Amalgamated Book Notes: Museums, Dinosaurs, and Megalania

I have to admit that I've been somewhat lazy when it has come to sharing my thoughts on my current reading material since I moved to ScienceBlogs. On Laelaps Mk. 1 I would usually update every few days on what I was reading and what I thought about it, but since I've started writing here I've completed several books and haven't said very much about any of them. While this post is not going to be a massive offloading of knowledge gained from my extracurricular reading, it might at least offer up some suggestions for those looking for some new reading material;


The Horned Dinosaurs by Peter Dodson

I certainly don't know as much about the horned dinosaurs (Suborder Ceratopsia) as I should, but Dodson's book is a wonderful and easy-to-read primer for anyone interested in nearly any aspect of these remarkable dinosaurs. Indeed, the books strength lies in Dodson's ability to meld the history of discovery, anatomical details, and evolutionary relationships together, telling the reader nearly anything they could have wanted to know about each horned dinosaur. The chapter in which Dodson walks the reader through the reconstruction of a Chasmosaurus skeleton bone by bone is especially valuable and enjoyable, a decent reference chapter for those generally unfamiliar with osteology (and if you're playing the home game [and have a few hundred thousand dollars to spare] you can acquire casts of some skeletons online). My only minor gripe about the book is that it switches gears fairly quickly between historical discussion and find discussion of the anatomy, some of the exact details of skull size and shape being better served in an appendix. The last section on the book on the lifestyle of horned dinosaurs is fairly short as well, although I must admit some bias here as I was hoping for the discussion of locomotion and herding behavior to be a little more in depth. Still, the book is a quick, enjoyable read and deserves to be on the bookshelf of anyone with so much as a passing interest in this fantastic group of ornithischian dinosaurs.


Dragons in the Dust: The Paleobiology of the Giant Monitor Lizard Megalania by Ralph E. Molnar

I must admit I have mixed feelings about this book, although I cannot entirely blame the author for them as I feel Raplh Molnar did an admirable job with the available material. Part of the famous "Life of the Past" series, this book is an overview of a prehistoric reptile that has gained some fame in recent years, Megalania, a king-sized Komodo Dragon look-alike, although its fossil record is poor. While Molnar attempts to set the scene with information about climate during the Pleistocene, the evolution of lizards, and the habits of living monitor lizards, it seems that there is little than can actually be said about the reptile that gives its name to the title of the book. That said, the book is a useful reference to various fossil discoveries made in Australia and the history of thought surrounding Megalania, but so many of the details about the giant varanid and its habitat seem so mysterious that there is little that can be said. Hopefully future discoveries will add to our understanding, but for now Dragons in the Dust provides a fair overview of the elusive Megalania.


Eggs, Nests, and Baby Dinosaurs: A Look at Dinosaur Reproduction by Kenneth Carpenter

Another entry in the "Life of the Past" series, Kenneth Carpenter's book proved to be highly informative and enjoyable, an excellent reference on how eggs are produced by modern birds and what fossil eggs can tell us about dinosaurs. While each of the Life of the Past books I've read so far has given a large amount of time to "background" subjects to bring the reader up to speed, Carpenter's discussions of the basics of mating, egg formation, nesting, etc. are enjoyable as the parts specifically about the dinosaurs themselves, the appendices of the book providing a very useful reference as to what kinds of eggs had been found at the time of publishing and how to identify them. What I appreciated most about the work, however, was Carpenter's constructive criticism of some of the nesting behaviors hypothesized by Jack Horner about Maiasaura and the popular narrative surrounding the "Good Mother Lizard." Indeed, Carpenter's work is generally straightforward about what can or cannot be discerned from fossil nests, embryonic dinosaurs, and juvenile specimens, and even if the reader disagrees with some of his conclusions the book is still a good reference and starting point for those with an interest in the area of dinosaur reproduction.


Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History by Douglas Preston

Douglas Preston, along with co-author Lincoln Child, wrote one of my most favorite novels, Relic, about a monster roaming the halls of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. After reading Preston's earlier non-fiction work about the museum, it's not difficult to see where he drew much of his inspiration for his later blood-spattered thriller. While my first visits to the museum occurred slightly after Preston's book was published (1986), his story goes back much further to the founding of the museum, covering various expeditions, artifacts, and bizarre specimens locked away just across the street from Central Park. The sections of the book about the Central Asiatic Expeditions and the fossil finds of Barnum Brown will probably be familiar to my readers here (there's only so many ways to tell the same story), but the book is about much more than fossils. As we proceed through the chapters we learn of homocidal explorers, escaped scorpions in public exhibition space, a mounted chimpanzee with a past, a blood-stained notebook that chronicles the demise of a people, and a some burglars who walked off with some of the rarest gems in the world. Preston makes a few minor historical mistakes here and there, but overall he reveals a museum that most people will never see, a trove of wonders that is sometimes more spectacular than anything on display.


Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein

Discussions about philosophy usually result in a migraine for me, but Cathcart & Klein's little book was a real joy to read. While it is not a detailed treatise on philosophy in any sense, it is a useful, quick overview of various philosophical viewpoints made more accessible through genuinely funny jokes. While some of the philosophical positions still need to be read over at least twice before they're grasped (even with the humorous help), I was able to get through the book in one evening and feel like I had at least some idea of a few major philosophical standpoints. Even if such realizations do not dawn on the reader, the jokes are good and useful, so I would advise anyone with a good sense of humor to pick this book up even if they don't care a bit for philosophy.

So that's essentially what I've been looking over in-between classes and on buses for the past two weeks, although I am nearly finished with Mutants and The Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs, as well. After those are finished, I'll probably move on to the 2nd edition of The Dinosauria and Dawn of the Dinosaurs: Life in the Triassic, Douglas Henderson's exquisite artwork in the latter making the book a worthy addition to any bookshelf alone. Going forward, however, I'll try to write more often as I go along, if for no other reason than to help solidify thoughts these books bring up and I desperately try to cram new facts into my head.

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Brian, I cannot recommend Thomas Holtz, Jr.'s new dinosaur book. It's geared toward the younger set, but the art alone is worth the price of admission, and it's the most up-to-date book I've ever seen regarding an overview of the Dinosauria. It's wonderful, and I would happily use it as a textbook should I ever get the opportunity to teach The Dinosauria at UAA (which continues to be a possibility).

Thanks for the comment Zach (are you didn't mean "I cannot reccomend Thomas Holtz, Jr.'s new dinosaur book enough"? The comment just seems to be a little bipolar). I couldn't immediately tell from Darren's review that the book was geared towards kids, but after I looked it up on I saw that this was the case. I'm still going to buy it and read it, though, although I'm probably going to wait until the price comes down on used copies a little.

I love The Horned Dinosaurs, even if it is really quite out of date by now (wow, we really have expanded the Ceratopsia quite a fair bit since then).

I keep reading that Megalania is actually the giant sister species of the perentie (Varanus giganteus), Australia's largest living monitor lizard, so in the end the genus may be sunk into Varanus anyway.

Just want to point out that while the new encyclopedia is written at a level accessible to a younger audience (9-12 year olds, according to the editorial staff), I tried not to be make it in such a way that a general reader might appreciate it, too.

So they cut out all my references to prezygapophyses and chronostratrigaphy... (Okay, they didn't. I just had to use euphemisms for these).

Thanks for the correction, Dr. Holtz. I'm really looking forward to getting my hands on a copy and I'm sure I'll thoroughly enjoy it.

Mutants is one of my favorites, can't wait to read your thoughts on it!

Thanks for the reviews, as always. We are covering dinosaurs in my vert. biodiversity class right now, but I've been disappointed at how much we're speeding through them without much depth ("this is an ornithischian hip", etc, and other things I've known since I was five). Anyway, I haven't picked up the horned dino book yet, I'd been intending to but now that you remind me about I think I'm going to order it this weekend!