Introduction to Paleobiology and the Fossil Record by Benton Michael J., Harper David A.T. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2009. No. of pages: xii + 592. ISBN 978-1-4051-4157-4 (paperback)


As soon as I received a copy of this book, I found myself irresistibly flicking through the pages, and dipping into the attractive figures, plates and fascinating ‘double chilly’ hot topic text boxes. My first reaction was ‘if only I had had a book like this when I was a student!’ On revealing this to the book review editor, he said he had a similar experience when he first saw Clarkson's Invertebrate Palaeontology and Evolution, and I feel Introduction to Paleobiology and the Fossil Record will have the same popularity, impact and longevity. This book, however, is much more ambitious in its aims and, in short, provides an introduction to everything anyone needs to know about modern palaeontology from taxonomy through to the synthesis of this with the myriad of other scientific methods that have been applied to fossils.

Benton and Harper's book begins with an excellent introduction to the history of science and palaeontology, including its origins, aspirations and development over the past 500 years. The rest of the book is divided into chapters describing the diverse approaches to palaeontology, the broad applications of fossils in modern science and broad taxonomic descriptions. This approach provides the context of modern palaeontology accurately whilst covering all the major divisions of palaeontological research in a concise manner.

Each chapter starts with key points that summarise the ‘take home’ message. The chapters are then broken down into smaller sections consisting of only a few paragraphs which address specific aspects relevant to the subject. This breakdown might have made for a fragmented read; however, the subdivisions have been cleverly edited and one can seamlessly read through section after section without losing the thread. Although each section within a chapter is not referred to relevant literature, sufficient referencing exists to enable the enquiring reader to further explore any topic mentioned. Particularly interesting parts of the chapters are beautifully expanded with the intelligent use of text boxes. These are not just descriptions or case studies, but include ongoing discussions, contemporary research and the explanations of the methods used in the main body of text, such as statistical analyses and cladistics. This innovative approach delivers the information in bite-sized chunks (a benefit for our modern sound-bite society) and clearly makes the key points.

The authors also make effective use of the internet by directing interested readers to relevant web sites and on-line resources that provide further information, implementation of methods, ongoing research, activities, cases studies and teaching resources. This multifaceted addition to the book's published text is well done, and actually greatly increases the accessibility and appeal of the subjects concerned. That said, perhaps the only major criticism of this work is that not all the on-line material referred to is accessible as links are sometimes broken or material is missing.

The illustrations used are large, clear, informative and attractive, but mostly recycled from pre-existing literature. However, far from being a hindrance they actually provide a clear picture of the collaborative nature of this project and indeed reflects that of palaeontological science itself. This collaborative feel is further enhanced by the inclusion of personal touches such as including anecdotes, stories and the names of the main protagonists that have and continue to shape palaeontological science. This makes for a more intimate description of the subject which can, all too often, become dry and devoid of human character (although I don't know what Dr Emily Rayfield thinks about her PhD being labelled a ‘dream’!). It also acts as an excellent foil to the continued and over-exposed reporting of conflicts between scientists by the popular media.

The detail and predominant inclusion of contemporary work in this book is testament to both authors' depth and breadth of knowledge, and reflects their positions as authorities in palaeontology. Books of this sort may be biased with respect to the authors' fields of expertise; however, this is not the case here. The authoritativeness is certainly reflected in the tone of book's narrative and makes for a very reassuring feeling that ‘one is now up to date’. The shear scope of the book is a marvel. The easily accessible English which has been employed by the authors makes this book a sure-fire hit for anyone with a basic grasp of palaeontology and who needs to acquire an authoritative overview of the seemingly disparate parts of the subject. Introduction to Paleobiology and the Fossil Records is therefore perfect for undergraduate and postgraduate students of palaeontology; however, it will also endear it to anybody with a palaeontological background or interest. It is an outstanding contribution and in my opinion a must for all.