Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor)
12 Apr 2019
Written for Hardback
If you are interested in dinosaurs, the last two years have seen a slew of great books published, and there is more in the pipeline. The latest I am reviewing here is The Dinosaurs Rediscovered
from the well-known British Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology Michael J. Benton. With a huge number of possible topics you could write about, and an already saturated book market, Benton has set himself a very specific aim: to show how the science of palaeobiology has moved from a descriptive, speculative scientific discipline, to a hard, testable, rigorous one. In other words, given that palaeontologists nowadays regularly make some pretty amazing and precise claims about creatures long extinct, how, exactly, do they know that?
If this sounds familiar, indeed, when I reviewed Steve Brusatte’s book The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs
, I praised the enviable ease with which he explained modern methodologies. Now, with all due respect to Brusatte (and I really, really enjoyed his book), Benton has almost 30 years on him. Next to having authored standard textbooks such as Vertebrate Palaeontology
(currently in its 4th edition) and co-authored Introduction to Paleobiology and the Fossil Record
(currently in its second edition), he is also the series editor for Wiley-Blackwell’s textbook series Topics in Paleobiology
, and he has previously authored When Life Nearly Died
with Thames & Hudson, dealing with the end-Permian mass extinction. With a career spanning some four decades, if anyone can comment first-hand on the evolution of the field, it is Benton.
After a brief introduction on how scientific discoveries are made, and a short foray into the philosophy of science, the bulk of the book consists of nine chapters documenting areas where palaeontology has been revolutionised. Partially by new fossil finds, but, much more importantly, by new tools, new technologies, more powerful computers, lateral thinking, and interdisciplinary approaches.
Benton’s opening of the book is perhaps slightly risky, as he has put the most technical chapters first. There is the question of when the dinosaurs first evolved. After the giants of the Paleozoic went extinct (see my review of Carboniferous Giants and Mass Extinction
), did the dinosaurs opportunistically explode onto the scene, or did other reptile groups slowly fade with dinosaurs taking over the proverbial relay race? New computational tools have pushed the origin story further back in time, but have also shown that both explanations have something going for it.
Similarly, the picture of the dinosaur family tree benefited first from the cladistic revolution, which saw a different way of thinking about classifying species, collecting and analysing as many informative characters as possible to determine relationships. Then, with access to supercomputers, Benton and his team have been involved in producing an all-encompassing family tree, a so-called supertree, revealing how the dinosaur lineage diversified rapidly early on, but the rate of speciation slowed down after that. That things never stay still was shown only recently with Baron et al.'s 2017 Nature
paper that proposed some radical changes to the family tree.
If this is all a bit technical, despair not, the remainder of the book deals with more “mundane” questions your typical six-year-old might ask. Excavation techniques might have changed little since the dawn of the discipline, but imaging tools such as photogrammetry have revolutionised what palaeontologists can document at a dig site, while CT scanning offers a non-destructive technique afterwards to image what you have dug up. And new microscopy techniques, together with some fantastically preserved fossils, have revealed much about the colour of dinosaurs (and hey, feathers!).
Ancient DNA may have revolutionised archaeology (see my review of Who We Are and How We Got Here
), but Benton explains why we shouldn’t expect Jurassic Park
to become reality anytime soon. Nevertheless, even without dinosaurs stomping around here and now, we have learned so much about how they lived. Bone histology and X-ray imaging have revealed growth rates, while finite element analysis (a method borrowed from structural engineers who use it to stress-test designs of bridges and buildings on computers) has allowed calculations of bite forces and how dinosaurs ate, while analyses of microwear on tooth surfaces (see The Tales that Teeth Tell
and my review of Evolution's Bite
) has shed light on their diet. Biomechanical computations and careful analyses of trackways tell us more on their posture, how they moved, whether they could run, and what the deal is with them flying, or at least flapping about.
And there is, of course, the always fascinating topic of their extinction. Benton has first-hand seen the rise and rise of the Alvarez asteroid impact hypothesis (see T. rex and the Crater of Doom
and my review of The Ends of the World
), despite the initial pushback from the uniformitarian crowd (see my review of Cataclysms: A New Geology for the Twenty-First Century
), and he provides a great overview of why this idea has become so widely accepted.
In addition to Benton's accessible writing, what helps this book shine are the illustrations. I regularly bemoan how few publishers get this right; complex figures are reproduced directly from their source in greyscale so you can’t tell apart the different lines and symbols in graphs, they are often too small, or the source material is so poor that resolution suffers or compression artefacts are visible. Not this book. Thames & Hudson is obviously known for their illustrated books, and checking the illustration credits suggests that their in-house art studio (?) has redrawn many of them specifically for this book. This in addition to two colour plate sections and some really nice species profiles. A job well done, and I wish more publishers went to this effort.
The Dinosaurs Rediscovered
is easy to recommend. Benton’s enthusiasm is infectious, and his skill at packing so many exciting developments in this book speaks of his deep involvement in this field. He provides a fantastic overview of the revolutions in palaeontology over the last few decades and convinces that now is a very exciting time, indeed, to be a palaeontologist. I can’t wait to see what surprises lie in store in the near future.