Given my academic background, I often overlook the fact that fossils are not just objects of scientific study, but also sought-after collectables. While the previously reviewed Trilobite! by Richard Fortey focused on the former aspect, Andy Secher’s Travels with Trilobites combines an enthusiastic insider’s perspective of the world of trilobite collectors with photography of his extensive collection. This, then, is the second of a two-part dive into the world of that most enigmatic extinct creature: the trilobite.
This is the second of a two-part dive into the world of pterosaurs, following on from my review of Mark Witton’s 2013 book Pterosaurs. Almost a decade later, the well-known independent palaeontologist and palaeoartist Gregory S. Paul has written and illustrated The Princeton Field Guide to Pterosaurs. Admittedly, a field guide to extinct creatures sounds contradictory. Really, this is an illustrated guide for the palaeo-enthusiast in which Paul’s signature skeletal reconstructions take centre stage.
Scottish geologist Charles Lyell quipped that the present is the key to the past. To say that the reverse also holds is more than just circular reasoning. Felisa Smith, a professor in ecology and evolutionary biology, studies extinct mammals and applies this knowledge to the present. This book is a neatly crafted package that gives the reader all the required background knowledge, while its case studies make for fascinating reading. (Spoiler alert: packrat middens are my new favourite discovery.)
Not so long ago, the idea that giant reptiles once roamed the earth was novel, unbelievable to some, but their reign represents only one part of deep time. Go back further in time, to the Carboniferous (358.9 to 298.9 million years ago), and you will find a world of giants as bizarre and otherworldly as the dinosaurs must have once seemed to us. A world where clubmoss trees grew up to 50 metres tall, with scorpions as large as dogs and flying insects the size of seagulls. With Carboniferous Giants and Mass Extinction, palaeobiologist George McGhee, Jr. presents a scholarly but fascinating overview of the rise and fall of this lost world, and why it still matters to us.
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.