Dinosaurs are a perennial favourite of the public and scientists alike, but in spite of high levels of interest, and vast numbers of popular accounts written for a variety of readers, relatively few textbooks have been written about these charismatic animals. This is particularly surprising given the popularity of undergraduate dinosaur courses, particularly in the USA, where classroom-based teaching is commonly designed around a core text. This new book is a welcome addition to the small selection available for teaching such courses and, in my view, is currently the best on the market.
The author is a prolific early career researcher, an expert on carnivorous dinosaurs and evolutionary patterns, who has already made a number of substantial contributions to the subject. His position close to the cutting-edge of the subject means that he is very familiar with the new analytical techniques that are starting to become standard in the field and with up-to-the-minute opinions on current controversies. These range from descriptions of the use of CT data in helping to interpret details of dinosaur biology (such as hearing and brain power), through to discussions of dinosaur extinction and diversification that are based on rigorous statistical analysis of large datasets. In general, the text is clearly and fluently written, and is well-suited to a primarily undergraduate (or knowledgeable amateur) audience.
The book provides broad overviews of all of the key questions that currently exercise the minds, hammers, CT scanners and computers of dinosaur palaeobiologists. It begins with an introduction to what dinosaurs are, where they fit in the tree of life and how they split into several lineages early in their history. This is then followed by a useful series of chapters that act as primers for the rest of the text, introducing the terminology of skeletal and soft tissues in a concise and useful way, and showing how we can use hard parts (and reconstructions of soft anatomy) to make reasonable inferences about dinosaur form and function. The core of the book is a set of more thematic chapters, each dealing with a particular aspect of dinosaur biology, including feeding, growth and locomotion, and it ends with an extended discussion of macroevolutionary patterns and processes (including extinction), as viewed from the dinosaur fossil record. The latter is particularly interesting and helps to illustrate the fact that dinosaurs were not merely ‘big, fierce, weird and dead’, but can also contribute to wider debates in evolutionary and macroecological theory. Interestingly, bird origins are dealt with throughout the text – they are rightly treated as just another group of dinosaurs – but it might have been useful to have provided a separate, longer discussion of bird evolution at some point in the book. Numerous references are made to the primary research literature and these are collated into a substantial bibliography. The text is illustrated with a large number of useful figures, as well as some very pretty colour plates.
This book will appeal primarily to undergraduates, and those that teach them, though it offers research summaries that will be helpful to more seasoned researchers wanting a quick overview of a particular area or to other palaeontologists who want an introduction to some aspects of dinosaur biology. The cost of the hardback version is staggeringly prohibitive, but the paperback (and Kindle) versions are competitively priced.