Saturday, September 16, 2017

Book Review: the classic Prehistoric Animals

Prehistoric Animals
text by Joseph Augusta, illustrated by Zdenek Burian. Translated by Greta Hort. Spring Books, London. 
(Reviewed edition is 1963: numerous versions and reprints exist.).

Cover (1967 edition)

While much of the knowledge in this book is outdated, its influence and the excellence of the writing and illustrations using the information available in 1963 merit the five-star rating. This work enthralled a generation of professional, student, and public readers. Dr. Augusta's text, in this translation from the Czech by Dr. Greta Hort, is clear and informative, although a little dry in spots. He takes his topic from the beginnings of life and provides the full picture: the algae and the gymnosperms and all the other creatures that were such essential links in the evolutionary chain get their moments here. The book is called Prehistoric Animals, but the animals really don't take center stage until page 29 of the 47-page main text. He considers my favorites, the placoderms, "the oldest and most important" of the fishes of the Devonian in an evolutionary sense. He believed all other fishes descended from the placoderms, a point still being energetically debated in 2017. After a run through the animals, we get to the 60 plates, many in color, by the great Zdenek Burian. Starting with the eye-dazzling color plates to the Cambrian and Silurian Seas, on through incredible, photorealistic depictions of early fishes (Dunkleosteus, called by the old name Dinichthys, is wonderfully alive and fearsome even though the fins are, I argue, too small to control this huge, active predator). He presents the dinosaurs (in the old tail-dragging postures) and then addresses mammals like smilodon and the ground sloths (the primitive horses are a high point in a section that's nearly all high points) and finishes with the cave bear Ursus spelaeus.

Looking at the book today, the upright therapods and nearly-submerged sauropods remind us how much paleontology has advanced. This is a snapshot of the science, taken in a time of growth and change hampered somewhat by fixed ideas. But it's a gorgeous snapshot: once you've paged through it, it's as memorable as the dinosaurs and other creatures themselves.

My copy, obtained used online, is a very fragile one, browning at the edges and clearly well-thumbed.  I don't expect to use it much as a reference, but it's a book so stunning and influential, despite the short text, that it's a book you just want to HAVE if you're a paleontology fancier.  Get it any way you can.  


Nathan said...

I remember that book! Great review.

Matt Bille said...

It is, isn't it?