It would appear that my other new book is out: Dorling Kindersley's Prehistoric


Regular readers will know that my new book, The Great Dinosaur Discoveries (A & C Black in UK; UCP in US), was released over the last few weeks. By all accounts, it's currently selling well and the reviews that have appeared so far have all been outstandingly positive [example]. Things are looking good. But I work hard, and over the last couple of weeks I've received the news that a second book I completed at about the same time is also now out. Today I received my copy, so can at last talk about it.

Titled Prehistoric here in the UK (and Prehistoric Life in North America), the book is an enormous, sumptuously illustrated, 512-page encyclopedia, published by Dorling Kindersley. It basically charts the entire history of life, starting with the formation of the planet and ending up with the evolution of modern humans. The bulk of Prehistoric is devoted to the fossils of the Palaeozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic, and, yes, that means plants and invertebrates as well as dinosaurs and big mammals. It looks awesome; a lot of people will want it for Christmas. And don't be put off by the fact that there's a freakin' FISH on the cover. A non-tetrapod, oh the shame...


As is usual for big DK encyclopedias, this was a multi-authored effort with a team of something like 24 authors, 12 consultants and a substantial number of artists, designers, editors and so on. I tackled dinosaurs and Mesozoic mammals, but didn't do all of them; Roger Benson, Steve Brusatte, Dave Hone and Xu Xing are on the authorship too, so may have done some of the dinosaurs that I didn't, and I think Dave also did pterosaurs. Roger did Palaeozoic synapsids. Jason Anderson, Jenny Clack and Andrew Milner (the British one) dealt with Palaeozoic and Mesozoic non-amniotes and other creatures, and Don Prothero did Cenozoic mammals. Other authors produced the many spreads on plants and invertebrates, the section openers, and the introductory spreads.

Perhaps the most satisfying and impressive section is Fiona Coward's 'The Rise of Humans', and I suppose I say this because it looks comprehensive and includes brilliant diagrams. Just about every hominin gets coverage. I mean, there's even reference to Homo georgicus and H. sapiens idaltu [Neanderthal spread below, from DK site].


As you might guess from a book subtitled 'The Definitive Visual History of Life on Earth', the book is a visual feast, with numerous gorgeous photos of fossils as well as a huge number of CG reconstructions. My favourite features are the 'visual tours' where close-up annotated photos provide detailed information on the skeleton of a particular dinosaur [yeah, sorry: dinosaur. Nothing like this for mammals or other non-dinosaurian animals. One is shown above, © DK]. Some of the art is really good: favourite pics of mine include an Effigia group crossing a stream, a Quetzalcoatlus doing the trademark baby sauropod thing (homage to Witton), and a garish red-spotted Dimetrodon. I worked hard with Andrew Kerr, Peter Minister and Francisco Gascó to produce reasonably accurate dinosaurs: time was a constraint, as it always is when doing books like this, and various errors (such as pronated hands on theropods, an absence of dermal spikes on one or two diplodocoids, and the usual overly-broad beaks on ceratopsians) made it through for this reason. In cases, errors also made it through because I didn't get to see the final version of the art and someone else then gave it the green light (terrible terrible terrible Archaeopteryx on p. 264, I'm looking at you. Consultant concerned: j'accuse). Some of the art is really not so good, but I'll refrain from discussing it - or the individuals who produced it - here. For previous discussions of the problem I'm referring to - we'll call it the Pixel-shack Experience - go here, and hopefully this will now make a bit more sense.

Anyway, it's good to see Prehistoric in print at last, and I hope people like it. Just remember that I'm not responsible for the really bad bits. Congrats to co-authors and the art and editorial team - when and where is the party?

You can find Prehistoric on amazon here, and on here.

Oh yeah: sorry, slight hiatus in the toads toads toads schedule.

More like this

Sexy book! Looking forward to it.

By Kevin Schreck (not verified) on 16 Oct 2009 #permalink

Is that what I saw in the local bookshop a week ago? Is that possible, in the middle of the desert at the arse end of the world? I'll check in the morning, and buy it if I'm not mistaken. Cheers.

By John Scanlon, FCD (not verified) on 16 Oct 2009 #permalink

Im not a big dinosaur person but i would love to have a reference for the dermal spikes on diplodocids as it sounds really cool. Anyone know what the refs are?

By Ross Barnett (not verified) on 16 Oct 2009 #permalink


Czerkas, S. A. 1992. Discovery of dermal spines reveals a new look for sauropod dinosaurs. Geology 20, 1068-1070.

- . 1994. The history and interpretation of sauropod skin impressions. Gaia 10, 173-182.

Ah, I passed this one in B&N last week and thought "Another encyclopedia of ancient life? Sheesh." Clearly I should have looked a bit more closely. Well done, Darren. I look forward to reading this one, as well.

Thanks Brian and others. John (comment 2): you in particular might be amused by the entry on the mekosuchine Trilophosuchus, described as a 'drop croc' and actually said in the text to capture prey by dropping out of trees!!! I have no idea who wrote this. Paul Willis has, of course, suggested that some mekosuchines were scansorial but, so far as I know, (1) no-one in croc-land agrees with him, and (2) he said this for Mekosuchus, not Trilophosuchus.

Is your link pointing to the wrong (US?) edition?

oh, I just saw and skimmed trough that book at our local bookstore the other day. Really impressive selection of excellent photos of fossil specimens.

By Ville Sinkkonen (not verified) on 16 Oct 2009 #permalink

Ross Barnett - If you give me your email address, I'l send you photos of the spikes, as well as the paper itself if I can find it.

By Michael O. Erickson (not verified) on 16 Oct 2009 #permalink

Thanks Darren!
Michael, my email address is barndad at hotmail dot com.

By Ross Barnett (not verified) on 16 Oct 2009 #permalink

Drops crocs and drop bears...Aussies sure do have a fear of death from above!

Another book? How do ever get the time to put up these awesome articles on your blog?! Congrats again Darren and all.

By Sebastian Marquez (not verified) on 16 Oct 2009 #permalink

I saw this book the other day and it looked impressive. I think I will wait until after Christmas to obtain it (I'll see if I get any more bookstore gift cards and I'm swamped with books at this time).

Looking forward to more toads...

Was looking for it today in Waterstones near UCL but didn't find it, bought a field guide to western Palaearctic mammals instead.


...the problem I'm referring to - we'll call it the Pixel-shack Experience...


Funny thing is I pointed out their Tyrannosaur to a prospective palaeoartist today. "Whatever you do, don't do it like that," I said.
Someone at DK needs a good shake. But if most of the spreads in the book are like those you posted, I don't think it'll be too long before it's on my bookshelf. (after being thoroughly pored over)

By Warren B. (not verified) on 16 Oct 2009 #permalink

All of a sudden you're more prolific than Stephen King!

I'm putting this one on my greeding list.

(That's my term for a rather ambitiously acquisitive reading list.)

By Stevo Darkly (not verified) on 16 Oct 2009 #permalink

My god!! I'd love to put my hands on that book!!

Its a shame that here in Argentina it represents like 2 months of my salary!


But I work hard

Don't we have it on good authority that you're a lazy sort, piles of evidence notwithstanding? :-)

Picked up the book on the way home at Chapters. It was being given a nice end-of-shelf display, with four copies facing anyone heading toward the science and nature section in the shop. Very nice so far. Though they aren't tetrapods, or even vertebrates, I was pleased to see a good number of nice trilobites and pleased to see I have examples of most of them!

By Mike from Ottawa (not verified) on 16 Oct 2009 #permalink

Congrats, Darren!
PS. you look totally happy on this photo!

That was indeed the book I noticed almost subliminally while scanning the shelf for something else in particular. I spent a while browsing it in the shop today and decided to ask them to hold the copy for a couple of days while I see if I can get work to order a few for sale. Not only that I'm cheap, but things like the 'drop croc' Trilophosuchus entry - in the Quaternary vertebrates section, no less - do affect the value (as they say on the 'Antiques Roadshow' when someone has dropped the vase or used Brasso on the Rodin).

One of the strangest things I noticed in it was the restoration of Leedsichthys, which has been discussed on Tet Zoo before although it's not a tetrapod. Is that freaky thing one of the good reconstructions, or really bad ones? Just doesn't look streamlined enough to be real.

But there's obviously a lot of great stuff in there and I do need to get a copy. A book that covers plants, invertebrates and vertebrates and the whole history of life and is up-to-date and mostly fairly accurate... is something I want my kids to be able to read. After me.

By John Scanlon, FCD (not verified) on 16 Oct 2009 #permalink

To provide an Illustrators perspective on said bad illustrations, most are really just time constraints, I imagined.

The Anomalocaris is perhaps the worst, and with some really good reconstructions on the Anomalocarid homepage, I dont see why it got through. The three mezozoic mammals featured all use the exact same model, for metatherian, eutherian, and multituberculate. The Dinosaur stuff I can forgive, as I find Dinosaur anatomy unforgiving too.

By Tim Morris (not verified) on 16 Oct 2009 #permalink

Oh yeah, the other thing: the Charles Darwin 'quote' on the back cover, hasn't that been discredited?

By John Scanlon, FCD (not verified) on 16 Oct 2009 #permalink

Any idea why UC Press give Scott Sampson twice as many pages for Dinosaur Odyssey (which they're hyping alongside) as you got for Dinosaur Discoveries? Should we hate Scott? I'm all ready to hate Scott, just give the word.


By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 16 Oct 2009 #permalink

Darren, could you possibly give a synopsis of how a writer writes in a book like this? Did you write just the text bits, or the captions and annotations too? Do you write with a note on what sort of illustration you need, and they fit it to that, or do you have the illustrations (or drafts) that you write to? Do you submit a list of taxa you can cover, and get assignments from the editor? I'm curious about the process.

Congratulations Darren! Looks like good stuff.

By Zach Hawkins (not verified) on 17 Oct 2009 #permalink

Looks cool! Will definitely check it out. Congratulations!

As to climbing crocodiles, I see no problem that a small enough crocodile could climb. Some turtles are adept climbers, and noone would be able to ascertain that from fossils.

By Tim Morris (not verified) on 17 Oct 2009 #permalink

Darren, my credit card hates you.

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 17 Oct 2009 #permalink

Indeed, extant crocodile hatchlings can climb.

However, Trilophosuchus wasn't that small.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 18 Oct 2009 #permalink

No time to reply to all comments, sorry (especially comment 26, which would take ages)...

-- Leedsichthys is indeed criminally bad (comment 22). Shame shame shame on the expert and consultant concerned. I hate to sound like a stuck record, but I hate the fact that many palaeontoogists are still absolutely clueless when it comes to evaluating life restorations.

-- Don't hate Scott (comment 25). He emailed me a few weeks ago to say congrats on the book, though I haven't seen his yet.

-- Yeah, maybe some crocs and turtles can sometimes clamber around on low-sloping trunks and branches (comment 29). I've stated this myself in papers. But that's a long way from saying that an animal was a regular climber that used trees on a daily basis. As noted, some mekosuchines have some features that might suggest scansoriality, but the problem is that these features (they're forelimb features, like claw and ulnar shape) also match other modes of life (like digging), and other details of anatomy (like snout shape) suggest terrestrial foraging in these animals (as in, picking up objects from the ground).

I got it yesterday, and it's titled differently here: Prehistoric Life. It's quite good, but you guys are right, there are some hideous creatures in there. Also, there are some interesting disconnects between the stated size of the given animal and the GIGANTIC sillouhette next to it. And there are also some giant errors, like Teratornis being only 30 inches long. Hilarious!

I got and read through The Great Dinosaur Discoveries last week. Very impressive, Darren!

By Greg Morrow (not verified) on 19 Oct 2009 #permalink

shoot..i saw one of these at a waldenbooks saterday, but i passed on buying a copy because of the $40 price..i'd been looking for a book of that quality for a while too. stupid shoestring budget.

Dear Darren,

Interesting remarks on our work (pixel-shack)..

It seems that you once had to actually provide some guidance to us as part of a project, and this little bit of extra work has forever tainted your view of our services and artwork. That is a shame, as it make you appear as narrow-minded, as well as intolerant and ignorant of creative processes.

What I don't understand is that you make comments which are bordering on slanderous, based on one single past experience (not during production of this title), whilst ignoring how our work has developed since.

I am sure that you realise that creating 3D models from scant and inaccurate reference, which more often than not are taken from different sources (also interpretations) and are thus not consistent, will inevitably lead to confused end results.

There is always a compromise when turning a 2D reference into a 3D shape, unless accurate plan and elevations of anatomy are provided as part of the brief.We do request that adequate authenticated reference material be supplied as part of the brief, more often than not this request is ignored, and only after artworks have been submitted for approval do the inaccuracies show up.

How you consider your sketches to be of artistic and scientific merit to be uploaded to your blog is beyond me as an artist, as they are both inadequate and also unaesthetic.But then again I don't expect that you should be an artist, and neither should you expect us to be scientists.

Please remember that we are not Palaeontologists, and so far as I am aware, there are not too many 3D artists who are.

I personally cannot remember working directly in contact with you,if we have worked together on any titles it is always through the commissioning art editor at any given publishers. The time and budget constraints placed on many commissions also do not allow for the type of input to any project that would be to both our liking I guess.

Incidentally, you specifically mention the Effigia image I think by Andrew Kerr, I agree it is a nice image and Andrews work is really looking good. But if you flip over the page, there is one of our images featuring Postosuchus, which I feel is comparible in accuracy, creativity and finish.

The fact that you have this blog means that you are opinionated, but as a scientist I would have expected you to be more rational with your opinions.

I would also like to point out that you have lumped together our name with criticism of artworks in this book, ones that were NOT created by ourselves.

You may read this and think that I am making excuses for our work, which I am not. I will accept criticism of any given artwork, but these comments should be constructive and have purpose, and the overview should always be made taking into consideration all aspects of the constraints of any given project.

To illustrate a point, I personally think you come across as self-opinionated, ego-inflated and ignorant. Not only that, but you openly try to take credit for something which is not entirely yours (your smug looking picture is a prime example). BUT, these are my thoughts based only on what is written in this blog, not what I had thought of you as a professional, and I won't write you off as easily as you do others based on this single episode...that "Darren Naish effect".

By Jon Hughes (not verified) on 13 Feb 2010 #permalink

Jon - thank you for your interesting message. I have been asked to critique your work many times now, not once.

How you consider your sketches to be of artistic and scientific merit to be uploaded to your blog is beyond me as an artist, as they are both inadequate and also unaesthetic.

Please explain. Especially the "inadequate" part.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

"And there are also some giant errors, like Teratornis being only 30 inches long. Hilarious!"

It was 30 inches tall, no?

Jon: I am also an illustrator, I specialise in animals, and always try to make my renderings as loyal to the reference as possible, and I wholeheartedly agree with Darren that some of the art was woefully innacurate.

By Tim Morris (not verified) on 17 Feb 2011 #permalink