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a paean to dino-love

by Donald Prothero, Jul 03 2013

A Review of My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs

by Brian Switek
(Scientific American/Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 256 pp., 2013)

The dino-bug is now pervasive in American culture, so that kids between the ages of 4 and 12 are nearly all bitten by it. Most kids can name dozens of those tongue-twisting dinosaur names, and are full of all sorts of dino-trivia and tidbits. Dino-mania is a huge business, with millions of dollars being made in marketing books, toys, geegaws, and all sorts of dino-paraphernalia (none of that money, by the way, goes to support paleontology or dinosaur research). It was not always so: when I grew up in the 1950s, there was very little interest in dinosaurs, very few decent books or toys, and I was considered a freak in my elementary school because I knew so much about prehistoric life.

However, when those hormones kick in and the teen years begin, most kids lose their interest in dinosaurs or science, and move to interests in the opposite sex, along with being cool and hip to the trappings of teen culture. Some, like myself and most vertebrate paleontologists I know, never outgrow our love of dinosaurs, and were determined to become paleontologists. Most did not survive the brutal job market, where fewer than 20% of the Ph.D.s in paleontology get any kind of job remotely related to their training (mostly teaching in small colleges, or in medical school anatomy posts). Very few get to occupy the prime positions in the major museums and top universities (there are no more than 50 such jobs in the entire United States, and they are vanishing).

Brian Switek found a different path to parlaying his own childhood fascination with dinosaurs into a career. Instead of gambling on the glutted job market for Ph.D.s, Switek has become a successful free-lance science writer. His original blog Laelaps has now expanded into regular blogs and columns for Scientific American, Smithsonian, National Geographic, and other media that cater to popularizing science. His first book, Written in Stone, sold remarkably well for a layman’s introduction to the history of thought in paleontology and geology. But his new book, My Beloved Brontosaurus, does a wonderful job of explaining the latest research and thinking in dinosaur paleontology to a layman’s audience. Switek knows just enough of the technical side of paleontology to read and interpret the original research literature, yet he has never lost touch with thinking and writing at the popular level.

The overarching theme of the book is how much our understanding of dinosaurs has changed in just his own lifetime, from the slow, sluggish swamp-dwelling drab-colored cold-blooded reptiles of his youth (and of mine), to the “Dinosaur Renaissance” of the 1970s and 1980s. During that period, nearly all the old ideas about dinosaurs were demolished by new thinking, new specimens, and especially by new techniques to analyze specimens, from detailed bone histology to CAT scans of fossils, to deciphering ancient pathology, and so on. In each chapter, Switek explores a different major theme, such as why taxonomic name must change as new discoveries and interpretations are made. Thus, he explains why the name “Brontosaurus” hasn’t been valid since 1903, but is correctly called Apatosaurus; why Triceratops is not being abolished or sunk into Torosaurus (the reverse might be true); and why the “Velociraptor” of the Crichton books and Spielberg Jurassic Park movies is actually Deinonychus. He discusses the evidence of why birds are dinosaurs and why most dinosaurs much have had some sort of fuzzy downy covering, and some had full-fledged feathers. He goes over the stories behind the legendary dinosaur finds, such as the Cleveland-Lloyd Allosaurus quarry in central Utah, and the evidence for dinosaur sociality, predation, cannibalism, growth, behavior, and sex. He summarizes at a basic level what bone histology tells us not only about how dinosaurs grew, but whether they were male or female, and all sorts of other mysteries. He looks at the evidence gleaned from trackways, bite marks, diseased specimens, and many other recent discoveries of the past 30 years of dinosaur research, all explained clearly enough that any adult or high-schooler can understand it. He even tackles the controversial topic of the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous. Fortunately, he reflects the opinion of the vast majority of vertebrate paleontologists that the asteroid impact hypothesis is not the entire story, rather than going with the simplistic impact-only notion that most media present.

Most of his summaries of dino research is correctly interpreted and up-to-date. He spends a considerable number of pages talking about dinosaur physiology, but backs away from discussing the dinosaur endothermy controversy in much detail. I thought he could have explained the differences between endothermy vs. ectothermy, and homeothermy vs. poikilothermy without losing his audience. In particular, he doesn’t really delve into the implications of inertial homeothermy, or gigantothermy, which would give the largest dinosaurs (especially the large sauropods) high constant body temperature in a Mesozoic greenhouse climate without the need for endothermic physiology. In fact, as numerous paleophysiologists have pointed out, any dinosaur larger than an elephant almost certainly had to be ectothermic, because they had insufficient surface area compared to their huge body mass to dump excess heat that would be generated by endothermic burning of their food for energy.

All of these vignettes about dinosaur biology are wrapped in his own personal odyssey to understand them. They range from anecdotes about tagging along with all sorts of paleontological expeditions to help find more specimens and learn about their world, to stories from his childhood about what he once believed has been overturned by the new evidence. In fact, he has put his money where his mouth is: he and his wife moved from their boring jobs and their childhood homes in New Jersey to Utah, where they can be closer to the major dinosaur-bearing beds and join expeditions more easily, and volunteer at the museum in Salt Lake City in their spare time. Indeed, such is the nature of free-lance writing and blogging these days that you don’t need to be affiliated with a major museum or work in major collections. You only need good wifi and access to on-line journals from a university research library and you can write almost anywhere. And you need to be talented, engaging writer, which Switek clearly is, and most other people are not.

In short, if you want to catch up with the latest ideas in dinosaur biology, Switek’s book is the best single source you can read. This applies to anyone, whether just as a casually interested reader, or the professional paleontologist who needs a quick summary of all the surprising new developments (all fully cited at the end) that we’re too busy to keep up with. The level of writing is a little advanced for the sub-teen crowd that still loves dinosaurs, but then they have lots of dinosaur books written at their level. This is the book for those of us who still are interested in dinosaurs after age 12.

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Rating: 4.5/5 (8 votes cast)
a paean to dino-love, 4.5 out of 5 based on 8 ratings

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3 Responses to “a paean to dino-love”

  1. Stephen H says:

    Wait, what? No brontosaurus? I appear to be a century behind the latest in dinosaur research. I will admit to being one of these people who is vaguely aware of dinosaurs but does not know anywhere near enough to be ignorant.

    One thing I would love is a clearer delineation of dinosaur eras. I realise it’s tough enough when some people want to think that humans lived alongside dinosaurs (I just stumbled across, which explains that the Rothschilds are hiding dinosaurs from us). But dinosaurs were around and evolving for a very long time, and there just isn’t enough decent material hitting the top of search results when I want to see which ones lived when, and whether Tyrannosaurus Rex actually did chow down on Triceratops. Actually, Wikipedia tells me it’s likely, but still doesn’t give me the pretty graphs.

    In other words, it sounds like I need this book just to catch up with the dinosaurs.

    • Actually, MOST American adults are way behind on dino research, not just because the fad for dinos among kids is relatively new, and they didn’t pay attention when THEY were kids, but also because what we know about dinosaurs has changed so much since the 1980s. I think you’ll like this book!

    • tony duncan says:

      I was quite into dinosaurs when I was in grade school in the 60′s, and I think I remember at least some other children my age, who were intellectually curious were too. it was not a FAD, but it was not a huge shock to adults that I knew about various different ones, and evolution, etc.
      What DID turn heads was my knowledge of Emma Goldman, Bukharin, and Trotsky at age 11. Of course spanning the two fields was Kropotkin. who I still consider to have important insights into evolution.
      I just found out about brontosaurus in the last 5-10 year. i assumed that apatosaurus was just a different genus.