Back at the end of November I learned about the existence of Becky Crew’s new book. At the time it was not available stateside, but I wrote to Becky and asked for a review copy, and she kindly had her press guy send me one. I am finally getting my review posted, and none to soon–Andy Farke got his copy from Amazon last week. You can get the book here: Amazon, Amazon.co.uk (temporarily out of stock as of this writing), New South Books.
Full disclosure: I am friends with Becky, and an admirer of her previous work (details in this post). You can decide for yourself whether my review is thereby compromised.
The book lives up to its title. There is a lot of weird stuff in here–I mean really damn weird. Most of the entries practically beg to be read aloud to an astounded audience. I kept pestering Vicki with snippets from the book until she said, with a look of profound disgust, “I no longer approve of evolution. Animals are just too gross.” Some of it, like mind-controlling flukes and 42-cm duck penises, will be familiar to many web-savvy folks interested in animals. But most of it was new to me, and will probably be new to you as well. Five of the fifty essays in the book are recycled from blog posts, but the other 90% is new material.
Each essay is three to five pages long and centers around one animal and its weirdness (or, very occasionally, two animals who share some related weirdness). Some of the weirdness is anatomical, some of it is behavioral, some of it is so weird it defies easy categorization. Helpfully, below the title of each essay is a subtitle that gives both the popular and scientific names of the subject critters (except a handful of weirdoes, either extinct or newly discovered, that have no popular names). About a fourth of the entries have an illustration of the featured critter.
Now, the book is not just a freak show of “hey, look, monkeys pee on themselves to get dates, isn’t that weird?” In every case, Becky explains why the animals do these weird things, according to our best current understanding. So the weirdness of each animal becomes a window into some other realm of science, whether it’s the physiology of neurotoxins, the ecology of estuaries, the antimicrobial properties of bat saliva, or how the geomorphology of the Guiana Highlands has influenced the escape behavior of frogs.
In these explanations, Becky cites relevant peer-reviewed research, much of it recent but some of it old, for historical background. She quotes from a 1922 paper on anglerfish, and two of the chapters are devoted to marine worms that were only discovered in 2006 and 2009. I count 114 books and papers and 27 websites in the bibliography, which is helpfully broken down by section and has the publications and websites segregated within each section.
There’s a lot of meat on these bones: in addition to literature citations, almost every essay includes direct quotes from the scientists involved in the studies. I don’t know how many of the quotes came from press-releases–certainly not all, since the former outnumber the latter by a wide margin–and how many come from Becky getting in touch with the scientists directly. Based on both the informality of the quotes and Becky’s extensive chops as a science journalist, I suspect most of the quotes are the results of her own hard work of finding these people and getting them to talk.
And that’s one of the meta-impressions I got from the book: the sheer amount of work that went into writing it. Now, I pride myself on knowing a lot of weird stuff, on keeping up with at least the broad strokes of zoological research, and on citing a decent breadth of literature in my work. But Becky blows me away on all three axes. Put simply, I have no friggin’ idea how she finds all of this stuff. In the same way that I learn about a lot of weird stuff from Darren, I can’t help but wonder if there’s an even-better-informed, reclusive super-Becky who passes Actual Becky tips on altruistic behavior in chocaholic rats, the development of marine pigbutt worms, and so on.
Okay, so who’s in the book? Here’s my very approximate, non-phylogenetic breakdown. The total adds up to 50, because some of the pieces feature more than one critter. I think the coverage is pretty even for a popular zoology book–there’s certainly no hint that Becky skewed toward charismatic megafauna.
Other invertebrates: 8
Fish (i.e., non-tetrapod vertebrates): 6
Non-avian dinos: 5
Now, it’s not science all the time. As you might expect from the title, one of the hallmarks of Becky’s writing has always been her irreverent approach to her subjects. Like a sort of Miss Manners meets Dr. Ruth, Becky is prone to imagining the social lives of her animals–by which I mean, job interviews, failed dates, and awkward family get-togethers–and giving them advice. In what I’m calling the ‘informal segments’, the colossal squid is a peeping tom, Microraptor is a stripper, the naked mole rat is a Bond villain, and the male deep-sea anglerfish is a troubled teenager trying to find the whereabouts of his father. From anglerfish’s diary: “Learnt about the whole morphing-into-genitals thing in sex ed class today. Contemplating becoming a
warlock whatever the male version of a nun is.” Becky’s animals text each other, suffer hangovers, blow off their friends to watch Downton Abbey, and complain about Selena Gomez. Some of the pop culture references may not age well, but I reckon by the time they’re out of date, Becky will have written another book.
The informal segments vary in length, with some critters just getting a couple of lines and others getting a page or two. They’re always clearly set off from the rest of the essay, so if they do nothing for you, they’re easy enough to skip over. Me, I think they’re hilarious, and I laughed a lot while reading the book. After digesting something technical on, say, neuroanatomy, it’s nice to laugh at the gulf pipefish getting hit on by bar skanks.
Other strong points:
- Becky is always alert to the uncertainty inherent in science, the potential for disagreements and for our current understanding to be revised in the light of new data. Reading the book, you definitely get the impression that zoology is a human enterprise, that “current knowledge” is the membrane of a human-generated bubble of understanding in an ocean of Unknown Weird. Inside the bubble, there is the curiosity, ingenuity, and sheer tenacity of zoologists, always pushing outward, building on the work of others, trying to find new things and make sense of what they find. On the other side, the uncaring universe, which pushes back in myriad ways. Animals live in environments that are fantastically inhospitable to humans, including the humans who are trying to learn about those animals. They exhibit inexplicable behaviors and their motivations and ways of life are often perversely opaque to human understanding. They are not here for us. But we can understand them anyway, if we’re clever, hard-working, and lucky.
- Becky is equally alert to the possibility inherent in science, that there are always more surprises waiting for us out there, more facts to discover and more explanations to figure out. The overall tone of the book is happy and optimistic. It’s clear that Becky loves learning about weird animals and loves telling others about them almost as much–which, of course, are among the primary joys of science.
Any cons? A few, none major. I caught a couple of typos, but only a couple, which IME is about par for a book of this length (260 pp). There were one or two bits of what I assume is Australian slang in the informal segments, but I figured them out from context and they didn’t interfere with my enjoyment at all. There are one or two points where phylogenetic terms are either misunderstood or at least oddly applied–for example, Ruminantia is not “an ancient family of ruminants”, but a huge clade encompassing many ‘families’ of extant ruminants and their fossil relatives. But again, there were only a couple such instances and neither counts for much.
There is some profanity in the book. I counted about half a dozen f-bombs, and a few other cuss words. At first I thought that was a poor decision, because it would keep me from recommending the book to, say, a precocious 12-year-old. But that’s because I was still in the first section, on predators. Once I got to the section on mating habits, I realized that I wouldn’t be recommending this book to kids anyway, what with all the forcible intercourse, extra-species sex, penis-drumming, and animals living in other animals’ buttholes. It’s all real stuff, and it’s all really interesting, and I don’t believe that this sort of material should be off-limits forever. But I also don’t think that preteens have any pressing need to learn about enthusiastic bat fellatio. Your parental control mileage may vary.
If you’re not sure if the book is for you, or you’d like a test drive, you can head over to Becky’s blog (current, classic) and check out her writing for free. It will give a pretty good sense of what you’re in for, although I got the impression that Becky was really swinging for the fences in the book–the writing’s a little tighter and the whole thing is just a bit more polished than her average blog entry.
Verdict: I loved it. Go get a copy for yourself or the (grown-up) animal lover in your life.
November 29, 2012
[Note added in press: Matt published his last post just as I was finishing this one up, so I am posting it without having read his beyond seeing that he also mentions All Yesterdays.]
It was back at the Lyme Regis SVPCA in 2011 that I first saw the material that’s now available as the new palaeoart book All Yesterdays [amazon.com, amazon.co.uk]. It was the first talk of the conference, billed as an ice-breaker, and presented by John Conway with typical eccentricity using an old-fashioned slide-projector. In a pub.
In his talk, Conway presented beautiful paintings he had done of extinct animals — mostly dinosaurs — restored in ways very different from what we’re used to seeing.
Conway’s stated goal was to make the animals look as unconventional as possible – consistent with his speculations not actually being contradicted by the evidence. The result was a sequence of strangely beautiful and very memorable images.
You could argue that a pub in a seaside town on the first night of a conference is not the ideal time and place to launch a dozen novel palaeobiological hypotheses, but actually I suspect it worked well. As best I remember, the general response to the presentation was a lot of laughter, and some dismissive head-shaking, but also some thoughtful nodding — people thinking to themsleves “that might not be too far off, actually”.
And so we saw lekking elasmosaurs, their necks extending vertically into the air; we saw camarasaurs rolling in the mud like elephants; we saw tree-climbing goat-mimic protoceratopsids; we saw therizinosaurus looking more like triffids than dinosaurs. Lots of ideas, most of them perfectly reasonable but — it maybe seemed at the time — a little far-fetched.
Having opened SVPCA 2011 with his All Yesterdays presentation, it fell to Conway to close 2012’s meeting with All Todays — a complementary talk in which he showed paintings of modern animals as they might be reconstructed by far-future palaeontologists if they had only fossilised bones to work from.
So we had shrink-wrapped reptilian-looking cats, their jugal arches picked out in dermal scutes; we had hornless rhinos with sails; we had vultures reconstructed not with feathers (who would even come with such an idea, if we didn’t have modern birds as a reference point?) but with a much more obvious wing construction — a simple membrane.
Again, the timing of the talk encouraged delegates to see it as something lighthearted — a dessert to follow all the solid meat of the main sessions. But a few months on, now that the ideas have had time to percolate, they seem to me to be much more powerful. All Todays was an important reframing of All Yesterdays, a demonstration of just how easy it can be to misinterpret fossils — or, rather, to misinterpret live animals when working from fossils. In light of the shrink-wrapped cat, the fat Parasaurolophus from the earlier presentation seemed much more believable. In light of the naked-skinned vulture, the little-ball-of-fluff Leallynosaura didn’t feel like a stretch.
That’s why I am particularly delighted that the new book combines John Conway’s art from both of these presentations (along with new pieces and text by Memo Kosemen, an introduction by Darren Naish and skeletal reconstructions by Scott Hartman). They belong together, complementing each other and making the whole more than the sum of its parts.
What’s happening here is in fact something much more significant than fodder for beer-fuelled discussions. It’s nothing less than a radical and wholly feasible re-imagining of prehistoric life. The quick, agile dinosaurs illustrated by Bakker and his followers in the late 1960s and 1970s revolutionised the ponderous image that had been perpetuated by Knight, Zallinger and Burian. But Bakkerian dinosaurs quickly became a new orthodoxy, adhered to just as strongly as the old had been. The Jurassic Park raptors of 1993 were direct descendants of Bakker’s 1969 drawing (above). And although details have changed since then — orientation of the hands, the addition of feathers — the general body shape has survived largely unchanged in all nearly all palaeoart.
It takes art as radical as that of All Yesterdays to show us just how locked-in we have all become to the Bakker-and-Paul school of life restoration. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that Conway’s work is the first truly new approach to depicting extinct animals since Bakker’s — which means that All Yesterdays is not only the most beautiful but also the most important palaeoart book of the last four decades. Up to this point in history, we’ve had two dynasties of dinosaur art. I think All Yesterdays is the launch of the third.
And it is beautiful. There are some superb palaeoartists working in the field at the moment — it’s never been more dynamic and, in the best sense, competitive. But while the work even of some excellent practitioners is rather interchangeable, Conway’s work is always instantly recognisable because he is an artist first and a palaeoartist second. Others may be more accomplished or have better technique, but for my money Conway’s palaeoart has an evocative and even poignant quality that is very rare, maybe unique.
Of course, none of this is to say that all the speculation in All Yesterdays is correct. But the crucial point is this: neither is the speculation in all the other palaeoart of the last forty years. It encodes assumptions and speculations just as much as Conway’s does: but those assumptions and speculations have been invisible precisely because they have been so ubiquitous. Part of the value of All Yesterdays is that it gives us a proper perspective, for the first time, on ideas that we’ve accepted too readily through repetition and lack of challenge. So even when All Yesterdays is wrong, it performs a valuable function. Hopefully it will push the second-dynasty artists to raise their games.
Anyone who loves dinosaurs, science or art will find this book intensely rewarding. Anyone who loves all three will find it a necessity. Enthusiasts will probably want a printed copy rather than the e-Book.
November 29, 2012
It’s been a while since I posted here. I haven’t gone off SV-POW! or anything, just going through one of my periodic doldrums (read: super-busy with Other Stuff). I’m writing now to draw your attention to two books that I’m pretty darned excited about.
The first is All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals, by John Conway, Memo Kosemen, and Darren Naish, with skeletal diagrams by Scott Hartman (lulu, Amazon). This is sort of an SV-POW! love-fest, in that Darren is One Of Us, John and Scott let us use their art a lot–even the goofy stuff–and get a shout-out now and then, and I’ve been awed by the work of Memo–a.k.a. Nemo Ramjet–for longer than SV-POW! has existed (he also created Brontosapiens!). But wait–there’s more! One of the first people to review the book is Emily Willoughby, who was also as far as we know the first person after Paco Gasco to illustrate Brontomerus–that image is still Bronto‘s flagship portrait on Wikipedia.
But enough navel-gazing. The book is based around the mind-blowing presentations “All Yesterdays” and “All Todays” at SVPCA 2011 and 2012, both delivered by John Conway. True story: “All Yesterdays” was the intro to the icebreaker/mixer thing at Lyme Regis, so right after the talk people jumped up to grab pints and socialize. Sometime in the next few minutes, John was separately approached by three different paleontologists who thought that “All Yesterdays” should be a book, and wanted to help write it. Those three hopefuls were Darren, Mike, and me. I’m extremely happy that Darren is the one on the book. Mike and I can wrangle sauropods and we’re both “All [Some]days” fanboys, but the book really needed someone approaching tetrapod omniscience, and that’s obviously Darren.
Whoops, that was actually just another paragraph of navel-gazing. Anywho, I knew after this year’s SVPCA that there would be a book, but I had no idea it would be out so soon. I can’t tell you much about the book itself, for two reasons. First, my dead-tree copy is still en route from lulu.com. Second, I wouldn’t tell you much about the book if I could, because you should see it for yourself. It’s firmly in the tradition of speculative zoology but also has a serious point to make about the memes that drive a lot of paleoart. That’s all you need to know–get the book and prepare to be surprised, amused, amazed, and moved to wonder.
The other new book I’m all het up about is Zombie Tits, Astronaut Fish, and Other Weird Animals, by Becky Crew (Amazon, New South Books). My mutual admiration pact with Bec goes back to 2009. She blogged about one of my posts, I blogged about how indescribably wonderful her blog was, she published something I wrote–my first paying gig as a writer, I think. Now she’s blogging at SciAm, which is great, because although she’s smart, irreverent, and freakin’ hilarious, she’s also mortal, and we need to get as much of that good stuff out of her head and into general circulation as possible while she’s still around. (She’s not sick or anything, she’s just going to die sometime in the next century, and if you read her blog I think you’ll agree that that’s too damn soon.) Zombie Tits does not seem to be available stateside yet, but I will keep a weather eye on things and post an update when that changes.
I’ll probably review both books here in due time, if by “review” one means “alternately drool over and hyperbolically gush about with no attempt at objectivity whatsoever”. And I do mean precisely that.
It’s been a while since we’ve served you up a sauropod, so, finally and fittingly, here’s John Conway’s playful Camarasaurus taking a mud bath. Or maybe just trying to hide its hideousness; as the authors of All Yesterdays note, “Camarasaurus [...] is considered by some experts to be among the ugliest of all sauropods”.
May 6, 2011
Although we like to stay sauropod-o-centric on SV-POW!, I just want to take a moment to acknowledge the most astounding publication I have ever seen, Sterling Nesbitt’s new basal archosaur phylogeny (Nesbitt 2011). Thanks to the wonder of open access publishing, it is freely available, and I urge everyone to check it out, if only to gaze in open-mouthed astonishment at the scale of the thing.
In 292 packed pages, Nesbitt provides a new phylogenetic analysis of basal archosaurs, using 80 species and 412 characters. But if that doesn’t sound like the hugest matrix you’ve ever heard of, what sets this contribution apart is the incredibly detailed work in describing and illustrating those characters. In those terms, I can only compare it with Wilson and Sereno’s (1988) JVP monograph — but that described 109 characters, and even then not in such exhaustive detail as in the new work. And everything else about this paper is also super-comprehensive: the discussion of earlier work, the description of the mechanics of the analysis, the extensive sections talking through the expected and unexpected results of that analysis. To give just a tiny flavour, here’s a figure showing a bunch of basal archosaur braincases:
Knowing nothing about basal archosaurs myself, I have nothing intelligent to say about the content of the paper — I will leave that to others, and I don’t doubt that Bill and Jeff will have plenty to say on their respective blogs. I just want to marvel at the sheer scale of the undertaking. My Ph.D dissertation was 285 pages long — by coincidence, almost exactly the same length of Nesbitt’s epic. But dissertations are much less dense than papers: they are double-spaced (or 1.5x spaced in my case, since that was an option and I hate wide spacing with a passion), and figures each take up a whole page — or even two if the caption is separate. All in all, I’d say that two pages of dissertation are worth one page of publication, near enough. Which means that Nesbitt has poured twice as much work into a single paper as most of us do into our entire Ph.Ds.
Dude, pls. You’re making the rest of us look bad.
(By the way, since a decent dissertation contains four or five non-trivial papers, it follows that there’s enough work in the new Nesbitt tome to have been equivalent to maybe ten papers. but because it’s all in one package, he’ll only get 1/10 as many citations as he would have, had he written ten papers instead. This just shows what a stupid way counting citations is for assessing the importance of someone’s work.)
The final thing that should be said about this is that by all accounts, Nesbitt is an uncommonly nice guy. (I’ve only met him once myself, briefly, which is why I don’t feel justified in using his first name in this article.) And I have found, almost without exception, that the most impressive palaeontologists are also the ones who are most helpful and generous. I could mention Randy Irmis, for example, who seems to churn out half a dozen top-class papers for every publication I manage to get out the door, and who would be terrifying to be around if he wasn’t such a good guy. Steve Brusatte is another one whose rate and quality of work is astonishing, yet who is always ready to help out other people. (I am going to stop mentioning people by name now, otherwise those who don’t get a mention might feel slighted. There are plenty of other examples, and you probably know who some of them are.) I don’t know why it should be that quality × quantity of work correlates so well with niceness, but that’s how it seems to be, and I like it that way.
Anyway, go and look at — I won’t say read, not all the way though — Nesbitt’s giant analysis. It sets the bar higher for us all.
- Nesbitt, Sterling J. 2011. The early evolution of archosaurs: relationships and the origin of major clades. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 352 (292 pages, 61 figures, 1 table).
- Wilson, J. A. and Paul C. Sereno. 1998. Early evolution and higher-level phylogeny of sauropod dinosaurs. Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, Memoir 5: 1-68.
November 15, 2008
Happy Xenoposeidon day! Today, November 15, 2008, is the one-year anniversary of the publication of Xenoposeidon Taylor and Naish 2007.
By happy coincidence, I’ve just been sent a courtesy copy of Kids Only, a new guide-book for the Natural History Museum … and there is Xenoposeidon on page 5, exemplifying dinosaur diversity. Rock!
It’s good to see our baby out there educating people!
For much more of Xeno, see Xenoposeidon week.
April 14, 2008
I’m going to exploit this site to post a (very rare) off-topic book recommendation. So here it is: The Variety of Life — a survey and a celebration of all the creatures that have ever lived, by Colin Tudge.
I’ve just finished reading this hefty book — 684 pages in the paperback edition — and I’ve found it fantastically invigorating. I’ve often bemoaned how stupidly over-specialised my zoological knowledge is: really, outside the realm of mid-to-posterior neosauropod dorsals, I am pretty darned hopeless, and Darren’s effortless mastery of pretty much every tetrapod group leaves me awestruck. Having come to the end of this whistle-stop tour of the whole of Biota — three domains, more kingdoms than you can shake a stick at, and hundreds of freakier lifestyles than I’d ever imagined — I’ve come to realise what a tiny and parochial corner of biology we inhabit here at SV-POW! towers.
The book is in two and a half sections. Part 1 consists of five chapters (90 pages or so) on the history and philosophy of biological classification, an outline of cladistic methodology and molecular biology techniques and a plea for a rather odd taxonomic approach that he terms “Neolinnaean Impressionism”, and which amounts to a PN-like naming of the nodes but with Linnean ranks arbitrarily imposed on some though not all of the nodes. While Tudge is not strongly attached to the idea that sister groups must have equal rank, he clearly has inclinations in that direction, resulting in several monogeneric “kingdoms” and some odd maneouvering towards the end of the book where he seems to consider Proboscidea and Coleoptera of equal importance for conservation purposes because they are both of rank “order”. *cough*. Well, let’s pass swiftly on.
Part 2 of the book, and by far its bulk, is the survey of all living creatures — 25 chapters covering Biota in 500-odd pages, broken down as follows: one chapter on how the old “two kingdoms” became “three domains”, one chapter briefly covering both Bacteria and Archaea, one on basal eukaryotes, one on fungi, a whopping eighteen on animals, and three on plants. Finally, part 3 is an “epilogue” concerning the need for conservation, the efficacy of various strategies and finally the reasons we should care.
Parts 1 and 3 have some interesting material, to be sure, but the survey is the heart of the book in every way. You can get some sense of how much ground it covers by reading the following paragraph from p. 430:
The Sauropodomorpha includes the Prosauropoda and the Sauropoda — the most famous examples of the latter being the huge herbivorous brachiosaurs of the Brachiosauridae, and Diplodocus of the Diplodocidae.
That’s it folks — that’s the entire coverage of sauropods. And it’s not that they get particularly short shrift, either: that’s how most groups are covered. Super-quick, very direct, bam, onto the next one. Because there is so much ground to cover.
So having read this, it’s not as though I particularly feel I have any real understanding of, say, cnidarians, “brown seaweeds” or sea-spiders. But at least I know they’re out there, and I know what it is that I don’t know. I feel richer and wiser (though also more aware of how stupendously ignorant I am) for having read it.
And finally, to keep the SV-POW! promise, here is a sauropod vertebra picture: but what is it? I’m not giving too much away if I say that it’s an NHM specimen (and therefore their copyright) — but who (apart from Matt and Darren) can tell me what it is?
The answer will follow in a week or two.