Thursday, 5 January 2017

Dinosaurs: how they lived and evolved, book review

For Christmas, I got a variety of great zoology and paleontology books, but probably one of the best that I got is Dinosaurs: How They Lived And Evolved, by Darren Naish and Paul Barrett. I sat down yesterday intending to only read the first chapter or so, and ended up reading more than half of the book.

First of all, I've got to comment on the front cover. It's a great example of why the saying, 'don't judge a book by its cover' is absolutely true! Anyway, it doesn't really matter because the contents of the book itself far make up for the Giganotosaurus on the front.

The first chapter is a good introduction, covering subjects such as the history of non-avian dinosaur discoveries and what their Mesozoic world was like. I particularly enjoyed the small section on the climate of Triassic Pangaea, the super continent that would have been mostly covered in desert. It made me think of how the organisms that lived in these conditions must have been well-adapted to the arid climate, so various fun speculations could be made on how they dealt with desert life.

The information in the boxes explains things such as geological timescale, and terms such as phylogenetic bracketing, etc. This brings me to the text style in general, which I found very enjoyable. It isn't written in a childish manner, far from it, but neither is it too complex for someone like me to fully understand. Nor is it bogged down in too much scientific jargon that it becomes weary to read, but the whole book still feels very professional. It could be read by a paleontologically-minded teenager like me, or an experienced paleontologist.

The second chapter covers the dinosaur family tree, discussing each main group and their defining features. The cladograms are quite enjoyable, with little pictures of the different groups. There's lots of up-to-date artwork, which helps to break up the text and makes the whole book even more interesting.

The next chapter was about anatomy of non-avian dinosaurs, first talking about bones, then muscles, and other subjects such as respiration and digestion. The chapter concluded with an interesting outline of dinosaur life appearance, and I was happy to see subjects such as dinosaur lips and melanosomes in there.

The next chapter is probably my favourite, and of the most interest to me: biology, ecology, and behaviour. I've got to admit, I got a bit excited when I was reading this bit. There's so much great information gathered in one place! First of all, dinosaur diet and feeding behaviour was discussed. There's a lot of good information on what we can tell from the teeth, both from the shape and appearance of them, but also from microwear. Its a good place to start to build up on my ideas on sauropod and theropod niche partitioning.

There's a surprisingly lengthy senction detailing non-avian dinosaur stomach contents and coprolites. I was particularly interested to hear about the wood found inside coprolites produced by Maiasaura. It makes me wonder if this was a regular food source, or one only used in particularly hard times.

There's a large part of the chapter explaining various modes of dinosaur locomotion, from walking to swimming and gliding.

The next part that was of particular interest to me talked about parental care and babies. Nests are discussed, as is the fascinating topic of juvenile-only groups. The idea of the juveniles and adults holding different niches is an interesting one, and I suppose it might have been widespread in some groups, such as sauropods. The shorter babies would probably have been feeding on a completely different food source from the longer-necked adults.

A section on non-avian dinosaur communities concluded that particular chapter, discussing topics such as niche partitioning. Reconstructing these Mesozoic ecosystems is probably the most interesting paleontological subject for me, imagining these long-lost worlds in life, how the different animals interacted with each other. Interesting behaviours can be seen in modern-day animals like the hierachy between vulture species at a carcass, and symbiosis between 2 organisms, but sadly we'll never really be able to know about such things occurring in prehistoric creatures. Though that does of course give you plenty of room to speculate . . .

The penultimate chapter discusses the origin of birds, then moves onto the final chapter, titled 'the great extinction and beyond'. Unlike most dinosaur books, it does not simply explain the extinction event that wiped out the non-avian species, but then continues to discuss the dinosaurs that didn't go extinct: birds.

Overall, I was really impressed by this book. It was well set-out, easy to read, professional, and covered the majority of paleontological subjects surrounding non-avian dinosaurs. I would recommend it to anybody who has an interest in paleontology, whether they're a beginner or a fully-fledged paleontologist.

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