The Complete Dinosaur, 2nd edition – a brief review

The original ‘Complete Dinosaur’ book was one of those I never quite got around to getting my hands on. I only really became involved in dinosaur research sometime after it had come out (way back in 1999) and it was (obviously through no fault of it’s own) starting to date by then. It was quite clearly a great and compact synthesis and review of a huge amount of data and in the days before wikipedia represented and excellent and authoritative volume and the kind of thing too rarely produced for scientific disciplines.

So here we are, a good decade on and a new edition is out. In fact it shipped a while ago but authors outside of the U.S. have been slow to get their copies. Mine turned up at the weekend and so obviously the following review is naturally brief and based on little more than a flick through and a skim of various chapters and concerted reading of only a few choice bits and bobs. It’s a mammoth 1100+ pages so I doubt anyone will be coming with a full review anytime soon, but the basics are rather obvious and that’s what will form the basis of my thoughts here.

First off, to get it out of the way, the bad. Naturally any subject like dinosaur biology is going to have some controversy in it and no one is an expert on everything, and of course you have multiple editors and authors to satisfy which is going to cause conflict. In short, there are some bits presented as ‘correct’ that I think many, if not most, researchers would disagree with as being incorrect, out of date or just off (the short section on pterosaurs buried in one of the chapters is, well, not good to say the least). That’s a bit unhelpful for something billed as up-to-date and new and aimed at a broad general audience. The layout of the chapters is a bit odd too in places – there’s a chapter each of stegosaurs and ankylosaurs, but all non-avian theropods are lumped into a single block. While I’ve not read them yet, there’s three whole chapters devoted to dinosaur physiology (in addition to a chapter on growth and one on heterochrony) which seems excessive. Some of the figures don’t print too crisply (though this might be more to do with the paper or of course just my copy, but I don’t think so) which is a shame, but no real information is lost. The one thing I really dislike is the huge waste of space. The margins of each page a fully a third of the width, and while figures are spread across the page and some headings appear in the margins, there are dozens and dozens of pages where only 2/3rd of the space is used. It’s a horrible waste of paper and of course this is only exaggerated in a volume that over a thousand pages long, and of course rather egregious when it’s a scientific volume and scientists if anyone should appreciate and understand the concern in wasting resources.

Now to the good and there is much of it. What the book tries and succeeds in doing is bridging the gap between ‘typical’ dinosaur / palaeo books and the scientific literature. There’s a liberal use of scientific terms and citing of research, but all of the terms are explained in the text and the citations aid, and don’t dominate, the statements made. Someone with a real interest and enthusiasm who has gobbled up all manner of books like Tom Holtz’s or Darren Niash’s would still probably really struggle if you plopped them down with a copy of The Dinosauria or a handful of published papers. This book will get them to a point where they could probably appreciate these works, and that’s some achievement.

That this is possible is down in good part to the layout of the book. It’s not an encyclopedia as such or just a procession of chapters on various clades etc. but a series of long essays each tacking a subject of dinosaur research. While birds, sauropodomorphs and marginocephalians are tackled in chapters for example, we get sections on footprints, how fossils are mounted in museums, the basics of biogeography, excavating fossils, taxonomy, context from historical discoveries, basic osteology and myology and so on and so on. While it might be a slog for the non-expert to get through 50 pages on physiology say, the writing is aimed at a non-expert audience and with a style that helps to try and elevate the reader and put everything in context with clear examples and illustrations and laying out the basics of the problems, evidence and solutions.

There’s nice coverage of issues rarely looked at in research papers as well. A chapter on reconstructing dinosaurs and art by Dough Henderson is a particular joy as he dissects his piece on Coelophysis which is a personal favourite of mine to boot. Things like excavations are covered too which do tend to be learned ‘on the job’ when it comes to palaeo training with no obvious paper or manual that I’ve seen in the technical literature, but again here there’s a great short section that would give any novice an idea of what can and should be done when prospecting and digging up material.

This is also a work that will benefit and be used by professionals. Some areas of research and anatomy do lack good, solid reviews and can be hard for PhD students or even seasoned researchers to get to grips with. I’ve never really had to do much with braincases (for which I am grateful) and each time I have even a passing dealing with them I have to crack open a raft of papers and try to get back to speed and cross reference various bits and pieces. Here though is a chapter on dinosaur neurology with various endocasts shown, labels for all the classic cranial nerves and their typical positions and each section of the brain labelled and discussed. It’ll be the first thing I reach for the next time I need to check something or as a simple reference that reviews the basic information if I want to make mention of the subject in a paper.

In short, while I obviously have at least a slight hand in this as the coauthor of a chapter and friend and colleague to many of the authors and editors involved, it’s hard not to give this a hearty recommendation on balance. As I said above, I really have only look at this superficially and read barely a few dozen pages from various chapters, and there is a vast amount to catch up on, but it looks great and will provide much information and detail for huge numbers of researchers, students and general enthusiasts alike. I look forwards to digging into it more fully, but for now I’m very happy with it and I think a great many readers will be too.

Chunk of this are visible with Google Books for those who want to take a look. Bonus Musings points are available for anyone who spots me in there, I did sneak into one photo oddly enough.

40 Responses to “The Complete Dinosaur, 2nd edition – a brief review”


  1. 1 Zhen 06/08/2012 at 2:58 pm

    Thanks for posting the google books sample Dave! I’ve been meaning to get a sample to see what the book is like.

  2. 2 steve cohen 06/08/2012 at 4:44 pm

    Is that your back in the pit in photo 5.13 on page 101?

  3. 6 Mike Taylor 06/08/2012 at 5:00 pm

    It’s a real shame that the 2nd edition, like the 1st, has a cartoon cover. When I started to be seriously interested in palaeo, I passed over the original TCD because it didn’t look like a serious work. When I finally read it a couple of years later, I realised what I’d been missing — probably the single most useful book I could have read at that stage. I hope the new cover doesn’t lead too many others into making the same mistake.

  4. 14 Mike Taylor 06/08/2012 at 5:27 pm

    “In your original comment you do rather imply that you judged the book by it’s cover”.

    Yes. And in the same comment, I described that as what it was: a mistake.

    Still, it would have been better not to have led into that mistake. It’s not like the world is short of excellent palaeoart these days, as your own interview series has clearly demonstrated.

    • 15 David Hone 06/08/2012 at 5:31 pm

      Well yes, and one of those (Bob Walters) did the cover, and for me, I like it and i don’t think it’s cartoony. So as you say, really not sure where we can go from there. Some people will be put off, but presumably equally, others will be attracted to it and such is likely to be the issue with almost any kind of cover.

  5. 16 Mickey Mortimer 06/08/2012 at 11:36 pm

    I for one think the cover art is not cartoonish and is rather good, but I do think too many recent dinosaur books have terrible covers. Armored Dinosaurs, Glorified Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs of the Isle of Wight…

  6. 17 Herman Diaz 06/08/2012 at 11:38 pm

    “In short, there are some bits presented as ‘correct’ that I think many, if not most, researchers would disagree with as being incorrect, out of date or just off”

    That reminds me: 1 of my problems w/the book is that BANDits were brought in to write 2 whole chapters. Naish & Holtz said that this was partly b/c “of historical inertia” & partly b/c “they present an ‘opposing view’ to the consensus”. While I get the 1st reason, there’s a problem w/the 2nd 1: Unlike the physiology chapters, there’s only 1 chapter about dino reproduction, which means there’s no good info about it in the book (E.g. As usual, the BANDits repeated their debunked claims).

    “Here though is a chapter on dinosaur neurology with various endocasts shown, labels for all the classic cranial nerves and their typical positions and each section of the brain labelled and discussed.”

    I’m glad you mentioned Chapter 10 b/c, based on what I’ve read so far (parts of certain chapters), it’s my favorite 1 in the book.

    “I don’t think it’s a cartoon Mike. It’s a proper piece of dinosaur art, and certainly no less ‘serious’ than a great many dinosaur book (The Dinosauria has something not too dissimilar).”

    It’s not my favorite dino book cover, but I do like it better than the 1st edition’s cover.

  7. 18 Craig Dylke 07/08/2012 at 4:21 am

    Mike and Dave,

    Sorry your arguement really caught my palaeo-artist attention.

    I was wondering if I could present a condensed version on ART Evolved to see what people think about this cover, and the topic of cover art in general.

    For the record while I like the piece on the Complete Dinosaur, my initial reaction was similar to Mike’s. To me on first glimpse the piece was not as “serious” as one might expect for a book like this.

    It is the very stylised colour palette that causes this reaction, as otherwise it is a very well done and technical accurate composition. However the unnaturally bright Diabloceratops’ heads and vivid greens in the plants do make Mike’s cartoon discription accurate for the the colouration choice of the piece. However this is only for the colour scheme, otherwise the piece is “normal” for a palaeo-reconstruction. With a different palette Mike wouldn’t have reacted this way.

    I’m not criticising the artist, and am quite intrigued by their choice (does anyone know who the artist is?). I think I know the reason the artist and the book’s publishers went this route. I’ve been recently contacted about possible involvement in two book projects myself (specifcally their covers), and the reason is my art possesses a “unique” quality in the words of both book parties (one came close to saying cartoonish in fact). The authors (all researchers) have all told me they are not looking for a photorealistic piece by say Skrepnick or Csotonyi, as so many books these days always have art of this sorts. They want something that looks different and full of “character” so that the book stands out of the crowd. I suspect the Complete Dinosaur was trying to be just such a case.

    After that pseudo rant I was wondering if I could construct a post around your first few comments, repeating a lot of what I said in this rant, and see how our arty crowd on AE weigh in on the subject.

    • 19 Mike Taylor 07/08/2012 at 10:00 am

      Hi, Craig. You’re certainly welcome to quote me as much as you wish. Obviously I don’t speak for Dave. For what it’s worth, it’s not just the colouring the bothers me. The ceratopsian forelimbs and torso have a playdoughish quality that doesn’t look convincing to me; but then I am not a palaeoartist myself, so I can’t really comment in an informed way on the quality of the restoration. Maybe the animal is constructed accurately and Diabloceratops was just a lumpen beast.

      • 20 David Hone 07/08/2012 at 10:02 am

        You can copy my stuff too. I mean, I’m happy to say it in a public forum like this so go ahead. For the record, I rather liked the old cover too actually. I’d agree it’s very stylised, but I don’t think it’s cartoony.

  8. 21 Craig Dylke 07/08/2012 at 11:17 am

    Mike- I don’t think being an artist has anything to do with it ;)

    I think many of the things that are bothering you (other than the limb proportions) would disappear with a different colour pallette. I agree with the playdough comparision too. The purple grey is causing that (especially with the strong highlights and sheen on the hide).

  9. 22 Craig Dylke 07/08/2012 at 11:18 am

    Thanks guys. Let you know when I get the post up.

  10. 24 Digant 09/08/2012 at 7:30 am

    So what is the best, most accurate, and most detailed Dino book?

    • 25 David Hone 09/08/2012 at 7:49 am

      They’re all different and aimed at a different audience. The obvious answer is “The Dinosauria” but it’s starting to date (it came out in 2004) and it’s very technical, unless you are a real expert it’d probably be rather a dull read and actually hard to understand. Different books fill different criteria depending on what your level of knowledge and experience is.

      • 26 Mike Taylor 09/08/2012 at 10:55 am

        All true, of course. But for people looking to go beyond, “Wow, dinosaurs are awesome”, my standard recommendation has been that The Dinosaur Heresies is still best for kinding a spirit of scientific inquiry, then the Holtz/Rey encyclopedia is the best next step for getting a surprisingly detailed overview of the aspects of dinosaur science at a stupidly low price, and then step three is The Complete Dinosaur. I assume that the 2nd edition is better than the original.

      • 27 David Hone 09/08/2012 at 12:58 pm

        Well he did say accurate and detailed Mike, and the Dinosaur Heresies is not really either. There’s not much detail, and it’s badly dated and of course flat wrong about a few things (pterosaurs are not dinosaurs!). I\d definately got for Holtz-Rey though, but of course if people already have that the next step probably is the Complete Dinosaur before hitting the Dinosauria.

      • 28 Mike Taylor 09/08/2012 at 1:00 pm

        Well he did say accurate and detailed Mike, and the Dinosaur Heresies is not really either.

        You’ll get no argument from me on that. But I stand by the very specific compliment I paid it, that it’s “still best for kinding a spirit of scientific inquiry”. It’s a gateway drug.

        We’re agreed on steps 2-4, though!

      • 29 David Hone 09/08/2012 at 1:07 pm

        Oh I get you Mike, just not sure Digant would. You did indeed emphasise what it’s good at, but i wanted the drawbacks also made clear. I do still come across people who’ve just read it and think it’s both cutting edge and 100% true.

      • 30 Herman Diaz 09/08/2012 at 4:04 pm

        If it’s OK, I’d like to give my 2 cents on the matter. If I had to recommend a more recent/accurate book to fill the role of The Dinosaur Heresies, I’d recommend either “The Natural History Museum Book of Dinosaurs” ( http://www.amazon.com/Natural-History-Museum-Book-Dinosaurs/dp/184442183X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1344524505&sr=1-1 ) or “Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life” ( http://www.amazon.com/Dinosaur-Odyssey-Fossil-Threads-Life/dp/0520269896/ref=la_B0028OI7XS_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1344524569&sr=1-1 ), the latter being a less family-friendly version of the former.

      • 31 Digant 09/08/2012 at 4:56 pm

        I’m not an expert but I’m up for the challenge! I think I’ll order both The Dinosauria and Holtz-Rey book! Awesome, thanks guys!

  11. 32 Mark Robinson 10/08/2012 at 4:12 am

    FWIW, I second what both Dave and Mike have said. Tom and Luis’ book is an absolute favourite – I felt like I had bought two books for the price of one. Finally, I had something to replace the excellent “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs” by David Norman and illustrated by John Sibbick which, through no fault of its own, is now somewhat outdated.

  12. 33 Craig Dylke 10/08/2012 at 4:33 am

    I’d nominate Scott Sampson’s Dinosaur Odyssey as the modern replacement for Dinosaur Heresies. I still love the Heresies, but Sampson builds on those older questions with new findings to build a more refined way of looking at Dinosaur studies. Especially important is Chapter 11, which reframes the metabolism questions from Heresies into a very compelling new area of modern palaeontoogy in need of more study.

    • 34 David Hone 10/08/2012 at 8:28 am

      I’ve not seen Scott’s book (or a few others mentioned above) so just for the record I’m only recommending / unrecommending things I’ve read.

  13. 35 Digant 10/08/2012 at 5:26 pm

    Anyone heard about this book? I’ve got mine preordered. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0857685848/ref=oh_details_o01_s00_i00

  14. 36 Jason S. 12/08/2012 at 5:54 pm

    The first edition of The Complete Dinosaur remains one of the best books on plaeontology ever written. Even after nearly two decades, it still feels accurate, relevant, and “complete”. This new second edition, by contrast, feels rather incomplete. I am disappointed that many of the truly interesting chapters on dinosaur reproductive, paleoichnology, and paleopathology have been left out. The pictures are often too blury or too small, and sometimes contradict the theories presented in the text. (Did anyone notice David Peter’s Quetzalcoatlus skeletal from 1989?) I know the authors worked long and hard on this project and deserve credit for their efforts, but I wish they could have don a little more. :(

  15. 37 palaios248 25/08/2012 at 1:51 am

    Awesome review. I’ve had the first edition for a couple years now, but looks like I’ll have to put this one on my christmas list :)

    Also, somewhat off topic (but I don’t know who else to ask)… are any dinosaur skeletons highly radioactive? Like, lethally so? A friend of mine told me about how some History Channel show stated that most dinosaur fossils are highly radioactive, and must be covered with lead paint to prevent radiation sickness in humans. Fairly certain this is bunk, but I just thought I’d get an expert opinion, just in case.

    • 38 David Hone 25/08/2012 at 8:19 am

      I know *some* fossil bones are somewhat radioactive and have to be handled with care, but I’ve never come across a single dinosaur bone like that. I’ve never seen any lead paint, or any paint and I’ve handled tons. If this were true, everyone should be wandering through the AMNH and Carnegie covered in radiation suits, and you can guess why they are not.

  16. 39 Craig Dylke 27/08/2012 at 7:05 am

    Black Beauty the Tyrannosaur at the Tyrrell is radioactive. Not to a hazmat suit level mind you. However if the fossils are stored in a place where the air is allowed to sit stall for long periods of time the radiation can buildup to more harmful levels. About 8 or 9 years ago they had to redesign the storage units for Black Beauty so they vented this air a bit more proactively. It was never the fossils that were the problem though, just the accumlated radiation in the air. The only real challenge they had was with her skull, as it was on display a totally sealed case in the public gallery. These days they’ve moved her to a case in the wall where if you look carefully you can see the air vents.


  1. 1 “The Complete Dinosaur” | Dinosaurs and Mummies Trackback on 06/04/2014 at 4:28 pm

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