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Academic & Professional Books  Palaeontology  Palaeozoology & Extinctions

The Princeton Field Guide to Pterosaurs

Popular Science
By: Gregory S Paul(Author)
184 pages, colour & b/w illustrations
The Princeton Field Guide to Pterosaurs is a data-dense book that is illustrated with outstanding skeletal reconstructions.
The Princeton Field Guide to Pterosaurs
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  • The Princeton Field Guide to Pterosaurs ISBN: 9780691180175 Hardback Jun 2022 In stock
    £17.99 £24.99
Price: £17.99
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About this book

Once seen by some as evolutionary dead-enders, pterosaurs were vigorous winged reptiles capable of thriving in an array of habitats and climates, including polar winters. The Princeton Field Guide to Pterosaurs transforms our understanding of these great Mesozoic archosaurs of the air. This incredible field guide covers 115 pterosaur species and features stunning illustrations of pterosaurs ranging in size from swallows to small sailplanes, some with enormous, bizarre head crests and elongated beaks. It discusses the history of pterosaurs through 160 million years of the Mesozoic, their anatomy, physiology, locomotion, reproduction and growth, extinction, and even gives a taste of what it might be like to travel back to the Mesozoic. This one-of-a-kind guide also challenges the common image of big pterosaurs as ultralights that only soared, showing how these spectacular creatures could be powerful flappers as heavy as bears.

- Features detailed species accounts of 115 different kinds of pterosaurs, with the latest size and mass estimates
- Written and illustrated by the acclaimed researcher and artist who helped to redefine the anatomy and flight performance of pterosaurs
- Covers everything from pterosaur biology to the colourful history of pterosaur palaeontology Includes dozens of original skeletal drawings and full-colour life studies

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Data-dense and illustrated with outstanding skeletal reconstructions
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 8 Sep 2022 Written for Hardback

    This is the second of a two-part dive into the world of pterosaurs, following on from my review of Mark Witton's 2013 book Pterosaurs. Almost a decade later, the well-known independent palaeontologist and palaeoartist Gregory S. Paul has written and illustrated The Princeton Field Guide to Pterosaurs. Admittedly, a field guide to extinct creatures sounds contradictory. Really, this is an illustrated guide for the palaeo-enthusiast in which Paul's signature skeletal reconstructions take centre stage.

    Paul previously wrote and illustrated The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs in 2016 and is working on The Princeton Field Guide to Mesozoic Sea Reptiles. This will complete his informal trilogy covering all the major reptile groups of the Mesozoic in a unified style. Indeed, when comparing the dinosaur guide with this book, I noticed that it closely follows the same format and layout, down to very similar wording in some sections.

    The Princeton Field Guide to Pterosaurs is divided into two halves: an introduction, and the group and species accounts. The introduction opens with the history of pterosaur research, describes what kind of reptile pterosaurs were and who they were related to, and gives some basics on dating fossils. The problem Witton flagged up in 2013 holds a decade on: clear transitional fossils showing how pterosaurs became airborne are still lacking. Paul then introduces the world pterosaurs evolved in and I liked how he effectively zooms out to provide more context. What was the world like in the Triassic? What other organisms lived in it? How did all this interact throughout the approximately 162 million-year-lifespan of the pterosaurs? And what creatures exploited their ecological niche after they went extinct?

    Most of the introduction is dedicated to pterosaur biology, giving an overview of anatomy, locomotion and flight, pneumatic skeletons, integument and colouration, physiology, sensory biology, diseases and injuries, behaviour, and metabolism and growth. Much of the material here agrees with what Witton wrote in 2013, but Paul provides a more thorough introduction to locomotion and especially flight, on which he lavishes 22 pages. He goes into quite some technical depth by making thorough comparisons to birds, bats, and aircraft, and drawing on aerodynamics and aeronautics. Another noticeable difference is that Paul is bolder in his assertions and opinions as to what pterosaurs did or were capable of. For example, since reptiles and birds have full-colour vision extending into the UV range, "pterosaurs almost certainly did as well" (p. 70). I noticed the same in the species accounts, where data is presented in bullet-point-like statements, leaving little room to indicate how robust or speculative ideas are about e.g. lifestyles and foraging strategies of different species.

    The second half of the book discusses groups and species. Where Witton made taxonomy the leitmotif of his book, picking a phylogeny and dedicating a chapter to each major group, Paul refuses to put his nickel down. He recognizes the division between rhamphorhynchoids (a name he admits is obsolete but that he prefers over "nonpterodactyloid pterosaurs") and pterodactyloids, divided into basal and derived forms. But since there is no consensus and phylogenetic studies are too conflicting for his liking, he shows no family tree. He does arrange species in a phylogenetic order, with derived groups nested inside basal clades, but he uses "a degree of personal choice and judgment in arranging the groups", some of which reflect "my considered opinion, but most are arbitrary choices among a large array of competing research results" (p. 91). A second difference with Witton's approach is that Paul writes the species entries as if this were a real field guide, with telegram-style entries describing size and weight estimates, known fossil remains, anatomy, geological age, location and geological formation of fossils, habitat, lifestyle, and other notes. This is the reference section of the book, collecting facts without guiding narrative.

    A stand-out feature of this book is the illustrations, specifically the skeletal reconstructions. Paul's signature style of white bones on the black outline of a body is well-known and one he has been practising for decades. Rather than full skeletons, most show only the bones that have been found for a species, positioned in the right place. Where sufficient fossil material is available, full skeletons are shown. Some of these, Paul mentions, are composites. For a few species, there is even enough material to show hatchlings, juveniles, or immature individuals. Paul criticizes the quadrupedal launch pose used by Witton and others for skeletal reconstructions as visually awkward and obscuring wing shape and proportions. He instead shows animals taking off with the wing at the top of an upstroke. I actually agree with Paul's choice of pose: it looks more familiar, resembling a large bird taking off. For a select few species, there are muscle studies, which he admits are speculative but based on sound anatomical principles, as well as life reconstructions. Lastly, there are some palaeoart pieces showing animals in their natural environment. I admit I was not fond of all of these; some show a pencil-drawn animal placed on a photographic background which is visually rather jarring. Notably absent are photos of fossils.

    So, what has happened in the world of pterosaur research since Witton's 2013 book? Paul makes no particular point of highlighting significant advances, and without an expert background, the different approach of the two books makes it quite hard to determine this. Two studies that caught my attention were the evidence for pterosaurs eating cephalopods (quite logical) and a study on istiodactylid hyoid bones (the bone to which the tongue attaches). Obviously, Paul references new papers describing new species.

    To wrap up, how do the two books compare? Pterosaurs is more narrative-driven and Witton is more circumspect in his claims; The Princeton Field Guide to Pterosaurs is more data-dense and Paul is bolder in his claims. If you are completely new to pterosaurs I would actually recommend that you start with the former; I found its overview of the different groups more accessible. Then, if you want to read deeper into the details or need a reference work, The Princeton Field Guide to Pterosaurs is a good follow-up; the two books complement each other nicely that way. If you already have Witton's book, I think it is worthwhile getting Paul's book. Next to being up to date, The Princeton Field Guide to Pterosaurs offers a different, sometimes more thorough take, and much more factual detail.
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Gregory S. Paul is a renowned researcher and illustrator who helped establish the “new look” of pterosaurs, dinosaurs, and other Mesozoic creatures seen in contemporary movies and documentaries. His books include The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs and Predatory Dinosaurs of the World: A Complete Illustrated Guide. His work has appeared in leading publications such as National Geographic, Scientific American, Nature, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Smithsonian, and Natural History.

Popular Science
By: Gregory S Paul(Author)
184 pages, colour & b/w illustrations
The Princeton Field Guide to Pterosaurs is a data-dense book that is illustrated with outstanding skeletal reconstructions.
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