(Prehistoric) Life Imitating Art
This is an article from the spring 2015 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
Not long after publishing his treatise on evolution, Charles Darwin came across an orchid from Madagascar with an outlandishly long flower. The orchid’s nectar pooled at the bottom of a floral chamber that was way too narrow and deep for any known pollinator to reach. He speculated that some living creature, probably a moth, must have an extraordinarily long tongue specially adapted to drink from the flower. Darwin didn’t live to see the pollinator he imagined, but sure enough, naturalists in Madagascar eventually found a moth with mouthparts that could unfurl to match the length of the unusual specimen. Darwin’s hypothetical creature had turned out to be real.
John Meszaros (’06) recently accomplished a similarly uncanny feat: He invented a hypothetical animal that, he later learned, actually existed.
Meszaros is an artist who creates biological illustrations of animals, often with a twist. He always grounds his work in science, but he playfully speculates about what kinds of animals might have populated the planet before going extinct, leaving no trace of their heyday in the fossil record. “My animals are speculative,” he says, “but they might have existed, or something like them may have existed—we just haven’t found the fossils for them yet.”
Meszaros has a special obsession with extinct animals called anomalocaridids. “They look almost like shrimp, with flaps on the side of their body,” he says, and they swam in the oceans about 520 million years ago, during the Cambrian Period. “The most prominent feature of these animals is they have two huge appendages on the front of their head that are used for grasping prey and feeding,” he explains, and researchers say that those appendages often came equipped with spines capable of impaling prey.
Most artistic renderings of prehistoric life are full of blood and guts and aggression—think of iconic dioramas showing dinosaurs fighting each other with their teeth bared. For anomalocaridids, the general understanding followed the same pattern: These apex predators eviscerated prey with spines that jutted from their feeding appendages. But Meszaros wondered whether the animals could have used their anatomy differently.
By having a more relaxing meal, for example.
He looked to contemporary animals such as baleen whales, whale sharks, and basking sharks, which don’t need sharp teeth to eat. Instead, they filter feed, sieving the tiniest plankton from the water simply by swimming with their mouths open.
Pretty much all major geologic periods have at least one filter feeder in the ecosystem, but strangely, not the Cambrian. “There’s a huge gap of time where there’s not really any evidence of a filter-feeding animal,” Meszaros says. “So I was trying to think what sort of creature could fit that niche, and I thought anomalocaridids would be perfect.”
So for fun, Meszaros invented a Cambrian filter feeder by adding a special twist to his favorite animal.
“I drew an anomalocaridid where the great appendages have these long hairs on them, kind of like the baleen of a whale, and I imagined them gliding through the ocean, scooping up plankton along the way.” He embellished the drawing with other animals that he dreamed up for the ecosystem, such as creatures that hypothetically could hitch a ride on the body of an anomalocaridid, just like barnacles on a whale.
His illustration was included in a collection of speculative creatures by various artists called All Your Yesterdays. After publishing his filter-feeding anomalocaridid, Meszaros moved on. But then something happened that he never would have predicted: A fossil of his made-up animal was discovered in real life.
Close to the North Pole, at the very northern edge of Greenland, paleontologists found the fossil of Tamisiocaris borealis, an anomalocaridid whose appendages not only had spines, but whose spines also had spines—enough to create a sort of “fishing net” that could allow the animal to filter feed. One of the researchers came across the image in All Your Yesterdays and was astonished to see that Meszaros had predicted the animal before they’d even encountered its fossil in the rocks of Greenland. They named the fossil’s ancestor “Cetiocaridae” in honor of the original name of the animal that Meszaros invented.
“They just thought it was a crazy coincidence that I predicted this creature that they actually found,” Meszaros says.
As an undergraduate majoring in biology and creative writing, Meszaros spent a lot of time in LSA’s Museum of Natural History. He met his wife there—Karen Meszaros (B.S.E. ’06), an aerospace engineer—while they both worked as museum docents.
Leading tours through the Hall of Evolution, Meszaros talked with student groups all day about extinct creatures, which he credits as a major influence on his art. His work as a docent gave him practice explaining deep history and evolution to people who aren’t familiar with ancient animals and their origins. Meszaros adds that his background in creative writing also helped him create characters and tell a story, critical skills when it comes to developing a world of speculative creatures.
Among his many projects, Meszaros has gotten commissions to illustrate real contemporary animals, which can be as bizarre as his speculative creatures. One such animal is a predatory tunicate, which lives in the deep sea as a sort of oceanic Venus flytrap, preying on the unfortunate creatures that brush past its mouth.
“As much as we do know about life in the past, there’s still so much more that we just haven’t found yet, and that we don’t know about,” Meszaros says. “I want people thinking about that, and the huge diversity of life on Earth that exists now and in history.”