Home » Arts & Life, nature, science

Leviathan Grimoire

The Complete Dinosaur, 2nd ed.

Edited by M. K. Brett-Surman, Thomas R. Holtz, Jr., and James O. Farlow
Indiana University Press, 2012

When workers discovered the big, heavy oddity in a limestone quarry near Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire in 1676, they cleaned it up and sent it respectfully to a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford. The professor, Robert Plot (first keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, later a fellow of the Royal Society), was a rotund, jovial man with a florid face, an infinite capacity for country walking, and, for a scientist, very little in the way of scientific aptitude. He’d been wrong about many such things in the past, and he’d go on to be wrong about many such things in the future, but when he unwrapped the burlap from the object on his study table in 1676, he knew he was looking at something nobody had ever seen before.

It was, he discerned, a fossilized bone. It was the “lowermost part of the Thigh-Bone,” but it was far too big to belong to any ox or horse. He concluded that “in all probability it must have been the Bone of some Elephant, brought hither during the Government of the Romans in Britain.”

He’d reached his imagination back into the real, factual past as far as his imagination would go, and this is admirable; it wasn’t done often enough in his day, even by men of science. He saw an identifiable bone bigger than any such bone could be, so he attributed it to the biggest animal he knew about and then hypothesized how that animal might have ended up in a limestone pit in Oxfordshire. He thought he was seeing a fossilized remainder of another time – there was nothing in the intellectual mind frame of 1676 that would have allowed him to guess at the truth: that he was seeing a fossilized remainder from another world.

Four hundred years later, we know that lost world with an increasingly photographic precision. Using sciences Plot couldn’t have conceived, we’ve plumbed its mysteries, and although Plot’s fossil fragment has disappeared, we know enough about it to say with near certainty that it was part of the femur of a Megalosaurus, a two-ton thirty-foot-long bipedal creature with a thick whipping tail, powerful legs, sharp hunter’s vision, and a ferocious bite.

In other words, Plot’s fossil had been a dinosaur, those stars of the modern imaginative landscape. When he studied that tantalizing fragment, he unwittingly represented the first intersection of dinosaurs with scientific inquiry. That enormous creatures had once roamed the world and then vanished was old knowledge, of course; in ancient China, it was considered a good omen to ‘encounter a Dragon in the fields’ while farming – meaning to uncover a sizable fossil. Ancient peoples everywhere from Australia to the Arctic circle knew of and sometimes collected fossils, seeing in them – as early science saw – the tangible confirmations of myth, as dragons indeed.

Myth has now given way to science; it’s known that dinosaurs were the planet’s first grand evolutionary success in mega-fauna, a sprawling group of reptiles that dominated the world from roughly 231 million years ago to roughly 65 million years ago. As noted, they arose in a different world – flowerless, hot, humid, with far greater oxygen concentration in the atmosphere and wildly different land masses – and although tiny, furtive proto-mammals were darting through the underbrush when dinosaurs finally left the world, millions of years lay between the planet’s first masters and mankind, its second (that dinosaurs and man flourished simultaneously is a belief held only in severely reactionary religious cultures like Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United States of America). Current scientific thinking is that this departure was speeded along by the impact of a large meteor that struck what is now the Yucatan Peninsula about 65 million years ago, throwing tons of dust into the atmosphere and choking the world’s bio-cycles long enough to kill off almost all the land creatures living at the time. If true, it would mean the pleasingly obvious: that the dinosaur finale was every bit as epic as the dinosaur reign.

No matter how they left us, dinosaurs have never been more present. Plot’s tentative vision has been superseded by an almost endless parade of imaginings, from novels to TV shows to movies (including the single greatest movie ever made, Stephen Spielberg’s 1993 classic, Jurassic Park). And such is the adamant wonder of dinosaurs that even the best such fictional recreations pale beside the real thing. The more we learn about them, the more fascinating dinosaurs become.

Books, of course, have been the principal vector of that fascination. Even ruthlessly pruned, a shelf of must-have dinosaur volumes will be overstuffed. There’s Robert Bakker’s 1986 The Dinosaur Heresies, and Dinosauria (the 2007 edition edited by David Weishampel, Peter Dodson, and Halszka Osmolska), and National Geographic Dinosaurs (the 2001 edition edited by Paul Barrett, Raul Martin, and Kevin Padian), and of course the incredible 2005 pop-up book Encyclopedia Prehistorica: Dinosaurs by the great Robert Sabuda (the final, climactic two-page spread of which, naturally featuring a Tyrannosaurus rex, could make an aspiring paleontologist out of a plank of wood).

One of the best items on that overcrowded shelf would necessarily have been 1997’s The Complete Dinosaur from Indiana University Press – until now, when Indiana has produced the title’s second edition. Under the editorship of M. K. Brett-Surman, Thomas R. Holtz, and James O. Farlow, the new volume follows the winning formula of the original, assembling articles from a formidable array of the world’s leading dinosaur experts on a huge menu of dinosaur-topics, from their metabolism to their locomotion to their ecology to their intelligence to their evolution. This new edition itself represents a considerable evolution: it’s twice as big as the original, twice as heavy, twice as detailed, representing the enormous strides in research and extrapolation that have taken place just in the last fifteen years.

A warning to prospective readers: this new edition of The Complete Dinosaur, like its predecessor, makes few if any real concessions to the layman. Several of its authors are under the impression that they’re writing fairly accessible, entry-level overviews that can be consulted by experts but also read with easy-chair comfort by ordinary readers. All of those authors are thoroughly, if adorably, mistaken. So while it’s true that some segments, like Donald Henderson’s wonderful essay “Engineering a Dinosaur,” can be companionable:

For small animals, with their low body weights, it doesn’t take much effort to hold the flexed pose, but because body mass increases faster than muscle strength when body size is increased isometrically, it would take impossibly large amounts of muscle and energy for a large animal, such as a Tyrannosaurus rex, to hold a flexed pose. Elephants keep their limbs very erect, with the long bones vertically aligned, and have very short, stubby toes. These features characterize a type of stands and body support referred to as graviportal.

… most others feature long passages like this:

The terminology of heterochrony can be used both to describe the appearance of meristic characters during ontogeny (in other words, discrete structures formed during ontogeny, such as the number of vertebrae or digits) or it can be applied to the subsequent changes in shape of these structures.

Or this:

We propose that in early birds (e.g., Archaeopteryx), as in many extant reptiles, tidal volume may have been supplemented by development of incipient, nonvascularized air sacs. These might have expanded posteriorly from anterior parenchyma resulting in posterior rotation of the dorsal aspect of the post-pulmonary septum.

But readers patient and attentive enough to wade through anterior parenchymae will find themselves amply rewarded. All the world of dinosauriana is here in this hefty volume, from the study of dentition and bone decay to the analysis of all the micro-habitats of that ancient world to the latest stabs at estimating dinosaur intelligence and sociability. Dentition, locomotion, stomach contents, ratites, tinamous, lithornithids, neognaths – it’s all here, sometimes being updated and explored by the same scientists who gave readers essays on these subjects in the first edition: the feeling of a cooperative, continuous inquiry is infectious. And the scope of those inquiries is as vast as natural history itself: How dinosaurs meet? Fight? Mate? Die? Our editors have turned to dozens of experts for answers, and although many of those experts are better researchers than explainers of research (let alone dramatizers of it), their passionate interest shines through even the most abstruse passages.

Naturally, there are controversies. Some of these essays aren’t afraid of leveling sharp criticism at other essays, and there’s a refreshing lack of lock-step consensus. The theory that dinosaurs were warm-blooded (endotherms, that is), for instance, comes in for its share of informed dissent from R. E. H. Reid, in his look at “Intermediate” dinosaurs:

Adding to these problems, there is evidence suggesting that some nonavian dinosaurs were not endotherms and even some which could mean that none were. Some authors have thought that sauropods could not have eaten enough to be endotherms because of the small size of their heads in relation to their bodies. Halstead saw Apatosaurus as having to eat for more than 24 hours a day to be one. And a detailed study of Brachiosaurus and its food resources led Weaver to seen endothermy as impossible for sauropods weighing more than 55 metric tons and “improbable to impossible” below that weight.

This kind of fully-engaged grappling with the science of the subject happens throughout The Complete Dinosaur and is, at its nerdy best, completely thrilling.

A decade before the publication of the first edition of The Complete Dinosaur, there was an episode of Star Trek: Voyager – perhaps you know it – called “Distant Origin,” in which the intrepid crew of the Starship Voyager, trapped 30,000 light-years from Earth and struggling to get home, encounters a scientist from a super-technologied race of reptiloids called the Voth. The scientist has a daring theory: that his people originally evolved on the far-distant planet Earth and only reached their current whereabouts after millennia of spacefaring. The repressive Voth authorities eventually force him to recant, Galileo-style, but they also agree to let Voyager go on her way. As they’re parting, an imperious Voth minister (played to chilling perfection by the great Concetta Tomei, even under a prodigious amount of makeup) turns to a Voyager crewman and rumbles, “It would be in your best interests if I never saw you again.”

But the Voth can bellyache all they want – it’s not going to happen. Humans are by now indelibly fascinated with the previous masters of the planet (or the previous showy figureheads, since viruses and bacteria have always called the shots behind the scenes and always will). As Daniel Chure puts it in his marvellous essay “Life After Death: Dinosaur Fossils in Human Hands”:

More than half of all known dinosaur species have been described since 1970, and every week brings more publications about new discoveries. No longer are we finding just the fossilized bones of these amazing creatures. Fossilized eggs, nests, embryos, skin impressions, feathers and feathery integuments, internal organs, footprints and trackways, and even osteocytes, capillaries, and red blood cells are all providing remarkable insight into the evolution, biology, and lifestyles of the Dinosauria. Truly, we are living in the Golden Age of Dinosaur Research …

That Golden Age now has a thumping great bestiary in this new edition of The Complete Dinosaur. The imagination boggles at what the next edition – available on all the better brain-implant chips of 2032? – will contain.

____
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.

One Comment »

1 Pingbacks »

  • [...] " T. rex has enormous olfactory lobes," Holtz marvels. "That means an excellent sense of smell."[caption id="attachment_8781" align="alignleft" width="200"] Tracks and fossils show large meat-eate…y can even tell us more – for instance, their teeth can show whether they were herbivorous or [...]

Leave a comment!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also Comments Feed via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.