Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Book Review - Dinosaur Odyssey

Scott Sampson is one of the most popular and respected palaeontologists’ of the modern era. Major contributions to the science for many years now always demand the highest respect from his peers and graduate students alike. He has also been a familiar face on television and his Dinosaur Train has been very well received stateside where it is aimed at a younger audience, no doubt joined by their equally interested parents!

Meeting Scott was an equally pleasurable experience and I found him to be an extremely pleasant man, easy going and willing to exchange many views and ideas with me. It was equally apparent that he is a driven palaeontologist with an ever increasing thirst for more knowledge. His passion is quite infectious.

Dinosaur Odyssey has been described as the first general-audience book on dinosaurs for many many years. Having said that, I believe it does help to have a general understanding of palaeontology although anybody with an interest in the natural world or earth sciences will enjoy it.

The premise of the book, as opposed to the usual encyclopaedic style of dinosaur books, is to entice the reader and draw them into the bigger picture – the web of life, as mentioned in the title. Instead of concentrating on specific individual genera or species, the reader is invited into this bigger world and specifically how dinosaurs were part of it and especially how they were, in relative terms, a small component in the vast ecological processes that took place throughout the Mesozoic.

This does not mean that dinosaurs are not covered in any detail – they most certainly are – but we are always reminded that they were part of a much bigger picture. I cannot think of another book that brings the world of the dinosaurs to life in so much detail. From sun light and water to microbes and soil formation, right through to the carnivores at the top of the food chain, through to death and back again, we can see how the world of the dinosaurs was formed by the same processes that affect our world of today.

There are up to date details concerning all the major groups of dinosaur whether herbivore or carnivore and there is an excellent chapter concentrating on ornithischians and ceratopsians. The horned dinosaurs are a passion of Scott’s and he describes in detail how horns and frills were almost certainly evolved for sexual selection and both species recognition and interaction.

The physiology of the dinosaurs is discussed – specifically whether they were endothermic, as in birds, or ectothermic like crocodiles. In fact Scott describes them as mesothermic by using a theory he refers to as the Goldilocks hypothesis. In other words, not hot, not cold but rather something in between. His arguments make good reading but, of course, this will need to be backed up in the literature, although this theory is very much in fashion just now. Personally, I like to believe they were fully endothermic animals but this argument could fill volumes on its own and certainly not for this review.

How dinosaurs became masters of the planet is also covered and once again the combination of so many different but interlinked factors describes their rise to prominence. Scott also goes in to great detail to debunk the possibility of there ever being a Jurassic Park and this makes good reading because it takes someone like Scott to highlight the multitude of obstacles that would exist in simply being able to maintain these animals, let alone creating them in the first place!

Dinosaur provincialism has been in the literature over the last few years and again is another subject that Scott has investigated in some detail. Indeed, the North American continent, that was split into two by the Western Interior Seaway during the late Cretaceous, is throwing up so many questions with regards to just how many different species of big animal managed to live at the same time in what appear to be small pockets of land on a relatively small land mass (Laramidia). This is probably a subject worthy of a symposium in its own right.

Other chapters feature the authors work in Madagascar and the other inevitable chapters on dinosaurs becoming birds, and their extinction at the end of the Cretaceous, completing the volume. The book is interspersed with both colour and black and white images and I particularly like the pencil illustrations at the beginning of each chapter.

Dinosaur Odyssey represents a new kind of dinosaur book. It could almost be written for ecologists and naturalists of today, and this is the secret of the book. This is nothing new, and so many people have said it in the past, but to tackle the issues of today we need to refer to the issues of the past and I know of no other book that makes you search for your place in the bigger picture that is today’s web of life. I would urge you to read this volume because it contains so many relevant and important messages. Highly recommended.


Traumador said...

nice review!

the other reason i like this book is it is the written up answer to that ever annoying question i run into everywhere "what can we learn from studying dinosaurs anyways?"

it is such a good book i cleaned out 3 local bookstores of their copies for gifts for my friends :P

coincidentally later this week i'm posting my own personal encounter with dr. sampson, and his signing my copy of the book over on my blog.

saurian said...

Hi Traumador and thanks for the comment. Unfortunately, the question you refer to will always be asked but at least we can point them in the right direction with this book.
I look forward to reading about your encounter with Scott real soon!

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