Weird Dinosaurs: The Strange New Fossils Challenging Everything We Thought We Knew

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Weird Dinosaurs: The Strange New Fossils Challenging Everything We Thought We Knew by John PickrellWeird Dinosaurs: The Strange New Fossils Challenging Everything We Thought We Knew by John PickrellWeird Dinosaurs: The Strange New Fossils Challenging Everything We Thought We Knew by John Pickrell

I don’t know if I’d call the creatures detailed in John Pickrell’s Weird Dinosaurs all that “weird,” to be honest. One gets the sense that the main title is more marketing than description. But the subtitle — The Strange New Fossils Challenging Everything We Thought We Knew — is nearer to the mark with regard to the book’s contents, even allowing for perhaps a bit of hyperbole.

Really, what we have here is a mostly excellent up-to-date rundown of new discoveries in the field and how those new discoveries confirm current theories or, just as often, either overturn them or, at the least, force some careful reconsideration/modification. This should come as no surprise, given how rare fossilization is and thus how few specimens we have of any particular creature (especially entire or near-entire skeletons). It’s not like we’re working with a wealth of concrete evidence here. Another way in which Pickrell’s creatures are “weird” is that, beyond falling outside the bounds of some current theory on dinosaurs, they also “display some traits that are utterly unfamiliar to us in living animals today.” Which should give some caution in presupposing analogous physical or behavioral traits between today’s reptiles and those from the Mesozoic Era.

Anyone who is fascinated by dinosaurs (which, c’mon, should be everyone) will be pleased with Pickrell’s coverage of the topic. One of the best aspects of Weird Dinosaurs is how geographically wide-ranging it is, carrying its readers to digs in North America, China, Siberia, Romania, Egypt, Australia, and the two polar regions. Pickrell does a nice job of knocking down the usual view of dinosaurs as bound to a relatively small segment of the world or narrow habitat range (usually a steamy, jungle-like setting), showing how dinosaurs didn’t just live but thrived in all areas of the globe, including the far north and far south, something even scientists thought unlikely, if not impossible, not that long ago. He also wisely clarifies those settings for the reader, explaining for instance how certain places (Antarctica, or Madagascar, for example) were not in their current position at that time and detailing as well how their climates/ecosystems differed from what they are nowadays.

And while most lay readers will perhaps already be familiar with the wealth of fossils (not just in quantity but also quality) coming out of China and South America (known particularly for feathered dinosaurs and titanosaurs respectively), even those who frequently read on the topic may be surprised at the finds in Romania and Australia, settings rarely discussed in other books on the topic.

Pickrell does an excellent job placing these finds in their scientific context without resorting to hyperbole or over-much speculation. For instance, clearly explaining the history of thought with regard to feathered dinosaurs (itself a stunning and relatively recent discovery) — when such theories first originated, the first fossils, etc. — and then showing that what these new finds have challenged is the idea that feathers were relatively rare or limited only to certain groups of dinosaurs; instead, it may be the case that many if not most avian and non-avian dinosaurs were feathered. Certainly it appears that it is far more common than once believed.

When he turns to Spinosaurus, well known from his role in the Jurassic Park film, Pickrell again does a great job of contextualizing the story, tracing the discovery back to its original fossil specimen, which was tragically lost in the bombing of Berlin in WWII. From there we get an explanation of what makes Spinosaurus so unique — its semi-aquatic nature, as far as we so far know the only dinosaur to be so equipped in terms of its physical traits.

Just as fascinating, however, as the paleontology, are the people behind the science. Pickrell excels at the human elements of the story, such as his recounting of the almost-too-good-to-be-true “character,” Franz Baron Nosca von Felso, a Transylvanian aristocrat who made major contributions to paleontology and the science of plate tectonics in between his time serving as an Ottoman spy and trying to get himself named king of Albania. No, really. Pickrell so whetted my curiosity on this figure that I’m looking for a biography of him.

Even the most well-read lay fan of dinosaurs will find something new here, I’d guess, even if some of it will sound familiar to those who keep up with the field via popular science magazines or websites/blogs devoted to the topic. For me it was the above Transylvanian nobleman/spy/paleontologist/king-wanna-be/murder-suicide guy, but also Australia’s opal fossils, which I’ve somehow entirely missed coming across in my reading. Even if some of this won’t be new, however, Pickrell’s clear-voiced prose, obvious enthusiasm, and ability to present it all in a unified, contextualized manner makes Weird Dinosaurs more than worth picking up. The only complaint I had in my advance copy was a lack of illustrations, but I assume those will appear in the published version. Strongly recommended [update:  as assumed, the published version does have illustrations (color!)–thanks to the author for the tip]

Published March 7, 2017. From the outback of Australia to the Gobi Desert of Mongolia and the savanna of Madagascar, award-winning science writer and dinosaur enthusiast John Pickrell embarks on a world tour of new finds, meeting the fossil hunters working at the frontier of discovery. He reveals the dwarf dinosaurs unearthed by an eccentric Transylvanian baron; an aquatic, crocodile-snouted carnivore bigger than T. Rex, which once lurked in North African waterways; a Chinese dinosaur with wings like a bat; and a Patagonian sauropod so enormous it weighed more than two commercial jet airliners. Other surprising discoveries hail from Alaska, Siberia, Canada, Burma, and South Africa. Why did dinosaurs grow so huge? How did they spread across the world? Did they all have feathers? What do sauropods have in common with 1950s vacuum cleaners? The stuff of adventure movies and scientific revolutions, Weird Dinosaurs examines the latest breakthroughs and new technologies radically transforming our understanding of the distant past. Pickrell opens a vivid portal to a brand new age of fossil discovery, in which fossil hunters are routinely redefining what we know and how we think about prehistory’s most iconic and fascinating creatures.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at Tor.com, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

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3 comments

  1. The title has a very “click-baity” feel to it, which is a shame, because the content is clearly better than the title would indicate!

  2. This sounds great! It reminds my of the panel at WorldCon where they talked about feathered dinosaurs among other things. And Franz Baron Nosca von Felso sounds awesome.

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