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Book Review: The Princeton Field Guide To Dinosaurs, Edited by Gregory S. Paul

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Having lived less than a half century, I yet marvel at the speed with which science and human knowledge of its place in the cosmos has changed. Within my lifetime, man has ventured on to the moon; satellites have landed on other planets, dove into Jupiter’s clouds, sped out beyond Pluto and into interstellar space; the Hubble telescope has peered back billions of years into the cosmos; medical marvels have come aplenty; and even our understanding of the earth’s past has radically altered.

Just in my brief lifetime we have learnt the earth was once a glaciated iceball, that life arose within a few hundred million years of the planet’s formation, that for over three billion years life was no more complex than simple bacteria and viruses, that there are regular extinction events that almost kill life off, then spur its growth and radiation, that the planet’s biosphere seems to have its own Gaia effect, that mankind is older than we thought, that the Americas (and whole prehistoric world) were much more connected than we thought, and, most intriguingly, that almost all we knew of dinosaurs, from the books I perused and grew up on, which were published in the 1950s and 1960s, is wrong. Dinosaurs were not slow, lumbering reptiles, but were as different from what we classically call reptiles as birds (which are likely dinosaurian descendents) or mammals are. Some had feathers and were warm blooded; they seem to have been extirpated by a confluence of events that included large scale vulcanism, the impact of a meteor near what is now the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico; and they were more diverse and confounding than we had guessed. I can only wonder how outdated and quaint our “early 21st Century Science” will seem to a child growing up half a century from now.

Few books illustrate this trend better than the 2010 The Princeton Field Guide To Dinosaurs, edited and illustrated by the well known Gregory S. Paul, a top flight illustrator, scientist and author with a long history of revolutionizing the modern conception of what dinosaurs were. In many ways, he is to the early part of this century what painter Charles R. Knight was to the early part of the 20th Century. In 1988, his book, Predatory Dinosaurs Of The World, became a sort of Bible for young wannabe paleontologists and illustrators, and was a de facto field guide for the Jurassic Park blockbuster films. This book is a less popular science sort of book, but nonetheless shows off Paul at his artistic and conceptual finest, as it is replete with all the latest knowledge of dinosaurian knowledge.

The first 20% or so of the 320 page book is a distillation of the sum and history of human knowledge of the ancient beasts to the present, with the last 80% being a detailed survey of a healthy selection of the known dinosaur species, in the manner of classical field guides of living animals and plants. Both portions of the book are easy to read, even if one is a newby or an old hand at the dinosaur game, and the book, overall, makes me wonder at the sort of awe I’d possess were this the first major book on dinosaurs that I cracked open at 6 or 7 years of age.

The book defines dinosaurs, and their differences from thecodonts, therapsids, and protodinosaurs, as well as discussing the 150 or so million year evolution of the Superorder that dinosaurs technically are, and which are divided into the orders of Saurischia and Ornithschia ( a reversal of older classifications). The book admits that the causes of their ultimate extinction (save for birds) is not known, although the aforementioned usual suspects had a hand in the demise. Dinosaurian biology gets a good going over, including the reviving of an older claim that dinosaurs had lips. A couple decades ago this led to speculation of some dinosaurs — brachiosaurs and diplodoci — having elephantine trunks. Paul’s book does not venture that far, and sticks to the realm of the proved, not the speculative; although he does touch upon the old debate over what would have happened had not the K-T Impactor hit the earth 65 million years ago. Another interesting digression the book tackles is the topic of sexual dimorphism and whether or not certain fossils represent two species or different sexes of the same species.

Then the book turns to its field guide portion, wherein hundreds of genera and species are listed, with detailed information Here is a typical entry, and imagine my delight at knowing it was named after that most famous of all movie dinosaurs, Godzilla, although the species was given its Japanese variant. From page 74:

“Gojirasaurus quayi

“6m (20ft) TL, 150 kg (350 lb)

“FOSSIL REMAINS Small portion of skeleton.

“ANATOMICAL CHARACTERISTICS Insufficient information.

“AGE Late Triassic, Middle Norian.

“DISTRIBUTION AND FORMATION New Mexico; Cooper Canyon.

“HABITAT Well-watered forests, including dense stands of giant conifers.

“HABITS Prey included large prosauropods and thecodonts.

“NOTES Not known whether head crests were present.”

My only quibble with all these entries is that, for a layman, a designation of X mya, meaning X millions of years ago, should have been easily appended to the AGE section, so that an idea of the beginning and end of the species could be shown. Still, it’s a good system of cross reference that is given. As example, the guide makes a good cross referencing tool of older names that have been superseded, such as on page 105 where this heading for an entry — Albertosaurus ( = Gorgosaurus) libratus — tells older readers, like me, that our childhood favorite, Gorgosaurus (who shared a name with another famous movie dinosaur), has been rechristened. Unfortunately, like most renamings, due to scientific priority conventions, this is a terrible thing, for Gorgosaurus is an infinitely more fearsome name for the beast than Albertosaurus (Albert O. Saurus, anyone?).

Of course, the most egregious renaming of a genus in dinosaur history, and one which shows that scientific priority has FAR more to do with scientific ego than accuracy or aptness, is the horrendous renaming, shown on page 192: Apatosaurus (Brontosaurus) excelsus, wherein the great Thunder Lizard of yore has been reduced to the wholly inapt Deceptive Lizard of now. These sorts of scientific stupidities rank alongside the demotion of Pluto from a planet to a….dwarf planet. Enough said. Of interest, though, is this, from the same page, under Apatosaurus (Brontosaurus) parvus:

“NOTES Brontosaurus is the shorter, narrower-necked version of Apatosaurus from the lower and middle Morrison.”

Does this mean that there was a difference between the two? Does that mean that Brontosaurus could re-emerge as a species of the genus Apatosaurus? As Apatosaurus bronto (or brontii)? If so, that would satisfy both the supporters of the egotistical scientific priority and those enthusiasts for nominal aptness and coolness. Unfortunately, the entry does nothing to answer this query, but it is one of a number of entries that provokes queries in a reader, as well as satisfying most other ones.

The Princeton Field Guide To Dinosaurs is not the boldest book on dinosaurs ever published, in terms of historical speculations and claims, and it’s not even the best in terms of sheer volume of illustrations, but, in terms of sheer compendial value plus illustrations, it’s an excellent book, one of the best ever, and one which I wish was around in my youth, when all I had were dense textbooks and the old How And Why Wonder Books. Not that they were bad, but they were not this, and this “new” old world is one which I, as a child, had no idea preceded me. Now I do. Any book that has that sort of revelatory power is one to read, and read again.

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