Thursday, June 27, 2013

Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy – a review

Right, let’s get the obvious bit out the way first. I’ve known Mark Witton for more than 5 years now and while we’ve never published a paper together, have certainly worked together, reviewed each other’s papers at times, and spent much time talking pterosaurs and of course doing things like In short, he is both friend and colleague, and some people reading this review may not know that. However, I do also do my best to be fair and this is as honest a review as I feel I can produce. Added to that, while I’ve known this was in production for a long time, I can’t recall more than a couple of very minor conversations with Mark about the book – I really knew very little about what he had done, how and why, before I saw it, so I was coming to the book from a pretty unbiased standpoint in that sense at least.

Anyone familiar with pterosaurs will know that, kids books aside, there have barely been a handful of pterosaur books, well, ever. We have Seeley’s 1901 effort that is still fascinating for the professional, but just a wee bit dated. Wellnhofer’s 1991 Encyclopedia is a classic but again has faded a bit in recent years with so many new forms coming out and much more research, though it’s still a ‘must have’ for any serious pterosaur researcher or enthusiast. In 2004 David Unwin had his Pterosaurs of Deep Time which was a major update from Wellnhofer, but very different in style to that one consisting of a lot more text and relatively few figures, though lots of photos of key specimens. There has also recently been Andre Veldmeijer’s one (illustrated by Mark as it happens) which is (so I understand, I have only the Dutch and not the English version) relatively non-technical and aimed at a more general audience. So right off, Mark’s tome joins a pretty sparse collection, and any serious contribution is therefore going to be most welcome to this band.

In overall appearance it’s almost an exact fit between Wellnhofer and Unwin – with a great deal of text and detailed information, but not at the expense of numerous figures, both artworks (i.e. life restorations and palaeoart) and diagrams and more technical illustrations (graphs and skeletons) in addition to a good number of photos, though this is one area where it is a little short. Where Wellnhofer was organised primarily by time period, and Unwin by body parts or ecology / behaviour, the majority of Mark’s book is taxonomic, with a (nicely colour coded) chapter for each clade. It’s well put together, has a nice font (I’m not any kind of font geek, but it is annoying when something looks inelegant on the page) and is on high quality paper, the printing seems good too and the reproductions of the artworks and figures are good.

I’ll do the criticism bit first and get it out the way as there’s not much to criticise. In addition to the relatively limited number of photos, the introductory and concluding parts of the book are relatively short, and so while the main bulk is well done, there is a feeling that the overall picture of pterosaur evolution and the wider context of them in the Mesozoic is not given much space. It was also odd that there were no ‘further reading’ bits or a list of websites – one hopes that this book will inspire more people to read up about pterosaurs and while I obviously hope will be a source for that, given the real problems pterosaurs do have online (there’s some really major and problematic sites out there) something that would help guide people to the good stuff would have been a useful addition.

My one real criticism would be that it’s a bit of a mix of styles and while Mark’s writing is generally breezy and very readable (and with little sarcastic comments, fun asides and generally friendly tone) but there are quite a few technical terms that get thrown at the reader from time to time that’ll have people reaching for a dictionary. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – I like being challenged, but I’m sure a few general readers will struggle at the first go to follow a few points and the odd paragraph without going to the bookshelf (or more likely, google, some of that anatomical stuff won’t be in your typical paper edition). It does mean though that in places it feel a bit odd with a very readable style littered with words you have to look up - a short glossary would certainly have been a help. Overall it’s not a huge issue though and again, given word limits and the (I assume) intended broad appeal of newbies through to real experts, there is a very difficult balance to strike here and it’s not going to stop people reading it or getting what they want from it.

To be fair though, one cannot cram everything about everything into a book of a limited word length, and so these comments are perhaps more of an observation of the route taken rather than an actual problem that could necessarily have been addressed while keeping the rest of the book the same. To add anything at this word length other stuff would have course have to go, and I’m sensitive that authors have their own intentions (and have to bow to the publishers) and the constraints of the formats. 

Right, with that out the way, let’s get onto the good. It is well written, and should appeal and be educational to those who know little to nothing about pterosaurs, as well as being a generally excellent summary of all things pterosaurian for experts. I found a few nuggets in there I didn’t know about or had long forgotten and the layout of the book is very easy to navigate as a reference piece. It is also accurate and about as up to date as it can be and while already there are new taxa and papers that affect things (such is life) this really will stand for a good few years to come as pretty close to cutting edge. Certainly this is the first book to include Darwinopterus and kin and to bring forwards some of the more recent developments and advances in our understanding of pterosaur biology. At the end of the book Mark argues something parallel to my own paper on the ‘pterosaur renaissance’ – pterosaur research is accelerating in complexity and detail and this book really helps trumpet that and bring it forwards.

The controversial issues are handled really well. Pterosaur research has some major splits within its ranks over some serious issues (origins and phylogeny especially) and Mark is careful to point out where things are contentious and what the alternates are, and why he (or the community) comes done on one side or another. However, he also deals with this pretty efficiently and avoids getting bogged down in details or the endless arguments that afflict some coverage of this kind of stuff. He’s also pretty clear as to what is already in the literature and which ideas are supported by what evidence (the book is superbly well referenced throughout) and when something is new and his own (i.e. this is the first appearance of an idea in the literature) he also makes that clear. Some of these are things various people have been knocking around for a while and if you’ve spoken to researchers or seen discussions online they will be well familiar, but it’s good to see them in print as more formal ideas and some of the evidence that may support them laid out.

The little reviews of each clade are very useful, and each section is broken down into sections on anatomy, locomotion and ecology, with key specimens of details illustrated and a map of the locations of major fossils. Each clade comes with a full skeletal reconstruction and a full life reconstruction alongside, so it’s very easy to get an idea of how each group differed and their diagnostic features and lifestyles. Some of the chapters are very short indeed, but it does make them easy to read and follow and with the subheadings it’s also easy to pick out key data – I think I’ll have an easier time dipping into this to re-read key points or check things that I would with any of the other previous pterosaur entries.

Although I have said I’d have liked to have seen some more photos, the book is very well illustrated. In addition to the skeletals and basic life reconstructions, most chapters have a full-page image or even two of pterosaur palaeoart. Although Mark regularly posts stuff on his blog, almost all the art in the book is new, so there’s no extensive recycling or anything like that. While hardly in ‘All Yesterdays’ territory, there are plenty of images of pterosaurs doing things not normally illustrated and interesting and new approaches to things like colour patterns and layouts of the images – there’s no memes here to be had. The technical figures are even better and are very well done with some nice stylistic flourishes in the phylogenies especially, but overall being very clear and really conveying the key points.

So, summing up. Whatever the intent of the author, the book does succeed at a number of levels. While probably a tricky read for those very unfamiliar with fossils, it should be easily accessible for anyone with a passing interest in palaeo as well as providing a solid review of the whole of the Pterosauria that’ll be genuinely useful for researchers for many years. I’m sure I’ll be typing “Witton, (2013) stated….” quite a lot in the future and that, if anything, should be a good measure of how I rate this as a scientific text. Now go buy a copy and read it, it really is very good. 

Mark P. Witton, 2013. Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy. Princeton University Press.  291pp.