October 24, 2013
(++++) CREATURES RECONSIDERED
Scaly, Spotted, Feathered, Frilled: How Do We Know What Dinosaurs Really Looked Like? By Catherine Thimmesh. Houghton Mifflin. $17.99.
The Dolphins of Shark Bay. By Pamela S. Turner. Photographs by Scott Tuason. Houghton Mifflin. $18.99.
The subtitle of Catherine Thimmesh’s fascinating book about paleoart – that is, artists’ renderings of the appearance of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures – is one of those very good questions that ought to be asked more frequently than they are. How do we know what dinosaurs looked like? Many people who are interested in dinosaurs know that views of the ancient creatures that dominated Earth for 200 million years have changed dramatically over time, with recent scientific analyses indicating that they were warm-blooded and frequently had feathers being only the latest modifications of prior views of the dinosaur world. But few people really think about how the illustrations of dinosaurs, ubiquitous everywhere from scientific treatises to children’s books, have changed as our knowledge of the deep past has improved. Thimmesh uses illustrations by six modern renderers of dinosaur appearance to show how today’s expert artists show dinosaurs, how these artists’ own conceptions have changed as knowledge has increased, and how today’s pictures of dinosaurs and their world differ, often dramatically, from those done in the past. The six are Stephen Czerkas, Sylvia Czerkas, Mark Hallett (who coined the term “paleoart”), Tyler Keillor, Greg Paul and John Sibbick. These are not well-known names outside their rarefied field, but their illustrations are pervasive in works from the technical to the entertaining. The husband-and-wife Czerkas team, for example, created the models that were used for the raptors in the movie Jurassic Park – but this book shows that more-recent science leads to an entirely different look for those dinosaurs, and the juxtaposition of the two renditions is extremely striking. So is the difference between a famous 1901 drawing of a hulking Triceratops by Charles R. Knight – contrasted with Hallett’s portrayal of active, agile Triceratops whose appearance is so different that they almost seem to be different animals from Knight’s altogether. And then there is the revelation that no single skeleton of a Triceratops has ever been discovered: the well-known specimens in museums worldwide are composites made from partial specimens. Thimmesh’s book is filled with narrative revelations like this, as well as fascinating information about illustration. Apatosaurus, for example, is traditionally shown wallowing in swampland – but no fossils have ever been found in ancient waterbeds, and the consensus today is that this was a land-dwelling dinosaur. And Seismosaurus, possibly the longest dinosaur of all, is known only from a single skeleton. Packed with pictures and facts, Scaly, Spotted, Feathered, Frilled is a fascinating look at how little we know about animals about which we think we know a great deal. It is a book about how much scientists and artists alike can do with what is really only a small amount of information. And it is about the limitations of even the best investigations of the deep past: Thimmesh devotes a chapter to the color of dinosaurs, which with current technology is simply impossible to know, rendering every single drawing of them speculative in this important regard. Three Sibbick renditions of Parasaurolophus make the point in visually stunning fashion while Thimmesh makes it in clear prose and the artists address it directly, as in this comment by Paul: “‘Except for the improbability of gaudy colors like pink and purple, any pattern is both speculative and possible.’” There are many, many dinosaur books out there, nearly all of them amply illustrated. Readers of Thimmesh’s book will see all those others in a new way.
There are many books about dolphins available, too, but in this case as well a new Houghton Mifflin release will have readers looking at the animals in a different way. The Dolphins of Shark Bay is about the only known tool-using dolphins on Earth, ones that find and tear off sponges, use them to uncover edible fish, drop the sponges to eat the fish, remember where they dropped the sponges so they can go back and get them again, and then repeat the process. These dolphins live in the waters off Australia and have been studied for more than 25 years by a research team led by Janet Mann, whose work is at the center of this entry in the always-excellent “Scientists in the Field” series. Pamela S. Turner provides some basic biographical information on Mann, who initially studied baboons before becoming enthralled by dolphins, and then gets into details of what Mann has learned about these highly intelligent aquatic mammals. For example, Mann discovered that humans were unwittingly raising infant mortality rates among one group of dolphins, at a place called Monkey Mia, by feeding them: dolphin mothers who took food from people learned to beg from beachgoers and boaters, but did not spend enough time nursing their calves or protecting them from sharks. As a result, the calves had a high mortality rate: “Monkey Mia’s baby dolphins starved in a stew of good intentions.” This is a nuanced book, scarcely a condemnation of human behavior toward dolphins, but it is also a book that shows again and again just how delicate – and amazing – the balance of nature can be. Scott Tuason’s photographs bring the scientific research to life in truly remarkable ways: a dolphin leaps high out of the water, possibly to dislodge an irritating lamprey or possibly just for fun; a shark makes a meal of a dugong carcass; a newborn dolphin calf pops above water to breathe; a dolphin hydroplanes in the shallows to catch a fish; another holds a trumpet shell out of the water and shakes it. These and other photos, along with Turner’s narrative, never quite answer a question posed early in the book: why are dolphins intelligent? This is a query with profound implications – after all, sharks have small brains, as Turner points out, but are extremely successful in evolutionary terms. Brain power is only one survival strategy – one to which we humans gravitate, since we share it, but not necessarily the “best” in any significant way. Turner ends the book with a discussion of whether dolphins can be said to have culture, and what “having culture” really means. Mann has, of course, thought long and hard about this, and although neither she nor Turner offers or can offer a definitive answer to the question, Mann certainly has enough understanding to make a trenchant observation: “‘The dolphins’ interactions with each other,’ she says, ‘are far richer, more complex, and more interesting than any interactions they have with us.’” The Dolphins of Shark Bay raises some difficult and unanswerable questions about these marine mammals – questions that scientists like Mann study for nearly a lifetime without finding answers, but while learning a great deal about some of the other inhabitants of Earth and sharing that knowledge through sensitively written, beautifully illustrated books like this one.