Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Book Review on WPFR?

As most of you probably know, I don't read very often. And by "read," I mean "real books" in the vein of fiction or non-fiction. I read gaming magazines, dinosaur books, certain comics, and The Literature. Well, and any book by Patrick McManus. There are times, it's true, where I accidentally pick up a random book, and end up enjoying it (i.e. The House of the Scorpion). Well, I was perusing Borders the other day with a coupon for 40% a TV show (House M.D. FTW) and I stumbled over to the paleo section. First, I should make it known that Anchorage bookstores are woefully lacking when it comes to paleo. There's a single shelf (or sometimes half a shelf) dedicated to the subject, and the books rarely change.

But that night I found the book above, and you can read more about it here. The warning label ("Dougal Dixon") is better hidden that usual, but I picked it up anyway and flipped through it. Shock and awe, I was sort of impressed. I bought the book, but not for the reasons you might think.

This "World Encyclopedia" aims to show people that Earth's tetrapod prehistory was not limited to the Dinosauria. Just about every major group is represented here, from fishapods to primates and everything in between. The coverage of early amphibians is surprisingly robust, as are the sections devoted to crurotarsians and non-mammalian therapsids. The book is layed out much as you'd expect: One or two critters dot each page, with a brief description including a "factoid" box. What impresses me most about the book, and the whole reason I bought it, is that the "factoid" box includes known species, locality, original describer, and year of publication. For the wealth of taxa this book covers, the "World Encyclopedia" is a great quick-reference tool.

And most of the illustrations are great. Now, like any book of this calibur, the pictures do not all fall to one artist. I will say this: Whoever is doing the gorgonopsid pictures (and many others--the style is instantly recognizable) should get some kind of award. Whoever is doing the ceratopsid (and many others--the style is instantly recognizable) should not be drawing prehistoric animals. There's another artist (allosaur section and a few others) who is very good too. And virtually all of the mammal illustrations are fantastic. Brian (Laelaps) will be glad to know that Thalassocnus is not portrayed as long-haired, but more mole-like. So in addition to any one taxa's publication information, most of the illustrations offer accurate depictions.

Unfortunately, the text is something different. I don't know if Dixon actually wrote the book or what, but whoever did has a few questions to answer. There are two unforgivable errors: First, the book claims at one point that dinosaurs evolved from birds. Really? Surely it's a typographical error, a simple case of accidental word switching, especially given the rest of the book's tone (birds evolved from maniraptors), but it's a careless one that shouldn't have been made. Second, and worst of all, an entire section of the book is dedicated to the "Thecodonts." This section including Marasuchus and Silesaurus, so "thecodont" seems to mean "ornithodiran" here. But the word "thecodont" has been out of favor since the 80's (or earlier) so it shouldn't be turning up in a book from 2008. Seriously, that's a BIG error.

There are smaller factual errors throughout the book. Dixon doesn't seem comfortable with letting any sauropod dinosaur get much bigger than 49 feet (which seems to be the maximum length attainable by the Sauropoda), and most of the ankylosaurs are fully restored yet admitted, in the accompanying text, to be known from scrappy remains. There are restorations of dinosaurs which might be other dinosaurs, dinosaurs which themselves are also in the book. Why not just avoid potentially synonymous animals, Dougal?

Dixon also makes very strange, unfounded statements regarding some taxa. The picture of Hypuronector, everyone's favorite bizarre monkey-lizard, shows the usual deep tail and thin body but, bizarrely, the limbs are held laterally and connected by...a...patagium. The text says that the animal is currently hypothesized as being a gliding animal which used its deep tail as a...rudder. And in the next sentence, Dixon admits that the limbs are incompletely known. In the text for Jeholopterus, Dixon buys into David Peter's idea that the little anurognathid led a vampire bat lifestyle, using it's large manual claws to hook onto large dinosaurs and its fangs to suck them dry. There are a number of bizarre interpretations like this, and they don't often put Dixon in the best light.

So this isn't a book you read for the text. Rather, you read it for the (at times) wonderful illustrations, impressive array of taxa involved, and the factoid boxes. The book is certainly not great, but it's not awful either, and it serves a very specific purpose.


Emile said...

I had already reviewed it here: http://eobasileus.blogspot.com/2008/05/book-review-world-encyclopedia-of.html

The book also spells mustelids as "mustellids", gives wrong hand positions for the theropods and chalicotheres, and makes strange groupings for the creatures.

But otherwise, I agree, it's quite good for what it is, as long as one knows what the mistakes are.

Glendon Mellow said...

Sounds interesting! Maybe I'll have to look for that.

Oh, my book list gets longer and longer.

I wouldn't know what mistakes to look for, but assigning "wings" to an animal for no reason is kind of silly.

Oh. Waitasec. Ahem.

Unknown said...

Heh. I'll just wait 'till you're done with it and borrow it.

Laelaps said...

Cool! I'll definitely have to give it a look. When I'm bored at night I usually just pick up a book and flip through to enjoy the pictures so I'll have to check this one out. It's good to know that those swimming sloths are in there, too, which reminds me that I need to do a new post on them soon.