October 22, 2009
Given the number of books that are published about dinosaurs, there is bound to be some overlap among them. Most titles fall into a handful of categories: the “menagerie” approach, where a collection of various dinosaurs is prefaced by a few short summaries of paleontology; the “life in the field” perspective, in which the scientific content is tied to the author’s experiences, and the “Age of Reptiles” summaries, which focus on which dinosaurs lived when.
But paleontologist Scott Sampson’s new book, Dinosaur Odyssey, cannot be pigeonholed into these categories. Relatively late in the book, Sampson recounts how paleontologist Jack Horner, harried by reporters asking whether a meteor had wiped out the dinosaurs, replied that he didn’t give a whit how dinosaurs died, he wanted to know how dinosaurs lived. Sampson uses this as his guiding principle throughout Dinosaur Odyssey, and gives readers a rare peek at what dinosaurs might have been like as living, breathing creatures.
Sampson starts things off not by diving into a discussion of bleeding-edge research, but by gradually setting the scene. Using dinosaurs as examples, Sampson discusses evolution, ecology, geology, biogeography and other concepts that provide essential background for the latter half of the book. In different hands, this material could easily be the stuff of dry, textbook-type recitation, but Sampson’s use of dinosaurs as examples and his injection of personal anecdotes into the storyline keep the text flowing nicely.
The second half of the book builds upon these topics by looking at looking at how dinosaurs interacted with one another and their world. Did the origin of flowering plants influence dinosaur evolution? Were the fancy horns on dinosaurs such as Triceratops for fighting or for display? Were dinosaurs really “warm-blooded”? How could so many different kinds of large predatory dinosaurs have lived at the same time? In answering these and other questions, Sampson refers to specific localities and studies, allowing the reader to get a better understanding of what particular places were like during the age of dinosaurs. Dinosaurs might seem almost like mythical creatures now, but Sampson shows that they were real animals that were affected by phenomena that are still shaping our world. His “dinosaur odyssey” offers a new way of linking the past to the present.
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