At his sculptor's stand, paleoartist Gary Staab adjusted the expression on a 125-million-year-old predator in pursuit of prey.
The creatures Staab creates in his Kearney, Missouri, studio, end up in museums around the globe. His work can be found in places like the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Last year, NOVA followed Staab as he crafted an exact replica of Ötzi, a 5,000-year-old European mummy for The Dolan DNA Learning Center.
But the diminutive model recently in front of him wasn’t just any dinosaur. It was the first stage of a sculpture commissioned for the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science, a $305 million museum that recently opened in Miami, Florida. This new project presented an unusual challenge.
“This project that we’re working on is kind of a unique one because we’re trying to recreate a very familiar style of dinosaur, a big, meat-eating Tyrannosaur, very similar to T-Rex," Staab said. "And the surprising part of this thing is that it has feathers.”
The museum requested a 30-foot Yutyrannus huali, which means “feathered tyrant,” to help tell the story of flight for its “Feathers to the Stars” exhibit. Staab based his model on three, nearly complete fossil specimens from the early Cretaceous period that were discovered in what is now northeastern China. The Yutyrannus remains are the largest known dinosaur specimens that preserve direct evidence of feathers.
From the start, the feathers presented the biggest obstacle. With some 200 square feet of skin to cover, Staab had to decide what kind of material the team would use. The closest living bird with feathers similar to Yutyrannus was the endangered Cassowary, so using natural material was immediately ruled out. Staab chose to fabricate and paint each feather from scratch.
“From the tip of the tail to the base of the skull, we basically have a quarter of a million feathers,” said Staab. “Two hundred and fifty thousand feathers applied in small groups or individually all the way up. It’s been an immense job for a big team of people.”
Staab’s barn studio complex in Kearney is large enough to accommodate the 30-foot beast and his many assistants.
Meg Schwend’s task was to paint and glue groups of feathers to the finished sculpture — a job that took weeks to complete.
“I would compare them (the feathers) to shingles on a roof, but that roof is huge and the shingles are tiny,” Schwend said. “It is a lot of hot gluing, a lot of little burns to our fingers."
Schwend admitted the work was tedious at times.
“But you get in a groove applying the feathers, and you just go all day and you see that you’ve made a lot of progress,” she said.
Eric Carver’s job was to block out shapes for the arms, and to repair small imperfections in the resin casts. Carver said for a dinosaur with feathers, Yutyrannus looked menacing.
“Yeah, it’s pretty ferocious,” said Carver. “The claws, just the way they are shaped, they’re just made for grabbing and snatching. Also the arms are really beefy. So you can imagine this dinosaur running through a forest, you know, snatching up prey.”
These gigantic, feathered bipedal predators were only first described by Chinese scientists in 2012, so visualizing dinosaurs with feathers is relatively new and natural museums are just beginning add them to their collections.
For now, Staab’s Yutyrannus is one of only two models on display in American museums; the other is in The American Museum of Natural History.
Staab began work on this one back in the fall of 2015, and by February 2017 it was finished and shipped to Florida for its debut when the museum opened on May 8.
“When you put feathers on the surface of these animals it really changes their appearance. And I think because of these new finds in China, it really is changing the whole look of dinosaurs,” Staab said. “And so it’s an exciting time, but it’s also a challenging time because we’re sort of trying to catch up a little bit and figure out techniques for building feathers.”
Staab said as an artist he helps fill in the gap in the fossil record. He often makes the creative decisions, such as the pose and eye color, since the fossil record provides no guidance on those issues. Staab said that is part of what makes his job interesting.
“You have one foot in art and then one foot in science and you’re not really accepted by either field,” he said. “It’s an interesting position to be in, but it’s also really fun because you get to work with scientists, you get to work with artists. You do get to use your imagination. But you also get to do what I call citizen science. I get to answer questions by doing my now research to try and figure out what these things look like.”
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her @juliedenesha.