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.
The 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?
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.
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.
The 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.
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 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
Publication 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.
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”.
“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.
“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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Aliki Brandenberg, known mostly simply as Aliki, has written several popular books for children in the Let’s-Read-And-Find-Out Science series published by Harper Collins. Among these books are ones about fossils and dinosaurs written for 5 to 9-year -olds (I think 4-8 would be a better range, as many 4-year-olds will like the books and most nine-year-olds will have moved on to books with more information). When they came out in the 1980s, they were widely regarded as excellent books for children. The books were voluminously illustrated with colored pencil drawings of fossils and people studying them. The main text was supplemented with word balloons for the human characters, supplying interesting tidbits and additional information, so should not be ignored. Unlike many books of the time, these were about as accurate as one could expect to get without going into so much detail that a person of that reading level would feel overwhelmed.But it has been 25 years or more since then. We’ve learned a lot since then. How have they held up? Surprisingly well, for the most part, better than the majority of books published at the same time. I will review four of them here, two in this post and two in a following post. Some people might find the reviews a bit lengthy, so here they are in a nutshell: still good reads for kids, even better with a few additional comments to update them and correct a few misconceptions that kids might get from the simplicity needed to pare down complicated subjects into something that would fit the space constraints and interest levels.
Fossils Tell of Long Ago
Publication Date: 1972, revised 1990.
Harper Collins Publishers. ISBN: 978-0-06-4455093-5
AR Book Level: 3.6
Fossils Tell of Long Ago endeavors to explain what fossils are, how they form, and what they can tell us. In a quick 32 pages, Aliki provides a wealth of information well written for the intended reading level of early elementary kids.
Fossils starts off describing what fossils are and how they are formed. The description of the fossilization process is simplistic and doesn’t get into the microbes precipitating minerals around the bones during decomposition, but that was not known when the book was written and the description in the book is sufficiently accurate for the level of reader at which the book is aimed. I do like the use of the famous Xiphactinus fossil as the lead example as it is a fascinating fossil in its own right and thus a good fossil with which to hook readers. Aliki’s description of coal as a fossil is great. She does a good job of introducing different types of fossils, even including different pieces of information that may be gleaned from fossil footprints.
Aliki then goes on to talk about mammoths in ice, amber, and how fossils can tell us about the environments when the rocks were deposited, introducing many more types of fossils along the way. She ends the section by reinforcing the utility of fossils to tell us about past environments and organisms that no longer exist, even putting in a plug for museums.
The book ends with showing how to make your own fossil track and thoughts about how people in the future may interpret it. Best of all, she ends on a positive, encouraging note that anyone can find fossils, even the kid reading the book, and discover something no one else in the world knows. And that is a powerful motivator.
All in all, the Fossils book stands up very well and can still be recommended as a great book for kids.
Publication Date: 1988 (Amazon lists the publication date as 1990, which differs from what is printed in the book).
Harper Collins Publishers, ISBN: 978-0-06-445077-5.
AR Book level: 3.7
“Dinosaur Bones” tells about the early history of the study of dinosaurs and briefly discusses dinosaurs and the world of the Mesozoic. This book does not hold up quite as well as the “Fossils” book and shows its age by being out-of-date in some places, but is still reasonably accurate a good read for young kids. It provides an interesting glimpse at the beginnings of the modern studies of dinosaurs (dinosaur bones have been found for millenia, but modern scientific study is much more recent) and a very brief introduction to dinosaurs and their world.
This book, like almost every other book, has a European bias. On the very first page, it says the Dr. Robert Plot was the first person to describe a dinosaur bone in 1676. He had no idea what it was and he described it as possibly a giant human thigh bone or some other such animal. He was hardly the first to find dinosaur fossils and try to describe them though. Native Americans, ancient Greeks, and many others found them far earlier. They just did not recognize them as dinosaurs. Fossil Legends of the First Americans and The First Fossil Hunters:Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times, both by Adrienne Mayor, are filled with accounts of early fossil hunters.
The book begins by describing how she was introduced to dinosaurs and her curiosity about how scientists know what we do about past life, which she begins to answer by talking about people finding fossils. The book provides an excellent short history of the early scientific study of dinosaurs by Europeans, hitting all the famous highlights. The best part of this section is her emphasis on early ideas changing with new fossils and new data. She presents dinosaur paleontology as a dynamic process, with ideas being revisited and revised in the face of new evidence, which is a great thing to put into a book for kids.
The book then delves into the world of the dinosaurs, showing that the world was much different than it is today. I like that this was included and I realize there were space limitations, but I have a small problem with this section. The Mesozoic Era, what is commonly known as the time of the dinosaurs, lasted for over 200 million years. That is a huge time. In general, the description of the continents being joined together into one land mass was accurate for a good bit of that time, but it broke up during the Mesozoic,which had important effects on the evolution of the dinosaurs. The temperatures were also only warm everywhere, as stated in the book, if one considered temperatures warmer than current “warm.” Neither the Arctic nor Antarctic were covered in glaciers, but it was still cold enough to snow and reach frigid temperatures at night in the poles. Basically, it is not possible to compress the diversity of climate and landforms of 200 million years across the entire world into two pages and six sentences. But given that constraint, she did the best that could be done. At the very least, she presented the concept of great changes in the globe over great expanses of time, which is a substantial achievement for a book aimed at elementary kids.
Following this section are two pages describing how fossils are formed and geologic time. She mentions the important concept of dinosaurs evolving. For the space available and the intended audience, the book does remarkably well. For the purpose of just introducing the concepts to kids, they are handled succinctly and clearly. The biggest place where it falls down is saying that scientists tell time by looking at the order of the fossils. This is indeed one way, but if that were the ONLY way, it would be a circular argument. You can’t use the fossils to date the rocks and the rocks to date the fossils at the same time without additional evidence. This method also only provides relative dating, there is no way to really tell how old the rocks and fossils are this way, only the order they were laid down. There are some rocks though, such as ancient lava flows or ash beds, for which we can get absolute dates using radiometric techniques. Between the two dating methods and comparing rock units from different areas to each other, we can get reliable dates for all the rock layers. Having said that, the major geologic time units were devised by looking at the order of fossils. It was only later that we learned how to provide the absolute dates, which told us how old the rocks really were. I would have preferred a simple change of wording to say that finding fossils is ONE of the methods scientists use to tell time and not make it look like it is the only way. The change may not look like much, but it really does make a big difference and many kids will pick up on the distinction so long as adults don’t give them misinformation.
The final few pages describe the history of the dinosaurs in a few sentences. The Triassic Period is done well for the allotted three sentences and the illustrations provide examples of some of the dinosaurs. The only problem here is the description of Heterodontosaurus, which is out of date (for cool information on this unusual animal, go here and here… no, really, check it out).
The Jurassic Period is a bit problematic in that it has the giant, long-necked sauropods tromping around what look to be swamps and dragging their tails, which is no longer considered accurate. Interstingly, all the carnivores are shown in dynamic, tails-up poses. The Cretaceous Period starts with saying “dinosaurs had taken over.” Dinosaurs were dominant throughout the Jurassic Period, long before the Cretaceous. The dinosaurs are also drawn too much in the old, upright positions. More than any other page, this one looks like a throwback to an earlier artistic era. In the entire section, the dinosaurs are drawn very simply and generically, despite the fact that they are named with specific names.
The final page starts with “Then suddenly, they all died out. No one knows why.” This is followed by several things scientists don’t know about dinosaurs. By and large, it is true, but we have made great progress and can now provide at least partial answers to all of them now. We now have some very good ideas about why they died out. There is also considerable debate about how “suddenly” it was. Most notably, dinosaurs didn’t all die out, just most of them. Birds are directly descended from the Mesozoic dinosaurs and are the most diverse group of vertebrates that live on land. Scientists are also making strides to answer the final questions the book states about their colors, what sounds they made, and their metabolism. While there are still many gaps, we have made much progress on those questions. As a result, I would recommend that anyone reading this book to kids mention how old the book is and that a lot of work has been done since then to find answers to those questions, but there is still much more to do.
Dinosaurs Life Size
By Darren Naish
Publication Date: 2010
Barrons Educational Series, Inc. ISBN: 978-0-7641-6378-4.
Author: Darren Naish is a well respected paleontologist publishing on all manner of dinosaurs, marine reptiles, pterosaurs, and other extinct animals. While he has published several notable scientific papers, he has also written extensively for the general public, ranging from children’s books to books for the educated layperson. In addition to this book, Naish published Dinosaur Record Breakers, another good book that kids will find interesting. He has also published on cryptozoology, the mostly pseudoscience study of “hidden” creatures, such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster, debunking a variety of mythical creatures and discussing more plausible alternatives. You can also always find him at his highly regarded and widely read blog, Tetrapod Zoology, on the American Scientific blog network.
Dinosaurs Life Size came out a few years ago, but it is still a decent book for kids. I can’t say good for reasons discussed below, but it is better than many and has mostly good information. Don’t get it confused with the book of the same name by David Bergen, which came out in 2004. Naish’s book is much more up-to-date and scientifically accurate, having the advantage of having been written by an active researcher in the field who knows what he’s talking about. Not to criticize Bergen’s book as I haven’t read it, but if you were going to choose a book that was a decade old written by a non-expert or a book a few years old written by an expert who also happened to be a professional writer, which would you choose?
The book begins with a short introduction to dinosaurs and the book. A fold-out timeline follows, which puts all the animals discussed in the book in its appropriate place in time. The timeline includes a brief description of each period within the Mesozoic Era, commonly known as the Age of Dinosaurs. The meat of the book is a generally two page description of 26 different animals. Each animal gets a brief discussion of what it looked like, where it lived, and a few interesting factoids that have been pulled “from the bones” as a section for each animal is called.
Of course, the main draw of the book are the size comparisons. These are handled in two ways. Each animal is illustrated in full view alongside a young kid for scale. Almost all of them also have a drawing of a body part in real size, which really puts into glaring contrast just how big (and tiny) some of these animals were. Herrerosaurus has a hand, Lesothosaurus has its head for scale. At the extreme ends, Sauroposiedon has an eye and Argentinosaurus has a toe while Microraptor and Archaeopteryx are small enough to be drawn in their full glory. Most are covered in two facing pages, so that every turn of the page presents a new animal. A few are presented on fold-out pages, although I am unclear as to why because only one actually takes advantage of the extra space to present its animal. the other one just puts two animals instead of the standard one.
After the animal descriptions is a fold-out page with a dinosaur quiz to test the reader on what they learned. this is followed by a short discussion of what fossils are, how they are formed, how old they can be, how they are found, and a couple of famous fossil examples. The book ends with a glossary and index. All told, there is plenty of solid information for the young reader who will gaze in wonder at the dinosaurs and at least some will enjoy testing themselves on the quiz.
The book has good information. I particularly like the pictures of a globe marking where each one is found. The illustrations of the life size bits give a good indication of the actual size of the animal. I like the pictures of real fossils and the bits of information about what has been found through their study. The book is very visual and should appeal to kids. The book is listed as being most appropriate for kids in grades 2-6, which I think is a pretty fair assessment. Advanced readers in first and second grade will like it, but will be bored by it by the time they get out of elementary school, but most kids in the 3-5 grades will like the book.
I do, unfortunately have some serious complaints about the book. First and foremost, the book is called “Dinosaurs Life Size”. I would prefer books labeled as such stick with dinosaurs. Despite knowing better, Naish chose to include descriptions of Plesiosaurus, Stenopterygius, Liopleurodon, Pterodactylus, and Quetzalcoatlus; none of which happen to be dinosaurs. You may notice that this leaves only 21 actual dinosaurs. A better title would have been Mesozoic Reptiles Life Size, but I can understand that probably wouldn’t sell as well. Still, it is misleading. What I cannot forgive though, is that he does NOT clearly identify them as non-dinosaurs. This is such an unforgivable sin that I am tempted to tell people not to get this book. The only place he indicates they are not dinosaurs is ONE sentence in the introduction. Naish has published research on all of these animals, he certainly knows better, so this is unpardonable.
The next complaint I have is in the illustrations themselves. Some of the dinosaurs are noticeably absent of feathers. The Gallimimus is bare, except for a tuft at the top of its head. Part of this an be forgiven by the enormous advances that have been made due to new discoveries in the few short years since publication of the book. But even in 2010, we knew more dinosaurs were covered in feathers much more than is shown in this book. It is possible that feathers of some sort were an ancestral condition of ALL dinosaurs, so the bareness of some of these illustrations is wrong, even for the information he had at the time, so why the drawings were done this way is beyond me.
The last complaint I have is in the sizes. Each description is given a word description of how big each animal is. But the pictorial comparisons with the children are not the best. There is only a rough idea of how big the children are, which one is forced to base entirely on one’s experience with kids as there are no scale bars in any of the pictures. For a book about size, this is an inexcusable oversight. I have personally seen kids of a similar age who were between three feet and five feet. Now imagine extrapolating that difference to an animal that is thirty times that size and you can see the immense errors involved. Admittedly, there is a lot of uncertainty in the actual sizes of many of these animals (there are pretty much no complete sauropod tails, for instance, so determining length is problematic). But this book neither mentions anything about the uncertainties involved and then complicates the issue with further uncertainties in the illustrations while giving exact measurements in the written description.
So, in conclusion, I cannot fully support this book as there are too many serious problems. However, it is still better than many others on the market and does have solid information in the texts. The pictures give a rough idea of sizes, which for the age the book is geared towards is reasonable. But it is inconsistent with the sizes between the text and the illustrations; the illustrations themselves are not always accurate in terms of what we know about feather coverings, thus showing somewhat antiquated pictures of dinosaurs; and the book is really about Mesozoic reptiles, not dinosaurs anyway. Thus, the best I can do is give it maybe 3/5 stars, which pains me deeply because Darren Naish is a truly smart, well-read, and knowledgeable person who otherwise has written lots of great material.
The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution
Publication date (2nd ed.): 2013 according to publisher (my copy says 2014), 452 pg.
Roberts and Company Publishers. ISBN: 978-1-936221-44-8.
Author: Carl Zimmer is one of the best science writers in the business. You can keep up with him on his blog, which is part of the National Geographic “science salon” called Phenomena, a collection blogs by Carl Zimmer, Brian Switek, Ed Yong, Virginia Hughes, and Nadia Drake, all of whom are experienced science writers with a talent for accuracy and clarity. They cover everything from dinosaurs to DNA to dark matter and are the first place I go to in the morning for interesting science news. If it sounds like I am selling them, I am in order to convince you that a book by Carl Zimmer is both more accurate than the current textbook you are using and better written. Zimmer and the others are not just authorial guns for hire, they care about science communication and they do it well. My first introduction to Carl Zimmer was a book called “Parasite Rex“. You probably are thinking that a book about parasites would not be the most interesting of books, but you would be wrong. Read it and it will open up a whole new (albiet disturbing) world for you.
The name of the book is derived from the opening line of the last paragraph in The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin, a fitting name for a book introducing evolutionary topics. While I have a few complaints, none are major and I highly recommend the book. My chief complaints are that I always want more, but there is only so much one can put into a book, especially an introductory text.
The book is filled with high quality pictures and graphs that break up the text, but whereas many books have flashy graphics that serve little purpose other than to distract from the text, all the figures in the book clearly relate to the topic at hand without excessively cluttering up the book. They also provide data that get the reader to go beyond the “because I told you” format so many books use and actually look at some of the data supporting the scientific concepts (and serve as a great way to integrate math, geography, and art standards into the science). Each chapter also have a list of resources for further reading and an extensive bibliography, so anyone can check the data presented in the primary and peer-reviewed literature for themselves.
One thing that might make some teachers and students a little annoyed is that important terms are not in bold font, nor does it have problem sets. However, it explains all the terms as they come up, it does not require flipping to the end of the book for every new term, although there is also a glossary for those that need it. The book is designed to be read, not just skimmed through while one picks out the bold words, like so often happens. However, there is also a study guide for the book written by Dr. Alison Perkins, which includes all the learning objectives, questions, activities, and pedagogical suggestions that teachers are looking for.
The book begins with a detailed discussion of whale evolution as an example to introduce several general concepts of evolution and various ways in which evolution may be studied. It covers fossils, placing them into phylogenetic and geologic context, DNA studies, embryology, and ecology from their earliest beginnings to today. Zimmer doesn’t go into the disputes that arose about whale origins, instead just focusing on what has become the consensual understanding, which I find a bit disappointing, but perfectly understandable for the context of this book and especially this introductory chapter. Nevertheless, I like presenting disputes because it shows the dynamic nature of science as an exploration, not just a book of facts. He presents the exploration through a discussion of the fossils being discovered and how they were interpreted, he just cleans up the historical path and makes it neater than it really was.
Chapter 2 brings a history of evolutionary thought, starting in the 1600s and the development of evolutionary concepts before Darwin. Zimmer correctly explains that Darwin was not the first to conclude that organisms evolved, but he did provide a plausible mechanism for how it happened. He then continues with a discussion of the changes and additions to evolutionary theory in the decades since Darwin. He tackles the important misconceptions of evolution, including the common misunderstanding of what a scientific theory really means, which form the basis of most people’s arguments against evolution.
Chapter 3 presents geological data, including how radioactive decay is used to date rocks and biomarkers to detect traces of life within rocks. He tells us how fossils tell us about the past, followed by a brief overview of the major transitions in life from the dawn of life to today.
Chapter 4 is probably one of the most important chapters that is left out of many introductory biology texts. Zimmer tells us what phylogeny is and how to read a phylogenetic tree to understand evolutionary relationships. It is particularly disturbing so many books skip this step because it is vital to understanding much of what comes after. Misunderstandings here reverberate throughout one’s ability to understand evolutionary theory, yet reading phylogenetic trees is not as intuitive as most teachers think. He talks about homology and how that affects our understanding of evolution. After he introduces the concepts, he demonstrates the concepts through a series of phylogenetic trees, such as early mammals, dinosaurs, and hominids.
Chapter 5 talks about DNA and how variation is introduced. Zimmer does a great job of discussing the various types of mutations and showing the typical view of point mutations is but the smallest way of introducing variation. His discussion of the role of sexual selection in creating diversity is short, although his description of Mendel’s experiment with peas helps somewhat. He also gives short shrift to lateral (aka horizontal) gene transfer, in which genes are transferred not through descendants but sometimes through completely unrelated organisms by, for instance, viruses. Zimmer also completely ignores endosymbiosis, which helped create mitochondria and chloroplasts, and hybridization, which makes this chapter not as satisfying for me.
Chapter 6 covers the role of genetic drift and selection well, although he leaves out a discussion of gene flow from one population to another. I like that he talks about fitness in terms of more than one gene, showing that what may be good for one gene is not necessarily good for another in terms of fitness, so that evolution is limited by the interplay between genes that each have their own optimal conditions. This would have been a good place to address the misunderstanding of “survival of the fittest,” which is commonly viewed as a tautology (the fittest survive, but how do you determine who is fittest? The ones that survive) but he does not mention it. This is a very common misconception. First, the phrase was never used by Darwin and is incorrectly and second, it is being incorrectly interpreted. It is not the overall fitness of a particular organism that matters, but a measure of how many offspring successfully survive and reproduce. It doesn’t matter evolutionarily if you are the toughest guy on the block if you don’t breed and produce successful offspring.
Chapter 7 discusses molecular phylogenies, figuring out evolutionary relationships from their DNA or protein sequences. One complaint I have here is that he talks about how successful the molecular clock is, how you can tell time using the amount of mutations separating species. In all actuality, the molecular clock has some serious issues, as in, it doesn’t work very well. Fortunately, he does discuss some of the challenges of the molecular clock (genes don’t mutate at the same rate either between each other or within different parts of the same gene, or through time, it requires fossils to calibrate and then tries to claim better results than the fossil data, etc.). The problems with the molecular clock mean that its usefulness and accuracy are limited and requires statistical manipulation of the data to try to take into account the known issues. Unfortunately, the figures lead one to believe the molecular clock actually acts clock-like, reducing the impact of the text describing its problems and the examples in the text downplay the problems. A bonus to this chapter is that he brings back the topic of horizontal gene transfer and shows its importance in a box at the end of the chapter. I might have put this in the last chapter and discussed it more, but it could be that Zimmer thought it might confuse people by introducing too much complexity at once and wanted the readers to develop a bit more understanding before throwing another wrench in the works.
Chapter 8 gives a great discussion of adaptation, taking it from the gene to species evolution. I particularly like his discussions showing how gene duplications and rewiring without the need for further point mutations can make huge differences. This is a really important concept to understand, that variation is more than just the single point mutations most people think about. He ends the chapter with a discussion of the limits of evolution based on physical limits and baggage from previous evolutionary steps, although I would have liked to see a brief mention at least of the constraints imposed by having genes with different optimal conditions that all have to be balanced.
Remember when I said chapter 5 gave short shrift to variation through sexual reproduction? That is because chapter 9 is completely devoted to the topic. Here he goes into several aspects of sexual selection, including trade-offs that may limit evolution in any one particular direction. Trade-offs in this case refer to the fact that improving one thing takes away from another. The genes with different optimal conditions are an example of this. Improve and you hurt another until a balance is achieved.
Chapter 10 defines what a species is (which is nowhere near as easy as it sounds) and how species evolve into other species. Chapter 11 extends that to evolution on a grand scale, showing the development of global biodiversity through time. I would have preferred to see a discussion of the difficulties in determining fossil biodiversity, such as the relationship between the amount of outcrops of a particular time and the number of species known, but there is only so much one can put into a textbook. Inevitably, the chapter discusses the major extinctions of the world, although he only talks about two of them, the Permo-Triassic and the Cretaceous-Paleocene extinctions, probably because they are better known by far than the others. His discussion of the Permian extinction doesn’t mention that the reason the volcanoes at the time put out so much carbon dioxide was that they apparently burned through huge coal deposits, which pumped up the carbon dioxide way beyond what the volcanoes would have done alone, but he gets the gist of the cause of the extinction. He also discusses briefly the debate in why the extinction occurred at the end of the Cretaceous, which is good. The chapter ends with a discussion of the current mass extinction taking place and the causes for it.
Chapter 12 discusses coevolution, both mutualistic and antagonistic. Here Zimmer finally discusses endosymbiosis and the important role it played in evolutionary history. Chapter 13 is an interesting discussion about the evolution of behavior in both plants and animals.
Chapter 14 will of course be the most controversial chapter because it deals with human evolution. Zimmer does a good job with this chapter, although I would have preferred a clearer statement that hominids and apes both evolved from a common ancestor, but where our ancestors became adapted for savanna life, the apes evolved more towards forest life. He talks about the interbreeding that happened between neanderthals and Homo sapiens, as well as with the Denivans, according to the genetic research published recently, which will make a few people uncomfortable, but is the truth nevertheless. The chapter wraps up with a discussion of some evolutionary psychology, which is highly controversial, but the parts he discusses are well supported by experimental evidence.
The last chapter is arguably the most important one in the book. Here Zimmer discusses the role of evolution in medicine, with examples of disease progression, vaccines, antibiotics, and cancer. If, by the time people have worked their way through the book and are still asking themselves why it is important they understand evolution, this chapter is a sledgehammer wake-up call. One cannot finish the book without having a strong understanding of the importance of this concept of evolution and why biologists consider it the central tenet of all biology. As Dobzhansky said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”
The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs
By Dr. Robert T. Bakker
Ilustrated by Luis V. Rey
Publication date: 2013. 61 pg.
Golden Books, Randomhouse. ISBN: 978-0-375-96679-8.
Do these books look familiar? One is the classic book that most people old enough to be parents grew up on, first published in 1960 and continuing through 1981. The second is the new, Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs, a new, totally updated edition that came out in 2013. The book is written by Dr. Robert Bakker, known by many as the bushy-bearded, cowboy hat-wearing paleontologist of many documentaries and the author of such books as the Dinosaur Heresies and Raptor Red. Illustrations are by Luis Rey, a talented artist already mentioned here due to his work illustrating Dr. Holtz’s Dinosaurs book. Dr.Holtz’s book was written for a wide audience, geared towards children of middle school age and upwards. This book, like its predecessor, is geared for elementary kids. So it is not as detailed, but it is even more lavishly illustrated and will definitely hold the interest of younger kids.
From the front cover to the last page, those who know and love the original book, will find it echoed here, but updated with the latest information. inside the front cover is a map of the world as it existed in the Triassic and early Jurassic, with dinosaurs dotting the landscape, showing where various dinosaurs have been found. The map is matched on the inside of the back cover with a Cretaceous map. Both maps have the names of each of the dinosaurs illustrated so you know what you are looking at. There is also an index and handy pronunciation guide for all the animal names.
While the book is of course heavily weighted towards dinosaurs, like the previous book, it does not focus entirely upon them. In the brief introduction, it makes a point to place the dinosaurs in context as part of an evolving ecosystem, not as isolated creatures. The book then dives into the Devonian seas,introducing us to the fish that began the walk towards becoming landlubbing tetrapods (animals with four legs). It continues with a few pages on the Carboniferous and Permian Periods, with giant insects, early amphibians and reptiles, and even animals like the iconic Dimetrodon, properly identifying its kin as ancestral to modern mammals, even explaining key features showing it’s related to us. Only then do we get to the Triassic, the beginning of the Age of Dinosaurs and even then, it starts the discussion with pterosaurs and the ancestors of crocodylians. After a mention of the earliest dinosaurs, it then mentions the proto-mammals.
Finally, we reach the Jurassic Period and it is here that dinosaurs take center stage, with gigantic, long-necked sauropods and other well-known dinosaurs. Even so, they don’t forget the small, mouse-like early mammals under foot. After a brief interlude to discuss the great sea reptiles that appeared during this time, as well as the pterosaurs, that were now much bigger and diverse than in the Triassic, they return to a discussion of dinosaurs, this time focusing on a bit of history explaining how our views have changed over the decades.
The book moves then into the Cretaceous, showing how dinosaurs adapted to diverse environments, such as the sand dunes of central Asia to the snows of the poles. There is a chapter on different ways dinosaurs communicated with each other, including singing, after a fashion, much like birds and animals call to each other today, although he goes a bit overboard in this area and speculates beyond what most in the field would say is reasonable. Of course, no elementary book would be complete without a chapter devoted to Tyrannosaurus rex and its battle with an armored herbivore, in this case, the ankylosaurid Euoplocephalus and a battle with Triceratops. While the book makes much of the use of horns and frill by the Triceratops in battling T. rex, they were almost assuredly evolved to battle other Triceratops as dominance displays, like bison or antelope today, although that of course, doesn’t rule out their use as defensive weaponry against predators.
There is the required chapter on dinosaur extinction and it does a good job of mentioning several possibilities. However, it gives a bit of short shrift to the most accepted asteroid hypothesis and a bit more space to Bakker’s favorite hypothesis of disease, which is almost assuredly not true as a hypothesis of widespread extinctions on such a large scale. To his credit, he ends with the likely possibility that no one hypothesis is sufficient for explaining everything.
The book ends with what animals actually benefited from the extinction, that being mammals. The book ends with noting that not all dinosaurs died out and acknowledging the influence that dinosaurs had on the evolution of early mammals, thereby connecting the story of the dinosaurs to us. Besides the great illustrations, that I think, is the key strength of this book, never letting the reader forget that dinosaurs were but a part (a big, incredibly impressive part) of a bigger ecosystem, with each piece influencing the others. No group was isolated from the others, all are interconnected.
Overall, while I had a few minor quibbles, as i mentioned above, I can definitely recommend this book for any elementary library. Some middle school kids will like it too, although those older than that will likely be reading it for nostalgia of the original book, who will find this version a worthy successor.
Other than the image of the 1960 book, all images are illustrations from the book.
Scaly Spotted Feathered Frilled: How Do We Know what Dinosaurs Really Looked Like?
Publication date: 2013. 58 pg.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN: 978-0-547-99134-4.
Author: Catherine Thimmesh is an author of several books aimed at children in elementary to middle school. Her books have primarily focused on people, particularly women, doing science and politics, while bringing a wealth of information along with the human stories. As a result, her books should appeal to many people, helping them draw personal connections to the material. Two of her books, Girls Think of Everything and The Sky’s the Limit, have been listed as Smithsonian Notable Books, the latter book also listed as an Outstanding Science and Social Studies Trade Book for Children in 2002. Her book, Team Moon, discussing all the people besides the astronauts that made the moon landings a success, won the Sibert Award in 2007.
Illustrator: The book is beautifully illustrated by several well-known paleoartists, including John Sibbick, Greg Paul, Mark Hallett, Sylvia and Stephen Czerkas, and Tyler Keillor, as well as Charles Knight, the artist who created the classic pictures shaping the view of dinosaurs for more than a generation. Moreover, there are pictures of skeletons, sketches showing reconstruction from bone to skin, as well as Greg Paul’s classic silhouetted skeletons. As an added bonus, she includes a page at the end with a paragraph about each artist and a fun fact about each one. For instance, Mark Hallett was the person who coined the term “paleoartist.”
I have mentioned this book previously from a review by Brian Switek (for a librarian’s perspective, try the SLJ review here), but I finally got my hands on a copy so I can provide my perspective on it and I have to say, I agree with the other reviews. this is an excellent book well worth including in any elementary or middle school library or classroom. If you know someone who likes dinosaurs and likes to draw, they will like this book. This book gives a great discussion of how artists bring fossils to life, using new discoveries that are changing our views of how dinosaurs looked and comments straight from the artists crafting those visions.
The book wastes no time, providing information on the inside covers. At the beginnig is a timeline showing the different Periods of the Mesozoic Era, with a short description of the overall climate, apleogeography, and notable fauna and flora of the time for each Period. Inside the back cover is a breakdown of the three major dinosaur groups, with a few general facts describing the dinosaursin each group and listing several representative dinosaurs for each group (along with page references for where they appear in the text). Other things that puts the book on my recommended list is a nice index, glossary, and references; things not often found in childrens’ books, which makes this book a cut above. This book does not take the sadly all too common tack of using the “it’s a childrens book” excuse to talk down to the audience and not worry about the facts 9except for one point mentioned by Switek which I will get to later).
The book starts with a discussion of questions the artists ask about the fossils themselves and what scientists can determine from them, such as what can the bones tell us about how they moved and what they ate. Further questions are asked about the plant fossils found in the rocks and what the rocks themselves say about the environment. Was it a desert? A beach? Shallow marine? Once they have what is known, then they can fill in what is not known. The next few pages provide a short history of dinosaur science and the art that sprung from it, such as the early Waterhouse Hawkins Crystal Palace sculptures in London during the 1850s and the Charles Knight paintings adorning the American Museum of Natural History. The book continues with information gleaned from trackways and new technologies helping to spur more discoveries. A discussion of the skeletons leads into reconstructing soft tissues such as muscle and eyes over the bones.
One area in which views have changed significantly is in the skin, which is discussed next. The book describes how new fossils are helping to inform new views, such as feathered raptors, although the book does not mention that we even have evidence of feathers on tyrannosaurs now. This is one area in which the book could have gone farther, it did not discuss much of the diversity of feathers, quills, and assorted spines we have recently found on a variety of dinosaurs. The use of modern animals and analogs and mechanical constraints, such as skin around joints, is also discussed. The problems and possibilities of how one decides on a color is discussed, ending on a mention of new fossils that are beginning to give us amazing insight into actual colors of some dinosaurs.
The information here is not presented as definite conclusions, but as a puzzle, in which the scientists and artists take the various clues and try to piece them together. Sometimes, mistakes are made, such as the thumb spike of Iguanodon was originally thought to be a nose horn. The descriptions demonstrate how vibrant and dynamic the work is. As new fossils and new information comes to light, views change accordingly. The workers must constantly adapt as their knowledge base grows, with each new find getting us closer to a more accurate understanding.
The one quibble I would make with the book is one which Switek also mentioned. The book begins by stating that no one has ever seen a real, live dinosaur, which is not true. We see them every day. They are in fact the most diverse group of vertebrate animals outside of fish. The book mentions that dinosaurs and birds are thought to be related. In fact, it is often said that birds are dinosaurs because birds evolved from earlier dinosaurs. So just like children are still in the same family as their parents, birds are in the same family as all the other dinosaurs. This relationship is a key point in reconstructing fossil dinosaurs. Of course, a lot of people find it bothersome to constantly have to refer to non-avian dinosaurs to refer to only those that lived during the Mesozoic, so it is justifiable to say dinosaurs and birds, so long as it is made clear at the beginning that dinosaurs in that context are only referring to the Mesozoic ones. this book doesn’t do that, which is the only big gripe about the book. Still, a relatively minor complaint compared to the rest of the book, which is done wonderfully.