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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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How Big Is Your Favorite Dinosaur? Find Out Here

Dinosaurs Life Size

By Darren Naish

Publication Date: 2010

Barrons Educational Series, Inc. ISBN: 978-0-7641-6378-4.

dinolifesizecoverAuthor: 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.

dinolifesizetoc

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.

dinolifesizedeino

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.

There are only SIX dinosaurs here!

There are only SIX dinosaurs here!

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.

Yep, even some of these dinosaurs had bristly "feathers". Mark Witton

Yep, even some of these dinosaurs had bristly “feathers”. Mark Witton

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 average human height is 5'6.5". Yes, that's descriptive of the species.

The average human height is 5′ 6.5″. Yes, that’s descriptive of the species.

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.

 

Dino Sites to Avoid

I have been working on lectures on early amniote evolution, along with the following reptilomorph and synapsid lectures for my vertebrate paleontology course. We will be getting into dinosaurs and the other Mesozoic animals very soon, hooray! However, in preparing these talks, it has brought to my attention just how prevalent two sites in particular are: Reptileevolution.com and Pteresaurheresies.wordpress.com.

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When I did a search for “pterosaur”, Google actually responded by saying “Did you mean pterosaur heresies” and provided images that all but one are either from the site or sites complaining about the site.

This is quite unfortunate. Both sites present an abundance of beautiful artwork done by a stellar paleoartist. There is an abundance of information on the animals and their relationships. All in all, the websites look fantastic and are quite the draw for paleo-enthusiasts.

But it is all wrong.

None of the hypotheses presented on these pages is accepted by virtually any other paleontologist. The techniques used to gather the information is not considered valid and no one who has tried to reproduce the data using the methods have had any success.

I won’t get into details about why the websites are wrong. I am frankly not qualified enough to provide a step-by-step breakdown of the problems (not being an expert in either pterosaurs or basal tetrapods), nor do I really have the time. I will say that many years ago, I heard the author of these websites give a talk about his evidence for a vampiric pterosaur and even as a young undergraduate, it was clear to me that neither the technique nor the conclusions were valid. I found it very unfortunate because the idea of a vampiric pterosaur was incredibly cool and the technique, which involves detailed image study, is useful in many contexts. However, it is very easy to let personal biases enter into conclusion based on these methods, to allow oneself to extrapolate well beyond anything the data can actually support. Oftentimes, those biases are completely unknown to the observer simply due to the way our brains interpret sensory input and modifies them based on past experience. We really do not see everything we think we see, which is why the scientific method requires other scientists examining your conclusions and your methods and trying to poke holes in your ideas. So it is vital to recheck one’s conclusions with many detailed images from various angles and lighting methods and, most importantly, detailed examination of the fossil itself.

So instead, I will point you to articles written by people who are experts in the very animals that are discussed on those pages and what they have to say about them. The first is an article by Dr. Christopher Bennett, who is an expert on pterosaurs. In this article, he discusses the validity of the techniques and discusses specific claims of two pterosaurs in particular, Anurognathus and Pterodactylus. Anurognathus is a very odd-looking pterosaur and is quite aptly named “frog mouth.” Pterodactylus is probably the most famous pterosaur next to Pteranodon and is why so many people mistakenly refer to all pterosaurs as pterodactyls.  Dr. Bennett does an excellent job critiquing the science in a professional and readable way.

Dr. Bennett's article.

Dr. Bennett’s article.

The second article is a blog post by Darren Naish, a noted researcher and science author that has researched pterosaurs and many other animals who has a deep understanding of both the accepted science and the author of these websites and the work presented therein. Here is what he says: “ReptileEvolution.com does not represent a trustworthy source that people should consult or rely on.Students, amateur researchers and the lay public should be strongly advised to avoid or ignore it.” The emphasis is completely his. The post is quite long and discusses several aspects of the work, discussing the accepted science and the material on the websites that is not accurate, including the techniques used to arrive at the conclusions, both accepted techniques and those by the website author that are not.

The next site is an article by Pterosaur.net, a website devoted to research on pterosaurs by pterosaur researchers. It is a brief article that uses Naish’s article as a starting point and continues on with a discussion of why they think it important for people to know why these sites should be avoided. To quote: “The issue taken with ReptileEvolution.com is not that it exists, but that it’s internet presence has grown to the point that it is now a top-listed site for many palaeo-based searches. Tap virtually any Mesozoic reptile species into Google and either ReptileEvolution.com or the Pterosaur Heresies is likely to be in the first few hits. The situation is even worse for image searches, which are increasingly dominated by the many graphics that Peters’ uses on his sites.” This would not be a problem that the sites are so well known if they were correct, but their prevalence presents a highly flawed version of what scientists really think. People are taking these sites as truth, when in fact they are regarded by professionals as seriously wrong.

Finally, Brian Switek, a science writer who authors the blog Laelaps, which moved from Wired Science Blogs to National Geographic and the now-defunct blog Dinosaur Tracking for the Smithsonian,  wrote a piece on the site, in which he urged more paleontologists and paleontology blogs to call out misleading websites like these.  In that spirit, I hope I can help some avoid getting a mistaken impression of dinosaur science and help steer them to better, more reliable sources.

* If you are wondering why I say “the author” or “the artist” rather than using the person’s name, it is because I don’t want this to be about the person, but the information. I don’t personally know the author, nor have I ever had direct contact, so I have nothing to say about the person. The work, however, can be and should be open for criticism, just like any other researcher, including my own.