Book review – Dinopedia: A Brief Compendium of Dinosaur Lore

6-minute read

In 2019, Princeton University Press published Fungipedia, being a brief compendium of mushroom lore. The format was clearly successful, because in 2021 they expanded the concept into a small series, adding books about flowers, birds, trees, and now dinosaurs. A further two on geology and insects are in the making. Each of these is illustrated, pocket-sized A-Z miscellanies with a hardback, cloth cover that is very giftable. In Dinopedia, palaeontologist Darren Naish has written 75 entries on dinosaurs and relevant people and places, and added a selection of his illustrations. Is October too early to start talking about stocking fillers?

Dinopedia

Dinopedia: A Brief Compendium of Dinosaur Lore, written by Darren Naish, published by Princeton University Press in October 2021 (hardback, 195 pages)

As the preface clarifies, Naish’s vision for this book changed several times during the writing process. Initially, he wanted to discuss how the portrayal of dinosaurs in popular culture has changed over time, which sounds like a very interesting concept worth exploring further in the future. But to do so required him to introduce more and more dinosaur groups. This in turn flagged up the question of how higher-level clades are related to each other, which dinosaurs are part of which clade, and where on the tree of life they belong. This, too, could be a book in itself (and a technical one to boot, as Naish quickly realised). The reason I mention this preamble is that the resulting Dinopedia retains all these ideas. Naish almost apologetically admits that in such a short book his coverage will be limited, and his choice of topics idiosyncratic.

Dinopedia internal 1Reading Dinopedia it indeed quickly becomes clear that Naish is very interested in higher-level taxonomy. Out of the 75 entries, no fewer than 42 cover a major dinosaur clade. This includes ones that you would reasonably expect, such as the two historical supergroups Saurischia and Ornithischia, or the recently proposed Ornithoscelida taxon, but also emblematic taxa such as sauropods, theropods, ceratopsians, or hadrosaurs. However, Naish digs deeper than that, covering smaller taxa more familiar to specialists, such as alvarezsaurs, heterodontosaurids, rhabdodontomorphs, and turiasaurs, to name but a few examples. Most of these entries cover some biology and some history, but inevitably the descriptions turn back to taxonomical relationships.

“Reading Dinopedia it […] quickly becomes clear that Naish is very interested in higher-level taxonomy. Out of the 75 entries, no fewer than 42 cover a major dinosaur clade.”

I have two minor gripes with this approach. First is that the A-Z format of the book does not allow you to discuss groups in a logical order. For example, you will first encounter several lower-level theropod clades that are nested inside of maniraptorans, then read about coelorusaurs (a clade containing maniraptorans and other theropod clades), before you get to read about maniraptorans. Every entry does refer to other relevant entries included in the book, but you will be jumping back and forth both in the book and the family tree. Second, unless you are familiar with the terminology, it quickly becomes a flurry of group names. Especially once you start discussing nomenclatural subtleties such as the difference between Megalosauridae, Megalosauria, and Megalosauroidea (each of these is nested inside the next one). Naish does a fantastic job here in being brief and to the point when summarising group relationships and the progress in our understanding. Still, to do this justice, in my opinion, you need illustrations of family trees showing the various scenarios. Even small, in-line sketches would suffice. I hope Naish will consider this if he does get around to writing the bigger book on the evolution of dinosaur taxonomy that he envisions. Clearly he has both the knowledge to write an in-depth, technical treatment on this topic and the skill to craft it into a satisfying narrative.

Dinopedia internal 2The preface mentions Dinopedia is a fairly deep dive into dinosaur diversity and, I will be honest, I feel this has gone a bit at the expense of covering other topics. There are seven entries each on iconic species or genera, famous palaeontologists, and significant fossil localities. But there are only three entries each on cladistic hypotheses, biological topics such as anatomy and behaviour, significant events such as the Bone Wars or the Dinosaur Renaissance, or notable cultural expressions such as books, movies, or artwork.

Naish has chosen to highlight the more recent history of palaeontology, particularly the Dinosaur Renaissance from the 1970s onwards. He includes short biographies of living palaeontologists such as Paul Sereno, Robert Bakker (of Dinosaur Heresies-fame), or Jack Horner, all of whom played significant roles in changing how we think of dinosaurs: not as dim-witted brutes, but as smart, well-adapted creatures. Of course, an influential movie such as Jurassic Park features – deservedly so, seeing how many people it drew into the field. When it comes to books on the history of palaeontology, this recent era is not much discussed (Naish’s Great Dinosaur Discoveries being a notable exception) so this is very welcome coverage.

“When it comes to books on the history of palaeontology, [the story of the Dinosaur Renaissance] is still very much a chapter that needs to be written, so it is fantastic to see Naish make a start with it here.”

Fortunately, the book never succumbs to hero-worship. Cope and Marsh made major contributions to science but left a huge mess for other researchers to sort out, and Cope had “appaling racist and sexist” views. Naish concludes that “Cope and Marsh probably saw themselves as heroes, but I don’t think the rest of us should” (p. 31). Bakker and John Ostrom were far from the sole reason the Dinosaur Renaissance happened, argues Naish; there was much else in the air. He is similarly not afraid to voice his opinion that the small minority who continue to Dinopedia internal 3argue that birds are not dinosaurs, despite the mountain of evidence against it, are wasting people’s time and “that their continual gaslighting and sniping has done little more than make evolutionary science look weaker […] than it is” (p. 26). Take that, you BANDits!*

The book is livened up by a selection of Naish’s illustrations. I am still undecided whether I like them or not. The close-ups on the endpapers highlight the detail of the drawings, much of which is lost in the small reproductions here. To my taste, his style of drawing works great for anatomical details such as bones, but some full-body reconstructions look a bit cartoonish to me.

Overall, Dinopedia is both a book of well-written trivia to be whipped out at a dinner party and an up-to-date primer on dinosaur diversity. Although it feels too early to already be talking affordable stocking fillers, this is a sure-fire gift for the dino fan in your life who does not need another lightweight pop-science book but would appreciate something with a bit more substance.


* Listeners of the Tetrapod Zoology Podcast will no doubt agree this needs to be said in John Conway’s voice.

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

Dinopedia

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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Princeton’s Pedia Books:

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