Tag Archives: Dinosaurs

The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs

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I confess a deep, lifelong love of dinosaurs. I had a stuffed Tyrannosaurus rex as a kid, instead of a bear, and it still sits on my dresser. I read just about everything I can find on them, from bird identification guides, to blog posts and papers by paleontologists. I am very, very picky about dinosaur books. There’s a system, you see.

Katherine’s Guide to Evaluating Dinosaur Books:

1.  Accuracy. If it’s a non-fiction book, it had better be well researched by people who know what they’re doing. No excuses for using shoddy or old research or perpetuating outright falsehoods. For dinosaur books, there is one special consideration:  

It should at least know what a dinosaur is. This might seem obvious, but, when I hit the shelves, I’m always surprised at the number of “dinosaur” books that call the wrong things dinosaurs.

What is a dinosaur? Dinosaurs are all of the descendants of the single common ancestor of modern birds and Triceratops. They are archosaurs (all the relatives of themselves and crocodiles) with hips that fit upright legs. A chicken’s legs don’t sprawl like an alligator’s. Dimetrodon, Pteranodon, Icthyosaurus, Plesiosaurus – these are not dinosaurs.

A Black-Capped Chickadee is a dinosaur:

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“Black-capped Chickadee” by Brendan Lally – Own work.  Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Black-capped_Chickadee_1.jpg

(It’s all in those scaly little legs: they fall straight from the hip socket. Note also adorably teensy claws.)

2.  Illustrations. There is no substitute for a scientific illustrator. Shoddy computer graphics abound in dinosaur books for children and adults, yet good, clear, hand-drawn illustrations do the job far better, and bring out details that are easily botched by cheap computer graphics, such as feathers. This is definitely one case in which a picture is worth a thousand words.

3.  Focus. A clear, tight focus can really help a book, especially one that covers a topic as expansive as dinosaurs. Dinosaurs were around for a really, incredibly long time. To put the Mesozoic – the “Age of Dinosaurs” – in perspective, it ended 65 million years ago. The Cretaceous alone, the last of the three periods of the Mesozoic, lasted 80 million years, longer than everything that has happened since. It’s easy for a book to lose sense of this perspective, or for information to get muddled without a well-defined focus.

The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs definitely knows what a dinosaur is. The book knows what several hundred dinosaur species are. It is exactly as it says in the title – a field guide – with detailed, accurate, informative illustrations on every page, thorough introductions to each group, and information for every species introduced, including size, estimated weight, characteristics, distribution and habitat, and notes.

Even better, it’s by a scientific illustrator who is also a dinosaur researcher. Every page is crammed with line drawings and silhouettes of skeletons, beautiful muscle studies, and sensitive life restorations. The author – Gregory S. Paul – helped lead the charge for changing the visual interpretation of dinosaurs, from tail-dragging, cold-blooded, saggy-skinned mega-lizards, to the warm-blooded, and much more alert and dynamic creatures that populate today’s research and even motion pictures, in accord with advances in scientific knowledge. Especially striking in The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs is the restoration given for the chicken-sized Anchiornis huxleyi – the coloration of which has been determined: it was gray, with black and white banded arm and leg feathers, and a reddish crest on its head. On the other side of the coin, Gregory S. Paul uses a robust, informed imagination in the life restorations to suggest possibilities for dinosaurs that dry bones cannot. The zebra-striped feather crest and cassowary-like wattles on Dryosaurus altus bring the animal to vibrant life.

Organized by phylogeny, with species notes that indicate possible relationships, or insufficient data, The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs is easy to browse or use for reference – never losing its clear focus as a reference for the general public. Keeping an eye to context, the book opens with an introductory section that details the history or dinosaur research, changes in the field, dinosaur natural history, and even an overview of details such as diseases or injuries known from dinosaur fossils.

Whether your six-year-old has dinosaur fever, or the six-year-old in you does, a great dinosaur book like this one is indispensable.

Formats Available:  Book

Reviewed by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch