If you are interested in dinosaurs, the last two years have seen a slew of great books published, and there is more in the pipeline. The latest I am reviewing here is The Dinosaurs Rediscovered from the well-known British Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology Michael J. Benton. With a huge number of possible topics you could write about, and an already saturated book market, Benton has set himself a very specific aim: to show how the science of palaeobiology has moved from a descriptive, speculative scientific discipline, to a hard, testable, rigorous one. In other words, given that palaeontologists nowadays regularly make some pretty amazing and precise claims about creatures long extinct, how, exactly, do they know that?
Not so long ago, the idea that giant reptiles once roamed the earth was novel, unbelievable to some, but their reign represents only one part of deep time. Go back further in time, to the Carboniferous (358.9 to 298.9 million years ago), and you will find a world of giants as bizarre and otherworldly as the dinosaurs must have once seemed to us. A world where clubmoss trees grew up to 50 metres tall, with scorpions as large as dogs and flying insects the size of seagulls. With Carboniferous Giants and Mass Extinction, palaeobiologist George McGhee, Jr. presents a scholarly but fascinating overview of the rise and fall of this lost world, and why it still matters to us.
Mammoths and sabertooth cats are but two icons of an assemblage of large animals, or megafauna, that disappeared between roughly 50,000 to 12,000 years ago. As with all mass extinctions, several explanations have been put forward, but one man and his idea take centre stage in these discussions: Paul S. Martin’s overkill hypothesis. In End of the Megafauna, palaeomammalogist Ross D.E. MacPhee carefully scrutinises this idea, weighs up the arguments for and against, and explains its enduring allure. To quote Huxley, is this another example of “the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact”?
When I think of turn-of-the-20th-century palaeontology, names such as Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope are the first to come to mind. Their infamous rivalry, known as the Bone Wars, relied heavily on field collectors who did the back-breaking labour of prospecting and quarrying for fossils. Most of these bone hunters are barely remembered, and John Bell Hatcher might very well have remained thus. This meticulous biography by American palaeontologist Lowell Dingus saves Hatcher from obscurity and documents both his hugely successful work as a bone hunter, as well as his later stellar but tragically short-lived career as a curator.
When it comes to Ice Age fame, sabertooth cats are right up there with mammoths. And within the sabertooth cats, the best-known group is the genus Smilodon. Even if you have not heard that name, you will very likely have seen it depicted. Rather than a pop-science book, this edited collection brings together the who-is-who of sabertooth palaeontology to provide a thorough and technical overview of the current state of the field. And if I did not know any better, I would say that the research community has developed an almost unhealthy obsession with this cat’s large canine teeth.
Given that dinosaurs are no longer around, everything you think you know about what they look like comes from illustrations, models, movies, and merchandise. But how much of this is actually accurate, and how much of it is rather geared towards appealing to our sensibilities? Mark Witton is a man with a mission: to elevate the genre of palaeoartistry to one depicting scientifically accurate renditions, based on informed speculation and careful study of fossils and anatomy. Rather than a book that shows you how to draw a dinosaur, The Palaeoartist’s Handbook is a fantastically useful primer for both aficionados and budding artists into what actually can and should go into making good palaeoart.
Where do fossils belong? Should they be housed in museums, available for study by scientists to learn more about our planet’s deep history? Or can they be treated like exclusive souvenirs, traded and auctioned on a market that stocks the private collections of rich people? Journalist Paige Williams here tells the full story, warts and all, of a high-profile auction gone awry. She initially reported on this in 2013 in the New Yorker. Up for sale? A fully reconstructed skeleton of Tarbosaurus bataar, the Asian cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex.
Before plate tectonics became an accepted idea in geology, Lyell’s doctrine of uniformitarianism still ruled supreme (see my review of Cataclysms: A New Geology for the Twenty-First Century for a short introduction). A corollary was that the continents supposedly had always been where they are now. One observation scholars had to explain away was that the same fossils occur on both sides of the various oceans. Looking at maps, some people noticed the thin strip of land connecting North and South America and concluded that land bridges must have formed and sunk beneath the waves at just the right times in history to enable migrations (see Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences: From Heresy to Truth for more details). As explained in The Tectonic Plates are Moving!, we know better nowadays. Nevertheless, the concept of land bridges is still alive and well today, and palaeobotanist Alan Graham here introduces five of them, exploring their effects on biogeography, climate, and human history.
This book is an example of what happens when you go down rabbit holes. I have been reading several books on the subject of palaeontology and geology lately, and I know that the face of the earth has shifted over the hundreds of millions of years of deep history covered in these books. But where were all the continents at different times? Many will have seen the iconic maps of the supercontinent Pangaea. But I want to know more. What happened in between? And before? As Nield tells in Supercontinent: 10 Billion Years in the Life of Our Planet, Pangaea was only one of several such supercontinents in Earth’s history. But I want to know more still. Where exactly were the continents located? And how did they move? Several accessible books have provided snapshots of iconic moments, such as the formation of the Himalayas (Mike Searle’s Colliding Continents: A Geological Exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, & Tibet) or the disappearance of the Tethys ocean (Dorrik Stow’s Vanished Ocean: How Tethys Reshaped the World). But I want to know more! This technical reference work contains lots of fantastic palaeogeographical maps that answered all my questions.
It should have been a straightforward expedition. As a young career palaeontologist, Nick Pyenson found himself in the Atacama desert of Chile, tasked with mapping rock layers to establish a continuous chronology that would help dating fossils found in the area. Whale fossils, Pyenson’s speciality, are rarely found complete, which is true of most fossils. So what do you do when a colleague takes you to the construction site of a new highway and shows you not one, not several, but literally dozens of complete fossil whale skeletons? It represented a treasure trove for science, but retrieving the material before the highway constructors would move in was also a daunting, labour-intensive task that could make or break careers. I almost found myself standing next to Pyenson in the dusty clearing, the Chilean sun beating down on me as he faced this dilemma. This is just one of several immersive narratives recounted in Spying on Whales, which successfully blends travelogue and popular science.