Sunday, November 29, 2015
Review: The Story of Life in 25 Fossils
I'm almost through reading Donald R. Prothero's The Story of Life in 25 Fossils. It's a genuinely excellent book, focusing mostly on the key transition fossils between groups but also including some crowd-pleasers like T.rex. He includes very well-written accounts of the human beings, like Mary Anning, who did so much to bring the past to life. For the cryptozoologists, he takes a swipe at Loch Ness (a bit too harsh on the witnesses, but his scientific points are valid) and another at the supposed African sauropod mokele-mbembe (again, right on the science, harsh on the people), He visits the endlessly interesting question of how big certain animals, like everyone's favorite giant shark C. megalodon, got to be. He is very insistent that the maximum sizes accorded in popular media are exaggerated, sometimes hugely: examples include pliosaurs, plesiosaurs (except for the long-necked elasmosaurs, he doubts any marine reptiles exceeded 13m), and fishes like Leedsichthys, which was once accorded a length over 25m but now seems about a third that size, placing Meg as the largest fish of any type ever in his reckoning. He does not include gigantopithecus, which I thought should be here on account of its displaying the size limit for primates, but there's plenty in this book for the paleontologist, the cryptozooloogist, and the general enthusiast of all things zoological. The section of fossils, presented in timeline order, explains how each major group we know today (and some no longer with us) evolved, and how strong the transitional fossil record is - half-turtles, half-snakes, half-plesiosaurs, etc. abound in these well-illustrated pages. Everyone, even those of us laypeople who think ourselves well-read, will learn a few things: I didn't realize that the idea of feathers as modified scales had a competing theory.
A few nitpicks: the icthyosauyrs certainly did not have a speed limit of 1.2 km an hour - some kind of misprint there. And Loch Ness was searched by sonar, not radar - a very different thing. When talking of sauropods, he doesn't address the recent attempt to resurrect Brontosaurus as a proper name.
This is a great Christmas present for any natural-history lover on your list.