New light on an old animal

The Horned Dinosaurs
October 31, 1997

Dinosaurs have an enduring fascination. This much is obvious from the colossal interest in new discoveries, the popularity of natural history museums, and the phenomenal success of certain Hollywood blockbusters. Yet it is extremely difficult to find a book on dino-saurs written for the non-specialist adult audience. Peter Dodson's is one of the rare contributions which helps to fill this void.

It concentrates on a single branch of the dinosaur family tree - the horned dinosaurs or ceratopians. The largest ceratopian, Triceratops, with its characteristic three-horned face, will be familiar to almost every reader of this review. Dodson is well acquainted with this topic: he has been engaged in research on these animals for much of his professional career. His book is very much in the spirit of the great dinosaur monographs from the earlier part of this century, drawing together disparate pieces of information on the horned dinosaurs and providing the reader with an overview of the current knowledge of these fascinating creatures.

Much of the volume is concerned with the history of discovery of horned dinosaurs, from the early fragmentary finds through the spectacular discoveries of complete skulls and skeletons in the American west, to the new discoveries of horned dinosaurs and their close relatives in the deserts of Mongolia. The reader is introduced to the different types of horned dinosaur in the chronological order of their discovery. This approach allows us to follow the increase in knowledge of these animals, and shows how the views of the palaeontological community are often moulded by the discovery of new animals. Dodson also provides us with a lot of information on the lifestyles and biology of the horned dinosaurs, ranging from how they may have chewed their food to the possible use of their frills and horns in fighting for mates. For me, this was the most interesting part of the book.

One small criticism: the author continually bombards the reader with the vital statistics of various horns and skulls. While these would not be out of place in a scholarly text, they jar in an otherwise fluent popular account.

The dinosaurs are not the only animals which are scrutinised in the book. Science is a human activity, and Dodson is as fascinated by the personalities of the scientists who worked on these dinosaurs as by the animals themselves. Colourful accounts of many famous palaeontologists abound, and I regularly found myself smiling sympathetically or incredulously at the descriptions of some of my colleagues. The story of Dodson's own involvement in the discovery and description of Avaceratops, a miniature horned dinosaur from the badlands of Montana, is a very personal account, and shows the passion that drives palaeontologists the world over.

The book is well illustrated, with a large number of excellent line drawings, and some very colourful plates. Dodson has a literary style which is accessible to all readers, and is sometimes gushing with sheer enthusiasm. He manages to explain many of the intricacies of dinosaur studies in jargon-free language, and where jargon is necessary the terms are clearly defined. Above all he helps to make the dinosaurs come alive - something that most palaeontologists can only dream about.

Paul M. Barrett is research fellow in palaeontology, Trinity College, Cambridge.

The Horned Dinosaurs: A Natural History

Author - Peter Dodson
ISBN - 0 691 02882 6
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £23.00
Pages - 346

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