Credit: Carl Buell
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Credit: Carl Buell
Credit: Carl Buell

Every tooth is correct. Every whisker is correct.

Remember the picture above? I used it in a post from last week about a team of scientists who had reconstructed the last ancestor of all placental mammals—that’s every human, monkey, bat, dolphin, lion, pangolin, shrew, antelope, and sloth.

The animal ended up looking like a furry-tailed shrew, which came as a surprise to absolutely no one. But far, far more went into this portrait than just “Paint something small, scurrying, and a bit like a shrew.”

To reconstruct their ancestral creature, the team studied 80 placentals, both living and extinct, and painstakingly analysing each one according to around 4,500 different anatomical traits. All of these details went into the reconstruction. Then, as with many palaeontology papers, the team turned to an artist to bring their work to vivid life. And as with many palaeontology papers, that artist was the great Carl Buell.

Palaeoartists—those who reconstruct dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasties—need to create vivid, evocative portraits that are still technically true to the creatures they are trying to depict. The latter task must have been especially demanding when a team of scientists spent 5 years reconstructing every single facet of that creature’s body.

After my piece came out, Carl sent me the following message on Facebook:

Hi Ed, I just wanted to thank you and National Geo for displaying the painting of the new placental mammal ancestor so nicely online. Yours was the ONLY image that was large enough to show all the work I did on that damn little thing.

The group I worked with on this worried about the size and placement of every cusp on every tooth, the texture of the hair, the placement of each and every chin and facial whisker, the number of pads and placement of pads on the feet… and the shape, size and hair on the ears. It’s a shame that newspaper publication size limits the ability to see the tremendous amount of work that went into the details.

So, I asked Carl for a really big version of his drawing, which you can open here. Just gawk at every agonisingly crafted detail. Every tooth is correct. Every whisker is correct.