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some bits presented as ‘correct’ that I think many, if not most, researchers would disagree with as being incorrect, out of date or just off (the short section on pterosaurs buried in one of the chapters is, well, not good to say the least).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.