Review: Weird Dinosaurs
A new book brings to life the thrill of the hunt for fossils, writes Amy Middleton.
by John Pickrell
NewSouth Publishing (2016)
John Pickrell isn’t very happy with the latest iteration of the Jurassic Park movie franchise, and the Sydney-based science writer makes no attempt to hide it in his new book Weird Dinosaurs, which explores hundreds of new dino-discoveries made in the past couple of decades.
In Pickrell’s previous book, Flying Dinosaurs, he examined our new awareness that a vast array of the dinosaurs assumed to be scaly were actually fluffy, like modern-day Bantam chooks.
In his introduction to Weird Dinosaurs, Pickrell describes visiting London’s Natural History Museum and being chuffed to see its famous life-size animatronic Velociraptor had finally sprouted feathers, in line with the latest science. Jurassic World, released in 2015, didn’t show the same responsiveness.
“Jurassic World didn’t take on board any of the really exciting new science and I think that was a missed opportunity,” Pickrell tells me after the release of his book. “A lot of people get their knowledge about dinosaurs from these films, as they have a very wide reach. Not to show dinosaurs as we now know them to have appeared is spreading misinformation.”
Feathers aside, Weird Dinosaurs tells us there has been a boom in dinosaur finds in the past two decades, including 150 new species uncovered in China alone. The boom is such that about half of all known dinosaur genera have been found in the past 10 years, and three-quarters since 1990.
The explanation is pretty simple. “We have started to look for dinosaurs in earnest in parts of the world where we haven’t spent much time looking for them before, and there are also more people looking,” Pickrell explains.
“Many of the famous dinosaurs people know of from childhood were discovered in North America more than a century ago – animals like Stegosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, Brachiosaurus and Diplodocus. Dinosaur discoveries are being made all over the world now from Madagascar, Transylvania and Alaska to Uzbekistan, Burma and Antarctica.”
Broadly, this dinosaur discovery boom is what Weird Dinosaurs is about – new animals being added to our prehistoric awareness. More specifically, though, the book is a charming collection of short stories, depicting the most unique and surprising dinosaurs, and the weird and wonderful people who study them. Often the people are just as compelling as their finds: Pickrell has uncovered the true Indiana Jones characters of the palaeontology world, and recounts their far-flung adventures in search of bones tens of millions of years old.
One story starts with a Transylvania aristocrat, Franz Baron Nopcsa, who among his many adventures roamed Austria-Hungary on motorbike, became a World War I spy, and put in a bid to become king of Albania before shooting himself and his long-time boyfriend in a murder-suicide in 1933, just after the rise of Hitler.
After discovering fossils on his lavish family estate estate in the 1890s, Nopcsa immersed himself in study until he was qualified enough to analyse them himself. He is credited with describing a suite of miniature dinosaur species found around his hometown of Hațeg. These include a cow-sized version of a sauropod dinosaur that in other parts of the world reached lengths of 40 metres and weights of 70 tonnes.
Incredibly, he made a good guess at why the dinosaurs found near Hațeg were so tiny – a reasoning scientists have only recently begun to accept as potentially correct.
Nopcsa hypothesised that dinosaurs confined to an island would have experienced different evolutionary pressures than their mainland counterparts, and that perhaps the land on which the bones were found had once been isolated by water.
Food and space are often scarce in island environments, which means their inhabitants can be naturally selected for dwarfism, rather than gigantism, because the smaller animal needs less food to survive.
In 2010, researchers analysed the internal detail of the bones to establish beyond doubt that Nopcsa had been right – these were dwarf versions of some of the larger dinosaurs found in other parts of the world, and Transylvania was indeed an island in the late Cretaceous period.
Weird Dinosaurs is full of these fascinating biological tales, delivered with a descriptive aplomb that transports us directly to the time when creatures as heavy as two commercial jet planes roamed the land. Pickrell is the editor of Australian Geographic (and a former deputy editor of Cosmos), and his background in science journalism allows him to describe prehistoric scenes in vivid colour and minute detail, painting a fascinating and enlightening picture of prehistory.
If we’ve only just discovered three-quarters of the dinosaurs known to science, what might be next?
In the chapter Monster from the Cretaceous Lagoon, for example, he brings us to a riverbank in northern Africa 95 million years ago – the buzzing insect soundscape, the beat of the midday sun, and an enormous predator lurking beneath the water.
“A fizz of bubbles hints at the presence of giant, car-sized coelacanths and lungfish lazily moving through the waters,” he writes. “None of these fish has noticed what is stealthily gliding towards them below the water with a flick of its great tail. Made obvious above the water by a great red sail, which slices through the surface, this killer moves almost silently and invisibly through the murky waters.”
From Alaska to Australia, Pickrell describes in vibrant detail the thrill of discovering fossils, the painstaking months and years spent excavating them – and the backlog of samples lying dormant in museum basements, waiting for experts to find the time and money to analyse them. Pickrell ponders the question, what marvels are lying undiscovered in dark cabinets around the world? And if we’ve only just discovered three-quarters of the dinosaurs known to science, what might be next?
Some of the locations with the biggest potential for new finds are Greenland, Uzbekistan, Tunisia, Burma and Niger. Pickrell says there could be whole new dinosaur fauna waiting to be discovered in these parts of the world.
With a little luck – and perhaps more scientifically accurate movies and media – the buzz around new dinosaurs will result in more generations of enthused, budding palaeontologists.
This book does its part to pique the interest of this nascent army of dinosaur-hunters. Pickrell says it was his pleasure to take the stories of experts and translate them for a broad general audience.
“I spent a lot of time meeting in person with or on the phone to palaeontologists in countries all over the world, getting them to tell me about dinosaurs and their own exciting tales of discovery,” he says. “I found that a great privilege and huge fun.”
The enthusiastic dinosaur hunter is alive and well with this writer. He isn’t the first, and this book suggests he will not be the last.