The old birds that ruled the roost

The Evolution and Extinction of the Dinosaurs. Second Edition
February 24, 2006

The first edition of this book appeared in 1996 and was reprinted twice. The scope and coverage of this second edition follows the original closely and has been brought up to date with references to work published as recently as 2004. The most immediately striking difference is a radical overhaul of the illustrations, some of which were inadequate in the first edition. John Sibbick, one of the world's leading dinosaur illustrators, was commissioned to produce new, accurate and aesthetically pleasing line illustrations of dinosaur skulls, skeletons and restorations, and these have taken the book into a new league.

The text itself has been thoroughly updated in line with the accelerating pace of dinosaur discovery and the technology that has revolutionised the study of dinosaurs in the past five years. In particular, the spectacular discoveries of small feathered meat-eating dinosaurs from China are described, together with the implications for warm-bloodedness and the now almost universal acceptance that birds are living dinosaurs.

Throughout the book, the style is lively, accessible and very "non-textbook". Both authors are well-known dinosaur researchers, and they approach the subject with a light touch and humour that holds the reader's attention and conveys enthusiastically the passion of palaeontologists who love what they do.

Other significant updates concern the continuing debate about dinosaur extinction (non-avian dinosaurs only, of course) in the chapter on "The Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction: the frill is gone". There is no consensus among palaeontologists and geologists. For some (mainly geologists), an asteroid impact is explanation enough, but many others do not agree because, among other reasons, this would not explain why extinction was so selective - all other terrestrial vertebrate groups survived. The authors discuss the topic at length, and their account leans towards an asteroid impact, perhaps not surprisingly given that David Fastovsky strongly supports that view. The other side of the story is covered in "the loyal opposition" but in more abbreviated form. Readers be aware!

This book was written primarily for an American readership, as evidenced by the transatlantic spelling, unfamiliar names of tools (in the introduction, for example) and the occasional cultural asides. It forms an ideal introductory textbook for the many dinosaur courses held in American universities, which often draw several hundred students. So far as I know, there are no equivalent courses in UK universities, although dinosaurs feature as components of broader vertebrate evolution courses.

There is much in The Evolution and Extinction of the Dinosaurs to appeal to the non-specialist and dinosaur enthusiast as well as to the student market. The book covers exactly what it says on the jacket, including important sections on systematics using cladistic methodology that shows how dinosaurs relate to each other and to other animals. It offers more in-depth coverage of dinosaurs than broader vertebrate palaeontology textbooks, less than heavyweight academic tomes, and sits between the latter and the many semi-popular dinosaur books in pretty much its own niche in the market. At £35.00, it is very good value.

Angela Milner is a senior dinosaur researcher and associate keeper of palaeontology, Natural History Museum.

The Evolution and Extinction of the Dinosaurs. Second Edition

Author - David E. Fastovsky and David B. Weishampel
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 485
Price - £40.00
ISBN - 0 521 81172 4

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