Wednesday, 9 November 2016

The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs and The Princeton Field Guild to Prehistoric Mammals - Gregory S. Paul and Donald Prothero **(*)

 Gregory S. Paul is a consummate artist whose work has influenced a generation, (including, by his own admission, my friend Luis V. Rey, with whom I collaborated in another Field Guide to Dinosaurs more than a decade ago.) His influence lies in careful groundwork. Paul treats his dinosaurs as living animals, but reconstructs them with great care, paying attention to the parts of the animals well known from actual fossil remains and using these to create a judicious portrait of creatures that no-one has ever seen alive. In this, the second edition of his own Field Guide, he attempts a fairly comprehensive coverage of dinosaurs down to the genus and even species level. This could have been a truly indispensable guide, but for three things. 

The first is that Paul’s classification of dinosaurs, especially of the small, bipedal dinosaurs closest to the ancestry of birds, is idiosyncratic. It’s fair to say that dinosaur classification is never static, and the precise relationships between the various groups of theropods and early birds are particularly fluid. Paul has pioneered the idea that some plainly earthbound feathered dinosaurs may have descended from flying ancestors. This is highly likely in my view, but some will baulk, say, as his placement of the extinct bird Jeholornis as an early offshoot of the huge, lumbering therizinosaurs, or Sapeornis as an early oviraptorosaur. But Paul’s ideas are somewhat different from the mainstream.

Second is the almost total lack of citation of original sources, which seems to me an enormous error in a book that might otherwise be used by scholars. There is a bibliography, but it contains precisely five items of secondary literature (I counted), two of which are by the author himself.
Third, there are no pictures of actual fossils, the primary material on which any dinosaur artist builds his or her reconstructions. This is a shame, given that some of these are truly spectacular. (**)


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Despite these problems, Paul’s book inspired the creation of the accompanying and in some ways complementary book on fossil mammals, by Prothero. Although less of a field guide and more of an encyclopaedic survey of the history of mammals, this is an altogether more satisfactory and satisfying prospect, perhaps because the subject of fossil mammals is less glamorous than that of dinosaurs and therefore less liable to attract the wide-eyed and the fannish. Prothero is pretty comprehensive and knows the subject up, down and backwards: read this, and you’ll know exactly where to go next time you confuse your borhyaenids with your borophagines, or get your pantotheres in a twist. The research is up-to-the-minute, and there is - oh joy - a long list of further reading. Pleasant restorations are supported by pictures of fossils. 

My only serious criticism relates to the seemingly arbitrary and varied schemes for creating family trees. Many of these are in the form of cladograms - the approved method for casting phylogenetic relationships, without prior presumption of ancestry and descent. So far, so good. Others, though, are the more fluid and romantic but wholly unscientific schemes in which particular genera are lined up as ancestors and descendants. Sorry, but that way of thinking died forty years ago and should have been buried with a stake through its heart. (***)

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Review by Henry Gee

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