California Literary Review

The Great Dinosaur Discoveries by Darren Naish

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December 7th, 2009 at 12:32 pm

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The Great Dinosaur Discoveries by Darren Naish
The Great Dinosaur Discoveries
by Darren Naish
University of California Press, 192 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

A Colorful Guide to Dinosaur Evolution

One can imagine the scene on that blustery and wet summer day some 70 million years ago: in the south central Gobi Desert region now known as Ukhaa Tolgod (Mongolian, “Brown Hills”), the assassin lay in wait behind accumulated debris and a sand drift. Its only perceptible movement was the slight flicker of beady eyes, the muted and minimal excursions of its rib cage, the delicate flair of its nostrils. Its nearly four-foot-long tail with its spade-like terminus was useful for balance and for counterweight in rapid turns. With its powerful jaws, rows of shark-like teeth and formidable claws, it was a six-foot-long, warm-blooded, feathered killing machine that possessed all the ferocity if not the size of its crocodilian cousins. It sensed the approaching slow moving protoceratops, a sheep-sized herbivore with a beak like that of a giant parrot. The protoceratops had a preposterous frill at the back of its head, one of such size to put the extravagant lacy frills of Elizabeth I to shame.

At that golden moment when proximity and surprise assured the kill, the velociraptor pounced, that formidable scimitar-like claw of the second digit of its right hind foot piercing crucial vessels in the neck of its prey. The protoceratops, already in its death throes, did manage to clamp its formidable beak on the velociraptor’s right arm.

But then and now, life in the Gobi (Mongolian, “immense and waterless”) desert was treacherous and uncertain. Thought these desert plains were usually arid, rain from occasional cloudbursts penetrated the upper layer of the dunes. This left an immense sheet of wet sand prone to collapse downward on the steep leeward side.

In the moment of that struggle, just such an immense avalanche of wet sand crashed to the desert floor. Prey and predator, still locked in mortal combat, were covered precipitously by tons of wet sand. It snuffed out the lives of both, their mutual deaths evoking that of Etocles and Polynices, the sons of Oedipus Rex of Greek myth who killed each other in mortal combat over their father’s throne.

The fossilized velociraptor and protoceratops remains were found by a Polish-Mongolian team led by Halszka Osmólski in 1971. The “fighting dinosaurs” are now a national treasure of Mongolia, lent on one occasion to the New York Museum of Natural History.

Great Dinosaur Discoveries is rich in the history of finds such as that above. It describes a journey through over two hundred years of remarkable discovery. It focuses on the biographies of such notable fossil finders as “Dinosaur” Jim Jensen (American, 1919-1998). Jensen is best known for work on colossal sauropods including the Supersaurus vivianae, a creature whose estimated length was some 150 feet!

The book is organized chronologically, telling the stories of the paleontolgists, their discoveries and the significance of their finds. The language is clear and accessible for the layman without being condescending. Dr. Naish begins with the first dinosaur discoveries and discusses theories that existed about the creatures discovered. He often points out early fallacies of paleontology and how they came to be corrected.

The fossil hunters range from such early investigators as Richard Owen (UK, 1804-1892) to those who have made pivotal discoveries in the current millennium. Owen, trained as a physician, became increasingly interested in comparative anatomy, including that of fossil remains. Other sources characterize him as being as fractious, mean spirited and as given to jealousy as Shakespeare’s Iago, far different than his genteel and refined contemporary, Charles Darwin.

Whatever the shortcomings of his character, Owen became an “expert at interpreting fragmentary remains,” and contributed much to fledgling paleontolgy including terms such as “homologue.” Homologous structures have a common evolutionary origin, i.e., a common ancestry, but not necessarily the same function. A person’s arm, a fish’s pectoral fin, a bird’s wing are “homologues.” “Dinosauria” and thus dinosaur was also Owens’ useful neologism. He also named six species of dinosaurs, names that still persist. He deduced, incorrectly as it turned out, that immense whale-like vertebrae found in the south of England were in fact from aquatic creatures. Part of the beauty of science is that it is ultimatly self-correcting. Subsequent, more complete remains proved the cetiosaurs, “whale lizards” as Owen termed them, to be land dwelling dinsosaurs.

The section captioned “Feathers and Fur: A new Diversity,” is particularly intriguing. Naish states that “The number of recognized dinosaurs had undergone and extraordinary 85 percent increase since 1990. The study of dinosaurs had clearly entered a new ‘golden age,’ a golden age that continues today as previously unexamined sites produce an abundance of new specimens.”

While there are numerous important locales involved including Australia, Antarctica, Niger, and others, the vast Gobi Desert constitutes the best of several possible examples of the wellsprings of recent discoveries. The Gobi yielded such finds as the first undoubtedly feathered dinosaur. Recent discoveries there and in China demonstrated undeniable fossilized quill knobs, the bumps on wing bones where feathers attach as well as the remants of actual feathers.

Velociraptor fossils are the best known examples. Velociraptor, the “swift plunderer” and famed terror of Michael Crichton’s book (and Steven Spielberg’ film) Jurassic Park, was first thought to have lizard-like scales and is so represented in the movie. The movie velociraptors are also larger and smarter than the originals.

It is surprising that there is an absence of women paleontologists in this volume. While historically, paleontologists, with rare exceptions were men, that is changing. In Great Dinosaur Discoveries, there are a couple of passing mentions of women in the field, e.g. Sue Hendricks. “In 1990 the most complete T. rex ever found was discovered by commercial fossil collector Sue Hendricks….” Dubbed, “Sue,” that T. rex is now on display in the atrium of Chicago’s Field Museum. Yet there are others of note: Dr. Patricia Vickers-Rich is an Australian geologist–paleontologist and author. She unearthed and named significant trophies in Canada, Australia, and Patagonia, She named or co-named species to include the creatures called laellynasaura and timimus.

Polish paleontologist Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska organized remarkably productive expeditions to the Gobi. While the cold war still raged, one of Zofia’s teams in the Gobi was urged by their hosts to sing. A quick conference with her colleagues indicated that not only were they not singers, but the only songs they knew were Christmas carols. They sang with more enthusiasm than skill. “What do the words mean?” their hosts, staunchly Communist partisans, demanded. Thinking quickly, Zofia replied, “Oh, they’re old revolutionary songs.”

Notable workers such as the above women could serve as role models for that bright daughter, niece or granddaughter who is fascinated by this volume as well as for their brothers.

In describing his intent in writing this volume, Naish states that “most dinosaur books look at current views on dinosaurs and briefly recap the history of some key finds…. This book is specifically focused on changing ideas about the evolution and appearance of dinosaurs and the important discoveries that brought about these changes.” With its 200 or so color photos with captions, maps, tables, a taxonomic chart (dinosaur family tree), sidebars and accessible text, Naish’s book generally accomplishes this in an elegant and intriguing manner.

  • DK Fennell

    This book deserves a far warmer review than the one given by Mr Guthrie, if for no other reason than it lacks the irritating, purple prose that begins this review.

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