Review: The Princeton Field Guide To Dinosaurs

The Princeton Field Guide To Dinosaurs
Gregory S. Paul, Princeton University Press, 2010
When I was a child my father would occasionally come home on Friday nights with small presents for my sister and me. Mine was most often a new View-Master slide or a book. Since my parents wanted me to be a good reader they bought lots of books, but the one I most remember was the slim hard covered All About DinosaursI loved the All About books, but this was the best. The memory remains vivid because it was this book that ignited a life-long fascination with dinosaurs and because it was followed the next day by an excursion to the Museum of Natural History. It would be my first visit to the Museum and one of the very few days I ever spent alone with my father.  Entering the Hall of Dinosaurs today makes the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up. The threshold to that great room brings to mind that day so many decades ago. The Hall of Dinosaurs is exciting for another more contemporary reason -- that the story of dinosaurs isn't finished. It is, in fact, a more compelling story than the one I knew as a boy.
In those days I read everything I could get my hands on about dinosaurs but thought of them as species which were incapable of adapting to a changing world and perished as a consequence. I imagined that the story of dinosaurs had been told and that there was nothing more to it except in the excitement of unearthing new fossil remains.
Fortunately, more mature thinkers never stopped investigating. It seems that more has been written about dinosaurs over the past twenty five years than in all the preceding years combined. Every popular newspaper and magazine which reports on science has regular articles on recent discoveries which expand our understanding of dinosaurs. We birders have an abiding interest in the story because dinosaurs were the most recent common ancestors of birds. We know that dinosaurs were a diverse group of very successful animals who were the earth’s keystone species for over 170 million years. . (Given the ecological bind that we humans have worked ourselves into it seems increasingly unlikely that we will last nearly as long.) The story of dinosaurs must be re-framed in the imperfect rather than in the past tense because it is a story which is still unfolding.
The publication of Gregory Paul’s The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs is cause for celebration for all who share a fascination with this diverse family of animals. Paul’s field guide is (perhaps) the most comprehensive one-volume guide to what we know about 735 species of dinosaurs. The book includes an outstanding (although dry) introduction summarizing the history of dinosaur research, evolution, biology, energetics, behavior, and distribution. It includes a discussion of the most arresting feature of dinosaurs – their great size. Giantism imposes a number of extraordinary engineering requirements on an organism such as a circulatory system capable of pumping a column of blood 40 feet uphill and of preventing blood from pooling in the lower extremities. Giantism also imposes the metabolic challenge of being able to consume and efficiently digest enough food to sustain such an incredibly huge animal.  Indeed, the biggest dinosaurs had to spend the better part of their days eating.
The heart of the book is a richly illustrated field guide which is organized like any of the field guides that we have become accustomed to. The species are presented in phylogenic order and meticulously and beautifully illustrated following the current state of our knowledge of posture and shape. There are a number of color illustrations showing the fully fleshed out animal based on our most current understanding of what dinosaurs must have looked like.  Each illustration is accompanied by a species account which gives an inventory of fossil remains, anatomical characteristics, distribution, habitat, and habits.
I confess that I wish I still had that copy of All About Dinosaurs, but The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs, being a far more thorough treatment, fits the bill nicely in its stead. Although Paul’s new field guide is quite an adult book, it is one for anyone who still has any child left in his or her soul.
Wayne Mones
October 11, 2010