As a dinosaur specialist I often get asked about Robert Mash’s 2003 book How to Keep Dinosaurs (Mash 2003). It seems that most people (usually those who haven’t read it) think that this book is good, or funny. Don’t get me wrong – I think a book dedicated to dinosaur husbandry is an excellent idea; the problem is that Mash didn’t do it well.
I should explain to begin with that How to Keep Dinosaurs is set on a parallel Earth where Mesozoic non-avian dinosaurs, pterosaurs and other ancient reptiles live alongside humans. A while back I reviewed How to Keep Dinosaurs for Fortean Times and, ever attempting to recycle old stuff, I post it here (the version here is a bit different from the published one, and I’ve augmented it in a few places)…
A manual on keeping dinosaurs? This book is of course meant to be just a bit of fun, so at the risk of sounding old and bitter, keep this in mind. Describing the husbandry of nearly 60 prehistoric reptiles (not all of them dinosaurs), Mash provides an insight into an alternative world where dinosaur keeping is all the rage and dinosaurs are bred for use as pets, safari exhibits or guard dogs, and are farmed for their meat and skin. Unfortunately, I don’t think his insight is a useful one. This could have been a really interesting experiment in the reconstruction of behaviour, and on whatever imaginary perils and pitfalls might befall any attempt to bring dinosaurs into the human world. But no, it’s just silly. The animals are not portrayed realistically, but as daft caricatures that perform to classical music, do silly dances, play cards and so on.
What also lets the book down are its illustrations. While some are vaguely amusing – they depict pet dinosaurs using litter trays and that sort of thing – the dinosaurs are awful: really, really awful…like, bloody awful*. I’m not just talking about the innumerable technical inaccuracies (numbers of toes and so on**), but the fact that the animals look like grotesque blurry chimaeras, their body parts and skin textures badly photo-shopped from iguanas and tortoises. There is also an annoying lack of consistency to the reconstructions. Little Microraptor and Incisivosaurus are shown (correctly) as fully feathered, so why then are their big cousins Deinonychus and Oviraptor shown (incorrectly) as scaly skinned? [adjacent image shows Will posing with a pet tyrannosaur. The tyrannosaur is only slightly more inaccurate than the ones depicted in How to Keep Dinosaurs].
* Piss-poor computer-generated images were used throughout the book. They were provided by an individual who has managed to get lots of his prehistoric animal images into popular books (I worked with him and his colleagues for the Dorling Kindersley Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs & Prehistoric Life). How he has been so successful is beyond me.
** Pterosaurs are shown hanging upside-down by their feet, sauropods have too many claws and hooves (there’s a ver 1 article on the subject of sauropod hand anatomy here), ornithomimids are shown with a hallux, hadrosaurs have sharp toe claws, etc. The problems are far from limited to technical minutiae: limbs are depicted bending in unrealistic poses, body shapes are ridiculously unnatural, etc.
While the author notes that the book is a practical manual rather than a taxonomic treatise, I nevertheless feel that some of the technical things should have been more up to date. Example: according to the classification scheme the author provides, two members of the group Carnosauria are covered in the book: Ceratosaurus and Tyrannosaurus. Errr, problem: neither of these are carnosaurs (Ceratosaurus is a neoceratosaur and Tyrannosaurus is a coelurosaur). There are lots of ‘in’ jokes relating to the places where dinosaurs can be purchased from, which companies sell them and why the dinosaurs have the names that they do. Seeing as few palaeontologists will read this book though, most of these jokes are going to be missed. You might like this book. I didn’t [adjacent pic shows an Edmontosaurus].
Anyway, there we have it. I gave How to Keep Dinosaurs 3 out of 10. Moving on… happy New Year everyone. Did I mention that it’s Year of the Frog? And having mentioned pterosaur reconstructions and so on, may I direct all you archosaur nerds to Dave Hone’s discussions on dinosaurs, pterosaurs and whatnot at the dinobase forum. It doesn’t have a snappy title (other than ‘Dave Hone’s Blog’), so from hereon I’m going to call it Dave’s Archosaurian Musings.
Coming next: titan hawks and monster pigeons, more on azhdarchoids, surreal caecilians.
Ref – –
Mash, R. 2003. How to Keep Dinosaurs. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.