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David Krause

By Daniel Dunaief

It started over four decades ago, with a “help wanted” advertisement.

Luci Betti-Nash needed money for art supplies. She answered an ad from the Stony Brook University Department of Anatomical Sciences that sought artists who could draw bones. She found the work interesting and realized that she could “do it fairly easily. I could not have imagined a more fulfilling career.”

Betti-Nash spent 41 years responding to requests to provide illustrations for a wide range of scientific papers, contributing images that became a part of charts and graphs and drawing everything from single-celled organisms to dinosaurs. She retired last April.

Her coworkers at Stony Brook, many of whom collaborated with her for decades, appreciated her contributions and her passion and precision for her job.

Maureen O’Leary, Professor in the Department of Anatomical Sciences, said Betti-Nash’s work enhanced her professional efforts. “I couldn’t have had the same career without her,” O’Leary wrote in an email. “Artists are true partners.”

O’Leary appreciated how Betti-Nash noticed parts of the work that scientists miss. 

“I think the most important thing is figuring out together what to put in and what to leave out of a figure,” O’Leary explained. “A photograph shows everything and it can be a blizzard of detail, really too much, and it will not focus the eye. The artist-scientist collaboration is about simplifying the detail to show what is important and how to show it clearly.”

One of O’Leary’s favorite illustrations from Betti-Nash was a pull-out, color figure that envisioned the ancient Trans-Saharan Seaway from about 75 million years ago. The shallow sea, which was described in the movie “Aquaman,” supported numerous species that are currently extinct. Betti-Nash created a figure that showed these creatures in the sea and how water drained from nearby mountains, all superimposed over the geology.

“It told the story of how ancient life turned into rocks and fossils,” O’Leary explained.

Betti-Nash, who continues to sketch from her home office and plans to be selective about taking on future assignments, has numerous stories to tell about her work.

For starters, the world of science is rife with jargon. When she was starting out, she didn’t always stop researchers who tossed around the terms that populate their life as if they were a part of everyone’s vocabulary.

“Some [scientists] would come in and assume you knew exactly what they were talking about,” Betti-Nash said. “It was something they were studying for years. They would assume you knew all the terminology.”

Each discipline, from cell biology to gross anatomy to dinosaur taxonomy had its own terminology, some of which “was way over my head,” she said. 

Early in her career, Betti-Nash felt she didn’t know details she thought she should.

“The older I got, the bolder I got about asking” scientists to explain what they meant in terms she could understand, she said, adding that she felt fortunate to have scientists who were “more than willing and eager to answer my questions when I was bold enough to ask. That was one of the many life lessons I learned … don’t be afraid to ask questions.”

Betti-Nash sometimes had to work under intense time pressure. Collaborating with David Krause, who was at Stony Brook and is now Senior Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology in the Department of Earth Sciences at the Denver Museum of Science, Betti-Nash illustrated the largest frog ever discovered, which lived in Madagascar over 65 million years ago. Called the Beelzebufo, this frog weighed in at a hefty 10 pounds and was 16 inches. Ribbit!

A short time before going to press, the scientific team decided they needed a common object as a frame of reference to compare the size of this ancient amphibian and the largest living frog in Madagascar.

“We scrambled,” Betti-Nash recalled. “We decided on a pencil.” 

She didn’t have time to draw the pencil, so she put it on her scanner, did some quick painting in Photoshop, put a shadow in, added it to the scan of the painting, saved it in the format required for the journal and sent it off.

“Adding the pencil was one of those typical strokes of genius that [Betti-Nash] routinely added to artwork,” explained Krause in an email. “Everyone knows the size of a number 2 pencil.”

Even though she hadn’t sculpted in 32 years, she had to create a sculpture of the frog that students could touch. The sculpture had to be non-toxic, dry and ready within three days.

Betti-Nash turned to the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, asking for help with ideas for the materials. She also asked Joseph Groenke from Krause’s lab to contribute his fossil preparing experience. She used an epoxy clay that she massaged into shape, and then colored it with acrylic, non-toxic paints.

That sculpture was featured as a part of a display at Stony Brook Hospital for years and has since traveled with Krause to Denver where “kids especially love it, in part because it is touchable,” Krause wrote.

Krause was grateful for a partnership with Betti-Nash that spanned almost 40 years.

“There is no doubt in my mind that [Betti-Nash] made me a better scientist and there is also no doubt that my science is better” because of her, he explained. Krause described her stipple drawings as “incredibly painstaking to execute.” His favorite is of a large fossil crocodile found in Madagascar from the Late Cretaceous called Mahajangasuchus. 

Betti-Nash urges artists considering entering the field of scientific illustrating to attend graduate school or even to take undergraduate courses, which would provide time to learn skills and terminology before working in the field.

She also suggests artists remain “interested in what you’re drawing at that moment, no matter what it is,” she said, adding that drawing skills provide a solid foundation for a career in science illustrating. Computer skills, which help with animation and videos, are good tools to learn as well.

Growing up in Eastchester, Betti-Nash often found herself doodling patterns in her notebooks. When she worked on graph paper, she colored in the squares. She also received artistic guidance from her father, the late John Betti.

A graphic designer, Betti worked for a company in Westchester, where he designed the town seal for Tuckahoe as well as the small airplane wings children used to get when they flew on planes.

During World War II, Betti, who grew up in Corona, Queens, used his artistic skills to create three-dimensional models from aerial photographs. Stationed close to the residence of his extended family in Italy during part of the war, Betti also created watercolor paintings of the Italian landscape.

When she was growing up, Betti-Nash had the “best model-making teacher in my dad,” who taught her to create paper maché.

Married to fellow illustrator Stephen Nash, Betti-Nash plans to remain active as an artist, doing her own illustrations involving nature and the relationship between birds and the environment. 

She currently leads Second Saturday Bird Walks at Avalon Nature Preserve in Stony Brook and Frank Melville Memorial Park in Setauket through the Four Harbors Audubon Society (4HAS.org)

Betti-Nash is pleased with a career that all started with a response to an ad in the paper. “I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to work as a scientific illustrator,” she said. “I hope I was able to help communicate the science behind the discoveries that the amazing scientists at Stony Brook made during my time there.”

All photos courtesy of Luci Betti-Nash

By Daniel Dunaief

It’s not exactly a Rembrandt hidden in the basement until someone discovers it in a garage sale, but it’s pretty close.

More than two decades ago, a Malagasy graduate student named Augustin Rabarison spotted crocodile bones in northwestern Madagascar, so he and a colleague encased them in a plaster jacket for further study.

David Krause, who was then a Professor at Stony Brook University and is now the Senior Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, didn’t think the crocodile was particularly significant, so he didn’t open the jacket until three years later, in 2002.

When he unwrapped it, however, he immediately recognized a mammalian elbow joint further down in the encased block of rock. That elbow bone, as it turned out, was connected to a new species that is a singular evolutionary masterpiece that has taken close to 18 years to explore. 

Recently, Krause, James Rossie (an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stony Brook University) and 11 other scientists published the results of their extensive analysis in the journal Nature.

The creature, which they have named Adalatherium hui, has numerous distinctive features, including an inexplicable and unique hole on the top of its snout, and an unusually large body for a mammal of its era. The fossil is the most complete for any Mesozoic mammal discovered in the southern hemisphere.

“The fossil record from the northern continents, called Laurasia, is about an order of magnitude better than that from Gondwana,” which is an ancient supercontinent in the south that included Africa, South America, Australia and Antarctica, Krause explained in an email. “We know precious little about the evolution of early mammals in the southern hemisphere.”

This finding provides a missing piece to the puzzle of mammalian evolution in southern continents during the Mesozoic Era, Krause wrote.

The Adalatherium, whose name means “crazy beast” from a combination of words in Malagasy and Greek, helps to broaden the understanding of early mammals called gondwanatherians, which had been known from isolated teeth and lower jaws and from the cranium of a new genus and species, Vintana sertichi, that Krause also described in 2014.

The closest living relatives of gondwanatherians were a group that is well known from the northern hemisphere, called multituberculates, Krause explained.

The body of Adalatherium resembled a badger, although its trunk was likely longer, suggested Krause, who is a Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at Stony Brook. 

Krause called its teeth “bizarre,” as the molars are constructed differently from any other known mammal, living or extinct. The front teeth were likely used for gnawing, while the back teeth likely sliced up vegetation, which made probably made this unique species a herbivore.

The fossil, which probably died before it became an adult, had powerful hind limbs and a short, stubby tail, which meant it was probably a digger and might have made burrows.

Rossie, who is an expert in studying the inside of the face of fossils with the help of CT scans, explored this unusually large hole in the snout. “We didn’t know what to make of it,” he said. “We can’t find any living mammal that has one.”

Indeed, the interpretation of fossils involves the search for structural and functional analogs that might suggest more about how it functions in a living system. The challenge with this hole, however, is that no living mammal has it.

Gathering together with other cranial fossil experts, Rossie said they agreed that the presence of the hole doesn’t necessarily indicate that there was an opening between the inside of the nose and the outside world. It was likely plugged up by cartilage or other soft tissue or skin.

“If we had to guess conservatively, it would probably be an enlarged hole that allowed the passage of a cluster of nerves and blood vessels,” Rossie said. 

That begs the question: why would the animal need that?

Rossie suggests that there might have been a soft tissue structure on the outside of the nose but, at this point, it’s impossible to say the nature of that structure.

The Associate Professor, who has been a part of the research team exploring this particular fossil since 2012, described the excitement as being akin to opening up a Christmas present.

“You’re excited to see what’s in there,” he said. “Sometimes, you open up the box and see what you were hoping for. Other times, you open the box and say, ‘Oh, I don’t know what to say about this [or] I don’t know what I’m looking at.’”

For Rossie, one of the biggest surprises from exploring this fossil was seeing the position of the maxillary sinus, which is in a space that is similar across all mammals except this one. When he first saw the maxillary sinus, he believed he was looking at a certain part of the nasal cavity, where it usually resides. When he studied it more carefully, he realized it was in a different place.

“All cars have some things in common,” said Rossie, who is interested in old cars and likes to fix them. The common structural elements of cars include front and back seats, a steering wheel, and dashboard. With the maxillary sinus “what we found is that the steering wheel was in the back seat instead of the front.” 

A native of upstate Canton, which is on the border with Canada, Rossie enjoyed camping growing up, which was one of the initial appeals of paleontology. Another was that he saw an overlap between the structures nature had included in anatomy with the ones people put together in cars.

A resident of Centerport, Rossie lives with his wife Helen Cullyer, who is the Executive Director of the Society for Classical Studies, and their seven-year-old son.

As for the Adalatherium, it would have had to avoid a wide range of predators, Krause explained, which would have included two meat-eating theropod dinosaurs, two or three large crocodiles and a 20-foot-long constrictor snake.