BOOK REVIEW: Prehistoric Predators & thoughts about Jurassic World

Last weekend my nine-year-old son and I went to the movies and saw Jurassic World, the fourth film in the Jurassic Park series (but really, a direct sequel to the original film). I was fifteen when I saw Jurassic Park in 1993, and became dino-obsessed. I devoured books and articles about paleontology. Reading about dinosaurs led to reading about evolution in general, and then to Darwin (and the rest is history, as they say). So while my son has seen the other films, I was excited to take him to see this new offering on the big screen. We loved it! The film was exactly what big movie theaters are for: suspenseful action in imagined worlds.

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We enjoyed the film immensely despite its major drawback. As many paleontologists have shared since the movie’s trailers started appearing, Jurassic World does not do what Jurassic Park did in 1993: to share with the public the latest vision of what dinosaurs looked like (click here for a bunch of links to posts/articles from paleontologists on JW). In the twenty years since, a lot has changed; most notably, that many dinosaurs had feathers or feather-like structures. Not in Jurassic World. Even some representations of dinosaurs in the new film ignore how the other films got it right (the posture of Stegosaurus, for example). The new film also does not introduce film-goers to the wide variety of new species discovered in the last couple of decades, instead sticking with the familiar: Tyrannosaurus rex, Apatosaurus, Triceratops, and Velociraptor.

The amazing David Orr and I worked together on this comic (check out his site for more great paleo design). As the owner of two feisty parrots, I feel like feathered raptors are just as exciting as those scaly ones we grew up with.

We are introduced to a new dinosaur, however. Not a real species that paleontologists have found the bones of, but a genetically-engineered monstrosity that comprises the DNA of several dinosaurs and other critters. The carnivorous and unstoppable Indominus rex is the film’s antagonist. While her presence on screen is exciting, it’s disappointing that the film’s creators felt the need to invent a new dinosaur – “probably not a good idea” – when the annals of paleontology are full of awesome theropods that could have been amazing on-screen additions to the story.

I hope the new film will inspire a new generation of dinosaur fans, and that many of these young paleontologists will seek out reading material to satiate their curiosity, and in the process, learn a little about what dinosaurs really looked like and how they behaved. For those interested in carnivorous dinosaurs (theropods), I recommend a new book by dinosaur writer Brian Switek and beautifully illustrated by paleoartist Julius Csotonyi. In Prehistoric Predators (Kennebunkport, ME: Cider Mill Press, 2015, 104 pp.), Switek profiles and Csotonyi brings to life over 40 dinosaurs and other animals from the past that dined on the flesh of other creatures. Old favorites are here, such as Allosaurus, but the book offers a look at a variety of lesser-known or more recently discovered species, including many with feathers or feather-like structures and some flying reptiles. There is Cryolophosaurus, the Antarctic theropod with an Elvis-like head crest, and the early tyrannosaur Guanlong. Ever heard of Eocarcharia? How about Deltadromeus? Why create a fictional dinosaur when nature had so many to choose from?

The profiles are arranged chronologically, starting with the Permian Period (and thus predators that pre-date dinosaurs) and into the Mesozoic Era and its trio of periods, Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous, as well some marine reptiles and land mammals in the Cenozoic. The book lacks, however, some of the diversity of marine reptiles during the age of dinosaurs (there are no species of mosasaur or plesiosaur, for example). But for each entry, nothing is better than Csotonyi’s realistic renderings full of color, behavior, and feathers. The book also features a textured cover, with the sensation of touching dinosaur skin. The Jurassic Park series will never likely yield dinosaur depictions with feathers, but let’s hope in the near future that a studio green lights a dinosaur film that will. For now, enjoy Jurassic World for what it is, a science fiction movie, and check out some books, like Prehistoric Predators, and visit a local natural history museum, to learn more about the actual science.

Want more dinosaurs? The publisher of Prehistoric Predators has another book worth checking out. The whole dinosaur kingdom is featured in Discovering Dinosaurs (2014), by Bob Walters and Tess Kissinger. More encyclopedic, this volume is chock full of dino diversity. Great information and great art from a classic dinosaur artist.

ARTICLE: Darwin and palaeontology: a re-evaluation of his interpretation of the fossil record

In the journal Historical Biology (online first):

Darwin and palaeontology: a re-evaluation of his interpretation of the fossil record

Warren D. Allmon

Abstract Charles Darwin’s empirical research in palaeontology, especially on fossil invertebrates, has been relatively neglected as a source of insight into his thinking, other than to note that he viewed the fossil record as very incomplete. During the Beagle voyage, Darwin gained extensive experience with a wide diversity of fossil taxa, and he thought deeply about the nature of the fossil record. That record was, for him, a major source of evidence for large-scale transmutation, but much less so for natural selection or single lineages. Darwin’s interpretation of the fossil record has been criticised for its focus on incompleteness, but the record as he knew it was extremely incomplete. He was compelled to address this in arguing for descent with modification, which was likely his primary goal. Darwin’s gradualism has been both misrepresented and exaggerated, and has distracted us from the importance of the fossil record in his thinking, which should be viewed in the context of the multiple, sometimes competing demands of the multifaceted argument he presented in the Origin of Species.

BOOK REVIEW: Terra Tempo: The Academy of Planetary Evolution

I reviewed the second of the Terra Tempo graphic novel series for kids for the Portland Book Review in 2013:

In the first Terra Tempo graphic novel, Ice Age Cataclysm!, twins Jenna and Caleb and their know-it-all friend Ari find themselves, with the aid of a special map owned by their adventurous naturalist uncle, time traveling into the Ice Age of 15,000 years ago. They came across prehistoric mammals and witnessed the grand Missoula Flood, caused when a gigantic ice dam burst and Glacial Lake Missoula (in Montana) drained, its gushing torrent flowing west and sculpting the channeled scablands of the Pacific Northwest. The trio saw that the flood’s waters had covered their home – present day Portland, Oregon. Author David Shapiro, illustrator Christopher Herndon, and colorist Erica Melville continue the time traveling adventures in The Four Corners of Time, bringing the kids through several older time periods represented throughout the American southwest. They pass out in the Cambrian because of low oxygen levels, meet early tetrapods in the Devonian, get chased in the Carboniferous by humans, dodge pre-dinosaur reptiles in the Triassic, and face the tyrant lizard king in the Cretaceous. Those humans, by the way, are men out to abuse time traveling for profit, seeking to steal the maps the kids possess. A lesson in geology and paleontology, the Terra Tempo series so far has proved that learning science does not have to be boring. It can be – and perhaps should be – an adventure!

The third in the series has just been published, and when we got it in the mail, my eight-year-old son grabbed it and read it completely before I could even take a look at it!

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David Shapiro, Christopher Herndon (illustrator), and Erica Melville (colorist), Terra Tempo: The Academy of Planetary Evolution (Portland, OR: Craigmore Creations, 2014), 168 pp.

In their latest adventure through time and space, Jenna, Caleb, and Ari find themselves as students in a summer program at the prestigious Academy of Planetary Evolution. Their classroom: environments millions of years old across what is now the western United States and classic American natural history museums. Their subject: various topics in geology – such as plate tectonics – and paleontology – such as mammalian evolution. Their instructors: paleontologists and naturalists from the past, like Alfred Russel Wallace, Herman Melville (he was a student of nature as well as a writer), and Winifred Goldring (a paleontologist from New York).

The conflict in the story is how the kids – who are joined by two other female students – are intertwined in the struggle between the geosophists (those who want to use the maps to time travel in order in add to humanity’s knowledge of science) and the treasure hunters (others who wish to time travel in order to exploit earth’s natural resources to get wealthy). Obvious as a statement about our current society’s issues with things like oil, climate change, etc., this third installment ends with the suggestion of a continuing series with an increasingly environmental theme.

Dinosaurs, a nod to Alfred Russel Wallace, and stressing the importance of learning knowledge for knowledge’s sake and taking care of our planet? All in one graphic novel? Terra Tempo: The Academy of Planetary Evolution not only entertained my son and made him think. Adults can get something out of it, too.

ARTICLES: Disciplining and Popularizing: Evolution and its Publics from the Modern Synthesis to the Present

The journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences has a set of articles in its March 2014 issue that all stem from a conference session for the History of Science Society in 2012:

Disciplining and popularizing: Evolution and its publics from the modern synthesis to the present (Introduction)
Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis

Darwin’s foil: The evolving uses of William Paley’s Natural Theology 1802–2005
Adam R. Shapiro

Making the case for orthogenesis: The popularization of definitely directed evolution (1890–1926)
Mark A. Ulett

Paleontology at the “high table”? Popularization and disciplinary status in recent paleontology
David Sepkoski

Claiming Darwin: Stephen Jay Gould in contests over evolutionary orthodoxy and public perception, 1977–2002
Myrna Perez Sheldon

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.

 

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!

Subscription service for new evolution toys: would you sign up?

Palm Kids is seeking interest for a subscription for a new series of evolution toys. Working on this is biologist Kate Miller, who designed and sold the Charlie’s Playhouse Giant Evolution Timeline, which we’re very fond of. The new toys are 2-in-1 Evolvems, critters that evolve into another by reversing them – a transitional plush! Here’s a bunch of info regarding the new toys, and be sure to click on the image if you’re interested. There would be a free first shipment, and then a monthly shipment that you’d pay for, which can be cancelled at any time. I think it’s a great idea for introducing evolution and paleontology to children and keeping it fresh and exciting.

Evolution B   Palm Kids

Updates will be posted at Evolution for Kids!