Saturday, September 19, 2015

Another Dinosaur Field Guide!?

The date: September 12, 2015. The place: Barnes & Noble. It was another ordinary day of browsing the science section in hopes of finding new books. Fortunately, I sacrificed time and took the initiative to take an extra-long drive to a Barnes & Noble I usually don't frequent. Lo and behold, their Paleontology section had other books besides Dinosaurs: The Grand Tour and DK's Prehistoric Life!  Of most interest to me was A Field Guide to Dinosaurs of North America (And Prehistoric Megafauna), written by Bob Strauss. 

First, a little information about the author. Quoting the back cover, "Bob Strauss is the author of two best-selling question-and-answer books that range across the expanse of science, biology, history and culture: The Big Book of What, How and Why (Main Street, 2005) and Who Knew? Hundreds & Hundreds of Questions & Answers for Curious Minds (Sterling Innovation, 2007)." It also goes on to say that Strauss is the "dino-expert" for I haven't visited that site in awhile now, so I can't vouch for accuracy/reliability, but I encourage readers to see for themselves how much credibility it establishes Strauss. 

In my last book review, I covered Henry Gee's A Field Guide to Dinosaurs (read it here), and so I'll address the big question, "What are the differences between both books?" Aside from the obvious stuff, like different authors and illustrators, Strauss' book provides actual, factual information in each dinosaur profile, making for much less speculating on his part, but more for the reader, who must separate fact from fiction. Additionally, Strauss takes a more humorous tone on the subject matter, much like Robert Mash's book, How to Keep Dinosaurs. Finally, Strauss covers other prehistoric fauna, and not just the dinosaurs. More on that later.

As far as the writing goes, it's standard. There's plenty of comical scenarios Strauss manages to express vividly, such as how an Albertosaurus ambush would go down. It's a controversial opinion, but I believe that his attempts to bring scientific info into the writing downplays the potential he had. The idea itself is fine, but the execution is sub-par. It's the same old information that many, many other dinosaur books have stated. And some of it is just plain wrong. Note to the author: Acrocanthosaurus and Spinosaurus were NOT "closely" related (think of it this way, you wouldn't call a dog and a manatee "closely" related). Same physical features =/= closely related. It's clear that Strauss is an enthusiast, and not a scientist. What I did like, though, was the 40+ prelude. Strauss explains the inaccuracy of movies and even nature documentaries (you know those awesome documentaries you watched as a kid that had clips of harpy eagles swooping down and carrying off lion cubs? Fake. Did ya really think the camera happened to be rolling at the right place, at the right time?), and how it has created a severe misrepresentation of dinosaurs. The fact of the matter is, dinosaurs are animals, not monsters, and nine times out of ten, predator vs prey engagements end without any blood shed. I'd have to agree, and Strauss does a superb job describing the problem. My favorite quote, "If you're going to take a dinosaur trip to purely watch monsters fighting, be kind to yourself, go to your man cave, and watch an episode of Jurassic Fight Club instead." Brilliant.


Each illustration is provided by Sergey Krasovisky, a rather underrated paleo-artist. Oddly, they decided to use his older work. Most of the ornithischian dinosaurs are drawn fairly accurate (he gets ceratopsid feet right!), save for a few hadrosaurs in the classic tail-dragging pose, but theropods don't get it as easy. A bulk of them are depicted with "bunny-hands," and those that should be feathered like Utahraptor, are not. The biggest problem? It contradicts Strauss' writing. The worst offender being Strauss spending an entire paragraph chastising Jurassic Park for having over-exaggerated, "lizards adorned with green scales instead of feathers" (direct quote) when describing Deinonychus, only for the illustration to be... a featherless raptor with green scales. Yup. I'm not kidding. (Even Krasovisky calls it a retro depiction on his DeviantArt! I know for a fact he has a newer, albeit under-feathered restoration of Deinonychus) A bit disappointing to see that they opted not to use Krasovisky's beautiful action shots, too. 

A happy looking Euoplocephalus

Prehistoric fauna such as Dimetrodon and Smilodon are given some of the spotlight. It's nice to see non-dinosaurs, but what was the point? It would make sense if a lot more non-dinosaurs were featured, but as is, they only make up 5-10% of the book. It just feels bizarre to throw in a few random mammoths in your dinosaur book; it just causes more confusion.

There's a pretty big flaw, and it's the price. For what it is, it's not cheap. Retail price goes for 22.95 US dollars. Essentially, what you're getting is a mini dinosaur encyclopedia with less writing than what looks say (the font is fairly large, and most profiles are two-pages long). The illustrations are nothing special. No landscapes. No action shots. At most, I'd think this should go for $15.


As a humorous book, it is a good read. Unfortunately, readers will learn very little from Strauss' book, and more often than not, will notice very obvious inaccuracies.If you're going to buy it, just remember that it most likely will not prove a reliable source. At least it covers its material far better than How to Keep Dinosaurs did.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Royal Tyrrell Museum: The Mammal Hall

The final epoch in the geologic time scale, the Tertiary period saw the rise of our ancestors, the mammals. It's often overlooked by the previous era, and I'll be one to admit that my knowledge on the Cenozoic isn't quite as "up-to-date" as it is on the Paleozoic and Mesozoic. Nonetheless, Cenozoic era animals are as equally interesting as any dinosaur...

...Such as this Pliohippus

As you've probably guessed by now, Pliohippus was a close relative of the modern horse. Now for something a little more bizarre, Uintatherium! Life-sized, too!

What a skull! It's no surprise Entelodonts are nicknamed "terminator pigs." 

Two Megacerops (Brontotherium) locked in combat.

The grand display is the mount of a Woolly Mammoth, defending itself from an onslaught of Smilodon. The sense of scale it conveys is impressive, and there's a moment where it feels like you're actually there.

There's a scale that lets you find out how your weight compares to modern mammals. I managed to be as heavy as a deer (150 lbs). Maybe I ought to go on a diet!

In total, the museum took about three hours to tour thoroughly. The Royal Tyrrell Museum has remained a major research center for paleontology, and justifiably so. If you plan a trip to Alberta, or already live in the area, I highly recommend taking a visit. Even the trip there is worth it (which I will be covering in a later post)!

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Review: A Field Guide to Dinosaurs

Paleo-fiction that aims to create interpretations of the Mesozoic world are, surprisingly, quite rare to find. It's always a treat when a daring author decides to bring something to the table. In this case, paleontologist/science writer Henry Gee, along with inventive paleoartist Luis Rey, have delivered a dazzling "new" (quite old by the time of this review) book, A Field Guide to Dinosaurs. The result is more than satisfactory.

Main cover. 

The most important thing to remember in regards to this book is that it is a work of fiction. Of course, what's science-fiction without factual elements? Quoting Gee, "All good fiction is enriched by factual research, and we have used the latest paleontological findings as jumping-off points for speculations that are (we hope) sufficiently plausible to convey the experience of dinosaurs as flesh and blood creatures." With all that being said, the introduction does give a basic summary of the science behind paleontology; it is both informative and perfect for the beginner dinosaur-enthusiast.

Once the reader reaches the dinosaur profiles does it become apparent that the field guide is purely fictional. There's dozens of speculations about each dinosaur, and I absolutely love it. A fair share of them are based on actual paleontological theories - such as Zuniceratops being depicted as an opportunistic omnivore, scavenging dinosaur carcasses if need be (based on the idea that ceratopsians sported beaks developed for snapping meat off bones). Most are based on behavioral attributes with modern fauna. For example, Muttaburasaurus is said to have bitten the legs off pterosaur chicks as a way to gain calcium. The thought of it is grotesque, but deer today have been observed devouring birds, making the theory a bit less far-fetched then it initially appeared.

Sexual dimorphism in theropods? One of the many questions raised by Gee.

A majority of the illustrations provided in the book are pencil sketches (by Luis Rey), much like a real field guide. The pencil sketches offer great drawing references, adding another reason one should be encouraged to pick up this book. I know I have benefited greatly from the drawings.

The artist, Luis Rey, has garnered a big reputation in the paleo-community; mostly positive, though some negative. His more recent digital illustrations seem a little sub-par then what we've been used to, but fret not! For many of his older illustrations have been chosen for the book.

Two Lilensternus harass a Scelidosaurus (misidentified as a Scutellosaurus - which in reality was a small, bipedal armored dinosaur from Arizona)

There are plenty of full-color illustrations as well. Many are from Thomas Holtz's Dinosaur Encyclopedia, published in 2007, which may be a slight turnoff for those who already have Holtz's book.

Eoraptor (the image is included in Holtz's book as well)

Ceratosaurus - I suspect that this image was created for the publication of this book, as it seems unfamiliar

Quite possibly, one of the greatest benefits the book has are the dinosaur skeletals included on every page. One would think a dinosaur book should have skeleton illustrations, yet it's astonishing to see that so many don't

Skeletals for Tyrannosaurus and Brachiosaurus, respectively 

 It's books like these that show the world's appetite for dinosaurs. Being able to take scientific information, and to use it to create entertaining and unique speculations draw in enthusiastic readers. A Field Guide to Dinosaurs does exactly that; achieving its goal of being a text version of  Walking With Dinosaurs. Even better, it is able to make the distinction between fact and fiction. At 24.99$ US dollars, (it is almost certain you can get it cheaper) it's worth every penny.