How Art Makes Better Science

Article by Maeve Doyle

Artistic reconstruction of Habelia optata by Joanna Liang.

Jean-Bernard Caron charges down labyrinthine hallways hidden behind the galleries of the historic Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto. The stately old building is the perfect backdrop for discussing the transfer of knowledge from scientists to the public.

Caron is senior curator of invertebrate paleontology at the ROM and studies Cambrian animals from the Burgess Shale, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site. UNESCO calls the Burgess Shale “one of the most significant fossil areas in the world” due to the abundant preservation of diverse marine life. And, the ROM holds the world’s largest collection of Burgess Shale fossils.

“The further back you go in time, the fewer fossils you have and the ones from the Burgess Shale are exceptional because they preserve soft-body tissue characteristics,” says Caron. “The Burgess Shale provides an exceptional window into animals that would not normally have been preserved.”

Caron, whom the ROM calls the foremost Canadian expert on the Burgess Shale, studies the ancient marine life of the Cambrian era to add to the understanding of the roots of modern biodiversity. Every day Caron and his researchers work to describe the form and structure of new species and revise existing descriptions as new information is revealed.

Photo of Jean-Bernard Caron in a museum.
Photo of Jean-Bernard Caron by Maeve Doyle.

Crammed into a corner of Caron’s office is a small sofa piled with plush stuffed toys, cuddly versions of fossils from the Burgess Shale. A big-eyed, velvety brown Anomalocaris dominates the top of the pile. But before the Cambrian animals were imagined as toys, they were two-dimensional smears on rock.

“The toys are an example of how artistic representation bridges between scientific discovery and the broad dissemination of knowledge,” says Caron.

Another, perhaps more practical, way that art disseminates science is through illustration. Caron and his former Ph.D. student Cédric Aria recently published a revised description of the Burgess Shale fossil Habelia optata. Scientific illustrator Joanna Liang joined their team and together they tackled the challenge of bringing Habelia back to digital life.

Fossil specimen of Habelia optata from the Royal Ontario Museum.
Fossil specimen of Habelia optata from the Royal Ontario Museum. This is a small specimen showing the long, bipartite tailpiece (on the left) and most of the appendages in great detail—including jaws with long teeth under the head shield. The ramified projections at the very front (right) are interpreted as the partially "detached" outer branches of the head appendages. Photo credit: Jean-Bernard Caron, © Royal Ontario Museum

Half a billion years ago, Habelia optata lived and hunted prey at the bottom of a warm shallow Cambrian sea. Protected by its thick, hard, spiny armor, it walked on five pairs of articulated legs. Only 2 to 3 centimeters long, it detected and grasped smaller less fortunate animals. With its many comparatively large jaws, it cracked through the hard shells of its prey.

But Habelia’s armour could not protect it from the speed of the underwater avalanche that trapped it and many other Cambrian animals in mud and sediment. Several specimens of Habelia were flattened in the sediment, preserved in finest detail at various angles and in a variety of positions. There they remained in the Burgess Shale outcrop, high in the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia, until their discovery in the early 1900s.

Second fossil specimen of Habelia optata from the Royal Ontario Museum.
Fossil specimen of Habelia optata from the Royal Ontario Museum. This specimen spectacularly shows some of the very large jaws ("gnathobases") under the head shield. Note also the long dorsal spines on the thorax. Photo credit: Jean-Bernard Caron, © Royal Ontario Museum

Now, while Habelia hasn’t yet achieved a level of celebrity worthy of its own plushie, Caron credits Liang’s illustrations for making the animal a media darling. Do a web search and it isn’t the fossils that come up, but instead Liang’s illustrations representing what the animal might have looked like.

“Of course, I would like to have the fossil close to the illustration for balance.” Caron laughs. “You don’t want to give the idea that Habelia is something that exists today.”

The long-extinct Habelia is a close relative to the common ancestor of all chelicerates. Chelicerates include mites, scorpions, horseshoe crabs, and spiders.

Phylogeny tree showing the relationship of Habelia with other arthropods.
Simplified phylogeny ('tree of life') showing the relationship of Habelia with other groups of arthropods. The study shows that it is an early relative of chelicerates—a group including spiders, scorpions, horseshoe crabs and mites. Credit © Cédric Aria

Caron and his research team have published dozens of papers and almost all their studies have included detailed interpretive images, or paleo art, prepared by highly trained illustrators.

Figure showing convergent evolution of head features between Habelia and predatory mandibulates
Figure showing convergent evolution of head features between Habelia (A) and predatory mandibulates (B: isopod, C:centipede). Although these traits in Habelia had a different evolutionary origin, they fulfilled similar functions. Green: sensory/tactile; Orange: masticatory; Blue: holding/manipulating. Credit: (A) Joanna Liang, © Royal Ontario Museum (B) © Buz Wilson, Australian Museum (C) © Gregory Edgecombe

“We work with artists to include illustrations as part of our published outcomes, scientific papers. Scientific illustrations summarize a lot of information into one drawing,” says Caron. A visual reconstruction of the animal is more powerful than text and no specialized knowledge or training is required to read it, he says.

“It doesn’t have to be an animal. It could be, let’s say, a genetic pathway; something very difficult for people to grasp but if they see an image of it, they understand how it may work or function.”

Caron also considers the interaction with the artist part of the scientific process of discovery– discovery that can be made difficult by the nature of the fossils.

Buried in mudflow, many of the fossils are flattened in the rock. The animals are no longer three-dimensional. Each specimen has been preserved at only one angle, but working with a collection of different specimens buried at different angles provides a variety of views. The views from different angles enable the scientific illustrator to reconstruct the hypothetical three-dimensional structure of the animal.

Third fossil specimen of Habelia optata from the Royal Ontario Museum.
Fossil specimen of Habelia optata from the Royal Ontario Museum. This is a relatively large and very complete specimen showing most of the main features of the animal. Note the difference between the long legs in the thorax—used for walking—and the smaller limbs in the head—used for sensing and grasping.

“The scientific illustrator asks questions that push us to find answers. Working with the illustrator helps to reinforce most of our interpretations and refine others,” says Caron.

Photo of Joanna Liang.
Photo submitted by Joanna Liang.

Joanna Liang has been fascinated with the Burgess Shale ever since she learned of it in first-year biology. Liang grew up in Vancouver, 760 km from the rich fossil bed in Yoho National Park. She majored in biology and was particularly interested in the anatomy and physiology of invertebrates.

“Animals in the Cambrian like Hallucigenia, Pikaia, and Anomalocaris were just so different. We can learn so much about the origin of modern animals from these fossils.” The Skype connection almost crackles from the enthusiasm in Liang’s voice as she speaks from her home in Vancouver. “The especially rare preservation of even soft-bodied creatures in the Burgess Shale makes it monumental in the study of the evolution of early life.”

A self-taught artist, Liang incorporated art into her science studies. She used art to memorize chemical pathways and anatomical structures. She would draw a jelly fish, label it and study from it for an exam. To simplify pathways in physiology, she drew diagrams and shared them with her classmates. She also tutored university students in art.

Liang says that it was one of her professors who recognized her passion for biology and talent for art and who suggested that she pursue a master’s degree in Biomedical Communications at the University of Toronto. It was there that she pitched her idea for her research project to her supervisor.

“My goal was to explain the process of how scientists and artists reconstruct a 3D shape from a 2D image,” says Liang.

Nicholas Woolridge, director of the Biomedical Communications program, says that these kinds of reconstruction processes are very complex.

“Both scientists and artists need to do these tasks, but well-trained artists have spatial abilities that can make it much easier for them,” says Woolridge. “Artists commonly draw from a two-dimensional reference like a photograph, an architectural plan or a technical illustration. Artists are uniquely skilled at bridging from a 2D image by adding volume to create a 3D shape.” An x-ray, for example, is a flattened two-dimensional image of a three-dimensional volume. “It takes years of training for radiologists to become adept at reading those,” he says.

Liang’s research supervisor, David Mazierski, teaches science visualization in the Biomedical Communications program. A vertebrate paleontologist, Mazierski connected Liang with Caron at the ROM. Liang spent the next 18 months working with Caron and Aria to lift Habelia optata out of the rock, inflate it into three dimensions, and make it move.

Liang had to understand and study the fossil the way paleontologists do. She worked in the lab with Aria to view Habelia through microscopes and compare various specimens

From the data they collected, she drew a series of sketches that became the technical drawings—the job of a 2D paleoartist. Her highly accurate technical drawings showed lateral, dorsal, and ventral views of Habelia in straightforward detail.

Detailed diagrams of Habelia optata
Detailed diagrams of Habelia optata (type A). A. Ventral view of the head. Right posterior appendage removed to show the morphology of the jaws ("gnathobases"). B. Lateral view. C. Dorsal view. D. Isolated limbs of the thorax in frontal, lateral and posterior views (left to right). Credit: Base line drawing courtesy of Joanna Liang, © Royal Ontario Museum
2D digital reconstruction of Habelia optata by Joanna Liang

From the technical drawings, she created a two-dimensional, digital life reconstruction—the job of another 2D paleoartist. Liang referenced modern animals for color, camouflage, and markings.

Then, from all that information, she rigged a fully-articulated, three-dimensional volumetric model of Habelia in 3D animation software. She referenced spiders to show how its legs and pincers moved. She referenced lobsters to show how Habelia’s articulated body moved.

“Someone like Joanna is a rare thing,” says Caron. “I don’t work with any one artist who creates both the technical drawings and life reconstruction, and 2D artists don’t usually work on 3D animation. I have an animator in Australia who works exclusively in 3D. To have that full range of skills makes Joanna very special.”

Liang’s work proves the notion that the artist plays a central role in science discovery and science communication.

“One of the simpler ways that art is used is to take complex information and make it digestible and understandable,” says Chris Ferguson, CEO of Bridgeable.

Bridgeable, a research, design, and consultancy firm in Toronto, works with organizations to redefine how they interact with their patients, clients or customers. He and his team have helped researchers to improve the translation of their data into patient care or healthcare services.

Ferguson says that communicating information is more than just adorning data with an image. Visualizing large quantities of data allows researchers to think about the information differently. Making the data interactive lets researchers work with the information in different ways. Creating an animation like Liang’s can make raw scientific discovery meaningful to an audience completely different from its initial scientific audience.

“In order to mobilize knowledge, you need to make information relevant and usable to other audiences—people involved in creating solutions who will use the knowledge in different ways,” says Ferguson. “The issue isn’t our ability to accumulate data. The issue is our ability to translate knowledge and apply it in order to make an impact in the world.”

Since Aria and Caron published their findings in BMC Evolutionary Biology in 2017, Habelia has received nonstop attention from media organizations such as CBC News, Newsweek, LiveScience, and the Daily Mail. And its celebrity continues.

Habelia would never have received this kind of coverage without Joanna’s illustrations,” says Caron.

Liang says her work will be included in the ROM’s Spiders: Fear & Fascination exhibit that opens June 16. Visitors will see the ROM’s authentic Habelia fossil, Liang’s technical drawings, 2D life reconstruction, and 3D animation. They will even see a hand-painted, large scale, 3D-model of Habelia that Liang’s research supervisor David Mazierski printed from her 3D animation files.

Liang also says that she and Caron have been contacted by a producer from CBC television’s The Nature of Things regarding a future documentary. Liang, who graduated from the Biomedical Communications program in 2017, never imagined that her master’s research would receive so much attention, nor that the attention would continue long after she had finished the project.

“My parents are ecstatic that my artwork is going to be in the Royal Ontario Museum,” she says. “But have you seen the plushies Dr. Caron has in his office?” She means the stuffed Cambrian animal toys piled on Caron’s sofa. “If he ever has a Habelia plushie made, please! I want one!”