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.
Like so many teenagers, I wanted to become a palaeontologist. However, there was no degree programme in palaeontology in the Netherlands back then (I doubt there is one nowadays), so I was advised that one option to prepare myself was to do a Master’s in biology or geology. I choose the former and never looked back, but remained fascinated with the latter. Now, twenty years later, my job exposes me to many geology textbooks and especially Cambridge University Press has a wonderful output of advanced-level books that I really want to read. But when I reviewed Earth History and Palaeogeography some time ago, I realised I was out of my depth and struggled with the jargon. Is it ever too late to start over and make an entry into a new field? I decided to shell out and invest in a textbook to find out.
What has plate tectonics ever done for us? Not having studied geology, I have a basic understanding of the movement of earth’s continents, but this book made me appreciate just how much of current geology it underpins. Marine geophysicist Roy Livermore, who retired from the British Antarctic Survey in 2006 after a 20-year career, convincingly shows here that the discovery and acceptance of plate tectonics was a turning point in geology, on par with Darwin’s formulation of evolution by natural selection. To paraphrase evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky: nothing in geology makes sense except in the light of plate tectonics.
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.
Dinosaurs. You could fill a library with the books written about them. Why write another one? Because the field is moving fast: new fossils are constantly being found, new species are being described, and new techniques allow us to ask completely new questions. Being a young career-palaeontologist at the top of your field is another good reason. And Steve Brusatte does not lack ambition. Rather than singling out any one topic, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs gives you the whole epic story, from the early beginnings right up to the abrupt end. Given the brief Brusatte has set himself he obviously doesn’t cover everything exhaustively, but he succeeds admirably in giving you a very relevant overview of where we are now.
Cephalopods, the group of molluscs that include the octopus, squid, cuttlefish and nautilus, are some of the most fascinating invertebrates to live in the world’s seas. Especially the octopus is famed for its intelligence and mind-bending acrobatics, being able to squeeze through the smallest hole. There have been some fantastic popular books on cephalopods recently, from William’s entertaining Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid to several works focusing on the octopus (Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life, Montgomery’s touching The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration of One of the World’s Most Intriguing Creatures, which made me tear up in more than one place, Mather et al.‘s Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate, and Harmon Courage’s Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea). But, as marine biologist Danna Staaf remarks, what’s been missing is a popular book on the evolution of cephalopods. Having been fascinated with them since childhood, she eventually decided to write Squid Empire. All hail the squid!
Was the asteroid impact that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs a one-off? Or are other mass extinctions in earth’s deep history perhaps also linked to impacts of extraterrestrial bodies? Many scientists are reluctant to accept this idea. In Cataclysms, Rampino argues that it is high time to cast off the spirit of Lyell that continues to haunt geological thinking and embrace a new era of catastrophism.
Aaaah… the Apocalypse. Who doesn’t love Hollywood’s favourite movie trope? The spectacle, the drama, and the foreboding knowledge that – oh, spoilers – everyone dies at the end. There has been no shortage of good eschatological writing in recent years. Some books to come to mind are Erwin’s imaginatively titled Extinction, Wignall’s recent The Worst of Times, or Alvarez’s T. rex and the Crater of Doom – those pesky dinosaurs remain a popular subject. Do we really need another popular science book about mass extinctions? Given the continued developments in our understanding, and given that you get not one, not two, but all five for the price of one, I’d say yes. As far as I can tell the last comparable book was Hallam & Wignall’s 1997 Mass Extinctions and their Aftermath, published by Oxford University Press, which was a more academic treatise. So, get your bucket of popcorn ready and roll on the Apocalypse!