Darren Naish and Paul BarrettSmithsonian, 2016: 224pp.
Naish, a paleozoologist, and Barrett, a paleontologist, have given us an altogether splendid treatment of what, as of just a couple of years ago (this business changes fast, especially regarding feathers) we know about dinosaurs. This isn’t a competitor to Steve Brussate’s 2018 The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, with which it will often be compared: rather, these books are complementary.
Where Brusatte presented a highly readable story, beginning to end, Naish and Barrett dig (literally) into the meat and bones of dinosaur evolution. Barrett’s book chronicles what happened, mixed with discovery stories and asides on the science: Naish and Barrett tell why and how it happened. Dinosaurs starts with an overview chapter, then goes into the complexities of the family trees, then chapters on anatomy and on biology, ecology, and behavior. They provide a fascinating chapter on the origin of birds and how they survived and thrived up to the present day, showing what we know of Mesozoic-era birds and what features survived into the birds of today. Birds also offer clues we can trace back to look at dinosaurs: those sluggish reptiles we saw in our childhood books can in part be blamed on an overreliance on modern reptiles as the models. These two scientists draw on both models, as appropriate, as they make clear how countless dinosaur features, from feathers to femurs, evolved and worked.
The book is sumptuously illustrated, drawing heavily for photos on the collection of the Natural History in London but including vivid artistic depictions. Clear line drawings explain the anatomical features and how researchers have figured them out (or, in some cases, why they are still puzzling.) Another valuable bit is the authors' ability to explain how we know so much from fossils, what kind of clues (like tooth wear demonstrating feeding habits) we can get through traditional and modern exam techniques.
American readers need not fear the British authors have slighted our favorite dinos: Triceratops and T. rex and the other North American denizens of the Mesozoic, especially the Cretaceous, get full treatment here. The authors close with a thorough examination of the extinction event and the aftermath.
The authors get just a little too dry in spots for this nonscientist dino aficionado, and the structure of the book lends itself to too many “we will look in detail at this later” statements. These are quibbles, though. If you hand this book and Brusatte’s to your favorite dino-lover, you’re not going to see that person again for a week.