Weird (Careers in) Science: Scientific Illustrator Julius Csotonyi finds inspiration in his own backyard

It’s time for another installment of Weird (Careers in) Science!

Today, we’d like to introduce you to a life-long artist who found a way to pair his interest in art with a fascination with all things scientific. How? Let’s find out.

Meet Julius T. Csotonyi. With degrees in biology, microbiology and ecology, Csotonyi found his way back to his love of visual art when he began using his scientific background to create commercial illustrations. Little by little, through word of mouth and his work for various institutions (including Alberta, Canada’s Royal Tyrell Museum), Csotonyi found himself with an unexpected career.

Using personal photographs of landscapes from around the globe, his own imagination and a dash of ingenuity, Csotonyi creates life-like reenactments of prehistoric scenes, rife with drama and vividly executed.

Where most artists have the luxury of live models, Csotonyi has to rely on scientific evidence to stay true to forms that are long-extinct. And although much of his process involves in-depth consultations with paleontologists to ensure accuracy, Csotonyi looks to the modern world for inspiration.

One spot of inspiration can be found in the artist’s dog, a Corgi/Jack Russell mix called Wiki. Using digital layering, Csotonyi has used Wiki’s fur as the basis for the fur of large mammals he draws, and Wiki’s postures as inspiration, too!

wiki + dide
Julius’ mural of Didelphodon was inspired, in part, by the posture of his dog Wiki. A Didelphodon skeleton in the hall is mounted in the same pose.

“Wiki was instrumental as a reference source for fur texture and posture in my creation of the image of Tazzie the Didelphodon for the terrestrial Cretaceous mural,” Csotonyi says. Wiki helped Csotonyi capture the begging pose of Tazzie, whose skeleton is mounted in a similar upright posture, holding a clam. “It’s just a happy coincidence that Wiki seems to think she’s a 70-plus million-year-old mammalian mollusk terror!”

Julius poses in front of his favorite mural in the hall — a Dimetrodon locked in battle. Fifteen of Julius’ creations are on display at our new Hall of Paleontology.

Csotonyi creates his images digitally using both traditional techniques and digital compositing, which makes it easy to make revisions in the event of new scientific evidence.

“There’s a lot less guesswork nowadays,” Csotonyi says. “Muscle placement, even skin textures are known. We have more complete skeletons to work with and can even infer color.”

Our own mummified Triceratops, Lane, is a perfect example of the type of specimen that makes Csotonyi’s job a lot easier. Before Lane’s discovery, there were no Triceratops skin impressions available to give artists an accurate picture of scale formation. Now Lane’s skin has proven that Triceratops had much larger scales than other dinosaurs, and the quality of the specimen means artists can even see specialty structures like knobs and quills.

“The key is to illustrate things as realistically as possible, applying as much known science as possible,” says Csotonyi. “It’s more about accuracy than expression.”

To see more of Csotonyi’s creations, visit the new Hall of Paleontology today!

Genghis Khan & The Battle of Ain Jalut

Reading history never gets boring. Why make it up if one can read up on the real stuff? (There are exceptions to this, but in general I would argue that this is true).

Consider the battle of Ain Jalut.

The year is 1260AD. The place is in modern Israel. The combatants were the Mamluks and the Mongols. On the sidelines: the Crusaders and the eyes of Europe. Firsts: this was the first decisive defeat of the Mongols and it was one of the first battles in which firearms were used (yes, firearms in 1260 AD).

Mongolian warriors were known for their skill
with the bow & arrow – such as the one pictured
here. See it on display in the world premiere
exhibition Genghis Khan, opening Feb. 27 at HMNS.

In 1260, thirty-three years after the death of Genghis Khan, a mighty army was poised to strike into Egypt. Led by Hülegü Khan, one of Genghis Khan’s grandsons, this army had swept into Iran, Iraq and Syria laying waste to cities like Baghdad, Aleppo and Damascus.  Their goal was to expand the Mongol empire as far as they could. Upon the capture of these famous cities, envoys were sent to the court of the Mamluk leader Qutuz in Cairo.

The envoys brought with them a demand for unconditional surrender. Qutuz was urged to “Hasten your reply before the fire of war is kindled… Resist and you will suffer the most terrible catastrophes. We will shatter your mosques and reveal the weakness of your God and then we will kill your children and your old men together.”

Qutuz refused to yield. He ordered the Mongol envoys to be beheaded and went on to prepare for war. He faced a Mongol army of more than 300,000 extremely mobile and battle-hardened soldiers. Then the unexpected happened. Word reached the Mongol army that the Great Khan, Möngke, son of Genghis Khan, had died. According to tradition, all princes had to return to elect a successor. The bulk of the Mongol army withdrew, leaving a much more modest force of 20,000 behind to tackle Egypt. The odds had improved tremendously for Qutuz and his cause. Because of this changing situation, he decided to go on the offensive.

A Mongolian siege, depicted in a mural that will
be on display in the world premiere exhibition
Genghis Khan, opening Feb. 27 at HMNS.

On July 26, 1260, the Mamluk army marched northeast. The Mongol leader took his army to meet them. The armies met at a place called Ain Jalut (“the Spring of Goliath”), in the Plain of Esdraelon. This plain was bordered on the south by Mount Gilboa and on the north by the hills of Galilee. Ideal ambush country, it turned out. Qutuz ordered the bulk of his troops to hide in the hills, while the rest of his army moved toward the Mongols.

The Mamluk general in charge of the troops who had engaged the Mongols ordered a retreat at one point. Whether this was a genuine order, caused by the ferocity of the Mongol attack, or a strategic feint, is still up for debateit seems. However, the end result was that this withdrawal drew the Mongols into the area where the bulk of the Mamluk army lay in wait. The Mamluk heavy cavalry rode down from the hills and attacked the Mongol flanks. The retreating Mamluk army stopped and turned around as well. The battle was on.

At first the Mongols proved superior and started to envelop the Mamluk left flank. Qutuz rallied his troops and fate intervened again. The Mongol general was captured, causing the Mongols to experience their first defeat. They abandoned the battlefield, pursued by the Mamluks. Damascus and Aleppo were re-taken by Muslim forces.

Victor Lawson 'Crusader' (1850-1925)
Creative Commons License photo credit: puroticorico

This battle is important and interesting for many reasons. In some cases, one has to wonder “what if” the outcome had been different. The Mongol tide has reached its zenith. In the following years, Mongol attempts to avenge this defeat were rebuffed. Mamluk Egypt remained a force to be reckoned with in the Muslim world for another 200 years. Crusader forces played a minor role in these hostilities. They were very small, certainly in comparison with the overwhelming might of the Mongol army. Most of them were holed up in fortified positions, like the city of Acre. Realpolitikeventually caused the Crusaders to abandon a policy of neutrality and allow the Mamluk army on the march to come through their territory, camp and acquire provisions. Seeing a huge Muslim army camped outside the walls of their cities must have caused many a Crusader heartburn, to say the least.

The battle may also be one of the earliest in which firearms were said to have been used. These handheld devices were extremely primitive, but may have served a purpose of frightening the Mongolian cavalry with loud noises and smoke.

Unfortunately for Qutuz, all was not well in the end. Before he could return to Cairo for his triumphant entry, he was murdered by a close ally, who took over the reigns of his dominion. Without Qutuz’s decisive actions, however, the world would have looked very different today.

Learn more about Genghis Khan and the mighty Mongolian civilization he built in the world premiere exhibition Genghis Khan, opening Feb. 27 at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.