Thursday, May 07, 2009

Dawn of the Dinosaurs

I finished Nicholas Fraser's Dawn of the Dinosaurs: Life in the Triassic last night. I think I mentioned it earlier, but when I first requested this book from Interlibrary Loan, I imagined that it was a children's book like Patricia Lauber's book How Dinosaurs Came to Be. Also illustrated by Doug Henderson. I was quite shocked (and pleased) to find that it is a very thick, meaty book indeed, and fairly technically written. It also was apparent that it was a general survey of life in the Triassic period, which I was even more excited about, because that period is one that is sadly poorly covered by popular literature, so you have to be able to decipher technical literature as well as piece together facts, hints and whatnot from various sources to get a good picture of life in the Triassic at all.

However, as I delved into the book, I found that it was not without a number of very disappointing features as well. The book talks a lot about sedimentology (not too surprising; that's at the heart of actual paleontological work, after all), and makes a great survey of the Triassic background. A lot of text is spent talking about Triassic climates, for example. Triassic plants are given lots of text. Triassic insect, fer cryin' out loud, get lots of attention. The same is true for fish, crustaceans, clams... you name it, it's covered.

With the exception of the dinosaurs. For a book that's titled Dawn of the Dinosaurs, dinosaurs are, surprisingly, barely and reluctantly even mentioned at all, and only when it would be really glaring to not do so. So, for example, the chapter on the Ischigualasto and Santa Maria formations make a brief mention of Eoraptor, Herrerasaurus, Pisanosaurus, Staurikosaurus and Saturnalia. The chapter on the Chinle formation talks for a few paragraphs about Coelophysis. That's really about it. There's so much that could be said about the origin and earliest radiation of dinosaurs, and Fraser, quite simply, just doesn't say it.

That could be forgiveable if he talked about some of the other large vertebrates of the Triassic, but all of the archosaur radiations are given pretty brief mention. Phytosaurs are perhaps the most frequently referenced, but that's only because they show up in all of the fossil formations, and little more is said about them than that they appear. Aetosaurs, rauisuchids, ornithosuchids, and basal dinosaurimorphs are all treated extremely lightly, when my expectations would have been that that was the heart and soul of the book. Even the therapsids and early mammals are only lightly brushed on. I was a fairly disappointed to have read the book and discovered that it talked more about insects, little lizard-like (sorta) drepanosaurs and sphenodontians, and procolophonids than it did about dinosaurs, therapsids, phytosaurs, or the other most interesting large faunal elements.

Perhaps Fraser made the assumption that he was unlikely to say anything there that readers didn't already know (which is, I suppose, fair and probably true for people like me anyway) but that doesn't make it any less disappointing.

I did learn two words, though, that I had never seen before but which he used frequently. Depauperate (which basically just means "poor" especially in regards to a paleontological formation that is lacking in specimens) and xeric, which means 'pertaining to or adapted to dry, arid environments.' I like both of those words.

All in all, I can't really recommend this book, though, unless you've done a fair amount of independent research of your own on Triassic vertebrate life; the big patterns of large, megafaunal animals is just simply not discussed sufficiently.

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