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September 15 is National Online Learning Day. Now that everyone should be well and truly back to school, I thought it would be a good time for a few miscellaneous notes on various resources.
Evolution: A Course for Educators. American Museum of Natural History via Coursera. Learn about evolution from an expert at one of the best places in the world to study it. Taught by Dr. Joel Cracraft, the course will cover everything you need to teach evolution well. The course is free and offers a paid certificate for teacher professional development hours. It is four weeks long and requires 5-8 a week. It begins October 1st, so you will be done by Halloween.
Introduction to Human Evolution. Wellesley College via edX. A subject that is endlessly fascinating, but seldom taught in schools. Learn about the origins of us from an expert. Taught by Dr. Adam Van Arsdale, the course is self paced, meaning you can start when you want. It takes 4-6 hours for four weeks and is free.
Paleontology: Theropod Dinosaurs and the Origin of Birds. University of Alberta via Coursera. A five week course headed by the esteemed dinosaur expert Dr. Phillip Currie on the anatomy, diversity, and evolution of theropods leading to birds. They offer a paid certificate for those needing the credit. Expect to spend 4-7 hours a week on the course. The course is free, but it started September 12, so join up now before you get too far behind.
Paleontology: Early Vertebrate Evolution. University of Alberta via Coursera. This course covers the evolution of vertebrates through the Paleozoic Era and is taught by Dr. Alison Murray. This is a four week course with an expected 3-5 hours per week. This course is free, but offers a paid certificate for those who need the credit. This course also started September 12th, so sign up now.
Dinosaur Ecosystems. University of Hong Kong via edX. A six week course on dinosaurs in their habitats. The course is taught by a collaboration of Dr. Michael Pittman and Dr. Xu Xing, along with other guests, all with an abundance of expertise on the topic. As a bonus, the course includes the work of one of my favorite paleoartists, Julius Csotonyi. The course requires 1-2 hours a week, so not a big time commitment. It is free, although it does offer a paid certificate for those who need the credit, and starts October 4th.
Dino 101: Dinosaur Paleobiology. University of Alberta via Coursera. Another course by Phil Currie, along with Dr. Betsy Kruk. This is a great introduction to dinosaurs. It is 12 weeks long and requires an estimated 3-10 hours per week, so expect more out of this course. The course is free and starts September 29th, so get signed up now.
Origins – Formation of the Universe, Solar System, Earth and Life. University of Copenhagen via Coursera. Learn how it all began by Dr. Henning Haack. This course is 12 weeks long and expects 5-7 hours a week. The course is free and starts September 17th, so don’t waste time signing up.
There are several more available. If you go to any of the course links shown here, they will guide you to other related courses that are available.
Tetrapod Zoology. Darren Naish has kept his blog, often abbreviated to TetZoo, for over a decade. Through all the years, he has provided multitudinous essays on a variety of animal groups, both extant and extinct. Sprinkled in are also essays on the truth of cryptids (Bigfoot, Nessie, and the like), paleoart, and other topics. Sadly, the blog at Scientific American has closed up shop. But don’t panic, because it has moved to another location. He has set up shop under his own banner at Tetzoo.com. Time to change your bookmarks.
Beautiful Minds. Scott Barry Kaufman has been writing a Scientific American blog about psychology off and on. He recently announced an upgrade to the blog allowing him to have a weekly online column, so expect more articles about human nature from him.
Science Sushi by Christie Wilcox has always been one of my favorite blogs. While I am not a marine biologist by any stretch, she has always been interesting to read. So it is sad to report her Discover blog is closing up shop. She is moving to ScienceSushi.com, but will not be adding regularly to it. She will continuing to write, so keep an eye out for her on the sites she lists in the post linked to here.
Dataset Search. You’ve heard of Google Search, Google Scholar, Google Maps, and a plethora of other ways Google lets people search the web. Now meet Dataset Search, for when you are trying to find data that has been published or stored online. This searches for data files or databases according to how they are identified, not by what is in the file.
Science without publication paywalls: cOAlition S for the realization of full and immediate Open Access, by Marc Shiltz. PLoS Biology. 2018. This article discusses Plan S, a proposal by a coalition of European leaders to make science articles free for everyone. In their words, “no science should be locked behind paywalls!” (emphasis theirs).
Seriously, Science? A great blog on Discovermagazine.com that covered weird and humorous published research has been canceled. No word on why, the authors just said they were informed they would no longer have a slot on the blog roll. So long, Seriously Science, it was good to have known you.
Return to Reason: The Science of Thought, by Scientific American. 2018. This ebook is a collection of essays discussing why facts don’t seem to matter to people or help persuade them and what we can do about it. Well worth a read.
Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World, by Marcia Bjornerud. Princeton University Press. 2018. Most people can barely remember what they had for breakfast yesterday. We really aren’t well equipped to think about time on the scale of millions and billions of years. Dr. Bjornerud has written a great book to help people come to grips with the immensity of time. I highly recommend it.
Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology, by Lisa Margonelli, Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018. This book is not really about termites. The study of termites is used as an illustration of scientific inquiry and the questions that researchers come across during their studies. There are questions about the termites, but also about how science is done and about humans viewed through a different lens.
Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection, by Evelleen Richards. University of Chicago Press. 2017. This book tells the story of how Darwin figured out problems with natural selection by coming up with sexual selection. To my mind, sexual selection is a subset of natural selection, but it is generally viewed as separate, with natural selection being success based on fecundity and survival of offspring, whereas sexual selection deals with the choices of mates. However you look at it, sexual selection is an important concept and this book explores the origin of that idea.
The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy, by Paige Williams. Hachette, 2018. Williams tells the story about a skeleton of a Tarbosaurus bataar, what could be described as a Mongolian Tyrannosaurus rex, and the long and confusing battle of who owned it and where it would eventually reside. The worldwide fossil trade is a morass of differing opinions, laws, and money. This book attempts to tease apart the strands to answer the question of who owns fossils.
Through a Glass Brightly: Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are, by David P. Barash. Oxford University Press, 2018. As the great physicist Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool.” Humans are masters of deluding ourselves, but science helps us remove the wool we place over our eyes to see things, and ourselves, as we truly are. Only then can we become the people we see ourselves as. That is the goal of evolutionary biologist Dr. Barash in this book.
The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect, by Judea Pearl and Dana McKenzie. Basic Books, 2018. A big problem that any educator sees is the rather unbelievable lack of understanding many people have about cause and effect. Please get this book and teach people about how cause and effect works. Since this book relates the science of cause and effect to robots and artificial intelligence, it will be the perfect addition to tech classes.
I think that is enough for now. It is certainly enough to keep you busy if you try even a few of the many offerings available for furthering your education or just indulging your curiosity. Enjoy. If you try them, come back and let us know what you thought of them.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Time for another Forum Friday. Since last time, we learned that our grants did not come through, so our search for funding to expand the site continues and the teacher training programs and other events remain in the planning stages. We hope to see those ideas come to fruition, but for now, this site will continue to expand, just not at the rate we hoped.
Since the last Forum Friday, we have reviewed Dr. Holtz’s Dinosaurs: the most Complete, Up-to-Date Encyclopedia for Dinosaur Lovers of All Ages, and Dr. Sampson’s Dinosaur Odyssey, both of which come highly recommended. We also learned about the Cambrian rocks of Arkansas and the dinosaurs of Arkansas. We also learned how scientists really define dinosaurs and why most people’s conceptions about what dinosaurs are is incorrect.
We learned about dinosaur egg-laying, how pterosaurs could fly and be so big, and Arkansas trace fossils. We saw pictures of dinosaur feathers in amber and how to identify a fossil. We learned the Cambrian Explosion was caused by multiple factors and what the earth in the paleozoic looked like, along with how to visualize geologic time.
Speaking of new ways to look at things, we saw an evolution cartoon by paleontologist Matt Bonnan and art in science. We heard about Using rap music to teach the history of science and a song about evidence-based medicine. But we also saw why good intentions to help the oceans don’t help when you don’t know what you are talking about. Among problems in science education, we learned about unicorns and the dragons of inaction. Biology textbooks are written for pre-meds, providing short shrift for evolution and ecology. On the plus side, we also saw students fighting bad science and why generosity beats greed in the long run.
We found free tech, iPad apps for the classroom, an iTunes earthviewer, online modules to teach ecology and evolution, among other topics, and educational videos for the classroom, as well as brain-training to cut through bias. We found Citizen science opportunities for the classroom. Although we had to warn against the Exploring the Environment website. We also saw why simply asking students to write scientists without oversight is wrong and some resources to help.
We learned about the evolution of the avian flu, insects evolving gears, why asexual populations fare poorly, and how to breed a better cat. We saw how fish survive icy water by evolving antifreeze, adapt to puddles, and learned to walk on land. Finally, we saw that humans are still evolving and why being smart is cool.
So what was your favorite story? Did you have any questions, comments, complaints? Feel free to share.
Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life
By Scott D. Sampson
Publication date 2009 (hardback) 2011 (paperback). 332 pg. University of California Press. ISBN: 978-0-520-24163-3.
Suitable for junior high students and up.
Author: Dr. Sampson is best known these days as Dr. Scott the Paleontologist, from Dinosaur Train on PBS KIDS (a children’s show I can recommend). But he doesn’t just play one on TV, he is a real-life paleontologist, and a well-respected one at that, best known for his work on late Cretaceous dinosaurs in Madagascar and the Grand Staircase-Escalante national Monument. He is Chief Curator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. He has a blog called Whirlpool of Life and can be found on Facebook. Dr. Sampson has had a longstanding interest in public science education, particularly about connecting children with nature. That interest is clearly evident in Dinosaur Odyssey.
This book has been out a few years, but its main message is more deeply relevant now than ever before. This book is not really about dinosaurs. It is about the interconnectedness of all things. Dinosaurs are simply a fascinating hook for discussing ideas about evolution and ecology. If you are looking for a book that just talks about dinosaurs, look elsewhere. But if you want a book that puts dinosaurs in context as part of a complete and ever-changing ecosystem, if you want to learn about the Mesozoic world as a stage upon which dinosaurs are only a part, however awe-inspiring and prominent, of a much larger web of life, this book is for you. In Dr. Sampson’s hands, dinosaurs are not skeletons of bizarre creatures, they are living organisms interacting with others, changing and being changed by their environment. In a similar vein, our ideas about them are neither set in stone nor idle speculation, they are dynamic and changing, based on new discoveries and scientific understanding, circling ever closer towards a deeper understanding.
The book is written for someone with decent reading ability, but not a dinosaur aficionado. No real prior scientific knowledge is required, simply a desire to learn about the natural world. For those who want more, or find some of the terminology daunting, there is a wealth of notes and references at the end, along with a substantial glossary. The book begins with a short history of the scientific study of life and Sampson’s personal experiences searching for dinosaurs in Madagascar, which led to some of his thinking for the book as an introduction to what follows. Throughout the book, he uses his personal experiences to enrich the scientific discussions, making it a personal story, not just an academic one. Chapter two is an ambitious glimpse at the history of the universe until the dinosaurs appear, along with a short discussion of the geological principles forming the foundations of our understanding of geologic time. Chapter three introduces the dinosaurs, defining what is meant when a scientist talks about dinosaurs and the different groups of dinosaurs. Along the way, he discusses what species are, how they are named, and how we figure out relationships, although not in detail, just enough for a non-science person to understand the broad concepts. Chapter four discusses the physical world of the Mesozoic in terms of plate tectonics and how the movement of the continents shaped the world and thus the evolutionary history of dinosaurs. He even discusses the role of the atmosphere and oceans in climate. Chapter five builds the basics of ecosystems and nutrient flow, chapter six provides a background in evolutionary theory, chapter seven discusses how dinosaurian herbivores adapted to changing plant communities and how the dinosaur and plant communities may have co-evolved, each influencing the other. Chapter eight adds predators to the mix and chapter nine finishes the ecological chain with decomposers. Chapters ten and eleven discuss sexual selection and metabolism in dinosaurs.
The chapters to this point built up how dinosaurs fit into the ecosystem and the workings of evolutionary theory. The next three chapters then take that information and discuss the dinosaurs rise to prominence in the Triassic, development of dinosaur ecosystems in the Jurassic, and their ultimate development through the Cretaceous period. Chapter fifteen, as might be expected, discusses the extinction ending the Mesozoic Era and the dominance of dinosaurs as major players on the world stage.
One might think the book would end at this point. But Sampson has one final chapter to go, which is probably the most important message in the book. He finishes the book by discussing why dinosaurs are important today. We are facing an extinction event equal to the end of the Cretaceous in terms of biodiversity loss, yet few people seem to notice just how comparatively depauperate our global ecosystems are becoming. Because dinosaurs draw peoples’ attention, they are the perfect tool to discuss evolutionary and ecological issues. In this chapter, Sampson discusses how to use dinosaurs to reach people and teach them about our own ecosystems, how we are affecting it and the problems we are facing. In this way, looking at our past through a dinosaurian lens can help us find our way forward.
In the final analysis, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in the natural world and how it works, especially if they love dinosaurs.
Publication date 2007. 427 pg. Random House. ISBN: 978-0-375-82419-7.
Author: Dr. Holtz, self-proclaimed “King of the Dino Geeks,” or as I like to call him Dr. Tyrannosaur, is a well-known and respected paleontologist who’s understanding of all things tyrannosaur is unparalled. As a senior lecturer at the University of Maryland and the Faculty Director of the Science & Global Change Program for the College Park Scholars, he has extensive teaching experience. I have had the pleasure of attending several of his talks at meetings of the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology and he has always been informative and interesting and his students have always been very positive about him.
Illustrator: Luis Rey is an accomplished and respected artist, known especially for his paleo art. He has won the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Lazendorf Award, given to outstanding artists and his artwork can be seen in several museums, books, and other outlets. He is known for very colorful dinosaurs with close attention to anatomical detail. He makes huge efforts to bring dinosaurs to life as actual, living creatures with as much accuracy as possible. A few have criticized his artwork for being too fanciful, in that he draws wattles and other structures on dinosaurs for which we have no hard evidence. But these structures are extremely difficult to preserve in fossils and their living relatives do have them. Matt Wedel, a noted dinosaur researcher in his own right (although he studies sauropods, not theropods like Dr. Holtz) has said, “If you go bold, you won’t be right; whatever you dream up is not going to be the same as whatever outlandish structure the animal actually had. On the other hand, if you don’t go bold, you’ll still be wrong, and now you’ll be boring, too.” Luis Rey has never been called boring.
I decided to start off my reviews with this book, even though it has been out since 2007, because I think every school should have it. There are good reasons it won “Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K to 12: 2008 by the National Science Teachers Association. It is called an encyclopedia and it does have chapters describing all the various dinosaur groups, but it is so much more. It is not a small book and here is my only real criticism of the book. Despite its title, it is not quite a book for all ages (School Library Journal rated it Grade 5 and up and it would take an exceptional 5th grader to read it). If you are looking for a book to read to little kids, look somewhere else. It is called an encyclopedia for a reason. Nevertheless, with that caveat in mind, if you are looking for a book to give your dinosaur-obsessed kid who can read well, this book is for you. It is not just for kids though. Adult dinosaur enthusiasts will like it too.
What I like best about this book is that it does not simply focus on the dinosaurs. There are plenty of books that will give you an A-Z description of dinosaurs. Holtz gives the reader a feel for what paleontology is and how it works. The goal of this book is to explain why we think what we do about them, how we know what we know. He starts off the book discussing how science, particularly as it applies to paleontology. He then has a chapter on the field’s history, followed by three chapters of geology and geologic time to put everything into perspective. Chapters 5-9 discuss how paleontologists find fossils and attempt to reconstruct what they looked like and how they are related to each other. It is not until chapter 10 that he even starts talking about dinosaurs themselves and that chapter simply explains how they are related to other vertebrates. Chapters 11-35 are the meat of the book that everyone would expect. This is where he discusses the amazing diversity of dinosaurs. The last five chapters discuss dinosaur behavior and metabolism and how we approach topics like this that are not so easy to see in the fossils. The last three chapters then put the dinosaurs in context of time and ecology. Contrary to popular opinion, dinosaurs did not all live at the same time. They spanned a vast length of time and these chapters give the reader some sense of what the earth was like during the major time periods, who lived when and what other animals they lived with. The last chapter ends predictably with a discussion of extinction, but rather than just say the asteroid killed them all off, Holtz discusses some of the complications of that hypothesis, finishing off with how life continued after the asteroid impact (including the dinosaurs, who were only mostly dead, not completely dead, a few made it through and thrived as birds). At the end of the book is a series of tables listing all the dinosaurs, including where and when they lived and their estimated size and weight.
Holtz doesn’t go it alone either. Scattered throughout the chapters are inserts from other researchers (such as Dr. Kristi Curry Rogers shown here) explaining various topics related to their own research, so the reader gets the perspective of many paleontologists, not just the author’s.
A serious bonus for this book is that Dr. Holtz has attempted to keep the book as current as possible by posting online corrections necessitated by new research, which you can find here.
As a final word, the book is superbly illustrated with numerous drawings, both in monotone and vivid color, by Luis Rey. There are no images of actual fossils, which some have criticized the book for, but my personal feeling is that the book was not designed to be a textbook for dinosaurs. It was designed to show the dinosaurs as living animals, not simply as their bones. There are plenty of other places one can find that. This book is for a view of what they were like alive and most importantly, why we think they were like that shown here and how we study them.