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?
“It is worse, much worse, thank you think”. With these ominous words, David Wallace-Wells, deputy editor at New York magazine, starts his no-holds-barred story of climate catastrophe. Pulling together worst-case scenario predictions, he is hell-bent on scaring the living daylight out of his readers by sketching the manifold crises that loom in our near future if we let climate change develop unchecked. He proves a poetic agitator and I admire his outspokenness – I don’t think he is alarmist, but simply saying what many scientist are silently thinking. Whether this divisive approach is helpful is another question, and one for which he has been criticised. It is a price Wallace-Wells is willing to pay, because he thinks most people are not scared enough.
As one of several intellectuals who wrote about evolution before Darwin, time has not been kind to the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). Reviled during his lifetime by the influential Cuvier, after his death he became best remembered, and ultimately ridiculed, for the idea that characters acquired during an organism’s lifetime are passed on to its offspring. With the rise of the modern field of epigenetics, some of his ideas are making a comeback, albeit modified and adapted for the 21st Century. Palaeontologist and astrobiologist Peter Ward would even like to go so far as to restore some honour to his name and consider epigenetics a neo-Lamarckian process.
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 it comes to big volcanic eruptions, names such as Vesuvius, Mount Saint Helens, and Krakatau will ring a bell. But all of these are dwarfed by a far larger eruption that few outside of the science community will have heard of. Noted geologist, palaeontologist and author Donald R. Prothero here tells the story of the eruption of Mount Toba in what is nowadays Sumatra, Indonesia, some 74,000 years ago. An eruption so gargantuan that it almost wiped out the human race.
The story of human evolution is constantly being refined with new findings and there is a glut of accessible books that cover this topic from various angles. Yet, with The Cradle of Humanity, geography professor Mark Maslin manages to provide an interesting and novel take on the subject, showing the reader how a happy combination of larger factors conspired to influence and steer our evolutionary trajectory. It could have ended up so differently…
If I asked you to name the most endangered cetacean species, I doubt the vaquita would come to mind. You might mention the baiji, the dolphin living in China’s Yangtze river, but alas, no living members of this species have been seen for years, despite intense search efforts, and the species is presumed extinct. Unfortunately, the vaquita seems to be next in line. Biologist Brooke Bessesen here tells its sad story, revealing the complex world of species conservation.
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 specialty, 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.
The tropical birds-of-Paradise have fascinated generations of naturalists, from Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace (who risked life and limb to collect many specimens for museum holdings) to David Attenborough, who, together with Erroll Fuller, wrote Drawn From Paradise: The Discovery, Art and Natural History of the Birds of Paradise. They were at the centre of a Victorian fashion craze for bird feathers, which decimated many colourful bird families, but they were also at the heart of a far more obscure Victorian pastime: salmon fly-tying. A resurgence in interest led a young man to break into the ornithology collection of the Natural History Museum at Tring, stuff a suitcase with 299 specimens of various rare colourful bird species, and walk out again to sell their feathers.
Welcome to the story of the natural history heist of the century.
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.