‘Yet another book on dinosaurs?’, do I hear people say? Well, my thoughts exactly when I was sent this book for review. But, notwithstanding the fact that there is a lot on dinosaurs, this volume does do the ‘other extinct saurians’ pride and is, in fact, a bit of a mixed bag. The whole tome is full of mouth-watering details and forgotten stories, and makes for a very good read. Some chapters comprise a few pages only, others are much longer (up to almost 30 pages) and lavishly illustrated. As said, non-avian dinosaurs do figure prominently, but even in those chapters there is lots of information to be found for which you would be looking in vain in other works. Avian dinosaurs (birds, for short), pterosaurs, plesiosaurs and other marine reptiles are allowed to put an oar in as well. The main appeal, at least in my opinion, lies in the fact that every chapter is crammed full of detail. Data on the specimens themselves, often illustrated as well, but also on the people that studied, prepared and described them – some very famous, others long forgotten. I must admit that I had never heard of quite a number of those collectors and scholars of extinct saurians of many kinds. What about William Perceval Hunter (mainly Wealden dinosaurs, but he did a fair amount of travelling, too), Giovanni Capellini and Guillermo Schulz, who were instrumental in promoting vertebrate palaeontology in Italy and Spain?
Of course, I cannot do justice to all contributions here, which is why I wish to list those that I enjoyed most. The chapter on Alan J. Charig is a prime example of tribute paid by former colleagues and friends, and includes a range of fieldwork snapshots, group pictures and a full list of his scientific papers. Comparable is an extensive paper on the so-called Leeds Collection of marine and terrestrial reptiles from the Oxford Clay Formation; part of the title, ‘Old bones, dry subject’, is particularly aptly chosen. There are numerous, good quality, black and white pictures of bones, with original sketches alongside, and pertinent archive material is also enumerated: it is a genuine treasure trove. The chapter on ‘forgotten women’ heads off with Mary Anning (who else?), but also provides details of the lives of many other women in vertebrate palaeontology, either directly or indirectly (by marriage), including famous modern-day workers such as Joan Wiffen, Betsy Nicholls and Halszka Osmólska, who all sadly died in recent years.
As the editors point out in the introductory chapter, British material (e.g., Wealden Group taxa, Yorkshire dinosaur footprints) is central in this tome, but it is good to see that dinosaurs from India (featuring Charles A. Matley) and North Africa are not forgotten. The tale on spinosaurids avant la lettre nicely illustrates how wide ranging the former interpretations of isolated bones actually were. The remaining chapters offer a wide range of subjects, all historical in nature (of course), going from birds (Archaeopteryx; the reptile/bird transition and Thomas Huxley's stance on this), pterosaurs and the iconography of dinosaurs (films, comics and their impact on the public's perception), and back to the theme of sauropod dinosaurs. Five stages have been recognised in the research activities of these colossal animals; a very neat overview indeed, strongly recommended for usage in classroom and lecture theatre alike.
In all, printing quality is good, with tight editorial control, but some of the diagrams are simply too small (e.g., fig. 1 on p. 230), while other illustrations (e.g., maps) lose their clarity in black/white (e.g., fig. 1 on p. 190), are too fuzzy or lack focus. But, such are the exceptions and I strongly advise anyone interested in those early days of vertebrate (reptilian) palaeontology to make sure to obtain a copy for themselves. I, for one, was pleased to see that the rendition of the looting of the second mosasaur skull from Maastricht by the French revolutionary armies in 1794 (not 1795) was based on the most recent accounts of this fact.