Saturday, February 23, 2013

Where I'm At and How I Got Here

While I don't plan on writing a post every day moving forward, I figured I've got enough of a backlog of topics to justify more frequent updates. Since I've already given a detailed background of who I am, I felt that the next logical step was to summarize my previous dinosaur studies so everyone knows where I've been and I have a better idea of where I'm going.

To preface things a bit, I plan on only discussing books I've been reading. There are a number of blogs I try to keep up with, but the vast array of topics that are covered would dominate my time if I chose to discuss them. I've provided a list of the blogs I read and will likely make mention of the authors from time to time.
Anyway, I suppose I'll get started with a book I read in the summer of 2011 but had purchased months earlier. I was perusing the discount book table at the campus bookstore when I stumbled across How to Build a Dinosaur by Jack Horner with James Gorman for $6. I wasn't sure what to think, but it made mention of a chickenosaurus, so I was sold.

The research outlined in this book makes me excited about the direction of modern science.

I stumbled through the text as best I could, but since the focus of the text is evolutionary developmental biology, I tended to get lost frequently. This is a book that made me wish I had taken at least one biology course in high school. Despite my struggles, I enjoyed the material and completed it in a couple of weeks of sporadic reading. I would definitely recommend it for anyone that appreciates that dinosaurs and paleontology are actually important to advancing science and are not just hobbies.

After completing How to Build a Dinosaur, I went on a bit of a hiatus from dinosaur books, because I was attempting to throttle my interest so I could concentrate on school. As is usual when the words "was attempting" are included in a sentence, the term "did fail" is an appropriate conclusion. By the spring of 2012, I was trolling Amazon for anything that was written by paleontologists I'm familiar with, be they hard copy or Kindle books. Over the past year and change, I've accumulated a pretty decent library of relevant material that will continue to grow as long as new books keep popping up.

Thus far, I have managed to complete reading on two other texts. The first is Dinosaurs With Special Reference to the American Museum Collections by William Diller Matthew. I was especially excited that it was free as an eBook and would let me test out the new Kindle. Since this was initially published in 1915, I knew that a large portion of the book would be inaccurate based on current research, but I felt it would be beneficial to gain a better historical perspective of the field. 

The reading took me less than a week, and I found many things of note, be they humorously incorrect or just plain interesting. Some parts that jumped out at me were speculation that Apatosaurus was viviparous, discussion about T. rex possibly being a scavenger, and the frequent mentions of the similarities between theropod dinosaurs and birds without explicitly making the connection that seems so obvious today. The book also makes reference to the Comanchic and Cretacic Periods, which are known now as the Cretaceous. I'm a bit disappointed that those names weren't kept on some level for reference, but such is life. I won't even get into the issues with the geologic time scale, because they didn't have radiometric dating to help them. Some of the information may be incorrect, but the entire book was educational. I look forward to reading it again and being able to dedicate a lot more time and space to talking about it.

The most recent book that I have actually completed is Dinosaurs: The Most Complete, Up-to-Date Encyclopedia for Dinosaur Lovers of All Ages by Thomas Holtz. This book is geared toward the teenage crowd, but given my layman's knowledge of the field, it was a great fit. Being illustrated by Luis Rey allowed me to overlook to remarkably bulky title and really made the book fun to flip through. 

As with every hardcover book I own, I immediately removed the dust jacket. Turns out that the backside is a nifty poster.

This was the first book that I attempted to read during the academic year. I found it difficult at times to make progress due to my schedule, but Dr. Holtz's more casual writing style allowed me to flow through the text quickly when I had the chance to sit with it. I appreciated the level at which the book discussed phylogeny and cladistics, as I was previously unfamiliar with the latter. I also felt that the chapters were well ordered, allowing the reader to go from one dinosaur grouping to the next without getting lost in the shuffle. Honestly though, the best things about this book are probably the comprehensive list of dinosaur species and the series of updates Dr. Holtz provides on his website

My only real issue was the repetitive nature of some of the reading. I felt at times as if each chapter was intended to be an individual publication. I moved past the problem in an orderly fashion, as the wealth of knowledge and wry humor were more than worth the minor annoyance this caused. Dinosaurs was a great stepping stone to more advanced material, but my next selection was probably a bit more than I could handle.

I decided on Dinosaur Paleobiology by Stephen Brusatte as the next phase of my studies. I managed to brute force my way through a couple of chapters, but I was getting bogged down in terms I had never heard before. I am disappointed to be putting this aside temporarily, but I'll find the time later to pick it up. Next time, likely this summer, I'll have my iPad and a notebook(the kind with paper in it) to help me master the terminology.

This book is far too brightly colored for me to let it win. Redemption shall be mine!

My next reading venture shall be Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature by Brian Switek. I opted for the Kindle edition to save a little money and to see how well the book's imagery displays in this format. This is more of a pleasure read for me, but I hope to learn something that will be applicable as my venture continues.

Since I plan to revisit the works I've mentioned above, I'll probably write more thorough reviews as I finish reading them again. If I'm smart, I'll actually take notes this time instead of just trying to remember everything. Also, if anyone is interested, Brian Switek and Thomas Holtz are both on Twitter, @Laelaps and @TomHoltzPaleo respectively. Until next time, thanks for reading!


  1. Joe,
    the Brusatte book is excellent, but it is written for a very specific audience, and it is brutally edited for shortness. It really aims at students aspiring to be palaeontologists, students with a very good education in biology and geology, and at experienced scientists from close-by disciplines. No wonder you're having a hard time.
    Do come back to it once you know more about the general concepts, basically once you can read an undergrad-level biology or geology textbook without despairing. Steve's book is totally worth it, as a very concise intro into dinosaur palaeo. Just don't expect it to be more.

    1. Thanks for the advise! It's a shame I don't have a biology text handy. I've purchased E.O. Wilson's Tree of Life iBook, but it is still in the development phase. I still have my geology book, and I plan on reading it for the first time. (I've got a history of not doing assigned reading in school.) As I don't have much for intermediaries, I may soon try again to brute-force read the Brusatte book, outlining as I go and writing definitions for unknown terms. Hopefully I'm only beating my head against drywall and not brick.

    2. The correct title for Wilson's iBook is Life on Earth. Sometimes I'm a victim of my own faulty memory.