A dinosaur lover since childhood, science journalist Switek (Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature, 2010) chronicles his travels through North America visiting scientists, museums and fossil beds while delivering an enthusiastic account of the history, description, discoveries, ongoing controversies and inaccurate media obsession with these popular but extinct creatures.
The brontosaur itself illustrates the author’s theme. Paleontologists discarded the name a century ago (it’s been Apatosaurus since), but it remains the popular term for one of the largest, heaviest land animals in Earth’s history. Until the 1970s, experts portrayed it as a lumbering creature too massive to support its weight, perhaps living partly submerged in swamp water. Then experts decided they were wrong, and it became an agile creature of the plains; adolescents could walk on hind legs. Research into fossil bones and skin reveals that dinosaurs, although reptiles, were not reptilian (scaly, crawling, sluggish, coldblooded) but so energetic, fast-moving and fast-growing that it’s likely they were warmblooded. Scientists also changed their minds about the dull green lizard skin featured in images from the 19th century to Jurassic Park. Many covered their nakedness with colorful fuzz, the primitive ancestor of feathers, which have been turning up in dinosaur fossils since the 1990s. Today, most readers are aware that a catastrophic mass extinction 65 million years ago wiped out the dinosaurs. In another reassessment, paleontologists now believe that only “nonavian dinosaurs” vanished. One family had already evolved into birds.
Readers will forgive Switek’s detours into cuteness and bad jokes in exchange for a genuinely informative introduction to his favorite subject.