In our 21st episode of I Know Dino, we had the pleasure of speaking with Josh Cotton, a paleo-artist currently working at the Brigham Young University Museum of Paleontology updating illustrations and videos for exhibits. You can see his work on his website, joshcotton.com, as well as the BYU Museum of Paleontology Youtube channel and the BYU Facebook page. See his Camptosaurus digital sculpt time lapse for an excellent example.
We also have the honor of being able to feature MYU Museum’s The Great Dinosaur Discovery, a 1976 film that features the museum’s founder, Dr. Jim Jensen, and his team:
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In this episode, we discuss:
- The dinosaur of the day: Ultrasaurus/Ultrasauros
- The holotype fossils of Ultrasaurus are incomplete (based only on a partial humerus), so not everyone sees Ultrasaurus as its own genus (or species)
- When Ultrasaurus was first described, it was supposedly 90 feet long and 180 tons, and the biggest dinosaur ever. However, Ultrasaurus may have been comprised of several dinosaurs found in the same quarry (Supersaurus and Brachiosaurus)
- Jim Jensen informally named Ultrasaurus machintoshi (type species)
- The holotype of Ultrasauros macintoshi was described as a particular dorsal vertabrae later found to be from a supersaurus so Ultrasauros macintoshi is now considered to be a subjective junior synonym of Supersaurus
- (Jim Jensen discovered Supersaurus in 1972)
- When Jim Jensen was describing Supersaurus before publication he was using the name as a “nomen nudum” meaning “naked name” in latin. This term is used for any scientific name (typically a species) that hasn’t been rigourously defined or published yet.
- The scapulocoracoid (shoulder bone) described in conjunction with the holotype vertabrae was later found to most likely be that of a brachiosaurus
- In paleontology, a chimera is a fossil which was reconstructed with elements coming from more than a single species (or genus) of animal
- Ultrasaurus lived in the early Cretaceous period (110 to 100 million years ago), in what is now Korea
- Haang Mook Kim discovered Ultrasaurus in 1983, and thought Ultrasaurus was a relative of a dinosaur Jim Jensen had found in the U.S. in 1979 (Jensen had only informally called his dinosaur Ultrasaurus, and did not formally describe his dinosaur until 1985.)
- Kim thought his Ultrasaurus was big because he thought he had found a giant ulna (lower arm bone), but it turned out to be a partial humerus, so his Ultrasaurus would not have been as big as previously thought
- Haang Mook Kim named his dinosaur Ultrasaurus tabriensis
- Because Kim used the name Ultrasaurus formally first, Jensen could not name his dinosaur Ultrasaurus, so he named it Ultrasauros (with an o); however this dinosaur turned out to be a mix of Supersaurus and Brachiosaurus fossils
- Some scientists think Ultrasaurus is a “nomen dubium”, which means “doubtful name” because it is only described from part of a bone which could be classified as an existing dinosaur if more of it had been found
- Ultrasauros probably traveled in herds and may have migrated for food
- Scientists used to think that sauropods, such as Ultrasauros, Brachiosaurus, and Supersaurus, had a second brain (now they think it was an enlargement in the spinal cord in the hip area, which is larger than the actual brain)
- Fun fact: Sauropods had a low EQ (brain to body weight)–about 0.2. Humans are about 7.5, dolphins about 4, dogs about 1, and rats about 0.4.
For those who may prefer reading, see below for the full transcript of our interview with Josh Cotton:
Sabrina: We met because you sent us an email that we had made a mistake in one of our episodes about Torosaurus which we would like to correct. So I did a little more research on it. I knew a little bit more about it but I was a lot more familiar with the Brontosaurus debates and the whole thing, than Torosaurus. So…
Josh Cotton: That’s exciting stuff too.
Sabrina: Yes. Especially that it might be back.
Josh Cotton: We actually had Octavio Mateus, one of the authors on that paper, he came done and studied some of our collections for his paper. Didn’t realize that’s what he was doing at the time but to meet him briefly before. I didn’t get to talk a ton with him but it was neat to watch him work.
Sabrina: Cool. So for people who might not be familiar there’s a debate on whether Torosaurus is a mature version of Triceratops or it’s its own species. And some scientists say that Torosaurus may just be an adult Triceratops and they’re known as the ‘lumpers’. And others are saying it might be its own species and they’re known as the ‘splitters’. Josh could you tell us a little bit, your thoughts about it?
Josh Cotton: Yeah, you know the Torosaurus and Triceratops debate is really interesting I think, and useful especially, because it draws attention to the fact that different people of equal qualification in the sciences can have different opinions. And, you know, when I wrote the email to you guys it wasn’t necessarily to say that Jack Horner is wrong in saying that Torosaurus is an adult Triceratops, he could very well be right. But my issue was that it’s still under debate. And when talking with scientists they’ll talk this way sometimes when speaking with the public but almost never, when talking with scientists, will you hear someone say that something has been proven or something, you know, you hear scientists say in the movies all the time “it is scientifically proven that…”, you know real scientists always snicker when they hear that because they’re very careful on their language not to use that word proven but they’ll say “it is generally accepted” or “strongly supported” because in science in general, but especially with dinosaurs, there’s nothing that is clear cut, there’s nothing that we know for sure. There’s strong evidence that points us in different directions and helps us restore dinosaurs to the best of our ability but there’s a lot of things that we just don’t know. And you know, there’s in… Triceratops and Torosaurus, there’s strong evidence that Dr. Horner talks about that they could be different growth stages of the same animal. He points out that they lived in the same area. He points out that out of the specimens that he’s studied it seems that the Torosaurus ones are bigger and older and the Triceratops ones are younger and smaller as determined by cross sections of the bone; he actually slices at the bone and checks the texture to find out how old they are. And there’s also just been a history in paleontology of over splitting. My wife and I right now are actually, we’re reading a book by Peter Dodson called The Horned Dinosaurs, and just read about things like fourteen different species of Triceratops that Othniel Marsh named when now we’re down to two. And you know, it would change the species name on any little anatomical detail or if they just found a different part of the animal or, you know. And that’s part of where the Brontosaurus debate comes in too, it’s actually Marsh and Cope that were involved in that, Marsh in particular. But on the other side of the Torosaurus debate though, there’s people who are really digging in their heels saying no, no, no this is a different animal. You know there’s some sentimentality to that and to me too, I feel sentimentally attached to Torosaurus, that’s a really cool name, it’s a really cool dinosaur, it’s a really cool statue outside the Peabody Museum and you know, it’s tough to lay those feelings aside but they have some strong evidence as well. They looked at a different set of specimens and they found some Torosaurus individuals that weren’t completely mature, meaning they wouldn’t have been the oldest growth stage. They used kind of a different way of telling whether they’re mature or not, than Jack Horner did. And there’s a few other lines of evidence as well and you know, in the northern states, or well actually in the central states you’ll find Torosaurus and Triceratops together. In the northern states you’ll find a lot of Triceratops and very few Torosaurus. And in the southern states some of the material is still kind of limited, you know, there needs to be more research done, but it seems that you really only find Torosaurus in the southern states. So it wouldn’t really make sense for, if it’s just an older version of Triceratops, to only find the old guys down there. And again, you know we’re dealing with the fossil record which is limited sample and has biases that we can’t predicted. The other thing is that there are some anatomical differences aside from just being big. Torosaurus has a different number of bones than Triceratops does, and does consistently have a different number of what they call the epoccipitals, which are these little, thorny attachments to the frill. Triceratops has one in the center and then a certain number coming out on the side; and then Torosaurus never has one in the center and always has ten to twelve on the outside.
Sabrina: What about Horner’s, one of his arguments was because, you know, you change as you get older and stuff, and they had citied, what was it, a Nedoceratops as possible being the in between stage, although I know some scientists said like actually this was probably just a sick dinosaur that’s why it looked different but…
Josh Cotton: Right, right. Looking at the skull for that animal it seems that what they’re describing as transitional wholes are probably pathological. Pathological meaning that they didn’t come there by the normal natural means, it was because it was sick or injured. We call it pathological when say, like on Sue, when the T-Rex, when Sue was bitten or had bones broken and then they’d heal and they’d have strange lumps on them because they were healed over; that’s what pathologic means. So they think that that animal has pathologies that make those holes but it’s… so I wouldn’t say that that’s his strongest piece of evidence. He’s got other ones that are stronger. And you know, he’s done a lot of great work in other sorts of animals, younger Triceratops showing that some of these smaller animals that used to be split off as their own species because they were smaller and their horn shape was different, it turns out they we just immature Triceratops. And would agree with him there. Or, also, the combining of Pachycephalosaurus, the big thick headed, head butting dinosaur. There were three different geneses called Stegoceras, not Stegosaurus, Stegoceras, Stygimoloch, and Pachycephalosaurus. With different shapes of their heads in different sizes, but he was able to tell based on the cross sections of the bone, that the head shape was changing as it was growing up and that these other animals that had been found were young, they were juveniles. So those have been kind of combined; those three very different looking animals into one genus and it seems like that’s a pretty solid argument that he’s got there, but I don’t think it’s quite as strong with the Torosaurus and Triceratops.
Sabrina: because they looked so different that it doesn’t seem…?
Josh Cotton: I don’t think the two animals were extremely different but the thing is, when you’re trying to change the generally accepted beliefs in science, the burden of proof lies with you. And not to say that, you know, again we can’t prove anything but there needs to be overwhelming evidence in order to split them, to shift them, and I think there’s just enough evidence both ways right now that you can kind of choose what you want to believe. And you know, again, that’s where the sentimentality comes in. You know, I choose to believe in Torosaurus because I think he’s just a really cool animal, a really cool name. But I’m trying really hard to stay open to any further evidence.
Sabrina: Sure. Have any mature Triceratops been found?
Josh Cotton: Absolutely. Lots of mature Triceratops have been found and that’s part of the issue. I had sent you guys a video of a debate between Jack Horner and other scientists at Yale and they were talking about how some of the individuals of Triceratops they found seemed like they were older and had bones that were more fused and they were more mature than some of the specimens of Torosaurus that they found or had access to that Dr. Horner didn’t have access to. So it would seem that they’re just very large herbivores and that the world was big enough for the two of them. Similar situation to what you find, you know, on the African Serengeti today. You know, we’ve got here on BYU campus we’ve got the Bean Museum, the Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum and there’s some great taxiderm mounts of some huge, huge African herbivores. Some of them live in the same environment and they are enormous. And some of them have very similar modes of life and are eating some of the same stuff but, you know, as much as there’s competition between species there’s no hard and fast rule that only one species in a certain niche can live in an environment at a time. Especially in a world as plentiful as the late Cretaceous.
Sabrina: I thought I had read somewhere that there are a lot more Triceratops specimens than Torosaurus. And I know part of that could be just we haven’t found a lot of Torosaurus yet, but do you think that adds any weight to the argument that maybe this means they could have been the same?
Josh Cotton: You know, that could go two ways. It’s difficult when you look at the fossil record to try to make any judgement calls about population. There are these things called preservational biases which basically means that, in some environments certain things preserve easier than in other environments. So it’s going to be easier for something to preserve if it’s big. It’s going to be easier for something to preserve, for instance, like animals preserve a lot better in some environments than plants do. And plants preserve a lot better in some environments than the animals do. It’s difficult to find them both preserved well in the same place. Also, I was talking with Dr. Sheets the other day, it’s kind of odd to think, we think we’ve got this big picture of the world of the dinosaurs when really we’ve got a lot of pictures of riverbeds and lakeshores. Those are the places that fossilization took place. We have absolutely no fossils of dinosaurs that lived in the mountain though we know that they must have. And, you know, when you think about animals today, they move to different places at different times of the year. A lot of migrations happening. And so who’s to say that at the time of the flood season, while all these dying animals are washed together and their bones preserved, that may be that was a time of year that the Torosaurus had migrated to a different area. So it’s tough to make any judgement calls about what an actual population would be like based on the count in the fossil record. You can try but it’s not particularly reliable that way.
Sabrina: Yeah. That makes sense. So I guess the general take away is that there is evidence on both sides and this is still definitely up for debate and it’s been going on for a while. Horner and John Scanella presented this hypothesis back in 2009 and it’s ongoing so, all right. So you update illustrations and videos for exhibits for the Brigham Young University Museum of Paleontology and you have this excellent time-lapse video of a restoration of Camptosaurus. Can you talk a little bit about what was involved in that process?
Josh Cotton: Absolutely. You know, there’s been some really great tools that have opened to paleontologists recently and the tool in particular that I used for the restoration of that Camptosaurus is a program called Zee Brush. And there’s a lot of different 3D programs that paleontologists are using lately, 3D scanning, different things like that, but this program is actually something that’s used in Hollywood for movie making to create creatures for the big screen. That’s what they used to create the creatures in James Cameron’s Avatar, it’s what’s been used to do some of the more recent stuff on the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. But what’s great about these tools being developed for entertainment and being able to bring these animals to almost breathing life, we’re able now to turn around and use these same techniques and apply them instead to science and paleontology and try to get a better picture of things.
Sabrina: And about how long does it take you to do something like that?
Josh Cotton: It really depends on the creature that I’m restoring, how much material that we have of it, how much detail we want to go into. Fortunately for Camptosaurus there’s a lot of material for Camptosaurus. A lot of different skeletons that have been found all over the place. We even have one mounted and up on display in the museum so I was able to go take pictures and reference from him. Usually if you know fairly solidly what the animal’s going to look like, it’ll take a day. If you’re breaking some new ground – and I’m talking in Zee Brush but there’s other, like painting one would take quite a bit longer actually. But if there’s less certainty of what the animal would look like it might take a few days or a week if you’re doing a life restoration. Or it could take longer if you’re really trying to go in-depth and be really rigorous about your anatomy. But a lot faster than a lot of the previous tools that have been available.
Sabrina: Yeah. But you use a mix of tools right? You draw and you also do some other… Can you talk about the other kinds of mediums?
Josh Cotton: Absolutely. I think that the foundation of everything I do, including the work that I do in 3D is drawing. It’s really important to draw. You learn with your hands as much as you do with your eyes and as much as you do through reading and hearing. I love to draw. Pencil and pen and marker. Some of those are finished pieces as well. I’ve got some pen pieces up in the museum of an Iguanodont and Mosasaurus Prognathodon I think, but… Yeah. And in addition to drawing I do a lot of digital painting in a program called Photoshop. You guys are probably all familiar with that, which is kind of funny. It’s a program that was originally just intended for photo manipulation but artists really latched onto it, especially with the advent of pen tablets. And it’s kind of taken off and become the industry standard for what’s used to do concept paintings for film and animation now.
Sabrina: So how often do exhibits at the museum need to be updated?
Josh Cotton: It’s important to update an exhibit whenever there’s a change in our understanding of the dinosaurs. At first there was just a lot of updating to be done all around. There are a lot of fantastic scientists and artists who have worked at the museum of paleontology over the last forty years, since Jim Jensen founded it. But our understanding has changed a lot since then. Our understanding has even changed quite a bit since the release of Jurassic Park, you know. But those are the dinosaurs that everybody still imagines. So there’s a lot of changing of some of the displays that way. Even some of the stuff that I’ve done since working, starting work at the Museum of Paleontology three or four years ago; even some of that stuff has already gone out of date. I mentioned the Iguanodont and the Mosasaur, the Prognathodon. Both of those are nice drawings but unfortunately, I shouldn’t say unfortunately; it’s fortunate that we learn new stuff, but, you know, our understanding is updated. So we found some track ways of animals related to our Iguanodont and it turns out that the scientists who published these track ways showed their wrists are orientated a little bit different way than what I had restored, so that one needs updating now. Also the Mosasaur, turns out that Mosasaur skin impressions that have now been found, don’t have all the crazy spikey scales that I had restored this particular one with. I kind of gave it some alligator type armor, you know. Turns out they have much smoother, more pebbly scales, and so that one needs to be updated as well. And so, it’s always changing. And that’s part of what’s exciting about it. You know, it keeps the imagination going and realize that nothing’s permanent but we’re striving towards restoring these things, but the work’s never done.
Sabrina: So you mentioned Jurassic Park so I have to ask, what are your thoughts on the upcoming movie and also I know they’re incorporating some of the new things scientists have figured about dinosaurs in the last twenty years but not everything yet.
Josh Cotton: Right, right. You know I love the original Jurassic Park, not as big a fan of the second movie, I love the third one, not everybody likes that one, but I liked it. And I think you know, I can understand for working as I do, both in entertainment and in science, wanting there to be continuity between films, I can understand that. And also the idea of feathered dinosaurs is kind of old hat to science but a little bit newer to the public, that’s been kind of slow on the uptake. And a lot of the artwork that has been of them have been people who were trying to express that dinosaurs had feathers but haven’t had much time to explore how feathers work on birds and really it’s been difficult to get to the point where we get those drawings to look good. So a lot of people think, feathered dinosaur? That’s not scary, that’s not fun. You know, but I think they’re, some artists though are starting to really get it and get some nice reconstructions out. But I think as a PR decision I can understand why they would do that as well. So, you know, a lot of people say it’s just a movie, and it is that. As much as I can understand and respect the decisions that they’ve made in terms of PR and in terms of continuity with previous films, I am a bit disappointed because, you know, the spirit of the first movie was, we have this old image of dinosaurs. Here’s the new science being brought to light. Here’s the first time the public is exposed to these animals in all of their glory and bleeding edge of what we know to be correct. Obviously there was some issues even known at that time but it was largely correct for the knowledge of the time. And that was the spirit of Michael Crichton, the author of the book, too. He passed away, unfortunately, a couple of years ago. But I can, I loved his books in high school. I don’t know how many times I read both Jurassic Park and the Lost World. And whether I was reading those books or some of his other ones, they were about other branches of science. It was really important to him to create a fantasy world that you could believe. Any time you go to a film you’ve got your, what they call the willing suspension of disbelief. You say, I know this is a movie but I’m going to pretend it’s not and I’m going to allow myself to get swept up in the story. What Michael Crichton was really good at was making that barrier so thin. He was really good at saying this isn’t real but it could be. You know, and you come out of Jurassic Park looking over your shoulder to see if there’s a raptor behind you. For me there’s going to be a much bigger barrier looking at this new film where they’ve chosen not to update with the current understanding. I have to put all that baggage away. In order to believe the film I have to say, okay, these raptors don’t have feathers even though real raptors did, but I’m going to pretend they don’t. It’s just going to be, at that point, at least for people who know about dinosaurs, it becomes a story issue and not just an esthetic issue. It becomes, I have a harder time believing it. And also I don’t think that particular decision does as much credit to the memory of Michael Crichton because I think he would have wanted to make it as accurate as possible.
Sabrina: How did you get your start into paleo art? What’s your background?
Josh Cotton: What’s my background? How far back do you want me to go?
Sabrina: As far back as you feel like sharing.
Josh Cotton: I think every kid loves dinosaurs. When I was really little I wanted to be a Ninja Turtle, turns out that BYU didn’t offer a major in being a Ninja Turtle, but I had the opportunity when I was, I think about third grade. I enjoyed dinosaurs just like any other kid. But at that time Dr. Robert Bakker who is one of the first guys to really popularize the idea of warm blooded dinosaurs. He was working in Wyoming at that time and visited my school district and gave a presentation up on stage and it was just so exciting to listen to, and this picture that he would paint of the prehistoric world and I got really excited and he was really patient, after his presentation I went over and he let me talk to him for quite a while and actually sent me away with a cast of a Bearpaw Tooth and a Saurpaw tooth. Which was very kind of him but that kind of put a match to the gasoline and after that I knew I wanted to do paleo art. I wanted to, well at that time I thought it was paleontologist but I realized later on that what I really enjoy is drawing. You know, I think that’s at the root of passion. And then after that my family was just incredibly, incredibly supportive, both my parents. I don’t know if they thought I would end up in paleontology or not but they love me and they love my sisters and they just support us in whatever we wanted to do. They took us on trips, sometimes specifically, you know, we’d drive for hours just to go to a museum. Or you know, we’re in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming but we’d travel and we’d go to the Wyoming dinosaur Center at Thermopolis, or the hot springs mammoth site in South Dakota. I remember one time my mom took me all the way, it was just a trip for us to go to dinosaur national monument when I was twelve and I got my first copy of the Dinosauria there. And they were just really, really supportive. I owe a debt of gratitude to them. And then got to, towards the end of high school, and I had wanted to be a paleontologist, wanted to be a paleo-artist, but I started to get this sense of how am I going to contribute to the world, you know. Realizing that the world has all these problems. And I started to think that maybe it would be a little bit selfish of me to take my life and devote it to this thing that a lot of people would consider childish or just play. And I thought, I was into film making and thought, you know, maybe if I go into film and animation and try to put out good messages and create good role models in the media for kids, and that that would create a bigger impact. Which is why I majored in illustration with an animation emphasis here at BYU entertainment design. And I still intended to do that but when I got to BYU I stopped by the dinosaur museum here, across the street from the football stadium, and noticed that there was a lot of fantastic material on display. There’s a lot of really neat cutting edge research going on, but a lot of the illustrations were really old, done by great artists and scientists in the past but a lot of the stuff was really old and need to be updated. And I was looking for a job. And I had taken a class from Dr. Brooks-Britt and visited with him and visited with our curator Dr. Rodney Sheets, and they were kind enough to bring me on to update these exhibits and also to help them with illustrating new things for the new research. And I enjoyed that but I thought this was just kind of a thing that I was doing to help get through college but didn’t think that was necessarily how I wanted to make an impact on the world. But we had a little boy visit our museum with the Make a Wish program. And he was, which if you’re not familiar with Make a Wish or similar programs, it’s basically these kids, they’re really ill and it looks like they might not have long, but we want to make the rest of the time that they’ve got a good time. And so they make a wish. And the foundation does their best to make it happen. Some of the kids want to be an astronaut, or want to be Batman, or want to do all these things, what this little boy wanted to do is he wanted to be a paleontologist. He loved dinosaurs. And so he came to our museum and Dr. Britt took him out on a dig up near dinosaur national monument. He got to dig on this cool new mid-Triassic stuff and then he came to the museum and got to help work on preparing some of the dinosaur bones and then he and I got visit and draw dinosaurs together a little bit. And stayed in contact with him and with his family afterward, also another person in the museum did as well, Reahn Chambers, and kind of became pen pals with this family. And it was a roller coaster ride for them and for us the next couple of years. And you know, they fought a long fight against cancer and eventually he passed away. But during that whole time one of the things that really excited him, that really made life happy and exciting and put the spark back in him, was dinosaurs. And sometimes he’d send me a letter and ask, could you send me a drawing of this this week. And I’d send it back to them and they’d send me a picture online that he’d colored it in. And it was just a really beautiful experience and I gradually realized more and more that, you know, maybe there is a point to dinosaurs. You know, you’ll hear scientists a lot of times when they’re asked if there’s a point and they’ll say, Oh you know animals are going extinct today and we need to know about the history of the world so we can figure out how to make predictions for the future. Which is true. There’s some truth to that. But I think even more than that, dinosaurs are just beautiful and amazing and they give us the opportunity to connect with each other and particularly with children, in a way that we couldn’t otherwise. It inspires kids to get in to the sciences and to create good lives for their families. And it was a great thing for this family. A way he could be happy even though his situation was really dark. So that kind of galvanized me and helped me realize, okay you know, I’ll still try to be doing work in the entertainment industry but I always want to be working with dinosaurs. Because there’s a point to dinosaurs.
Sabrina: That’s amazing and really great that you’re able to do that, combine things that you love but also helping people.
Josh Cotton: It’s a blessing, really. Still get to talk to them every now and then. Not so much lately, I need to write them a letter. But yeah, really, really a blessing.
Sabrina: Very inspirational for people who might be looking to start a career that somehow involves dinosaurs.
Josh Cotton: There’s a quote, and I’ll probably botch the quote here. But my sister showed me once that, you don’t look at the – when you’re deciding what to do with your life don’t look at the world and decide what to do with your life based on what the world needs, find out what makes you kind of come alive because what the world needs is people who have come alive. And I think that’s going to be a way that a lot of these other needs of the world are going to be fulfilled because if people care enough about each other, through their other interests, then they’re going to work to solve those problems.
Sabrina: So as a paleo artist do you have to have any kind of science background to make sure that you’re accurate in your trails?
Josh Cotton: You know it’s important to study up, to know your stuff as much as you can, but that’s the great thing about working with scientists is you know, you do everything you can and you present it to them and then if there’s something wrong with it they can say, okay this is wrong but you need to turn this wrist around or this and that. And you learn from them and then they learn from the questions that you ask them because you ask different questions when you’re drawing then you do when you’re writing. So it’s kind of a symbiotic relationship. But definitely if you want to be a paleontologist or a paleo artist, I would recommend, study up, do well in school and particularly for paleo art learn about animal anatomy and it might surprise you but learn about human anatomy, learn about the human figure. Because if you can draw the human figure you can draw anything.
Sabrina: Is it because it’s so complicated?
Josh Cotton: It is so complicated and because one of the beautiful things about the way God has designed nature is that there’s a lot of repetition in the way that forms work. That’s one of the things that I’ve learned studying art at BYU is that we think of our bodies as machines and we’ll hear about them that way in science. Here’s how this chemical reaction works, here’s how this muscle works and different things. But also nature is constrained to design principles and those things are consistent across you know the human form to the animal form to plant form. You’ll see similar things happen. And also, if you understand really well how to draw the human figure and you understand both human anatomy really well and you understand dinosaur anatomy really well, then you kind of transpose and apply as you’re drawing. And in kind of a weird way use yourself as reference. You know, be able to, one thing you learn in illustration animation they talk about, you know, if you’re having trouble drawing something that’s moving, get up and move. If you’re trying to get the emotion of this character get up and act. And I think that the same thing holds true to dinosaurs. But it’s funny you’ll watch animators, they’ll be drawing and they’ll be quiet with their nose to their grindstone and then all of a sudden they’ll get up and they’ll be dancing around and then sit back down and be somber and quiet again. I think if you apply those same things to dinosaurs you get a lot more energy and a lot more interest and excitement that way.
Sabrina: So do you sometimes have to get up and start acting like a T-rex or whatever dinosaur you’re working on?
Josh Cotton: I may incriminate myself here. Yeah, you know, it’s, every now and then you just have to get up and move to get the pose right. I know that’s weird. It’s fun though. It’s fun. And actually I’ve got a friend, Austin Andrews. He’s actually a really good artist in his own right but he works with […] (00:27:56) of Paleontology, he recently graduated, doing some cool stuff on a new lizard lately. But he combined, and this is I think key, whatever your discipline is, study what you’re doing but also study other stuff. Keep an open mind and try to incorporate everything because everybody and every discipline has something to teach everybody else and every discipline. And one of the cool things about Austin is that he, in addition to sciences, studied dance. And really understand motion. I think that helps him with his biomechanics and it also helps him teaching. You know with little kids he did this really cool thing where he brought them through the museum with dance. Just these little kindergarteners and they had some much fun they were so excited and they were learning with their whole bodies. And you also really learn, okay lizards move with their legs splayed out to the side, dinosaurs have their legs underneath. The Pteranodon flew with its fifth finger and you know, if you’ve done that with your own body then you remember a lot better so I think that it’s good to move.
Sabrina: Yeah. That makes sense. I know part of your job is to unify the feel of the museum so what does that entail? How do you do that?
Josh Cotton: One of the important things about any visual experience, whether you’re talking about a museum, whether you’re talking about a book, whether you’re talking about a website, whether you’re talking about a video game, it’s important to unify the colors, unify the typefaces. Because of the nature the way the BYU Museum of Paleontology came about it was a bunch of different scientists and artists and students contributing to it over the course of forty years. And each person had a little bit different idea of how a sign should look and also science changed over the course of that time so you’d see different types of interpretations of the dinosaurs. Some of our early stuff that’s not on display any more, actually some of it is, I need to replace still, but some of the early stuff shows like the theropod dinosaurs like T-rex and Allosaurus rearing up back on their tails which we know they don’t do. So updating that, unifying that with the modern look and also colors, just like chords in music, if chords aren’t quite right you can tell if someone is out of tune, if something is discordant. The same thing happens with colors. It’s important to have colors that are in harmony and unified through the course of the museum. Thing is we had all these signs that had been created through different times, carpet that was brought in after those signs so it didn’t jive quite the same way with them. And so, just kind of looking at, okay, what are the colors of the museum. Let’s make new signs that work with those colors that have updated information that had unified look as far as their type face and their graphics. And so you go in and you’re not distracted by how scattered all the visual styles but you’re able to have a learning experience.
Sabrina: That’s interesting. That’s definitely something, like as a visitor to the museum, generally probably don’t even take that into account or even notice but it makes a big a big difference.
Josh Cotton: Absolutely, absolutely. And honestly you’re doing a good job people don’t notice. They just enjoy. And that’s kind of the goal.
Sabrina: You gave a little bit of a history of the museum, I was wondering if you could expand upon a little bit. I know Jim…
Josh Cotton: Jensen.
Sabrina: Jensen. Yes.
Josh Cotton: It’s all good. […] (00:31:04) Jim Jensen, as he was known back in the day. Really interesting character. Really interesting character. He worked, after World War II he helped reconstruct Pearl Harbor and he was really good with his hands, he was a mechanic. And then he went to Harvard where he was employed there as kind of handy man around their museum. He was such a quick learner, he was from Leamington, Utah by the way. Put in a plug for them, really cool place. But he was a really quick learner and he fell in love with the dinosaurs and he had all these great ideas for exhibits and they actually started putting him in charge of the exhibits over at Harvard and he was innovating in different ways that he could mount the dinosaurs. And then they started taking him on expeditions because they knew he could fix anything. He went to Antarctica, he went to Argentina, and did some of the first paleontology down there along with some of his cohorts. And then he came to Utah and Brigham Young University, which actually interestingly enough, is a religious institution. But he came down there and they brought him on to start collecting dinosaurs. And he eventually persuaded them to let him build a museum and the Museum of Paleontology was actually, and still is, an extension of his old lab so we’re still pretty small. But he had a lot of great material. He collected one of the largest and most complete collections of upper Jurassic dinosaur bones in the world. Probably the greatest collector since Barnham Brown. Just a lot of great material and scientists still come today from all over the world to look at our material. Like Octavio Mateus for the recent paper about Brontosaurus, about bringing Brontosaurus back. He came down and looked at some of our stuff. And yeah, Jim Jensen worked for […] (00:32:37) Museum of Paleontology for many years until he passed away in the late nineties. And there have been a couple of other curators since then. Currently it’s Dr. Rodney Scheetz. And he focuses on ornithopods, the fleet footed plant eating dinosaurs. Particularly in the early Cretaceous. And we’re doing a lot of work on those and also on some early Cretaceous sauropods and late Triassic theropods with Dr. Britt.
Sabrina: So what are some of your favorite projects that you’ve worked on at the museum?
Josh Cotton: I love especially, it’s fun working at things in the museum no matter what you’re doing because you know it’s for dinosaurs. I remember when I first started working and there was this spill on the ground in collections and I started mopping it up and I was just grinning from ear to ear because I was mopping in dinosaur museum. Just really excited about that. So whatever I do is a blast. You know, I started out doing some preparation work. I’ve done some field work, gone on some dinosaur digs. I’ve done help in research with taking measurements and 3D scans and working with some more recent animals and things like that. But still my very favorite thing is reconstructing a new animal. Followed closely by reconstructing already known animals. I love, my parents went on, particularly my mom, she’d always wonder, you know, we’d go to a museum and we’d leave from the gift shop with like a cast of a claw and she’s like, “Why do you always have to go and come back with this dead stuff?” Really supportive but she had a hard time understanding the dead stuff part. But the thing is it’s not dead stuff. It’s stuff that used to be alive. And I love imagining them alive and I love, and I think about what they would act and putting them in dynamic poses and instances in their life. I love that special place that happens in paleo art. You know, a lot of art is okay, imagination from nothing. Which is fun too, and there’s a lot of value in that. What’s great about paleo art is you’ve got this foundation and you’ve got imagination given these constraints. Given this skeleton, and what we know about dinosaurs from all this other research, what do you think it would look like? So you try to fill all the holes. You try to guess how it would have behaved and colors it would have been and textures and different things like that. And I thinks that’s a blast. I love, and also because you know we talked a little bit earlier about Jurassic Park, imagination that you think could be real. You draw a dragon, which I like drawing dragons, but you draw a dragon and you’re like that was fun, I had to try really hard to imagine this real. With a dinosaur you think, wow. This could have really been. It’s like living the adventure.
Sabrina: Going back and quickly, you mentioned you had been on digs. Could you talk a little bit about your experiences with them?
Josh Cotton: Absolutely. I had the opportunity to dig with Dr. Britt down near Moab Utah on some early Cretaceous Utahraptor stuff down there. And I had the opportunity to dig with Dr. Sheets in a similar region on some Iguanodonts and raptor and armored dinosaur stuff down there. I haven’t been on a ton of gigs. There’s definitely other people at the museum who go more frequently than I do. I’ve only been on digs like three times I think. And two of them were pretty short. But it’s a blast. It’s a neat experience to be able to go out there and realize hey, this, whatever you find today, even if you work all day to find one knuckle bone, that’s something that nobody else has seen before. It shut its eyes a hundred and twenty million years ago and you’re the first eyes to see it since. To find it where it dropped dead. Meaning that’s also where it lived. Again it’s not dead stuff, it’s stuff that used to be alive. It doesn’t sound like very much different but I think it’s an important distinction and I think that’s what makes it exciting.
Sabrina: So how long do these digs usually last and what do you have to do to prepare.
Josh Cotton: You’re usually, and again some of the ones I’ve been on have been shorter but usually what happens is you go out for a week. Like, I went out for a week in Moab with Dr. Sheets, well near Moab, and basically it’s like a big camping trip. You load up trucks and a trailer and you go on a shopping trip to make sure that you’ve got all of your food. It’s like a college road trip/ still going to work. If that makes sense. We have the trailer out there to eat in. We have tents that everybody sleeps in. And you know you wake up early in the morning and you walk out to eh dig site. We can’t park too terribly close to the dig site so it’s a good forty five minute walk up there. Which is also part of why it’s exciting. It’s really in places where people don’t go that often, it’s hot. Sometimes I think when we were open it was like a hundred and four degrees outside. And Yeah, it’s a really neat experience. You make good friends and you find cool stuff.
Sabrina: Did you know ahead of time that this site would have something to find or is that you just kind of had to get a little lucky?
Josh Cotton: The particular site that we were working on was found by Jeff Higgerson who is a fossil expert that’s worked in the past for us as a prospector. It’s important in paleontology to kind of been familiar with two disciplines. Biology and geology. The biology tells you how the animals lived and acted once you find them but in order to find them you need geology. You need to know how old the rock is and you need to have experience in where to look. So it was found by Jeff Higgerson looking around in a formation that he knew would contain animals of the right age. So that’s the first step. But even then it’s just a lot of foot work. Just wondering around in the desert for days and days until he finds something interesting on the surface and, you know if it’s next to a hill that’s a good indication that it’s starting to erode out of the hill and you can dig deeper and there’s more. And usually when you find one you’ve found a bed where there’s other stuff. And so we tend to come back to locations over and over again. And sometimes it’s found by prospectors. Sometimes it’s found by everyday people who just kind of notice something strange on the ground. You know, we’ve got our Mosasaur on display in the museum, Prognathodon. He was found by some teenagers in Colorado before he was dug up. They just noticed something kind of cool on the side of the road and they phoned it in to the museum and they came and checked it out and it turned out to be this beautiful skeleton. So expertise helps but most finds are luck.
Ssabrina: So we’ll post all these links onto our website, but you’ve got an impressive portfolio of images and videos and you sent us a personal project which is a cover for a fictional game, imagining the Jurassic Park universe, updated with what we know about dinosaurs today. What prompted that? Can you describe what the game might be?
Josh Cotton: Yeah, you know, actually there’s a forum called JurassicWorld.org and I had to admit, as much as I might disagree with not putting the feathers on the raptor I am still super excited for the movie. So I was following in this forum and I noticed there was a contest for Hey, design your own Jurassic World game cover and I, you know, I thought this could be fun. And I had been wanting an excuse for a while to kind of redesign some of the Jurassic Park stuff with up to date to modern scientific understanding. And so I sat down and thought okay, there would be fun for me in a Jurassic World game. That’s kind of where the idea came from. And again it’s a fictional game, it’s not coming out anytime soon unless somebody wants to you know send me a couple of million dollars to be able to fund a team to build it. But it’s just for fun, but it’s a, it’s called Jurassic World Skeletal Crew, and the idea is since in this new movie the old company that built Jurassic Park went bankrupt and they were bought by a new company that wants to rebuild Jurassic World. Thing is Jurassic World has been lying, or Jurassic Park is being overgrown and over run by dinosaurs for the last twenty years and they’ve got the run of the island. The jungles taken over and they’re breeding so there’s more dinosaurs then when they left. And so before you can rebuild Jurassic World you kind of have to team the island. And the biggest concern, as we learned in all three films really, is the raptors. You can run away from a T-Rex but at least it can’t open the door after you and come inside very easily. But these raptors can. So the idea is you’re part of a small group of people who have gone in and are being employed by the company to go in and capture all of the raptors before they can send a reconstruction crew. So you explore every part of the island and you hunt and are hunted, is kind of the idea. And I put feathers on the raptor and I put his wrist position in the right place to update it.
Sabrina: Well it sounds fun. If you ever get to build it please let us know.
Josh Cotton: Absolutely, absolutely.
Sabrina: One last question. What is your favorite dinosaur?
Josh Cotton: You know as a kid it was always Allosaurus, he’s actually the Utah State dinosaur so, nice to be working in Utah for that. But it’s kind of shifted around a bunch lately. I think at the moment it’s probably Ultrasaurus which was discovered again by Jim Jensen and that one’s actually under debate. There’s some people who say that it’s just another very large Brachiosaurus. Brachiosaurus is cool too. But yeah, I just think the Brachiosaurs are beautiful, graceful animals and I get the goosebumps every time I walk by a mounted skeleton of one.
Sabrina: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today.
Josh Cotton: Thank you for taking the time and inviting me on the show.
Quick correction: “Sigimoak” is a mishearing of Stygimoloch.
Also “Dr. Sheets” is almost certainly Rod Scheetz at BYU.
… and “Scinella” is Scanella.
“Bringham Young” is Brigham Young.
I Know Dino
Thanks Mike, sometimes we get our audio interviews transcribed and it’s hard to proofread.