BOOK REVIEW: The Complete Dinosaur

In 1993, the movie Jurassic Park and Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name sent me into a dinosaur frenzy. Over the next decade I visited most of the museums in southern California that had dinosaur displays, and attended many museum lectures with paleontologists. I checked out scores of books on dinosaurs from public libraries, and read through them like a mad man. I cherished a 1993 issue of National Geographic about changing theories in dinosaur science and eagerly awaited new issues of AMNH’s Natural History. I recorded episodes of PaleoWorld from The Learning Channel onto VHS (you know, when you could actually “learn” something from that station). And I joined the now defunct Dinosaur Society. I was a dinosaur nerd, in high school. It is through this concentrated must-read everything-I-can-about-dinosaurs-as-soon-as-possible phase that I became familiar with Charles Darwin and evolution. Many of the dinosaur books I read gave at least passing mention to them, if not a more devoted section about how times were changing in the nineteenth century, and how dinosaurs and other fossil remains fit in with this new evolutionary perspective. A decade later, I abandoned my plans to major in paleontology at Montana State University in Bozeman and was convinced to switch over to the history department. I majored in history, focusing on the history of science, especially Darwin and evolution. But living in Bozeman always afforded me a closeness to dinosaurs. On campus was the Museum of the Rockies, and while going to school there I was able to see the museum move on from older displays to a new dinosaur hall. And I took my son there – many times (many). He has scores of dinosaur figurines and books, talks about different species of dinosaurs, and we’re big fans of Dinosaur Train on PBS (thank you, Dr. Scott). While I did not become a paleontologist like I thought I would – but perhaps Patrick might – dinosaurs had not gone extinct in my life. Perhaps this is why I find value in the release of a second edition of The Complete Dinosaur. It is the perfect guide to dinosaurs for someone like me. I am not a trained paleontologist, so the mostly non-technical language in the book works nicely (unlike that of another large dinosaur reference book, The Dinosauria); but I am not foreign to some anatomical jargon (I did take several science courses, including one on dinosaur paleontology), so when some of the authors refer to fossae and trochanters, I am not in the dark.

The Complete Dinosaur

The Complete Dinosaur, edited by M.K. Brett Surman, Thomas R. Holtz, Jr., and James O. Farlow (and published by Indiana University Press, 2012), consists of 45 chapters by different authors in five parts: The Discovery of Dinosaurs, the Study of Dinosaurs, the Clades of Dinosaurs (think different groups), the Paleobiology of Dinosaurs, and Dinosaur Evolution in the Mesozoic. That first section on discovery attracts me the most, as a history buff and major. Chapters discuss early discoveries (it’s great to see reference to work from Adrienne Mayor on ancient civilizations’ perceptions of fossil bones), the anatomist Richard Owen and his creation of the term and group “dinosaur,” and four chapters on dinosaur discoveries in Europe, North America, Asia, and the southern continents. In the study section are chapters on bones, muscles, classification, geologic time, how technology advances the study of dinosaurs, museum exhibits, and how artists reconstruct dinosaurs. The middle section on different dinosaur groups is pretty straight forward. Choose a chapter to learn about dinosaurian ancestors, early dinosaurs, theropods (the meat-eaters), birds (yes, they get their own chapter!), prosauropods, sauropods (long-necked dinosaurs), stegosaurs, ankylosaurs, Marginocephalia (pachycephalosaurs and ceratopsians like Triceratops), and ornithopods (including the duck-billed dinosaurs). In the paleobiology section, one can brush up on dinosaur food and dung, sex, eggs, growth, disease, movement (as evidenced through trackways), metabolic physiology, among other topics – essentially, how dinosaurs lived.

The final section on evolution covers biogeography, faunas, extinction, and in the final chapter, “Dinosaurs and Evolutionary Theory,” the authors of which show how dinosaurs have not been utilized in evolutionary theories. Although Darwin surely knew of new fossil discoveries and Owen’s work on forming the new group of animals, there does not seem to be any significant mention of dinosaurs in his correspondence. While Padian and Burton suggest that Darwin steered clear of discussing dinosaurs as not to ruffle Owen’s feathers (for he thought differently than Darwin on evolutionary mechanisms), they are wrong to state that “Darwin does not mention dinosaurs in his published work, the watershed of evolutionary theory in Victorian times” (p. 1063). In later editions of On the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin refers to “dinosaurians” twice while discussing extinction in his chapter “On the Geological Succession of Organic Beings” (the first mention is in his third edition of 1861 and the second mention is his fifth edition of 1869). Historical quibble aside, the final chapter is an interesting overview of the role that dinosaurs as a group of extinct animals have played – or not played – in evolutionary thinking. For such a large book devoted to mostly science, it’s nice to see that science embedded by appreciation for the history of the field of dinosaur paleontology on both ends.

Throughout the book are scientific illustrations and other images, as well as a central section of colored plates of dinosaur art. Throw in individual chapter reference lists, an appendix on dinosaur websites, a glossary, and a very detailed 30 page 3-columned index, and you have a rather “complete dinosaur” book. May my son and I reference it often!

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One thought on “BOOK REVIEW: The Complete Dinosaur

  1. Pingback: BOOK REVIEW: The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs | The Dispersal of Darwin

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