herbivorous Diatryma eating palm fruits in the Eocene (56 mya)

This incredible beast of a bird ambled around North America during the Eocene.  I was so happy to be commissioned to illustrate this bird in its paleoenvironment, especially since I was given the challenge to display features that hadn’t really been illustrated before.

The impetus for this was that in Whatcom county in 2009, there was a large landslide that revealed sandstone slabs from the Eocene.  Incredibly, this was the first time that tracks of a Diatryma had been revealed to us through geologic time!  There have been many fossils uncovered, but what amazing new angle that these tracks showed paleontologists was that this lumbering giant’s “talons” left no mark in the soft sand as it passed by that day 56 million years ago.   What does this mean?  It suggests that the bird indeed had reduced claws.  What does that mean?  Being that this fossil lacked a hooked beak, (as almost all living birds of prey that hunt or scavenge have), and the fact that its claws didn’t depress in the soft sand lead many to believe that it is further confirmation it was a peaceful foliverous/frugivorous/vegetarian animal.  (Admit it, you viscerally want a 7 foot tall bird to be a terrifying carnivore….admit it!)

With the closing of the Mesozioc and the death of all of the beautiful dinosaurs, there was a huge void left in lifestyle niches that were wide open to exploit for whatever animals made it through the extinction.  Filling this was our fair Diatryma that stood at a mighty 7 feet tall, and weighed perhaps 400 pounds.  What is very striking is the massive scale of its head.  It seems vastly overbuilt for the purposes of clipping vegetation but between perhaps cracking really hard things and sexual selection, it sported a beak that was about a foot long, very tall, and very thick.  Compare that with any other bird head/beak living or extinct- the elephant bird of Madagascar, moas, cassowaries, ostriches…their heads and beaks are all much smaller even if the birds themselves are larger or taller.

Even with all the data we have distilled about this animal and its habitat, I was still left with many decisions to make.  What kind of plumage?  more like an ostrich or a kiwi or a rail?  What colors would the plumage have?  Should it carry up its neck and cover its head?  How many chicks?  What setting should they be in?

I did a lot of research on the many anatomical and other details I needed to resolve before starting, but it was a exhilirating project that I hope to do many more of.  I love extinct animals, the early Cenezoic, Braeburn apples, and fossil reconstruction….3 out of 4 isn’t bad!

I did many sketches of the angles I could show it from, but in the end chose one, transferred to my canvas, then got cracking on the painting.  I used all acrylic paint, and may even take it a little further digitally.  I also set up a web cam for time lapse video capture!  Soon when I have some more time to learn the editing software, I will be able to post a 2ish minute movie of the whole process.  I can’t wait!

Let me know any questions you have about the process, what you like or what you feel should be different….in fossil reconstruction no-one is 100% right!