As you’ll know if you have your fingers on the throbbing pulse of dinosaur-related publications, the massive, incredibly pricey volume published by the Geological Society of London, and resulting from the 2008 meeting History of Dinosaurs and Other Fossil Saurians, now exists in dead-tree form. It’s titled Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective and (in my totally unbiased opinion) is a definite must-see* for anyone interested in the historical side of Mesozoic reptile research. Here are thoughts and comments on some of the contents.
* I initially wrote ‘must have’, but then remembered the price.
The 394-page book features 21 technical papers: most are on dinosaur research but three are devoted to pterosaurs, several include data on Mesozoic marine reptiles, and one discusses changing interpretations of Middle Triassic environments (Bowden et al. 2010). Some are on general aspects of Mesozoic vertebrate study: Mark Evans’s paper is a detailed look at how museum collections have been essential in our developing view of Mesozoic reptile diversity, while Susan Turner and colleagues review the role of female collectors, amateurs and scientists. I will point out upfront that I was one of the four editors who helped put the volume together, I have two articles in the volume, and I helped organise the meeting that preceded the volume… ha, an interesting story in itself that took some years off my life (why why why do we do all this work…. for free!) [image below shows Conybeare's 1824 reconstructions of Ichthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus: the first ever reconstructions of these animals. From Evans (2010)].
Several of the papers are biographical, including those on early dinosaur worker William Perceval Hunter, Italian polyglot Giovanni Capellini, and Spanish mining engineer Wilhelm (Guillermo) Schulz. Needless to say, these articles include hitherto unpublicised data on the fossil reptiles that these people wrote about.
Alan Charig, alas poor Mandasuchus and the 19th century discovery of Baryonyx
I contributed two articles to the volume: the first (co-written with Dick Moody) is biographical and concerns the scientific contributions of Alan J. Charig, former head of department at the Natural History Museum in London. Quite a lot of material is covered in this article (Moody & Naish 2010): there’s discussion of Charig’s work on theropods (particularly Baryonyx), ornithischians, pterosaurs, crurotarsans (how I hate the term pseudosuchian), plesiosaurs, amphisbaenians, the “Archaeopteryx is a fake” affair, and on general aspects of Mesozoic palaeobiogeography, cladistics, phylogeny and extinction. Charig wrote about dinosaurs during and after the dinosaur renaissance and did a lot of what we would today consider ‘public outreach’.
What makes Charig particularly interesting is that he can perhaps be considered as among the last of the ‘old guard’: he argued against many of the new ideas of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and (at times, at least) continued to argue for various ‘traditional’ ideas (like dinosaur polyphyly and a non-dinosaurian origin for birds). His promotion of the idea that archosaurs came in ‘sprawling’, ‘semi-improved’ and ‘fully improved’ versions was partly contingent on his interpretation of rauisuchian-grade taxa as ancestral to dinosaurs: the realisation that such animals were not part of dinosaur ancestry might, then, explain why Charig never did get around to publishing his description of the Tanzanian prestosuchid Mandasuchus (Moody & Naish 2010).
While Charig never did publish full descriptions of Mandasuchus and various others of the archosaurs he worked on, he certainly didn’t hesitate to discuss them in his popular books. Among these is his 1979 A New Look at the Dinosaurs: to be honest, I always found it rather boring, but it was highly influential, generally well received, and featured Peter Snowball’s very attractive double-page colour scenes. Snowball’s paintings were reproduced on postcards and posters that you could buy at the NHM; a formative part of my experience of the NHM as a child. And while on the subject of early influences, I have to mention the Brooke Bond tea card series of 1971 – Prehistoric Animals – that Charig was involved in (he wrote the text). Maurice Wilson did the illustrations: these were among the first reconstructions of prehistoric animals I ever paid attention to [Wilson's rather nondescript Mandasuchus is shown above. I never could figure out what it was eating].
Moving on, Eric Buffetaut’s long-awaited paper on early spinosaurid finds demonstrates that Baryonyx was known to Cuvier and Mantell, though only by way of one or two isolated teeth. Naturally, these teeth were misidentified as those of crocodilians, and in 1841 they were named Suchosaurus cultridens by Richard Owen. So Baryonyx wasn’t really brand-new when ‘discovered’ in 1983: we’d actually known about since about 1820. If Suchosaurus cultridens is the same thing as Baryonyx, why doesn’t the latter become a junior synonym? One reason is that those teeth aren’t definitely those of Baryonyx (for one thing, they’re somewhat older than the type skeleton of B. walkeri); another is that the type material attached to the name Baryonyx (viz, that substantial skeleton discovered in 1983) is clearly very much superior to those early, isolated teeth (Buffetaut 2010). Note that baryonychines are not the only spinosaurids known from the European fossil record: teeth indicate that spinosaurines might have been present too (Sánchez-Hernández et al. 2007).
My second article in the volume – ‘Pneumaticity, the early years’ – looks at early ideas on saurischian pneumaticity (Naish 2010). Here we find another instance of me deciding that a blog article is good enough to be worth publishing properly: the sauropod text incorporated into this article originated as the SV-POW! article here (the published version is, of course, augmented and contains illustrations and text not present in the SV-POW! prototype).
The volume is also a big deal in that it includes what I believe to be Brian Switek’s first contribution to the technical literature: ‘Thomas Henry Huxley and the reptile to bird transition’ (Switek 2010). It’s common knowledge (well, it is among people interested in this sort of thing) that Huxley proposed a derivation of birds from among Mesozoic dinosaurs [Huxley shown here, from wikipedia. I deliberately chose a picture where he's young (21): it seems to be little realised that famous 19th century scientists did not spend their entire lives as old men].
In fact, Huxley’s take on this subject was far more complex: while he definitely posited a link between such animals as Hypsilophodon, Compsognathus and birds, and while he stated that the bones of Cretaceous dinosaurs would have been “unhesitatingly referred to Aves” if found in recent sediments, he doesn’t seem to have made any of the very precise statements about birds and other dinosaurs that have sometimes been attributed to him; a better argument might be that he regarded birds and dinosaurs as sharing a common ancestry (Witmer 1991, Switek 2010). Anyway – congrats Brian!
You all know that Brian’s book – Written in Stone – came out this year, right? Wow, how the hell did you organise all that publicity, Brian? I’ve done a few books through august, media-savvy publishers (e.g., Walking With Dinosaurs: The Evidence, BBC, 2001 and The Great Dinosaur Discoveries, University Californian Press/A&C Black, 2009), and have never had anywhere near that sort of interest. Maybe I’m doing something wrong.
To popular culture!
One of my favourite articles in the book is Jeff Liston’s ‘2000 A.D. and the new ‘Flesh’: first to report the dinosaur renaissance in ‘moving’ pictures’ (Liston 2010). The main point made here is that the British comic 2000 A.D. was, as you might have worked out from the article’s title, among the earliest outlets of ‘mainstream’ media to feature various of the ideas promoted by the dinosaur renaissance.
The ‘Flesh’ story, published in 1976, featured furry, cold-climate theropods, fully terrestrial sauropods, agile dromaeosaurs and herding ornithischians (people are going back in time to harvest dinosaur meat… and let’s just say that it doesn’t end all that well for the humans) [those cold-climate theropods - and spinosaurs inspired by a Giovanni Caselli painting - are shown below in a panel from the story. Flesh © 2010 Rebellion A/S. All rights reserved]. While nowhere are the dinosaurs anthropomorphised or said or implied to be unusually intelligent, they’re social animals that engage in a few fairly sophisticated behavioural rituals. Many of the animals featured in ‘Flesh’ were based on Giovanni Caselli’s illustrations from Beverley Halstead’s 1975 The Evolution and Ecology of the Dinosaurs [shown here]. Here’s one of the reasons why this whole episode is of such interest to me: Halstead’s book was the second dinosaur book I ever owned and, like that Brooke Bond volume penned by Charig, was hugely influential to my young self (I know I’ve said this before, sorry).
So ‘Flesh’ post-dated Bakker’s ‘Dinosaur renaissance’ article of 1975, but pre-dated Ostrom’s National Geographic piece of 1978: as such it was one of several ‘mass communicators’ that rapidly spread the message of the dinosaur renaissance to a new audience (Liston 2010). Indeed, worth noting is that people involved in the writing and illustrating of comics and comic strips have often been on-the-ball when it comes to the representation of dinosaurs. I’d hardly be the first to point out that Bill Watterson, for example, very much knows what he’s doing. You might wonder why ‘Flesh’ has not been mentioned more frequently in these post-Isla Nublar days; it was heavily inspired by Crichton’s West World, and included at its core an environmentalist message.
Incidentally, Jeff’s article – which is virtually unique in the volume – does make me wish that I’d also produced an article looking at depictions of dinosaurs in the popular literature. Maybe I should have written up something on that ‘historical meme’ subject I’ve covered here several times (see links below). Alas, competing pressures conspired against the fruition of such a noble idea. Jeff was interviewed about his article over on Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings.
In yet other papers, Kasper Hansen reviews the history of changing ideas on manual digit homology in dinosaurs, Peter Wellnhofer provides a brief review on research on the affinities of Archaeopteryx, and Matthew Carrano and colleagues review the history of dinosaur collecting in India between the 1820s and 1950s. Michael P. Taylor’s historical review of sauropod research is concise, comprehensive and should prove a useful introduction to the sauropod literature (see the links here – including to a pdf of the paper itself – on SV-POW!) [the composite of Charles Knight sauropods below is from Taylor (2010)]. Leslie Noè and colleagues’ review of the Alfred Leeds collection of Oxford Clay and Kellaways Formation dinosaurs is most welcome, as few prior sources have combined historical reviews of the collection with data on the dinosaur fossils themselves.
The several pterosaur papers are great: Attila Ősi and colleagues provide new information on three specimens housed in Hungarian collections (one of which is the supposedly lost holotype of Pterodactylus micronyx), David Martill reviews the early history of pterosaur discoveries in Britain, and Mark Witton reviews the history of giant pterosaurs from 1870 to the present.
As I hope is clear from this summary, Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective is a very impressive, attractive volume, undoubtedly of great interest to anyone seriously into the history of Mesozoic reptile research. In fact, I think I’d go as far as saying that it’ll be absolutely essential reading to anyone who works in this field. I like a great many of the papers included in the book and am pleased to see so much information – much of it entirely new – being brought together on the same subject. As I said above, I wish I’d been able to submit some additional articles to the volume, but you can’t have everything. You can order the book from here on The Geological Society site, and it’s here on amazon and here on amazon.co.uk. I’ve mentioned the price a few times; it’s £95/US$190 (less if you’re a Geological Society member). No comment.
One final note. 2010 is nearing its end. Obviously I can’t claim authorship of Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective, but I can regard it as one of ‘my’ books given that I helped edit it, and I did author two papers in it. This means that I managed to push out four books over the course of the year: the others are Dinosaurs Life Size, Dorling Kindersley’s Know It All and Tetrapod Zoology Book One. Not bad at all, but – if things had panned out – the final count would have been a bit higher. There’s always next year.
For previous Tet Zoo articles on the 2008 meeting ‘Dinosaurs (and other extinct saurians) – A Historical Perspective’, see…
- Dinosaurs – A Historical Perspective
- The Crystal Palace monsters, armoured tyrannosaurs and lurking sauropods: a look back at ‘Dinosaurs – A Historical Perspective’ (part I)
- ‘From the north came the furry tyrannosaurs’, and other memorable lines: a look back at ‘Dinosaurs – A Historical Perspective’ (part II)
A follow-up meeting is being held in Paris in May 2011. More information is available here. I would love to attend but, as always, am in need of a benefactor or two. And for other articles on the portrayal of Mesozoic reptiles in artwork and similar topics, check out…
- An American tyrant in London
- Junk in the trunk: why sauropod dinosaurs did not possess trunks
- A very alternative view of horned dinosaur anatomy
- It would seem that my new book is out (The Great Dinosaur Discoveries)
- Quetzalcoatlus: the evil, pin-headed, toothy nightmare monster that wants to eat your soul
- Origin of the evil, demonic Quetzalcoatlus revealed
- The ‘freaky giraffoid Barosaurus‘ meme
- A ‘demonic Quetzalcoatlus‘ skeleton!
Refs – -
Bowden, A. J., Tresise, G. R. & Simkiss, W. 2010. Chirotherium, the Liverpool footprint hunters and their interpretation of the Middle Triassic environment. In Moody, R. T. J., Buffetaut, E., Naish, D. & Martill, D. M. (eds) Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 343, pp. 209-228.
Buffetaut, E. 2010. Spinosaurs before Stromer: early finds of spinosaurid dinosaurs and their interpretations. In Moody, R. T. J., Buffetaut, E., Naish, D. & Martill, D. M. (eds) Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 343, pp. 175-188.
Evans, M. 2010. The roles played by museums, collections and collectors in the early history of reptile palaeontology. In Moody, R. T. J., Buffetaut, E., Naish, D. & Martill, D. M. (eds) Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 343, pp. 5-29.
Liston, J. J. 2010. 2000 A.D. and the new ‘Flesh’: first to report the dinosaur renaissance in ‘moving’ pictures’. In Moody, R. T. J., Buffetaut, E., Naish, D. & Martill, D. M. (eds) Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 343, pp. 335-360.
Moody, R. T. J. & Naish, D. 2010. Alan Jack Charig (1927-1997): an overview of his academic accomplishments and role in the world of fossil reptile research. In Moody, R. T. J., Buffetaut, E., Naish, D. & Martill, D. M. (eds) Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 343, pp. 89-109.
Naish, D. 2010. Pneumaticity, the early years: Wealden Supergroup dinosaurs and the hypothesis of saurischian pneumaticity. In Moody, R. T. J., Buffetaut, E., Naish, D. & Martill, D. M. (eds) Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 343, pp. 229-236.
SANCHEZ HERNANDEZ, B., BENTON, M., & NAISH, D. (2007). Dinosaurs and other fossil vertebrates from the Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous of the Galve area, NE Spain Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 249 (1-2), 180-215 DOI: 10.1016/j.palaeo.2007.01.009.
Switek, B. 2010. Thomas Henry Huxley and the reptile to bird transition. In Moody, R. T. J., Buffetaut, E., Naish, D. & Martill, D. M. (eds) Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 343, pp. 251-263.
Taylor, M. P. 2010. Sauropod dinosaur research: a historical review. In Moody, R. T. J., Buffetaut, E., Naish, D. & Martill, D. M. (eds) Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 343, pp. 361-386.
Witmer, L. M. 1991. Perspectives on avian origins. In Schultze, H.-P. & Trueb, L. (eds) Origins of the Higher Groups of Tetrapods: Controversy and Consensus. Cornel University Press (Ithaca, London), pp. 427-466.