They say you never forget your first Dinosaur book. Mine was the How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs: a gift from my uncle Lewis with a picture on the front depicting Apatosaurus wading through a Jurassic swamp to escape the dastardly Allosaurus on the shore. Overhead flew the token pterosaur – these are equal opportunities skies after all. In the background rumbled the archetypal volcano. So frequently did that volcano appear in scenes like this, you could be forgiven for thinking that Pangaea was about the size of Kent.
Despite its sluggish tableaux it was enough to inspire four-year-old me more than the comparatively accurate and dynamic How and Why Wonder Book of Prehistoric Mammals. That was in 1982. My first Dinosaur book was already ten years out of date.
Four years on saw the release of Robert Bakker’s Dinosaur Heresies: the picture on the cover and the ink sketches within showed a very different prehistoric world. A world where large extinct animals could be successful, active, even intelligent. Billy Connolly describes the emergence of Rock and Roll from a musical world of Pink and Blue Toothbrushes in very similar fashion. It was at this point I realised that, while the Dinosaurs themselves are dead, frozen in time, our understanding of them is not.
I would love to do a study of the ages of palaeontological experts and enthusiasts: cross reference the dates of their formative years against the release dates of all popular books/documentaries/films on prehistoric subjects and see if a pattern emerges. I’m sure there would be key publications that really hit home for certain generations.
For this reason I can’t wait to meet the future generation of palaeo people who preserved that almost obligatory childhood fascination with Dinosaurs into their adult life because of the new book that just came out.
The book I am referring to is, of course, the eagerly anticipated “All Yesterdays, unique and speculative views of Dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals”, by Darren Naish, John Conway and C.M. Kosemen.
The entire concept of the book is about appreciating the absurdity of living animals and recognising that extinct animals may be equally absurd. Until now I’ve been looking at restorations in terms of parsimony: how can I hedge my bets to have the greatest odds of being right about the restoration? What I like about this book is that it doesn’t fly in the face of parsimony, it just demands a shift in perspective: If 100% of living animals look nothing like a shrink-wrapped skeleton, you will be wrong 100% of the time depicting them this way – even if you’re 100% right about the skeleton. All Yesterdays doesn’t throw out the rule book: every reconstruction can fit a skeleton inside; every reconstruction has the known integument – where it is known.
My proper review of it will have to wait, as I have the worst luck: first I arrived at the launch without visiting a cashpoint; next I had exactly £21.12 on me and the book cost £22; lastly, the book sold out before I could even contemplate going to the cashpoint. I’m putting it on my Christmas list, wish me luck; but let’s talk a little about the lecture.
The lecture was held in Conway Hall, home to the Humanist Library and Archives near Holborn.
Darren Naish, of Tetrapod Zoology fame, gave a talk on the history of palaeoart – from the early pioneers of the 19th Century: such as Cuvier; Osborne; and Hawkins, who paved the way for the public concept of dead prehistoric animals as once-living organisms, to later heroes of the 20th Century: Charles Knight; and Zdeñek Burian, who taught that an artist must know his anatomy before he can breathe life into the extinct. Often with hindsight we are tempted to judge Knight for the seeming disparity between his faithful reproductions of extinct mammals and his less-than accurate Dinosaurs. We cannot take him out of context this way however.
Darren Naish spoke about the unenviable field of palaeoart at the moment: how demand for quickly produced, popular images has never been higher, while the amount publishers are willing to pay has fallen through the floor. He spoke of a need to impress upon science advisors of books that they are advising the images as well as the text.
John Conway addressed the history of the reconstruction of a single species: Velociraptor mongoliensis. He discussed the journey from phylogenetic lumping to phylogenetic bracketing, and the unveiling of feather-like integument in numerous species. We started with an idea that pterosaur “fuzziness” and bird feathers evolved separately but now we’re not so sure: proto-feathers have been found in some of the oldest Dinosaur lineages, and Pterosaurs split off from the Archosaur branch just before the earliest Dinosaurs. Particularly prevalent is feathery evidence in the Maniraptors, the group to which Velociraptor belongs. So now we have evidence of feathers either side of Velociraptor, what about evidence for feathers on Velociraptor itself?
Large feather quills leave marks on the bone. Even without a good body impression, we can tell from the bones that Velociraptor sported 6 primaries on each fore-arm. That’s awesome, I can’t wait ’til more fore-arms are examined in this way & we can start counting plumage on other species only known from skeletons.
C. M. Kosemen spoke of the importance of differentiating between the condition of the dead specimen and its condition when alive. He demonstrated this beautifully with a photograph of the ‘Montauk Monster’: a decayed raccoon which looks like a bit like a gryphon. Also cited was a hominid with features squashed by sedimentary pressure.
I understand there will be a recording of this lecture online soon, so look out for that. In the meantime, check out the other write-ups: