Book Review: Dinosaur Behaviour

**** Handsomely illustrated and accessible

Front cover of dinosaur behaviour showing a group of large dinosaurs.

 Reconstructing how dinosaurs behaved from just their fossilised bones might seem like science fiction but is very much science fact. In Dinosaur Behavior: An Illustrated Guide, veteran palaeontology professor Michael J. Benton joins forces with palaeoartist Bob Nicholls to do what it says on the tin: write a richly illustrated introductory book on dinosaur behaviour that is well-suited for novices.

In Dinosaur Behaviour, Benton takes the reader through five main topics: physiology (which sets the pace for everything else), locomotion, senses and intelligence, feeding, and social behaviour (which includes courtship, reproduction, parental care, and communication). One or several ‘forensics’ boxes in each chapter introduce the basic gist of certain methods.

Reading through this book, it becomes abundantly clear that our understanding of dinosaur behaviour relies on two approaches. Though Benton does not mention it as explicitly as in his previous book The Dinosaurs Rediscovered, the first of these is new high-tech toys and tools. Examples include computed tomography (CT) scanners, normally used in hospitals, to make detailed X-ray scans of fossilised brains (so-called endocasts) and so determine brain anatomy. Or finite element analysis normally used in engineering to model forces and stresses on jaws and teeth and so determine e.g. bite force. The second approach is ‘old-fashioned’ comparative anatomy and ethology: it pays to have a good knowledge of natural history when you are a palaeontologist. One example is the histological study of fossil dinosaur bones. Cutting thin bone sections and examining these under a microscope shows that some dinosaurs closely resemble mammals and birds, supporting the idea that smaller species were endotherms (‘warm-blooded’, i.e. generating their own body heat). Or take the microscopic study of melanosomes (pigment-containing organelles) in fossil feathers to determine colour in life. A final example is the comparison of footprints made by modern running birds with fossil tracks to determine things such as gait and running speed. 

If you are well-versed in (popular) palaeontology, much of what is presented here will be familiar. Even so, I picked up interesting titbits. One example is a recent study of Psittacosaurus that describes a cloaca, the multipurpose orifice also seen in birds where the digestive, urinary, and reproductive tracts all open to the outside world. This suggests that dinosaur sex, for at least some species, was a matter of the appropriately named cloacal kiss rather than the brandishing of reptilian genitals. Other insights fell into the embarrassing ‘I should have known this’ category. We tend to think of walking on two legs as something advanced because our mammalian ancestors walked on all fours, but for dinosaurs, it was the reverse; they started out bipedal and quadrupedality only evolved later in e.g. the large sauropods. Particularly interesting is the study by Kat Schroeder and colleagues who looked at fossil communities of theropods and noticed a so-called carnivore gap: there is a lack of medium-sized ones in the fossil record, even though there are medium-sized herbivores. One explanation could be that dinosaur eggs had an upper size limit, meaning that young carnivores hatched small and had an awful lot of growing to do. As they did, ‘they passed through a whole range of feeding modes, each step along the way acting like a different species’ (p. 137), effectively plugging the ecological niche of medium-sized carnivores.

Despite the broad range of topics, there are some curious omissions. The chapter on feeding e.g. discusses jaws, teeth, and the use of isotopes to determine diet, but not microwear analysis of teeth. What I found most surprising is that Benton does not introduce the concept of trace fossils or ichnology, their study. Yet, examples such as trackways (some possibly showing long-distance migrations), coprolites (fossil poop), and nests are all discussed here. Another surprising omission is that the two-page bibliography does not include most studies mentioned in the text, even though it references other technical articles.

Dinosaur Behavior is mostly very suitable for readers with little to no background in palaeontology. Benton explains even basic terminology (physiology, cannibalism) as he goes, though there is the occasional curveball. One example is the morphospace diagram showing a principal component analysis on page 131, which, I hope those with a background in statistics will agree, is a rather abstract way of visualizing data that requires a bit more explanation than is given here. Though the book is published by Princeton University Press, it has been produced by UniPress Books who can be considered the spiritual successor to popular science publisher Ivy Press. What this means is that information is accessibly presented in bite-sized sections on one or several page spreads, with long sections further divided using subheadings. The downside is that this restricts how thoroughly topics can be explored. Leafing through e.g. Naish & Barrett’s Dinosaurs: How They Lived and Evolved shows more nuance in its chapter on behaviour.

Finally, I have to mention the excellent colour and black-and-white artwork by Bob Nicholls that livens up the text. I loved the drawing of courtship in Confusiusornis on pages 168–169. Despite the overlap in topic, this is all-new artwork compared to Locked in Time. Other diagrams have all been carefully designed or redrawn, using colours where appropriate. The only design element that did not work for me was the choice of sans-serif font which made e.g. the letters a and o hard to tell apart. 

Serious palaeontology buffs might find the contents here somewhat superficial, but overall, this is a handsomely illustrated book that offers an accessible introduction suitable for novices and possibly even curious high-school pupils. It would also make for a great gift. 

Front cover of dinosaur behaviour showing a group of large dinosaurs.

Dinosaur Behaviour: An Illustrated Guide is available from our online bookstore.

Book Review: Blue Machine

***** An engrossing odyssey into oceanography

In a break from many other books about the deep sea that talk about animals, Blue Machine focuses on the ocean itself, revealing a fascinating planetary engine. Equal parts physical oceanography, marine biology, and science history, topped off with human-interest stories, Czerski has written a captivating book that oozes lyricism in places.

Czerski is an accidental oceanographer, stumbling into the discipline from a background in physics. She boasts a long list of science communication credentials as a TV presenter, podcast host, columnist, public speaker, and author. This is a big book with chunky chapters but Czerski keeps the flow going by alternating between scientific explanations, fascinating experiments, and remarkable historical episodes. I find the deep sea endlessly fascinating and have been drawn ever further into oceanography through my reviews, yet something was always missing. This book has finally scratched the oceanographic itch I have long been trying to satisfy. How so, you might ask?

Stormy sea and waves crashing against a stony beach.
Stormy Waters IMG_6958 by Ronnie Robertson, via flickr.

Start with that introduction. If you zoom right out, what sets a planet’s temperature, and with it the potential for life, is the balance between energy input from the sun and energy loss to the universe in the form of heat. From this grand, cosmic perspective, what the ocean with its circulating currents does is intercept some of that incoming energy and prevent it from immediately escaping again, instead “diverting it on to a much slower path through the mechanisms of the Earth: ocean, atmosphere, ice, life and rocks” (p. 5). From an energy point of view, “the Earth is just a cascade of diversions, unable to stop the flood but tapping into it as it trickles past; and the ocean is an engine for converting sunlight into movement and life and complexity, before the universe reclaims the loan” (p. 6). To me, this was such an awe-inspiring, attention-grabbing perspective on life on Earth, expressed so eloquently, that I wondered: is Czerski the new Ed Yong of oceanography? Tell me more, please!

What helps to understand the above perspective is the fact that the ocean is a vast three-dimensional environment that is constantly in motion, creating and maintaining differences at different scales. Heat and salinity create different layers of water that do not readily mix, meaning the ocean is stratified. This results in gigantic underwater conveyor belts and waterfalls. What makes these processes interesting is the shape of the container holding all this water: i.e. the continents and underwater topography. The local gravitational pull of the underlying rocks deforms the water surface, creating domes and holes over very large surface areas, a shape known as the geoid. Many more fundamental features and principles are described though she admits that she cannot squeeze the full complexity of the ocean into one book, treating other topics only briefly or not at all.

Bright blue, large wave tubing with splashes all around it.
The tube by Misty, via flickr.

Admirably, Czerski is equally at home in the marine biology department and she features some wonderful critters here. True, these abound in all good popular science books about the deep sea, but her physics background allows her to show how the physical and biological worlds intertwine. A beautiful example of this is the mesoscale eddies that are spun off by oceanic gyres: large islands of rotating water that become temporary havens for all the plankton and fish that find themselves inside. The formation of these wandering buffets is such a regular phenomenon that large ocean predators such as tuna can make a living by roaming the seas in search of them.

Another captivating element is the many ingenious experiments, both historical and current, that she describes here. We almost developed a method to collect a long-term dataset on the global ocean’s temperature by bouncing sound waves through the seas, but the idea stalled after a successful pilot experiment in 1991. More successful is the Continuous Plankton Recorder Survey which has been running for the last 90 years, deploying mechanical recorders towed behind ships that use elegant internal clockwork to capture plankton on long strips of mesh and have gathered valuable long-term records.

The physical world also entwines with human history. One example is the narrow northern half of the Indian Ocean where gyres do not form but seasonal currents flow eastwards and westwards. The 14th-century Chinese Ming Dynasty used these to send expeditions of large ships laden with valuables up and down the coast of Asia and Arabia, trading goods for political influence and prestige. I was similarly captivated by the poorly known story of the 18th-century Scottish herring lassies: bands of female contractors who travelled south along the English coast each summer, following the southwards moving herring fleet. While the men worked the boats out at sea, the women were ready in ports and at beaches to gut, salt, and pack each day’s landing before the freshly-caught fish could spoil. Hard-working, skilled, and independent, they were decades ahead of most other women in Victorian England.

Wave Breaking on rocks at Asilomer State Beach.
Wave Breaking Asilomer State Beach by Charlie Day, via flickr.

All of this is backed up by an attitude that, coming from a scientist, is refreshingly clued in to social issues. This becomes explicit in the final chapter where she addresses the environmental issues she has so far avoided. Though a popular mantra in politics is that we need to follow the science, she opposes this “for the simple reason that science does not lead. Where leadership comes from is a clear statement of values” (p. 381). Science can inform these, yes, but we have to decide what we care about for ourselves and our communities. Going down this path involves hard questions without simple answers, and nuance rather than binary “I am right, you are wrong” categories. It also means breaking with our perception of “the ocean as the end of a one-way pipe” (p. 289). There is no “away” on this planet for our trash. And it means breaking with a culture of infinite growth on a finite planet. Her thinking here is influenced by her contact with Polynesian cultures that value cooperation, openness, and teamwork, in contrast to the Western mindset of ownership and power play.

If I need to sound a critical note it is the lack of illustrations. Though the UK version features nice endpapers and a stunning cover, there are only two maps and two illustrations in the rest of the book. Especially some of the physical oceanography principles would have benefited from explanatory diagrams.

Blue Machine is an engrossing odyssey into oceanography. Czerski brings her substantial experience in science communication to bear on this topic and has written a transformative book. She brings to life the watery fabric of the ocean itself in ways I have not encountered before.

Book Review: Of Cockroaches and Crickets

***** An amusing and light read

Of all the insects that have a PR problem, cockroaches must rank very high. That, however, did not stop German entomologist, journalist, and filmmaker Frank Nischk from spending a year-long internship studying them. In this book, he regales the reader with stories of his time in the lab and the field studying first cockroaches and later crickets. A light and breezy read despite the serious undercurrent of biodiversity decline, Of Cockroaches and Crickets turned out to be an entertaining read.

This book was originally published in German in 2020 as Die fabelhafte Welt der fiesen Tiere by Ludwig Buchverlag and has been translated into English by Jane Billinghurst who frequently works with Greystone Books. Carl Safina contributes a short foreword that cracked me up and immediately set the tone. The book is effectively a memoir of Nischk’s early years studying for his undergraduate and doctorate degrees in the mid-nineties, told in 18 short chapters in two parts. His subsequent career pivot to documentary filmmaking only receives passing mention.

Cockroach photographed in Australia.
Cockroach by Patrick Kavanagh, via flickr.

Given Nischk’s concern about biodiversity decline, and his desire to communicate to a broad audience why insects are fascinating and important, there is an irony to his undergraduate internship. He spent a year in the lab of Martin Dambach studying the aggregation behaviour of the German cockroach, Blattella germanica. By day, large groups of them bed down on their own excrement, likely attracted by pheromones released by the faeces. The irony? Nischk’s internship was funded by biotechnology giant Bayer which was hoping to isolate the chemicals responsible for putting the cockroaches in sleep mode to develop a pheromone-based cockroach trap: “the exterminator’s holy grail” (p. 25).

For his subsequent doctoral studies, Nischk got his conservation priorities in order. Staying with Dambach, he turned to crickets and spent time in Ecuador recording their songs. Next to discovering species new to science, this is his entry into the fascinating field of soundscape ecology or ecoacoustics. A small cadre of ecologists has been recording soundscapes of natural habitats. Bernie Krause (not mentioned here) is one particularly well-known example. By comparing recordings made years or decades apart they have shown how natural soundscapes are changing and often disappearing due to human encroachment. Others are hoping to train software to analyze recordings and identify species by their calls. If scaled up, the dream is to have passive acoustic monitoring stations in biodiversity hotspots around the globe.

This backbone of his research is livened up with personal anecdotes and interesting asides. A friend’s call about a wasp infestation in her kitchen drawer is an excuse to introduce the 18th-century French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre who was one of the first European naturalists to systematically collect and study butterflies, beetles, and wasps. Getting stung by a bullet ant in the rainforest of Ecuador leads to an aside about the late entomologist Justin O. Schmidt, the man who got stung for science (and wrote a fine book about it too). Tracking down a particularly loud cricket in Ecuador is the starting point for an unusual case where entomologists helped to defuse international political tensions between the USA and Cuba (this story has a surprising twist that I will not spoil here). A botched attempt to eradicate cockroaches that escape his experimental setup backfires most spectacularly, while fieldwork in the tropics is always fodder for amusing cultural misunderstandings and sober reflections. There is a nice mix here that never dwells on any one topic too long and makes for a book that is hard to put down.

Cricket on a leaf in a garden.
Cricket by Dean Morley, via flickr.

The third and final part is, perhaps surprisingly, comparatively the weakest of the book. In four chapters Nischk muses on the biodiversity crisis, particularly the still poorly understood decline of insects, and discusses examples of individuals and organisations who are creating and protecting wildlife habitat. Probably most interesting are the little-known grassroots initiatives in Ecuador that are undertaken by villagers and farmers turning to ecotourism. But is this really the answer? Or does it merely perpetuate the idea that nature can only be protected if it has monetary value? You will not find a critical or comprehensive analysis of wildlife conservation here. There is also an odd focus on projects in the USA, e.g. the High Line in New York, the Xerces Society, Joan Maloof’s Old-Growth Forest Network, and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. I wonder if this was added for the English translation. There is no mention of e.g. the European Natura 2000 network of protected areas or E.O. Wilson’s bold call to protect half the planet, and only passing mention of the German environmental organisation NABU or the practice of rewilding. Putting aside such nitpicking, none of this takes away from his genuine concern about the ongoing loss of biodiversity nor from his conclusion that the key to protecting species is protecting their habitat.

Overall, Of Cockroaches and Crickets is an amusing and light read that I devoured in a day. Nischk offers a nicely balanced blend of interesting natural history, amusing personal stories, and captivating scientific research. Whether it is flies, wasps, or rats, we need more books that celebrate those species we all too readily dismiss as pests.

Of Cockroaches and Crickets book cover.Of Cockroaches and Crickets is available from our online bookstore.

Book review: The Mind of a Bee

***** Fascinating and information dense
 Leon Vlieger, NHBS Catalogue Editor

It is tough being a social insect. When people are not trying to exterminate you, they might marvel at the collectives you form, but does anybody think much of you, the individual? Leave it to Lars Chittka, a professor in sensory and behavioural ecology, to change your views. The Mind of a Bee is a richly illustrated, information-dense book that explores a large body of scientific research, both old and new.

Chittka is very focused in his approach and The Mind of a Bee effectively summarises a large number of experimental studies in narrative form, with very few diversions. He cleverly avoids overheating your brain by having chapters flow logically into each other, but especially by dividing each chapter into short, headed sections. Each of these takes a particular question and discusses a few relevant studies in anywhere from one-half to three pages. Some of these are his own work but he ranges far and wide and includes both classic and recent research. The book is furthermore illustrated with numerous diagrams and photos that helpfully clarify experimental protocols and results. Honey bees are unsurprisingly the most intensively studied but Chittka discusses informative studies across a range of bee species and sometimes other insects as well. The book roughly covers three biological disciplines: sensory and neurobiology, ethology, and psychology.

Justifiably, the book opens with sensory biology. Before we understand what is in the mind of any organism, Chittka argues, we first need to understand the gateways, the sense organs, through which information from the outside world is filtered. These are shaped by both evolutionary history and daily life (i.e. what information matters on a day-to-day basis and what can be safely ignored). Chapter 2 deals with the historical research that showed that bees do have colour vision and furthermore can perceive ultraviolet (UV) light. Chapter 3 bundles together research on numerous other senses, including ones familiar (smell, taste, and hearing) and unfamiliar to us (perception of polarised light, Earth’s magnetic field, and electric fields). The antennae of bees, in particular, are marvels; Chittka likens them to a biological Swiss army knife, packing numerous different sense organs into two small appendages. Tightly connected to sensory biology is how this incoming information is processed in the brain, though Chittka postpones discussing neurobiology to chapter 9. He describes the discovery and function of different brain areas and highlights the work of Frederick Kenyon who would inspire the better-remembered Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Thanks to them, we now understand that brains consist of numerous specialised nerve cells. Though the bee brain is small, Chittka argues that size is a poor predictor of cognitive skills; it is the wiring of neurons that matters. Rather than be surprised that small-brained insects such as bees can do so many clever things, Chittka instead tickles the reader with the opposite question: “Why does any animal need as large a brain as a bee’s?” (p. 153).

What clever things do bees do, you ask? That is the subject of the preceding five chapters where Chittka surveys a large body of behavioural research. Honey bees are famous for their waggle dance by which they communicate the location of flowers but also, this was news to me, the location of potential nest sites when the swarm relocates. But Chittka discusses more, much more: how bees navigate space using landmarks, show a rudimentary form of counting, solve the travelling salesman problem, learn to extract nectar from complex flowers, learn when to exploit certain flowers (and when to ignore them), and learn new tricks by observing other bees. But what about instinct, something most behaviours were traditionally ascribed to? He has some insightful comments on this: “even the most elemental behavior routines need to be refined by learning: instinct provides little more than a rough template” (p. 50). What really made me fall off my chair is that bees have long been outsmarting researchers in choice experiments. Many behavioural experiments take the form of choice tests, where bees need to pick between two locations or objects that differ in e.g. colour or shape with one option containing a sugary solution as a reward. Bumblebees would simply be lazy and check out both options in random order. Until, that is, protocols were modified by adding a bitter-tasting solution to the wrong choice as a penalty.

The final two chapters explore bee psychology. One chapter shows how, in a hive full of bees, the members are not anonymous and interchangeable. Rather, they show individual differences in e.g. their preferred order in which to visit flowers during foraging or how fast they learn to solve problems. The final chapter makes the case that bees have a form of consciousness, though Chittka clarifies he is not arguing it is as rich and detailed as that of humans. That said, they show a slew of behaviours that scientists will label as evidence for consciousness when exhibited by bigger-brained vertebrates. Chittka is happy to play devil’s advocate: sure, theoretically, all the behaviours described in this book could be replicated by an unconscious algorithm. However, the required list of specific instructions is growing long and, increasingly, the more likely answer seems to be that bees possess “a consciousness-based general intelligence system” (p. 208).

As mentioned above, this book is focused. If you enjoy reading about the facts and the study system with minimal (autobiographical) diversions, Chittka has got you covered. The only digression he allows himself is to include biographical details of older generations of scientists. This includes inspiring tales such as Karl von Frisch who described the honey bee waggle dance and later barely escaped being dismissed from his post by the Nazis. And look out for repeat appearances of Charles Turner, a now largely forgotten African American scientist who published pioneering work despite having been denied a professorship based on his ethnicity. But there are also tragic stories such as Kenyon’s, who snapped under pressure of not securing a permanent job and was incarcerated in a lunatic asylum where he died more than 40 years later, alone and forgotten. Chittka includes occasional quotations from historical literature to show that “many seemingly contemporary ideas about the minds of bees had already been expressed, in some form, over a century ago” (p. 15).

The Mind of a Bee makes for fascinating reading, convincingly showing that bees are anything but little automatons. The tight structure and numerous illustrations make it accessible, though be prepared for an information-dense book.

Book review: The Rise and Reign of the Mammals

***** Epic in scope and majestic in execution
Leon Vlieger, NHBS Catalogue Editor

Imagine being a successful dinosaur palaeontologist and landing a professorship before you are 40, authoring a leading dinosaur textbook and a New York Times bestseller on dinosaurs. Imagine achieving all that and then saying: “You know what really floats my boat? Mammals.” After the runaway success of his 2018 book The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, palaeontologist Stephen Brusatte shifted his attention and now presents you with the follow-up, The Rise and Reign of the Mammals. Taking in the full sweep of mammal evolution from the late Carboniferous to today, this book is as epic in scope as it is majestic in execution.

Mammals shared our planet with the dinosaurs throughout their long reign, from the initial split of our amniote common ancestor into synapsids (us) and diapsids (them), to their extinction at the end of the Cretaceous. Over the course of some 100 million years, a parade of lineages evolved—archaic mammals all—piecemeal developing the traits we recognise as mammalian today: pelycosaurs, therapsids, cynodonts, mammaliaformes, docodonts and gliding haramiyidans, multituberculates, and therians who gave rise to today’s placentals, marsupials, and monotremes. However, the above must not be mistaken for a linear march of progress. “[M]ammals were a still unrealised concept, which evolution had yet to assemble” (p. 20). Simultaneously, it does not behove us to call these now-extinct groups evolutionary dead ends. “In their time and place, these mammals were anything but obsolete” (p. 88).

With the extinction of the dinosaurs, the rise of mammals turned into a reign. Isolated on various land masses after the supercontinent Pangaea had fragmented, they were poised for a slow-motion taxonomic starburst that would play out over the next 66 million years. In the northern hemisphere, placental mammals replaced multituberculates and metatherians and rapidly evolved into primates and the odd- and even-toed ungulates. The latter two evolved giants: brontotheres, chalicotheres, and cetaceans.

Brusatte’s strength is to bring to life the above flurry of names. What kind of creatures were they? And how can we deduce this from fossil evidence? Somewhere between chapters 6 and 7, I became awestruck by his narrative as the enormity of the mammalian evolutionary trajectory started to come into full view: bats, elephants, South American native ungulates (origins: uncertain), metatherians migrating to Australia and spawning a spectacular marsupial radiation, grazers diversified as grasses went global, and somewhere at the end, hominins evolving and repeatedly spilling out of Africa, contributing significantly to recent megafauna extinction. What a wild ride!

The macroevolutionary story is fascinating in itself, yet Brusatte makes it even better with some interesting observations of his own. We usually think of the dinosaurs as dominating the mammals, but, he suggests, this went two ways: “While it is true that dinosaurs kept mammals from getting big, mammals did the opposite, which was equally impressive: they kept dinosaurs from becoming small” (p. 95). Furthermore, DNA studies suggest that many modern mammal lineages originated back in the Cretaceous. But where are the fossils? Could some of the poorly understood archaic placentals such as condylarchs, taeniodonts, and pantodonts be the missing fossils that we have not yet been able to link to modern groups because of the lack of signature anatomical features? Excitingly, Brusatte is part of a research consortium that is building a master family tree based on both anatomy and DNA.

As in his last book, Brusatte excels at explaining complex research methods and scientific concepts. One example is Tom Kemp’s concept of correlated progression. Several times during early mammal evolution, a whole suite of anatomical, behavioural, and functional traits were changing together, making it hard to unravel what was driving what. For instance when cynodonts shrunk in size and changed their growth, metabolism, diet, and feeding styles. Then there is the revision of the mammal family tree based on DNA sequencing. The classic tree, championed by zoologist George Gaylord Simpson in 1945, was based on anatomical features. By the early 2000s, DNA-based genealogies suggested that many supposed relationships were actually cases of convergent evolution, resulting in a new classification that reflected geographical patterns rather than anatomy. The new groupings came with some tongue-twisting names: Afrotheria, Xenarthra, Laurasiatheria, and Eurarchontoglires. A final example is tooth morphology, an important diagnostic trait in this story.

What helps with these explanations are some excellent illustrations. B/w photos show amazing fossils, Todd Marshall contributes both decorative chapter headings and explanatory artwork, and Brusatte’s former student Sarah Shelley adds b/w diagrams, illustrating for instance the remarkable changes in jaw bones and how some of these were repurposed to become our inner ear bones! Woven throughout are stories of the people behind the research. Brusatte introduces both young scientists and many past scientists that are not widely known.

In what is surely a hallmark of his love and enthusiasm for the field, Brusatte’s bibliography has again been written as a narrative. It is like a chatty literature review in which he recommends books and papers, indicates where literature has become outdated, adds more technical details or clarifications, discusses where there is active debate and disagreement, and shortly touches on topics that he had to omit from the main narrative. Yes, this takes up more space than a regular reference section, and I am sure it is more time-consuming to write, but it is ever so useful. You could not wish for a better starting point if you wanted to read deeper into the technical literature.

Finally, you might be left wondering how this book compares to Elsa Panciroli’s Beasts Before Us which covered early mammal evolution up to the K–Pg extinction. There is overlap here in more than one way; Brusatte co-supervised her PhD project describing the docodont Borealestes from a Scottish fossil. I was therefore mildly surprised that he does not mention her book. There is some inevitable overlap as both books walk through the same groups, though Brusatte provides a fuller picture by covering mammal evolution up to today. Panciroli’s book stands out for its fantastic writing, though, so you cannot go wrong by reading them both.

The Rise and Reign of the Mammals is a more-than-worthy successor to The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs. Brusatte convincingly shows that the evolutionary story of mammals is just as fascinating—if not more so—as that of the dinosaurs.

Book review: What an Owl Knows

***** A hoot of a book
Leon Vlieger, NHBS Catalogue Editor

Owls are one of the most enigmatic groups of raptors, in part because there is so much we still do not understand about them compared to other birds. Nature writer Jennifer Ackerman previously wrote the critically acclaimed The Genius of Birds. In What an Owl Knows, she reveals the creature that hides under that puffy exterior, peeling back the feathers layer by layer to show our current scientific understanding of owls. She has interviewed scores of scientists and owl aficionados as part of her background research, making this as much a book about owls as about the people who study and love them. A captivating and in places touching science narrative, this book is a hoot from beginning to end.

Owls are everywhere in the human imagination and, Ackerman argues, have always been: “We evolved in their presence; lived for tens of thousands of years elbow to wing in the same woods, open lands, caves, and rock shelters; came into our own self-awareness surrounded by them; and wove them into our stories and art” (p. 235). For all that, their nocturnal lifestyle makes them hard to study and they have long been—and in many places still are—wrapped in superstition. Ackerman dedicates a chapter to such beliefs and the harms that frequently flow from them. Fortunately, the tide is turning. Thanks to the tireless efforts of a dedicated cadre of scientists, conservationists, and numerous volunteers, a far more fascinating creature emerges from the contradictory tangle of ideas that humans have held about owls.

A red thread that has been subtly woven through this book is the importance of understanding animals on their terms. Ed Yong’s An Immense World is one recent example of this welcome trend amongst science writers and Ackerman appropriately starts with a chapter on owl sensory biology. What is it like to be an owl? Though this question can never be fully answered, that should not stop us from trying our hardest. Vision and hearing are obviously important to owls but the book has plenty of surprises up its sleeve once you start digging into the details: from the magnificent facial disk that acts somewhat like a parabolic reflector to gather sound, a hearing system that does not seem to age, to the fact that owls can see ultraviolet light. At night. With rod rather than cone cells (like pretty much every other bird).

The same question motivates research on owl vocalisations as “a hoot is not just a hoot” (p. 81). Owls utter a profusion of yaps, squawks and warbles and Ackerman paints a lively portrait in words. Barn owls have “a raspy hiss that sounds like a fan belt going out on your car” (p. 82), while the tiny Flammulated Owl breaks the link between body size and vocal pitch, sounding like “a big bird trapped in a small body” (p. 82, quoting ornithologist Brian Linkhart). These sounds can reveal an awful lot about the individual owl and its relationship with other owls in the landscape. Ackerman criticises some of the research on owl intelligence. They cannot pass the string-pulling test, a common test in ethological research in which an animal has to pull on a rope to reel in food that is out of reach. The idea is that it tests an animal’s understanding of cause and effect. But is this a fair test or does it “point to the limitations of our definitions and measures of intelligence” (p. 261)?

The most intimate insights have come from rescued owls that can no longer be returned to the wild. Many researchers have ended up caring for an individual and becoming intimately familiar with them. Gail Buhl, a leading authority on training rehabilitated captive owls, here explains five important things that she has learned. One particularly poignant observation is that owls might appear calm and stoic around humans, but having paid close attention to their body language, Buhl concludes that “they’re experiencing the same stress as other raptors, but they’re internalising it” (p. 228). This has major consequences for how even well-intended trainers and rehabbers ought to behave around owls. “We need to treat them not as mini-humans in feathers, but as their own entity” (p. 231), Ackerman writes, before throwing in a beautiful quote from naturalist Henry Beston. In his words, wild animals “are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time” (pp. 231–232).

Following on directly from her last book on bird behaviour, there are fascinating chapters here on the behaviour of owls: their courtship and breeding, their parental behaviour, their roosting, and their migration. Yes, many owls are migratory and some species can cover surprising distances. Ackerman makes a fantastic case for the value of long-term monitoring programmes to establish reliable population estimates. This is vital data for conservation efforts and is often missing. And sometimes what we think we know is wrong, as in the case of the Snowy Owl. Where initial estimates put the global population at some 200,000 birds, satellite tracking has revealed that they are actually a single population moving around the whole Arctic Circle, resulting in duplicate counts. Revised estimates now put the figure at a mere 30,000 birds.

Ackerman relies on the input of numerous scientists and volunteers. As such, this is as much a book about the people who study owls. I was delighted to hear more from Jonathan Slaght (his book Owls of the Eastern Ice is magnificent). Other stories tug on the heartstrings and none more so than that of Marjon Savelsberg. A Dutch musician trained in baroque music, her dreams came crashing down when she was diagnosed with a heart condition that consigned her to a mobility scooter. When she stumbled on the website of the Dutch Little Owl Working Group, she quickly became one of their most active volunteers, revealing a skilled ear for analysing owl calls. Suddenly, she had a new career and a new group of appreciative ecologist colleagues: “[I] realised I was still a musician. All the skills that I learned, all the talent I have, I can still use, just in a different way” (p. 105). It is a powerful story of redemption-by-owl.

Ackerman carefully balances these two facets: the scientific insights that she has carefully distilled from research papers and interviews, and the personal stories of those who study and love owls. As a result, What an Owl Knows is compulsively readable and readily accessible for those who lack a scientific background in ornithology.

You might also be interested in reading our Q&A with Jennifer Ackerman in which we discuss owls’ reputation for wisdom, the incredible research that is shedding more light on their lives, and the mysteries that still remain.


Book review: Otherlands

***** A spine-tingling debut
Leon Vlieger, NHBS Catalogue Editor

Our planet has been many different worlds over its 4.5-billion-year history. Imagining what they were like is hard – with our limited lifespan, deep time eludes us by its very nature. Otherlands, the debut of Scottish palaeontologist Thomas Halliday, presents you with a series of past worlds. Though this is a non-fiction book thoroughly grounded in fact, it is the quality of the narrative that stands out. Beyond imaginative metaphors to describe extinct lifeforms, some of his reflections on deep time, taxonomy, and evolution are simply spine-tingling.

The 16 chapters in Otherlands, each accompanied by a gorgeous illustration from Beth Zaiken, step back in time by millions or even tens of millions of years to visit a place on Earth and describe its ecosystems and organisms. Halliday includes well-known sites such as end-Cretaceous Hell Creek (66 million years ago, or mya) or Lagerstätten such as the Cambrian Chengjiang biota in China (520 mya). Far more interesting are the little-known eras and places such as the Italian promontory of Gargano during the Miocene Messinian Salinity Crisis (5.3 mya), the sweltering warmth of Seymour Island in Antarctica during the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (41 mya), or the underwater life around the Silurian Yaman-Kasy vent in Russia (435 mya).

Stylistically, Otherlands is a narrative non-fiction book. What that means is that, though everything is grounded in fact, Halliday does not get lost in the details. Where competing hypotheses exist he picks one and runs with it, rather than detailing the academic debates and different schools of thought. It is a stylistic choice that I can get behind given the quality of the writing that follows.

Because make no mistake, Halliday knows how to craft captivating prose. He won the Hugh Miller Writing Competition in 2018 and the John C. Marsden Medal from the Linnean Society for the best doctoral thesis in biology in 2016. Reading Otherlands, it is easy to see why. I do not know what they feed Scottish palaeontologists, but I was reminded of Elsa Panciroli’s Beasts Before Us. Let me back up my enthusiasm with some quotes that can only touch on a fraction of what is on offer.

There are the obvious imaginative metaphors to describe animals. The Triassic gliding reptile Sharovipteryx mirabilis (225 mya) is imagined looking rather inelegant once landed “with its membrane retracting and limbs thrown all directions like a collapsing deckchair” (p. 159), while the Ediacaran sedentary animal Dorothy’s Rope (550 mya) resembles upright towers “composed of bulges like knotted rope, as if Gaudi had designed an industrial town” (p. 277). Other descriptions are more poetic. Basilosaurids, the first fully aquatic whale ancestors in the Eocene (41 mya), have yet to evolve the melon organ. They “can listen to the music of the oceans, but they have not yet learned to sing” (p. 86).

Particularly powerful are his reflections on deep time. A recurrent theme in this book is that of impermanence: “gatherings of species in time and space may give the illusion of stability, but these communities can only last as long as the conditions that help to create them persist” (p. 18). Some ecosystems never return. The long-lived Jurassic crinoid colonies (155 mya) that made a home on floating logs blown into the sea during storms disappeared when the evolution of shipworms made “this way of life impossible, something that can and will never be replicated in quite the same way again; wood just doesn’t float for as long as it used to” (p. 151). And while the world feels old in our day, it is easy to forget the world was already old in the deep past. The mountains of the Triassic (225 mya) “are built from the deep sea”, within which can be seen “the coils and shapes of the long-extinct creatures of the Carboniferous seas, well over 100 million years old even now” (p. 158).

What made my hair stand on end were Halliday’s reflections on phylogenetics, the evolutionary relationships between animals. I love how he drowns scientific concepts in poetic language. Take the Paleocene Baioconodon (66 mya). Beyond one of the earliest placental mammals, we do not really know what it was. “Their anatomy is too non-committal, too similar to and yet too distinct from too many living orders to be placed with confidence. […] They are an unspecialised, Platonic placental, a lump of living clay from which all others are stretched, pinched and pulled into shape” (p. 105). We cannot even describe its young as kits or calves: “it does not yet make sense to talk of cattle or dogs, of monkeys or horses. None of these groups exist yet […] names lose tangibility in the depths of the past, and our language has no description for the young of common ancestors” (p. 104). You start to see why Halliday wrote his way backwards from the present. He makes a similar observation about the Ediacaran biota. Alien to us, “they are aberrant only from a modern perspective” (p. 282). Our confusion is partially because “we are trying to define them the only way we can: on the basis of those few survivors to have found paths to the present”, while the dead-end branches “by the simple fact of having not survived, forfeit a common name” (p. 283).

Similarly spine-tingling are his explanations of evolutionary processes. Species names are artificial designations for a continuous phenomenon. The way palaeontologists deal with this can be compared to rivers. Just as a river can split and its two branches be called by two names from that point in space forward, so can a species that spatially separates be called by two names from that point in time forward. And why did so many higher taxa appear during the Cambrian explosion? One idea is that, once in place, fundamentals cannot be changed easily: “evolution today can only be played within the constraints set by the past”. Another idea is that “there is nothing intrinsically impossible about a new body plan developing today, were it not for the existence of others”. Gould wrote of filling the ecological barrel and Halliday puts it thus: “establishing the basic roles within an ecosystem is like adding large rocks into a barrel […] evolutionary processes […] adding in finer and finer divisions of ecological processes, pebbles and sand falling into the barrel between the gaps left by the larger stones, structures built on other structures” (p. 258). Not only does this ring true, but it is also truly beautiful language.

Otherlands is an exceptional debut that can be savoured like a fine wine. I found myself reciting passages to anyone within earshot. Beyond a fascinating tour of extinct lifeforms, Halliday’s carefully crafted yet poetic descriptions of scientific concepts are a masterclass in spellbinding science communication.

You might also be interested in our Q&A with Otherlands author Thomas Halliday where we discuss the book and the process of writing it, our endless fascination with dinosaurs and the lessons we might learn from studies of deep time.

Thomas Halliday. Credit: Desiree Adams ,Penguin Random House

European Botanical and Horticultural Libraries Group (EBHL) Annual Conference

From Tuesday June 20th to Friday June 23rd, NHBS attended the business meeting of the European Botanical and Horticultural Libraries Group, or EBHL for short. This annual conference brings together librarians from academic libraries and herbaria for several days of talks and behind-the-scenes tours. For NHBS, this is always a valuable occasion to meet and speak to some of our key customers in person, both from Europe and the USA. This year, the meeting took place in London and was co-organised by four institutes: The Natural History Museum, London; The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; The Linnean Society of London, and The Royal Horticultural Society. So, what happens at such a meeting?

A Wardian Case on display at Chelsea Physic Garden

This year’s theme was “plant humanities”, resulting in an eclectic mixture of talks from, not just librarians, but also historians and arts and humanities scholars. For example, medieval historian Isabel Davis talked about digitisation of collections and the drawbacks and advantages that come with dealing with scanned documents rather than the originals. Mark Nesbitt and Kiri Ross Jones both related the experience of Kew in developing an interdisciplinary research programme with external partners in fields outside of botany. A recurrent theme in several of these talks was how botanical gardens are dealing with their origin and history as colonial institutes, and the legacy of their collections that have been built with objects taken from other countries. Given today’s discussions and debates around decolonisation, this is, understandably, a topic that requires serious attention, and humanities scholars and historians can often bring new perspectives and ideas to the table. Palace of Palms author Kate Teltscher, for example, spoke about a new project she is working on that will reexamine the history of Kew, which might just result in another book.

The Royal Botanic Garden, Kew now has a permanent treetop walk in its garden offering stunning views across London.

This conference also saw a break-out session, chaired by Dr Anna Svensson from Uppsala University, on a topic of particular interest to archivists: the presence of pressed plants, or traces thereof, inserted in old books. She is studying these as part of a three-year research project to identify why people did this, how it relates to the development of early bound herbaria (books known as horti sicci, the plural of hortus siccus), and what conservation challenges they pose for archivists and librarians.

The Linnean Society has a rare collection of documents and books that belonged to Karl Linnaeus, including early editions of his works that he annotated while developing his system of biological nomenclature.

Alongside this busy programme of talks, during the afternoons the organisers had arranged behind-the-scenes tours around parts of the collections of all four institutes that are normally not accessible to the public. As such, on Tuesday I was able to marvel at Sir Hans Sloane’s collection of bound herbarium books that are held at the NHM in London. Not only did he put together some of these himself, later in life he bought or inherited collections of other people, resulting in over 200 large volumes with pressed plants from around the world. In the evening, I stood right next to a Wardian case during a tour of the Chelsea Physic Garden. Wednesday I admired some remarkable archival material at Kew (and enjoyed their treetop walk), while on Thursday I marvelled at the large collection of original manuscripts and books from Carl Linnaeus that are held in the basement room of the Linnean Society. This included a copy of an early edition of the Systema Naturae that has his handwritten annotations all over the margins. Friday the whole group took a coach to RHS Wisley, just outside of London, where we toured both the original research buildings and the brand-new library and herbarium of this remarkable horticultural institute.

The new library at RHS Wisley has been awarded several prizes for its architecture and offers views into the garden throughout the building.

We would like to thank the organisers of this year’s conference, in particular Isabelle Charmantier and Will Beharrell who headed it all up. NHBS is looking forward to next year’s meeting and welcomes opportunities to develop closer ties with some of the professional and amateur organisations that we count amongst our customers, whether through attendance or sponsorship. Do not hesitate to reach out to us.

Author interview with Elsa Panciroli: Beasts Before Us

Elsa Panciroli is a palaeontologist who studies the evolution and ecology of extinct animals – particularly mammals from the time of dinosaurs. She is a researcher based at the University of Oxford and an associate researcher at the National Museum of Scotland. A keen science communicator, she has contributed to The Guardian, Palaeontology Online and Biological Sciences Review, and co-hosts the Palaeocast podcast. Beasts Before Us is her first book and tells the amazing story of early mammal evolution, taking the reader back well before the dinosaurs even rose to prominence. Leading up to publication, we reached out to Elsa and asked her some questions.

Elsa Panciroli on the Isle of Skye

You write that you started your palaeontology career interested in dinosaurs and Ice Age megafauna. What turned you on to the path of our mammal ancestors?

Like so many things in life, it was serendipity. During my masters degree the renowned mammal palaeontologist, Prof Christine Janis, moved back to the UK from the US. I’d recently read her paper on giant extinct kangaroos and I was excited to meet her and learn more. It turned out she was offering a project studying mammal ankle bones, so although there were dinosaur projects available, I jumped at the chance to work with Christine. I learned so much from her, she was (and still is) a brilliant mentor. I soon realised what a lot of questions were still to be answered about extinct mammals. Afterwards, I did my PhD on little-known Jurassic mammals from Scotland, and started exploring their even more ancient past – I just couldn’t believe what I discovered! That’s why I wanted to write the book, to share what I had learned.

Given that we are so biased to mammals where, for example, conservation is concerned, why do you think that there has been so little mainstream interest in early mammal evolution? Your book shows that there is a fascinating story playing out before dinosaurs even evolved. Do the dinosaurs in that sense enjoy the advantage of incumbency in our imagination? Or do the details of mammal evolution not easily lend themselves to telling a captivating story?

I disagree that mammal evolution doesn’t lend itself to story-telling, but the many authors who’ve tackled the subject up to now focused on recent evolution and assumed everything before then wasn’t relevant. I wrote Beasts Before Us because our ancient relatives are incredible! I was quite shocked by this whole plethora of animals that not only predate the dinosaurs, but were incredibly successful, bizarre and exciting. They were the first to evolve iconic features we are fascinated by today, like large body size, sabre-teeth and gnarly horns. It’s just the icing on the cake that they are actually related to us. I wanted to show people the history of mammals isn’t a story of waiting in the wings for the dinosaurs to disappear, but of the stunning success our lineage (synapsids) over the last 350 million years, including before dinosaurs even existed.

I think there are a few different reasons why early mammal evolution doesn’t get the same love as dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are kind of otherworldly – in fact you might argue they are almost mythical – so naturally this makes them extremely compelling. As a result, people forget to look beyond them at what else has happened in evolutionary history. The media don’t help, because they overly focus on dinosaurs and always plaster them centre stage. Dinosaurs have become a touchstone for ancient, and other discoveries are always placed in relation to them. There is a lot of dino-noise to get through if you want to tell the stories of other animal groups!

An important theme in your book is that evolution is not a march of progress but a process of adaptation to current circumstances. It seems that our early ancestors thoroughly explored the space of possibilities and pioneered both behaviours (e.g. digging underground burrows) and morphology (e.g. sabre-toothed therapsids) that would later evolve again independently through convergent evolution. Are there examples of morphological adaptations or suspected behaviours in early mammals that have not reoccurred in more recent mammal evolution?

That’s a really interesting question! As we make new fossil discoveries, it’s increasingly apparent that there is very little happening on Earth today that hasn’t been done multiple times before by other animals. Of the top of my head, I can’t think of anything they – or other animals – did in the past that hasn’t reappeared again, nature is just like that. If anyone can think of something they can always tweet me about it!

I thought one very interesting idea you mention concerns the adaptive radiation of therians, i.e. the group that gave rise to both marsupials and the placental mammals to which we belong. They remained a species-poor group until after the dinosaurs went extinct, and it is traditionally thought it was competition from the dinosaurs that held them back. Instead, here, and in the Current Biology paper that just been published (congratulations, by the way), you argue that it was competition from other mammaliaform groups that held back the therians. Can you give us the elevator pitch in support of this idea?

Part of the problem is that the fossil record can be very misleading, and we can’t easily separate cause and effect. People saw that mammals became larger when non-bird dinosaurs disappeared, and so they drew a causal line between the two. To tackle this issue more robustly, my co-authors and I compiled big datasets of the changes taking place in the skeletons and teeth of mammals from the time of dinosaurs, and just afterwards. Our results showed that in the earlier-branching groups of mammals the number of changes taking place in their bodies continued to rise – in other words, they were still splitting into new groups and evolving new specialisations. But for the therian mammals (which include the ancestors and relatives of all modern mammals except platypuses and echidna), the number of changes was pretty flat in the time of dinosaurs. That is, until the disappearance of the earlier mammal groups – some of which didn’t become extinct until after the non-bird dinosaurs. Crucially, it wasn’t until these later extinctions that we really see therians diversifying more widely, therefore showing that it was competition with the other mammals that had been preventing them from diversifying prior to that point.

You mention Clashach quarry in Scotland as a site of great scientific interest due to its record of fossil footprints. I often shudder to think how many body and trace fossils are destroyed forever during mining and construction activities. Do you generally find commercial operators willing or interested to cease or move activities when fossils are found? Or would most rather just quietly ignore them to prevent costly delays?

Although you’re right that fossils are destroyed during extraction, we can’t forget that most fossils wouldn’t have been discovered in the first place if it wasn’t for quarrying and mining! The ties between extractive industries and palaeontology are really important, but they also form part of the colonialist history of the discipline, which we must acknowledge. The attitude of extraction companies varies from place to place, but many are really keen to support scientific study as much as they can. For example I know several have welcomed info sheets and talks from experts on how to recognise fossils, so that the workers know what to look out for. They’ll often put aside potential fossil finds so that they can be examined and studied. It’s hard to find a balance between industry and conservation, but for the most part quarry workers are just as excited about fossils as everyone else!

In your book, you broach the sensitive issue of decolonisation, acknowledging the often dark and unsavoury history of our scientific disciplines. Beyond words, what actions do you think are necessary to get to terms with our past? For example, is the repatriation of museum specimens always the preferred option?

Decolonising science and museum collections is a complex subject, and I’m not an expert, but the first step for all of us is to listen: we need to hear about, understand, and explore the legacy of colonialism and empire on our lives, not dismiss it. Repatriation of objects is appropriate in some cases, but there are many other things that need to happen as well. For example many objects are completely separated from their context – where they came from, the circumstances of their collection, and who collected them. We need to ask ourselves what the purpose of collections actually is now, who they are for? The scientific system itself was built in such a way that it biases who carries out research, how we carry it out, how it’s published, and who benefits. It’s going to take time and thought to rebuild it to be more equitable.

I was very impressed with the visual language you use throughout this book and read that you have a keen interest in science communication. I am a regular listener of the Palaeocast podcast that you co-host, but beyond that, what other platforms and outlets do you contribute to?

I have to admit I don’t keep a regular online presence at the moment, except for my twitter feed! I used to blog, but as I’ve ended up writing more articles (I wrote for The Guardian for a while, and some other freelance work) I’ve had less time. However, when possible I place content on my YouTube channel, particularly short videos explaining new research, or talking about fossils. I’ve also done some readings of Beasts Before Us, if you want a wee taster!

Beasts Before Us is your first book. Now that it has been published, is it time to turn your attention back to research, or was the experience rewarding enough that we can look forward to more books in the future?

I’ve actually been carrying out my research alongside writing, which has been pretty exhausting! It’ll be nice to devote more attention just to the research for a while. Having said that, I do have a second book lined up, and many more ideas in the queue, so you can definitely expect more in the future!


Beasts Before Us: The Untold Story of Mammal Origins and Evolution
By: Elsa Panciroli


All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

Author interview with Dean R. Lomax: Locked in Time

Dean Lomax digging up dinosaurs at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center.

Dean R. Lomax is an internationally recognized palaeontologist, author, television presenter, and science communicator. He is currently a visiting scientist at the University of Manchester and is a leading authority on ichthyosaurs. He is due to publish a remarkable popular science book, Locked in Time, that looks at what the fossil record can tell us about behaviours of extinct animals by way of fifty remarkable examples. Leading up to publication, we reached out to Dean and asked him some questions.

Could you tell us a little about your background and where the motivation for this book came from?

My passion for palaeontology stems from my childhood fascination with everything dinosaur. In high school, I was not very gifted academically and my grades were not good enough to attend university so at the age of 18 I ended up selling my possessions – including my cherished Star Wars collection(!) – to help fund a trip to excavate dinosaurs at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in the USA. That trip changed my life and formed the backbone of my career. Not only did it provide me with the necessary experience I needed to help build a career in palaeontology, but it is where the idea for Locked in Time originated. Whilst looking at the museum displays, one particularly outstanding fossil caught my eye. A trackway with its maker preserved at the very end – an animal that had literally been caught dead in its tracks. I had never seen anything like this fossil before, in books, in museums or in documentaries. This prehistoric story was preserved in time for all to see. I was hooked. It gave me that spark to discover more about prehistoric animals and their behaviours and I even ended up describing this particular fossil in the scientific literature.

In your introduction, you mention the field of palaeoethology (the study of fossils to infer behaviour). How big of a subfield is this in palaeontology? Are there specialised palaeoethologists, or is it more a case of palaeontologists contributing to this field whenever someone finds something?

Palaeoethology is a fascinating subject that allows us to explore the study of behaviours of extinct species through the evidence preserved in fossils. It is a small subfield of palaeontology, due mostly to the rarity of fossils with direct and reliable evidence of behaviours preserved. There aren’t necessarily any specialised palaeoethologists, but rather those palaeontologists who contribute to the field when something is found and described; however, palaeontologists may often be entirely unaware that they are actively contributing to the field because the idea of ethology/behaviour in the fossil record can easily be overlooked. Having said that, there are some palaeontologists that could easily add ‘palaeoethologist’ to their CVs, most notably those who work with amber which often preserve snapshots of behaviours in action. A real pioneer in the field of palaeoethology was Dr Arthur Boucot. He spent years searching for evidence of behaviours in prehistoric animals, writing numerous papers and academic monographs, and even introduced the term “frozen behaviour” for those instances where an extinct organism was preserved in the midst of some type of behaviour. Delving into his history and research was genuinely inspiring. As I have researched and published on multiple specimens and have written this book, I guess this probably qualifies me as a palaeoethologist too.

Ideas about behaviour are important to those who produce artwork depicting prehistoric lifeforms, i.e. palaeoartists. Do you find there is much of an exchange between palaeontologists and palaeoartists to try and depict behaviour in artwork according to the latest science?

The field of palaeoart has grown immensely over the last twenty years. In fact, several palaeoartists have become excellent scientists in their own right, including Bob Nicholls (the artist for this book), who has co-authored multiple scientific studies. Good palaeoartists stay informed of the latest scientific research and discoveries, with several often working very closely with palaeontologists to ensure their reconstructions are scientifically accurate. Subsequently, when based on the latest science, thoroughly researched palaeoart reconstructions are anatomically plausible. However, that said, practically all aspects of behaviour depicted in palaeoart are not based on direct evidence but assumptions. Usually, the best a palaeoartist can do is look at an extinct animal’s anatomy and environment and speculate about its lifestyle and behaviours. This is why fossilised evidence of behaviours, like those contained inside this book, are so precious and important to study and understand. These remarkable fossils tell us that prehistoric creatures were not movie monsters (prehistoric life, especially dinosaurs, are too often portrayed as roaring monsters!) but real animals that behaved in a variety of familiar and surprising ways.

What have technological advancements contributed to this line of inquiry? Are palaeontologists going back to old fossil material to reexamine them with new tools and finding new evidence of fossilised behaviour?

The use of flashy, high-tech computers, scanners and the like have helped to unlock an entirely new world of information contained in fossils. As a result, not only are newly discovered fossils subjected to this technology but much older fossil discoveries, where none of these technologies were previously available, can now be reanalysed with a fresh approach, breathing new life into old fossils as it were. This has led to some exciting discoveries of fossilised behaviours in specimens that have otherwise been deemed as having little to no research value.

Whether dinosaurs or early mammals, prehistoric organisms were faced with many of the same basic challenges as animals alive today. Has the fossil record revealed any examples of behaviours that were unique and now effectively extinct?

These types of questions are what get me excited about unravelling the mysteries of prehistoric behaviour. In many cases, “the present is the key to the past”, as geologist Charles Lyell famously introduced in the 1800s, and this definitely holds true with understanding behaviour. For example, on a basic level, we know that some groups of mammals live in herds today and that some extinct mammals also lived in herds millions of years ago (we have good fossil evidence for this). However, the natural world is filled with so many incredible acts of behaviour that you might expect the fossil record would reveal something unique. As such, perhaps one of the most unusual and apparently unique behaviours was recorded in an ancient roughly 430 million-year-old arthropod nicknamed the ‘kite runner’. The young of this arthropod were literally tethered to the parents via long spines. It appears to be the only known occurrence of this type of brooding behaviour known among fossil or living arthropods.

Rather than body fossils, past behaviour is often deduced from so-called trace fossils or ichnofossils. Nests, fossilised footprints, and trackways must be fairly easy to recognize. But what about the harder-to-identify traces? Do palaeontologists frequently encounter suspected ichnofossils where they don’t know who made them, how they were made, or perhaps even what they represent?

Yes, palaeontologists (or palaeoichnologists) frequently encounter mysterious trace fossils that are difficult or near impossible to identify or decipher. By their very definition, trace fossils represent evidence of behaviour, so we can say with confidence that an ancient animal made a nest, left its tracks or created a burrow, but they generally do not provide all of the tell-tale signs that allow us to identify what organism made it, how it was made or even what the trace might really represent. To find definite answers, we have to go a step further. In much rarer circumstances some trace fossils provide more than a ‘simple’ track or burrow and may be directly related with its maker, such that the body fossil is present inside the burrow or at the end of the track. In other examples, a track might show where the animal walked, stopped, sat down and then walked away, or a burrow might preserve evidence of scratch marks that could indicate how the burrow may have been constructed and by whom. These types of fossils provide much more information about specific moments (and behaviours) in deep time.

Were there any examples of fossilised behaviour that did not make the cut for this book but that you would have loved to include, or any noteworthy recent discoveries?

Having spent a substantial amount of time combing through hundreds of scientific papers and books, and examining specimens in museum collections, my initial plan was to tell the story of prehistoric behaviour through 100 fossils, rather than 50. It was incredibly tough selecting 100 fossils, so cutting this in half was much harder! I had to rank each of the fossils against one another, in terms of the type of behaviour, type of animal and so forth. This meant some really unusual specimens, like the aforementioned ‘kite runner’, did not make the final cut. One fossil that I would have really liked to include, and which has received worldwide media attention recently, is the so-called ‘Dueling Dinosaurs’ fossil, which appears to preserve a Tyrannosaurs and Triceratops locked in combat. I opted not to include the specimen as it has yet to be formally described, although I do make some subtle references to it. I’m very excited to see what research is revealed from this fossil, especially as only one fighting dinosaur fossil has been described, which inspired the book’s cover.

Finally, what are some of the biggest unanswered questions when it comes to fossilised behaviour? What would you love to find?

There are so many ancient groups and species that it would be easy for me to rattle off a list of some of the biggest unanswered questions about fossilised behaviour, but the reality is that we have only really scratched the surface. We have so much to learn when it comes to fossilised behaviour. After all, inferring and attempting to understand behaviour in long-extinct organisms is incredibly hard and is made even more challenging when evidence of behaviours are not preserved. It is also vitally important to remember that, by its very nature, the process of fossilisation is already an incredibly rare event, so to have any form of evidence for ancient fossilised behaviour preserved is genuinely astonishing.

Ooh, what would I love to find! I’m torn between several imaginary fossils, but if I was forced to choose one then it would have to be finding a dinosaur dead in its tracks. The thrill of following in the footsteps of a dinosaur only to find its skeleton lying at the very end of the track would be the ultimate dinosaur detective story.

Locked in TimeLocked in Time: Animal Behavior Unearthed in 50 Extraordinary Fossils
By: Dean R. Lomax
Hardback | May 2021