BOOK REVIEW: Plesiosaur Peril

About a year ago I posted about two children’s books that combine interesting stories, beautiful illustrations, and factual information about dinosaurs and other extinct animals: Ankylosaur Attack and Pterosaur Trouble. Moving on to another group of extinct reptile, Daniel Loxton rounds out this trilogy in the Tales of Prehistoric Life series: Plesiosaur Peril (Tonawanda, NY: Kids Can Press, 2014, 32 pp.).

Plesiosaur Peril

Again combining beautiful digital illustrations with landscape photography (or should I say, seascape photography) by Loxton and Jim W.W. Smith, this book recounts the “day in the life” of a family of ocean-dwelling Cryptoclidus as they evade the hungry jaws of a much larger plesiosaur, Liopleurodon. Young readers will enjoy the action, while parents will appreciate the theme of family bonds. Educators will enjoy the current paleontological information (paleontologist Darren Naish was a consultant, and he posted on his blog a lot of information about plesiosaurs and the process of working on the book), while everyone will enjoy the beautiful rendering of plesiosaurs, ammonites, ichthyosaurs, and belemnites (squid-like creatures). This trilogy is perfect for science-minded kids, and would be great set of books to have on elementary school library shelves.

Spread from Plesiosaur Peril, from Kids Can Press. Art by Daniel Loxton with Jim W.W. Smith. All rights reserved.

Spread from Plesiosaur Peril, from Kids Can Press. Art by Daniel Loxton with Jim W.W. Smith. All rights reserved.

Spread from Plesiosaur Peril, from Kids Can Press. Art by Daniel Loxton with Jim W.W. Smith. All rights reserved.

 

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HHMI DVDs about evolution, DNA, and dinosaur extinction

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute is known for offering to educators free DVDs and other resources about various biology and health topics, such as human evolution, disease, biodiversity and medicines, stem cells, and cloning. They are now offering three new DVDs: The Origin of Species, The Double Helix, and The Day the Mesozoic DiedThe Origin of Species consists of three separate videos telling the story of Darwin, Wallace, and evolution and action. The Double Helix covers the history of the discovery of the structure of DNA, and thankfully does not leave out Rosalind Franklin. My son has already watched the one on dinosaur extinction, and at 7 years old, was fully engrossed in the narrative.

If you are a teacher or educator in some other capacity, or perhaps run a discussion group, these are great resources to have. The ordering page is here (select “DVD” on the left to narrow down the selections).

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BOOK REVIEW: The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs

I’ve posted before about a some great books about prehistoric creatures. For adults, there’s The Complete Dinosaur and Pterosaurs (reviews here and here). For kids, I reviewed Ankylosaur Attack and Pterosaur Trouble (here). Add to these a new book:

Robert T. Bakker, The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs (New York, NY: Random House Children’s Books, 2013), 64 pp. Illustrated by Luis Rey.

Dinosaurs. No other creatures are more exciting – or mysterious. Some were as big as tow dozen elephants duct-taped together. Others were as tiny as kittens. Some had jaws so strong they could bite through a school bus. There were even dinosaurs that could fly. Join renowned paleontologist Dr. Robert T. Bakker on a safari through time and watch the evolution of dinosaurs and the animals that lived beside them – including our own distant ancestors! With stops along the way to look at monster bugs, ferocious fin-backs, fluffy dinosaurs, sea monsters, and much more, this is a journey readers will never forget!

Many current paleontologists had as children the 1960 book, Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Reptiles (A Giant Golden Book), by Jane Werner Watson and illustrated by Rudolph Zallinger (whose mural of dinosaurs at the Yale Peabody Museum remains a classic piece of paleo art). But our understanding of the lives of dinosaurs has changed dramatically over the last half-century. So, this new edition is a remake, intended to update young readers on the science of dinosaur paleontology. Luis Rey posted on his blog a comparison of the covers, old and new:

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From swamp-dwelling to self-supporting sauropods to feathered theropods, this book covers the entire span of dinosaur time, from the rise of dinosaurs from their reptilian ancestors to their extinction. Toward the end of the book, a very neat tree of life shows where dinosaurs and humans both fit in the evolution of life, stressing that without the demise of dinosaurs, we would not have evolved. Pterosaurs and sea-going reptiles are included, too, as well as a section on the history of the discovery of dinosaurs and changes in the field over the last two centuries. Bakker’s text is active and appropraite for a younger audience, and Luis Rey’s artwork, a combination of traditional paintings and digital illustration, is vibrant, action-packed, and wonderfully brings to life these exciting and mysterious creatures. I highly recommend The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs not only for younger readers, but adults as well!

BOOK: Pterosaurs

Ever since I first saw this pterosaur illustration, my perception of these Mesozoic flying reptiles was changed from how I viewed them since childhood. They were not just rulers of the sky, but suitably adapted to getting around on land.

Palaeoart - markwittonThe illustration above is from Mark Witton, pictured at left, a paleontologist and paleoartist. He has just published a beautifully constructed guide to pterosaurs: Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy.

For 150 million years, the skies didn’t belong to birds–they belonged to the pterosaurs. These flying reptiles, which include the pterodactyls, shared the world with the nonavian dinosaurs until their extinction 65 million years ago. Some pterosaurs, such as the giant azhdarchids, were the largest flying animals of all time, with wingspans exceeding thirty feet and standing heights comparable to modern giraffes. This richly illustrated book takes an unprecedented look at these astonishing creatures, presenting the latest findings on their anatomy, ecology, and extinction.

Pterosaurs features some 200 stunning illustrations, including original paintings by Mark Witton and photos of rarely seen fossils. After decades of mystery, paleontologists have finally begun to understand how pterosaurs are related to other reptiles, how they functioned as living animals, and, despite dwarfing all other flying animals, how they managed to become airborne. Here you can explore the fossil evidence of pterosaur behavior and ecology, learn about the skeletal and soft-tissue anatomy of pterosaurs, and consider the newest theories about their cryptic origins. This one-of-a-kind book covers the discovery history, paleobiogeography, anatomy, and behaviors of more than 130 species of pterosaur, and also discusses their demise at the end of the Mesozoic.

Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy will go nicely next to The Complete Dinosaur (Life of the Past). Brian Switek reviewed it in The Great Pterosaur Makeover, the publisher offers some free sneak beak – I mean peek – into the book here, and at his blog Witton shares a little about his book.

BOOK REVIEW: Ankylosaur Attack and Pterosaur Trouble

In a previous post today, I shared a new book that is described as instilling in the reader a “childlike sense of wonder” about dinosaurs. While My Beloved Brontosaurus is for older readers, there is a new series of children’s books about those ancient creatures. Written by Daniel Loxton (Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be) and illustrated by Loxton and W.W. Smith, the Tales of Prehistoric Life series is sure to delight young dinosaur fans and, a more hopeful goal, to create new ones. The first in the series, Ankylosaur Attack (Tonawanda, NY: Kids Can Press, 2011, 32 pp.), follows an Ankylosaurus (the iconic “armored” dinosaur of North America) one morning as he searches for food in his habitat, experiences a grumpy older individual of his own species, watches pterosaurs in the sky, and defends himself – with a little help – against a fierce Tyrannosaurus rex.

Ankylosaur Attack

The narrative is simple, yet through it comes out a lot of what it must have been like to live millions of years ago. On the final page, Loxton gives extra information about the dinosaur species highlighted in the story. Subtle but right there at the beginning just might be the most important sentence in the book: “It was a morning long, long ago – millions of years before humans walked the Earth.” The illustrations in the book are beautiful, looking almost like photographs. Of course, they are not, since Loxton tells us this story is happening long before humans appeared on Earth. They are digital illustrations superimposed on landscape photography.

Spread of Ankylosaur Attack

Photo-realistic images perhaps serve to reinforce to readers that these animals did in fact exist and live on our planet. They are not fictional and simply an artist’s imagination, although some guess work has to be made to flesh out dinosaurs.

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Dinosaurs were real, and the illustrations show kids what paleontologists thought they looked like and how they behaved. Loxton had expert advice from paleontologists Kenneth Carpenter and Donald Prothero, so the information is accurate and up-to-date.

Spread of Ankylosaur Attack

The second in the Tales of Prehistoric Life series was just published. Pterosaur Trouble (Tonawanda, NY: Kids Can Press, 2013, 32 pp.) likewise follows an individual animal.

Pterosaur Trouble

This time, it is not a dinosaur, but another critter from the Mesozoic Era, Quetzalcoatlus. This is another “day in the life” story, also featuring Triceratops and a pack of Saurornitholestes hell bent on having some pterosaur meat for breakfast.

Spread of Pterosaur Trouble

Spread of Pterosaur Trouble

Spread of Pterosaur Trouble

Loxton got paleontologist Darren Naish, an authority on pterosaur fossils, to provide advice for Pterosaur Trouble. And the book includes the same, if not better, digital illustrations as Ankylosaur Attack. I certainly hope Loxton and his publisher continue this series. I came to be interested in Darwin, evolution, and the history of science through a love of paleontology (sparked by Jurassic Park). Keeping my young son engaged in thinking about the history of life on earth not only occurs through visiting museums, providing him with scientifically-accurate dinosaur toys, and watching a variety of science programming online, but through reading books. And anyone familiar with children’s books about dinosaurs knows, some shine and others lack with regard to keeping up to date with dinosaur paleontology. The Tales of Prehistoric Life series shines brightly. All images, except the one below, are from Kids Can Press website.

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BOOK: My Beloved Brontosaurus

Two and a half years ago I posted a review of a new book – his first – from science blogger Brian Switek (Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature). While his blog Laelaps has moved around a bit (now at National Geographic), he’s still my go to source for analysis for new studies in paleontology. I am happy to share that Brian has published a second book:

My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs, by Brian Switek (New York: Scientific American, 2013), 272 pp.

Dinosaurs, with their awe-inspiring size, terrifying claws and teeth, and otherworldly abilities, occupy a sacred place in our childhoods. They loom over museum halls, thunder through movies, and are a fundamental part of our collective imagination. In My Beloved Brontosaurus, the dinosaur fanatic Brian Switek enriches the childlike sense of wonder these amazing creatures instill in us. Investigating the latest discoveries in paleontology, he breathes new life into old bones.

Switek reunites us with these mysterious creatures as he visits desolate excavation sites and hallowed museum vaults, exploring everything from the sex life of Apatosaurus and T. rex’s feather-laden body to just why dinosaurs vanished. (And of course, on his journey, he celebrates the book’s titular hero, “Brontosaurus”—who suffered a second extinction when we learned he never existed at all—as a symbol of scientific progress.)

With infectious enthusiasm, Switek questions what we’ve long held to be true about these beasts, weaving in stories from his obsession with dinosaurs, which started when he was just knee-high to a Stegosaurus. Endearing, surprising, and essential to our understanding of our own evolution and our place on Earth, My Beloved Brontosaurus is a book that dinosaur fans and anyone interested in scientific progress will cherish for years to come.

Read can read some reviews from Chad Orzel and scicurious, read pieces by Brian about the book at Slate and io9, read chapter 7 “Birds with Feathers” in a free excerpt from the NCSE, or listen to Brian read an excerpt:

Brian will be at Powell’s City of Books in Portland, OR on May 22, 7:30pm (info). I look forward to attending his book talk with my son, who, like Brian and myself, loves dinosaurs.

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!