The Many Layers of Cretaceous China

In order to understand the ecology of any environment, past or present, you must be able to change the scale of your perspective. Large animals are readily apparent, but what about the interactions between the plants they eat, the insects on those plants, the pollen on those insects, the many microorganisms in the habitat and so on? It is practically impossible to keep all these parts of an ecosystem in mind at once, but if we alter the scale of our perspective, we can better appreciate a greater array of interactions that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Artist John Conway has just created a stunning example of the nested levels of interactions between organisms in a new video. The scene is of prehistoric China's famous 133-million to 120-million-year-old Jehol biota. At first only the dinosaur Jinzhousaurus and a pair of the pterosaur Jeholopterus can be easily seen, but as the camera zooms in the wasp Tanychora beipioensis comes into view, and it is covered with the pollen grains Protoconiferous funarius. The painting is an amazing reminder that there was much more to prehistoric ecosystems than dinosaurs and the plants they ate, but how did Conway create it? In an interview with paleontologist David Hone on the Archosaur Musings blog, Conway briefly explained the method and motivation behind the piece:

It’s a series of paintings done in Photoshop at successively smaller scales, then stitched together and animated in After Effects.

I was looking for a way to get across the sheer breadth of scale in the fossil record, from dinosaurs to pollen in this case. I was also looking for a way to make picture of a biota without having to do a "menagerie" painting, which is otherwise a necessary evil if you want to get a lot of animals in the one scene.

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