Paleontology vs. Popular Imagination: Dinosaur Edition

We are constantly learning more and more about the ancient critters of the planet. Some things are sort of cool, like colored dinosaurs and textured dinosaurs (yes, in a very few places, the skin texture actually survived in the sediments around the beasts.) Other things are a bit disappointing, but won’t change things – like saber-toothed cats not being real cat-cats.

And some things will probably be resoundingly rejected by the rabid dino fans. Like dinosaur lips.

To summarize the article, paleontologists have decided (some of them) that T-Rex and other related dinosaurs did not walk around flashing their fangs. Instead, they had lips that covered their teeth. So they had faces more like a modern lizard or snake than an crocodile.

Which is a massive bummer. Because who wants a “tyrant king” who looks like, oh, a skink?

It’s a nice skink, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t really scream “PREDATOR!!!!!!”

Oh, the below is available to get as a wall mount, if you wish to entertain guests with “What Caliber for a Dinosaur?” If you want to ask about the price. The neighbors might talk, though.

I can guess what the rabid dino fans, mostly aged 6-10 or so, will have to say about a T-Rex that practiced concealed carry.

“Did too! Tyrannosaurs did too show their teeth! RAAAAAWWWWRRRRRRRRR!!!!!”

But at least the paleontologists have finally decided that no, T-Rex and friends did not have feathers. They had skin. Some very unusual finds near Medora, N.D. and a few other sites proved that. And they seem to have decided that stegosaur plates really did go up, not lie flat.


Book Review: Locked in Time

Lomax, Dean R. and Robert Nicholls. Locked in Time: Animal Behavior Unearthed in 50 Extraordinary Fossils. (Columbia University Press, 2021) Kindle e-book

I needed a brain break from history (depressing), herbology and medieval medicine (wince-inducing) and current events (no comment). So, dinosaurs and paleo mammals it was. The book is popular science, not academic analysis, but has a very thorough bibliography and works cited section for those interested in detailed paleontology and physiology. It also begins with sex and ends with corpolites and urine, so you’re warned.

The book focuses on behaviors, how we know about them, what clues we can suss out from trackways, trails, bones, and so on. It is not a guide to different species, so don’t expect to learn much about any one type of critter. One review dinged the book for that, and I can sympathize, but the focus is on “how did the animals do [thing]” more than a guide to paleo-creatures. In part because of this, the authors assume that readers have some basic science background and are generally aware of types of dinos and paleo-mammals. I suspect that covers the bulk of their target audience.

The book is arranged by behavior, starting with reproduction. You will learn lots of fascinating biology, and about how meticulous fossil preparers and excavators have to be. After all, one early fossil includes two insects caught in flagrante delicto, and shows their anatomy. Most of the fossils are not that small, but two are smaller. Each behavior has detailed photos of the fossils involved, as well as a full-color scientific illustration of the behavior described. Burrows, baby-sitting, fights, naps, each is shows in the probable habitat. The fossils are from around the world, and are very current (most recent from an unpublished 2020 paper).

You can dip in and out of the book, but I read it straight through. The writing style is good popular science, not watered down. The author is English, but dinosaur is a universal dialect. As I mentioned above, the writer assumes that you have a basic idea about biology in general and ancient life in particular, but you don’t need to be a physiology expert to get a lot out of the book.

The e-book worked on my first generation Paperwhite™, but to really get the benefit of the illustrations, you need a color screen or the print edition.

I recommend the book to anyone interested in ancient animals, people curious about “where did dinosaurs sleep, anyway?” and parents of kids who are ready for more than Dino 101. (You might skip the first chapter unless you want to discuss birds, bees, fishes, turtles, and so on.) It’s very well written, with a dry sense of humor. The authors really love old critters, and it shows.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration from the author or publisher for this review.

Book Review: Beasts Before Us

Panciroli, Elsa. Beasts Before Us: The Untold Story of Mammal Origins and Evolution. (NY: Bloomsbury, 2021) Kindle edition.

I’ve been reading the history of the 1970 cyclone and the birth of Bangladesh. I needed an escape. So I relapsed into some of my older interests and started reading paleontology again. In this case, a book about the pre-mammals and proto-mammals. The book only goes up to the Tertiary, and ends before mammals, monotremes, and marsupials got too dominant. It’s a great book about digging up bones around the world and how the proposed ancestors of mammals developed and succeeded (or didn’t).

Beasts Before Us is both about paleontology and the early mammal-finders, and about the ancestors of mammals. Dr. Panciroli did much of her work in Scotland, and it turns out that Scotland plays an important role in the story of how people sussed out the (presumed) origins of the creatures that became the ancestors of mammals, monotremes, and marsupials. [WordPress, “monotreme” is a word. Trust me.] Or I should say, the few exposures of the type of rock that were laid down when the area that is now Scotland had dinosaurs and other ancient life. That’s part of the problem of finding pre-mammals: they tended to be small, which means fragile and easy to overlook. Dinosaurs were large and cool, and then paleomammals became trendy (but not as much as dinosaurs). Tiny squirrel-like not-mice sorts of things just don’t have the cachet, and don’t get the funding, assuming that people can even find them.

A lot of Panciroli’s book is about tracing the development of life on Earth, how it survived multiple mass extinctions (the Cambrian Extinction, several regional die-offs, the formerly-known-as-K-T Event that ended the dinosaurs . . .) In parallel it traces how we know about the ancestors of creatures. Sometimes, all we have are teeth and a few bits of bone. In other cases, we have entire skeletons with food in the innerds, or in one case with 21 babies.

The book is very well written, although it helps if you have some biology and anatomy background, because the author defines terms once or twice, then expects you to remember them. This is more of a problem in the e-book, where you can’t go flipping back a few pages to refresh your memory. The author also jumps at times from the bones to the people who found them, especially if those people were not European or British males. I didn’t have trouble keeping track of the larger story, but the back and forth can be a bit distracting and require a momentary mental reset. Some of the newer terminology is also distracting for those of us who grew up with Precambrian, Cambrian, Tertiary, Quaternary, and so on.

Dr. Panciroli goes to great lengths to remind readers that 1) anthropogenic climate change will doom creatures, 2) that native peoples were aware of the fossils before European explorers showed up, 3) women have been involved in the field but did not get as much prestige as others, and 4) that there is no such thing as linear and clear-cut evolution based on survival of the fittest. The last chapter is about how anthropogenic global warming will cause problems, and how those few creatures that do manage to hang in there will manage to cope with the inevitable disaster. I had some trouble with her pointing out that Native Americans and Mongolians and Chinese knew about the fossils because she implies that the locals knew what the funny bones/rocks were and the Europeans ignored this valuable Native wisdom. “Dragon bones” used for traditional medicine is a rather different understanding compared to “early Sauropod that lived in a humid, swampy region and raised its young in herds.” Nor do I care to be informed several times that every time I look at a dino skeleton or mammal skeleton, it was stolen. Was it? From whom? Who owned it? Who cared about it? That part of the story didn’t make the book.

I’d recommend the book for those who are serious about the hard science of pre-mammals and their development. I learned a great deal, and enjoyed the biographies of the people who worked in the field. I skimmed or skipped over the modern environmental assumptions, and I admit I was a little disappointed that Dr. Panciroli puts so much faith in the assumption that models are truth. As mentioned above, it helps if you are familiar with taxonomy and basic biology, but it isn’t necessary to get the gist of the story.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no benefit or remuneration from the publisher or author for this review.