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Beasts of the Pampas (praires)

Artists reconstruct the pre-historical fauna that inhabited Rio Grande do Sul 200 million years ago

One of the most unique national pre-historical faunas is beginning to take on new life. Calm down. Nobody has recreated in the laboratory an extinct animal starting from DNA fragments. Dinosaurs, thecodonts, dicynodonts, cynodonts, rhyncosaur and primitive forms of pre-mammals that lived during the Triassic era, between 250 and 205 million years ago, are coming back on the scene in the form of sketches, some in three dimensions. They are the creations of a educational project funded through the National Council for Scientific and Technological development (CNPq). Under the supervision of the paleontologists Cesar Schultz and Marina Bento Soares, from the Geosciences Institute of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), the professor of sculpture Adolfo Bittencourt is sketching out, with the help of special software, the contours of the creatures that inhabited a key moment of the Earth.

The period immediately before the end of the Paleozoic Era, whose epilogue is the mega extinction that killed off 90% of the planets life, the Triassic reopens the diversity of forms between the animal and vegetable species. Of the groups of vertebrates that survived the cataclysm and repopulated Pangaea, the mega-block of the Earth that united all of the current continents, there sprung forth almost simultaneously the first dinosaurs and the first ancestors of the mammals. In Brazil, there are only geological vestiges of the Triassic Era in the southernmost state of the Federation. That is the same as saying that many of the fossils of animals typical of that period – such as the carnivorous Staurikosaurus pricei, one of the oldest dinosaurs in the world, and the diminutive cynodont Brasilitherium riograndensis, a pre-mammal – cannot be found in other parts of the country, at times not even in countries abroad. “People want to know what like these animals were, but we’ve almost no illustrative material on them”, says Schultz. “In order to make use of designs from abroad, which did not always exist, we have to pay copyrights.” The way out was to group together people from the Arts Institute of UFRGS and to locally produce the reconstructions.

Book and film
By good luck, there was a qualified professional to carry out the bridge between paleontology and sketching. A doctor in Sciences of Art from the Paris I Pantheon-Sorbonne University, Bittencourt has a solid background in anatomy and had already done this type of work for international magazines. “I analyze the skeleton structure of the fossil and see where the muscular insertions were located.”, says the fine arts artist, who, with his graduate student Dorothy Ballarini, carried out a dozen recreations of the extinct animals found in Rio Grande do Sul State. “In this way I can manage to get a better notion of the animal’s volume and movement.” The illustrations, of which some have already been used in exhibitions, are going to fill the pages of a book and a website concerning these and other former living creatures. The three dimensional images, which need to be finalized (the animals are still without a virtual skin), could be animated and could give origin to a film of the style “Walking with the dinosaurs”, a production by the English BBC.