Flight into a mysterious past

The Pterosaurs from Deep Time - Unearthing the Dragon

November 17, 2006

As a fellow pterosaurologist, I have to agree with David Unwin's observation that "pterosaurs are really hard to understand". Their complex anatomy and frequently poor preservation has led to many wildly different accounts of pterosaurs since their discovery in 1784. However, pterosaurs have enjoyed something of a renaissance in the past decade, with many new fossils and a great deal of accompanying research. Often relegated to the background as dinosaurs hog the limelight, pterosaurs are here brought to the fore in a most accessible style.

For all the author's credentials, pterosaurs are an ambitious choice of subject. Their complexities are beyond what would normally have to be explained to a lay audience compared with other fossil groups: their unusual preservation, mysterious origins, specialised anatomy and, most difficult of all, their ability to fly. Unwin covers all these tricky areas with sufficient depth for the reader to get to grips with the subject but without getting bogged down in the specifics that can bore or confuse. He handles all of this (and more) with aplomb and, where possible, a joke or two (he even finds space to refer jokingly to Monty Python's "dead Pterodactylus sketch"). Where there is considerable contention over a point, it is carefully stated and, where evidence is available to justify an assumption, it is reviewed and laid out clearly and concisely.

This is no mean feat - pterosaurs often produce 2-D fossils, the bones having been crushed flat by the weight of millions of tonnes of rock over millions of years. Interpretations of these can therefore be difficult, and Unwin takes great care to distinguish between genuine evidence and what has been extrapolated from the available fossil material. Most important, his style offers a delightful ease of reading.

The book functions at two very different levels - for the general reader, the whole thing can be read through and enjoyed as a revealing account of a fascinating group. For the more interested or serious researcher, some 35 pages of footnotes are available - these notes give extensive details of individual specimens, special works, other researchers and the odd anecdote. A further 18 pages of references and a complete list of all known pterosaurian taxa are also provided, and thus a considerable repository of extra information is available to the serious reader.

All this is supported by a wealth of photographs and figures. These provide all the information needed for such a difficult subject, with delightful colour photographs of a great many rare and important specimens. Many of these have not previously appeared in colour, or at such size (most are full page). These are complemented by wonderful renditions of "living" pterosaurs by artist Todd Marshall. These representations are especially good and deserve to define how we view pterosaurs into the next decade and beyond.

Alas, there is still much to do, and much to learn about pterosaurs. Although this book successfully brings the reader right up to date with the latest theories, discoveries and research, some important questions are still unanswered. Unwin aptly quotes Winston Churchill: "This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." There are probably another two centuries of work ahead for Unwin's "pterosaurologists", but this book is the perfect place to start.

Pterosaurs crop up again in Mark Norell's Unearthing the Dragon . However, they form only a subplot to one of the greatest revelations in recent palaeontology: the discovery of numerous feathered dinosaurs in China. Norell chronicles a series of visits he made with his colleague and photographer, Mick Ellison (who provides stunning pictures), to work on these spectacular finds.

Although there is a strong undercurrent of science to the book, it is written more as travelogue, combining the author's awe at seeing new dinosaurs, insightful snippets of Chinese history and modern culture and entertaining anecdotes. It makes for a delightful read as Norell cherry-picks incidents from his travels and turns them into analogues of the ancient world. For example, a modern Chinese food market is taken back 130 million years to show how many of the animals - soft-shelled terrapins, small rat-like mammals, fish, snakes and birds - would remain on the menu.

To many, even those who have visited the country, China is a mystery. Through his storytelling, Norell does his best to unravel the complexities of Chinese culture and recount the fascinating past and present of this land. At times, it reads as if he and his companion have merely staggered, jet-lagged and occasionally inebriated, through some of the more delicate areas of international relations, but the genuine warmth of their feelings for the country and its people are obvious in his writing, and no doubt obvious to his international colleagues, too.

The discovery of feathered dinosaurs in the 1990s represented a watershed in vertebrate palaeontology. Norell was one of the first Western scientists to gain access to these and other specimens, and he has published a series of landmark papers on them in the past decade. Throughout the book he catalogues how each find brought us new information on dinosaur evolution, behaviour and diversity as our knowledge increased in leaps and bounds accordingly. The spectacular collection of fossils that have become known as the Jehol biota also features birds, fish, pterosaurs, mammals, insects and plants in such numbers that whole communities can be studied.

Despite all this fossil wealth, the book focuses on one key aspect, the evolution of feathers. Although the famous Archaeopteryx specimens from Germany had long demonstrated a feathered dinosaur-like bird, and dromaeosaurid dinosaurs had been flagged as close relatives to bird ancestors, these new fossils finally presented a series of bird-like dromaeosaurs, replete with feathers. The author plots the evolution of feathers from the fossil record, starting with the basic "dino-fuzz"

(hollow filaments) that adorns many dinosaurs through to modern asymmetrical feathers that allow birds to fly.

All of this is bound up with discussions of many scientific issues, including illegal trade in rare fossils and the opinions of scientists who support the theory that birds have not evolved from dinosaurs.

This book is a delightful chronicle of one of the most important eras of modern palaeontology and provides interesting insights into both the methods of scientists and the fascinating country in which they find themselves working. Whether your interest is palaeontology, modern science or travel, there is so much to be enjoyed.

David W. E. Hone is postdoctoral researcher, Bayerische Staatssammlung fur Palaontologie und Geologie, Munich, Germany.

The Pterosaurs from Deep Time

Author - David M. Unwin
Publisher - Pi Press
Pages - 347
Price - £28.99
ISBN - 0 13 146308 X

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