BOOK REVIEW, GUEST POST & GIVEAWAY: Ancient Earth Journal: The Early Cretaceous

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Artist Juan Carlos Alonso’s new book Ancient Earth Journal: The Early Cretaceous (Lake Forest, CA: Walter Foster Jr., 2015, 112 pp.), co-authored with paleoartist Gregory S. Paul, is unlike any dinosaur book for young readers I’ve seen.

It combines two things I really love: learning about dinosaurs and natural history illustration. Alonso introduces the reader to dinosaurs and other creatures from a 44 million year slice of Earth’s history. This is a welcome focus for a dinosaur book, since nearly every dinosaur book attempts to cover the whole period of dinosaur history, excluding bird evolution to the present (165 million years).


This slim approach allows the book to cover a more diverse group of creatures than would otherwise be possible, with new species names to learn. And the depiction of these dinosaurs, praised by paleontologists, is done in a nature journal fashion, as if the artist is encountering them as wildlife on a nature trip. This helps to see these animals as actual, living entities, and Alonso treats us to full size illustrations as well as close up examinations of interesting anatomy. The journal is organized by different dinosaur groups (Theropods, Sauropods, Ornithiscians, Pterosaurs, and First Birds), and an introduction nicely places this wildlife in context of Earth’s geologic history and discusses what kind of plants coexisted with dinosaurs of the Early Cretaceous.

Alonso was kind enough to write a guest post for The Dispersal of Darwin (for the book’s blog tour), which I share here:

As a child I was obsessed with dinosaurs. Their size, ferocity and the fact that they’re extinct all played into their mystique. They presented more questions than answers. Back then, they were much stranger than how they are viewed now. Dinosaurs were seen as massive lumbering monsters, angrily snapping at anything within their reach. Scientists believed that the very largest were too large to support their own bodies, so they were relegated to living in the water. Everything about them seemed unnatural. They were slow, dumb and doomed to be extinct – they were an evolutionary dead end. As a matter of fact, the very word dinosaur is synonymous with outdated or extinct. Movies, books and toys also did a pretty good job of confusing our perception of prehistory as well. It seemed every movie I ever watched as a child had all prehistoric beasts like Tyrannosaurus, Brontosaurus, saber-toothed tiger and sometimes man coexisting in one chaotic time period. The truth is much more interesting and complex.

For being called a “dead end” it turns out dinosaurs were around for a long time –165 million years to be precise. If you consider our species (Homo sapiens) has been around for about 200 thousand years that was a pretty successful run. As a matter of fact, there is a greater time span between Brontosaurus and Tyrannosaurus rex (83 million years) than there is between the last Tyrannosaurus and humans (65 million years). We now know that some modern birds are the descendants of the theropod dinosaurs, so they haven’t even become extinct.

As time passed, the strange unreal monsters that I knew as a child became as extinct as the dinosaurs themselves. Dinosaurs are, and always were animals. Animals that, like any today, ate, bred and fought to stay alive to ensure the species and bloodline would continue. The mystique I knew as a child was replaced by scientific curiosity as these “monsters” became even more intriguing to me. For me prehistoric life represents a perfect amalgamation of science, fantasy and art. All three work in unison to recreate wildlife long extinct using fact, research and some speculation based on living animals to fill in the gaps.

Seven years ago I became a father. I began to re-experience childhood wonder and curiosity through the eyes of my daughter as she grew older. It brought me back to my own childhood and inspired me to write Ancient Earth Journal: The Early Cretaceous. I set out to create drawings that represented an artist’s first-hand account of studying extinct animals through a naturalist’s notebook. Much like John James Audubon, documenting bird species from previously undiscovered lands. The intent was not only to bring these animals back to life, but also to capture a snapshot of life in a 38 million year window called the Early Cretaceous. By dedicating the book to half of one period of the Mesozoic, I was able to look closely at some species rarely featured in other books and illustrate details and features that make each unique. These are the types of books that sparked my interest in both science and art as a child and it is my goal to share my interest with children.

Ultimately, I hope to write and illustrate more books in the series, each dedicated to a specific time period. This will give perspective on how some species evolved into others and illustrate Earth’s rich history of past wildlife and how our animals came to be.

The next stop on the blog tour, on August 31, is at The Children’s Book Review. And the publisher has a neat little video about the book here. I am delighted to learn that Alonso plans to continue Ancient Earth Journal books for other time periods. My interest in dinosaurs started when I was 15 and led me to a broader interest in the history of science and Darwin and evolution. And now, the giveaway!

The giveaway:

To enter for a chance to win a signed copy of Ancient Earth Journal: The Early Cretaceous (courtesy of the publisher), please comment on this post telling me what your favorite prehistoric animal is or about an interesting museum experience dealing with paleontology. Giveaway open to residents of US or Canada only. From the entries I will randomly pick a winner. The contest will be open until Friday, September 4, midnight PST. If you would like to enter without commenting on the blog, you can send me an email at darwinsbulldog AT gmail DOT com. Good luck!

19 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW, GUEST POST & GIVEAWAY: Ancient Earth Journal: The Early Cretaceous

  1. ” We now know that some modern birds are the descendants of the theropod dinosaurs, so they haven’t even become extinct.”
    *Some* modern birds? All birds, unless you are suggesting that ‘birds’ are polyphyletic

  2. Wow, very cool! At last, someone mentions plants of that period as well.

    The publisher is just down the street from my home. I didn’t know they published science books. A look at their website shows this to be the only one. Let’s hope they keep publishing more of them.

    Thank you,

    -Bob Allen Adjunct Professor of Biology, Golden West College Research Associate in Entomology, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County Research Associate, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden Author, Wildflowers of Orange County and the Santa Ana Mountains


  3. I couldn’t pick just one “favorite” prehistoric animal, anymore than I could pick one favorite living one, or a favorite book. But I do have an interesting museum experience! I’m not entirely sure what museum though; possibly the Science Center in Iowa. But I was just coming into my dino-crazy phase (currently in its 29th year) when Horner discovered the Hell Creek nests. The museum had an awesome huge maiasaur nest for kids to play in; all padded inside, and with “mother” dinosaurs to guard us. I must have played there for an hour, imagining being a baby dinosaur. I didn’t want to go home.

  4. Some of my favorite animals are mostly confined to the toothless groups of Sauropsidan, but I think if I had to pick amongst the birds, turtles, oviraptorid theropods, and pterosaurs (and outside reptiles, pangolins) I would have to pick the fun and never boring placodonts, especially Psephoderma, which never really gets that much love, but should. It’s nearly toothless, but not quite, amongst a group that almost achieve total toothlessness. Why they didn’t but managed to diversify so well in such a short time (middle to late Triassic) is something that fascinates me. Otherwise, dicynodontians are ever cool beasties which did manage to lose teeth and, aside from whales, include the largest Theropsida without teeth. Such coolness.

  5. As much as I like studying dinosaurs, my own ancient ancestors have also held a special fascination for me. So my favorite prehistoric animals (yes, I have trouble picking a single favorite!) would be the dinosaur Allosaurus and the synapsid Dimetrodon. FYI: one of my favorite museum experiences was at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, which I visited several years ago on a field trip for my undergraduate Geobiology course at Penn State. Awesome to not only see the displays but also go behind the scenes to see their collections!!! 😉

  6. I remember being five or six when my family visited the Utah Field House if Natural History in Vernal, Utah. I was fascinated by all the displays, but the best part was when I kind worker saw how interested I was, and brought me into the back to see some of the collections. I felt like such a VIP!

  7. My favourite prehistoric animals is the Rolling Downs Dicynodont.
    In 1914 six fragments of fossil bone were collected from Alderly station, a property in North Western Queensland. They were a partial skull of a dicynodont, an extinct group of animals distantly related to mammals. Tubby, beaky, tusked animals, they are in general pretty dopey looking and adorable in their own weird way.
    They were at their most successful during the end of the Permian and the start of the Triassic, and were more or less extinct by the time the Triassic period drew to a close.

    Except those six fragments of bone were from an early Cretaceous rock formation. Almost doubling the amount of time dicynodonts roamed the earth.
    I love dicynodonts, and as an Australian, I love that almost nothing here goes extinct on time.

  8. I still love the early bird Archaeopteryx? The nasty looking
    Dinosaurio Diablo? Durn, we have found new dinosaur species here in the Grand Staircase Escalante Natl Monument that still haven’t been named!! Still like the ‘megatherium americanum’ too….

  9. My best museum experience is one that is led by Dr. Donald Prothero. I’m fortunate to be able to have such experiences. I was part of a geology tour that stopped at the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm in Utah. Dr. Prothero had so many interesting and enlightening things to say as always, and he was able to have two distinguished paleontologists show up at the museum just for us to give us a personalized tour of all the great dinosaur discoveries they have there: the dinosaur footprints and what the tracks mean, newly discovered bones in the back of the museum that were being cleaned and were possibly newly found species, personal anecdotes of discovery and research. I mean, really, when a paleontologist stands there and says that the skull in front of you could possibly be something new-to-us, that’s profound. It inspires me to never stop learning, never stop exploring.

  10. My favorite prehistoric animal is plesiosaur. It is simply mind-boggling to think that these marine creatures once existed. Their fossils look really cool, too! 🙂

  11. Carcharodon Megalodon. Maybe he was alive during this time period, maybe he wasn’t. All i know is this; he was the biggest, baddest, and most awesome thing to ever live on this earth. If it was in the water, it was lunch to this prehistoric monster. And mostly all we have are teeth, which are freaking awesome, to let us know it lived at some point in our history. I don’t think we would be such water enthusiast if this thing was still alive and swimming in our oceans.

  12. The paleontology lab here in Kanab does offer incredible volunteer experiences, speak of living the real act of discovery — come to the Grand Staircase Escalanate National Monument !

  13. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol. #07 | Whewell's Ghost

  14. It’s really hard to narrow down a favourite prehistoric animal. Of course, what got me interested in paleontology as a young lad were the dinosaurs, so if I had to pick one of them, i’d choose the Parasaurolophus! There’s just something about that unique giant crest. Since I actually started studying paleontology my area of research has shifted to the older critters… marine invertebrates of the early Paleozoic. If I had to pick a favourite among those I’d have to go with the humble trilobite – my province is home to the world’s largest articulated trilobite (Isotelus rex), which is on display in several museums.

  15. Alright I’ll play. I’m kind of torn between Megatherium and the “terror birds,” Phorusrhacidae. Seeing Megatherium was a highlight of a trip to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in D.C. many years ago (it’s not currently on display). I have never seen the bones of a terror bird, but I would love to some day!

  16. I would so love to read this book since I teach a lesson on Darwin in my evolution class. The illustrations look great. Please enter me into the lottery to win a copy. Do you ask for a mailing address after we win? Thanks!

  17. Thank you all for sharing about your favorite prehistoric animals or about a neat museum experience. Out of all the entries (a few came through email, too), the randomly picked winner is:

    Andrew Beach

    Watch your email for a message from me, Andrew!

  18. Pingback: BOOK: Ancient Earth Journal: The Late Jurassic | The Dispersal of Darwin

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