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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Illustration of ancient flora
Mary Parrish

Question: What is it like working with scientists to make reconstructions like this Cretaceous ecosystem?

Answer: Preparing a scientific reconstruction of an extinct ecosystem often requires the collaboration of many specialists who work together to turn associated, but often fragmented, fossils found in a particular locality into a fully rendered scene. There are many ideas that need to be discussed and decisions that need to be made. Sometimes different scientists interpret the same fossil material in different ways. Then, my preliminary sketches become a vehicle for discussion and debate.

Question: How did you decide how to represent the animals and plants?

Answer: I researched each species by studying the fossil collections at the National Museum of Natural History, reading scientific and popular literature, and listening to verbal descriptions provided by the scientists. We discussed various behaviors and interactions between the extinct animals, and how to represent whole plants known only from fossil leaves. I then studied related organisms living today at the National Zoo, the U.S. Botanic Gardens, in the wild, and described in published materials. I developed sketches for each organism, and these were critiqued and corrected by the project experts.

Question: What is the hardest thing about reconstructing dinosaurs?

Answer: I try to paint what a scientist is seeing in his or her mind's eye. This image may have taken the scientist years of research to formulate, whereas I am often thinking about the particular subject matter for the very first time when I begin a new reconstruction.

Another difficulty is that new dinosaur fossils are being discovered continually, and new discoveries can impact the interpretations of previously discovered material. I need to work with experts who are up on the most recent discoveries in order to ensure that my work represents current knowledge and scientific interpretation.

Question: How did you decide what colors to paint the dinosaurs?

Answer: There is almost no evidence of color or color patterns preserved in the fossil record. Therefore, almost any color or pattern may be used. I generally use a conservative palette of earth tones, with a few hints of bright colors here and there to provide aesthetic contrast and interest.

Question: How did you know how to represent the environmental features of the area?

Answer: I needed to understand if the environment was wet or dry; if there were mountains in the area or if the terrain was flat; if there were rivers or tidal flats in the vicinity; if the temperature was warm or cold. I relied on the scientists' interpretations of the fossil and geologic evidence to answer these questions.

Question: How do you organize all these elements to create a realistic and pleasing composition?

Answer: The illustration included a number of small plants and animals. In order for animals such as the small baby theropod and nodosaur to be easily seen, they needed to be in the foreground. The sauropod is so large that in order for it to be seen in its entirety, it needed to be deep in the background. In order to see the shape of an entire tree, it would need to be in the far background. In order to see its leaves clearly, it would need to be in the foreground. The rules of linear perspective dictate the placement of animals and plants in a reconstruction of an ecosystem, and yet these organisms must also appear in their proper natural environment. All scientific considerations must be represented in the composition, while still trying to follow the rules of aesthetics. Not an easy job!

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