The Dinosaurs Rediscovered, Michael Benton, Thames and Hudson.
When I was a child my favourite dinosaur book was a 1977 hardcover compendium entitled A Natural History of Dinosaurs. It wasn’t necessarily a kids’ book, but I had those as well. The book had colour plates with dinosaurs dragging their tails and looking very reptilian, certainly without any hint of a feather. Except, that is, for Archaeopteryx, which at the time was something of an anomaly, but was seen as a missing link between dinosaurs and birds, proof perhaps that a tiny thread had made it through the end-of-Cretaceous mass extinction.
There was no definitive conclusion as to why that mass extinction occurred. One kids’ book I had (a Golden Book, I think) simply concluded with the words ‘no-one knows why’, or similar. The authors of my 1977 history, being more thorough, discussed the suppositions, and, interestingly, suggested that climate change may have been to blame, with evidence of shifting continents (towards what we know of their configuration today) creating drier conditions and colder climates generally.
A lot has changed in dinosaur research since then, including the idea that dinosaurs held their tails upright as a counter-balance for the head. The much-publicised Chicxulub asteroid is generally agreed to have finished off the dinosaurs, though they might have already been in decline partly due to enormous volcanic activity in what is now India. And as for a select few scraping through as birds, this turned out to be more-or-less correct, because while many dinosaurs had feathers, a 2018 study suggested that only a few, small, ground-dwelling proto-birds were able to survive the post-asteroid apocalypse.
In The Dinosaurs Rediscovered Michael Benton covers the asteroid and notes that the Chicxulub explanation was resisted initially because palaeontologists were entrenched in thinking in models of slow change, as per, originally, Charles Lyell, and a catastrophic explanation seemed a too convenient, almost biblical theory. Benton also notes a brilliant example of how narrow research can enliven a discipline. One researcher found that the asteroid hit in June, such improbably specific date-fixing illuminated by the stage of growth lily flowers were at when they died and were fossilised.
The Dinosaurs Rediscovered also covers work done on origins, which is pushing back the date of creatures we can call dinosaurs, partly through research in the past decade on silesauridae, slender, dino-like relatives of dinosaurs. Even more recent are arguments that climate change may have accounted for the rise of the dinosaurs, which perhaps didn’t just outcompete their rivals. This is all a picture of life on earth as seasonal, times of proliferation and experiment truncated by mass die-offs. Or perhaps like the stock market. (Many ruminate on what this means for the survival of our own species.)
Computers help a lot more than they did in 1977, obviously, with explaining and mapping this multi-branched proliferation. But research doesn’t always clarify. Previously stable ideas in descent and species are being challenged, including a ‘bombshell’ rethink of the categories of bird and lizard hipped dinosaurs that many 8-year-olds are familiar with, whether now or in 1977. (Theropods – T-rex etc. – jump categories in this new theory.) Benton sticks to the old delineation but is generous enough to concede that the matter is nowhere-near settled. He seems delighted at both the refinement and the shaking-up. On other matters, he is less open, labelling ‘crackpots’ those who still suggest big dinosaurs lived mostly submerged in water. (He may be thinking here of Brian Ford, though Ford is not named in the book, who proposed that, amongst other things, T-rex lived its life like a crocodile.)
Otherwise, research on computer and in the field is producing hitherto unimagined detail, including how dinosaurs ate, how they got so big and how fast they ran (in T-rex’s case, not very fast, contrary to Jurassic Park). The authors of my 1977 book might be surprised by not only feathered dinosaurs, but also the knowledge of what colours the feathers were. The explosion in hunting and discovery of feathered dinosaurs in China shows that many dinosaurs had feathers, which were not initially for flight but later developed into flight feathers in smaller species of dinosaurs, and palaeontologists know colours from fossilised melanosomes, observable under microscopes in particularly well-preserved specimens. Sinosauropteryx, on Benton’s book’s cover, looked something like a chicken crossed with a fox, with a red and white stripy tail. Deinonychus, famed for its huge claw, now looks decidedly like a bird, rather than an ostrich naked of its feathers.