Book review – Europasaurus: Life on Jurassic Islands / Urzeitinseln voller Leben

6-minute read

One appropriate way to start this review would be with “once upon a time…”. Europasaurus uses the unusual medium of a graphic novel to tell the story of Europe’s very own dwarf sauropod dinosaur that roamed the continent some 154 million years ago. The brainchild of palaeontologist Oliver Wings and palaeoartist Joschua Knüppe, this beautifully illustrated bilingual book is the perfect gift for the younger dinosaur enthusiast. The realistic tone of the story and the addition of a more serious factual section at the end, however, make this book attractive for a mature audience as well.

Europasaurus

Europasaurus: Life on Jurassic Islands / Urzeitinseln voller Leben, written by Oliver Wings, illustrated by Joschua Knüppe, published by Verlag Dr. Friedrich Pfeil in November 2020 (hardback, 184 pages)

I was very taken with Knüppe’s style. His illustrations resemble oil paintings and aim for atmosphere rather than photorealism. He uses detail to focus your attention on the story’s protagonists while drawing the background in, quite literally, broad brushstrokes. Some of these images are incredibly atmospheric – I found the sleeping juvenile Europasaurus on page 118-119 particularly memorable.

The premise of the story is fairly basic. We follow a Europasaurus herd as they go about their daily lives when tragedy strikes. A lone survivor has to fend for itself afterwards, but will it manage? I cannot say much more without spoiling the story. But what I can say is that Wings and Knüppe choose for a realistic story that has its moments of drama without being a contrived plot full of spectacular but unlikely set pieces.

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This realistic approach also shines through in the graphic part of this graphic novel – numerous calm scenes simply depict animals resting, eating, or otherwise going about their daily business. Much attention has been paid to the vegetation and small fauna. If you look closely, each page reveals molluscs, insects, and little mammalian critters everywhere.

“I was very taken with Knüppe’s style […] some of these images are incredibly atmospheric […]”

It is tempting to think that Knüppe took to heart some tips from Mark Witton’s Palaeoartist’s Handbook. Thus, the mating call of the marine crocodile Machimosaurus shown on page 18 is a nice example of studying animals alive today to reconstruct possible past behaviour. The launch sequence of a eupterodactyloid pterosaur on page 82 seems closely informed by the work of Witton and others. The depiction of a male Europasaurus inflating a throat pouch – not unlike a male frigatebird – to sound a warning call might be more speculative. Knüppe is not afraid to reconstruct soft tissues, showing us (quite literally) fleshed-out animals with bulges, curves, and skin flaps. I am sure that professionals could provide a more detailed and informed opinion than I do here now, and I would be interested in reading reviews from the likes of Darren Naish or others.

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The layout of the book is somewhat unusual for a graphic novel, but very effective: a single two-page spread shows the main scene, while boxes dotted around each page pick out details. Other graphical highlights are the use of varied and sometimes dramatic perspectives and, always a personal favourite, illustrated endpapers with classy pencil sketches of all the depicted fauna. Europasaurus is a physically smaller book than you might expect (21.6 × 23 cm) with a sturdy case-printed hardback binding. As usual with books from Pfeil, the production values are high. Since the publisher is German, and a significant part of the audience will be young German readers, the decision to publish the book fully bilingual in German and English should maximise its reach.

Now, if this was all there was to the book you would have a nicely produced children’s book that would appeal to those with a soft spot for palaeoart. What makes the book attractive to a mature audience is the richly illustrated 40-page section at the end that discusses the science. It introduces the excavations in the German Langenberg quarry and then systematically works its way through the depicted plants, invertebrates, fish, crocodiles, turtles, dinosaurs, and mammals. It also highlights some of the assumptions: not all depicted species have been found at Langenberg. The authors have looked at the more numerous finds from the Solnhofen quarry some 450 km to the south to draw up a reasonable picture of the flora and fauna. These vignettes are fairly brief and their level is such that this material is easily accessible to those readers with little background in palaeontology. Older children will no doubt drink up these details.

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“What makes the book attractive to a mature audience is the richly illustrated 40-page section at the end that discusses the science.”

My only criticism is that there is not all that much information here on Europasaurus itself. Given it is the star of this book, the four pages with effectively one page of text strike me as too little. I would not at all have minded dedicating, say, ten pages to a mini-literature review, complete with references to the scientific literature.

How, for example, do we know that Europasaurus holgeri is an example of island dwarfism? And that the small individuals we found were fully grown adults? The 2006 Nature paper that described the species explains how bone histological studies showed the presence of so-called lines of arrested growth. There is, furthermore, an interesting historical precedent here. Already back in 1912, the eccentric Hungarian aristocrat Franz Nopcsa argued that the small dinosaurs found in Transylvania were island dwarfs. And there is the palaeogeography: throughout the Jurassic and Cretaceous, large parts of Europe were an archipelago bordering the Tethys ocean that was slowly closing as tectonic plates moved to meet each other. There are interesting stories surrounding Europasaurus that could have been explored further. [edit: the authors have since confirmed that they initially wanted to include much more information on Europasaurus, but that constraints on size and pricing of the book prevented them from doing so.]

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You might not immediately think of comics as a vehicle for science popularisation, but you would be mistaken. There has been a recent trend of celebrating the lives of famous naturalists, explorers, and male and female scientists in graphic novels. And looking further into it, there is even somewhat of a tradition of dinosaur graphic novels that try to depict them (reasonably) seriously: from Ricardo Delgado’s Age of Reptiles and Stephen Bissette’s Tyrant dating back to the ’90s, to Jim Lawson’s Paleo series that began in 2001 or the recent Sue from 2019, to name but a few examples. Europasaurus stands out for making explicit the scientific background on which it draws. With the gifting season upon us, this would make an excellent present and a treasured keepsake for dinosaur enthusiasts of all ages.


Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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Europasaurus hardback

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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