Thanks to scientific illustrator Andrew McAfee ’05, the world now knows how a recently discovered dinosaur species looked when it wandered North Africa in the late Cretaceous period.
Paleontologists from Egypt’s Mansoura University unearthed the fossilized remains of the plant-eating dinosaur, a member of the titanosaur group, in what’s now the eastern part of the Sahara Desert. In January 2018, the creature was given the name Mansourasaurus shahinae to honor the university and Mona Shahin, a supporter of its vertebrate paleontology program.
The Egyptian scientists collaborated with paleontologist Matthew Lamanna, McAfee’s boss at Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. As the paleontologists realized the significance of their discovery, they needed a compelling image of the approximately 80-million-year-old dinosaur to share with the public, Lamanna said. They entrusted the job to McAfee.
A biology major at Mary Washington, McAfee joined the Peace Corps after graduation and served in Guatemala. In his free time there, he drew the animals he saw and people he met. Back in the United States he found a way to combine his love of science and art, joining the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators and eventually earning a master’s certificate in scientific illustration from California State University, Monterey Bay.
McAfee said his Mary Washington background helped shape his career, especially classes with Professor of Art History Joseph Dreiss and Professor of Biology Andrew Dolby.
After an internship at Carnegie Museum, McAfee was hired as the scientific illustrator for the museum’s vertebrate paleontology section. Creating the first illustrations of a dinosaur species was “a rare privilege,” he said.
Because Mansourasaurus has more in common with European and Asian titanosaurs than African or South American examples, McAfee illustrated it gazing over an ocean toward Europe, where its ancestors had once lived. The plants pictured are educated assumptions based on fossil pollens found in the same rock formation as the dinosaur. The conifer Araucaria is at top right, the tree fern Dicksonia is at top left, and an unidentified palm species is at bottom left.
“The flocked birds wheeling over the waves were inspired by Ichthyornis, a bird from the same time period that may have had a lifestyle similar to modern seagulls,” McAfee said. “While perhaps no one is able to see it, I did paint in the tiny teeth that Ichthyornis and its close relatives had in life.”
Lamanna, the Carnegie Museum paleontologist, said McAfee’s beautiful and scientifically sound illustration has helped make the find interesting not just to experts but to the public. It “really brought this dinosaur and its ancient habitat to life,” Lamanna said, “in a way that our written description could not.”