Best Science Books of 2017: Palaeontology and History of Life on Earth

2017 saw the release of an interesting variety of popular palaeontology books.

The most highlight-worthy, in terms of non-technical appeal, is Peter Brannen’s The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions. What makes this book stand out from other popular books about the big mass extinctions are Brannen’s constant reminders that the ravaged palaeoenvironments described in the book can be observed in the fossil record right beneath our feet, in our backyards, or at roadcuts (if you live in the right places anyway). Pointing out the accessibility of fossils this way isn’t done nearly enough in pop palaeontology books, and it’s refreshing to see it done here. It’s very well-written in an engaging, sometimes poetic, style, it goes through all the major mass extinctions, and will be a great read for anybody who only knows about the KT and the demise of non-avian dinosaurs.

While Paleoart:Visions of the Prehistoric Past by Zoë Lescaze is aimed more at art historians and art afficionados rather than palaeontologists, I found the diversity of art in here marvelous. Anybody interested in the history of palaeoart needs this book – it features countless artworks spanning over a century (1830-1950), from popular to obscure pieces, in styles you wouldn’t have thought had been applied to palaeoart (this is especially apparent in the Soviet pieces). The quality of the book – thick paper, terrific colour reproduction, and a pretty massive size, completely justify its elevated price tag. This is a high quality coffee table book that belongs in the house of anybody who likes looking at animal paintings. Beautiful and fascinating. If I had to make a complaint, I would say that it would have been nice to have included some more in-depth explanations of how palaeoartists and scientists interact to produce these paintings accurately – but this isn’t a deal-breaker, as the target audience is more the artistically-inclined than the scientist (and the scientist already knows how this interaction works).

For the parents looking for a picture book for their kids, you cannot go better than Maja Säfström’s Animals of a Bygone Era: An Illustrated Compendium. The animals are illustrated in a whimsical, black-and-white style, looking as if they belong more in a Dr Seuss book, and the accompanying bits of text are short, sweet, and fun. Altogether, a perfect book for children to thumb through, activate their imaginations, and learn a few things at the same time. Highly-recommended.

Enough distractions, let’s get back to some meaty books. Admittedly, this one has been on loan from the library since they received it, sitting on my desk, and I haven’t had the time to really go through it. But what little I’ve checked out (parts of the amber chapter) is promising. Each chapter is a review and synthesis of a terrestrial Konservat Lagerstätte, a fossil locality with exceptional fossil preservation (soft parts, not just bones and shells). The chapters are written by leading authorities, so reliability is pretty much assured. The localities cover all Phanerozoic eras, and range from the famous ones, like the Rhynie Chert, the Jehol Biota, and the Santana Formation, to some more obscure ones, like the Solite Quarry or East Kirkton (at least I only know about them in passing). A technical compendium that should be in your library at least as an easy-to-go-to reference work.

A much-needed updated edition of the 2003 volume, the multi-authored book The Cambrian Fossils of Chengjiang, China: The Flowering of Early Animal Life reviews all the described fossils from Chengjiang, arguably the most important Cambrian fossil site. All the fossils are terrifically pictured (most of the times, the pictures here are better than in the original description papers!), Chengjiang’s geology and palaeoecology are comprehensively summarised, and Chengjiang’s position in the Cambrian Radiation and among other Cambrian Lagerstätten is summed up. If you’re at all interested in Cambrian life, professionally or not, then this is a must-have book.

Shifting gears from amazing fossil localities to amazing fossil narratives, Annalisa Berta’s The Rise of Marine Mammals: 50 Million Years of Evolution tells the stories of the origins of whales, seals, sea otters, and other marine mammals. These mammals are classic examples of why palaeontology is indispensable when discussing the evolutionary history of any organism: you could not reliably extrapolate that whales and dolphins come from a dog-looking ancestor using just neontology and genetics, and only the remarkable fossils we’ve discovered over the past three decades have allowed us to truly reconstruct their transition from land to ocean. Berta’s book does a good job of summarising the state of the art, what we know and how we know it. Engagingly written enough for interested laymen and deep enough for graduate students and above, and illustrated in all the right places, including exclusive reconstructions of key taxa drawn just for the book,

A more accurate subtitle than main title doesn’t mean that Weird Dinosaurs: The Strange New Fossils Challenging Everything We Thought We Knew by John Pickrell doesn’t deserve a read – it’s a great tour through several recent dinosaur discoveries which have either turned our thinking on its head, or at least prompted some serious reconsiderations. Pickrell doesn’t just describe the new fossils, but contextualises them in contemporary science, in the history of palaeontology, and in evolutionary history – so the importance of each find is emphasised with no need for exaggeration and hyperbole. The context always includes well-told biographical information, and it’s always fascinating to read the human element of all such discoveries. Pickrell deserves kudos for not just sticking to China and South America, which would have been possible and easy. Instead, the detailed finds are global and really help drive home the dominance of dinosaurs back in the Mesozoic (there is still a misconception that dinosaurs were restricted to swampy, steamy jungles). Recommended for any dino freak in your circle – even the well-learned will get something out of this book.

Patrons of Paleontology: How Government Support Shaped a Science by Jane P. Davidson may seem like it has a very narrow topic, but it is in fact a history of palaeontology as a science – that’s how large the extent to which government, directly or indirectly, allowed palaeontology to flourish. It’s pretty eye-opening to read this nowadays, when the only government not trying to throw palaeontology away is China. The book starts from the 1500s and comes to the middle of the twentieth century, and I admit I would have liked to see a chapter for the modern age, when we all complain that palaeontology is un(der)funded, but really, nobody other than the government gives us money. In any case, the book as a whole is fascinating. For example, while it should be obvious, it never occurred to me that palaeontology saw a big jump because of the Industrial Revolution and all the associated digging and need for coal. There are many such links highlighted and detailed in the book, and it is truly worth reading for all these eureka moments. At the very least, the big list of historical patrons is a great starting point for further research into the funding of pre-twentieth century sciences.

The final book for this year is taxon-specific, a scholarly synthesis of one of the most enigmatic groups of animals from the fossil record: Graptolite Paleobiology by Jörg Maletz. Graptolites were colonial animals, with their only living descendants being the hemichordate Rhabdopleura. They have a huge fossil record, but none of it is of the actual animals, but of their burrows and tunnels. Their abundance has made them classical stratigraphical index fossils, but my interest in them is purely as an exercise in palaeontological extraplation: the process of figuring out everything we know about them involved a big paradigm shift (when it was discovered that the fossils are homes and not animals), and every detail outlined in the book can be used as a case study in a “palaeontology as a science” course. Of course, the main appeal of the book is that it brings together all the knowledge about graptolites in one reliable place – but if you work with graptlites, you probably already have this book on your shelf anyway.

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