Sketching science: Meet the fossil artist who reconstructs 'lost worlds'

Who says art and science don't mix?

Not Danielle Dufault, a Toronto illustrator who is one of only a handful of people around the world called on to create artistic renderings of the mysterious creatures that roamed the Earth millions of years ago. 

"I really take a lot of pleasure in trying to reconstruct these lost worlds," Dufault told CBC News. "And there's a lot of imagination that can be applied to that."

While some of the other little girls were playing Barbie, Dufault was digging up worms in the backyard and sketching skeletons of dinosaurs at the museum. Later, she found an educational path that married her two passions: the Technical and Scientific Illustration degree program at Sheridan College.

Now the 28-year-old Dufault is the in-house paleontological illustrator at the Royal Ontario Museum, where she has worked since completing an internship there in 2011.

When it comes to illustrating the fossil record, Dufault is a rock star. Some of her greatest hits: Hallucigenia; the hyolith Haplophrentis and the party worm, officially known as Ovatiovermis cribratus.

Dufault considers herself "crazy lucky" to be living and working in Canada, home to the Burgess Shale — one of the most important and prolific fossil sites in the world. The UNESCO world heritage site in the Canadian Rockies has yielded tens of thousands of fossil specimens, representing an astounding number and variety of Cambrian-period organisms — many of which have no obvious modern-day relatives.

That's the challenge for Dufault.

"Things from the Burgess Shale often don't have anything that exists today that you can compare to — which is kind of creepy," she says.

Animals preserved 'in the finest details'

Dufault applies her technical drawing skill to her knowledge of comparative anatomy, animal habitats and the behaviour of similar organisms to piece together a concept. She stays up to date with current research. But the real fleshing out comes from collaborating with the paleontologists at the ROM and at the University of Toronto who dig up the fossils, study them, sometimes for years, and come up with as detailed a description as they can provide to the artist.

"When I have that and a good notion of all the major details, I'm going to start working with Danielle," says Cédric Aria, a U of T PhD graduate and teaching assistant.

Aria, 29, is part of a ROM expedition team that makes regular treks to the Burgess Shale to collect fossil specimens.

"The first goal is for her to make a first draft," he says. She'll probe for details, and he'll delve deep to answer her questions in a process that can take months. "[We go] back and forth until we're satisfied, and in certain cases it can really change the final conception through that process."

A special feature of the Burgess Shale is that it's a rich repository of sea creatures — invertebrates — which left behind near-perfect imprints of themselves preserved in fossil deposits formed around 500 million years ago.

"We really have the opportunity to have complete animals preserved in the finest details," Aria says. "To some extent, that makes it easier than other types of fossil preservation. But when you have more details, you also have to be careful how you interpret those details."

​​Dufault sums up the collaboration this way: "'Look at this squished bug on a rock, let me know what you see, give me your interpretation.' Sometimes you don't know what you're looking at, and you really have to crack the minds of the scientists."

'Fascination' with prehistoric life

For Dufault's specialized work, it helps to be a big fan of sci-fi.

"That probably plays into some of the fascination I have about prehistoric life," she says.

An interest that serves her well in conceiving of ancient, otherworldly critters that sometimes resemble aliens naturally sparks inquiry. It has horns, but in which direction do they curve? Is the shell smooth or scaly? Are those spikes on its back or protruding from its sides?

But this is science fact, not fiction, so she can't let her imagination run too wild.

"You're trying to represent the facts and show an accurate representation, but there's some questions about how these things looked that we can't have a real answer for — that's where the real creativity comes in."

For instance, purple may seem like a whimsical colour for the underside and speckled tentacles of Ovatiovermis cribratus (the party worm). But, Dufault explains, it's based on a colour that exists in similar contemporaneous organisms that live (or lived) in similar ecological environments and might "use" colour in a similar way — like for self-defence.

"Sometimes the imagination and skill of the artist becomes very important because there's going to be pieces that we're not sure about," Aria says. "She will have to complete whatever part is missing with her own imagination."