Draw Dinos Right!

Someone asked me: What are you?  Science Guy or Artist?


Leonardo da Vinci said: “I don’t understand a thing ‘till I draw it.” When you draw, your finger tips teach your brain what’s important.

Cleaning Bones & Feeling Dinosaur Muscles

Most fossil-cleaners are good artists.  As they chip away the rock, their finger tips record each bump and hole, every place that’s smooth, every place that’s rough. Expert fossil-cleaners dream about the fossil – they see it rotating, turning every which way.

Let’s say we have an ankylosaur skeleton, fresh from the field. We clean off the rock slowly. Every time we have a square inch clean, we paint thin glue on it (so it doesn’t crack and fall apart). As we do, we make sketches of the bone. That helps plan the complete cleaning. It’s X-ray vision, sort of.  As we sketch the bone we can draw in the parts of the specimen that are still buried in the rock.

For instance: let’s say we have the upper left arm (humerus). And we have the elbow end cleaned, but the shoulder end is still in the rock. A sketch will help us imagine where the bone is and how to chip the rock off so we don’t break anything accidentally.

Putting Muscles and Ligaments Back On

Fossils from a Dimetrodon hip bone.

Texture of fossil bone is important:

Rough spots full of squiggly ridges are where tough ligaments and tendons attached to the bone.

Smooth spots are where soft muscle attached.

Bones with big pits are armor plate – in life the pits were filled with a thick layer of finger-nail like skin.

At the Zoo with Brachylophosaurus

Now let’s shift to Leonardo, the Brachylophosaurus,  the dino-mummy now visiting the Houston Museum of Natural Science. I wanted some drawings of the critter, and to prepare I spent a lot of time watching live animals.

I sketch live critters in the zoo all the time.  And I make diagrams of the heads, bodies and legs of skeletons from species that are still alive today. I can’t imagine a live Brachylophosaurus  or any other dinosaur without studying rhinos and elephants,  ostriches and cassowaries, giant tortoises and water buffalo.

Tweensy Gator Hands

Most plant-eating dinos have hands like the one in the little vegetarian dinosaur Hypsilophodon.  There were five fingers in this animal and most other herbivores. Carnivores sometimes have  three, as in Velociraptor,  or two as in T. rex  and all members of the rex family.  In all dinos, meat-eater and plant-eater,  only the inner three fingers had claws. In herbivores the claws are blunt and hoof-like. Carnivores tend to have sharp-tipped claws. In all dinos, the outer two fingers had no claws at all.

The five fingers/three claws is standard equipment for most ancestors of dinos too.

Creative Commons License photo credit: James Jordan

Who has this  five/three  hand in a zoo today?  Only in one clan – gators and crocs. Lizards and turtles have claws on all five fingers.  Crocs & gators have three claws, five fingers, no claw on outer two. Watch out when you draw dino hands – a lot of books make the mistake of giving a dino  four or five claws. Even the movie “Jurassic Park” makes that error with the Triceratops. Don’t YOU do it! Remember: five fingers but only three claws in most plant-eating dinosaurs.

No Bowling for Duck-Bills

Duck-bill dinos have a puzzling variation on the basic veggie-saur hand. The outer two fingers are fine – no claw or hoof. But there are only four fingers in total. Which is missing? The thumb. Duck-bills are the only dinos without any thumb. That’s strange because the thumb is usually one of the strongest fingers in all other dinosaurs. Even T. rex  has a thumb. There’s a predatory dino with just one finger – Mononychus – and that single finger is, you guessed it, the thumb.

One result of being thumb-less is that when you’re choosing a bowling team, you don’t want a duck-bill. They can’t hold the ball. Continue reading

What did Leonardo da Vinci eat?

We all know what he painted, invented, and thought – but in this fascinating guest post, Merrianne Timko lets us in on what fueled Leonardo da Vinci’s fabled genius – a sneak peek into the Museum’s upcoming Cultural Feast.

Snoot fun
Creative Commons License photo credit: Phil Romans

Many of the foods we eat today –  including tomatoes, corn, potatoes, and chocolate, were “discovered” by explorers to the New World, and introduced into the European diet only after Leonardo’s death in 1519.  

Leonardo’s manuscripts for the time when he lived in Florence from 1500-1506 provide us with several lists of food items which are often interpreted as shopping lists or accounting entries for his household.  Although not all of the entries are in Leonardo’s handwriting, items listed include: good beef, eggs, wine, meat, mulberries, mushrooms, salad, fruit, flour, bran, herbs, buttermilk, and melon. 

Although Leonardo designed stage sets and mechanical devices for The Duke of Milan’s court banquets – which were renowned for their sumptuous dishes – Leonardo’s writings reflect moderation regarding food and wine.  One excerpt reads:

To keep in health this rule is wise.
Eat only when you want and sup light.
Chew well, and let what you take be well cooked and simple…
(Codex Atlanticus)

Some of Leonardo’s  manuscripts suggest that he may have preferred a more vegetarian type of diet, although vegetarianism was somewhat controversial during his time period. 

Creative Commons License photo credit: filologanoga

Leonardo’s interest in diet may be seen in a list of books that he owned around 1499, including an edition of Bartolomeo Sacchi’s work On Right Pleasure first published in 1470.   Sacchi,  perhaps better known as Platina, relied heavily on ancient Greek and Roman writings regarding the medical properties of food, and proper consumption.  Thus, Leonardo’s mention of parsley, mint, wild thyme, burnt bread, vinegar, pepper, salt, may not simply be a recipe for a salad, but a remedy for a stomach condition. 

Drawings of edible plants, including blackberries, are found in some of Leonardo’s manuscripts.  In addition, he used citron trees, olive trees, fruits, and nuts as the subjects of some of his fables. 

Reference should also be made to Leonardo’s Last Supper painted in the refectory of S. Maria delle Grazie in Milan – the most well-known depiction of a subject that became popular during the late 15th century in Italian art. 

With few Biblical details regarding what was eaten at the Last Supper, Leonardo depicted a menu largely of his choosing.  Despite the poor preservation of this fresco, a scholar has recently identified one of the dishes served to be grilled eel with orange slices – a popular Renaissance dish of the time, and perhaps a favorite of the Duke of Milan, or even Leonardo da Vinci himself!

Ms. Timko has combined her background in art history and archaeology with her interest in food and wines in order to research topics in Culinary History. She’ll share her knowledge of the foods da Vinci and his contemporaries would have enjoyed during the upcoming Cultural Feast, Leonardo’s Renaissance Table.

Leonardo: Parachute of the Past


Just to confirm that Leonardo da Vinci is STILL way ahead of his time, his 1480s design for the parachute is making  the news again in 2008. Olivier Vietti-Teppa, a Swiss daredevil, just recently became the first person to successfully reach the ground using Leonardo’s unique pyramid-shaped design for the chute.

Vietti-Teppa only major change to Leonardo’s design was to leave out the wooden frame, because he was concerned about the added weight.

If you have not yet made it to “Leonardo da Vinci: Man, Inventor, Genius,” currently on view at the museum, come on by and check out the parachute for yourself, along with dozens more of Leonardo’s radical innovations. As far as we know, nobody has taken to the seas in a full-sized version of Leo’s warship that attacks other vessels with a giant scythe, so if you get busy, you can build that one and make the news yourself.


Be like Noah… with a vengence

Neon Leon: Highlighting da Vinci’s Genius


Unlike others of his time living in black and white, Leonard da Vinci’s world was neon. Da Vinci’s universal genius gave him a unique perspective that set him apart from everyone around him – allowing him to become a botanist, sculptor, musician, writer, anatomist, and engineer. Set your mind free and step into da Vinci’s world with the Houston Museum of Natural Science at our Family Festival, Neon Leon: Highlighting da Vinci’s Genius, on April 26th. Leonardo’s interests were incredibly diverse; so we have devised a plethora of activities that reflect the fun side of his pursuits! Show off your artistic side in our Chalk Block Battle Royale, fly a helicopter, break codes, build a parachute, write calligraphy, learn about Italy and the Renaissance, and taste some cool and creamy gelato.

Get NEON this Saturday, April 26th, from 11am – 2pm. FREE to the public!

This festival does not include admission into the Museum exhibits.