by Ali Nabavizadeh Friday, August 3, 2018
“Why should we care about dinosaurs? They’re all dead!” It’s a question paleontologists get all the time. There are many people who don’t see the point of studying dinosaurs (or any other prehistoric animal) and would much rather see scientists researching topics that “actually matter to humans.”
In his new book, “Why Dinosaurs Matter,” vertebrate paleontologist Kenneth Lacovara aims to explain why, in fact, studying ancient life does matter. Lacovara has spent his career excavating and publishing on dinosaurs and paleoenvironments, as well as communicating the wonders of paleontology. To share this passion, Lacovara founded Edelman Fossil Park at Rowan University in New Jersey, a publicly accessible quarry containing vertebrate and invertebrate fossils from the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, roughly 66 million years ago.
Lacovara believes it is important to understand these animals and their times to understand our own place in our own time, and in the book, he includes a chapter on how we can protect Earth amid the ongoing consequences of human-made climate change. Other chapters cover the major components of paleontology, with, of course, a strong emphasis on dinosaurs. Topics range from detailed accounts of historical figures in paleontology and effective explanations of the geologic timescale, to dinosaur biology, origins and extinctions. No good dinosaur book would be complete without explaining the incredible fact that today’s birds are, indeed, descendants of extinct theropod dinosaurs, and Lacovara addresses this eloquently. In addition, he pays special attention to a few titanic creatures, including the infamous carnivorous theropod Tyrannosaurus (“the king”) as well as his own discovery: a gargantuan titanosaurian sauropod he named Dreadnoughtus, which translates to “fears nothing.” Dreadnoughtus, an herbivore with an extremely long neck and tail and enormous column-like limbs, was one of the largest animals to have ever walked the earth.
Lacovara covers other herbivorous dinosaur groups as well, such as the broad-billed hadrosaurs and the armored, tank-like ankylosaurs, both ornithischian groups, although not in quite as much detail as he covers the theropods and sauropods. His treatment of other popular herbivorous dinosaur groups, meanwhile, is unusually lacking: the horned ceratopsians (e.g. Triceratops), the dome-headed pachycephalosaurs (e.g. Pachycephalosaurus), and the plated and spiked stegosaurs (e.g. Stegosaurus) receive less attention. As a result, the breadth of dinosaur diversity is not fully represented. But otherwise, Lacovara does a nice job conveying the excitement and importance of dinosaur biology through his commentary on dinosaur paleoecology (their interactions with the environment and each other) through time.
Throughout the book, there are nice illustrations, each with a little vignette describing important themes posed throughout the book. The images are drawn with simple yet bright color schemes that help the reader understand concepts of dinosaur biology, paleoecology and extinction, among others. In particular, one illustration displays multiple depictions of Earth, each representing another time period in our planet’s history. This image effectively drives home the point that fossils come from many time periods, and each carries crucial information about deep time. Another image captures Lacovara’s team working to dig up the skeleton of Dreadnoughtus, with a life reconstruction of the animal majestically looking on from the opposite page. These illustrations are informative and attention-grabbing, and several concepts and prehistoric animals throughout the book could have benefitted from more illustration.
Lacovara’s passion for scientific communication and talent for storytelling are visible throughout “Why Dinosaurs Matter.” His prose is engaging and filled with detail that, at times, almost reads like poetry — a difficult feat to accomplish when writing about science. With many references to historic figures in paleontology and geology, he weaves a charming narrative of both the geological and biological significance of dinosaurs and other prehistoric life. Overall, the book offers meaningful context to why we should care about all species — living and extinct.
If you are looking for an inspiring book on dinosaurs, and life on Earth as a whole, look no further than “Why Dinosaurs Matter.”
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