosaur from 1979, which was one of the earliest books aimed at general audiences that fully embraced the ideas of the Dinosaur Renaissance. Not only that, it was one of the first popular books to portray small theropods as feathered, nearly a decade before Greg Paul would spearhead the concept into the public conscious. Unfortunately, what most people seem to remember him for is McLoughlin’s very, very flawed reconstruction of buffalo-backed ceratopsians, which other writers have already said enough about. For the record, this does not seem to have originally been McLoughlin’s own idea. In 1976 the artist illustrated Dinosaurs of the Southwest, which was written by Ronald Paul Ratkevich, who was apparently the first to come up with this bizarro-concept. Based on the information I could find, Ratkevich was mainly an anthropologist, but also a fossil-collector and Curator of Paleontology at the Center for Anthropologcial Studies Albuquerque. Ratkevich himself may have been inspired by the 1915 book Dinosaurs by William Diller Matthew (very original title there), which features this reconstruction of a Triceratops. He does however not mention Miller in the book’s bibliography, which makes this path of inspiration unlikely. Whatever the case may be, McLoughlin simply seems to have taken it for granted that the guy knew what he was talking about and ran with the idea in all subsequent books of his, making him live on in infamy. Dinosaurs of the Southwest by the way also features feathered coelurosaurs, which I think is significant, because depending on what month the book was released in it could potentially be older than the April 1976 issue of Scientific American. Said issue features Sarah Landry’s illustration of a feathered Syntarsus, often said to be the oldest depiction of a feathered non-avialan dinosaur. Though Paul Ellenberger may have both of them beat by two years. A year after Archosauria, McLoughlin published Synapsida: A New Look into the Origin of Mammals, a sort-of sister-book which showed what our own ancestors were doing before and during the reign of the dinosaurs. It is larger in scope, though the artwork and ideas presented seem a lot less speculative or radical when compared to Archosauria. Its text does stand out, however, for its occasional cynical remarks on human nature and snarky commentaries on the then current Cold War politics. Not much has been said about it online, though I have the book and definitely plan to write about it in the future. Today we will talk instead about one of his works which does not seem to have any online presence whatsoever: The Tree of Animal Life: A Tale of Changing Forms and Fortunes from 1981. This book details the entire history of animal life from the Precambrian all the way to the present, though in a simplified manner aimed at children. Indeed, it seems that this book, or at least the used copy I own, was used in teaching school classes, as my copy is signed on the inside with “Katy Mary’s class” and has a stamp from the Barrie School Library. I take it that Katy Mary may have been the class’s teacher.
In this post I will mostly focus on the dinosaur-part and a few other highlights, but if there is enough demand, I will of course do a follow-up focussing on the many non-dinosaurs featured. Because the book is ungodly large, it was difficult to scan many of the two-page spreads, so I either digitally stitched them together or had to resort to photographing some, which I hope did not impact the quality too much.
First there is the dust cover, comparing a Diplodocus and a giraffe. A big theme of this book is how the circumstances of evolution can produce wildly different, yet still similar forms over time. The weird tree of life you see in the middle is actually fully illustrated in the book and built up branch by branch at the end of each chapter.
Kicking off this book’s Mesozoic is the ancestor of all archosaurs or “thecodonts”. Since McLoughlin does not say what sort of species this is supposed to be, I assume that this is not meant to depict a real species, but is rather a generalized image of what he imagines the earliest thecodonts to have looked like: Basically an unspecialized crocodile with longer legs than usual. This was very much the belief at the time for the origin of archosaurs, as it was thought that their trends towards muscular tails, upright legs and a bipedal gait were originally adaptations for paddling in water. This has of course come into question, with the Normanpedia already being doubtful of it in 1985.
On the next page we see the steps out of the water with Euparkeria in a resting and running posture. Although its exact phylogenetic placement is debated, Euparkeria was and still is imagined as the type of ground-stock that true archosaurs evolved from, though it feels like the animal has lost some popularity. The anatomical accuracy here is a bit off, as Euparkeria should have a less narrow, more rectangular snout. As such McLoughlin makes it look more like a derived proto-dinosaur than the more primitive archosauriform it actually was. It also looks very different from the Euparkeria already featured in Archosauria, which had a more accurate head-shape, but also looked decidedly more crocodilian. The image, and many similar reconstructions, has also aged in a particular aspect, which is that current research shows that Euparkeria actually had no adaptations towards bipedalism (Demuth et al. 2023). Because the text does not do it, I want to point out that the animal appears to be illustrated with broad, overlapping scales, which look a lot like how McLoughlin otherwise illustrates protofeathers. Back then the thinking was that feathers evolved from frilled scales (which has since also become outdated). I believe the similarity is intentional, as in Archosauria McLoughlin already voiced the opinion that the origin of feathers was older than the dinosaurs… which might eventually turn out to be true.
Now here is one of the most fascinating images: What McLoughlin imagines the ancestor of pterosaurs to have looked like. To this very day we have yet to find a gliding transitional form between pterosaurs and earlier archosaurs, but this has clearly not stopped people from speculating what such an animal would have looked like. Rupert Wild already began working on a hypothetical “Protopterosaurus” in a series of papers beginning in 1978, but if I understood correctly (and please, please correct me on this if I am wrong), he did not illustrate it until 1984. This would make the above image three years older and possibly the oldest illustration of a hypothetical proto-pterosaur. Even if it is not, it is fascinating to contrast McLoughlin’s version with Wild’s. While Wild’s proto-pterosaur was merely a gliding lizard, our guy here is an active thecodont with upright legs and a lifestyle similar to a flying squirrel. This is not that far off from current speculation about proto-pterosaurs, such as Mark Witton’s, and even fits with the recent discovery that lagerpetids are the closest pterosaur-relatives (Ezcurra et al. 2020). Arguably another example of McLoughlin’s remarkable prescience. The only thing it is missing is fuzz, but thankfully the Rhamphorhynchus on the next page is illustrated with pycnofibers. As evidenced by Archosauria and Dinosaurs of the Southwest, McLoughlin was well aware of pycnofibers and the text in this book even uses it as evidence for warm-bloodedness in these animals. The reason why McLoughlin didn’t illustrate the proto-pterosaur with fuzz is because he thought pycnofibers evolved independently of feathers. The Rhamphorhynchus looks mostly fine and is thankfully not shown skim-feeding, but is it really trying to grab the insect with its right hand mid-flight?
After these two, McLoughlin immediately jumps to the Late Cretaceous to show the success of their descendants. The animal depicted here is identified as… Quetzalcoatlus. Yeah, not Pteranodon. It does make sense for the time, however, as up to this point most remains of the giant azhdarchid were just wing-bones, which did not indicate much beyond it being a giant pterosaur. Wann Langston would in fact not publish his findings of more complete remains until the exact same year as this book here came out. It therefore probably made sense to McLoughlin to reconstruct it as a giant Pteranodon, which was previously the largest known pterosaur. This reconstruction-attempt is at the very least miles better than the demonic pin-heads which kept showing up all throughout 70s and 80s kids books. The animal also just looks charismatic and majestic. What probably makes this my favorite illustration in the book is the little description on the right, which reads:
“The little ones, the size of seagulls, follow Quetzalcoatlus in hopes that the shadow of their huge relative will frighten some fishes into leaping out of the water.”
This lovely tidbit of information gives the picture such a nice, little charm and makes you think of these creatures as real, living animals. It is a depiction of co-specific behaviour one would arguably see today in All Yesterdays-inspired paleoart and is probably taken from real seabirds, though do not ask me which ones (Do I look like Darren Naish?). What species the small pterosaurs are supposed to be is not specified. The Late Cretaceous is in fact well-known for its lack of smaller pterosaurs, though it is debated whether this was due to taphonomy or true absence. In a modern remake of this image, they would probably be replaced with proto-birds like Ichthyornis.
From that we come to the first terrible lizards, such as Coelophysis, here seen bullying your ultra-great-grandpa. “These were the first dinosaurs, the finest, fastest, smoothest creatures the world had ever seen. Oh, they were good at the game of life!”, to quote the author. The depiction has anatomically much improved over the previous illustration from Dinosaurs of the Southwest and the head-shape is also more accurate compared to the animal’s previous appearance in Synapsida. Curiously, however, here the animal is naked, while in Archosauria he illustrated it with indications of protofeathers. The necks and tails are also quite short and the musculature on the arm looks a bit sus to me.
Next up the two other main groups of dinosaurs, here anachronistically represented by Plateosaurus and non-descript hypsilophodonts, which have something goose-like about them. I like their stripe pattern. The family tree is much more simplified than the one in Archosauria, which unlike here actually showed pterosaurs being more closely related to dinosaurs. The Tree of Animal Life is a bit ambiguous on what McLoughlin defines as dinosaurs. In Archosauria he was of the opinion that they were only an informal grouping of multiple thecodont-descendants, nonetheless tied together as their own infraclass by their shared warm-bloodedness and distinct from reptiles. This was very much the opinion of Bakker, Galton and many others in the 70s and would only change to our modern monophyletic model as the 80s wore on.
This Parasaurolophus is much improved over the one in Archosauria, which looked more like an ornithomimid cosplaying as a hadrosaur. Though it still is a bit too leggy. McLoughlin depicts it alongside a nest and describes hadrosaurs as probably engaging in parental care, due to being found closely associated to their eggs. He is likely referencing the then new research on Maiasaura that Jack Horner was conducting.
What would otherwise be a fairly generic image of dromaeosaurs engaging in pack-hunting is made all the more unique by the fact that McLoughlin identifies the depicted animal as Deinocheirus. Yes, the animal today known as an ornithomimid giga-duck. Back then of course only the impressively large, clawed hands of this dinosaur were known, leading many to think that it was actually a very fearsome carnivore. Here McLoughlin interprets it as a giant version of Deinonychus, capable of even taking down sauropods, making this a very, very bizarre premonition of the later discovery of Utharaptor. The stripes on the tail in fact remind me a lot of the Walking with Dinosaurs Utahraptor. The reason why they are all looking in the same direction is because some competitors for the carcass are approaching. If they are other Deinocheirus or maybe even tyrannosaurs (which are actually entirely absent from this book) is not mentioned, though I do like the expressiveness of the dinosaurs’ faces. I find it intriguing that McLoughlin chose to depict the skin on the sauropod’s hand with a very rugged texture. Recently found fossil footprints from Portugal actually do indicate the presence of such roughened skin on the hands of a sauropod (Milan et al. 2014). Were there already speculations about this in the early 80s? Or was McLoughlin simply working from intuition and proved to be remarkably prescient once again… ironically in what is otherwise one of the most dated pieces in this book.
As alluded to before, The Tree of Animal Life is uncharacteristically lacking in feathered dinosaurs, but they still do show up. Archaeopteryx is notably improved over its Archosauria-incarnation in that this time the wing-feathers actually attach all the way to the second finger. Its chaser is not identified, though, judging by the subtle feather-mohawk, it is very likely inspired by Sarah Landry’s Syntarsus. The Hesperornis on the opposing page is interestingly depicted with a mouth more similar to the other dinosaurs in the book. This is actually somewhat more accurate to the real animal than the majority of depictions, which inaccurately show the teeth erupting directly out of the beak.
Say the line, Bart! The dinosaur section ends, of course, with their extinction, but also McLoughlin’s trademark bison-ceratops. Yes, he still insisted that the head-frill was attached to the shoulders. At the very least the animal here looks a lot less Frankensteinian than its predecessor in Archosauria. It is also intentionally shrink-wrapped to indicate that is starving in this post-apocalypse, which is probably one of the few appropriate moments to use shrink-wrapping in paleoart. In this book, McLoughlin gives an asteroid-impact as the reason for the extinction event. In the previous books he preferred a star-explosion, which was also a popular theory at the time.
And finally, just to give you an idea of the many non-archosaurian things featured in this book that you would probably also want to see, I present you with this absolutely hilarious Homo erectus hunting scene. Holy moly, look at those facial expressions! I adore the guy in the middle. Looks like he is hyping the reader up for the ultimate stone age smackdown this gazelle is about to receive. I can vividly imagine him yelling “Yeah, boiiiiiiiii!”
- Demuth, Oliver; Wiseman, Ashleigh; Hutchinson, John: Quantitative biomechanical assessment of locomotor capabilities of the stem archosaur Euparkeria capensis, in: Royal Society Open Science, 10, 2023.
- Ezcurra, Martin; Langer, Max; Nesbitt, Sterling: Enigmatic dinosaur precursors bridge the gap to the origin of Pterosauria, in: Nature, 588, 2020, S. 445 – 449.
- Matthew, William Diller: Dinosaurs, New York 1915. (Readable here)
- McLoughlin, John: Archosauria. A New Look at the Old Dinosaur, New York 1979.
- McLoughlin, John: Synapsida. A New Look into the Origin of Mammals, New York 1980.
- McLoughlin, John: The Tree of Animal Life. A Tale of Changing Forms and Fortunes, New York 1981.
- Milan, Jesper; Christiansen, Per; Mateus, Octavio: A three-dimensionally preserved sauropod manus impression from the Upper Jurassic of Portugal: Implications for sauropod manus shape and locomotor mechanics, in: Darmstädter Beiträge zur Naturgeschichte, 14, 2014, p. 47 – 52.
- Norman, David: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs, London 1985.
- Ratkevich, Ronald Paul: Dinosaurs of the Southwest, Albuquerque (or however the f*ck you write the name of this city) 1976.
- Wellnhofer, Peter: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Pterosaurs. An illustrated natural history ofthe flying reptiles of the Mesozoic Era, New York 1991.
- Witton, Mark: Pterosaurs, New Jersey 2013.