Skip to main content

The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs and The Princeton Field Guild to Prehistoric Mammals - Gregory S. Paul and Donald Prothero **(*)

 Gregory S. Paul is a consummate artist whose work has influenced a generation, (including, by his own admission, my friend Luis V. Rey, with whom I collaborated in another Field Guide to Dinosaurs more than a decade ago.) His influence lies in careful groundwork. Paul treats his dinosaurs as living animals, but reconstructs them with great care, paying attention to the parts of the animals well known from actual fossil remains and using these to create a judicious portrait of creatures that no-one has ever seen alive. In this, the second edition of his own Field Guide, he attempts a fairly comprehensive coverage of dinosaurs down to the genus and even species level. This could have been a truly indispensable guide, but for three things. 

The first is that Paul’s classification of dinosaurs, especially of the small, bipedal dinosaurs closest to the ancestry of birds, is idiosyncratic. It’s fair to say that dinosaur classification is never static, and the precise relationships between the various groups of theropods and early birds are particularly fluid. Paul has pioneered the idea that some plainly earthbound feathered dinosaurs may have descended from flying ancestors. This is highly likely in my view, but some will baulk, say, as his placement of the extinct bird Jeholornis as an early offshoot of the huge, lumbering therizinosaurs, or Sapeornis as an early oviraptorosaur. But Paul’s ideas are somewhat different from the mainstream.

Second is the almost total lack of citation of original sources, which seems to me an enormous error in a book that might otherwise be used by scholars. There is a bibliography, but it contains precisely five items of secondary literature (I counted), two of which are by the author himself.
Third, there are no pictures of actual fossils, the primary material on which any dinosaur artist builds his or her reconstructions. This is a shame, given that some of these are truly spectacular. (**)

Despite these problems, Paul’s book inspired the creation of the accompanying and in some ways complementary book on fossil mammals, by Prothero. Although less of a field guide and more of an encyclopaedic survey of the history of mammals, this is an altogether more satisfactory and satisfying prospect, perhaps because the subject of fossil mammals is less glamorous than that of dinosaurs and therefore less liable to attract the wide-eyed and the fannish. Prothero is pretty comprehensive and knows the subject up, down and backwards: read this, and you’ll know exactly where to go next time you confuse your borhyaenids with your borophagines, or get your pantotheres in a twist. The research is up-to-the-minute, and there is - oh joy - a long list of further reading. Pleasant restorations are supported by pictures of fossils. 

My only serious criticism relates to the seemingly arbitrary and varied schemes for creating family trees. Many of these are in the form of cladograms - the approved method for casting phylogenetic relationships, without prior presumption of ancestry and descent. So far, so good. Others, though, are the more fluid and romantic but wholly unscientific schemes in which particular genera are lined up as ancestors and descendants. Sorry, but that way of thinking died forty years ago and should have been buried with a stake through its heart. (***)


Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Henry Gee


Popular posts from this blog

Lucy Jane Santos - Four Way Interview

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Why science?

I have always been fascinated by the idea of science especially our daily interactions with and understandings of science – especially in a beauty context. I could spend hours pondering the labels of things on my bathroom shelf. What is 4-t-butylcyclohexanol (as a random example)? Do I really understand what I am putting on my face and spending my money on? Would it change my purchase habits if I did?  

Why this book?

This book came from an accidental discovery – that there was a product called Tho Radia which contained radium and thorium. I found out about it because I actually bought a pot of it – along with a big batch of other produc…

Rewilding: Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe ****

Those who are enthusiastic about saving the environment often have a mixed relationship with science. They might for example, support organic farming or oppose nuclear power, despite organics having no nutritional benefit and requiring far more land to be used to raise the same amount of crops, while nuclear is a green energy source that should be seen as an essential support to renewables. This same confusion can extend to the concept of rewilding, which is one reason that the subtitle of this book uses the word 'radical'.

As Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe make clear, though, radical change is what is required if we are to encourage ecological recovery. To begin with, we need to provide environments for nature that take in the big picture - thinking not just of individual nature reserves but, for example, of corridors that link areas allowing safe species migration. And we also need to move away from an arbitrary approach to restricting to 'native' species, as sometimes…

Is Einstein Still Right? - Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes ***

If there's one thing that gets a touch tedious in science reporting it's the news headlines that some new observation or experiment 'proves Einstein right' - as if we're still not sure about relativity. At first glance that's what this book does too, but in reality Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes are celebrating the effectiveness of the general theory of relativity, while being conscious that there may still be situations where, for whatever reason, the general theory is not sufficient.

It's a genuinely interesting book - what Will and Yunes do is take experiments that are probably familiar to the regular popular science reader already and expand on the simplified view of them we are usually given. So, for example, one of the first things they mention is the tower experiments to show the effect of gravitational red shift. I was aware of these experiments, but what we get here goes beyond the basics of the conceptual experiment to deal with the realities of d…