Thursday, November 11, 2010

Book Review: The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs

When I was little (9 or 10 years old), my two favorite dinosaur books were Bob Bakker's The Dinosaur Heresies and Greg Paul's Predatory Dinosaurs of the World (PDW). I was lucky enough to get a copy of the former as a birthday present, but never owned a copy of the latter until recently, having to satisfy myself with ordering it via interlibrary loan. Both of these lavishly illustrated books portrayed dinosaurs as active, dynamic animals. Needless to say, my interest and imagination were sparked. I learned that Tyrannosaurus could cruise along at speeds approaching 45 miles per hour, that Velociraptor and Deinonychus were the same genus, that all dinosaurs had mammalian metabolism, Pterodaustro was pink from its diet of shrimp, and that some dinosaurs had feathers.

It was a tragic day when I realized that most of my dinosaur facts were wrong.

But, it was also an important stage in my growth as a scientist. I learned that publication in a book, or scientific job title, or pretty illustrations, weren't sufficient to establish scientific fact. Some really cool and exciting ideas (like the sprinting T. rex) couldn't hold up to scientific scrutiny, or simply weren't testable. And other ideas (like the feathered theropods) just needed the right specimen (which eventually arrived).

Despite their shortcomings, The Dinosaur Heresies and PDW were momentous publications for my generation. They inspired many young paleontologists and spun off numerous artistic clones (you don't have to look far to see the influence of Greg Paul's "running theropod" pose, for instance; see the example at right). Thus, it was with some excitement that I got my copy of Greg Paul's The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs (hereafter just the "Field Guide") in the mail. In many respects, this is the modern heir to PDW.

The book itself is quite pretty, in a durable yet inexpensive hardcover format (I got my copy for under $25). The pages are chock-full of illustrations, ranging from black and white skeletals to full color paintings. The first part of the book includes well-written, succinct text (although certainly with a "Paulian" spin to its claims) that provides a birds-eye view of dinosaur biology. The highlight of the book, however, is the "Group and Species Accounts."

Pretty much every known dinosaur is included, and a great number are illustrated. Images include shaded skull reconstructions, black and white skulls, complete skeletal reconstructions, and color pencil drawings. This is classic Greg Paul (see his website for some samples), with the poses and attention to skeletal detail that we all expect. Many of these have never been widely available in any form - a boon for dinosaur enthusiasts! A number of his paintings are also included; most have been published before, but some are updated based on new information. I am not sure if I like the color pencil drawings as much of the rest of the artwork; many of them lack the "pop" of the skeletals or paintings. Some of this could be a consequence of the scale at which they are reproduced; I get the sense that many of the illustrations would look better if printed at a smaller size.

The species accounts are generally pretty good, although of course there is not sufficient space to go into the supporting evidence (or not) for some statements. For instance, the talk about "enemies" of some taxa is perhaps a little colloquial but at least vaguely supportable - one would think that similarly-sized herbivores and carnivores in a formation were indeed "enemies". Other facts - like stating that ceratopsids defended themselves by "rearing like a bear and tilting [the] frill up to intimidate [the] attacker, followed by a short fast charge with horns and/or beaks" (p. 257) are pure (if plausible) speculation. To his credit, Paul (p. 62) notes that the "reliability of these conclusions varies greatly." Unfortunately, I'm afraid this caution will be lost on the average reader.

My only real major beef, which has been echoed by many others (see this thread on the Dinosaur Mailing List, for instance), is with the taxonomic games played in the book. I do not think that the work is a Major Disaster in taxonomy; as Paul readily admits, the Field Guide is a popular book that is not intended as a valid nomenclatural statement. Publishing scientists are generally going to ignore any taxonomic assessments. One major reason is that many of the generic lumpings form polyphyletic or paraphyletic groups. For instance, Paul's Chasmosaurus (including Chasmosaurus, Mojoceratops, Agujaceratops, and Pentaceratops) is hopelessly paraphyletic by all recent phylogenies (see the Sampson et al. one, for instance, or even Lull's 1933 phylogram, if you're not a fan of cladistics). Similar problems plague the hadrosaur naming scheme in this book - it's not just a matter of having one's "genericometer" set to "broad". On the last point, though, one wonders why the rather morphologically conservative and firmly monophyletic "leptoceratopsids" all got to retain their separate genera! Prenoceratops and Leptoceratops are far more alike than Styracosaurus and Pachyrhinosaurus (all lumped in Centrosaurus by Paul!).

Rather than a scientific issue, the primary problem is that this stuff is going to be soaked up uncritically by the lay public (as we saw with Dinosaur Heresies and PDW). I don't think it's a catastrophe on the scale of Jurassic Fight Club (most of the basic content in the Field Guide is accurate), but it will still be a nuisance in the long term. I'll have to deal with kids who want to know why I'm following an outdated ceratopsian classification, but that's probably about the worst that's going to happen. A dino fanboy (speaking with a voice a la Professor Frink) will tell me that prosauropods slashed their enemies with razor-sharp claws, because he read it in a book by a paleontologist. The world is not ending. My hope is that discussions about what we know and don't know will inspire the next generation of researchers!

Flaws aside, every dinosaur enthusiast should get a copy of The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs. The skeletals alone are worth the price of admission. This book is visually appealing, fun, and a great reminder of why we all loved dinosaurs in the first place.
The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs, by Gregory S. Paul, 320 pages, published by Princeton University Press. ISBN13: 978-0-691-13720-9. $35 list price.


Anonymous said...

I don't have the book yet...soon enough. Regardless of interpretation and taxonomy, GS Paul's anatomical illustrations are one of the inspirations behind me getting in to this field (there was one panel that was near our prep lab at Disney of sequentially deeper dissections of Ceolophysis [I could not figure out how to pry it off the wall]; that and the Crimson Croc chapter of Heresies. Where would we be without the snake-headed Ceratosaurus?!


The Savvypenguin said...

I agree on every aspect with your review. Particularly, because I'm rabid about Marginocephalians, I'm glad that someone else has noticed the lumping of taxa in this back section of the book. Personally, I did a double take when I saw the Centrosaur/Styracosaur/Pachyrinosaur.