Findings of a lost world

Evolution and Extinction of Dinosaurs - Dinosaurs of the East Coast
August 8, 1997

Universities in the United States, unlike their British counterparts, make a point of offering a multiplicity of non-major courses in a sort of marketing exercise. Various departments are saying, so to speak, to uncommitted students: "Hey, come and try this course, you'll like it . . . it's cute." In the sciences such courses provide nonthreatening forums that might entice into more advanced science courses undergraduates who had not previously considered science as a serious option.

Evolution and Extinction of Dinosaurs is a seriously crafted effort aimed directly at the market for textbooks for such courses. The book is large in format and bulky in terms of pages (though some are accounted for by the very generous margins fashionable in US textbooks and the copious illustrations) and therefore appears to offer value for money. As the preface points out, it is intended for university students, and is structured so as to introduce (and use) dinosaurs as a vehicle for the scientific investigation of the history of life on earth, and is well, and clearly illustrated throughout. I wholeheartedly support and encourage this approach myself - do they succeed?

The book is divided into four "parts". The first 100 or so pages of the book, part one, are what we might term "preliminaries" setting the scene, explaining the context of investigation, techniques, measuring time, tectonics and biogeography. The authors dwell at some length on systematics (phylogeny/pattern analysis) and establish the logic of the framework of analysis which is exploited throughout the rest of the book, ie cladistics. Few of us can be unaware of the impact of the cladistic method, as a means of focusing (with perhaps unnatural clarity) on features (anatomical characters for the most part) which can be interpreted as being useful in estimating the degree of similarity (and by implication kinship) between different taxa, and the algorithms (notably PAUP and Hennig 86) are used to establish parsimonious patterns which are the benchmarks for phylogenetic conclusions.

Parts two and three exploit this method to the full; the authors describe the range and variety of dinosaurs known using cladograms as the organising principle. As a means of providing a clear, analytical approach to the Dinosauria, this works extremely well; it allows for focused discussion of alternate patterns of relationship, and some of the assumptions which underlie opposing points of view, and gives a structure to the discussion which will be of enormous benefit to the undergraduate reader and teacher alike (it must be remembered that the majority of undergraduate course teachers at this level are not themselves dinosaur paleontologists). The major groups of Dinosauria: Ornithischia and Saurischia, are dealt with in two major blocks (parts two and three respectively). By default, but also because it makes sense anatomically to go from less derived to progressively more derived forms, it is traditional to consider the Saurischia first; quite why Fastovsky and Weishampel chose the counterintuitive course with the Ornithischia first is not clear.

The final part is a series of four chapters on those subjects which are unavoidably linked with dinosaurs: dinosaur physiology, dinosaurs in space and time, and extinction scenarios. There is a colour-plate section, showing a variety of animals (mainly dinosaurs) across the Mesozoic era in a variety of ecological settings, copious well-organised indexes, and each chapter has some basic source references, which should help the more interested student.

Minor quibbles: as an English reader I found the use of language rather uncomfortable, veering between over-familiarity (a sort of gee-whizzery that is irritating and demeaned the subject unnecessarily) and simple, well-expressed phraseology. I also did not find the life restorations in either black and white or colour formats, to my taste.

In conclusion I think that this is an excellent book. It achieves its aims with an intelligence and competence that cannot be doubted, and will be widely appreciated by undergraduate nonmajors and their teachers. Courses of this type are not taught in British universities, and dinosaurs occupy a very small niche in zoology and geology degrees, so the book will undoubtedly feature as background reading for some general vertebrate evolution and palaeobiology courses for first and secondyears rather than as an essential course book.

Dinosaurs of the East Coast is a completely different proposition, and much more difficult to assess in general terms. It is a very fine book, providing the first comprehensive review of the dinosaur discoveries of the eastern United States, which span the past two centuries of endeavour.

The earliest discoveries of dinosaurs in America come from the east coast and were first interpreted by such luminaries in the field as Edward Hitchcock, Joseph Leidy, Edward Drinker Cope and O. C. Marsh, and these are always the names and discoveries that feature in any bona fide dinosaur book. What this book does, however, is to put their work into a broader historical tapestry of discovery which not only has ancient roots, but also modern shoots that should not be ignored.

It provides an incredibly valuable survey of the workers who have contributed to our understanding of dinosaurs through work on the east coast, as well as a photographic reconnaissance of the sites today and the people doing what is in some respects still a form of pioneering research. There is no doubt that the worldwide interest in dinosaurs has been fuelled by the fantastic discoveries of dinosaurs in the North American midwest so it is no real wonder that the east coast has been somewhat overlooked. This book redresses the situation in some style.

Unfortunately it does not have a natural audience beyond "dinosaurophiles" and a few historians of science and will not sell in any great numbers. This is a pity, and that is probably reflected in the book's relatively high cost relative to size, when compared with the first book under review. Nevertheless, this is an important and scholarly contribution.

David Norman is at the Sedgwick Museum of Geology, University of Cambridge.

Evolution and Extinction of Dinosaurs

Author - David Fastovsky and David Weishampel
ISBN - 0 521 44496 9
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £29.95
Pages - 460

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