Deep Ancestry: Our Story

Anyone who is interested in family history, or anyone who has ever gone to a library or archive to undertake genealogical research knows that while the subject is an exciting one, the work can be tedious and the resulting picture often fuzzy.

This is where we stand with regards to family research writ large, that of modern humanity. To be sure, we have come a long way since we humans even became aware of the fact that we had a very long history, or a deep ancestry. Consider the day, now more than 180 years ago, when people went into a cave in Belgium and encountered remains later identified as belonging to a Neanderthal individual. Compare that against our current understanding of human evolution. How we got here is an interesting story and it is an interesting tale to relate,. Where we go from here is equally intriguing.

Here is part one: how did we get here?

Traditionally, we rely on three main sources of information when studying human origins, our origins. These sources are: the material remains of that past (including both fossil remains and man-made tools), genetics and comparative primatology. The latter refers to observation of current non-human primates and possible correlations between their habitat and behavior with the environment in which our ancestors once lived and their behavior. If there is one constant in the picture generated by these sources is that it is always being refined and updated. Such is the nature of scientific endeavor: it never stands still. Thankfully, our thirst for greater understanding is never slaked either. There is always more to investigate.

Material remains have been the backbone of paleoanthropological studies. After all, what could be a better illustration of human evolution than a fossil of an ancient ancestor, or a tool made by a distant relative of ours? By carefully plotting where these remains have been found, we can reconstruct a picture of human evolution, we can start to see where our earliest ancestors once arose, evolved and eventually migrated from. By studying their tools, we can see human inventiveness at work. At first this is a tediously slow process, but eventually we see it picking up pace to the point we are today: new gadgets developed on a daily basis.

For a while, as people were studying fossil human remains, others were investigating genetics. However, initially the practitioners of these two pursuits did not know of each other’s work, or, did not realize how their work could benefit from the other person’s insights. And so we see how Mendel and Darwin were contemporaries, but their respective scientific insights and breakthroughs did not cross over and inspire the other.

DNA rendering
Creative Commons License photo credit: ynse

Our genetic makeup is the result of millions of years of evolution.

Since the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, we have learned a lot about our genetic makeup. Since then, the chimp genome, gorilla genome, and the orangutan genome have been finished; by the way, the latter was sequenced in our own backyard here in Houston. This provides a nice platform to start comparing our genetic makeup with that of our close primate relatives, and find out where we differ, and, more interestingly, how similar we are below the surface. It turns out we are quite similar.

The difference 1% makes.

Differences, no matter how ostensibly small, remain important. One can be in awe about the fact that we share around 99% of genes with chimps. One could also turn that around and say “See how much difference 1% makes?” That difference, in turn, may help us figure out when in time we started to go our own way, after the split from a common ancestor. This is where the notion of a molecular clock comes in. This concept has been used to “to investigate several important issues, including the origin of modern humans, the date of the human/chimpanzee divergence, and the date of the Cambrian explosion.”

Thus we see in the literature that orangutans, with whom we share around 97 % of our DNA, split from the family tree around 16 to 15 million years ago. Humans and chimps became their own branches on the family tree around 6 to 5 million years ago.

As one researcher recently put it: “There remain signals of the distant past in DNA, and our approach is to use such signals to study the genetics of our ancestors.”

The concept of the molecular clock continues to be refined as our understanding of its potential and limitations has grown. For better or worse, however, it provides us with a tool to help situate major branching events on the family tree. This brings us to our own immediate past, our place in history, when modern humans appeared on the scene.

Modern Humans

Discoveries made in East Africa date the emergence of modern human beings to about 200,000 years ago. Two skulls, found in 1967 in Ethiopia were recently identified as the earliest known modern humans. While that makes all of us Africans, it data from mitochondrial DNA have suggested that our ancestors did not make it out of Africa until 60,000 years ago. The archaeological record seems to disagree, however. Man-made tools twice that age have recently been found in the Arabian Peninsula.

It is at times like these, when dates provided by genetics and archaeology diverge, that we hear voices criticizing the invalidity of this approach. What we will see happen, however, is that this apparent disjunction between two sets of data, will spur on researchers to find where the source of this disparity lies and resolve it. Were that to be impossible then we would have to go back to the drawing board and rethink our ideas about human evolution and the timing of critical events related to it.

Now for part two: where do we go from here?

As people become more mobile, we are now finding our mates much further away than we did just a few generations ago. This means that it will become more difficult to check that box on the census form asking for our ethnicity. It also means that we are slowly becoming more homogenized. Indigenous cultures are disappearing and language follow suit.

To get an idea of how exhilarating and mind-boggling this pursuit of science can be, I would like to invite the reader to attend an upcoming lecture.

On March 7, the Houston Museum of Natural Science will host Dr. Spencer Wells, lead scientist of the Genographic Project.

His lecture, entitled “Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genomic Project,” is brought to us by the Leakey Foundation. Dr. Wells is an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society and Frank H. T. Rhodes Class of 1956 Professor at Cornell University. Dr. Wells will share with us how the Genographic Project, using data from hundreds of thousands of people, including members of the general public, the Genographic Project is deciphering the migratory routes followed by early humans as they populated the Earth.

I look forward to this lecture, and hope to see many of you at the museum that evening.

In the meantime, a pop quiz.

Q: What do the following individuals have in common?

Brazilian indian chiefs, Kaiapos tribe, during a collective interview.
Left to right: Raony (state of Mato Grosso), Kaye, Kadjor, Panara (Pará)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Valter Campanato, Agência Brasil (ABr). April 17, 2005
Ethiopian Orthodox Christian woman – Lalibela, Ethiopia
Creative Commons License photo credit: Dirk Van Tuerenhout
Lake Titicaca – Uros people
Creative Commons License photo credit: Dirk Van Tuerenhout

A: They are us. We are them. This is us.

Storm Chaser: Tornadoes

Tornado and Lightning
Creative Commons License photo credit: tlindenbaum

Last night, severe storm researcher Tim Samaras gave a thrilling lecture on what it’s like to head towards a tornado – when everyone else is running the other way. He also discussed why he does it – and what can be learned from the data he gathers. He was kind enough to share with us here, as well:

I’m excited to visit the Houston area to talk about something I’m most passionate about: storm chasing! Actually, I’m more than just a storm chaser; I measure these destructive tornadoes by placing special probes in their path. While dangerous to do, the data gathered from my tornado probes is extremely valuable to help us understand how powerful tornadoes really are.

For those who are wondering if real storm chasing and instrument deployments inside tornadoes are similar to the movie Twister, I have disappointing news for you. They are very different. There are no sisters, sidewinders, fingers of God, and above all, no breaks for steak and eggs at aunt Edna’s house. We don’t drive through corn fields, not worrying about where to fold the maps, and most of all, the tornadoes look…well…real.

The probes I deploy in the paths of tornadoes measure the pressure, temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction of tornado cores as they pass over the probes. We also have special probes containing video cameras that provide visualization of tornado cores as tornadoes pass overhead. Our research fielding begins on May 1, and runs through the end of July, and we’re teamed up with Iowa State University and the National Geographic Society.

Our field research program is called TWISTEX (Tactical Weather Instrumented Sampling in Tornadoes EXperiment). You can read more about this groundbreaking program, and follow along with our past and future missions here. I also have a personal website, and it contains information on how to get a copy of some of the most dramatic tornado footage ever captured.

Looking at the local forecast, it looks like we have a chance of some strong thunderstorms right here in the Houston area this afternoon and evening. Certainly quite a treat for us, as we left snow flurries back in Denver yesterday!

The Science of Paleoart

Have you ever looked at a fossilized bone, then at a colorful mural depicting the diversity of prehistoric life and wondered how scientists get from one to the other? Julius Csotonyi – and many other paleoartists like him – work with scientists and information from their latest discoveries to bring fossils to life for visitors to museums around the world. Csotonyi created the stunning mural on display in Dinosaur Mummy CSI: Cretaceous Science Investigation – a work of paleoart that presents a vivid look into the life of Leonardo, a brachylophosaurus who died, mummified, fossilized and  – 77 million years later – gives us an unprecedented peek into what made dinosaurs like Leonardo work. Here, Csotonyi shares how he created this gorgeous work of science-art.

An occasional quasi-reptilian hiss of foam and the primordial roar of the bean grinder punctuate the constant brewing of conversation and coffee. The sounds of the cafe form a stimulating sonic backdrop to the dance of stylus on drawing tablet as the digital portrayal of a prehistoric landscape slowly takes shape on the glowing LCD display in front of me. The life of a paleoartist has changed a lot since the days when Rudolph Zallinger slaved away for years on his monumental “Age of Reptiles” mural on 110 feet of wall space in the Yale Peabody Museum.

Although my choice of work setting is probably not typical of most in my field, my local Canadian cafe on Winnipeg’s lively Corydon Avenue serves as an inspiring setting, keeping me supplied with stimulating servings of java and occasional breaks for friendly human contact. However, the relaxed setting conceals an undercurrent of focused work (bordering on the obsessive, even, as my friends will no doubt tell you) and tenacious network of interdisciplinary cooperation on which restorations of prehistoric life have always been based. Passersby who glance over my shoulder at my developing digital illustrations often ask how I know how to depict these creatures of a bygone era. I’m sure they often leave with the profound relief of having escaped mostly intact, and the regret of having asked such a seemingly innocent question. And now that I have your undivided attention…

Digging Science that Rocks

It all begins with a rough sketch. No, back up. It all begins with the team member of a paleontological dig spotting a fossilized bone sticking out of the ground. Fast-forward through the veritable blood, sweat and tears of painstaking work to recover and prepare the marvellously preserved fossil, which yields a boon of information. Next comes the time to share the exciting discovery with the rest of the world; in this case, in the form of a special exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

To the Drawing Board!

Enter the paleoartist (a term coined by paleoartist Mark Hallett to describe an artist who specializes in restoring prehistoric organisms.) Although the displayed fossil will certainly speak for itself (in the “oohs” and “ahs” of entranced museum visitors,) it is my job to help fill in patrons’ imaginations of what it may have been like to stand on Montana’s floodplains 77-incomprehensible-million summers ago to gaze at a landscape no human being will ever be able to photograph. As a dinosaur enthusiast, I am awed by the thought of the sight: huge birdlike reptiles ambling along the hot, humid riverine landscape amid stands of redwood-like trees and fern thickets, stalked by stealthy bipedal predators, barely glimpsed as fleeting wraiths in the shadows. My intent is to try to open as realistic a portal as possible to such a vista. This effort requires keen attention to detail and close collaboration with scientists, museum exhibit designers and project managers. Far from simple guesswork and reliance on imagination, the process of creating a scientifically accurate mural for a museum involves not only artistic skill but also interdisciplinary cooperation. On this whirlwind tour of such a project, I will therefore gloss over most of the artistic techniques involved, and focus instead mainly on the process of incorporating scientific knowledge into the artistic endeavour.

To the drawing board, then. I began with discussions with Joe Iacuzzo (Leonardo Project manager with the Judith River Foundation) and Lex Vanderende (exhibit designer at the Houston Museum of Natural Science) who outlined what they had in mind for the layout and content of the exhibit: the number of illustrations, their preliminary sizes and their general foci. Their experience and advice were invaluable to help me plan out images that will capture people’s interest.

A paleoartist must use reliable reference material for their restorations. Therefore, I first read scientific articles on the animals, plants and geography that a time travellor would encounter if they were to visit the Campanian (a time period during the late Cretaceous) in Montana, where Leonardo, the Brachylophosaurus that is the star of the show, was found. Several search engines exist for obtaining scientific publications; although many are accessible mainly through university library systems, a reasonably good one that is available to the general public is Scirus. One can direct it to search only within journal articles, several of which are available freely on the web. Numerous emails and telephone conversations with experts such as David Trexler (paleontologist with Montana’s new Great Plains Dinosaur Museum)  and Dr. Bob Bakker (Curator of Paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science) were invaluable, for they helped complement my knowledge with relevant paleontology, and they shared exciting new research results. Visits to museums such as the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology to observe articulated skeletons of relevant species from various angles also helped.

Roughing It

My scientific background came in handy during image planning. I am trained as an ecologist, one who studies how animals, plants and microorganisms interact with each other and with their environment. This background helped me to plan the layout of the mural in order to maximize its educational value by illustrating numerous ecological concepts. Although my role in this project is principally as an artist, I also helped to write the museum’s interpretive text for the illustrations.

Now that I had a mental image of the environment that I wished to restore, I drew rough sketches of the proposed layout for each illustration. These sketches showed just the planned positions and poses of animals and plants. Computer technology greatly facilitated the creation of these rough sketches, as well as the subsequent tennis match of review-and-revision that ensued between the paleontological experts and me as the roughs were perfected. I created all of my work digitally using a stylus and drawing tablet connected to a computer that runs graphics programs. In this way, revisions were easy to make, which greatly sped up the process. I posted revised images daily on my website, on a special page accessible only to exhibit team members, and this precluded the need to actually shuttle back and forth between the experts. It also allowed them to conduct their reviews of my work within their own schedules.

Fleshing Out the Dinosaurs

 

Once the layout of the rough sketch was finalized, I began the process of rendering the images in full detail. Anatomical accuracy was paramount. I began with a carefully proportioned drawing of the skeleton of a dinosaur (e.g. the Brachylophosaurus, illustrated here), which was based on reconstructions of dinosaur skeletons by palaeontologists. I then fleshed out the skeleton, outlining the body’s shape as defined by organs and muscles. How do I decide where to place dinosaur muscles and what shapes to draw them?

Palaeontologists decipher the scars on dinosaur bones to interpret where and how many muscles were attached to those bones, while comparisons with the muscular systems of living animals suggest how those muscles likely pulled bones against each other to allow the animals to move. Published scientific articles helped, but palaeontologists involved in the project also created custom sketches of inferred muscle configurations for me to use as reference, based on the most up-to-date research, ensuring that accuracy is maintained to the best of current knowledge. Also, the mummified dinosaur in this exhibit, nicknamed “Leonardo,” is so complete that some of its muscles are actually preserved in full relief, making their restoration even easier.

After delineating the musculature, I painted in the dinosaur’s skin. The exciting thing about a fossil such as Leonardo, the Brachylophosaurus at the heart of the Dinosaur Mummy CSI exhibit is the superior level of its skin preservation – nearly 90% of its skin texture is fossilized, for which it holds a Guinness World Record! This allowed me to accurately depict the different textures of scaly integument on each part of its body. Because I painted each and every scale, the process was quite time-consuming and required considerable patience. Lots of coffee on hand also helped, for which I thank the talented baristas of my local cafe on Corydon Avenue!


Plants: More than Just a Backdrop

It is just as important to accurately portray the vegetation and landscape in a mural as it is the animals. I needed to be careful to depict only the groups of plants that palaeobotanists (scientists who study plants from extinct ecosystems) have found in the relevant geological formations. For example, I avoided including anachronisms such as lawns of grass; terrestrial grasses appear to not have yet evolved in North America 77 million years ago, and the land was instead dominated by ferns, horsetails, conifers and other relatively primitive plants and also a few early flowering plants such as magnolias.

However, reed-like plants did inhabit waterways. So it is important to exercise care not only in the types of organisms to include in an illustration, but also in their placement within the landscape. So much is known about the plants, animals and landscapes of this prehistoric setting that I could visually reconstruct the ecosystem with considerable confidence. Indeed, with the wealth of knowledge that palaeontologists and palaeobotanists communicate to paleoartists these days, we see increasingly careful attention to detail toward placing dinosaurs into their correct ecological contexts.

A Paleo-Photo Shoot

Finally, one of the greatest benefits of digital media in paleoart today is that it allows the creation of images with a truly photorealistic feel, bridging the gap between imagination and reality more completely than ever before. Furthermore, the completion of a 64-foot-long museum-quality mural in only a few months was only possible because of the high efficiency of techniques such as photographic compositing.

To create the main outer chamber mural with a photo-realistic feel, I packed up my digital SLR camera and travelled to places with appropriate plant species and landscapes, such as estuaries (where rivers meet the ocean, e.g. Cowichan Bay) and humid forests (e.g. Cathedral Grove). From the thousands of photos that I shot (under appropriate lighting conditions, I had planned out in the rough sketch) I extracted the necessary components, such as plants, and combined them in new ways that were consistent with Leonardo’s landscape. Although not all the plant species are exactly the same as existed in the Mesozoic, I still took care to keep the major groups (e.g. ferns) correct. In some cases, even the genus of a plant was accurate (e.g. Metasequoia, the dawn redwood, the dominant tree in Leonardo’s habitat). Once the landscape was thus prepared, dinosaurs were added by a combination of painting and compositing.

Throughout the painting and photographic compositing process, I was continually open to palaeontologists’ suggestions for revision. The end result is a painting that comes as close to restoring an ancient environment as it is currently possible. The digital medium in which I created it also ensures that the image may be easily updated as new information outdates some aspects of it. This would have been more difficult to do with traditional (non-digital) illustration techniques.

In the meantime, I hope that visitors to the HMNS will enjoy the exhibit!

Julius T. Csotonyi is a paleoartist and wildlife artist with an incurable enthusiasm for dinosaurs. Working closely with paleontologists, he has created the murals for the current HMNS special exhibit, “Dinosaur Mummy CSI: Cretaceous Science Investigation.” He has also produced work for several museums, such as the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, and publishers, such as the National Geographic Society. He maintains an online gallery of his workJulius is also trained as a scientist, with a M.Sc. in Ecology and Environmental Biology, and is currently completing a Ph.D. in Microbiology. When he is not illustrating wildlife, he now researches and lectures about the ecology and physiology of bacteria from weird and wonderful places such as deep ocean hydrothermal vents and colorful terrestrial springs twice as salty as the ocean. In this blog, he describes how he incorporated scientific knowledge into the creation of the HMNS exhibit illustrations.