What is better than a good dinosaur story? How about 25 of them? Geologist and palaeontologist Donald R. Prothero returns to Columbia University Press for the third book in this format. Having covered fossils and rocks, he now serves up 25 fascinating vignettes of famous dinosaurs and the people who discovered them.
Prothero here has both chronology and dinosaur taxonomy by which to organise his chapters, starting in Britain with the very first dinosaur discoveries. He tells of Gideon Mantell and Iguanodon, Richard Owen (who founded what is now the London Natural History Museum) and Cetiosaurus, as well as the first dinosaurs in America. And no book taking the historical perspective would be complete without the infamous “Scrotum humanum“.
The remainder of the book is carved up in sections dealing with the long-necked sauropods, the carnivorous theropods, and the horned, spiked, armoured, and beaked ornithischians. This includes everyone’s favourites (Stegosaurus, Diplodocus, Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops) and other lesser-known species that have been very influential scientifically.
“[…] you get far more than just 25 dinosaurs here. Many vignettes are mini-reviews of whole dinosaur families, bringing you up to speed on recent developments in palaeontology.”
But you get far more than just 25 dinosaurs here. Many vignettes are mini-reviews of whole dinosaur families, bringing you up to speed on recent developments in palaeontology. So, the chapter on Patagotitan from Argentina reviews the family tree of the sauropods, while the chapter on Giganotosaurus does the same for the theropods. The one on Deinocheirus explains more about the bizarre herbivorous(!) theropod therizinosaurs, and the chapter on Sinosauropteryx digs into feather evolution. Of course, with a field so vast, you cannot cover everything – the size of encyclopedic reference works such as The Dinosauria or The Complete Dinosaur should give anyone cause for a double-take. Even so, I was secretly mildly disappointed that the chapter on ankylosaurs did not profile the wonderful work of Canadian palaeontologist Victoria Arbour on tail club evolution (see also episode 53 of the Palaeocast podcast).
What did enthuse me as soon as I read the book’s flap text was the promise of a “clear and rigorous look at what palaeontologists consider sound interpretation of evidence”. Would I like to know more about how we know what we know? Yes please! A substantial part of that consists of nomenclatural issues. Early scholars often named species and genera based on scrappy and fragmentary fossils, something that reached a fever pitch during the so-called Bone Wars (more on that below). With time and more discoveries, many such names are now considered invalid or synonymous when material described as several species actually belonged to one species. This covers the famous case of Apatosaurus / Brontosaurus – the latter technically not valid – but also cases probably only know to palaeontologists. Is Torosaurus is a species proper, or a just a mature specimen of Triceratops? The consensus leans towards the former.
“Early scholars often named species and genera based on scrappy and fragmentary fossils, something that reached a fever pitch during the so-called Bone Wars […] many such names are now considered invalid or synonymous “
It is not all nomenclature though, there is plenty of attention for the biology. Why sauropods were not aquatic, and how we can estimate their size and mass. What evidence led to the realisation that dinosaurs were not sluggish, tail-dragging reptiles and how we figured out their posture. How we became convinced that birds descended from theropod dinosaurs and how amazing fossils revealed (proto)feathers on many. Or how we know more about metabolism, reproduction, growth and maturation, and even skin colour! There is an awful lot of very educational material woven into this book, with a balanced overview of ongoing discussions and different schools of thought. And Prothero deals out some healthy correctives where popular media and movies have been getting the science all wrong.
A starring role is reserved for the colourful cast of characters who dug up and described all these dinosaurs, both fossil hunters and palaeontologists. This includes, of course, O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope and their fierce rivalry known as the Bone Wars. Museum staff whose names I encountered while reviewing Assembling the Dinosaur and American Dinosaur Abroad. Fossil hunters such as workaholic John Bell Hatcher, the eccentric Austro-Hungarian Baron Franz Nopcsa, the flamboyant Roy Chapman Andrews who led a series of ambitious expeditions into the heartland of Mongolia in the 1920s, or Barnum Brown. But also researchers who have yet to be the subject of a biography and are therefore less well known to the general public, such as José Bonaparte, who through exceedingly hard work has single-handedly put Argentina on the palaeontological map. Their stories and adventures are worth the price of admission alone.
“A starring role is reserved for the colourful cast of characters, both fossil hunters and palaeontologists, […] Their stories and adventures are worth the price of admission alone.”
The book is liberally illustrated with black-and-white photos and drawings, both historical and contemporary. As with his previous book, this works for most illustrations, but some are either too dark or too drab (the reconstructions by Nobu Tamura would have been better off reproduced in colour). There are photos of amazing museum displays that I would love to see myself one day (the wall of not-yet-excavated dinosaur bones in Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument Quarry Visitors Center, or the wall of skulls showing the ceratopsian family tree at the Utah Museum of Natural History). Not to mention the photos of exceptionally preserved fossils (the nodosaur mummy retrieved from Alberta’s tar sands beggars belief!)
The Story of Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries bubbles over with the same love for the field that characterised Brusatte’s The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs and Benton’s The Dinosaurs Rediscovered, making it a must-read for dinosaur enthusiasts. You might think that with three books Prothero’s approach is becoming formulaic (indeed, a fourth book, The Story of Evolution in 25 Discoveries, has already been announced for later this year), but when a formula is this well-executed, I, for one, am hungrily eyeing up the next book.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
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