First illustration of Australia’s T.rex cousin revealed

By Rebecca Baker 22 June 2010
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An illustration of Australia’s Tyrannosaurus rex relative has been revealed for the first time.

THE FIRST ILLUSTRATION OF Australia’s Tyrannosaurus relative has been published in the issue 99 of Australian Geographic.

The colour sketch has been created from the Australian tyrannosauroid pelvic bone, which was revealed by scientists earlier this year. The fossil predates its famous cousin Tyrannosaurus rex by about 40 million years.

The picture captures the 110 million-year-old Southern Hemisphere tyrannosauroid covered with downy feathers, believed to help it deal with freezing conditions.

Lida Xing, from the University of Alberta in Canada, who created the picture, says that it’s the first Southern Hemisphere Tyrannosaur most likely to have hairs and feathers and is similar to the Dilong, a small, feathered theropod found in China. 

The scientific illustration of the tyrannosauroid was created with “strict fossil evidence”, Lida says. The sketch was then submitted to experts for review and fine tuned by the artists.

According to Travis Tischler a palaeo-artist from the Australian Age of Dinosaurs museum, these feathers weren’t used for flight, but rather acted more like the end of a dart, allowing the tyrannosauroid to turn at high speeds and catch prey while running.

Illustrating the past

However, constructing a whole picture from a single pelvic bone does require a bit of creative license, Travis says. “It’s not necessarily accurate; it should really be classified as an artist’s interpretation.”

Palaeo-artists are able to develop these detailed drawings by using the anatomy of related living or recently extinct species. Such comparisons indicate whether the dinosaur in question may have been a carnivore or herbivore, what its habitat and behaviours were like and perhaps even what colour it was.

Scientists have made it possible to reliably predict the original colour of feathered dinosaurs by looking at imprints of organic material in the fossil.

Palaeontologist and artist Anne Musser from the Australian Museum says that to be accurate a certain amount of background work is done.

“I go straight to the scientific literature,” she says. “There’s a need to understand what the animal does and where it comes from. I usually try to get a full skeleton illustration first – the more information you have the better.”

There’s a bit of guess work involved when reconstructing a fossil animal, Anne says, but if an artist is fortunate enough to have a full skeleton to work from, the job is easier and more scientifically accurate.

“Some [illustrations] are really great and some of the artists are really well known, but to really know how accurate a piece of work is you need really need to know how the artist works. It all depends on how much the illustrator knows,” Anne says.