Book brings extinct mammals back to life

For decades, Czech scientists have been trying to determine the appearance of prehistoric animals using fossil remains. The legendary team of palaeontologist Josef Augusta and painter Zdenek Burian set a high standard in "fossil reconstruction" in the 1940s. Scientific knowledge about extinct animals has expanded considerably since then. Now, after years of research, palaeontologist Oldrich Fejfar and painter Pavel Major have published a book presenting their reconstructions of extinct mammals.

A sabre-toothed tiger, a giraffe with a trunk - such exotic and sometimes bizarre animals, covered in the book entitled "The Extinct Glory of Mammals", lived in the Tertiary period, tens of millions of years ago, which is sometimes described as "the age of mammals". At the book launch at the Czech Academy of Sciences on Monday, Professor Oldrich Fejfar of Prague's Charles University told me that he and artist Pavel Major based their reconstructions only on complete fossil skeletons, some of which have been unearthed in the Czech Republic.

"We consulted fossils found in volcanic deposits. Then we have sediments from lacustrine layers, and then we have also very exceptional localities like caves or tar pits, like in California, the Rancho La Brea tar pits. In the Czech Republic we have a very good locality and this was the reason why a brown coal company sponsored us because it owns one of the richest localities in our country, in northwest Bohemia - open pits where brown coal is excavated - and in one layer we have a very rich locality of fossil mammals."

RP: In what way was your work different from the fossil reconstructions of Professor Augusta and Zdenek Burian?

"Professor Augusta and Zdenek Burian produced books which covered a very long period of time. The whole Mesozoic with the dinosaurs and also the Tertiary period with some selected mammals. They did not consult complete skeletons; they were inspired more by the superficial impression of the animals. Of course, the genius of Zdenek Burian added much to this quality which we didn't have and I think the genius of Burian in incomparable to our approach. But anyway, their approach was different from ours."

RP: But still, there has to be some degree of imagination in your approach...

"Of course, the imagination must be present always, and this is the part of the artist's approach and I think Mr Major was in his graphical approach very good in this sense."

Besides paintings of the extinct animals, the book by Oldrich Fejfar and Pavel Major also explains the method of fossil reconstruction on individual examples. The authors say they are in touch with foreign publishers with a view to bringing their book to English-speaking audiences.