Here is a compilation of my 50 favourite palaeontology books of all time. It’s pretty personal, with my own biases on full display, and includes textbooks, popular books, books targeted only at my own narrow subfields, books of historical importance, and even books that may not be good anymore but were highly influential in my growth as a palaeontologist.
To me, interdisciplinary boundaries within palaeontology have all but melted away, but in the interest of readability, I’ve categorised the books roughly so you can search quickly to find books that may be of interest to you. I wrote a quick blurb outlining why the book is important, but please feel free to request a full review of any of these books! Note that they are in no order whatsoever!
The categories are:
- History of Palaeontology
- Palaeontology and Evolutionary Biology
- The Cambrian Radiation
- The Science of Palaeontology
- Visualising Palaeontology
- Fossil Arthropods
- Stories in Palaeontology
- Historical Geology
- Palaeontology in Culture
- Specific Localities and Organisms
- Philosophy of Palaeontology
History of Palaeontology
Adrian Desmond’s Archetypes and Ancestors is one of the essential books on the history of palaeontology, even though it’s ostensibly focused on the cultural history of dinosaurs in Victorian England.
You can find this for free online since it’s out-of-copyright. It’s also an essay rather than a book, but I include it here anyway because of its historical importance.
In my opinion, Martin Rudwick’s The Meaning of Fossils is the only history of palaeontology book needed, since it also integrates philosophy and science to provide a complete overview of the discipline. I use this book often when teaching.
Niles Eldredge needs no introduction, and his latest book Eternal Ephemera soon won’t either. Its focus is the history of the taxic program of palaeontology, the program that established species as a critical unit in palaeontology. Eldredge and Gould reignited this perspective in the 1970s and in so doing, they earned palaeontology the respect it now has. In the book, he recounts the entire history of these ideas from the nineteenth century to their modern legacies. An essential read for anybody interested in the scientific and sociological history of palaeontology, and the history of its integration with the rest of biology.
George Gaylord Simpson was one of the giants of palaeontology. We often credit the Modern Synthesis to Mayr and Dobzhansky, but a more inclusive view would put Simpson right up there with his work integrating palaeontology into evolutionary thinking. Most well-known for Tempo and Mode in Evolution and Genetics, Paleontology, and Evolution, which are now only of historical importance but were at the time magnificent, he’s got a lot more achievements in his 60+ year career. This biography goes through all of them, giving a fair representation of how important he still is.
Palaeontology and Evolutionary Biology
Yes, it’s a German book, but it’s well worth it, not only for the gorgeous pictures. The author, Jes Rust, was my professor at university (not anymore, no conflict of interest here, just personal admiration), and explains with the best examples the meaning and importance of palaeontology in the context of general evolutionary biology.
Often criticised/lauded for being one-sided, Systematics and the Fossil Record really had no choice but to be so considering how partisan the issue was in the 1990s (and still is), and a close reading of the book reveals a lot of open-mindedness anyway. No matter where you stand on cladistics in palaeontology, the book is clearly argued with many real examples rather than hypotheticals. This is one of my favourite books to use to generate discussion and getting people to think critically about phylogenetic methodology in palaeontology.
Integrating molecular and genetic data with palaeontology seems like a great idea, but problems always arise in practice. From Clone to Bone is too optimistic in places for my taste, but a great guide to where research currently stands with regards to such diverse topics as molecular clocks and evo-devo, as related to palaeontology.
Another modern classic (I recommend the second edition), Jefferey Levinton’s Genetics, Palaeontology, and Macroevolution is essential reading for anybody interested in macroevolution. Sure, the specifics in it might be a bit outdated by now, but the thinking espoused is not.
It may be a bit narrow to talk about a palaeobiological revolution (the revolution they talk about has been the common stance in German palaeontology for a long time), but The Paleobiological Revolution is still a great book for looking at the scientific state of modern palaeontology.
I’m beginning to sound like a broken clock. Rereading the Fossil Record is yet another book celebrating the integration of biology and palaeontology.
Probably the most enjoyable read in this list, Donald Prothero takes the topic of this category and distills it to its most readable essence. If you’Re only buying one book, get Evolution: What the fossils say and why it matters.
I know I said it’s outdated, but I still consider Tempo and Mode in Evolution an important read, even if only for its historical significance. To me, it’s like reading Darwin’s Origin. You don’t do it to get facts, you do it to appreciate the thinking.
I’m not a fan of molecular clocks, and while it’S somewhat older, Telling the Evolutionary Time contains all of my criticisms of it. Lest you think it’s a one-sided book, it’s the result of a joint conference that brought palaeontologists and molecular people together.
Dolf Seilacher is not wellknown outside of academic palaeontology (trace fossils aren’t exactly eye-catching), but many of his contributions to the science are fundamental. Whether Morphodynamics gains such a status remains to be seen, but I am optimistic that it will be remembered for a long time.
I really don’t need to write anything about Punctuated Equilibrium, do I?
Unfinished Synthesis was one of the books that influenced me the most when I first started off, giving a critical look at what really constitutes evolutionary biology, and how each field contributes to it. Excellent food for thought, and highly-recommended.
The Cambrian Radiation
Now not so well-known anymore, Simonetta & Conway Morris’s The Early Evolution of Metazoa and the Significance of Problematic Taxa was a very important contribution to the discussion that was unfolding in the early 1990s about the origin of animals. You can still find inspiration in it, even though you’ll need to be up-to-date on the new fossils discovered since 1991.
The Dawn of Animal Life is older than the above book, but just as potent. Recommended for the mental kick, not for the facts.
It’s a bit outdated, but as a broad explanation of how the Cambrian ocean functioned with the new influx of weird animals, The Ecology of the Cambrian Radiation still great.
We’ve now come to realise that the Ediacaran biota holds as much importance as the Cambrian biota in explaining the origin of animals, and The Garden of Ediacara is a very readable exploration of Ediacaran marine life. Not up-to-date obviously, but that’s a warning that comes with almost every book here.
The Emergence of Animals is the Cambrian counterpart of the above book.
Finally, a very modern book. This is the book you need to get if you want the latest research and explanations for the Cambrian Explosion.
I only include Wonderful Life for its historical, almost iconic, significance. Take everything written inside it with a giant grain of salt.
The Burgess Shale has been surpassed in importance by the amazing fossils of Chengjiang, and The Early Flowering of Animal Life shows them to you.
The Science of Palaeontology
Introduction to Paleobiology and the Fossil Record is hands-down the best general palaeontology textbook to get, even if it’s a few years old.
Historical importance strikes again, I couldn’t resist adding a text by the venerable Richard Owen.
I don’t know a single palaeontologist who hasn’t read a part of Paleobiology II. Back in its time, it was the seminal textbook, and it’s still pretty useful, even if the individual parts are outdated to variable degrees.
Fossils: The Key to the Past is the book I recommend to people wanting to know what palaeontology is all about.
In Search of Deep Time is the book I give to people wanting to know how palaeontology has shaped the way we view the history of life.
Palaeoecology doesn’t get many books, and this was a very influential one (and is still required reading).
If you really want the latest in palaeoecology though, Selden & Nudds’ Evolution of Fossil Ecosystems is it, although it is more of a description of the world’s major fossil localities.