While the most popular dinosaurs have names like Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops few people know one of paleontology’s great secrets; the most numerous remains of a large vertebrates found in rocks of Mesozoic age carry the title “Chunkosaurus.” Scraps of bone that may be difficult to ascribe to a particular species are far more common than articulated skeletons, and nearly any find where the bones of an individual animal are found together in association is significant, indeed. Given the natural history of bone during fossilization it’s a wonder we have any remains of extinct creatures at all, and the rarity of well-preserved finds makes the discovery of “dinosaur mummies” all the more significant. Before images of sauropods wrapped in cloth and entombed in sarcophagi start running through anyone’s head, it should be pointed out that “dinosaur mummies” are specimens that have undergone exquisite preservation, most often imprints of the skin and even internal organs remaining visible in the rock. Fossils exhibiting such fine detail have been known for over 100 years, although it has only been recently that some of the most amazing finds have come to light. Of the most recent discoveries, the hadrosaur “Dakota” (discovered by Tyler Lyson in 1999) has been making headlines as of late, and the remains of this 67 million year old ornithischian provide the backbone for Phillip Manning’s new book Grave Secrets of Dinosaurs.
When I first heard the news about the discovery of “Dakota,” I was certainly excited that another hadrosaur “mummy” had been found. Given that press releases often precede scientific papers in major journals like Science and Nature, I was expecting to see a peer-reviewed article full of reconstructions and detailed images soon after the story broke. Yet no such paper came out. Instead a popular book, the subject of this review, was slated to hit bookstores in January, so I quickly wrote to the publisher to get a review copy. What I received was little more than a 300-page press release. Sporting only one image of the actual fossil and no details as to the name of the actual species to which “Dakota” belongs, I read through each page hoping to find some finer detail about the fossil. I would find nothing more than what I had already gleaned from popular reports, but the last portion of the book made the reason for the absence of the data somewhat clearer.
The first section of the book deals primarily with the basics of fossilization and various sorts of fine preservation (from actual Egyptian mummies to the remains of mammoths in Siberia), the story of “Dakota” not beginning until about 1/3 of the way through the work. The background information about how Manning got involved with the project, worries during the excavation, and the problems with trying to scan the slab that contained much of the fossil remains of the animal (weighting several tons) are interesting and entertaining, and the little tidbits of detail about the fossil itself are enough to keep the reader moving forward. Ultimately, however, Manning closes his book with a plea for more funding to continue his work on the dinosaur. It seems that the project has gone beyond the original schedule and money has started to run thin, so in order for further work to be carried out on “Dakota” some benefactors will have to be found. Still, it is difficult for me to understand why details about this fossil (even just a paper identifying the species, as it seems that this animal might represent a new variety of hadrosaur) were not published in a peer-reviewed journal first. The fact that they were not means that whatever Manning chose to put in the book would have had priority and would have caused a number of problems, so mum’s the word about “Dakota,” it seems.
Likewise, the fact that the book does not contain a bibliography or an index is simply unacceptable. The book was put together in a short amount of time and seems to have been rushed into print, and I was uncomfortable with the work of other researchers being mentioned without any citation or reference (i.e. Manning cites the work of Adrienne Mayor several times, yet not even her name is mentioned). Being that no paper has yet come to the surface about this dinosaur it’s difficult for me to understand what the rush was, and the book was simply put out before it was truly finished.
Grave Secrets of Dinosaurs is not a bad book; it is clearly written and the sections dealing with the excavation of “Dakota” are entertaining, but in the end it seems to have been churned out to stir up more publicity and funding than to illuminate whatever “secrets” the dinosaur might hold. Perhaps at some future date the details I have been craving will be provided, but until that time I would say that it might be a good idea to pass on Grave Secrets of Dinosaurs.
[A review copy of this book was provided for me by National Geographic.]