Monday, January 24, 2011

Predatory Dinosaurs of the World!

Our book today is Gregory Paul's 1988 geeknum opus, Predatory Dinosaurs of the World, liberally illustrated by the author. This is a completely fantastic book, richly deserving a spot on the same small shelf with David Weishampel's The Dinosauria, Peter Dodson's The Horned Dinosaurs, and of course Robert Bakker's The Dinosaur Heresies, and it achieves its greatness by firmly plopping down on the essential question that divides all dinosaur-lovers - carnivore or herbivore? - and never looking back. The only details you'll find here about such well-loved beasts as Triceratops, Brontosaurus, or Stegosaurus is how tasty they were.

No, Paul's text - long, comprehensive, deeply, personally engaged, and of course almost overwhelmingly nerdy - is solely concerned with the type of dinosaur that for good or ill has always been the imagination's most popular: the meat-eaters. Some of these creatures are only the size of a basset hound, whereas others - like the towering allosaurs who had teeth as long as a human body - were the size of city buildings, but all of them contributed to the backdrop that's so visible throughout Paul's book, the backdrop of a world in which for 170 million years this planet was ruled everywhere by smart, vicious, alien creatures who are now entirely gone from the face of the world.

That reality has always struck me as more wondrous than any ancient creation epic, more incredible than any pantheon of gods and goddesses. Once upon a time - for an inconceivable length of time - this same planet we all know so well was filled on every continent and in every body of water by a panoply of animals who are only faintly echoed anywhere in the modern world. The idea of all those millions of stories - the hot days, the young, the stampedes, the broken limbs, the unforeseen partnerships, the occasional albino, the sounds and smells of it all - is endlessly fascinating to me.

To Paul as well, although since he's a 'freelance dinosuar0logist' (as his author bio somewhat hopefully notes) he's much more concerned not with millions of potential stories but with a few dozen very particular stories - namely the predatory dinosaurs who somehow managed to die in such a way and in such a place that their remains were fossilized and preserved until Paul could come along and study them. His goal in this book is to make a faithful reconstruction of every predatory dinosaur for which there are sufficient remains to support such educated guesswork, and as the book goes on, the reader comes to feel a greater and greater confidence in Paul's discretion. As he himself admits, he's a fairly circumspect guy, fond of certainties:
Once a plausible phylogenetic arrangement is worked out, then the groups need to be named. Naming such groups and species is taxonomy; formally arranging them in ordered groups is systematics. All this may sound dry and dull, but I've never found it so. After all, many people love trivia games and crossword puzzles, and figuring out how to identify, arrange, and name once-living things is much more challenging. I tend to be like the hobbit who wants everything "set out fair and square, with no contradictions." This is a futile desire. The sands of phylogeny and taxonomy are always shifting beneath the dinosaurologist's feet, and always will.

These prosaic qualities are things you want in you, um, dinosaurologist - wild flights of fancy have plagued skeleton-reconstruction for nearly two hundred years, after all.

Which isn't to say Paul is lacking in enthusiasm - far from it! In its own pocket-protected way, this is as passionate a book as any you're likely to read all year - even if that passion is directed at gigantic prehistoric lizards who haven't existed on Earth for millions of years. The love that dare not carbon-date its name, as it were. And although this is a comprehensive and even-handed book, the main object of that love is a big bruiser familiar to even the most dino-ignorant readers: Tyrannosaurus rex, that much-reproduced, much-dramatized, and much-vilified terror of the dinosaur world. Paul is endlessly fascinated with the T. rex -  in this book he characterizes the king of lizards as an expert hunter taking down huge prey animals by hunting in packs and making full and lethal use of its enormous set of choppers. Paul likes to talk about T. rex's, and he likes to nail down as many specifics as he can:
Now let's get down to real business. On average, an 8-tonne Tyrannosaurus rex must bolt down 93 kg of meat per day, or some 2000 tonnes in a sixty-year life, equal to the weight of a World War II destroyer! It is also the equivalent of nearly three thousand cattle, each of which could be eaten in a few bites. Since T. rex had a uniquely strong skull, it could consume more of a carcass than most theropods - perhaps 85 percent. So about four hundred 6-tonne Triceratops would feed a T. rex over its life. When T. rex killed a Triceratops, it took a few days to eat it, and then it had enough energy for fifty-five days. It is more likely that six tyrannosaurs organized to kill and eat the herbivore. Since each could take in two tons of meat at a sitting, they would leave the carcass a little hungry, but with some eight days' worth of calories on hand.

It may not be everybody's cup of tea, but I find speculative analysis like that exhilarating, and Paul's book has more of it than you can shake a velociraptor at. There's a thought-provoking hypothesis on virtually every page, and there's plenty of turf-squabbling too:
I completely disagree with Bock's idea that the ancestors of Archaeopteryx started out with arm and hand skin membranes that were later replaced by feathers. If an animal starts out with a membrane, it will end up with one like a bat or a pterosaur. Also, his reconstruction of the proposed creature has no neck, but all theropods and birds have long necks.

Some of you will no doubt share my fascination with all things dinosaur-related. If that's the case, you should waste no time in finding a copy of this fascinating, fun book - it's a dinosaur classic even less perfectly evolved life-forms can't put down!


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