Thursday, February 4, 2021

Art History, Pat 2: Microbes

 Here’s another illustration inspired by the former Ruthven Museum, now the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History. This piece was inspired by the Pond Life diorama on the Ecology and Wildlife floor.

Life in a drop of water.


Algae and ciliates

A colony of Volvox and more microscopic algae.

I’d seen pictures of microbes before, but this diorama really got me to think about them as actual living organisms with unique niches in a functioning ecosystem. I imagined them as animals in a real world rather than just weird phots and drawings.

There is incredible diversity in microscopic life. The most prominent and photogenic critters, of course, are the adorable water-bears, and wheel-mouthed rotifers. But there are tons of strange, interesting living things that all tend to get mushed together under the blanket “Protists” or “Protozoa” label. Microbe classifications are constantly changing, but at present there are around seven major groups that include Euglenids, amoeba, ciliates, flagellates, and so on.

It's tempting to think of microbes as alien creatures. I have, in fact, used protozoans as inspirations for extraterrestrials in other art projects. But the truth is microscopic life is far more abundant on Earth than animals, plants, and other large organisms. They've been around a lot longer too. Life on Earth was primarily microscopic for about three-fourths of its history. It's only within the last billion years or so that macroscopic life evolved on our planet. So, really, WE are the alien newcomers (geologically-speaking) on their world.

By the way, you can get a print of this piece on my store.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Art History, Part 1: Speculative Radiodonts

While designing my illustrations, I often like to imagine them as informative displays in a natural history museum. Museums have been a huge influence on my creative life, and elements from the institutes I've visited frequently find their way into my work.
In college, I worked as a docent at the Ruthven Exhibit Museum at the University of Michigan (now known as the University of Michigan Natural History Museum). My dad had brought me to the museum many times as a kid, so the place held a particular fascination for me from an early age. Working there as an adult only increased my fondness since I actually understood the information in the glass cases.

The Alexander G. Ruthven Building, home to the Ruthven Exhibit Museum when I worked there in the early 2000s (the museum has now moved across the street to the Biological Sciences Building)

The exhibit I most loved from child- to adulthood, was the Life Through the Ages room, which consisted of seven detailed dioramas depicting life from the Cambrian, Ordovician, Devonian, Permian, Triassic, and Cretaceous.

I can still vividly remember what it felt like to venture into that room. There were no overhead lights so all illumination came solely from the dioramas. It was looking at tanks in an aquarium, or drifting through an ancient sea in a submersible, observing the seafloor through thick riveted portholes. As a kid, I always wished my bedroom looked like that, and even as an adult I have this persistent dream of someday making my living room into my own private diorama hall. Considering how big of an impression those displays made on me, it's no surprise that they've made their way into my art. Today I’ll talk about one of those piece. 

But first a little paleontological background. Radiodonts were a group of odd Paleozoic predators that include the famous Anomalocaris along with  stranger forms like Hurdia, Schinderhannes, and Amplectobelua.  Based on current research, radiodonts are believed to be most closely related to tardigrades and onychophorans, also known as, respectively, water bears and velvet worms. They are also thought to be related to a lineage that was ancestral to arthropods.

Radiodonts are characterized by:

1.1.)    Two spined Great Appendages on the front of their body. Several radiodont species are known only from these structures.

2.2.)    A ring-shaped mouth usually covered in plates, with small, pointed teeth around the opening, said to resemble a "pineapple ring". The name Radiodont, in fact, means “wheel teeth”.

3.3.)    Three armored plates on the head, which become large, scoop-like hoods in Hurdia and its relatives.

4.4.)    Rows of fin-like flaps along their sides that undulate up and down in sequence like the fins of a cuttlefish.

A representative group of radiodonts, which you can totally get as a t-shirt design right here.

Radiodonts were soft invertebrates lacking skeletons or hard shells that would readily fossilize. In order to be preserved, they had to be buried under rare special conditions, often in a sudden sediment slide that would leave the body in anoxic conditions where they wouldn’t decay. These burials also contain numerous other soft-bodied creatures, giving paleontologists a rare glimpse into an aspect of the prehistoric world that is absent from other sites. Fossil beds with this exceptional preservation are known as konservat-lagerstätten, German for “conserving storage-places”. They include the famous Burgess Shale of British Columbia, Canada; The Maotianshan Shales in Yunnan, China; the Ediacara Hills of South Australia; and the Mazon Creek fossil beds of Illinois in the US (from which came Illinois’ state fossil, the enigmatic Tullimonstrum, a creature I’ve played around with in a couple of my art pieces).

For decades radiodont fossils were known only from the Cambrian period. But in 2009 a single specimen of a radiodont, Schinderhannes bartelsi, was discovered in the Devonian-era Hunsrück Slate of Germany. This extended the temporal range of this group by millions of years. It also provided a tantalizing hint at a hidden diversity of Great Appendage creatures that have either not been preserved in the fossil record, or not been unearthed yet.

Schinderhannes fired the furnace of my imagination. I’ve always had a strong interest in speculative biology and paleontology, and my mind was filled with ideas about what these “lost” radiodonts might have been like.

Hermit Anomalocaris

Here's where I get back to my experiences at the Ruthven Museum. The first speculative radiodont I designed was the Hermit Anomalocarid above. The design, layout, and even color palette of this piece was inspired by a diorama of a Cretaceous seafloor full of ammonites, belemnites and other cephalopods,. The look of the Hermit, especially, is based on the giant Placenticeras model that dominates this scene.

The Cretaceous diorama

Placenticeras peaking out of the algae.

The museum's Ordovician diorama also had a significant influence on this piece, particularly the look of the crinoid forest surrounding my creature. The main focus of this diorama is a pair of Endoceras, ancient straight-shelled relatives of the chambered nautilus. One of them has flipped over a trilobite and is in the process of devouring it- inspiring my Hermit Anomalocarids' attack on a horseshoe crab relative.. When I was real young, I recall that this model would actually move its tentacles up and down when you stepped on a pad in front of the diorama. The mechanism broke at some point before I got to college and was never fixed. Most of the people I've mentioned this feature to do not remember it, but I swear it was true!

The Ordovician diorama

The nautilus-relative Endoceras devouring a trilobite.

The Ruthven Museum had a ton of exhibits that influenced my artwork. I'll talk more about other pieces in future posts.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Review: Register Prehistoria

Mention prehistoric animals and a person’s thoughts will most likely go to dinosaurs. Then perhaps to the more popular Pleistocene animals like mammoths, sabertooth cats, giant ground sloths. Maybe a fossil enthusiast will think of ammonites and trilobites.

But there is so much more diversity to the 4 billion years of life on Earth. Piles and piles of creatures deserving more attention. That’s where Stanton Fink’s Register Prehistorica comes in.

Fink’s tome, which doubles as a coloring book, showcases an eclectic mix of trilobites, pterosaurs, mammals, echinoderms, amphibians, and even stranger beasts. The book covers a temporal range from the dawn of multicellular life in the Ediacaran all the way to the 1800s.

Fink gives each creature its own character with interesting anecdotes about unusual behavior, history of discovery, or odd name origins. See, for example, the trilobite Triproetus bonbon- whose species name refers to the French chocolate candies- because the creature’s extremely well-preserved fossils were a “treat” to discover. Or the fearsome mesonychid mammal Ankalagon saurognathus, which was named after a dragon from JRR Tolkien’s Silmarillion.

Animal reconstructions are meticulously detailed, with lavish attention given to each tooth, scale, and osteoderm. Many of the illustrations are the first depictions of animals that are only known from a few fragmentary bones or shell pieces buried in an academic paper.

The backgrounds, by contrast, are quite simple, often little more than broad strokes to suggest scenery in the manner of a Japanese sumi-e or a Chinese shui mo hua ink painting.  This juxtaposition can be a bit jarring at first, but the simple backgrounds help to highlight the details of the subject animals without distracting from them.

Even cats like Register Prehistoria.

Fink has drawn and written many, many more books covering all sorts of obscure and fascinating prehistoric creatures. Register Prehistoria is an excellent jumping-off point to discovering more of Earth’s ancient diversity.

You can get a copy of Register Prehistoria here.

You can get a book of Stanton Fink's Ordovician animals here.

And, of course, Trilobites!

Monday, June 29, 2020

Review: Feeder by Lucinda Moebius

The world is full of supernatural monsters: vampires, lycanthropes, ghouls, and even stranger things. Many humans have glimpsed them, but few realize that the seeming diversity of creatures that stalk the shadows are all simply aspects of a single species of energy beings, called “were”.  These creatures have existed since the beginning of the universe, evolving in parallel with the mortal world. Were’s heightened senses allow them to see and feed on the life forces of other creatures. With the energy they gain, they can perform all sorts of supernatural feats- most notably shapeshifting into the forms of animals and thus giving rise to legends of werebeasts.

Maria Christine, the protagonist of Feeder, is one of the “nicer” were, since she typically only feeds on murderers, rapists, and the dying. But even she has little regard for humanity beyond a source of sustenance. She lives on the edge of both human and were society, scraping together a living as best she can, occasionally aided by a sympathetic were nun. Her transient, marginalized existence makes the readers sympathize with her even as we watch her stalk and drain humans prey. Her struggle also keeps her grounded even as the story gradually reveals more of her impressive powers.

Throughout the story, Maria is chased by two other supernatural  beings called simply the Hunter and the Warrior. Both are also energy beings made flesh, and implied to be distant offshoots of the were.  They work together to prey on Maria’s kind just as they prey on mortals. The story stumbles a bit with these two, as they aren’t particularly developed characters, aside from the Hunter’s sense of conscience. Their names are not particularly evocative. I wish they had better descriptors than just “Hunter” and “Warrior”. I do know their story is explained in the sequel, however, so hopefully we’ll see more depth from them there.

Halfway through the book, Maria is forced to flee her old haunts. She eventually runs into an organized pack of were who quickly become a surrogate family. It’s intriguing to watch tough, survival-driven maria gradually learning to open up and trust her new “father” and “siblings”. Though the ease with which they accept her did make me a bit suspicious that they had ulterior motives (no spoilers on whether that suspicion was well-founded).

I’ve long been a fan of urban supernatural fantasy, particularly the classic 90s World of Darkness and the Underworld films. The setting of Feeders gives me a similar vibe to those works, though  I like the twist that all these different supernatural beings described by mortals are actually just permutations of the same creature.

Feeder is a good, fast read for fans of urban fantasy and vampire tales who are looking for a twist on the familiar themes. You can get a copy here.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

New picture book

Now that The Scarecrow Harvest Festival is all done, I'm looking for an agent and/or publisher for it. 

In the meantime, though, I'm already working on a new picture book about two of my favorite things: Halloween and cryptids. See, Cryptid Halloween is just like Human Halloween, but with little differences. Instead of carving pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns, cryptids carve cantaloupes and other melons. Instead of decorating with bats, rats, and cats, cryptids decorate with fur-bearing trout, jackalopes, and flying platypus.  And, of course, instead of dressing up as monsters to trick-or-treat, cryptids dress up like human kids, as you can see below.

Mothman (or, rather, Mothgirl in this case)

Champ from Lake Champlain

The Fresno Nightcrawlers

I'm still working on designs for other cryptid trick-or-treaters, and working on a book dummy. Stay tuned for more!

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Review: She Walks in Shadows edited by Gemma Files and Silvia Moreno-Garcia

H.P.Lovecraft’s fiction didn’t include many women. Not, I think, out of sexism, but more because almost all of his protagonists were reflections of himself- bookish scholars or sensitive creative men of Anglo-Saxon descent from New England.

The few women who do appear in his works offer intriguing story possibilities, though. There’s the lonely, bookish Lavinia Whateley from the Dunwich Horror, body-swapping Asenath Waite of The Thing on the Doorstep, the enigmatic gorgon-lamia Marceline from Medusa’s Coil, and more. She Walks in Shadows explores these characters and other aspects of the Lovecraft mythos from a female-presenting perspective.

With many anthologies, the stories can be hit or miss. Some good tales alongside average stories. Though, admittedly, which stories are “good”, “bad” or just “mediocre” is highly dependent on the reader’s own tastes.  With that in mind, I’m pleased to say that I found every story in this anthology enjoyable. Each is different in tone, subject, and style, yet each offers an intriguing facet to Lovecraftian horror.

In many of these stories there is another strain of fear paralleling cosmic horror. It is the Earthly fear of being controlled, undermined and ignored by people who have more power. A fear that all too many women- cis, trans or non-binary- can understand.

One thing that can make this anthology difficult is the fact that it’s often necessary to have read the original stories to fully understand what’s going on. This is especially true for stories based on more obscure works such as “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”, and Lovecraft collaborations like “Medusa’s Coil”, and “The Mound”. This can make the anthology difficult for more casual readers of Lovecraft. It’s not a good starting place for newcomers looking to explore the mythos writing of other writers beyond the Old Man of Providence’s tales, but it a rewarding read for those who have already waded deep into that dark universe.

Some of the stories that particularly stood out for me include:

 “De Deabus Minoribus Exterioris Theomagicae” by Jilly Dreadful. Certainly the most stylistically interesting piece. Written as a bibliographic study by a PhD candidate. The actual story unfolds through numbered notes within the paper. Its structure is reminiscent of the subtle “clerical” horror of an SCP Foundation entry.

“Hairwork” by Gremma Files is a sequel to Medusa’s Coil, a story that Lovecraft ghostwrote for Zelia Bishop. The original tale had interesting potential that was undone by its ridiculously racist ending. This new work, however, reframes the narrative to create a powerful, interesting twist.

“T’la-yub’s Head” by Nelly Geraldine Garcia-Rosas combines Mesoamerican myth and history with the lost world of K’n-yan, found beneath an earth mound in the ghost-written story, The Mound.

She Walks in Shadows is a fantastic collection of stories exploring the female side of the mythos. You can get a copy at Innsmouth Free Press

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Small Fossil Tracks of the Connecticut Valley

A new article I wrote for the Dinosaur State Park newsletter. Some of the tracks can be a bit hard to pick out in photos, especially when they're at the small scale of a newsletter page, so to make them as clear as possible, I created illustrations of the fossils to accompany their entries. Enjoy!


Although dinosaur footprints are the most abundant and well-known fossil tracks in the Connecticut Valley, they are not the only traces of ancient life in southern New England. Insects, fish, and other small animals of the Mesozoic also left their own marks preserved in stone. There are dozens of different trace fossil species from tiny animals throughout the Valley, a few of which are detailed below.

These early Jurassic tracks consist of double rows of two scratch-like marks (“furcula” means “forked”, and Bifurculapes trackway looks as if they were made by the tips of two Y-shaped legs dragging through the mud). The tracks are often found in association with ripple marks, suggesting that they were made by aquatic insects crawling across the floor of a shallow playa lake. Several specimens zig-zag, implying that the animals were being pushed off-course by a current and repeatedly correcting their path. It’s not currently known what type of organisms made these traces, though the forked shaped of the tracks suggests at least some may have been made by crustaceans, which have biramous appendages.

These sinuous grooves were made by the tails and lower fins of fish as they swam near the bottoms of shallow temporary pools. Specimens of Undichna are extremely rare in the Connecticut Valley, although fossils of the primitive fishes that made them- Semionotus or Redfieldius- are quite common. These shallow lakes would have been prime fishing spots for the large theropod dinosaurs and crocodilians that inhabited the Valley.

 In the 1850s geologist Edward Hitchcock discovered a curious fossil impression in Triassic sandstone near Hadley, Massachusetts. The rock slab was covered in what he described as “spheroidal cavities”. To a modern viewer, this unusual trace might look as if someone had pressed a large sheet of bubble wrap into the soft mud. Hitchcock interpreted this fossil as a collection of “tadpole nests”.

 (I admit my illustration above came out a little weird for this one. Below are photos of the original fossils in the Edward Hitchcock Ichnological Cabinet at the Beneski Museum of Natural History.)

But what are tadpole nests, exactly? If you come across a temporary vernal pool in late spring, you’ll often find it swarming with hundreds of little black tadpoles clustered along the shallow edge. As the water slowly dries up, they excavate dimples or “nests” in the sediment by wiggling their tails and slowly rotating in circles, either to feed on the bottom or to escape the desiccating air. As the shore of the pool shrinks, the tadpoles move with it, continuously digging new nests until the bottom of the pool is covered in a shallow circular or hexagonal depressions.

There is some controversy about what made the Batrachoides impression. Some scientists have pointed out that similar patterns can be created by intersecting ripples. But the possibility that this unusual pattern was created by frog young is intriguing. 

Currently known from a single specimen found at a private fossil site near Holyoke, Massachusetts. this unusual fossil is an almost complete body impression- including legs, abdomen, and head- made by a resting chelicerate, an animal from the group of Arthropods that includes spiders, scorpions, mites, ticks, and vinegaroons. Such creatures are distinguished by their mouthparts, called chelicerae, that move up and down rather than horizontally as insect mandibles do.

The outline of Cheliceratichnus, including the impressions of its two massive chelicerae, suggests that it was created by an organism closely related to the modern solifuges or sun spiders. 

Cheliceratichnus was discovered at the end of a fossil trackway known as Acanthichnus cursorius, which shows feet impressions as well as drag marks from the tips of the creature’s heavy mouthparts. The sun spider created these tracks by walking backwards, a behavior found in many modern chelicerates.


 Lower Jurassic Arthropod Resting Trace from the Hartford Basin of Massachusetts, USA.