Mark Witton’s The Palaeoartist’s Handbook

It’s probably – no, surely – true to say that palaeoart (aka paleoart) is more popular right now that it ever has been, a fact due in equal part to a vibrant, active community of people worldwide, to the instant, ubiquitous reach of the internet and the connectedness we feel via social media, to self-publishing and on-demand printing services, and to the excitement and discussion generated by what seems to be a never-ending stream of amazing fossil and anatomical discoveries relevant to ancient animals.

Today, Mark Witton is well known for generating large-scale artworks like this one - depicting the sauropod  Diplodocus , and produced to accompanying the NHM’s Dippy specimen as it tours the UK - in addition to work done to accompany press releases. Image: (c) Mark Witton.

Today, Mark Witton is well known for generating large-scale artworks like this one - depicting the sauropod Diplodocus, and produced to accompanying the NHM’s Dippy specimen as it tours the UK - in addition to work done to accompany press releases. Image: (c) Mark Witton.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Dr Mark P. Witton is, right now, one of the world’s best known and most visible of palaeoartists; his articles and artwork are abundant online, and his work appears in many contemporary published works on prehistoric life, and in various museum installations and other displays. Combine this with the fact that he’s published a long-sought holy grail of the palaeoart canon – a palaeoart handbook – and we surely have one of the most important and worthy palaeoart-themed volumes of all time. Right? Does it deliver?

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I refer to 2018’s The Palaeoartist’s Handbook, a slick, extremely affordable softback of 224 pages and extremely high production values. In response to my question above: yes, this book does deliver, and functions extremely well as a ‘handbook’ for those interested in producing palaeoart. Buy it right now if you haven’t done so already. Even those not needing or interested in Dr Witton’s advice should obtain it if they’re interested in palaeoart, since it contains stacks of invaluable review and commentary, does a great job of stating where we are with respect to what we think we know about the appearance of ancient animals, and is really well designed and densely illustrated. It’s probably the most important volume yet published on palaeoart*, and that remains true even if you dislike or disagree with the author’s contentions.

* ‘Importance’ is subjective, but the volume vies – I predict – with 2012’s All Yesterdays and volumes I and II of Dinosaurs Past and Present.

There aren’t many ‘crucial’/’must have’ volumes on palaeoart, but the  Dinosaurs Past and Present  volumes are almog them, volume II in particular because of Greg Paul’s article (Paul 1987). Images: Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County/University of Washington Press.

There aren’t many ‘crucial’/’must have’ volumes on palaeoart, but the Dinosaurs Past and Present volumes are almog them, volume II in particular because of Greg Paul’s article (Paul 1987). Images: Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County/University of Washington Press.

A disclaimer I should mention upfront is that Mark and I are long-standing friends and colleagues. I lectured to Mark when he was an undergrad, we’ve been on fieldwork together, and we’ve published several works together on pterosaurs (Witton & Naish 2008, 2015, Dyke et al. 2014, Vremir et al. 2015, Naish & Witton 2017) and palaeoart (Witton et al. 2014). These things might, in theory, mean that I’m positively biased towards his work, but in reality I think they help make me more neutral, since our good relationship means that I can say negative things (where fair and appropriate) and not be worried about being offensive. But let’s see.

Witton (2018) is extremely well designed and very attractive. It’s glossy, full colour throughout, and absolutely packed full of diagrams, photos and art. The art is not just by Mark Witton but also features images by Raven Amos, Rebecca Groom, Johan Egerkrans, Bob Nicholls, John Conway, Emily Willoughby, Julius Csotonyi and Scott Hartman. Holy crap, it’s a virtual who’s who of Early 21st Century palaeoart.

Witton (2018)   includes artwork by several artists, sometimes included to depict diverse styles, compositions and approaches. This is ‘Nemegt Sunrise’ by the amazing Raven Amos ( website here ), and depicts the oviraptorosaur  Conchoraptor  with a hermit crab. Image: (c) R. Amos.

Witton (2018) includes artwork by several artists, sometimes included to depict diverse styles, compositions and approaches. This is ‘Nemegt Sunrise’ by the amazing Raven Amos (website here), and depicts the oviraptorosaur Conchoraptor with a hermit crab. Image: (c) R. Amos.

What sort of book is this? A ‘palaeoart book’ can be one of several things. It could be a compendium of historical images (like Zoë Lescaze’s gigantic, deeply idiosyncratic but invaluable 2017 Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past), it could be a bunch of new, daring stuff that makes a point of some sort (cf All Yesterdays), it could be an artist’s porfoilio or a series of portfolios (like the Dinosaur Art volumes, or The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi), or it could be a technical volume that provides some theoretical or technical background to the field… I’m sure we’re all still waiting for ‘The Grand Handbook to Illustrating Prehistoric Life, a Rigorous How-To Guide’, hint hint.

The number of books devoted to palaeoart is growing. I think I’ve managed to keep up so far. Image: Darren Naish.

The number of books devoted to palaeoart is growing. I think I’ve managed to keep up so far. Image: Darren Naish.

Witton (2018) is partly all of these things: the volume is fundamentally devoted to the techniques, practices and scientific processes and conventions behind the creation of palaeoart, and the case studies and targeted discussions mean that we effectively see much of Witton’s work showcased. But there’s more.

Witton (2018) begins with introductory sections on what palaeoart is and on its history. The historical chapter is quite complete and inclusive, and I’m a big fan of Witton’s take on the work of Cuvier, Hawkins at Crystal Palace and other early efforts. He’s also fair to the artists who produced work during what he terms ‘The Reformation’, some of whom (Greg Paul in particular) have had a major, lasting impact on how we imagine ancient life. The ‘palaeoart meme’ story that I’ve drawn attention to through my own research and the All Yesterdays movement bring a close to this section alongside comments on some of the amazing, exciting new developments being made in the world of soft tissues and palaeo-colour.

The Crystal Palace animals remain among the most accurate renditions of prehistoric life ever made (like all palaeoartistic reconstructions, they have to be seen as being  of their time ), and Mark Witton’s take on them is one I absolutely agree with. This photo of the  Iguanodon  pair was taken in September 2018. Image: Darren Naish.

The Crystal Palace animals remain among the most accurate renditions of prehistoric life ever made (like all palaeoartistic reconstructions, they have to be seen as being of their time), and Mark Witton’s take on them is one I absolutely agree with. This photo of the Iguanodon pair was taken in September 2018. Image: Darren Naish.

The meat and potatoes. We then move on to the ‘meat and potatoes’ of the book: a group of chapters that discuss in great detail the process of creating palaeoart. Sections here cover how research is important and how a worker might go about doing it, how knowledge of phylogeny is integral to understanding an organism, and how artists should at least be aware of tropes and stereotypes. This book is fundamentally not a ‘rigorous how-to guide’ to all the prehistoric animals (every time I use this term I’m riffing on the title Greg Paul gave his seminal 1987 article on archosaur reconstruction), but this middle section of the book does include copious discussion of anatomy, the shapes of animals in 3D and cross-section, of musculature and posture, the importance of integument, fat and other external tissue, and so on. I should add that Chapter 9 (‘The Life Appearance of Some Fossil Animal Groups) is devoted to the probable life appearances of key tetrapod groups. Ha, take that fishes.

In many cases, the favoured, traditional look for a given prehistoric animal is not necessarily the one we might favour. Here’s an example: Mark has argued that a new look for the proboscidean  Deinotherium  - shown here - should be considered. Image: (c) Mark Witton/  Witton (2018)  .

In many cases, the favoured, traditional look for a given prehistoric animal is not necessarily the one we might favour. Here’s an example: Mark has argued that a new look for the proboscidean Deinotherium - shown here - should be considered. Image: (c) Mark Witton/Witton (2018).

These central chapters are probably the most important part of the book and will be those used most by the largest number of people. There’s a ton of information and discussion, and Mark describes in detail how he’s arrived at the conclusions he has. Readers of Mark’s blog will be familiar with some of the arguments here and might also know that much of it has never been properly published (as in, in technical papers or articles). The book is therefore especially significant as a source of primary data, though I know that efforts are underway to get at least some of it into the primary literature.

Extensive sections of   Witton (2018)   discuss osteological correlates for external texture and other features. In some cases - like ceratopsian dinosaurs - there are many such correlates. Image: (c) Mark Witton/  Witton (2018)  .

Extensive sections of Witton (2018) discuss osteological correlates for external texture and other features. In some cases - like ceratopsian dinosaurs - there are many such correlates. Image: (c) Mark Witton/Witton (2018).

How confident can we be that Mark is ‘right’ when it comes to his arguments about lips, cornified facial tissue, scalation or fuzziness on the body and so on? I think that a strong response would be that he has at least described, explained and illustrated his reasoning and it’s difficult to think that he’s ‘wrong’, two caveats being that there is – as Mark states quite clearly – still some considerable slop as goes determining the relative size of keratinous coverings (like the pads, scales and sheaths covering horns, claws and so on), and that the vagaries of taphonomy might still be cheating us out of valuable information on which archosaurs had filaments, fuzz or feathers. Yes, I still think that big tyrannosaurs could have been fuzzy and that we aren’t picking this up because the fossils concerned aren’t preserved in the ideal sedimentological regimes.

Speculation and the All Yesterdays Movement. The main message here is that while some speculation always has to be included in palaeoartistic reconstructions, there’s a lot of stuff that’s knowable, or potentially knowable, and informed by actual anatomical data. This is increasingly the case even for colour and pattern (caveat: we still only have data on some infinitesimally tiny percentage of extinct animals). The door is not open for any possibility, and artists who wish to be seen as doing work that’s scientifically credible have to take into account data derived from fossils as well as ‘rules’ (or guidelines) gleaned from living animals. However…

Conway et al.’s 2012  All Yesterdays    has changed the way many people approach palaeoart… but is this for better, or for worse? Image:   Conway  et al . (2012)  .

Conway et al.’s 2012 All Yesterdays has changed the way many people approach palaeoart… but is this for better, or for worse? Image: Conway et al. (2012).

A valid, controversial and timely point concerns just how much speculation is permissible in palaeoart. This is something I feel especially connected to given the impact of my 2012 book – co-authored with John Conway and C. M. Kosemen – All Yesterdays (Conway et al. 2012) and the subsequent ‘All Yesterdays Movement’, which is hated by some but loved by others. Mark’s take on what happened post-AY is that a lot of AY-inspired artwork has failed to appreciate the nuance of the original work, and that AY was (wrongly) taken by some as a green light to go nuts and do whatever, the results being misguided and likely wrong.

Mark has indulged in some speculation himself (here: shaggy-coated pachyrhinosaurs), and it’s down to opinion as to whether this is as extreme as anything depicted in  All Yesterdays . Image: Mark Witton/  Witton (2018)  .

Mark has indulged in some speculation himself (here: shaggy-coated pachyrhinosaurs), and it’s down to opinion as to whether this is as extreme as anything depicted in All Yesterdays. Image: Mark Witton/Witton (2018).

It would be wrong to avoid bringing attention to Franco Tempesta’s woolly, cold-adapted pachyrhinosaur, very obviously inspired by Mark Witton’s, and appearing in the 2016 Usborne book    Build Your Own DInosaurs Sticker Book   . I was consultant, but I’m sure that that’s coincidental. Image: (c) Franco Tempesta/Usborne.

It would be wrong to avoid bringing attention to Franco Tempesta’s woolly, cold-adapted pachyrhinosaur, very obviously inspired by Mark Witton’s, and appearing in the 2016 Usborne book Build Your Own DInosaurs Sticker Book. I was consultant, but I’m sure that that’s coincidental. Image: (c) Franco Tempesta/Usborne.

I agree… if we’re talking about artworks that aim to reflect possible realities. A nuance to the nuance of AY is that there exists a small contradiction in the aims of its creators. Yes, we argued that there are many potentially valid, scientifically defensible possibilities that hadn’t or haven’t been sufficiently explored in pre-AY palaeoart, but we did also promote the idea that people might explore other possibilities – even those weird or dumb or wrong – purely for the sake of artistic expression. That this view is canonical in the AYverse is demonstrated by the inclusion in the sequential All Your Yesterdays of retrosaurs that are absolutely contradicted by data but still fun from an artistic take. In other words, not all AY-inspired art is meant to be scientifically defensible. The takehome – post-AY – is that people need to say what they’re aiming to depict: a random fancy or a serious proposal?

Not all AY-inspired art is meant to be scientifically responsible and potentially realistic, some of it is deliberately whimsical and fanciful. Exhibit A: the wonder that is  Spinofaaras vulgaris , a creature that now has an internet life of its own. Image: (c) Chris Masna ( original here ).

Not all AY-inspired art is meant to be scientifically responsible and potentially realistic, some of it is deliberately whimsical and fanciful. Exhibit A: the wonder that is Spinofaaras vulgaris, a creature that now has an internet life of its own. Image: (c) Chris Masna (original here).

Anyway, returning to the contents of Witton (2018), this main section wraps up with some thoughts on how landscapes are created, and how composition and mood can be formed. Discussing environments and landscapes involves science – geology, geomorphology and palaeoclimate, among other things – and this is Witton’s main strength, but I also found his take on composition, stylistic choices and other matters of artistic style compelling…. speaking as someone who lacks artistic training and expertise, that is. The volume ends with a chapter on the professional side of palaeoart.

Feedback and criticism is crucial, but it can be difficult to know what to say to artists when you aren’t one yourself. In this section of the book, Mark provides advice, using his 2008 azhdarchid image as a piece that might benefit from constructive criticism. This piece accompanied the   Witton & Naish (2008) PLoS paper on azhdarchids  . Image: (c) Mark Witton/  Witton (2018)  .

Feedback and criticism is crucial, but it can be difficult to know what to say to artists when you aren’t one yourself. In this section of the book, Mark provides advice, using his 2008 azhdarchid image as a piece that might benefit from constructive criticism. This piece accompanied the Witton & Naish (2008) PLoS paper on azhdarchids. Image: (c) Mark Witton/Witton (2018).

On the negative side of things… I find the editing sloppy in places and think that the prose could have been tightened here and there. There are also a few turns of phrase that I found awkward, weird or (sorry) terrible, top of the list being the reference to “palaeontologists with the mightiest beards” (p. 38). On technical aspects, I’m a bit confused by Mark’s use of ‘reptile’ in the old, paraphyletic sense (in a volume otherwise using modern phylogenetic nomenclature, wouldn’t it make sense to use Reptilia for the lizard + turtle + croc clade, and not to use it for a paraphyletic assemblage that excludes birds?). Panoplosaurus is wrongly called an ankylosaurid (p. 125), and isn’t Deinotherium a deinotheriid, not a deinotherid? These are minor, piffling, trivial things that I only state here because I have nowhere else to put them.

The book is just full of spectacular imagery like this, much of which hasn’t appeared in print before. This image depicts the azhdarchoid pterosaur  Thalassodromeus . Image: (c) Mark Witton/  Witton (2018)  .

The book is just full of spectacular imagery like this, much of which hasn’t appeared in print before. This image depicts the azhdarchoid pterosaur Thalassodromeus. Image: (c) Mark Witton/Witton (2018).

All in all, The Palaeoartist’s Handbook is an excellent, beautifully produced, well crafted book which contains a wealth of information on the life appearance of extinct animals and how we might imagine them as living things, and it’s phenomenally good on the workings of palaeoart more generally. It should have broader appeal than to the palaeoart fraternity alone, and I think that anyone seriously interested in prehistoric animals or even in the history of art or the way people have imagined the past should obtain it too. For now, Witton (2018) is – mission fulfilled – THE palaeoartist’s handbook indeed.

Mark P. Witton. 2018. The Palaeoartist’s Handbook: Recreating Prehistoric Animals in Art. The Crowood Press, Marlborough (UK), 224 pp, softback, index, refs, ISBN 978-1-78500-461-2. Here on amazon. Here on amazon.co.uk.

 For previous TetZoo articles on palaeoart and Wittoniana (the ver 2 and ver 3 ones have been ruined by removal of images), see…

 Refs - -

Conway, J., Kosemen, C.M. and Naish, D. 2012. All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals. Irregular Books.

Dyke, G. J., Vremir, M., Brusatte, S., Bever, G., Buffetaut, E., Chapman, S., Csiki-Sava, Z., Kellner, A. W. A., Martin, E., Naish, D., Norell, M., Ősi, A., Pinheiro, F. L., Prondvai, E., Rabi, M., Rodrigues, T., Steel, L., Tong, H., Vila Nova, B. C. & Witton, M. 2014. Thalassodromeus sebesensis – a new name for an old turtle. Comment on “Thalassodromeus sebesensis, an out of place and out of time Gondwanan tapejarid pterosaur”, Grellet-Tinner and Codrea. Gondwana Research 27, 1680-1682.

Naish, D. & Witton, M. P. 2017. Neck biomechanics indicate that giant Transylvanian azhdarchid pterosaurs were short-necked arch predators. PeerJ 5: e2908.

Paul, G. S. 1987. The science and art of restoring the life appearance of dinosaurs and their relatives - a rigorous how-to guide. In Czerkas, S. J. & Olson, E. C. (eds) Dinosaurs Past and Present Vol. II. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County/University of Washington Press (Seattle and London), pp. 4-49.

Vremir, M., Witton, M., Naish, D., Dyke, G., Brusatte, S. L., Norell, M. & Totoianu, R. 2015. A medium-sized robust-necked azhdarchid pterosaur (Pterodactyloidea: Azhdarchidae) from the Maastrichtian of Pui (Haţeg Basin, Transylvania, Romania). American Museum Novitates 3827, 1-16.

Witton, M. P. & Naish, D. 2008. A reappraisal of azhdarchid pterosaur functional morphology and paleoecology. PLoS ONE 3 (5): e2271. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002271

Witton, M. P. & Naish, D. 2015. Azhdarchid pterosaurs: water-trawling pelican mimics or “terrestrial stalkers”? Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 60, 651-660.

Witton, M. P., Naish, D. & Conway, J. 2014. State of the Palaeoart. Palaeontologia Electronica 17, Issue 3; 5E: 10p.

The World’s Best Books on Woodpeckers

I really like woodpeckers. This large, widespread group of around 240 living species includes the wrynecks, piculets and true or typical woodpeckers and includes species ranging from 7 to 60 cm in length. Woodpeckers are famous for their wood-excavating specialisations and ability to cling and climb on vertical substrates, but they’re diverse and not all species have these features. Here, I’ll resist the urge to talk about the birds that much and will instead provide brief comments on some of the best books written on these charismatic and fascinating animals.

This is one of the two woodpecker species I see on a regular basis: Green woodpecker  Picus viridis  (this photo from March 2016). All my photos are bad. Image: Darren Naish.

This is one of the two woodpecker species I see on a regular basis: Green woodpecker Picus viridis (this photo from March 2016). All my photos are bad. Image: Darren Naish.

Winkler et al.’s Woodpeckers: A Guide to the Woodpeckers, Piculets and Wrynecks of the World. Winkler et al. (1995) is the woodpecker instalment in the famous Pica Press book series: these books feature an introductory section on the anatomy and systematics of the group concerned, a colour plate section (in this case, with art by David Nurney), and a species-by-species text section. The book is definitive and I’ve used it a lot. The text summarises knowledge on range, identification, habits, foot, breeding and more, and references are provided.

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Like most people seriously interested in birds, I’ve amassed a decent collection of the Helm/Pica Press books in the same series, but I’m some way from owning all of them. Insert typical complaint about recently published bird books being prohibitively expensive.

The Helm/Pica Press bird books (oops, plus a few others) in the Tet Zoo Towers library. Image: Darren Naish.

The Helm/Pica Press bird books (oops, plus a few others) in the Tet Zoo Towers library. Image: Darren Naish.

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Alexander Skutch’s Life of the Woodpecker. Skutch (1985) is a large (near ‘oversize’) hardback book, beautifully illustrated in colour throughout by the very good paintings of Dana Gardner. The book is separated into sections that cover the various aspects of woodpecker behaviour and ecology; there’s also a brief introduction to woodpeckers as a whole and a taxonomic list of recognised species at the back. Overall, the book is a good introduction to our knowledge of woodpeckers and everything about them, but it’s the artwork that makes it really worth getting.

Left: Fiery-billed aracari ( Pteroglossus frantzii ) vs Pale-billed woodpecker ( Campephilus guatemalensis ). Right: Imperial  Campephilus imperialis . Just two of the many excellent illustrations by Dana Gardner included in   Skutch (1985)  . Image: Dana Gardner/  Skutch (1985)  .

Left: Fiery-billed aracari (Pteroglossus frantzii) vs Pale-billed woodpecker (Campephilus guatemalensis). Right: Imperial Campephilus imperialis. Just two of the many excellent illustrations by Dana Gardner included in Skutch (1985). Image: Dana Gardner/Skutch (1985).

Gerard Gorman’s Woodpeckers of the World. I absolutely love field guides, often for the art more for the utility, and in part because I love the convention of showing closely related species arranged together on the same plate. But despite those things, we still often need to see photographs of the animals we’re interested in. Gorman (2014) is a photographic guide to the world’s living woodpecker species, each being illustrated by at least a few photos (though read on). The text is good too: each species has a short section covering identification, range, variation and so on. The photos are excellent. It’s a must-have if you’re seriously interested in these birds.

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Are all species illustrated by photos? What about the Ivory-billed woodpecker in the room… by which I mean: what about photos of the Ivory-billed Campephilus principalis and Imperial C. imperialis? No photos, only text.

Tim Gallagher’s Imperial Dreams. I reviewed this book at TetZoo back when it was new in 2013 (but good luck finding the article now; it’s been ruined by its hosters, like all stuff at ver 2 and ver 3). I’m not that great a fan of travelogue-type books on natural history, but I do really like Imperial Dreams. One of the world’s most spectacular woodpeckers is – or, was – the Imperial woodpecker of the Sierra Madre Occidental, a pine forest giant that seems to have dwindled to extinction somewhere between the late 1950s and … 1980s? 90s? No-one knows exactly when this bird went extinct, and its persistence was rumoured as recently as the 1990s.

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Gallagher (2013) charts an effort to search for continuing traces for this species. A lot of information on the bird itself is included, but the human story relevant to the region is fascinating too. If you like woodpeckers, the book is well worth getting hold of. I should finish by adding that Gallagher also wrote The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, a volume I haven’t yet read.

Books on woodpeckers. There are others… Image: Darren Naish.

Books on woodpeckers. There are others… Image: Darren Naish.

Books on the Loch Ness Monster 2: Gareth Williams’s A Monstrous Commotion

Welcome to the second article in this short series on recently(ish) published books on the Loch Ness Monster (or LNM) (the first article is here).

The most impressive and interesting of the several Nessie paintings produced by Peter Scott - here, depicted on the back of my battered copy of the PG Tips 1987  Unexplained Mysteries of the World , written by Robert J. M. Rickard. Image: Darren Naish.

The most impressive and interesting of the several Nessie paintings produced by Peter Scott - here, depicted on the back of my battered copy of the PG Tips 1987 Unexplained Mysteries of the World, written by Robert J. M. Rickard. Image: Darren Naish.

This time round, we look at the 2015 volume A Monstrous Commotion: the Mysteries of Loch Ness, a dense, thick, attractively designed volume of 365 pages that might be the only LNM-themed book that could be classed as an airport novel (Williams 2015). I confess to being unaware of Gareth Williams prior to hearing about the publication of this book. But maybe that’s understandable, since a brief biography tells us that he’s an internationally recognised expert on diabetes and obesity affiliated with the University of Bristol, has penned over 200 papers on medical topics, and has previously published books on smallpox and polio.

Front cover of   Williams (2015)  .

Front cover of Williams (2015).

The volume begins with a timeline, a few pages providing potted biographies of the many human characters, a list of illustrations and some maps. The book also includes two plate sections and a smattering of black and white drawings.

The primary value of this book – its main selling point to an audience familiar with the LNM – is that it tells the backstory to the 1975 Nature paper by Sir Peter Scott and Robert Rines, a promise made in both the preface and the blurb on the back. This is the infamous paper – I’ll make the point again: published in the world’s most prestigious scientific journal – in which Scott and Rines argued not only that Nessie is real and that they had evidence proving it, but that it needed a scientific name. And thus we have Nessiteras rhombopteryx Scott and Rines, 1975 (and: no, it wasn’t a deliberately constructed anagram of ‘Monster Hoax by Sir Peter S’; to state such ignores Scott’s long-running, highly active investment and commitment to belief in the monster and his many published statements on it). The run-up to the publication of this paper, the fallout, and the alliances that were attempted, formed and broken is a fascinating story never told before in such depth, and it’s Williams’s use of Peter Scott’s correspondence that has allowed him to tell the tale. Excellent. This should be good.

Loch Ness is a beautiful and sublime place, monster or not. Image: Darren Naish.

Loch Ness is a beautiful and sublime place, monster or not. Image: Darren Naish.

Alas, I was immediately disappointed on finding that the book starts – as do so many books on the Loch Ness Monster – with that oh so familiar stuff about the Great Glen Fault, St Columba, kelpie legends and the stories and events of the 1930s. Clearly, we aren’t getting the Scott story alone, but the whole shebang, and while Williams writes well, I’m not sure that there’s anything in the early chapters that hasn’t been covered before.

I’ve said before that there are awful lot of books on the Loch Ness Monster… even this is far from a complete selection of what’s out there (I’m still collecting). Image: Darren Naish.

I’ve said before that there are awful lot of books on the Loch Ness Monster… even this is far from a complete selection of what’s out there (I’m still collecting). Image: Darren Naish.

His take on Rupert Gould is admittedly interesting though. Gould – typically portrayed by authors of LNM-themed books as a bold and daring adventurer, a physical and metaphorical ex-military giant of a man who covered great distances on his motorbike and was a wise and indefatigable collector of interviews and facts, and a pioneering investigator of the unknown – is portrayed as a troubled oddball deeply affected by the frightening events of warfare. And yes, Williams does cover Gould’s eventual conclusion (about-turn, if you like) that the Spicers didn’t see a giant scientifically unrecognised (semi)aquatic vertebrate species, but “a huddle of deer crossing the road” (p. 227). Incidentally, Williams states that Gould made this private admonition in the marked proofs of his book The Loch Ness Monster and Others, but that’s not right. The annotation concerned was hand-written in a published copy and not connected at all to the manuscript during its proof stage (Binns 2017, p. 150). This is one of many minor but arguably important errors made throughout the book.

Peter Macnab’s photo of 1955. This is the version lacking the vegetation in the foreground. Regarded by some Nessie proponents as depicting two monsters swimming in close proximity, it is most likely part of a boat wake, as suggested by the lines in the water about parallel to the ‘monster(s)’. This is a scan of the original photo, provided by Dick Raynor (and available  here ). Image: (c) P. A. Macnab.

Peter Macnab’s photo of 1955. This is the version lacking the vegetation in the foreground. Regarded by some Nessie proponents as depicting two monsters swimming in close proximity, it is most likely part of a boat wake, as suggested by the lines in the water about parallel to the ‘monster(s)’. This is a scan of the original photo, provided by Dick Raynor (and available here). Image: (c) P. A. Macnab.

Post-Gould, Williams discusses Constance Whyte’s More Than a Legend and the way LNM news was received at the time before going on to discuss the pop-culture backdrop to the events of the 1960s and 70s, somehow weaving in David Attenborough and Zoo Quest for a Dragon, Jacques Cousteau and Hans Hass. After a brief skip through the adventures of Torquil MacLeod and Peter Macnab (both are among those ‘classic’ eyewitnesses who claimed, respectively, a remarkable sighting and a remarkable photo… of a boat wake), we’re introduced to one of the pivotal and most influential characters in LNMology: Tim Dinsdale, aeronautical engineer, charismatic good-guy and near-professional monster believer. Dinsdale is especially relevant to the story Williams tells because it was he – not Constance Whyte, not the preponderance of evidence, not the rash of 1930s sightings – who roped Peter Scott into the saga. I don’t want to say too much about Dinsdale here since he’ll form the focus of my third LNM-themed book review.

Torquil MacLeod’s Nessie of February 1960, observed through binoculars and estimated to be 13-15 m long, as drawn by Alan Jones for   Witchell (1975)  . Image: Alan Jones/  Witchell (1975)  .

Torquil MacLeod’s Nessie of February 1960, observed through binoculars and estimated to be 13-15 m long, as drawn by Alan Jones for Witchell (1975). Image: Alan Jones/Witchell (1975).

What I will say for now is that Williams is by far too sympathetic to Dinsdale, failing to remark on Dinsdale’s sudden and, frankly, remarkable commitment to belief in the monster, nor is he appropriately critical of Dinsdale’s sightings or claims. Take Williams’s statement (p. 70) that Dinsdale was “catapulted into the limelight and would never escape from it”, or that “he found himself on Panorama, the BBC’s flagship news and current affairs programme” (p. 70). More accurate segments of text might read that Dinsdale “clamoured for and gained the limelight, and successfully managed to hold it upon himself for years to come”, and that “finally, he received the attention he had sought via a campaign of sending letters and telegrams, and succeeded in winning a spot on Panorama”.

Dinsdale (standing, at right) with Robert Rines (l) and Martin Klein in 1970. Image:   Dinsdale (1976)  .

Dinsdale (standing, at right) with Robert Rines (l) and Martin Klein in 1970. Image: Dinsdale (1976).

Dinsdale arrives. On reaching the part of the book that discusses Dinsdale and his Loch Ness adventures, I was finally feeling that I’d gotten through the preamble and reached the good stuff. To be clear, Williams does deliver the goods, providing a discussion and review novel enough and interesting enough to make the book a worthy addition to the LNM literature.

As noted above, it was Dinsdale who – through writing to Scott in a possibly desperate yet optimistic and bold gamble – brought Scott into the fold, his initial letter (addressed to ‘Mr Peter Scott, Naturalist, c/o BBC Television, London W1’) promising the support of a noted and reputable scientist (almost certainly Maurice Burton, then of the British Museum (Natural History)). Dinsdale’s several later letters discussed his mathematical analysis which basically consisted of calculating averages from the various eyewitness accounts that contained measurements.

Tim Dinsdale and his identikit-style view of what the Loch Ness Monster looked like. He reached this view by bundling all eyewitness accounts together and taking averages. Image: (c) Tim Dinsdale.

Tim Dinsdale and his identikit-style view of what the Loch Ness Monster looked like. He reached this view by bundling all eyewitness accounts together and taking averages. Image: (c) Tim Dinsdale.

Why was Scott prepared to let himself be involved in the Loch Ness story? While Scott certainly stated that his belief in the monster was based on sheer preponderance of evidence (Scott 1976), Williams notes (p. xxxiii) that Scott’s interest in Nessie was quite plausibly motivated by his feeling that it could serve as a flagship species, in the same ballpark as the tiger and giant panda, for the fledgling World Willdlife Fund. Scott’s own drawings support this idea.

Here’s another of the big, spectacular, Nessie-themed works of art produced by Peter Scott (this is only a section of the whole thing). Image: (c) Peter Scott.

Here’s another of the big, spectacular, Nessie-themed works of art produced by Peter Scott (this is only a section of the whole thing). Image: (c) Peter Scott.

Scott and Dinsdale met in person in 1960, but not before Dinsdale explained his plan. He would need Scott as an ally in convincing her majesty Queen Elizabeth II that Nessie was real and in need of protection. Scott knew the Royal Family, moved in the right circles, and was sufficiently impressed by Dinsdale’s argumentation to consider this an appropriate course of action, even making the suggestion that Nessie might be given the scientific name Elizabethia nessiae* (Williams 2015). Alas, Dinsdale had already written to the Royal Family by this time and his impetuousness on this front – he was to write to them several more times – partly derailed efforts to carefully, thoughtfully build a case for the monster’s existence, one that might be sufficiently interesting and carefully stated to keep sceptics, the scientific community, the media and people like the Royal Family on board.

* Incidentally, another proposed binomial – Nessiesaurus o’connori (sic: the specific name should have been written ‘oconnori’) – is also outed in this book. It was proposed by Peter O’Connor, author of the almost certainly hoaxed ‘inverted kayak’ photo of 1960, in his correspondence to Scott (Williams 2015).

By the mid 1970s, Peter Scott was happy to publicly state a belief in the Loch Ness Monster, and there are even photographs of him wearing an ‘I Believe in Nessie’ t-shirt. Here’s the cover of a magazine issue that features a key Scott article on the subject. Image: Darren Naish.

By the mid 1970s, Peter Scott was happy to publicly state a belief in the Loch Ness Monster, and there are even photographs of him wearing an ‘I Believe in Nessie’ t-shirt. Here’s the cover of a magazine issue that features a key Scott article on the subject. Image: Darren Naish.

Over the months and years that followed, Scott worked to build a case, Tim Dinsdale’s film of 1960 being one of several pieces of evidence deemed crucial. The many ups and downs, false-starts, setbacks, and input and involvement of others make for a complex story that I’m not about to summarise. The eventual outcome, which had emerged by 1970, was the involvement of Americans including Chicago’s Roy Mackal and patent lawyer Robert H. Rines, the rise and fall of the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau, and a gradual parting of the ways between Scott and Dinsdale.

There’s a definite undercurrent in the book of Scott and Dinsdale working to somewhat different ends. The Dinsdale plan was to announce and promote the monster’s existence and reality as loudly and frequently as possible. The Scott plan was to form a solid portfolio of good evidence, hold formal meetings where this evidence could be presented to and digested by the right parties, and to ultimately gain legal protection for a neglected and remarkable new species honestly thought by Scott to be, most probably, a living plesiosaur (Scott 1976).

Palaeontologists specialising on plesiosaurs have near universally been very hostile to the idea that the Loch Ness Monster might be a living plesiosaur. But it’s also a very familiar idea that plesiosaur experts have sometimes toyed with. This diagram is from  Big Mouths and Long Necks , a short book devoted to plesiosaurs. Image: Taylor & Martin (1990).

Palaeontologists specialising on plesiosaurs have near universally been very hostile to the idea that the Loch Ness Monster might be a living plesiosaur. But it’s also a very familiar idea that plesiosaur experts have sometimes toyed with. This diagram is from Big Mouths and Long Necks, a short book devoted to plesiosaurs. Image: Taylor & Martin (1990).

Scott and Rines 1975, and the ‘flipper’ photos. As anyone familiar with the Loch Ness story knows, the turning point was the use of sonar detection and strobe photography in the loch, the eventual result being the presentation of photos said by Rines and his colleagues to be proof of the monster’s existence and to give insight on its form (Scott & Rines 1975, Rines et al. 1976, Scott 1976, Sitwell 1976, Rines 1982).

My own take on one of the Rines/Egerton ‘flipper photos’, drawn when I was about 14. Like many people in those years (this would’ve been drawn in the late 1980s), I had been led to believe that the photos really show the giant, diamond-shaped flippers of a very big animal. They don’t. Image: Darren Naish.

My own take on one of the Rines/Egerton ‘flipper photos’, drawn when I was about 14. Like many people in those years (this would’ve been drawn in the late 1980s), I had been led to believe that the photos really show the giant, diamond-shaped flippers of a very big animal. They don’t. Image: Darren Naish.

Initial claims that the flipper photos showed a pentadactyl anatomy (thereby confirming a tetrapod identity for the creature), that two diving animals, moving synchronously and close together, had been captured in a single frame and that a close-up view of the animal’s external surface revealed details of skin texture and even its parasites (Witchell 1975, p. 150), all proved embellished or inaccurate, to use the kindest words possible. We think today that the flipper photos were physically modified, that the ‘gargoyle head’ photo (which had been rotated by 90° relative to its original orientation) doesn’t depict an animal’s head but a tree stump on the floor of the loch, and that an alleged shot of the body and neck cannot be of a large animal but a small object close to the camera, most likely a submerged branch (Naish 2017).

The weird and ugly ‘gargoyle head’, interpreted as the snorkelled, horned, short-faced creature depicted at right in this painting by Peter Scott. Read on for another version of that Scott painting. Images: Rines  et al . (1976), Peter Scott.

The weird and ugly ‘gargoyle head’, interpreted as the snorkelled, horned, short-faced creature depicted at right in this painting by Peter Scott. Read on for another version of that Scott painting. Images: Rines et al. (1976), Peter Scott.

Nevertheless, it’s obvious from some of the things written at the time that these developments must have been extraordinarily exciting. I’m always struck by the following breathless words from Nicholas Witchell…

“This paper edition of The Loch Ness Story is being rushed out in the autumn of 1975 at a time when the world is about to witness one of the greatest and most dramatic discoveries of the twentieth century: the discovery and probable identification of a semi-mythical creature known throughout the world as the ‘Monster’ of Scotland’s Loch Ness.

“As the final chapter describes, a set of detailed colour photographs of the head and body of the ‘Monster’ have been taken by a highly respected American scientific team. They have set the zoological world, and will very shortly set the whole scientific and lay world, ablaze with excitement. After nearly fifty years of legend and mystery, the saga of the Loch Ness ‘Monster’ is about to end with the addition of a remarkable new (or possibly very ancient) species to the world’s animal kingdom” (Witchell 1975, unpaginated author’s preface).

Dinsdale, despite the rift that would then have existed between himself and Scott, announced his great confidence in the photos (Dinsdale 1973), and such was their apparent significance that they were reported not just in the Nature paper, but on the journal’s cover too. Here is another of Williams’s gaffs, since he describes the paper as an “anonymous item” (p. 175). In fact, Scott and Rines are clearly noted as authors in the article’s abstract (Scott & Rines 1975).

The first part of the Scott & Rines (1975) article. Image: Nature Publishing Group.

The first part of the Scott & Rines (1975) article. Image: Nature Publishing Group.

The publication of this paper is definitely one of the weirder decisions ever made by Nature and one that attracted immediate and strong criticism. Importantly, it makes a mockery of the notion, beloved of cryptozoologists, that ‘the establishment’ has forever shunned or deliberately ignored such things as Nessie. Bullshit, dudes; you had a freakin’ paper in Nature.

The Peter Scott books I own. Image: Darren Naish.

The Peter Scott books I own. Image: Darren Naish.

On that note, one thing that should strike you while reading this book is the extremely high number of working scientists, academic institutions and official societies that, at some time or another since the 1930s, were embroiled in the Loch Ness saga. In, again, massive and hilarious contrast to the idea that academics shun or ignore cryptozoological subjects like the Loch Ness Monster, such qualified workers as Richard Harrison and Leo Harrison Matthews (both well known for their work on marine mammals), marine biologist Sir Alister Hardy, primatologist Sir Solly Zuckerman, palaeontologist Alan Charig*, ethologist, artist, author and TV personality Desmond Morris and many others were all involved or solicited opinion at some point. Hardy, incidentally, stated his belief in the monster (Wiliams 2015, p. 94).

* I wish I’d known this when writing a biography on Charig (Moody & Naish 2010).

Robert Rines has been a mildly controversial figure, and there have been occasions in which his credentials and qualifications were called into question. Here are two letters from the pages of  New Scientist , both from 1982 (vol 95, issues 1315 and 1320, respectively). Image:  New Scientist .

Robert Rines has been a mildly controversial figure, and there have been occasions in which his credentials and qualifications were called into question. Here are two letters from the pages of New Scientist, both from 1982 (vol 95, issues 1315 and 1320, respectively). Image: New Scientist.

On science and scientists, and anti-scientific statements. All in all, A Monstrous Commotion is useful in providing a great deal of novel discussion pertaining to the Scott correspondence, so far so good. But the book is somewhat ruined by a soft pro-Nessie stance that shines through in some places, the author’s insinuation being that Nessie is real and deserving of study and that those scientists and commentators who have rejected its existence and failed to take it seriously are the ones in error.

In places, he appears to unquestionably accept a few notions that, while beloved of Nessie supporters, have been so effectively countered that they shouldn’t ever be used as ‘supporting’ arguments ever again. Examples? That “the Monster [has] a pedigree that [goes] back … over 1,300 years” (p. 9) (see Magin 2001), or that coelacanths can be used to support the idea that the fossil record may as well be disregarded (p. 61).

The idea that  Latimeria , the extant coelacanth, provides support for the view that Mesozoic-grade vertebrate taxa might persist to the present without leaving a fossil record is very naive. In case you hadn’t noticed, we’ve now known of Holocene coelacanths for more than 80 years. This model was on display at the Natural History Museum (London, UK) in 2013. Image: Darren Naish.

The idea that Latimeria, the extant coelacanth, provides support for the view that Mesozoic-grade vertebrate taxa might persist to the present without leaving a fossil record is very naive. In case you hadn’t noticed, we’ve now known of Holocene coelacanths for more than 80 years. This model was on display at the Natural History Museum (London, UK) in 2013. Image: Darren Naish.

Williams notes the sometimes irksome statements made by Nessie supporters about scientists and the scientific process. Constance Whyte, describes Williams, might have seen the scientists of the day as “[a]rrogant and tunnel-visioned”, and that “they could not even be bothered to get out of their armchairs and visit Loch Ness to review the evidence for themselves. Of course, the Monster appeared to flout some basic rules of zoology, and pursuing it could be a waste of time. However, rules were made to be broken, and open-mindedness was supposed to be the hallmark of a good scientist” (p. 63). Williams continues: “All the prejudices and inflexibility of the scientific establishment had been neatly summed up by one of the leading biologists of the 1930s, Sir Arthur Keith FRS” who, Williams tells us, spoke “from the ivory tower of the Royal College of Surgeons” and went on to dismiss the beast “as a problem for psychologists, not zoologists” (p. 63). There are, of course, good reasons for thinking that Keith’s idea of a psychological explanation for monsters is a good one, not the opposite. William’s goes on to refer to the “scientific mafia” when describing the scientific response to Whyte’s 1957 book (p. 63).

The Cryptozoologicon Volume I  sometimes mocks the aggressive tone used by some cryptozoologists. At right, part of John Conway’s scene of a Himalayan yeti group. Image: John Conway/  Conway  et al . (2013)  .

The Cryptozoologicon Volume I sometimes mocks the aggressive tone used by some cryptozoologists. At right, part of John Conway’s scene of a Himalayan yeti group. Image: John Conway/Conway et al. (2013).

This sort of wording will be familiar if you’ve read my 2013 book (co-authored with John Conway and C. M. Kosemen) The Cryptozoologicon. Therein we deliberately mocked the vitriolic, vituperative, frothing-at-the-mouth-with-anger tone aimed at sceptics and working scientists by a certain cadre of cryptozoological believers (Conway et al. 2013). Fact is, the history of research on all the subjects beloved of cryptozoologists – Nessie, bigfoot, the yeti – shows that working scientists never shunned, ignored, dismissed or rejected these things but, on the contrary, spent time considering them, writing about them and even investigating them, only to get their fingers burnt when the subjects proved to mostly be a waste of time (cf Regal 2011). Look again at the list of scientists mentioned above: it’s absolutely farcical to state that scientists haven’t been interested, or haven’t bothered to investigate this stuff. To be clear: Williams isn’t guilty of painting science and scientists in this way, but he’s saying that Whyte was.

Your author (on the right) with Nessie. Image: Darren Naish.

Your author (on the right) with Nessie. Image: Darren Naish.

Indeed, this sort of thing – championed and given the thumbs up by at least some cryptozoologists (and their allies, the paranormalists) – only makes its proponents look naïve and clueless. Caricaturing scientists critical of the Loch Ness Monster as a ‘mafia’ implies that they work together as a band when confronted with a problem. The inner workings and politics of science involve very much the opposite, a fact often destructive and detrimental to those involved. Dear cryptozoologists critical of ‘the scientific establishment’ or of scientific sceptics in general: why do you insist on remaining so clueless with respect to what science is and how it works? There isn’t a gang or club of conspiring scientists who elect to take a given stance on a topic, but a community of competing individuals, all of whom are complex human beings.

The idea that Nessie might have retractable snorkels on its head - an odd idea, to be sure - has long been fairly popular in the LNM literature. The ‘gargoyle head’ photo has to be interpreted within this context. Image: Randall & Keane (1978).

The idea that Nessie might have retractable snorkels on its head - an odd idea, to be sure - has long been fairly popular in the LNM literature. The ‘gargoyle head’ photo has to be interpreted within this context. Image: Randall & Keane (1978).

Finally, a complaint I wish to make about A Monstrous Commotion is that it is, in places, oddly deficient in giving credit. I suppose I shouldn’t expect my own critical comments on various of the LNM photos to warrant mention since (outside of 2016/2017’s Hunting Monsters) they were only ever published here at TetZoo, not in print, but the complete and total absence of Ronald Binns – he isn’t mentioned or even cited once – is odd. Suspiciously so, given that a few sections of the book read much as if they took data or conclusions from Binns (1983). The lack of reference to the many discussions which have occurred within the various ‘parish magazines’ of cryptozoology – Fortean Times, Animals & Men, The Cryptozoology Review, Strange Magazine, Fortean Studies and so on – is also a bit odd.

More evidence for the snorkel-headed Nessie meme: this is the brilliant Kaiyodo toy. Mine was specially shipped from Japan, and oh do I love it. Image: Darren Naish.

More evidence for the snorkel-headed Nessie meme: this is the brilliant Kaiyodo toy. Mine was specially shipped from Japan, and oh do I love it. Image: Darren Naish.

A Monstrous Commotion is an entertaining book that I much enjoyed reading. After a slow start that I would have been happy to go without, it tells a fascinating story and does it well. Those seriously interested in the history of research and ideas on lake monsters should definitely read it, and it might even be said to be one of the best and most professional of books on the Loch Ness Monster yet published. However, it is sometimes appears too sympathetic to those who supported the existence of the Loch Ness Monster, doesn’t appropriately cite all relevant sources, and has enough small, technical errors that it shouldn’t be relied on for factual accuracy.

The only versions of Peter Scott’s renditions of the ‘gargoyle head’ illustration I’ve seen online have been tiny and very low-res, so here’s my best effort at reproducing the best version I have to hand (it’s from the 1981 Reader’s Digest book  Into the Unknown ). Image: Peter Scott/Bradbury (1981).

The only versions of Peter Scott’s renditions of the ‘gargoyle head’ illustration I’ve seen online have been tiny and very low-res, so here’s my best effort at reproducing the best version I have to hand (it’s from the 1981 Reader’s Digest book Into the Unknown). Image: Peter Scott/Bradbury (1981).

Williams, G. 2015. A Monstrous Commotion: the Mysteries of Loch Ness. Orion Books, London. pp. 365. ISBN 978-1-4091-5874-5. Softback, refs. Here at amazon. Here at amazon.co.uk.

If you enjoyed this article and want to see me do more, more often, please consider supporting me at patreon. The more funding I receive, the more time I’m able to devote to producing material for TetZoo and the more productive I can be on those long-overdue book projects. Thanks!

Nessie and related issues have been covered on TetZoo a fair bit before, though many of the older images now lack ALL of the many images they originally included…

Refs - -

Bradbury, W. 1981. Into the Unknown. Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York/Montreal.

Binns, R. 1983. The Loch Ness Mystery Solved. Open Books, London.

Binns, R. 2017. The Loch Ness Mystery Reloaded. Zoilus Press.

Conway, J., Kosemen, C. M. & Naish, D. 2013. Cryptozoologicon Volume I. Irregular Books.

Dinsdale, T. 1973. The Rines/Egerton picture. The Photographic Journal April 1973, 162-165.

Dinsdale, T. 1976. Loch Ness Monster, Revised Edition. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Magin, U. 2001. Waves without wind and a floating island – historical accounts of the Loch Ness monster. In Simmons, I. & Quin, M. (eds) Fortean Studies Volume 7. John Brown Publishing (London), pp. 95-115.

Moody, R. T. J. & Naish, D. 2010. Alan Jack Charig (1927-1997): an overview of his academic accomplishments and role in the world of fossil reptile research. In Moody, R. T. J., Buffetaut, E., Naish, D. & Martill, D. M. (eds) Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 343, pp. 89-109.

Naish, D. 2017. Hunting Monsters: Cryptozoology and the Reality Behind the Myths. Arcturus, London.

Randall, N. & Keane, G. 1978. Focus on Fact. No. 5 Unsolved Mysteries. W. H. Allen & Co, London.

Regal, B. 2011. Searching for Sasquatch: Crackpots, Eggheads, and Cryptozoology. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Rines, R. H. 1982. Summarizing a decade of underwater studies at Loch Ness. Cryptozoology 1, 24-32.

Rines, R. H., Edgerton, H. E., Wyckoff, C. W. & Klein, M. 1976. Search for the Loch Ness Monster. Technology Review March/April 1976, 25-40.

Scott, P. 1976. Why I believe in the Loch Ness Monster. Wildlife 18, 110-111.

Scott, P. & Rines, R. 1975. Naming the Loch Ness monster. Nature 258, 466-468.

Sitwell, N. 1976. The Loch Ness Monster evidence. Wildlife 18, 102-109.

Taylor, M. A. & Martin, J. G. 1990. Big Mouths and Long Necks. Leicestershire Museums, Arts and Records Service, Leicester.

Williams, G. 2015. A Monstrous Commotion: the Mysteries of Loch Ness. Orion Books, London.

Witchell, N. 1975. The Loch Ness Story. Penguins Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex.

TetZoo Bookshelf, February 2019, Part 1

There are a lot of books that require review at TetZoo. Let’s see how many I can get through right now…

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Michael J. Everhart’s Oceans of Kansas: A Natural History of the Western Interior Sea, Second Edition

Those of us interested in Mesozoic animals frequently lament the lack of any good, especially useful books that review our knowledge of Mesozoic marine life. But it’s not all bad, since we at least have this wonderful, weighty, very detailed volume. Oceans of Kansas is by far the best there is, and it’s a must-have. Ok, the limitation is that it’s devoted, of course, to Late Cretaceous North American seas alone – specifically, to the Western Interior Sea that once extended north-south across the whole of North America – but this is no fault of the book but its main feature. Indeed, Oceans of Kansas is successful enough that this is its second edition, and it’s newly expanded, revised and augmented, so much so that those owning the first, 2005 edition should consider buying this one too.

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Everhart devotes chapters to sharks, bony fishes, turtles, the various plesiosaur groups, mosasaurs, pterosaurs and dinosaurs as well as invertebrates, the history of our discovery of the Western Interior Sea and more. At 427 pages and about 3.5 cm in thickness, this book contains a huge amount of information. It feels like the compilation of a dedicated person’s life’s work, and I hope the author doesn’t mind me saying that.

Excellent colour photos and numerous diagrams and other illustrations appear throughout. Many of these images are rare or novel and there’s much here not available elsewhere. A colour plate section features art by the late, great Dan Varner, a friend and correspondent I admired and liked a great deal. Dan’s paintings are looking a bit dated now in view of recently acquired information on mosasaur anatomy and we’d all love to know what Dan would have done with them had he the chance (he died in 2012). Regardless, they’re fantastic pieces of work.

One of Dan Varner’s greatest illustrations (in my opinion): the shark  Cretoxyrhina  takes out a  Tylosaurus . This and many other Varner pieces feature in  Oceans of Kansas . Image: (c)   Dan Varner/Oceans of Kansas  .

One of Dan Varner’s greatest illustrations (in my opinion): the shark Cretoxyrhina takes out a Tylosaurus. This and many other Varner pieces feature in Oceans of Kansas. Image: (c) Dan Varner/Oceans of Kansas.

Everhart’s text combines historical review with discussions of what we know, or think we know. There are also numerous personal anecdotes about how various specimens were discovered, recovered and interpreted as well as discussions on how relevant ideas on Cretaceous marine life have developed or changed during the time in which the author has been involved. As he explains, some ideas (those on mosasaur skin and physiology, for example) have undergone substantial revision since he published the book’s first edition in 2005. It’s this personal touch that I enjoy the most.

I say again that Oceans of Kansas is absolutely a must-have if you’re interested in Mesozoic marine life. In my work as a vertebrate palaeontologist and researcher I’ve consulted it hundreds of times, and – like all very good books – it’s not just a great source of information but also a joy to look at.

Michael J. Everhart. 2017. Oceans of Kansas: A Natural History of the Western Interior Sea, Second Edition. Indiana University Press (Bloomington, Indiana), pp. 427. ISBN 978-0-253-02632-3. Hardback, index, refs. Here at amazon, here at amazon.co.uk, here from the publishers.

Katrina van Grouw’s Unnatural Selection

Much of the fandom that developed around Katrina van Grouw’s 2013 The Unfeathered Bird did so because of its spectacular, beautiful illustrations (van Grouw 2013). Van Grouw’s newest book – 2018’s Unnatural Selection – has a similar format and design and is also spectacularly well illustrated; it is, however, an important work of literature, not of illustration or art alone. I’ve already said quite a fair bit about this book – I wrote a long article on its contents, published before it was out – back in May 2018 at ver 2, so will be brief here.

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Divided into four main sections (Origin, Inheritance, Variation and Selection), Unnatural Selection describes and celebrates selective breeding and its results. We’ve bred animals with all manner of anatomical novelties not present in their wild ancestors, and – as van Grouw explains right at the start of the book – have ended up with domestic hybrids and variants that are so modified that ancestry has been obscured, or are hybrid mish-mashes of more than one species.

Unnatural Selection  showcases an extraordinary number of unusual domestic animals (these are all domestic pigeon breeds), but the main theme is the evolutionary plasticity, and potential, that human selective breeding has created in these species. Image:   van Grouw (2018)  .

Unnatural Selection showcases an extraordinary number of unusual domestic animals (these are all domestic pigeon breeds), but the main theme is the evolutionary plasticity, and potential, that human selective breeding has created in these species. Image: van Grouw (2018).

There’s a huge quantity of information here on the diversity of domestic animals and the backstories to them. Van Grouw talks about specific breeders and what they aimed to do with particular animal breeds, as well as the (sometimes erroneous) ideas on why certain breeds are the way they are. But… this isn’t really what the book is about. The main thrust here, instead, is to highlight how selective breeding has enhanced and modified the variation and plasticity present ancestrally in the animals concerned, and on how selective breeding is super-rapid, human-controlled evolution, echoing, mirroring or replicating that which has occurred outside of human influence.

Geese (wild and domesticate) from    Unnatural Selection   . This panel combines Katrina’s illustrations with Natee Himmapaan’s amazing skills in writing and labelling. Credit: Katrina van Grouw/  van Grouw (2018)  .

Geese (wild and domesticate) from Unnatural Selection. This panel combines Katrina’s illustrations with Natee Himmapaan’s amazing skills in writing and labelling. Credit: Katrina van Grouw/van Grouw (2018).

If you’re interested in the diversity of domestic animals, in evolution, or in anatomy, you absolutely must get hold of this remarkable book, and all the more so and if you enjoyed The Unfeathered Bird.

Katrina van Grouw. 2018. Unnatural Selection. Princeton University Press (Princeton and Oxford), pp. 284. ISBN 978-0-691-15706-1. Hardback, index, refs. Here at amazon, here at amazon.co.uk, here from the publishers.

 Jonathan Losos’s Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution

Why certain things have happened in evolutionary history, why certain other things haven’t happened, and what things might be like had events took a different turn has, as you’ll know, been a popular area of discussion in this neck of the woods since whenever. Broadly speaking, I have SpecBio in mind: big-brained dinosaurs, an Earth ruled by giant lizards, that sort of thing. If this subject interests you, you absolutely have to read Jonathan Losos’s Improbable Destinies. Inspired (in part) by Gould’s argument in Wonderful Life that evolutionary history is and was dependent on contingency and not destiny, and with something of a herpetological bias linked to his specialisation as a student of anoles, Losos explores the Park Grass Experiment, guppy and stickleback variation, fruit fly studies, disease biology and more.

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My own biases mean that I especially enjoyed his take on dinosauroids (“… to my surprise … The dinosauroid hypothesis was alive and thriving in cyberspace”; p. 323), both the Dale Russell version and the Kosemen/Roy one (yes, there is an illustration), and I think I recall providing him with some of the relevant literature (Naish 2008). The same chapter also includes a discussion of Perry the Platypus and platypusoids (yes, really), E. O. Wilson’s thoughts on extraterrestrials, and, ugh, Simon Conway Morris’s take on the whole thing.

Marlin Peterson’s re-drawing of one of the Kosmen/Roy dinosauroids, from Jonathan Losos’s  Improbable Destinies . Image:   Losos (2017)  .

Marlin Peterson’s re-drawing of one of the Kosmen/Roy dinosauroids, from Jonathan Losos’s Improbable Destinies. Image: Losos (2017).

Losos’s writing is fun and eloquent and the book is really well designed. References and detailed footnotes are included, and the black and white illustrations by Marlin Peterson are really nice. If you enjoy reading this blog, you will like this book. UPDATE: hilariously, I just discovered that I reviewed this book before, here at TetZoo ver 2 in December 2017. I covered exactly the same points because my brain only works one way.

Jonathan B. Losos. 2017. Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution. Riverhead Books (New York), pp. 368. ISBN 978-0-399-18492-5. Hardback, index, refs. Here at amazon, here at amazon.co.uk, here from the publishers.

Laufer et al.’s Audubon’s Last Wilderness Journey: The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America

Most people reading this, especially those interested in the portrayal of animals in art, will be familiar with the several works of naturalist, ornithologist and artist John James Audubon (1785-1851). Audubon is most famous for his grand, lavish The Birds of America, published between 1827 and 1839 and involving years of work, massive investment and hundreds of illustrations. But he should be just as well known for his equally momentous and lavish The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.

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This new book – including contributions from nine authors, and edited by Charles T. Butler – reproduces all 150 prints from that work, includes a great deal of material that essentially serves as ‘the making of The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America’ (actually, this is the exact title of Ron Tyler’s article within the volume), and also features sections of text on the history of conservation and natural history in North America, and on how human-wildlife interactions have changed since Audubon’s time. Footnotes cite the relevant correspondence and literature. These ‘introductory’ sections take us all the way to p. 84, so this is a substantial volume (31 x 26 cm, 280 pp).

As goes the illustrations, the quality of reproduction is outstandingly good. The colours are deep and vibrant, and the level of detail that shows up in magnified sections is impressive. Aubudon was really good at drawing hairs, and my god his skunks, foxes, bears and others clearly involved a lot of work and are quite something to examine in detail. The plates are reproduced in entirety, but magnified sections are also included for some of them as well, and it was these that I enjoyed looking at the most.

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The volume ends with a timeline that explains every step in the creation of The Viviparous Quadrupeds, including reproductions of correspondence and colour maps of Audubon’s journey.

This is a grand, beautiful book that will be appreciated by anyone interested in mammals or natural history more broadly. Those especially interested in Audubon and his work will appreciate the biographical and background information, and those who don’t own previous reproductions of The Viviparous Quadrupeds (I imagine that that’s most of us) will enjoy the excellent reproductions of his art.

Marilyn Laufer, Ron Tyler, Charles T. Butler, Dennis Harper, Daniel Patterson, Sarah Zohdy, Robert A. Gitzen, James B. Armstrong & Christopher A. Lepczyk. 2018. Audubon’s Last Wilderness Journey: The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, Auburn University/D. Giles, London. pp. 280. ISBN 978-1-911282-10-5. Hardback, index, refs. Here at amazon, here at amazon.co.uk (where title is spelt wrong.. I have told amazon), here from the publishers.

John Reilly’s The Ascent of Birds

It has always been a great paradox to me why books on the evolutionary history of birds are so incredibly rare. There is – as you’ll know if you’re at all familiar with books on natural history – a wonderful yet maddeningly frustrating never-ending glut of excellent, glossy, beautiful, horridly expensive books on birds, year on year on year, yet bird evolution just never gets covered. Regular readers will know what I think of Alan Feduccia’s idiosyncratic, biased and utterly misleading writings.

It is a major problem that there has long been a total shortage of reliable books on bird evolution. Alan Feduccia’s books - two of which are shown here - are unreliable and misleading. Images:  Yale University Press (left);   Yale University Press (right) .

It is a major problem that there has long been a total shortage of reliable books on bird evolution. Alan Feduccia’s books - two of which are shown here - are unreliable and misleading. Images: Yale University Press (left); Yale University Press (right).

John Reilly’s volume substantially alleviates that gap in the market (yes, I do know about Gerald Mayr’s books), and it’s really good. Written very much in the format of Dawkins’s The Ancestor’s Tale (which I confess to not liking all that much, ask me if you want to know why), The Ascent of Birds is a very dense, very well informed, mostly up to date tour of the bird family tree, its structure following molecular phylogenies like those of Hackett et al., Jarvis et al., Prum et al. and so on: specifically, he follows the topology published by Jetz et al. (2012). I guess he used Jetz et al. (2012) specifically because it was the most up to date at the time of writing (various of its conclusions have been replaced by those more recent studies). My own (now dated) review of bird evolution (Naish 2012) is cited, but I think only as a source of information on passerine genitalia. Ok.

The excellent cover art - featuring paintings by Jon Fjeldså (whose illustrations appear in several of his own papers) - depicts the cladogram published by Jetz  et al . (2012). Image:   Pelagic Publishing  .

The excellent cover art - featuring paintings by Jon Fjeldså (whose illustrations appear in several of his own papers) - depicts the cladogram published by Jetz et al. (2012). Image: Pelagic Publishing.

Chapters discuss lineages in the order of their branching in the Jetz et al. cladogram.. broadly speaking (there are actually a few deviations). Each combines something on the general history of the lineage before focusing on a story specific to one, some or all members of said lineage. The chapter on albatrosses, for example, examines models of albatross biogeography before discussing dynamic soaring behaviour and olfactory biology while that on corvids mostly focuses on cognitive skills and their evolution. We thus get a broad-brush picture on the group’s evolution before zooming in on something more specific but still relevant to the group’s story as a whole. This works really well, and Reilly focuses on things that are – in my opinion – more interesting than Dawkins did.

References are provided throughout, most chapters contain a diagram or two, and a colour plate section includes images of fossils and living birds relevant to the main prose.

There are a lot of passerine lineages: this simplified cladogram features the major lineages only. It is fitting that about half of Reilly’s  The Ascent of Birds  is devoted to this one group. Image: Darren Naish,   from my textbook project  .

There are a lot of passerine lineages: this simplified cladogram features the major lineages only. It is fitting that about half of Reilly’s The Ascent of Birds is devoted to this one group. Image: Darren Naish, from my textbook project.

Long-time readers will know that I once invested considerable time in a book that, similarly, took its readers on a tour of the modern, molecular avian family tree. It was less prose-based than Reilly’s book, and with more focus on images, and was ultimately abandoned due to lack of interest from publishers (part of the story is discussed here, though the article concerned is now lacking all of its accompanying images). Reilly’s book does what my book should have done, but in a far more detail-oriented fashion, meaning that we finally have a good volume presenting the vast amount of modern work done on bird evolution to those interested. This is a notable achievement and has been well executed.

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Screengrabs from the aborted Naish ‘The Bird Family Tree’ book. Yes, I should pick it up and get it published. No, I can’t do that due to a list of other projects that prevent such action. Images: Darren Naish.

Screengrabs from the aborted Naish ‘The Bird Family Tree’ book. Yes, I should pick it up and get it published. No, I can’t do that due to a list of other projects that prevent such action. Images: Darren Naish.

John Reilly. 2018. The Ascent of Birds: How Modern Science is Revealing Their Story. Pelagic Press (Exeter), pp. 340. ISBN 978-1-78427-169-5. Hardback, index, refs. Here at amazon, here at amazon.co.uk, here from the publishers.

Philippe Geniez’s Snakes of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East: A Photographic Guide

Originally published in French, and translated into English by Tony Williams, Geniez’s Snakes is a compact, attractive, well designed and pleasingly thick volume, definitely one to get if you’re a snake specialist. An introductory section covers snake natural history, biology, habitat, the effects of snakebite and classification; the rest of the book – which goes through the species on a family by family basis – covers ‘identification’, ‘range’ as well as diet, reproduction and so on for each species (where available) and is especially good on intraspecific variation and proposed subspecies. Geniez has gone to some trouble to use the newest ideas on taxonomy and phylogeny, the various boxed-out sections providing discussion on genera and their contents. So, you’re going to meet Myriopholis, Spalerosophis, Platyceps and others, if you haven’t already.

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There are already a few (mostly very good) fieldguides to the reptiles of the European field guide region – this typically being taken to include northern Africa and at least part of the Middle East too – so what is it that makes this book different as goes which taxa it includes? Well, there are quite a few species from outside the region usually covered, including a few surprises – too many to discuss here.  I will say that they include the Brahminy worm snake Indotyphlops braminus (yeah, not Ramphotyphlops anymore), California kingsnake Lampropeltis californiae (yup: introduced to the Canary Islands and now abundant there, and also known from Spain), and the as-yet-unnamed Israeli whip snake.

Pages from   Geniez (2018)  . It’s a great-looking book. Image:   weboryx.com twitter account.

Pages from Geniez (2018). It’s a great-looking book. Image: weboryx.com twitter account.

This is not a ‘fieldguide’ in the sense of having plates depicting related species in close proximity. Instead, photos (taken by a long list of different photographers) are distributed throughout the text. But they’re outstandingly good and make this a very colourful, attractive book. Strongly recommended for those of herpetological inclination!

Philippe Geniez. 2018. Snakes of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East: A Photographic Guide. Princeton University Press (Princeton and Oxford), pp. 379. ISBN 978-0-691-17239-2. Softback, index, refs. Here at amazon, here at amazon.co.uk, here from the publishers.

 For other TetZoo book reviews and articles relevant to the topics covered here, see…

Refs - -

Geniez. P. 2018. Snakes of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East: A Photographic Guide. Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford.

Jetz, W., Thomas, G. H., Joy, J. B., Hartmann, K. & Mooers, A. O. 2012. The global diversity of birds in space and time. Nature 491, 444-448.

Losos, J. B. 2017. Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution. Riverhead Books, New York.

Naish, D. 2008. Intelligent dinosaurs. Fortean Times 239, 52-53.

Naish, D. 2012. Birds. In Brett-Surman, M. K., Holtz, T. R. & Farlow, J. O. (eds) The Complete Dinosaur (Second Edition). Indiana University Press (Bloomington & Indianapolis), pp. 379-423.

van Grouw, K. 2013. The Unfeathered Bird. Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford.

Erroll Fuller’s The Passenger Pigeon

Most readers of this blog will be familiar with Erroll Fuller and the huge quantity he has published on recently extinct birds. His books typically combine a discussion on the biology, history and extinction of the species, a section on existing specimens (as in, museum mounts and skins and eggs and so on), and some good coverage of the animal’s appearances in art and popular culture.

Cover, featuring John James Audubon’s illustration from  The Birds of North America . Credit: fair use.

Cover, featuring John James Audubon’s illustration from The Birds of North America. Credit: fair use.

Fuller’s 2015 The Passenger Pigeon does all this and more, and is an extremely well-illustrated, popular review of what we know of this species. The Passenger pigeon Ectopistes migratorius is/was a long-tailed, swift-flying pigeon, famous for existing in nomadic flocks of billions by the time Europeans began colonising North America. How the birds came to be so phenomenally abundant, whether this was an ephemeral or long-lived phenomenon, and how linked this was to human-caused habitat change are good questions and there are reasons for thinking that a population of billions was not a pre-Holocene condition (e.g., Mann 2011).

Juvenile, male and female Passenger pigeon, as illustrated by Louis Agassiz Fuertes in 1910. Credit: public domain,  original here .

Juvenile, male and female Passenger pigeon, as illustrated by Louis Agassiz Fuertes in 1910. Credit: public domain, original here.

Fuller’s The Passenger Pigeon is not a gargantuan magnum opus like his The Great Auk (Fuller 1999). It’s far smaller (25 x 19 cm) and slimmer (177 pages). It includes an extraordinary number of photos, paintings and drawings, and indeed is a very attractive volume. Numerous black and white photos, mostly taken of captive birds in the early 1900s, depict the animals in life. There are photos of Martha (fabled ‘last of the passenger pigeons’) too, and reproductions of many paintings and other artworks.

The Passenger Pigeon is not an academic tome with technical citations and any extended discussion of thoughts on this bird’s evolution or biology. But it’s a good book nonetheless and I definitely recommend it for anyone interested in pigeons and/or in recently extinct birds.

The Passenger Pigeon  is not as huge and impressive as Fuller’s  The Great Auk  book, but that’s ok. Credit: fair use.

The Passenger Pigeon is not as huge and impressive as Fuller’s The Great Auk book, but that’s ok. Credit: fair use.

Brian Switek’s My Beloved Brontosaurus: A Belated Review

I’ve posted a few reviews of recently-ish published dinosaur books here lately, aaaand I have a few more to publish yet – the backlog is long. So.. it seemed as good a time as any to recycle this review from five years ago, pertaining to a book published in 2013. The review was written for the website produced to accompany the 2013 Walking With Dinosaurs movie but… for reasons that I’m sure make sense to someone, this review and in fact the entire site was later removed from the internet (yeah yeah yeah... nothing is ever really removed, blah blah blah IT’S GONE FOR NORMAL PEOPLE, OK?). I here republish it in full, unmodified form since those far-off, halcyon days of 2013. Which is kind of ironic, given what’s happened to Brontosaurus since 2013 (see links below for more on that)…

The brilliant cover-art to   Switek (2013)  , by Mark Stutzman. Image:   Switek (2013)  .

The brilliant cover-art to Switek (2013), by Mark Stutzman. Image: Switek (2013).

Dinosaurs are popular. We seem, in fact, to be at an all-time high in terms of our hunger for new dinosaur news, the frequency with which new discoveries are announced, and in the sheer volume of dinosaur-themed books, TV shows and movies.

Brian Switek’s My Beloved Brontosaurus describes the author’s personal journey as he visits various dinosaur-bearing fossil sites and dinosaur-themed museums and other institutions across the United States, all the while discussing the fast-changing pace of our knowledge, the new insights we have into dinosaurs and their biology, and the fondness we retain for the big, fat, swamp-dwelling, pea-brained version of the dinosaur that almost refuses to die. Herein lies the explanation for the book’s title: the concept of ‘Brontosaurus’ embodies a defunct stereotype, a name that ‘shouldn’t’ be in current use [UPDATE: OH THE IRONY] and which remains associated with a version of the dinosaur that pre-dates the Dinosaur Renaissance.

The iconic diplodocid specimen (AMNH 460) on display in the American Museum of Natural History, New York, with its semi-imaginary skull. Long labelled as  Brontosaurus excelsus , and then  Apatosaurus excelsus , it’s currently of indeterminate status. Image: AMNH, in public domain ( original here ).

The iconic diplodocid specimen (AMNH 460) on display in the American Museum of Natural History, New York, with its semi-imaginary skull. Long labelled as Brontosaurus excelsus, and then Apatosaurus excelsus, it’s currently of indeterminate status. Image: AMNH, in public domain (original here).

The book reads like something of a road trip, arranged such that Switek tells the story of the dinosaurs’ Triassic origins and gradual rise to dominance, explores ideas about their sex lives and reproductive and growth strategies, looks at their evolution of giant size, at dinosaur social lives, at feathers and featheryness, at pathologies and illnesses, and, eventually, at the end-Cretaceous extinction event. It’s a well-written, flowing narrative; the chapters are connected, both to one another and to Switek’s journey across the country, though the connections do sometimes seem a bit contrived. Notes at the back point the reader to technical sources for the information included, illustrations appear throughout, and the book is fully indexed.

Front cover of   Switek (2013)  . Some apatosaurines truly were gargantuan - the individual shown here might be overly gargantuan, but the image is brilliant anyway. Image:   Switek (2013)  .

Front cover of Switek (2013). Some apatosaurines truly were gargantuan - the individual shown here might be overly gargantuan, but the image is brilliant anyway. Image: Switek (2013).

I really like Mark Stutzman’s cover art so was especially thrilled to see that the dust jacket folds out into a double-sided poster. Extra dino-geek points if you know the inspirations behind either of Stutzman’s illustrations.

By and large the volume is up-to-date and factually accurate, but there are a few things I take issue with. The name Brontosaurus is of course a major fixture throughout the book, the obvious reason for this being that the name loomed large in virtually every single popular dinosaur book prior to... well, prior to some surprisingly recent date. As Switek explains, it’s not true to say – as people sometimes do – that “Brontosaurus never existed”; rather, the species that the name Brontosaurus is tied to was shown in 1903 to be so similar to species included in another genus (Apatosaurus) that separate status for Brontosaurus was no longer defensible. If Brontosaurus ‘died’ in 1903, why has it persisted until so recently? [UPDATE: AGAIN… OH THE IRONY. For the one or two of you that don’t know, the name Brontosaurus was resurrected from synonymy in a comprehensive analysis published in 2015 (Tschopp et al. 2015)].

Another fantastic apatosaurine: this is  Apatosaurus louisae , photographed at the Carnegie Museum. You might be wondering what the deal is as goes those massive club-like processes on the cervical vertebrae. Yeah, we’re working on that. Really… we are. Image:  Tadek Kurpaski  CC BY 2.0 ( original here ).

Another fantastic apatosaurine: this is Apatosaurus louisae, photographed at the Carnegie Museum. You might be wondering what the deal is as goes those massive club-like processes on the cervical vertebrae. Yeah, we’re working on that. Really… we are. Image: Tadek Kurpaski CC BY 2.0 (original here).

Switek’s answer is that this choice was essentially arbitrary: he suggests that New York’s American Museum of Natural History stuck with the name in their massively popular museum display because they maybe “thought the old name sounded better, or were unsure about rebranding one of the most famous dinosaurs in their halls”.

However, as explained in Paul Brinkman’s 2010 book The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush, there’s a good reason why Brontosaurus persisted for so long. That reason: Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the AMNH between 1908 and 1933. Osborn was hugely influential and highly opinionated, and his insistence on sticking with the name Brontosaurus ensured the use of the name well beyond its time as a popular (rather than technical) moniker. The 1903 sinking of Brontosaurus was suggested by Elmer Riggs. Riggs did good work, but he simply lacked the academic clout to make Osborn change his mind.

Another excellent volume on the history of Mesozoic dinosaur palaeontology:   Paul Brinkman’s 2010  The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush   .   My review of this book can be found here   (at the paywalled and utterly useless no-man’s land that is the SciAm blogs site). Image:   Brinkman (2010)  .

Another excellent volume on the history of Mesozoic dinosaur palaeontology: Paul Brinkman’s 2010 The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush. My review of this book can be found here (at the paywalled and utterly useless no-man’s land that is the SciAm blogs site). Image: Brinkman (2010).

Something I think we need to do more when writing about scientific discoveries and hypotheses is discuss the social dimension to science: that is, the reception said discoveries and hypotheses received within the academic community. New and radical notions and proposals are – despite the impression you might get from TV shows and magazine articles – typically not embraced with open arms. Instead, they initially receive cold and even harsh treatment. Since scientists are human, the way they react to such ideas may be influenced by their personal feelings, the research environment they were trained in, who their friends and enemies are, and so on. In the world of palaeontology, it seems that we’re entering a phase where we’re increasingly analysing the work and ideas of the last few decades: in other words, charting the socio-political background to the science.

It is important, I feel, that we document the history of our changing ideas, something I tried to do in    The Great Dinosaur Discoveries  (Naish 2009)  . Image:   Naish (2009)  .

It is important, I feel, that we document the history of our changing ideas, something I tried to do in The Great Dinosaur Discoveries (Naish 2009). Image: Naish (2009).

I tried to do this myself in my 2009 book The Great Dinosaur Discoveries (Naish 2009), and Switek often does it in My Beloved Brontosaurus since he quotes experts and reports the conversations he has with them. People interested in the history of palaeontology, and in the history of science in general, should read the book for this reason. It helps make the book a snap-shot of where we are now in the world of dinosaur science – it covers the issues we’re currently interested in; the questions and discoveries that we’re talking about.

All in all, My Beloved Brontosaurus is both a fun and absorbing read as well a good, popular guide to our current understanding of dinosaurs and their evolution.

Brian Switek, 2013. My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and our Favourite Dinosaurs. Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 256 pp. ISBN 978-0-374-13506-5. Hardback, index, illustrations.

For previous TetZoo articles relevant to this one, see…

Refs - -

Brinkman, P. 2010. The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Naish, D. 2009. The Great Dinosaur Discoveries. A & C Black, London.

Switek, B. 2013. My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and our Favourite Dinosaurs. Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

Tschopp, E., Mateus, O. & Benson, R. B. J. 2015. A specimen-level phylogenetic analysis and taxonomic revision of Diplodocidae (Dinosauria, Sauropoda). PeerJ 3:e857; DOI 10.7717/peerj.857

Reminiscing on Tetrapood Zoology: Book One…

Happy birthday, Book One

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There’s a huge quantity of stuff I want to – indeed, need to – blog about. But I can’t. Too much work and not enough time. But something interesting just happened and I feel it’s worthy of mention here. In September 2010, Tetrapod Zoology Book One (Naish 2010) was published (on or around the 27th, to be precise), and thank you facebook for reminding me that eight years have passed since then (yup, the maths checks out). This is painful to hear, because my intention was always to churn out additional volumes in the series every few years: the idea being that I would, by now, be four or five or more books into the series. But no. I despair over how little time I have to do the things I want, and how much there is that I want to do and still haven’t done. It’s on my mind all the time. Why couldn’t I be born rich? Huh.

If anything might be considered emblematic of  Book One  it’s giant killer eagles. Golden eagles can and do kill domestic cattle calves. Image: Darren Naish.

If anything might be considered emblematic of Book One it’s giant killer eagles. Golden eagles can and do kill domestic cattle calves. Image: Darren Naish.

Anyway… Tetrapod Zoology Book One was well received at the time of publishing; I know of one published review (Pihlstrom 2011), and the few I’ve seen on blogs and on amazon are fair. The book feels something like a random assortment of essays on diverse tetrapod groups but at least it compiles articles (albeit not all of them) that appeared on Tet Zoo ver 1 back in 2006. Giant killer eagles, British big cats, Indian Ocean giant tortoises, the Ichthyosaur Wars, olms, azhdarchids, eagles owls in Britain, the discovery of the Kipunji, bird-eating bats and more get coverage. Steve Backshall very kindly wrote the foreword.

A most amusing montage depicting assorted humans who assisted in some way with stuff that led to the production of the book. Images: Darren Naish, Neil Phillips, (c) University of Portsmouth, (c) Steve Backshall

A most amusing montage depicting assorted humans who assisted in some way with stuff that led to the production of the book. Images: Darren Naish, Neil Phillips, (c) University of Portsmouth, (c) Steve Backshall

The book’s existence is owed to Karl Shuker who emphasised to me in a bar one time how getting (quality, ahem) material written for a blog into actual print is worthwhile, possibly a necessity. I’m inclined to agree. Not everyone thinks this way in the age of the internet and digital storage, but I do and I remain attached to books as physical objects. I literally do not remember the ebooks I own but cannot say the same of the dead-tree objects that I associate with the physical spaces where I’ve interacted with them. Wow, that sounded weird. I later discussed the idea with Jon Downes and ended up having the book published through his CFZ Press, though I misunderstood the finances of the deal we made because I’m a freakin’ idiot. Whatever.

No no  NO  — you do  NOT  own too many book already! BUY MORE!!! Digital books don’t work, I tell you. Image: Darren Naish.

No no NO — you do NOT own too many book already! BUY MORE!!! Digital books don’t work, I tell you. Image: Darren Naish.

A printing error (though you could describe it in another way if you wished) led to the very first batch of this book being called Tetrapood Zoology: Book One on the spine. That initial batch (of around 300 books, I think) sold out and are now much sought after – I’ve retained one copy and I know other people who won’t sell theirs because they like the typo so much. The second printing is technically a second edition (it even says so inside the book); two editions within the space of a year, woo-hoo!

Spot the cryptic typo. Image: Dallas Krentzel.

Spot the cryptic typo. Image: Dallas Krentzel.

The excellent cover art was produced by my friend and colleague Memo Kösemen. I don’t think I’ve previously shared the fact that we went through several iterations before deciding on the final version, and here are two of them.

Art by the brilliant C. M. K ö semen. Incidentally - and wholly coincidentally - Kevin Schreck’s movie  Tangent Realms: The World of C. M. Kösemen  premiered today in New York!

Art by the brilliant C. M. Kösemen. Incidentally - and wholly coincidentally - Kevin Schreck’s movie Tangent Realms: The World of C. M. Kösemen premiered today in New York!

That’ll do. The plan to publish follow-up volumes remains very much alive, but there are several major projects in the way before anything happens there, and there are things in the way stopping those things from happening, and yet other things too that stop those things from happening as well. I’ll get it all done one day. Or maybe I won’t. It sure feels that way at the moment. Gah.

Thank you to those who support my research and writing at patreon.

Refs - -

Naish, D. 2010. Tetrapod Zoology: Book One. CFZ Press, Woolsery, Devon.

Pihlstrom, H. 2011. Book review: Tetrapod zoology book one. Historical Biology 23, 439-440.

New Dinosaur Books, Part 2: Ben Garrod’s ‘So You Think You Know About… Dinosaurs’ Series

Today we press on with my brief(ish) reviews of recently(ish) published books on Mesozoic dinosaurs – I have quite a backlog – and this time it’s…. the So You Think You Know About… Dinosaurs books, by Ben Garrod. Ben is a qualified zoologist and TV presenter, perhaps best known for the BBC 2014 series Secrets of Bones. I should also add that Ben spoke at the 2017 TetZooCon, so now you know he’s awesome.

Ben Garrod's new dinosaur books - another three are due to appear very soon. Image: Darren Naish.

Ben Garrod's new dinosaur books - another three are due to appear very soon. Image: Darren Naish.

Anyway, Dr Garrod has now made a foray into the World of Mesozoic Dinosaurs, and a pretty respectable foray it is. These small, compact books – they remind me of the Horrible Histories volumes a little – provide a huge quantity of information on the dinosaurs they cover, do so in a fun, attractive way, and are very much on-the-ball as goes the current state of our knowledge. They are very much science advocacy tools that don’t shy away from presenting and discussing such topics as complex as sexual selection and evolutionary arms races. The dinosaurian nature of birds is emphasised – dinosaurs can’t be extinct so long as around 10,000 of them are currently alive – and the books are good at conveying the phylogenetic position of the relevant dinosaurs and where they fit within geological time.

Black and white cartoons, diagrams and other images are on virtually every page. If you move in the same social media spheres that I do (I’m @TetZoo on Twitter and Instagram) – surprise! – the cartoons are by Ethan Kocak, and illustrations and diagrams by Gabriel Ugueto and Scott Hartman also appear within.

Excellent illustrations by Gabriel Ugueto appear in each of the books. Hey, Gabriel and I actually worked together on a large poster about tyrannosaurs included in a magazine -- it was published early in 2018 but I still haven't seen it because the publishers never sent me a copy and no longer have any to provide. Huh. Image: Gabriel Ugueto/Ben Garrod/Zephyr.

Excellent illustrations by Gabriel Ugueto appear in each of the books. Hey, Gabriel and I actually worked together on a large poster about tyrannosaurs included in a magazine -- it was published early in 2018 but I still haven't seen it because the publishers never sent me a copy and no longer have any to provide. Huh. Image: Gabriel Ugueto/Ben Garrod/Zephyr.

Regarding what I said a moment ago about these books reflecting ‘the current state of our knowledge’, I’m especially pleased to see inflatable nose balloons featured in the Triceratops volume (for more on this issue see this Tet Zoo ver 3 article from 2016). The Diplodocus volume has a brief discussion of the whole trunks issue (covered here at Tet Zoo ver 3).

Ceratopsian nose balloons go mainstream (images by Ethan Kocak). I can't take credit for this.  Or can I . Images: Ethan Kocak/Ben Garrod/Zephyr.

Ceratopsian nose balloons go mainstream (images by Ethan Kocak). I can't take credit for this. Or can I. Images: Ethan Kocak/Ben Garrod/Zephyr.

Quibbles: two or three maniraptoran silhouettes are shown as un-feathered, and I will forgive the Tyrannosaurus book for using the full binomial throughout even though the dinosaurs of the other books are only ever mentioned by their generic names. T. rex exceptionalism, we call it.

It's nothing to with Ben Garrod's books, but I thought I'd include another image of ceratopsian nose balloons for good measure. This brilliant piece is by J. W. Kirby and the original can be seen  here at KirbyniferousRegret's deviantart page . Image: J. W. Kirby.

It's nothing to with Ben Garrod's books, but I thought I'd include another image of ceratopsian nose balloons for good measure. This brilliant piece is by J. W. Kirby and the original can be seen here at KirbyniferousRegret's deviantart page. Image: J. W. Kirby.

I really like these books and strongly recommend them for young readers (I suppose the target audience is kids between 6 and 16, or so). Ben is big on ‘embracing your inner geek’, and on encouraging young people to be proud of their curiosity and interest in science and nature, and I’m sure this is something that everyone reading this wants to see promoted and celebrated too. Three additional volumes – on Spinosaurus, Velociraptor and Stegosaurus – are finished and due to appear in print very soon (so I understand).

Ben Garrod, 2018. So You Think You Know About… Tyrannosaurus rex? Zephyr, London. ISBN 9781786697844. Hardback, 106 pp. Here at amazon. Here at amazon.co.uk. Here from the publishers.

Ben Garrod, 2018. So You Think You Know About… Diplodocus? Zephyr, London. ISBN 9781786697868. Hardback, 112 pp. Here at amazon. Here at amazon.co.uk. Here from the publishers.

Ben Garrod, 2018. So You Think You Know About… Triceratops? Zephyr, London. ISBN 9781786697882. Hardback, 108 pp. Here at amazon. Here at amazon.co.uk. Here from the publishers.

Once these book reviews are out of the way, get set for some novel dinosaur-themed content here. Here's your regular reminder that this blog relies on support via patreon, thank you to those providing support already.

For previous Tet Zoo book reviews on dinosaurs (I've now taken to adding dates to articles of the past; I find this useful)...