How (not) to keep dinosaurs

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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.

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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, 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.

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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.

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I had the same complaints, but I enjoyed it as a silly book anyway. The palaeontology in-jokes are the best part. :)

By Brad McFeeters (not verified) on 02 Jan 2008 #permalink

It may well be inaccurate, but perhaps the text was more up-to-date in 1983 when it was first issued? That version had (fairly conventional) illustrations by Philip Hood and Diz Wallis, but best of all, cartoons by Willie Rushton, including an Archaeopteryx serenading the moon with a guitar.
Anyhow, I thought it was quite funny 25 years ago, but I see I shall have to find some more taxonomically-accurate source of childhood nostalgia now ;)

The book is poor in as much as it generalises dangerously.

Your average vet is not capable of treating a dinosaur; (they may give you a big bill for one though) they may have been on a weekend course on the subject, but this is all they know and they treat the small dinosaur as another dog or cat, sometimes with fatal results.

Even a vet who is a proper specialist might not be a specialist in your particular dinosaur...I had a friend once, whos coelosaurus needed its toemails clipped, he went from vet to vet, to finaly be directed to someone from London zoo who specialised in sauropods!

Nothing to say about this book. But I do want to say that thanks to you, Darren, I asked for and received Tom Holtz and Luis Rey's "Dinosaurs" for Christmas. Now that I have finished Rose's "The Beginning of the Age of Mammals" I'll be turning to Holtz and Reys.

Not only that, it entirely neglects care of subaquatic boneless pterosaurs, which are the most fun of all. (Of course they're not completely boneless.)

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 02 Jan 2008 #permalink

Nathan, are we back onto the squid again? Besides, surely you mean Kraken anyway? Cryptis are so much more plausible when they have a cool name.

Darren, thanks for the publicity - my hits have rocketed already, I just hope I get a few regular reader from this.

As for the book, I own a copy (which was a gift) and I thought it was fun. I liked it. But it was silly, and I think there are ways of introducing real scinece (like behaviour) into a book like this and keeping it entertaining. I guess the problem is that it would be fun for young kids, but it was aimed at a much older / more knowledgeable audience and so let itself down. And yes, the reconstructions are disturbing.

By Dave Hone (not verified) on 02 Jan 2008 #permalink

I look forward to more posts on azhdarchids.

The book made me cry at Barnes & Nobel. Having said that, I am playing around with the idea of a series of blogs (or just one, depending on how busy it makes me) about dinosaur husbandary, but featuring accurate dinosaurs and realistic behavior. My first quarry would be Prenocephale, a dinosaur I feel would make a good pet. It's small, herbivorous, and, I imagine, quite docile. You know how when your dog wants a head scratch, she'll forcefully shove her noggin under your arm? I can imagine a small pachycephalosaur doing that.

Oh come on, it's a bit of fun and I think those purchasing it are under no impression that it isn't just for laughs. Next you'll be complaining about the Snouter treatises.

If you want to complain about piss poor reconstructions how about revisiting Walking with dinosaurs and all the shamelss whoring out of the models afterwards (Dinotopia, Primeval anyone?). Or perhaps a snipe at Disney's Dinosaur, talking Iguanodons!!! Or perhaps we could go on about how most wildlife documentaries are same old, same old sentimental farcery used to tug people's heart strings by holding the camera in a depressed seal's face whilst Will Young looks on crying and conveniently dumbing down any real issues into "Man bad. Animal Good.".

Less misanthropy and more proper science please.

Misanthropy means 'dislike or mistrust of humans' - what's that got to do with a book about imaginary dinosaurs? Oh well. Hang tight, caecilians next.

You appear to dislike the author/illustrator for disseminating "bad science" and the great unwashed for not caring or noticing the errors.

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.

I get depressed flipping through any of the recent Dorling Kindersley books on dinosaurs and prehistoric life. The older generation of books from DK may have featured models that were somewhat inaccurate, but they simply aren't as fugly as the ones made by the half-baked ones churned out by this particular artist. I mean, besides almost completely ripping off colour schemes from Walking With Dinosaurs, the anatomy as you've mentioned is just so terribly wrong, and most of the models just aren't aesthetically pleasing at all.

What gets me even more pissed off is that these books are a constant presence in any library or bookstore in my library, when books featuring far superior artists (e.g. Luis Rey, even Doug Henderson) are as common as hen's teeth.

You appear to dislike the author/illustrator for disseminating "bad science" and the great unwashed for not caring or noticing the errors.

Yes, exactly. I don't get why you're surprised.

Personally I liked it. Perhaps it could have been more thoroughly revised to take account of the new discoveries, and yes some of the reconstructions were rubbish, but oit redeemed itself very nicely with the in-jokes.

Anyway its more accurate than a serious children's dinosaur book I saw which described Baryonyx as being the first carnivorous dinosaur discovered in England. And on another page then talks about Megalsoaurus and Buckland.

By Dave Godfrey (not verified) on 03 Jan 2008 #permalink

Are inaccurate illustrations a symptom of just dinosaur books? While I'm sure no one would draw a furless tiger, I'm sure there are illustrators who get the number of digits on a Rhinoceros wrong. I always give illustrators more leeway than anyone responsible for the text of a book - no matter the age of the intended audience.

Drawing three fingers on T. rex's hands would be a faux-pas, but not as bad as writing "T. rex had three fingers on each hand".

I have a copy of the book - I enjoyed it. It was silly, but it was fun. And I think the comments you've had have shown that an awful lot of palaeontologists HAVE read it. The authors aren't pretending to be reporting specific peer-reviewed research (so I'm prepared to let them get away with more than I allow newspaper journalists, who frequently have a press release and shouldn't need to make stuff up on the spot).

I enjoyed the book. Despite its misanthropy, and, as Darren accurately noticed, miscaecilianism.

I must admit that inaccuracies are spreading dangerously in many areas of science. I cannot imagine why Terry Pratchett is not criticised for introducing dwarfs and trolls instead of so interesting Neanderthals and Homo habilis. Not to mention his other inaccuracies of truly astronomical proportions.

I have an imaginary pet compsognathus who's gotten along fine without this book since 1992. Silliness aside, I wonder if there's a market for a more accurate manual of this type? I'd love to write it--by consulting the experts, natch--or, failing that, buy it. I've never gotten over my childhood dino fascination, and the more paleontologists discover, the more fascinated I get. Cool post!

Well, there is a nice book on how to survive robot uprising, and another on zombie survival, and "prehistoric park" video sells rather well. I guess there is market.

BTW - to all you dino-fans. I am interested where and how two topics were treated in fiction. Which stories, books, websites you know with:
- sapient dinosaurs
(non-cartoon/plush creatures only: dinosauroid, Dinosaur Wars, Dinotopia, West of Eden trilogy)
- speculative evolution of dinosaurs if they didn't become extinct (several websites)?

Caecilians? thats cool. (better than frogs because they crawl)

I hate sentimental wildlife documentaries too...and always on the same dull animals too.

Seriously though, I have often wondered about writing a simple book on something....extinct birds perhaps. (or caecilians?)

But no one would publish, Im no scholar,I didnt even go to college.

Im capable of reading a complex text, though, and looking up the bits I dont understand (most of it) and getting out useful info and rewriting in sensible words

and Im not too proud to ask advice

Jerzy, the book Evolution by Stephen Baxter covered both. Sapient dinosaurs lived at the same time as the others and dinosaurs (and oceanic temnospondyls!) straggled into the Cenozoic off Antarctica in the book. I remember a lot of strange speculations such as African Gigantopithecines, super-gigantic madtsoiids, future tree/primate symbiosis, and of course, 300 foot stratosphere-dwelling pterosaurs called "air whales".

Spec World has much more sensible speculations of a world without the dinosaur's extinction. Well, except maybe the baleen squid.

I have to agree with Darren here - the restorations in this book are in a few places, just about passable, but the majority are awful. It's obvious that the artist knew very little of animal anatomy let alone that of dinosaurs and pterosaurs - tails are kinked in the most unlikely of places, limbs are skewed to impossible positions and meet the body in compleltely wrong locations. The skinning of is, almost without excpetion, terrible: textures are stretched and distorted over lumps and bumps that shouldn't exist, and where used, feathery or furry integument is totally, totally wrong (check out Microraptor, for instance). As already pointed out, woeful computer restorations like these are increasingly common - I suspect their abundance has something to do with trying to reproduce Walking with Dinosaurs style creatures and the time saving that results from using a computer to create your restorations. You don't need to create a totally new model to create a Dryosaurus if you've already made Hypsilophodon, for instance - just tweak a few bits here and there, give it a new paint job and voila, one new critter.

Now, comments of this nature could be dismissed as pedantry, but bear in mind that finding information on something like maniraptoran feather distribution is really not difficult even if you're the most bone-idle individual -with the amount of dinosaur websites around nowadays you don't even need to visit a library. Moreover, there are a hell of a lot of exceptional palaeoartists dotted around that would be more than happy to provide accurate and unique pieces for a projects like these, but they're overlooked in favour of folk that produce inaccurate, characterless drivel like those seen in How to Keep Dinosaurs.

Gosh, that's bitter. Where's my valium?

By Mark Witton (not verified) on 03 Jan 2008 #permalink

"Hang tight, caecilians next."

btw did i mention there are nice pictures of a certain someones pet 'T. natans' on a certain someones flickr site. hint hint ;)

Curse my ignorance, I had no idea caecilians existed. (I suppose I should have deduced them.) My favorite bit from Wikipedia: "The fetus is fed inside the female with special cells of the oviduct, which are eaten by the fetus with special scraping teeth."

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 03 Jan 2008 #permalink

Gypsy Rose Naish hoist by his own leotard!

Moreover, there are a hell of a lot of exceptional palaeoartists dotted around ...

I happen to think Mark is one of those. I'd love to see a book on pterosaurs he illustrated.

By Mike from Ottawa (not verified) on 04 Jan 2008 #permalink

Blatantly promoting myself, I once did something like How to Keep Dinosaurs, but not exactly. It does have a little something extra, in so far as it is a fantasy book. Sample follows.

Miraphants are rarely kept by zoological societies not because of their size or appetite. After all, the African bush elephant is larger and has a greater appetite. No, the reason these descendants of the sauropods of yore are rarely included in zoological exhibitions is because they are incredibly stupid, and perpetually drunk.

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.

I hear ya! I can never open the DK book at the tyrannosaurid pages (in particular) without getting ridiculously angry. Shockingly bad.
Personally I keep it for - as well as the info - the photos of various fossils and some sculptures. And the pencil sketches on the section title pages. Having checked the credits for only the second time (the first for the authors ;)) the name Luis Rey popped out at me. I take it the sketches were his?

I've put off finding Tom Holtz' book for too long...

By Warren B. (not verified) on 05 Jan 2008 #permalink

Despite what's implied or stated in some news articles, the discovery of metacarpal III in Tyrannosaurus rex does not mean it had three fingers (it didn't, as the distal end of the newly discovery mc III lacks a joint for articulation with any phalanges and would have been embedded within the flesh of the animal's palm). Note that dinosaur workers had previously predicted the presence of metacarpal III in T. rex, given its presence in other tyrannosaurids.

I bought that book for my dad, and quite enjoyed reading it myself. It often made me smile. I rather liked the drawings, but it is interesting to see the errors in them listed. (I'm an amateur, so I think I may be forgiven for not spotting any of them.)

I will still like the book, even if only from a 'just imagine' point of view. But it is interesting to read some founded critique on it.

How true! I found this book funny, but horribly inaccurate. Deinonychus and Oviraptor lack feathers even though their smaller relatives and the much larger Therizinosaurus do. Let's not forget that the Microraptor only has its arm feathers, but lacks leg and tail feathers! Terrible. Apatosaurus is shown with a swan-shaped neck. Disgraceful. And don't let me go on about the classification. Gallimimus is a deinonychosaur? Stegoceras is an ornithopod? Tyrannosaurus and Ceratosaurus are carnosaurs? Coelophysis is a coelurosaur? Pffth. Many of the models just look plain bad, just look at Compsognathus' legs. Someone attached them to the wrong place. Protoceratops' tail. What's up with the lump? Psittacosaurus doesn't have tail quills for cryin' out loud!

The writing wasn't as bad as the pics, but I still saw a few inaccuracies. Since when was Iguanodon mostly bipedal?

By Anonymous (not verified) on 13 May 2008 #permalink