Examining the Aftermath of Hurricane Ike

Today’s guest blogger is Bryan Carlile, an environmental cartographer and photographer. Bryan will join a panel of experts at HMNS on Jan 21 at 6 p.m. to discuss the threats that affect our Texas Gulf Coast. In the article below, Bryan discusses his interest in geospatial technologies and how he was involved in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike.

Growing up, while kids around me pretended to be soldiers and football stars, I was recreating the great adventures of discovery in my backyard.  I imagined myself as a member of the Lewis & Clark expedition, discovering new worlds and mapping virgin territories.  Nothing has ever been as fascinating or exciting to me as the natural world.  I grew up with this obsessive passion for science, never knowing that it could become a profession.  I did not believe it was possible to make a career out of studying maps, weather patterns and taking pictures of the animals and landscapes that enthralled me.  After all, who gets to list ‘fun’ in their job description when they’re grown up?

As a geospatial technologies consultant my life is full of doing what I love.  I find myself at the center of modern technology, focused on both ancient and developing patterns of our incredible planet Earth.  Every day I combine geographic, temporal and spatial information to assist in the planning, decision-making and operational needs of many types of organizations.  I create everything from aerial maps of potential corporate sites to defined pollution boundaries for state and local agencies.  I am regularly involved in archeology, biology, cartography, ecology, forestry, geology, hydrology and real estate.

Working in Texas definitely keeps me busy.  Because it is such an enormous state, it encompasses many environments and endless potential.  Settled in Houston, I can study urban sprawl, the plains of the Hill Country and the fascinating Gulf Coast.  In 2008, when the coast was hit by the monumental hurricane named Ike, I was called upon as a first responder.  I boarded a helicopter and traveled to Galveston, prepared to assist when nature had dealt one of its worst blows.

As I hovered in the Galveston sky, searching for survivors and emergencies to report, I realized the gravity of what had occurred.  Nature left me awestruck.  I knew very few aircraft were allowed in this area, particularly not press helicopters, and because of this the average Texan would never know how hard their homeland was hit.  It felt important to me to capture this moment as a witness to the power of natural disasters and with the hope that maybe scientists could study these images to learn a little bit more about how the natural world works.  For the next several days my time on the helicopter was spent concentrating on obtaining the best aerial photographs I could.  Aerial photography has always been a hobby of mine and there was no better time to put my skills to good use.

Educating ourselves about nature and natural disasters is one of the most important things humans can do.  Our planet is a precious resource and the more we learn about the way it works the more we can do to keep it healthy and happy.  My next adventure suddenly seemed obvious: What better way to learn about these images than to present them to oceanographers, photographers and natural scientists?  Better yet, what if their findings could be discussed among not only each other, but residents of the area that was so affected?

Thursday, Jan. 21 at HMNS, an assembled team from across the country will join together to assess the impact of Hurricane Ike as well as the fragile state of our unique and wonderful ecosystem.  The panel is composed of experts that can educate all of us about the Texas Gulf Coast and the effect of such a historically strong storm.  Beside me will sit environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn, Oceanography professor John B. Anderson, former director of Texas Parks & Wildlife Andrew Sansom, and the former chief scientist of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Center for Coastal Geology Abby Sallenger.  I have no doubt that I will learn as much as I can teach at this symposium, and my hope is for interested and concerned Houstonians to join us.  Let’s educate ourselves about the Texas Gulf Coast.  I’d love to see you there.

Come check out our symposium on the Texas Coast at HMNS on Jan. 21 at 6 p.m. Make sure that while you are here on Jan 21. you sign up to win an aerial tour of Galveston by helicopter.

It’s Easy Being Green

s-postWhen you think of ecology for kids, you probably think of pine cones, bird feeders and planting seeds. Not us!

For the 2009 camp season, I am helping to write the curriculum for a new Xplorations Summer Camp called It’s Easy Being Green. 

So, when WE think of ecology for kids, we think solar-powered electromagnets, mini composters, the nitrogen cycle and practical ways little kids can make a big difference. Our campers are going to investigate solar, wind and water power as well as learning how every day decisions make a long-term impact.

My favorite activity so far is not particularly scientific, but it is super fun – a no-sew grocery bag made from an old t-shirt. I am also pretty excited about the day that the campers are going to investigate water ecology and oil spills.

To find out how you can sign up for this or any of our Xplorations Summer Camps, visit www.hmns.org today!

Also, if you are interested in going green, join us as we celebrate Earth Day in the museum tomorrow – if you hug a tree, you’ll get a free sapling to take home!

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.