From Skeletor to the Danse Macabre, from Army of Darkness to ossuaries and holy relics – despite being largely hidden in life, skeletons are some of the most recognizable structures that nature has produced. Science writer Brian Switek has written a sizzling little book with Skeleton Keys* that delves into both the biological and cultural significance of human bones, showing them to be more than just a powerful reminder of death and mortality.
One fond memory I have of studying biology at Leiden University in the Netherlands was a behind-the-scenes tour for first-year students at the then brand new location of Naturalis Biodiversity Center. This included a tour of the main tower housing the scientific collection normally off-limits to the general public. This is the domain of the museum curator, but their work involves much more than spending time amidst storage cabinets. To get a good idea just how diverse this job is, look no further than this lively and beautifully presented memoir. Here, Lance Grande tells of his career of more than thirty years as a curator at the Field Museum in Chicago.
Animal anatomy has fascinated artists and scientists for millennia, resulting in a treasure trove of striking images. Veterinary anatomist David Bainbridge here takes on the brave task of curating a bird’s-eye-view of anatomical artwork that simultaneously delights, educates, and (for some perhaps) horrifies.
When you think of an animal, you will most likely think of a vertebrate. Since we are animals with a backbone ourselves, it is not strange that that which is closest to us comes to mind first. But when and how did vertebrates evolve? To answer that question, Nature editor Henry Gee takes a good hard look at invertebrates, convincing the reader that they are not all equal. More than 20 years ago, Gee wrote Before the Backbone: Views on the Origin of the Vertebrates, which took a look at historical explanations for the origins of vertebrates. Which group of invertebrates is closest to us remains a topic of active research and Across the Bridge brings readers up to date with our current thinking.
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.
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.
Six years ago (is it already that long?) Katrina van Grouw blew me away with her gorgeously illustrated book The Unfeathered Bird, which gave a unique insight into bird anatomy. Her new book, Unnatural Selection, again features her unique combination of accessibly written text and lavish illustrations. The book celebrates the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. In this and in On the Origin of Species, Darwin frequently referred to the rapid changes that breeders could bring about in plants and animals to make evolution understandable. And yet, biologists and naturalists don’t generally hold breeders and their breeds in high regard. In that sense, Unnatural Selection also celebrates their work and knowledge.