Extraordinary Insects: Weird. Wonderful. Indispensable. The Ones Who Rule Our World. By Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson. 2018. Mudlark. ISBN-13: 978-0008316358
People assume we are the masters of the world, but in very real terms, we are relatively insignificant compared to the insects. If you’ve never really thought about insects more than as pests and thought the world would be better without them, read this book. Dr. Sverdrup-Thygeson will show you a world run by the tiny, how the insects have an essential role in ecosystems and your very life. Along the way, with humor and lavish images of the wonderful and bizarre, she introduces the staggering abundance and diversity of the insect world. This is not a entomological textbook. Rather, this is an introduction to a whole new world intertwined with the world we see every day, but pay little attention to normally. The hardback edition came out in 2018, but the Kindle version is now available and the paperback is due out next year.
Innumerable Insects: The Story of the Most Diverse and Myriad Animals on Earth by Michael S. Engel. 2018.
This book also deals with the insect world, but it does so in a very different way. Rather than get eye-striking photos of living insects, Dr. Ingel scoured the rare book collection of The American Museum of Natural History to find 300 years of insect research. He reproduces lithographs and illustrations from previous researchers and they are beautiful. Exquisite drawings such as these can often do a better job of showing anatomical detail than an image of the insect itself. While he discusses the insects and all the amazing thing about them, he tells the stories of the early entomologists as well. If you are interested in insects and are a history buff, you will like this book. Be warned, at 10″ by 9.3′ and 2.6 pounds, it is hefty, unless you buy the Kindle version.
Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live by Rob Dunn. 2018. Basic Books. ISBN-13: 978-1541645769
When I first saw this book listed on Amazon, I was wondering how a natural history book would work as an audiobook (there is also a hardback, paperback, and Kindle version). Unlike the others on this list, Dr. Dunn tells his story mostly through the written word, with the illustrations much more sparse and definitely less essential to the book than the previous entries this week. But it is no less intriguing. This book discusses his and others’ research into the creatures that live all around us, living in our homes, mostly unseen. Even in a clean home, there are thousands of insects, microbes, and an array of other creatures. And that’s ok. They belong there. After reading his book, hopefully you will take from it that there is an amazing diversity of life all around you and that, for the most part, sustains a healthy life for you. So don’t panic about all the creepy crawlies, celebrate them as part of a thriving community we all share, because overzealous efforts to eradicate them actually make you sick.
Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath our Feet by Anthony Martin. 2017. Pegasus Books. ISBN-13: 978-1681773124
Speaking of life that tends to go unseen, there is a world of life that lives under our feet. Animals live in the soil, crawling through it, making burrows, making their way through the blackness of caves, and generally living life underground. Most people know Dr. Martin for his work on dinosaurs, but he actually does more on ichnology, the study of tracks and traces. He spends his time studying the animals that leave their mark on and in the ground, whatever they may be. And there are a lot. Of course, there are the insects. Everyone is familiar with ant hills, but that is only the beginning. There are the clams and fish that dig into the beach sands, the beavers and other mammals that dig burrows, large animals like bears and giant ground sloths, and yes, even the occasional dinosaur. This book is written for a general audience, so like many of the others on this list, Martin does not just content himself with relaying the diverse nature living underground. He follows a pretty common trope in trying to make the research relatable through personal stories. He talks about his personal experiences. He doesn’t weigh it down by too much technical jargon. It makes the book an easy read and informative for the general reader. It is not a treatise for scholars, but a nice introduction to nonexperts to a world most people don’t think too much about.
I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong. 2016. Ecco. ISBN-13: 978-0062368591
This one goes back a couple of years, but I think it is good enough to bear another mention. It is good to remember that we are not individuals, but walking ecosystems carrying, well, multitudes. As we are learning more and more these days, those other creatures are not mere passengers. They affect us in innumerable ways. They are essential for digestion, they change the way we interact with our environment. They even affect the way we think. Ed Yong is a gifted writer and he does a great job exploring the ways we are intimately connected with our environment and the way life in its many forms is intertwined. It has been said no man is an island. I am sure the person who first said that had no idea just how right they were.
Making Eden: How Plants Transformed a Barren Planet by David Beerling. 2019. Oxford University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0198798309
“Our brains are wired to notice animals, not plants,” says Dr. Beerling. Indeed we are. As one can see from the books I have discussed, I definitely fit into that myself. But without plants, animals would not be here. So I think it fitting that I end this particular list with a new book on plant evolution. I have tended to avoid plants because from the first botany class I took in college, it was clear to me they are far more complicated than animals. Anyone who has looked at plant genetics and reproduction knows that plants are hard. Fortunately, we have people like Dr. Beerling taking up the challenge of teasing apart the relationships and relaying it in a manner people like me can understand, for which I am grateful. The history of animal life is inextricably bound to the history of plants. Dr. Beerling does a good job of discussing the evolution of plants and how it has affected the evolution of animals, including us, and why understanding this connection is essential to our well-being as a species.
Come back tomorrow for a new set of books that focus on a singular species, humans.
This time I though I would move beyond dinosaurs to other animals. There is a whole, wide world of animals and here are a few books to help.
Turtles as Hopeful Monsters: Origins and Evolution by Oliver Rieppel. Life of the Past Series. 2017. Indiana University Press. ISBN: 978-0-253-02475-6
At one time, I would have said that if there was ever an animal that was mysterious enough to be aliens from another planet, turtles would be that animal. Understanding how they evolved their shells was a challenge. However, a lot of information has turned up in the last couple of decades that have helped elucidate the history and evolution of turtles. We know a lot more about them now and they are no longer that mysterious, but they are still fascinating animals. Few can match Dr. Rieppel’s expertise on turtles, making him a prime guide to all things chelonian. This book is not written as a technical treatise, but it isn’t for kids either. Rather, it is written for an informed general audience that is fascinated by the strange and wonderful stories about natural history. If this sounds like you, check this book out.
End of the Megafauna: The Fate of the World’s Hugest, Fiercest, and Strangest Animals by Ross D. E. MacPhee. 2018. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN-13: 978-0393249293
Everyone knows about the Pleistocene Ice Age megafauna. Mammoths, giant ground sloths, saber-toothed tigers (Smilodons), armadillos the size of small cars, and rodents as big as bison. But the story of why they are no longer around is less well known. Were they wiped out by climate change? Were they hunted to extinction? Was it some of both? Was it something else? Don’t expect this book to give you a definitive answer, but it will give you an in depth discussion of what is known and unknown. Dr. McPhee has been studying this question for a long time and this book distills that experience into a readable and richly illustrated story for the rest of us.
The Rise of Marine Mammals: 50 Million Years of Evolution by Annalisa Berta. 2017. Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN-13: 978-1421423258
Dr. Berta has spent a lifetime studying the fossil record and evolution of marine mammals. She has written a book to share some of what she has learned and the wonder of these amazing creatures. I have a special fondness for whale evolution because of the great evolutionary story they represent and because one of the earliest known whales was found in my state, although few people know about it. This book will walk you through the history of whales and dolphins, sirenians (manatees and dugongs), seals and sea lions, and other lesser known aquatic mammals. If you enjoy watching the otters play at the zoo and ever wondered how mammals made the transition to aquatic organisms and if the otters might continue down that path, get this book.
Oceans of Kansas: A Natural History of the Western Interior Sea, Second Edition by Michael J. Everhart. 2017. Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0-253-02632-3.
Mammals are not the only animals to have returned to the water. During the Cretaceous, an inland sea split the North American continent in two. If there were people around making maps at the time, they would have labeled this area “Here be monsters.” No one knows them better than Mike Everhart. The first edition came out in 2005 and huge amounts of information has been discovered since then. This new edition is bigger and more richly illustrated with more fossils and more information of their diets, behavior, and ecology. If you love mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, pliosaurs, and all the amazing marine reptiles that lived in the central United States, you will appreciate this book.
Snakes of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East: A Photographic Guide by Philippe Geniez. 2018.Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-17239-2.
The closest animals alive today to mosasaurs are the monitor lizards and snakes, so let’s finish up this list with a book on snakes. There are plenty of books on Snakes of North America, but it is harder to find good books on other places. This book is a great field guide covering the classical cradle of civilization and Europe. For all 122 snakes in the region, this book has detailed distribution maps, anatomy, ecology, phylogeny, and tons of other information on them. It even discusses the venom and its uses for the venomous ones. There are even lists by country, so you can easily find what snakes are present in any particular area. And did I mention photos? Lots and lots of photos. With this book handy, you should have no fear of running across a snake unprepared.
That’s it for this time. Come back tomorrow for more books. The next set will move away from vertebrates to the spineless ones and a book about plants.
The previous list covered several dinosaur books that were mostly for on the lighter side, or with flashy graphics. Today I want to cover some books that are a bit meatier on the text and less on the graphics (not that there’s anything wrong with graphic heavy books, they just serve a different purpose).
The Tyrannosaur Chronicles: The Biology of the Tyrant Dinosaurs by David Hone. 2016. Bloomsbury Sigma. ISBN-13: 978-1472911254
This book is the oldest on my lists, but it is still worth picking up if you haven’t already. Dr. Hone is a respected paleontologist working on the behavior and ecology of dinosaurs and pterosaurs. He is also a talented writer, which you can read on his blog, Archosaur Musings, and his articles in The Guardian. This book may be getting a bit long in the tooth, but it is still the best book out there focusing on tyrannosaurs. This book is not for those just getting into dinosaurs. It is not for your general reader who thinks T. rex is cool. This book is for dino enthusiasts who have read about dinosaurs and are looking to add some serious scientific meat to those bones, but are not quite ready to hit the primary literature themselves, preferring an expert to distill and collate the information into a cohesive package.
Why Dinosaurs Matter by Ken Lacovara. 2017. Simon & Schuster/TED Books. ISBN-13: 978-1501120107
Dr. Ken Lacovara is justifiably famous for his research on the Patagonian South American giants of the dinosaur world, including one of the largest ever found, Dreadnoughtus, which while not the longest, ranks as one the the heaviest terrestrial animals that ever lived. He has been studying dinosaurs a long time. Lacovara has written a nice little book explaining why studying dinosaurs is more than just academic interest, expanding on a TED talk he gave in 2017. The introductory chapter in the defense of dinosaurs is worth the price of the book all by itself. But don’t stop there. He does a great job discussing the amazing animals dinosaurs are and why it is important to our understanding of the natural world and what we ourselves might be capable of. These animals pushed the boundaries of what is biologically possible. Understanding how and what the true constraints are matters as we ourselves push those boundaries in other ways.
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World by Steve Brusatte. 2018.
Dr. Brusatte has made a name for himself studying dinosaurs holistically as a group more so than particular species or type. He is particularly fond of the more grandiose ideas of origins and extinctions, beginnings and endings. As such, it is only natural that his latest book covers just that, how dinosaurs began as minor players in the Triassic ecosystem through their rise to dominance in the Jurassic and their inevitable crash at the end of the Cretaceous. Even with their crash and loss of most of the large animal niches, they still are the most diverse vertebrates on the planet other than fish, but there is no denying their heyday is over. Brusatte serves as a good tour guide of the history of dinosaurs in their prime, when they ruled the land with a bloody tooth and claw. Of course, this book is about more than dinosaurs. It is about him as well. The book could be a journal of the places he has gone and the people he has seen. So if you are wanting to learn about Brusatte and his study of dinosaurs, this is the book. If you want to just cut to the chase and learn about dinosaurs, maybe try a different book. It all depends on how much you want to read about dinosaurs and how much you want to read about those who study them.
The Ascent of Birds: How Modern Science is Revealing Their Story by John Reilly. 2018. Pelagic Press. ISBN 978-1-78427-169-5
I said earlier the dinosaur heyday is over. Ornithologists like Dr. John Reilly would probably disagree. While Brusatte dealt with nonavian dinosaurs, Reilly provides a great walk through of living dinosaurs and the stories that make them fascinating objects of study. Starting with the Tinamou and Vegavis, he works his way through the birds to finish with White-eyes and Tanagers. Along the way, he uses their stories to discuss numerous concepts of evolution and ecology. If you are interested in how evolution works and you have a particular love of birds, this is a great book. Essentially, this is a book discussing evolution, using birds for all the examples. Considering their staggering diversity and accessibility, the opportunity to see them, I can’t think of a better group to use for this purpose.
Dinosaurs―The Grand Tour, Second Edition: Everything Worth Knowing About Dinosaurs from Aardonyx to Zuniceratops by Kieron Pim. 2019. Second Edition. The Experiment. ISBN-13: 978-1615195190
I debated whether or not I should include this book. I hate books that claim to tell the reader what is worth knowing and what isn’t. It is an exceptionally arrogant title. Pim is not a paleontologist, so he does not have the cachet the other writers on this list have, so the book really does not deserve the title. The first edition was put out in 2014. If you have that one, I would not recommend getting this one. This one is better, but I am not sure it is enough better to justify buying it again. The cover artwork, while wonderfully done, is not really indicative of the artwork in the book, which are more line drawings than what is seen on the cover. The artwork also has some inaccuracies that bug me, such as enormous overbites that hide the lower teeth and put the upper teeth covering the entire lower jaw, which are all too popular among artists drawing dinosaurs. Nevertheless, the artwork in this edition is a step above that of the first, with more colorful and interesting art for this edition. The book is also more of an encyclopedic organization, a dictionary of dinosaurs, rather than a cohesive and in depth examination. All of which puts this book in a definitely different category than the others. However, if you are looking for a book to flip through and learn about some interesting new dinosaurs, you may find this book worth your time, or at least, an interesting gift for a young (although not too young as at almost 10″ tall and over 2 pounds, or 1 kg, it is not a small book) person into dinosaurs.
That’s it for today. Come back Monday for a set of books on other prehistoric animals.
It has been a long time since I have written anything for Paleoearie. I have not given up or abandoned the site. I just had to take a sabbatical. I apologize for leaving the site fallow for so long. But, for now at least, I am back and hope to be putting out more stuff soon. If all goes well, I will continue to be adding new stuff to the site on a regular basis.
To celebrate my return to Paleoaerie, I thought I would start with a series for the holidays. Between now and Christmas, I will present to you 12 days of book recommendations for your science friends or just to put under your own tree as a present to yourself. So without further adieu, I present to you, on the first day of book lists, dinosaurs, because of course.
Extreme Dinosaurs Part 2: The Projects by Luis Rey. 2019. Imagine Publishing. ISBN-13: 978-0993386626
Luis Rey is one of my favorite dinosaur artists of all time. His work is always imaginative. He brings dinosaurs to vivid, colorful life better than anyone in the business. Luis also spends countless hours studying fossils and talking to experts to get the science right and then goes the extra step to push the boundaries to provide something beyond the ordinary. Mark Witton, a fabulous artist and respected paleontologist in his own right, has written a thorough review of the book here. I will simply say that if I was buying just one book this year about dinosaurs, this would be it.
The Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries: Amazing Fossils and the People Who Found Them by Donald Prothero. Columbia University Press, 2019. ISBN: 9780231186025
Dr. Prothero is a renowned paleontologist who has written a number of interesting and thoughtful books for the general public. His latest book covers the history of dinosaur research through the stories of 25 discoveries, discussing how the fossils advanced the study of dinosaurs, as well as the people who worked on them. This book shows how the science evolved through both scientific discovery and the human element behind it. It should make a great read for someone just getting into dinosaur paleontology as a science and beyond the “T. rex is cool!” phase (don’t get me wrong, they are undeniably cool, but there is so much more beyond that). Covering fossils from the first Megalosaurus find to Sinosauropteryx, you will find the favorites here in their historical context, as well as more recent fossils that had a major impact. This should give your budding paleontologist a thorough grounding to begin their quest in earnest.
The Dinosaurs Rediscovered: The Scientific Revolution in Paleontology by Michael Benton. Thames and Hudson, 2019. ISBN-13: 978-0500052006
If your dino enthusiast is up to speed with the major finds, it is time to get into the real meat of the science. Dr. Benton is a titan in the field of dinosaur paleontology, publishing prolifically and overseeing the work of numerous other workers. His latest book gives a nonspecialist a great introduction to what the science of dinosaur paleontology is up to these days. While many people think of paleontologists spending their lives in the field digging up dinosaurs bones, that is only the first step in a long road to discovery. To truly understand what the fossils can tell us, that requires intensive work in the lab and there is none better than Michael Benton to lead you through the lab and show you all the wonderful things that can be learned, what we are learning, and what things are still to learn.
Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Life: The Definitive Visual Guide to Prehistoric Animals. Smithsonian Series. DK Press, 2019. ISBN-13: 978-1465482495
Dinosaurs are certainly the most famous prehistoric creatures, but they are far from the only ones. DK Press has put out numerous fascinating books on prehistoric animals, but my favorite has to be their Smithsonian Series. The books are meticulously researched and are packed with amazing graphics and stunning pictures of real fossils. This book appears to be a revamped and updated version of their Prehistoric Life: The Definitive Visual History of Life on Earth, which came out in 2009, which, if you have seen that book, it is a tome, guaranteed to fill many hours with wonder and awe. This book is clearly more focused on dinosaurs than the previous book, but it does not skimp on other animals. So if you want a book that gives you tons of dinosaurs, but also puts them in their place among the history of animals, this is a book for you. Of course, if all you want is dinosaurs, then try DK’s Dinosaurs: A Visual Encyclopedia. The 2nd edition came out in 2018.
Totally Amazing Facts About Dinosaurs (Mind Benders Series) by Matthew Wedel. Capstone Press, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-1543529302
The last book I want to discuss today is a book that came out last year written by Dr. Matt Wedel. Wedel is a paleontologist specializing in the biggest of the big. He studies sauropods, those giant, long-necked dinosaurs, and all things huge and terrestrial. One might even say he is a big kid who matured, but never grew up. As such, he is a great person to write a book for kids. He can bring that child-like sense of fun and wonder while at the same time having the experience and breadth of knowledge to really know what he is talking about. If you have a kid who is still in the “dinosaurs are cool” stage, but is not ready for the detailed science, this is the book for you.
That’s it for today. Tune in Friday for The Second Day of Book Lists, when I will bring you..more dinosaurs!