Weird and Wonderful: Reconstructing Synthetoceras
Browsing old folders I came across a series of sketches I did several years ago during the preparation of my illustrations for the American Museum of Natural History exhibition “Extreme Mammals”. Among them there was a sequence of drawings showing the process of reconstruction of the American Miocene artiodactyl Synthetoceras tricornatus. I had painted this species before but in this assignment the animal would be shown in full detail so I wanted to double check all my information. One of the best sources was the sample from the fossil site of Love Bone Bed in Florida, and it served me as a reference to bring the animal back to life. I started by drawing all the known bones to scale in order to get an accurate representation of body proportions. I drew missing parts of the skeleton using a more completely known relative, Protoceras, as a model.
Here are the first stages of the reconstruction of Synthetoceras, starting with the assembling of the bones all drawn to scale according to published measurements, and continuing with soft tissue outline and external appearance.
Once the skeleton was assembled, I could proceed to draw the sof tissue outline of the living animal in side view, which gave me a clear idea of its proportions. With a shoulder height of nearly 90 cm, the animal was not especially impressive, and couldn´t rival a modern red deer, for instance, in linear dimensions. But its robust, stocky bones supported a heavy body and a male like the one depicted in this reconstruction could weight around 200 Kg.
The bizarre head appendages, sported only by the males, are the most characteristic feature of this species, and it was essential to depict them correctly. In order to give them depth and realism I needed to make sure that the shading was right, and to that end I sculpted a small clay model of the head, which I put under the kind of light I wanted to use for my reconstruction.
A side view is one of the most informative ways to depict an extinct mammal, but exhibit designers wanted something more dramatic in order to engage the public, so they asked me to show the walking animal in perspective, as shown in one of my preliminary drawings. But this was not judged engaging enough and they asked me to show the animal galloping.
Here is a second batch of images showing the clay model of the Synthetoceras skull and the various drawings that incorporate the lighting based on it. The animal was first shown walking but finally a more dynamic pose was chosen.
The final step in the reconstruction was to create a hypothetical coat color pattern. Again, the exhibit designers wanted something dramatic, so I borrowed patterns from a diversity of modern ruminants in order to create something that had a lively contrast but remained biologically sensible.