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The 12 Days of Books to Buy for Your Science Readers: On the Third Day of Book Lists…

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

rieppel2017At 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

mcphee2018Everyone 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

marinemammalsDr. 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.

everhartMammals 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.

snakesThe 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 12 Days of Books to Buy for Your Science Readers: On the Second Day of Book Lists…

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

hone2016This 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

lacovara2018Dr. 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.

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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

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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

pim2019I 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 2016. 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.

The 12 Days of Books to Buy for Your Science Readers: On the First Day of Book Lists…

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

Extreme Dinosaurs 2 cover © Rey

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

prothero2019bookDr. 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

benton2019bookIf 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

smithsonian2019bookDinosaurs 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

wedelbook2019The 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!

 

Cabinets of Curiosities at the Old State House

Back in the old days, before the idea of museums being educational centers became commonplace, most museums were more like some rich person’s trinkets collected during vacations packed into glass cases so people could see them. They rarely had signs telling people what anything was, nor was there oftentimes any attempt at organization. Because of the rather haphazard and all-encompassing nature of the displays, they got the name Cabinets of Curiosities.

As time went on, they became more thoughtful and organized, with more attention being spent on telling people what the objects were, teaching people about them, and properly preserving the objects for posterity.

The Old State House Museum in Little Rock honors that tradition with an exhibit called “Cabinets of Curiosities: Treasure of the University of Arkansas Museum Collection.” I am sad to say that the exhibit has been up since March 11 of 2017, but I have only recently learned about it and have gone to see it. Truth be told, the only reason I found out about it was because I went to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville to see the Hazen Mammoth fossils and found that the lower jaw of that mammoth was on display in Little Rock.

The reason I am sad to say this is because the exhibit is well worth your time to go see. If I had known about it earlier, I would definitely have discussed it here by now. I was told it will still be at the museum for another year, so you still have time. It is free, so go. Spend a Saturday downtown and explore the exhibit. Then go see what else is down there, which is plenty to keep you busy over the weekend.

What will you see when you are there? To begin with, you might want to ask directions from their helpful and friendly staff, because the exhibit is upstairs in a side gallery that you might miss if you didn’t know it was there.

The objects are from the University of Arkansas Museum at Fayetteville, which, sadly, closed its doors in 2003. As a result, if you want to see their collections, you have to make an appointment to see the warehoused collections. Or you can see a small part of them in this exhibit. The museum had collections from all over the world covering many subjects, which the exhibit honors by having selections of a wide range. It is like a mini-museum of anthropology and natural history.

I am a fossil guy, so I am going to focus on the fossils you can see. The fossils are mostly in the first two rooms that you enter in the exhibit. In the first room, under the horns of a large cervid (the family containing deer, elk, and moose), are two cabinets of invertebrate fossils and minerals. There are some nice fossils to see. You can see a crinoid with the calyx, or body, and pinnules, or “fronds”. These are much rarer than the pieces of stalks we normally find throughout the Ozarks. There is also a starfish, ammonoids, and nice plant fossils, among others.

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To the right of this display is a cabinet containing the skulls of a musk ox and Smilodon (saber-toothed tiger), a couple of large, straight-shelled nautiloids, and one of the bones of Arkansaurus, which up until very recently, was the only known dinosaur found in Arkansas.

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On the other side of the room, you can see the bones of an elephant leg and a cabinet full of geology specimens, including one enormous quartz crystal that would not be allowed as a carry-on for some planes because it is too big to fit.

elephantlegweb.jpggeocabweb

The next room contains  case with the leg bones of a camel, lion, dog, and cat. It also contains the pieces of mammoth that I came to see. But before you get to that case, you have to pass a giant clam that could fit a child, or even a small adult if they curled up.

giantclamweb.jpgmammothdispweb

The other side of the room contains the skulls of a bison and rhino, a whale rib, and an entire icthyosaur from Germany. The end of the room has the skulls of a bear and walrus, complete with tusks, and the skeletons of a bat and snake.

whaleribwebicthyosaurweb.jpg

The final part of the fossil and biology section that I was most interested in was an old display of horse evolution. If made today, it would probably look substantially different because of all the new data we have gotten since that display was made; but except for a few very minor details, the essential facts would be the same.

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Of course, there is much more to the exhibit than what I have presented here, such as this cool whalebone armor and cavalry sword, so spend some time checking out the rest of the exhibit and the museum.

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There is one thing that the exhibit could have capitalized on, but didn’t (mainly because they didn’t know about it, but also because they were trying to stay with the whole cabinets of curiosity motif), was that many of the fossils and biology specimens have fossil counterparts that have been found in Arkansas. For instance, we have fossil Smilodons, musk oxen, whales, several mastodons, giant deer and giant snakes, and much more.

So here is my question to you. How many people would pay for a special tour of the exhibit that discussed all the cool Arkansas fossils that matched up with the ones on display here. How much would you pay? $10/person? More? Less?

A Trio of Terror

Today I am going to do something a bit different. The books I usually talk about here are ones that I am recommending to people to check out. Today I am going to talk about a few that I do not recommend and why they don’t pass muster. As a result, I am not going to be putting quite as much information about the books because they aren’t ones I really want people to seek out and buy. I want you to avoid them when you see them and books like them. I have mentioned them very briefly on the Facebook page, but I wanted to talk about them a little more here for a less ephemeral record.

61maMwosZ1LThe first book on the list is A Weekend with Dinosaurs. This book is put out by Raintree, an imprint of Capstone Global Library. This book came out in 2014 as part of their “Fantasy Science Field Trips” Read Me! series for elementary schools. They list it as reading level grades 1-3, but interest level grades 3-5, which I think kind of whacked, but that is just my personal opinion because dinosaurs are of interest to all ages in my (entirely biased, of course) opinion.

The book is written by Claire Throp and I must say up front that the atrociousness of this book is not entirely her fault. The words in the book are not terrible as far as they go. So let’s take a look at that first.It begins with going back in time 230 million years to begin the field trip at the beginning of the dinosaurs. It’s written in a fun and interesting way which is, I think, just right for the desired tone and age range of the audience. She sets it up well, even mentioning that different dinosaurs lived at different times over a very long period of time, so kudos.

The book then goes through each time period of the Mesozoic. They hit the Triassic first. Here I have a serious disagreement with the book. They mention a massive extinction at the beginning of the Triassic, although they don’t name it as the end Permian or PermoTriassic, which it is better known as, but they blame it on an asteroid, I expect in an effort to link it to the asteroid at the end of the Mesozoic. However, the most accepted hypothesis for the PermoTriassic extinction event is the eruption of the Siberian Traps, the most extensive volcanic event in the history of the planet, as the main cause, which is not even mentioned. Sure, let’s blame a big, sexy space rock and completely ignore what we think really happened.

Another error here is mentioning Syntarsus, which has been generally considered to be a junior synonym of Coelophysis since 2004, which is noted in Wikipedia, so that information is easily found. Syntarsus itself has not existed as a valid species name since at least 2002, so there is really no excuse for a book published in 2014 to be mentioning it.

Moving on to the Jurassic Period, they pick some interesting dinosaurs to represent the time, such as Dilophosaurus, which, despite what they say in the book, has only ever been found in the United States.There was a specimen from China, but in 2003, it was discovered that it was actually a different dinosaur named Sinosaurus. Again, this was over a decade before this book was printed. And while I am talking about times, the geologic time scales they show at the top of the pages, while a good idea, are wrong. It is not clear what ranges they are supposed to be representing, but none of them really match currently accepted dates.

The other dinosaurs they mention for the Jurassic are good, classic dinosaurs of the time and good inclusions. They list Megalosaurus as having lived in England and Africa which, while possible and at one time considered as such, is now considered just to be in England. It has long been considered a “wastebasket” taxon and more recent work has reclassified the megalosaurs on other continents to different genera. This is just another example of old, outdated information used in this book though, which is unacceptable in such a recent book.

The chapter on the Cretaceous Period has several interesting dinosaurs. It is mostly decent, although one small comment is that a lot of the dinosaurs would fit into an adult’s hand when newly born. Even the large sauropods weighing tens of tons as adults had eggs no bigger than the size of soccer balls, so the babies weren’t that big when freshly hatched. They just grew incredibly fast.

The book wraps up quickly with only two pages to cove the end of the dinosaurs. Oddly, they say nothing about what ended the dinosaurs. They make it sound as if pretty much everything died except for birds, when what they (I hope) meant was that all the dinosaurs except for birds died off, leaving room for the mammals to diversify into the prominent spots.

I do like the picture of the footprint listing it as a fossil, showing that not just bones are fossils. The book also has a glossary, an index, and additional reading with books listed and a website. Unfortunately, they only list their own stuff, for which they have already demonstrated a lack of fact checking, so when they say that “all the sites on FactHound have been researched by our staff,” that doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.

Ok, so a fair number of mistakes, but on the whole, not ones that would make me scream in agony. But the pictures! Oh the horrible pictures! It looks as if they spent a few minutes on the internet and took whatever pictures they could find. The pictures are so incredibly inconsistent, it is a crime against education.

There are a few that are good. I like the spinosaur picture. Of course, that picture was done by Walter Myers, an excellent artist who is listed nowhere in the credits. So Raintree, did you actually pay the man?

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Sadly, right next to that picture is the most godawful picture of an oviraptor stealing eggs that would have been an embarrassment fifty years ago. There is a decent picture of Syntarsus, excuse me, Coelophysis, right next to a picture of Plateosaurus that was never accurate, another picture taken from a stock illustration collection with no regard for accuracy whatsoever. The Troodon just made me want to cry as it is possibly the worst I have ever seen. I am sure I have seen it before, but I don’t remember where other than it was in a book published before I was born. Pictures were taken from old books and movie stills, computer generated images, poor drawings, apparently any place they could grab them quickly. It is apparent no effort at all was made to see if the illustrations conveyed any sense of accuracy at all.

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In fact, the illustrations in this book are so bad that it really doesn’t matter what the words say at all. This book was made with the apparent idea that the accuracy of the illustrations don’t matter because it is a children’s book. That is as far from the truth as it is possible to get. The artwork is the MOST important part of a children’s book. They will remember the artwork long after they have forgotten every single word in the book. The art has to be right. When the art is screwed up this badly, the words are almost pointless. Even with the mistakes in the the text, Claire Throp was done a disservice by having her work destroyed by the illustrations. It might be entertaining to a little kid, but no one who knows anything about dinosaurs will let their kids anywhere near this book except as a warning how NOT to draw dinosaurs. The only decent artwork in this book seems to be possibly pirated, so there is even that problem on top of everything else.

There is really no excuse for this. There are a lot of really excellent paleoartists who work really hard to make their work as scientifically accurate as they can while still turning out beautiful work. The art is there. The artists are there. Pay them and get quality work to make a quality product. The kids deserve that.

A17PRfT97DL.jpgThe second and third books I am just going to briefly mention. One is Scholastic’s book, Dinosaurs of the Jurassic World and Beyond. Written by Paula Hammond, this book came out in 2015 to capitalize on the release of Jurassic World. Of course, what they really did was have this book on prehistoric animals that had nothing to do with Jurassic World whatsoever, notice that hey, it has a tyrannosaur in it, let’s put Jurassic World in the title and hope nobody notices that we lied our asses off about this book having anything to do with the movie so that we can sell more copies. I guess adding “and Beyond” explains not mentioning the movie and including animals like Dunkleosteus, Dimetrodon, and the Woolly Mammoth.

This book also has several inaccuracies and has not exactly stellar artwork. While not as horrifyingly bad as in Weekend with Dinosaurs, it is not great. Broken wrists and unfeathered dinosaurs are common.

514XbYUp-dL._SX373_BO1,204,203,200_The other book is Dinosaur Bites, by Heather Dakota, published by Tangerine Press. This one uses as a selling point that it comes with a necklace, of what I forget, a bronze tooth I think. Again, this suffers the same problem of poor research and bad artwork. They seem to insist on getting people who, while reasonable artists, are not familiar with their subjects and it shows in their artwork. Either that, or their book designers force them to make bad artwork to satisfy some preconceived notions, which is entirely possible.

Here is a gripe that I have with a lot of these books. They seem to be written by people who had their ideas about dinosaurs and other extinct animals set decades ago and they have never changed. Moreover, they don’t think it matters that they haven’t bothered to update their thinking. So they put the same thing they think they remember from their childhood. Not saying they are, but that’s what it seems like. Take for example, good old Dimetrodon. He is listed as a mammal-like reptile. Unfortunately, scientists have not used that term, really, ever. They haven’t even colloquially used that term in decades because Dimetrodon and his kin are not related to modern reptiles at all. There was a group of reptile-like animals from which two groups emerged. One group diversified into what eventually became what we think of as reptiles, along with dinosaurs and birds. The other group became mammals. Dimetrodon is in the group that became mammals. So if we are going to call them anything like that, we should be calling them something like reptile-like protomammals. Or we could just call them what scientists call them: synapsids.

Why is this important? Because it causes people to look at them differently. Dimetrodon and his kin were not reptiles with some characteristics superficially like mammals. They were animals on their way to evolving into true mammals. And that is an enormous sea change in perspective. How we talk about these creatures makes a difference.

 

 

The Griffin and the Dinosaur

The Griffin and the Dinosaur by Marc Aronson review summary: Get it. put it in your library collections. It has science, history, sociology, and documents the efforts of the researcher so people can see how ideas are put together, all in an easy to read, accessible format. There is even a free online education guide, with classroom activities matched to sixth grade common core standards. Highly recommended for elementary and middle school libraries. To see why, read the full review below.

The Griffin and the Dinosaur: How Adrienne Mayor Discovered a Fascinating Link Between Myth and Science.

by Marc Aronson with Adrienne Mayor. Illustrated by Chris Muller

griffinanddinosaurPublication Date: 2014

National Geographic Society. ISBN: 978-1-4263-1108-6 (trade hardback) 978-1-4263-1109-3 (reinforced library binding) Available from Bound to Stay Bound Books

ATOS level: 7.4, AR quiz availability: reading practice, 1.0 AR points

Recommended: Grades 4-8

If you are looking for a book about dinosaurs or myths, get another book. But if you are looking for a book about how myths are made and how dinosaurs play into that, this is a great book. The story here is one of cultural interpretations of the natural world. Before people knew about dinosaurs, they found their bones and tried to explain them as best they could according to their worldview. This book tells of the search by one woman to unravel the origins of myths with the hypothesis that they began as most stories do, with a kernel of truth.

Adrienne Mayor has written two influential books, called The First Fossil Hunters and Fossil Legends of the First Americans, in which she lays out all her evidence to support the idea of dinosaur bones being the kernel of truth upon which some of the myths from the ancient Greeks and Romans and the native Americans were built. However, these books together run almost 900 pages, which, while interesting to the serious student, are a bit out of reach for the casual reader. The Griffin and the Dinosaur makes an excellent introduction to this work that is accessible for anyone who can read beyond the basic learning to read books.

Chapter-4

Illustration by Chris Muller

Marc Aronson has written several books for children and young adults, mostly relating history in a way that people will actually read. The writing is clear, easy to follow, and relatable enough to keep most readers engaged. The book is illustrated with numerous photos of archaeological artifacts, historical photos and drawings, and the occasional dinosaur. There are too few dinosaurs for my taste, especially for a book with the word dinosaur in the title, but the book is focused on the history and myth interpretations, not dinosaurs. The photos are supplemented with illustrations by Chris Muller, which add to the feel of the book, connecting the bones to the imagination.

The book is split into eight chapters, each only a few pages long. The first chapter, “Prairie Girl”, describes Adrienne Mayor’s childhood and her developing interest in nature and ancient myths. The second chapter, “The Sound of Heat’, finds Adrienne in Athens studying ancient Greek manuscripts in Athens. I’m not too fond of this particular chapter. In a chapter only three pages long, two pages are taken up mostly describing the conditions of the library in which she studied. Only on the third page does Aronson talk about griffins and Mayor’s question about what kind of fossil animal might have inspired it. The last paragraph of the chapter tells of her discovery of the “monster of Samos”.

Chapter-3

Illustration by Chris Muller

“Sketching Griffins”, the third chapter, describes her discovery of ancient bronze griffins on Samos, but only giraffe bones for the monster, which could not have inspired the myth. It does answer a question I have long wondered. How did an obviously wingless dinosaur become the winged griffin? The answer to that lies in the very earliest depictions of griffins, which did not have wings. The wings were added later as the myth of the griffin grew and became more fanciful. The other thing I like in this chapter is the discussion of search images. When people have an idea in their head of what something should look like, it aids them in identifying it quickly, but it blinds them to possibilities outside that image.

Chapter four deals with Adrienne changing her search image by more study of the development of the griffin myth through history as well as any connections others had made, which led her to the work of Othenio Abel, who had asserted the cyclopean myths came from mammoth skeletons.

Chapter five continues her search for the historical origins of the griffin tale. During this time, she discovers Triceratops, which she thought might be the kernel of truth behind the myth. This is a nice chapter because it shows that even big, embarrassing mistakes does not mean that one should give up. They merely teach you what you need to learn next.

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Illustration by Chris Muller

“The Secrets of the Flaming Cliffs”, chapter six finally introduces Adrienne to Protoceratops, a small, beaked dinosaur that was found associated with eggs in a nest. It had a small frill and a long scapula, or shoulder blade, which could have been mistaken for a potential wing support. At least, it could if someone didn’t know very much about anatomy, which includes most people.

The last two chapters deal with the publication of her work and her continuing research into other myths and legends. It ends with a reference back to expanding our search images to find the truth behind the stories.

The book ends with few nice addendums. There is a map of the world showing where things mentioned in the text were found. There is a page of suggestions for further reading, which include her other books, books for younger readers, and online resources. A combined glossary and index covers the more challenging and interesting words. The book wraps up with a page about Marc Aronson and how the book came about.

So to sum up, there is precious little dinosaur and a whole lot of griffin in this book. But it does a wonderful job of depicting a personal story about how dinosaurs have played a role in the development of our cultural beliefs. It also serves as a reminder that we should not dismiss stories as pure fantasy. Strip away the fantastical and you may find something real underneath.

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The Natural History Museum Book of Dinosaurs

If you are ever in London, the Natural History Museum (NHM) is a must see attraction. It ranks among the top natural history museums around. Schedule more than one day to see all the exhibits if you can, including their popular dinosaur exhibit that always draws large crowds. Many people have complained about the poor lighting and limited viewing space in that particular exhibit, but even with that, it is not to be missed. Accompanying the dinosaurs in the museum is an extensive online collection of fossil information, covering a wide range of dinosaurs. So given this, it should not surprise anyone that the NHM has put out a dinosaur book. The first edition of the book came out in 1993, with three more editions published since then, the latest one in 2006. We know a lot more about dinosaurs now than we did even ten years ago though, so how well does it hold up? Pretty well, for the most part, although a few Americans might be a bit perplexed by the British spelling that is occasionally different from American English. The NHM has a nice website on dinosaurs, which serves as a nice supplement to the book.

It is a long review, so if you want to skip to the summary conclusions, click here.

The Natural History Museum Book of Dinosaurs

51t8mO3z0sL._SX390_BO1,204,203,200_by Tim Gardom and Angela Milner

Publication Date: 2006. 144 pg.

Carlton Books. ISBN: 1-84442-183-X, 978-1-84442-183-1

AR Book Level: Not listed

Recommended for 10-14 year olds

Angela Milner has been a well respected paleontologist for decades and has been the leading researcher for dinosaurs at the NHM since the eighties, so if anyone is going to write a book about dinosaurs for the museum, it’s Dr. Milner. Tim Gardom is primarily known for this book, but he has had extensive experience writing for museum exhibits, including the dinosaur exhibit at NHM, meaning that he has practiced the art of writing technical material in a way that can be readily understood by nontechnical and diverse audiences.

This book can be considered an extension of the exhibit at the museum, taking what is there and expanding upon it considerably, forming an extended guidebook. It is not a catalogue of dinosaurs, though, such as Brusatte and Benton’s Dinosaurs. This book places dinosaurs in context within their world, focusing more on what dinosaurs were and how they lived over listing the different types, although it does that as well. More importantly, it talks about how paleontologists came to the conclusions they have, what is the evidence for what we think.

While extensively illustrated with a wide array of photographs of real fossils, paintings and illustrations of reconstructed dinosaurs, and the people and places, it is not a picture book. The text is extensive, but easily readable and should be readily accessible by any interested kid of middle school age or beyond, while still being a good read for adults.

The book has ten chapters broken up into an introduction to dinosaurs and the Mesozoic Era, five chapters on the lifestyles of the dinosaurs, an obligatory chapter on dinosaur extinction, a chapter on the history of dinosaur research, a chapter dealing specifically with how paleontologists piece together the clues to interpret the fossils, and finally ending with the now seemingly obligatory chapter on the evolution of dinosaurs to birds.

Chapter one is noteworthy for its debunking of some popular myths about evolution in general and dinosaurs in particular. It starts immediately with dispensing with the old chestnuts of “survival of the fittest” and the idea that dinosaurs died out because they were not “fit”. They properly describe evolution as being a product of those who are more capable of surviving in a particular environment and successfully reproducing, not necessarily the biggest and strongest. They go on to discuss what types of fossils are found and how they are formed which, while in general good, neglects the important contributions of microbes to the fossilization process. But to be fair, we know much more about that now than we did then and the purely physical processes listed here are still described the same way in almost every book published today. They also do a good job describing what a dinosaur is and is not. They separate animals commonly thought to be dinosaurs, such as dimetrodons, pterosaurs, and marine reptiles, from true dinosaurs. The biggest problem with this section is that the illustrations are poor. The Tyrannosaurus would not pass muster in the first edition, much less now, and the Deinonychus is out of date. Moreover, they continue to use the term “mammal-like reptile”, rather than the more accepted term synapsid, which makes this section appear severely dated. They still use the term “thecodont” to describe the earliest archosaurs that led to dinosaurs, although they at least do say it is an informal term, not one that is formally accepted. The problem with thecodont as a term is that it throws everything with a similar jaw together, whether or not they are related. The bulk of the chapter is a good, but necessarily brief description of the Mesozoic Era, including the position of the continents, the changing climate, and the evolution of plants and animals during this time, focusing of course on the dinosaurs, but not to the exclusion of everything else, which provides the necessary context for dinosaur evolution during this time.

Chapter two is all about movement and tells the story of how dinosaurs went from a lizard-like sprawl to a fully erect posture and the advantages that gave. There is discussion of some of the evidence we have for different gaits and stances, including a lot of discussion about trackways, as well as the diversity in the ways an erect stance has been utilized. The stories of early ideas is an interesting read, although they make one serious error by saying all sauropods had their nostrils on the top of their heads, when in fact they had their noses at the end of their snouts like every other terrestrial animal. I also think they give too much time to the debate over whether or not tyrannosaurs were scavengers or hunters, even though they do eventually come down on the side of hunters, as pretty much every paleontologist does. The tyrannosaur as scavenger debate was getting a lot of press during the time of publication, but it died down pretty quickly, with no one really accepting it anymore, considering there is evidence of active hunting by tyrannosaurs. Go to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and you will see an edmontosaur with a healed bite taken out of its back.

Chapter three discusses food, how different dinosaurs ate, so one can expect several pictures of skulls and teeth. This chapter gets high marks for discussing current research at the time, such as Emily Rayfield’s work using Finite Element Analysis to determine bite force in several dinosaurs. Criticisms of the chapter include too much credence given to the idea that tyrannosaurs were scavengers which they revisit in this chapter, the discussion of neck posture in sauropods, and missing an important aspect of the tyrannosaur coprolite studies. These criticisms are mostly due to advances since the book was published, not a fault of the authors.  The neck posture study has the problem of not sufficiently allowing for cartilage between the vertebrae, nor the fact that living animals bend their necks farther than allowed by that study on a regular basis. The tyrannosaur coprolite study also found remnants of muscle, which indicates a short digestion time. This is a strong indicator of an endothermic animal. Either that or an animal suffering some serious diarrhea. Finally, the chewing cycle of hadrosaurs is no longer as accepted as it was then. Casey Holliday makes a good case that the bones of the skull thought to move during chewing were really much better bound together in life, the supposed joints more an accommodation of quick growth, not for chewing (sadly, the link to the pdf of the paper in the linked article is no longer valid, but the article provides a good summary of the paper).

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Chapter four is attack and defense. Interestingly, this chapter discusses tyrannosaurs as hunters, ignoring the scavenger discussion of the previous chapter, providing some indication on where the authors fell in that debate. This chapter does a great job of discussing different techniques for combat and predator avoidance. High marks to this chapter for balanced discussion of current research. I particularly liked the discussion about the role of color in camouflage and display. The biggest gripe about this chapter is the presentation of theropods like Troodon as scaly when we know they were covered in feathers. It doesn’t change the discussion in the text, which is still valid and interesting, but it is a flaw in the presentation.

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Chapter five is about social organization, a topic not often covered well in books like this and is possibly my favorite chapter in the book. There are some interesting discussions here that will make one think about these animals as living animals within an ecological context. I would note that there is more evidence of group behavior of tyrannosaurs than was known at the time of publication, so they may have been more gregarious than thought then. I would have liked a bit more explicit discussion of the possibility of Deinonychus as opportunistic groups rather than a cohesive pack, but the discussions do a great job of keeping facts that we know and speculation about behaviors.

Chapter six is titled “Living animals”. This chapter gets into the detailed work of anatomy and molecular studies used to figure out how the animals were put together functionally and metabolically, as well as what their anatomical details tell us about behaviors. It serves as a nice introduction to the real work of paleontologists as more than just digging up fossils. It is a nice chapter and a great read. There are a few things that are a bit off, but not much. They discuss the discovery of actual soft tissue reported from a few dinosaur bones, such as proteins, blood cells, and blood vessels. They do not mention, however, that not everyone accepts those discoveries, instead concluding that what was found were more modern bacterial traces and not dinosaur soft tissue. Nevertheless, it is a good inclusion in the chapter. Our understanding of just how many dinosaurs had feathered has also grown dramatically since the book was published. Few people took the idea of a feathered, adult tyrannosaur seriously ten years ago, but we now have evidence some large tyrannosaurs were indeed feathered. They also make determining brain size in dinosaurs sound much easier than it really is because the amount of non-brain material in the cranial cavity varies substantially in animals other than mammals and birds. The evidence of color vision in dinosaurs, on the other hand, is stronger than presented in the book and we can pretty securely state that dinosaurs had not only color vision, but better color vision than we do. The book also uses a picture of a tyrannosaur with ridiculously large olfactory lobes that we now know is wrong. Tyrannosaurs had large olfactory lobes, indicating a good sense of smell, but they weren’t as large as presented in the book. The book devotes a decent chunk of space to the question of thermoregulation, although it is still necessarily brief, which they acknowledge, as it is a complicated discussion. For what space they have, they did a good job. I would say the idea of dinosaurs being endothermic for the most part is more accepted now than at the time of publication with new evidence pushing the debate in that direction.

Chapter seven concerns the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous. It does a good job of discussing the extinction event, including what did NOT go extinct, which complicates the picture. The evidence of a massive impact has been firmly established even more so than when the book was published. The role it played and whether it was the sole cause or the giant nail in the coffin, adding to the volcanism and changing climate, is still debated.

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Chapter eight is called “Dinosaurs and people” and is mostly a short history of dinosaur discoveries. Chapter nine discusses what it takes to go from a discovered fossil to an understanding of the life and relationships of the animal in question. Between this chapter and chapter six, the work of paleontologists is given a good accounting and should make for a useful read for any budding paleontologist. What has been added since is a huge increase in technology which has increased data sharing, allowed people to form collaborations easier, and made modeling and experiments much easier, allowing more people to make significant contributions.

The final chapter discusses the evidence that birds are dinosaurs. The book discusses several feathered dinosaurs, but our knowledge of them and the diversity of feathered dinosaurs has grown by orders of magnitude since then. We have even found evidence of melanosomes, subcellular organelles that provide the pigment, which has allowed the determination of color in a few cases. The chapter has a good section on the origin of flight, providing the classic hypotheses, but also includes newer ideas that have greatly added to our understanding of flight, making the old hypotheses incomplete, with portions of both providing a much better answer. The book does state one thing that I would cross out. They state “It seems likely that a simple insulating cover arose first and was later modified for display, signalling, and finally flight.” This is a common belief even among paleontologists, but it is simply wrong. It is highly unlikely that feathers first arose as an insulating cover as the initial stages would have done the exact opposite of providing insulation by increasing surface area without a concurrent increase in insualtion. It is far, far more likely that feathers evolved for display purposes and were then adapted for insulation.

The book ends with a section providing data on several specific dinosaurs, a glossary, suggested sources for further reading, and a useful index.

In summary, the book is a great read. It provides an excellent look at dinosaurs as more than a stamp collection of strange creatures, but as living animals within the context of a real ecosystem.  The book gives a better view of the real work of paleontologists than you will find in almost any other source. There are several places in which the science has advanced, making some specifics here and there in need of updating, but the meat of the book is still solid and provides substantial benefit to interested readers. It provides commentary in a much more thoughtful manner than is found in most other books and will make the reader think about concepts in a way rarely seen. The book shows science as a dynamic, changing field where no matter how many answers you get, there are always more questions and every piece of data requires a reexamination of the answers you already have to see if the answers are still valid. Dinosaur science is not extinct, it is still evolving and you definitely get that feeling here.

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The New Mid-America Museum

MASMLOGOI have been going to Mid-America Museum in Hot Springs, AR for many years now. I even got married there. Nevertheless, there were a few things that always frustrated me. They had a mastodon skeleton in the entry way, which was great, but there was no real signage with it. It was just there, with no context at all. But more than anything else, I despised the sign they had next to a sauropod track next to the mastodon. Two incredible dinosaur trackways have been found in Arkansas and Mid-America is one of the few places you can see anything of the trackways. But the footprint, again, had no context and the sign had the sauropods wading around in swamps, straight out of a 1950s drawing. I repeatedly told them about the sign, I even offered to make them a new one, but to no avail.

So when I heard about the museum shutting down for several months to be completely renovated, I hoped they would fix some of these things. Mid-America Museum is now open again and I got the chance to visit it recently. My verdict? They did a great job, better than I even dared hope. Like anything else, there are still a few things they could do to improve it, but the earth science exhibits are well worth taking some time to go see them. It’s a completely new museum. You should definitely check it out.

To go along with the radical renovations, it is now the Mid-America Science Museum and Donald W. Reynolds Center. The Reynolds Foundation donated $7.9 million (most places say 7.8 million, but that is because most people don’t know how to properly round, most people just truncate, 7.88 does not round to 7.8), without which the renovations could not have been done. Many of the old exhibits the museum was known for are still there, such as the Tesla coil and moving art structures, but I am going to focus on the earth science exhibits here. There are many other places you can read about the other exhibits, such as this one.

Underground Arkansas. Yes, it's a little blurry. Good luck getting your kids to stay still here long enough for a photo.

Underground Arkansas. Yes, it’s a little blurry. Good luck getting your kids to stay still here long enough for a photo.

The main exhibit focusing on earth science is called Arkansas Underfoot. It is located, appropriately enough, next to the Arkansas Underground tunnels. With this placement, the tunnel construction is thematically tied to the rest of the museum in a much better way than previously. The tunnels have been cleaned and fixed up. The frayed and broken sections of the rope bridges have been replaced with all new rope. I was disappointed to see that the skeleton of the miner has been removed, but the many appreciative comments from the kids indicates this was a good change. Apparently many kids found it frightening and disliked it. I am still not convinced the stated purpose of this exhibit to allow kids to explore and learn about life underground and what lies beneath our feet is at all effective. I enjoyed a small display of fossils embedded in the wall at one spot, but other than that, there is nothing educational inside and I seriously doubt many of the kids see it because it is situated in a spot that does not lend itself to stopping and looking. Nevertheless, kids really enjoy it and it brings people into the museum where they see other things that are truly educational, and it provides parents a bit of a respite as the kids zoom through it again and again, so it succeeds on that front. I do wish there was a bit more within it that might serve an educational purpose, particularly for the space it takes. I don’t advocate its removal, quite the opposite in fact. It should be added to in ways that enhance its educational value.

2015-03-20 11.00.05The mastodon and sauropod track are here, with the mastodon freshly painted to look more like the real bones from which the casts were made. It looks good and has more of a context with all the other exhibits nearby. The sauropod track has a new sign, which is a vast improvement over the old one. The swamp-dwelling sauropods are gone, replaced by a discussion of the Arkansas dinosaur trackways, including pictures. The trackways really are impressive, much more than they show here (in all fairness, to truly appreciate them would take an exhibit all its own, so what they accomplished here is perfectly reasonable given space constraints and exhibit balance considerations, it is quite sufficient for the intended audience without going overboard), but at least now visitors get a feel for the trackways as being more than an isolated footprint and the incorrect information from the old sign has been replaced with good information. The footprint now has that all important context. Outside still has the dinosaur dig that is popular with the kids, along with the adjacent track site, making a nice continuation of the interior exhibits.

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2015-03-20 12.21.502015-03-20 11.43.44There are several new exhibits to see which are well worth spending time to see. The exhibit that draws the most attention is an interactive 3D topographic map. Using a projector and an Xbox Kinect, t2015-03-20 11.02.53hey turn a simple sandbox into an endlessly changing map. As people move the sand around, they can see the colors change to match the topography, with snow-capped hills and rivers and lakes that respond to the changes in the landscape. Its draw and fascination is evident by the length of time people spend there manipulating the topography. It is a wonderful interactive display, but there are a couple of ways it could be improved. The actual topographic lines are very dim and go unnoticed by almost everyone, decreasing that educational aspect of the display. Despite a number of maps on display in the exhibit, there are no topographic maps for comparison other than the large map behind the mastodon. I discount that one because it is displayed as monotone wall art without reference to it being topographic in nature, so it runs under the radar for visitors. There is an empty wall right next to the sandbox. I think the exhibit could be improved by putting up a topographic map on that wall, along with a description of how to read it, using text that relates it back to the sandbox, thereby tying it all together.

2015-03-20 12.09.55Speaking of maps, there are several on display. A large geologic map of Arkansas adorns one wall, with explanations of how to read it, much like I suggested above for the topographic map. On the map are listed several places where mineralogical resources have been found and mined. Next to the map is a display showing some of the rocks and minerals that have been mined in the state that are shown on the map, as well as a display showing the major types of rock in the state. In addition, there is a table with several maps of various kinds. My favorite is the color map of the Mississippi river showing how it has meandered all over the area.

2015-03-20 12.10.56On the adjoining wall to the one displaying the geologic map is a series of display cases embedded into the wall showing different soil types, showing how soil changes with depth and region. One is called a Stuttgart soil, which is listed as the state soil of Arkansas. Who knew we even had an official state soil?

At the fossil station, you can look at real microfossils. There is a microscope which lets you see a variety of identified fossils such as shell fragments and echinoderm spines. The signs are good, informative without overloading visitors. The exhibit lets people see fossils that you don’t normally see in a museum and get a feel for the work involved. While I was there, several people examined the fossils and tried their hand at identifying them.

Find a fossil! The TV shows what the person looking through the microscope sees so everyone can see it.

Find a fossil! The TV shows what the person looking through the microscope sees so everyone can see it.

Soil bacteria causing different color patterns.

Soil bacteria causing different color patterns.

Next to the fossil station is a slice of soil that looks something like a giant ant colony display. Instead of ants and there tunnels, there is bacteria which turn the soil different colors depending on the type of bacteria and their type of metabolism. The signage is great and very informative. I have not seen a display like this before and thought it a great addition. The only criticism I would make is that the lighting is not the best. The lights shine up from the base of the display, so the lights are too bright to get a good look at the lower portion of the soil. You wind up trying to look almost directly at the bulbs between you and the bottom of the display.

Continuing on, there is a rock smasher, where people can drop a heavy weight onto rocks to see pieces break off and fall into a short series of grates separating the pieces into different sizes. I am not sure people were getting the point of the exhibit, which was explained on the adjacent sign, which talked rocks breaking up to form sand, clay, and soil. People seemed to like trying to smash the rocks, though, so hopefully some people looked over at the sign while they were doing so or waiting their turn. Curiously, the sign never actually mentions the word “erosion”, which is what the exhibit is all about.

Between the rock smasher and the dinosaur footprint is a large display of Arkansas quartz. Arkansas is famous throughout the world for its quartz, so it is fitting to see it on display here.

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If I were to pick the one display that most surprised me, I would probably choose the taphonomy display. As someone professionally interested in how things decay and form fossils, I particularly loved this display. It is not something you see in museums very often. Taphonomy is the study of everything that happens to an organism between the time it dies and the time it is collected and studied. This display of course, only covers the first part of the process, showing five weeks of the decay of a freshly dead rat. I should warn people that it might be disturbing for some viewers. It is understandable they only go this far in the process, as it is the easiest to show and most relevant to active, biological processes that affect us. The touch panel next to the display allows people to go further into how the decay process fits into the function of a healthy ecosystem. Definitely worth a look. If maggots bother you, you can still learn a lot from the touch screen.

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The final piece of the exhibit is a touch screen which allows you to take a virtual field trip through eight different areas of Arkansas, learning about the geology making each area unique and how the underlying rocks affect the landscape. It is well done and you can spend a lot of time going through the different trips. I didn’t have time to go through all of them, but I will definitely be spending more time at this panel the next time I go.

Take virtual field trips across the state.

Take virtual field trips across the state.

In conclusion, I think they did a great job on the renovation, filling in part of a huge, gaping hole in Arkansas museum coverage. There are still a few places that can be improved, like any exhibit, but what they have done is worlds better than before, providing exhibits you won’t find elsewhere in the state. Take a day out of your weekend and go see for yourself. It really is a new museum, carrying over the best of what was there before and adding in much that will fill your day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Book on the Solnhofen Limestone

This is just a quick post to point you to a review by Darren Naish. Darren has done a fair bit of research on pterosaurs and Mesozoic birds. He also spends a good amount of his time writing for the general public with several good books out. The reason I am saying this is to make it clear that his opinion on this book is far more important and knowledgeable than mine.

Matthew P. Martyniuk’s Beasts of Antiquity: Stem-Birds in the Solnhofen Limestone is a book on the pterosaurs, archaeopterygians, and a dinosaur that, as the name suggests, have been found in the Solnhofen Limestone. This formation is well known because one of the most famous fossils of all time was found there, that being Archaeopteryx, a fossil that has been used to clearly demonstrate the link between dinosaurs and birds. If this sort of book is interesting to you, read Naish’s review.

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Dinosaurs by Aliki, Part 2

Last post, I reviewed two books by Aliki Brandenberg, called Fossils Tell of Long Ago and Dinosaur Bones. They mostly got good ratings, despite being 25 or more years old. They are still better than many books that are much more current. This time I will look at two more, Digging Up Dinosaurs and Dinosaurs are Different. These books are even older, but Digging Up Dinosaurs continues to be a favorite book by many, despite its age.

Digging Up Dinosaurs

alikidiggingdinos1by Aliki Brandenberg

Publication Date: 1981, 1988

Harper Collins Publishers. ISBN: 0-690-04714-2, 0-06-445078-3 (pbk)

AR Book Level: 3.6

This book covers much the same ground as the first two books, but focuses on the path from living dinosaur to being on display in a museum. Appropriately then, the book starts with her in a museum looking at Apatosaurus, or as she states, once known as Brontosaurus. She also looks at a few other dinosaur skeletons, which are mostly drawn reasonably well, although the Tyrannosaurus rex is in the old and inaccurate Godzilla pose.

Drawn by Darren Naish. Available through him on a T-shirt.

Drawn by Darren Naish. Available through him on a T-shirt.

The next page briefly discusses dinosaurs in general. Sadly, this page does not hold up well, despite its generality. The dinosaurs are drawn in old, toy-like fashion that would not have been considered accurate in the 1980s, much less now. This book suffers the most from inaccurate and simplistic drawings. The dinosaurs are drawn with “bunny hands”, in upright poses dragging their tails, and featherless, along with other problems, such as the giant sauropods having their noses on top of their heads. Even during the 1980s, the drawings were somewhat anachronistic. Now, they are woefully out of date. For a good description of the changes that have gone on in dinosaur art based on new science, check out this article by Darren Naish.

Other problems this page has is the description of some dinosaurs being as small as birds. Yes, because birds are dinosaurs. That was known then, but was not as widely accepted as it is now. So the statement “there hasn’t been a dinosaur around for 65 million years” is not accurate. We also have a much better, if not completely understood, idea of why they became extinct.

The next part of the book talks about people finding fossils and a bit of early dinosaur paleontology history. There is a good, dynamic description of what fossils are and how they form. One complaint here is that paleontology is limited to the study of the fossils, a problem that runs throughout the book. The book does discuss many different jobs needed to collect fossils, but they all focus on collecting, preparing, and studying the fossils. If that were true, we would know very little indeed. Fortunately, study by people throughout the sciences, especially the study of modern organisms, help inform us about dinosaurs and tell us much more than the bones ever could by themselves.

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The book continues with a description of finding fossils, what it takes to collect them, and get them back to the museum. Most fossils don’t actually go to museums, but the emphasis here is on the fossils that people see in museums, so we can skip over that detail. These pages illustrate a lot of the back-breaking work involved in digging up a dinosaur. The book also illustrates some of the problems that must be carefully considered during the process, such as getting fragile fossils out of the rock and shipping them to the museum without further damage, and some of the ways those problems are solved.

Once at the museum, there is much work studying the fossils to figure out what they are, which is displayed mostly by scientists looking at a fossil and proclaiming what it is. Sadly, that is exactly what a lot of people think, ignoring the hard work and real science that goes on before any proclamations are made and they are rarely made so definitively as presented. To be fair, the text explains more of the process and makes it much less like arrogant scientists making guesses. The illustrations do not do the words justice.

Photo by Kyle Davies. Baby Apatosaurus bone cast made at the  Sam Noble Museum. http://samnoblemuseum.tumblr.com/post/45998762660/how-to-build-a-baby-apatosaurus

Photo by Kyle Davies. Baby Apatosaurus bone cast made at the Sam Noble Museum. http://samnoblemuseum.tumblr.com/post/45998762660/how-to-build-a-baby-apatosaurus

The book ends with noting that molds are made from the bones from the better specimens, so that copies can be made. These fiberglass (or plastic) copies are what is seen on display in most museums, but they look just like the original. This is an important point. Many people assume that if it isn’t the real bone, it is “fake”. Unfortunately, they use fake for both a copy of an original and something that is not real, and they usually confuse the two meanings. To be clear, these copies are NOT fake. They are more appropriately termed replicas. They are not the actual bone, but they look just the same. Because this is such a common mistake, it is great to see the actual process described here.

The other thing shown here, which makes this last part the best part of the entire book, is an illustration of a discussion among some scientists in the background. They are talking about new ideas and discoveries and make the important comment that if the ideas are confirmed, they will have to change their model. Changing what we think in the face of new evidence is the essential ingredient in science. This illustration not only shows the benefits of the fiberglass copies, but it shows real science in action.

Dinosaurs Are Different

alikidinosdiff1by Aliki Brandenberg

Publication Date: 1985

Harper Collins Publishers. ISBN: 0-690-04456-9, 0-06-445056-2 (pbk)

AR Book Level: 3.6

Dinosaurs Are Different introduces the diversity of dinosaurs to kids, breaking up a nebulous, homogeneous concept of “dinosaur” into an array of different types. It does a good job of showing different types of dinosaurs. It also nicely shows pterosaurs as being related to, but not actually being dinosaurs. The book, to its credit, gives a clear and succinct of the characteristics that scientists use to categorize the dinosaurs. So at this level, the book succeeds well. There are some problems in the details, though, because the science has moved on.

The biggest problem this book has, as in the previous book, is the illustrations that show the dinosaurs in a woefully antiquated style. The postures retain the slow, ponderous, tail-dragging poses that were popular before the 70s when we started learning more about dinosaurs. John Ostrom‘s work on Deinonychus began the revival of the idea that birds evolved from dinosaurs and, along with it, the view that dinosaurs were not the slow reptiles of yore, but active, dynamic animals. The more active view really became widely accepted when Jurassic Park hit the movie screens (although Jurassic Park committed the faux-paus of bunny hands and fatherless raptors as well). Since then, even more changes have covered more and more dinosaurs in feathers. As a result, the illustrations look painfully anachronistic. On the plus side, she still draws kids talking about related things and they are well worth reading.

alikidinosdiff2

The book starts with a brief discussion of observations on the skeletons that the teeth indicated diet, nicely done for little kids. It then talks about differences in hip structure. This is the chief characteristic separating the two main groups of dinosaurs and she does a great job of explaining the hip types and how they are used to categorize the dinosaurs into saurischians (lizard-hipped) and ornithischians (bird-hipped). She talks about how both dinosaur groups, along with crocodilians, are part of the group called archosaurs, the “ruling reptiles”. So far, so good. I like this discussion because it shows some of the steps scientists really use to figure out relationships in fossils.

But then some problems arise. Thecodonts are described as the ancestors of both groups of dinosaurs, crocodilians and pterosaurs. In the illustration (and text), she properly indicates that pterosaurs are not dinosaurs like they are often shown. However, she makes it appear that the different groups of dinosaurs are no more closely related to each other than they are to pterosaurs and crocodilians. We now know that “thecodonts” did not constitute a real group, meaning that it contained many animals that were not really related to each other and so it is no longer recognized; it holds no place in modern discussions. All archosaurs arose from a small group within what was traditionally called thecodonts and moreover, all share a common ancestor. From that ancestor, the crocodilians split off, then the pterosaurs, leaving the dinosaurs, which only then split into the two groups.

Egg-laying mammals

Egg-laying mammals

There is a page in here that hits a particular sore point with me. It is a discussion between a boy and a girl talking about what dinosaurs are. They talk about dinosaurs being reptiles and then lists several characteristics reptiles have. This is a problem because not all reptiles have these characteristics and because scientifically, animals are generally not defined by superficial characteristics like this. If at all possible, organisms are classified according to their relationships as far as we know them. A platypus lays eggs, but that does not make it a reptile. Many lizards bear live young (there is even a frog that does this), but they are still reptiles. Nevertheless, it continues to be a major challenge getting people to understand this, that organisms can not be properly classified according to what they look like.

The second half of the discussion is much better as it moves into how reptiles are broadly categorized by the type of skull they have. This is a sophisticated point for a book geared to kids and she handles it well, considering her target audience. Sadly, she makes  a blunder. She calls synapsids reptiles. When the book was published, it was still common (and sadly, is still such in some circles) to call synapsids “mammal-like reptiles.” There is only one small problem. They weren’t reptiles. Amniotes, animals that lay eggs capable of surviving on land, are split into two main groups: the synapsids and the reptiles (often called Sauropsida because of all the baggage that comes with the term reptile). You may guess by that split that mammals are synapsids and you would be right. Now at the earliest stages, would you have been able to tell them apart? Not really. They both would have looked much like reptiles. But there were important changes that sent them careening off onto very different evolutionary paths.

Moving on, we get to really good parts of the book. The predentary, a bone at the front of the lower jaw, as a characteristic of ornithischians and its relationship with herbivory is well discussed. As the book goes into the saurischians, the differences between the two main groups, the sauropods and theropods are shown well.

Unfortunately, time once again rears its ugly head as progressed marched on. The simplistic definition of coelurosaurs and carnosaurs as little theropods and big theropods, respectively, is completely wrong today. We now know that theropods changed sizes radically several times. It is no longer possible to split them up by size anymore that makes any evolutionary sense. It is also no longer true that all theropods ate meat as we now know some that were herbivores, most notably the therizinosaurs, which admittedly, were not really known when the book was written. It however, can be said that MOST theropods were carnivores.

giant coelurosaurs

Giant coelurosaurs. Artist unknown, if you do, please contact me.

 

The relationships within the Ornithischia are now very different than what is described in this book. The book describes four major groups: ornithopods, ceratopsians, stegosaurs, and ankylosaurs. There is a good discussion of hadrosaurs as ornithopods. However, unlike the book states, psittacosaurs and pachycephalosaurs are not ornithopods. Psittacosaurs are considered to be one of the earliest ceratopsians, the lineage that includes Triceratops. Pachycephalosaurs, the bone-headed dinosaurs, are also placed in a group with ceratopsians called marginocephalians. Ornithopods are are completely separate group of ornithischians. Stegosaurs and ankylosaurs are also now thought to be more closely related to each other than to the rest of the Ornithischians. New fossils have also told us how the plates on Stegosaurus were positioned (up in two rows). We also have a much better understanding for why they had them, which applies to all the rest of the groups as well. The numerous and fancy head ornaments, plates, and spikes were most likely primarily as sexual displays. They may have had secondary uses in defense, offense, or cooling, but they were primarily display structures.

The last page is a list of the different types of dinosaurs and their diet. Time and new discoveries has made this list far more diverse than Aliki could have imagined 30 years ago.

In conclusion, would I recommend the books? Yes, despite their flaws. They cover several concepts well. Digging Up Dinosaurs holds up a bit better, but both suffer from outmoded drawings and advances in our understandings of dinosaur relationships. But these flaws, if recognized, can be usefully used as valuable teaching moments to talk about how science is a dynamic field, how what we know is constantly being reevaluated based on new evidence, helping us to test and refine our ideas. Comparing the book to a more modern book would make an interesting and informative educational experience.