I’ve been catching myself doing more art involved with The Wolfglen Legacy than actually writing it. I’m going to make myself write more than draw, but at least I can share what’s been done so far.
After more than a year of anticipation, I got to finally spend a night at the famous “Dinosaur Hotel,” the Best Western Denver Southwest.
The place is chock full of stuff that will make a paleontologist’s heart sing. Dinosaur skulls and fossil displays are all over the lobby, which is made to look like a turn-of-the-century explorer’s den, complete with an Allosaurus skull on the mantelpiece.
There’s a paleontologist who will be there in the mornings to answer all sorts of questions about prehistoric life, the continental breakfast is excellent (especially considering the fact that they have waffles), and there are more fossils on display than in some natural history museums. It’s spectacular.
If you are in the Denver area, this would be a great place to stop by for the night! You’ll be glad if you go check it out.
I have been continuing to practice my skills in paleo-art and landscapes. Maybe someday I can get a piece on permanent display in a museum somewhere.
I asked a friend to pick a dinosaur he’d like to see me paint, and he suggested Spinosaurus aegypticus. It was ideal for me to challenge myself. This creature was not like other theropod dinosaurs (all known carnivorous dinosaurs are theropods), so for artists who are used to drawing Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor, this is a good chance to expand their hoirizons.
In addition to being the T. rex-killer from Jurassic Park III, Spinosaurus has grabbed headlines over the last few years for being a dinosaur that likely led a semi-aquatic lifestyle and preyed on fish. In many respects, from a lengthy torso and long narrow jaws to the conical shape of its teeth and its flat feet, it bears strong similarities to modern crocodilians that are specialized to hunt fish.
To reflect this different lifestyle, I decided to portray a Spinosaurus that has just caught a giant eel, still thrashing in its jaws.
When this preliminary stage was completed, I traced the design onto a sheet of tracing paper. After that, I used graphite paper to transfer the design onto an 8 x 10 inch masonite board. Then I laid in the base colors with acrylic paint.
At this stage I wanted to work on the background before concentrating on the animals in the foreground. So I added texture and highlights to the tree bark.
It became increasingly clear that for this type of painting, the Spinosaur and the eel would have to be darkened considerably. So I simply added darker paint, and now have begun to add in texture on the dinosaur’s skin.
Much work still waits to be done, but so far I am very happy with how the painting is turning out. I think I’ll add a little more character to the background by painting in a couple of sparse plants and leaves. Then it will be a matter of adding texure, final shades, and highlights to the animals and water. That will be detailed in part 2.
In the meantime, I am looking forward to a weekend at the Writers on the Rock conference in Lakewood, CO, followed by a night at the world-famous “Dinosaur Hotel,” the newly remodeled Best Western Denver Southwest. I figured a writing conference was the perfect excuse to visit this hotel. Assuming things go according to plan (more or less), pictures will soon be posted here for you to enjoy.
Have a great day!
[Important Update: It seems the “news” of no new animatronic dinosaurs in the Jurassic films was based on reactions that misinterpreted what the director had said, so I have deleted the paragraph that linked to the news sites. However, I will keep this post up mainly because its point is still an important one in this age of CGI. And I guess I can still leave most of it as an open letter to ask for more than one robotic dinosaur in the upcoming movies.]
It’s no secret that dinosaurs and Jurassic Park are a huge part of my life. I have always loved the movies for so convincingly bringing to life these “leviathans of ancient history” (in the words of Steven Spielberg), on a level that no other movie has matched. Suspension of disbelief came all the easier when you could believe the dinosaurs were there. Rather than merely watching a dinosaur chase a character around, you felt as if you were truly face-to-face with creatures both beautiful and terrifying.
One of the most powerful ways the makers of Jurassic Park accomplished such a task was to painstakingly build animatronic dinosaurs that could move and blink, and actually be there on-set, so the actors’ performances would be all the more convincing. They had more to act with than a green screen or tennis ball. CGI was generally reserved for shots that couldn’t be obtained with a robot or puppet. And it forced the CGI crew to make their contributions photorealistic, because they had a life-sized reference on the set to guide their creative process.
As a direct result of this marriage between computers and physical effects, the Jurassic Park series has given us some of the most magical and thrilling moments in movie history. The T. rex’s escape and the ailing Triceratops in the first movie, Sarah Harding petting a baby Stegosaurus in The Lost World, the Pteranodon attack in Jurassic Park III.
As much as I loved Jurassic World, one of my only issues was the relative dearth of animatronic dinosaurs on the screen. But there was this one moment…(mild spoiler ahead)
For those of you who have seen Jurassic World: didn’t the scene with the dying Apatosaurus get to you on some level the other scenes didn’t? I admit, I shed tears during that scene, and still get choked up watching it. I believe that scene so much more than the CGI Velociraptors (which are admittedly quite well done). You actually feel something for this gentle giant, mauled to death by the Indominus Rex.
As the success of this scene and Mad Max: Fury Road proved this year (to say nothing of the crazy excitement for practical effects in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens), audiences still have an obvious passion for practical effects, if only the movie’s creators and company allow them to be used. Someone in Hollywood has to finally be taking notice that we’re getting tired of the over-reliance on computers that lessened the impact and suspension of disbelief in Avengers and the Hobbit Trilogy.
So I write this post as a plea to those who can make the decisions for the next Jurassic sequels. I ask of you, please keep the magic alive. Help us, as an audience, suspend disbelief. Please keep practical effects, for more than one scene or one dinosaur. The effects crews – and audiences the world over – will thank you, and you’ll give us more of those cinematic moments we’ll never forget.
John K. Patterson
Okay, now to dive into this topic once more. This will be the last post I do on this topic for a while, and I apologize for its considerable word count. There was a lot of ground to cover. But at last, here is section B. More criticisms answered. I welcome feedback, whether positive or negative.
“The descriptions are inconsistent, so we can dismiss Mokele-mbembe as a monster of the imagination.”
Skeptics tend to say the Mokele-mbembe is just a legend, with inconsistent descriptions pieced together from sightings (or cultural memories, if the animal no longer lives in the area) of rhinos, elephants, giant snakes, and even giraffes.
However, this blanket statement all but ignores the information reported by those who have actually gone to the trouble of putting boots on the ground and speaking to the natives themselves, like Bill Gibbons and the late Roy Mackal. (You can read their reports for yourself in their books, listed in the bibliography below)
When interviewing people who claim to have actually seen the creature, there is a huge spike in the consistency of their descriptions. They describe a creature at least the size of a hippopotamus, with a bulbous body, long neck and tail, and small head. It attacks hippos but is an herbivore, and has dark, dull coloration, sometimes with dermal spines (the Cameroonian natives confidently stated that the spines are only on the male, but that females are bigger and have longer necks). The larger, more mature specimens are described as having hard armor, akin to the armor of crocodilians and possessed by several species of sauropods.
To keep the inconsistency charge afloat, the skeptic must resort to a comparatively small number of instances, such as a group of pygmies referring to a picture of a rhinoceros as Mokele-mbembe (included in National Geographic’s special Congo issue from several years back), or a witch doctor describing it as a river spirit that can take any shape or size in Rory Nugent’s “Drums Along the Congo.” There are others besides these, but once again the consistent descriptions far outnumber the inconsistent. What goes all but ignored are the descriptions by those who, again, claim to have seen the animal with their own eyes.
The most prominent inconsistencies seem to come from two sources. First, natives from the wrong parts of the Congo Basin who have heard rumors of the animal but don’t claim to have seen it. Second, from skeptics conflating the long-necked creature with another unknown beast, the rhino-like Emela-ntouka. The latter would assume the animals are overlapping versions of the same myth rather than allow the possibility of not one, but two unknown large animals.
The natives themselves (that is, those who claim to have seen Mokele-mbembe) have no trouble making a distinction between a long-necked creature and one that resembles a rhinoceros. As far as I know, they have always treated these two animals as separate, instead of one mystery animal whose appearance morphs in the spreading of rumors.
“The natives treat this creature as supernatural. They think it’s a boogeyman, a god. Why bother pretending it’s real?”
This objection carries very little argumentative power, for two reasons. First, most natives of the Congo hold animistic beliefs, where everything has spiritual significance and often is imbued with supernatural abilities. Including known animals, from hornbills to hippos. Animism grants everything some kind of spiritual dimension, myth and reality alike.
Second, the various tribes of pygmies have differing attitudes toward Mokele-mbembe. Some of them indeed regard the creature as something with spiritual or godlike powers that set it aside from all other creatures. Others, especially the Baka tribe in Cameroon, just consider it a rare animal which they’d rather not encounter, thanks to its tendency to attack canoes and disturb their fishing. Dangerous, to be certain, but no more a boogeyman than a temperamental rhino or an angry bull elephant.
“The Congo Basin may still hide many secrets, but there have simply been too many expeditions to the area looking for Mokele-mbembe. They would have surely found proof by now if the creature was there.”
I must admit, this is the strongest and most thought-provoking objection I’ve heard. Thus it demands to be seriously considered, and treated with a sober mind.
Whether these expeditions would “surely” have discovered this animal rather depends on the quality and duration of the expeditions. There have indeed been many trips, but a sizeable portion have invested their time primarily in gathering eyewitness testimonies instead of searching for the creature itself, and the vast majority of expeditions have been anything but well-equipped. Even in their searches, almost every expedition has been “looking” for a rare, reclusive animal like a fisherman “looking” for fish without bait. To my knowledge, no one has even tried luring it or searching over a wide area.
Frustrating to be sure, but this isn’t always the fault of the people leading these trips. If your expedition intends to investigate something that initially sounds far-fetched, such as a dinosaur-like animal hiding in the rainforest, good luck obtaining some grant money or well-funded investors. Going to the region usually means you need to pay expenses out-of-pocket. When you have to finance it yourself, the proper equipment that accompanies conservationist/observational expeditions can thin your wallet at an alarming rate. And what equipment you can gather might prove inadequate.
Another important fact is that governments of the target countries — People’s Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, and Cameroon — are infamous for being corrupt and hardly caring about Western explorers stomping around their jungles. Bureaucracy and infuriating, pointless waiting periods are a burdensome fact of life for anyone involved with those governments (even more so than in America, if that can be believed). Even when expeditions actually make it to the country, it can take weeks to get a visa signed. I recommend once again the books in the bibliography below to see for yourself. When a visa is finally signed, normally it’s very limited in the time allowed. This leaves most expeditions a couple of days or weeks to go poking around the jungle and interviewing natives, hoping to find anything of consequence.
Skeptics tend to point at the lack of solid evidence despite numerous expeditions, and say this doesn’t bode well for Mokele-Mbembe as a real animal. Then they will turn right around and note (correctly) that many of the people searching for it had little to no prior field experience in tracking animals. Additionally, on p. 287 of “Abominable Science,” skeptics Loxton and Prothero rightly note that many of these expeditions to the Congo “do little more than arrive and turn around.” The very next paragraph features them gloating that more expeditions have yielded far less evidence of Mokele-mbembe’s existence, despite their acknowledgement that the trips are not long-term and are seldom as thorough as they could have been.
Do I have to spell it out? If most of these visitors to the Congo were not qualified to look for rare animals in inaccessible environments (especially in so hostile an environment as the Congo), and often manage to accomplish little more than arriving and returning home, should we be surprised that physical proof has not been gathered?
By the way, about that last link above: remember the gorillas I mentioned earlier in this series? It’s hard to overestimate the ecological impact 125,000 gorillas will have on an ecosystem. And yet the Congo is to this day so dense and so unexplored, we had no idea these extra primates existed until 2007. It’s not that biologists aren’t doing their jobs. It’s just that the Congo is still, in ecological terms, a largely blank space on the map.
“The natives are just seeing snakes with their heads lifted out of the water, or swimming elephants with their trunks lifted up like snorkels so they can breathe. This can create the illusion of a large long-necked creature, and the witness’ mind just fills in the details afterward.”
It is true that the human mind can be tricked into remembering details that were not present, and misidentify known creatures for unknown ones. But the charge of misidentification is a weak one, for (as Robert Mullin has pointed out) the natives are quite familiar with the animals around them. They are dependent on local nature to a greater extent than we tend to be in the West. Their very lives depend on quick wits and keen observation, and identifying the animals and plants they share the jungle with. The jungle is their grocery store, their home, their pharmacy; and the river is their highway system.
The natives are quick to take offense if you try telling them they misidentified an animal (it’s one of the fastest ways to insult them), and for good reason: these same hunters and fishermen know very well what a swimming snake or elephant looks like, for they have seen it hundreds of times before, and they state emphatically that they caught sight of something very different.
Once again, I’d also love to know how separate tribes can semi-hallucinate imaginary water beasts with the same morphology, over and over and over again.
Addendum: “But it can’t be a dinosaur!”
I’ve wanted to tackle this for a while, and there’s multiple arguments I will bring under this umbrella. Keep in mind, I didn’t go to the trouble of writing these blog posts to argue for extant dinosaurs; only for the likelihood of an unknown species.
But once again, I found the skeptic’s case leaves much to be desired in this line of thought, and that’s putting it charitably.
For the heck of it, I’ll pick these arguments apart as well. This last part will focus on the specific objections against a dinosaurian identity for Mokele-mbembe. I’ll leave other possible candidates aside for this section, such as giant turtles, amphibians, or long-necked monitor lizards.
a. No dinosaur fossils occur after the Cretaceous extinction.
This is based on the shaky reasoning that an animal lineage will inevitably leave a consistent fossil record during its entire existence. Sometimes paleontologists do find a pattern that matches this, but other times they don’t. Remind me again, where are the fossils of coelacanths and wollemi pines that occur in post-dinosaur layers? Correct me if I’m wrong, but last I heard there aren’t any that have been recovered thus far. (They had been presumed to go extinct with the dinosaurs, but were recently discovered alive)
[Update: apparently there are at least 2 possible examples of coelacanth fossils occurring in post-Mesozoic layers of rock, but that is hardly enough to show a nice, consistent presence in the fossil record. Keep in mind, we’re talking about a 65 million year gap. That’s tens of millions of years where the coelacanths go missing, and yet were clearly still alive and breeding.]
A large animal may take longer to decay, which some say makes them more likely to be fossilized, that is still not enough. If it lives in an environment where carcasses decompose rapidly (like, say, a rain forest), why expect any fossil record at all?
And by the way, the fossil record’s seeming dearth of dinosaur fossils post-Cretaceous notwithstanding, dinosaurs were extremely varied. I’m not convinced even a comet impact could take them all out. Exactly how plausible is it to presume that every single sauropod, tyrannosaur, ceratopsian, ankylosaur, hadrosaur, ornithomimosaur, etc. went immediately extinct at the end of the Cretaceous, but creatures far more sensitive to drastic environmental changes (such as amphibians) survived and quickly recovered? Just food for thought.
b. It cannot be a sauropod, because sauropods were not adapted to live in swamps or jungles, or submerge in water. Swamp-dwelling, semi-aquatic sauropods are a completely outdated idea.
It’s true that the sauropod dinosaurs in the known fossil record appear to be ill-adapted for semi-aquatic life, let alone in jungles. Their fossilized trackways and skeletons show their feet would likely sink in such terrain.
But why exactly should we assume that a hypothetical modern descendant of a sauropod is going to be exactly the same in its habits, habitat, and anatomical details as the sauropods from the fossil record? Aren’t there supposed to be 65 million years separating us from them?
I’ll just throw this out there: if it takes “only” eight million years to get from land-dwelling mammals to whales, a sauropod will have no trouble adapting to changing environmental pressures. As long as they are still alive, animals adapt. Why dismiss a modified sauropod when known survivors of the Mesozoic (crocodilians, lizards, snakes, turtles, platypus, etc.) were able to adapt yet retain their overall morphology?
Some more food for thought: if it is an “outdated picture of a sauropod,” it’s quite strange that the natives have been saying for decades that Mokele-mbembe possesses features recently discovered in sauropods, including dermal spines and armor that sounds curiously like osteoderms. (It’s quite telling that Darren Naish’s April Fool’s satire, linked just above, conveniently omits the dermal spines and bony osteoderms, so he can make Mokele-mbembe look more “outdated” than what the natives actually report. Rather disingenuous of him, if you ask me.)
c. Sauropods were too large and needed a tremendous amount of vegetation to nourish themselves.
The most popular sauropods were indeed colossal life forms, some of them approaching a hundred tons in weight and growing over a hundred feet long. Argentinosaurus, Brachiosaurus, Camarasaurus, Dreadnoughtus…the mind boggles at the sizes they could reach, and the number of calories required to maintain such a body.
However, the fossil record also includes dwarf sauropods like Europasaurus and Vulcanodon. Some of these dinosaurs reach the reported size of Mokele-mbembe, or even smaller. In fact, insular dwarfism is a well-documented phenomenon in animals when their range and resources are severely limited. Few people know that elephants smaller than cows once inhabited the island of Crete. Normally this happens when big animals are confined to a small island, but I wonder if the same thing can happen if the animal dwells in a dense jungle and has a specialized diet (Mokele-mbembe is reported to feed on several different types of leaves, but primarily eats the foliage and fruit of the Landolphia, or malombo vine).
d. A breeding herd of sauropods would put quite a dent into the vegetation of the Congo Basin. Such creatures needed gigantic amounts of vegetation to feed themselves. Their eating alone would tell us they were there.
It is true that a giant species of sauropod would be detected long before now, because of the damage such animals would do to a forest while grazing. But once again, we have to keep in mind the natives are not describing the titans prominently featured in museums and movies, like 70 foot Apatosaurs or 100 foot Argentinosaurs. They describe creatures with sauropod-like morphology that only get to about 30-35 feet in length. That’s half the length of many famous sauropods. And according to the square-cube law, if you shrank an Apatosaurus to half its size, it would weigh one eighth as much as it did originally. That means it will need far less vegetation to feed itself. We shouldn’t expect a small population of elephant-sized sauropods (or other herbivores) to carve a path of bare-earth devastation through their grazing territories. Certainly not in the quickly-regrowing jungles of the Congo Basin.
If the animal does indeed exist outside of human imagination, I hope and pray we find and preserve this species before it goes extinct, especially since the Congo is liable to swallow up every trace of its existence if it dies out.
Either way, perhaps I’m writing these abominably long blog posts in vain. I must account for that very real possibility at all times. Despite my suspicions and the case I’ve tried to carefully build in these posts, Mokele-mbembe might one day turn out to be a legend or a case of mistaken identity after all.
The point I’m attempting to make here is that such a conclusion is currently not based on exhaustive exploration, the efforts of well-equipped search parties, or anything close to an airtight case assembled by those who argue against the creature’s existence. Therefore, much of the skepticism against Mokele-mbembe is based on false conclusions, and on false premises as well. My position is that there still much room on our world for creatures such as these. If they are there, God willing, someone will discover them soon. I hope I’m around to enjoy it, if and when that day comes.
If this topic interests you, I highly encourage you to read and evaluate both sides, and reach your own conclusions. Here’s some resources to help you get started.
Skeptics are not buying it, often for understandable reasons. The notion of a large land-dwelling animal still being undiscovered sounds rather larger-than-life to many people, especially with Western civilization enjoying the conveniences of satellite photography, Google Earth, smartphones, and Youtube. And given Mokele-mbembe’s well-known resemblance to a sauropod dinosaur, many people see that as plenty of reason to dismiss the animal as a myth or rumor. Great fodder for a sensationalistic Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, perhaps, but not worthy of serious consideration in the halls of zoology.
The problem is, the typical skeptical responses regarding Mokele-mbembe are not nearly as compelling as they are for other “monsters” like Sasquatch or the Abominable Snowman. (That was stated at length beforehand, but it bears mentioning again)
Of course, it doesn’t help when someone spouts off the libelous declaration that anyone who takes Mokele-mbembe seriously is some fundamentalist tool, trying to find a live dinosaur just so they can stick it to Darwin. (Darren Naish once assured me that anyone who thinks the animal is real is either a creationist or a wishful thinker, a claim which I know for a fact to be inaccurate) If one brings up Roy Mackal as a credentialed scientist who took Mokele-mbembe seriously (and he was certainly no creationist), he is waved off as an eccentric with tenure, and his credentials “aren’t the right kind” for him to be an authority.
Strange, considering that this guy who’s making a big deal about credentials and qualification (and continues his nasty habit of committing the genetic fallacy) has declared the following:
“[Y]ou don’t need a Ph.D. to do good science, and not all people who have Ph.D.s are good scientists either. As those of us who have gone through the ordeal know, a Ph.D. only proves that you can survive a grueling test of endurance in doing research and writing a dissertation on a very narrow topic. It doesn’t prove that you are smarter than anyone else or more qualified to render an opinion than anyone else.” ~ Donald Prothero, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, page 16, emphasis added
I guess credentials and qualifications ultimately don’t matter, until you decide to smear anyone you want to label a pseudoscientist or quirky eccentric who doesn’t merit serious attention.
Of course, this business about credentials amounts to little more than an annoying distraction from the stark, black-and-white question “Is Mokele-mbembe a real animal or not?” That is the real heart of the matter.
So without further ado, let’s address some of the bigger, more understandable objections.
1. “There would have to be a breeding population of these animals to survive, and there would have to be too many for their species to escape notice in the 21st century.”
No one’s proposing Mokele-mbembe is a single animal. So when asking how a big animal species can be reproducing and yet exist in small enough numbers to escape detection, we should probably ask a question: do we have large animals that are critically endangered, that are running out of that oft-mentioned breeding population? The answer seems quite evident when one considers the Giant Panda, Black Rhinoceros, Blue Whale, Mountain Gorilla, Sumatran Tiger, Leatherback Sea Turtle, Orinoco Crocodile, Sumatran Elephant, and numerous others. They have wild populations in serious danger of being wiped out.
Given the (limited) evidence available and its seeming to match the pattern of a rare but real creature, I for one am unwilling to take the chance that Mokele-mbembe is merely a legend after all. The Congo Basin carries many dangers to rare animals in general. These include disease, deforestation, poaching, hunting, the mere fact of human encroachment, and so forth. If this animal does exist I’d rather we discover it before we no longer have a chance to conserve and protect it, thank you. By then we would have lost a unique creature, and much of the blame would lie with Western academics who saw fit to dismiss it as a myth until it was too late.
2. “The natives should be able to provide the remains of this animal, like the animal hides they use for shields or the bird feathers they use in ceremonial dresses. They haven’t shown us anything, so that’s a serious red flag.”
This criticism would be a devastating blow against the idea that Mokele-mbembe is a living animal species, but for one obvious fact: the natives need to successfully hunt a creature before such tangible traces become potentially available. Initially, the sole reason why the scientific community could study physical remains of the okapi was because the natives hunted and killed the animal, from time to time.
The natives in Central Africa that allegedly run into Mokele-mbembe describe its size and ferocity as comparable to (or greater than) those of a hippopotamus, which possesses an infamous temper. If it exists, this rare animal carries too much risk and hassle for even the more adventurous hunters to treat it as quarry. In addition to its short temper, they claim the animal is a large pest that disturbs their fishing activities when it grazes on foliage, and it can capsize canoes when surfacing from the river. Depending on where you go, the natives either think it’s a dangerous god-monster that must not be trifled with, or simply a large and problematic animal they’d rather live without.
[Note: In actuality, there have been a few anecdotes of giant reptilian creatures killed in the Congo, with horns or hides or bones being harvested and kept “somewhere,” but without the physical remains themselves to back these rumors up, I will not use these stories to argue my case.]
3. “Satellites should have photographed Mokele-mbembe long ago. They can photograph elephants on the African savannah, so there’s nowhere this animal could hide.”
Even the supportive skeptics in the comments here realize this argument is hardly airtight. Everyone’s aware that rain forests have a thick canopy, right? Savannahs don’t. Observing animals from above is considerably easier when there’s nothing in the way. Just like in any rain forest, the Congo Basin has plenty in the way.
(to be continued in “Answering Criticisms, section B”)