New­south Pub­lish­ing (2016) RRP $29.99

Cosmos - - Spectrum - Weird Di­nosaurs by JOHN PICK­RELL — AMY MID­DLE­TON

JOHN PICK­RELL ISN’T VERY HAPPY with the lat­est it­er­a­tion of the Juras­sic Park movie fran­chise, and the Syd­ney-based science writer makes no at­tempt to hide it in his new book Weird Di­nosaurs, which ex­plores hun­dreds of new dino-dis­cov­er­ies made in the past cou­ple of decades. In Pick­rell’s pre­vi­ous book, Fly­ing Di­nosaurs ( Cos­mos, Is­sue 58, p89), he ex­am­ined our new aware­ness that a vast ar­ray of the di­nosaurs as­sumed to be scaly were ac­tu­ally fluffy, like mod­ern-day Ban­tam chooks.

In his in­tro­duc­tion to Weird Di­nosaurs, Pick­rell de­scribes vis­it­ing Lon­don’s Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum and be­ing chuffed to see its fa­mous life-size an­i­ma­tronic Ve­loci­rap­tor had sprouted feath­ers, in line with the lat­est science. Juras­sic World, re­leased in 2015, didn’t show the same re­spon­sive­ness.

“Juras­sic World didn’t take on board any of the re­ally ex­cit­ing new science and I think that was a missed op­por­tu­nity,” Pick­rell tells me. “Not to show di­nosaurs as we now know them to have ap­peared is spread­ing mis­in­for­ma­tion.”

Feath­ers aside, Weird Di­nosaurs tells us there has been a boom in di­nosaur finds in the past two decades, in­clud­ing 150 new species un­cov­ered in China alone. About half of all known di­nosaur gen­era have been found in the past 10 years, and three-quar­ters since 1990. The ex­pla­na­tion is pretty sim­ple. “We have started to look for di­nosaurs in earnest in parts of the world where we haven’t spent much time look­ing for them be­fore, and there are also more peo­ple look­ing,” Pick­rell ex­plains.

Broadly, this di­nosaur dis­cov­ery boom is what Weird Di­nosaurs is about – new an­i­mals be­ing added to our pre­his­toric aware­ness. More specif­i­cally, though, the book is a charm­ing col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, de­pict­ing the most unique and sur­pris­ing di­nosaurs, and the weird and won­der­ful peo­ple who study them – the true In­di­ana Jones char­ac­ters of the palaeontology world.

One story starts with a Tran­syl­va­nia aris­to­crat, Franz Baron Nopcsa, who among his many ad­ven­tures roamed Aus­tria-hun­gary on mo­tor­bike, be­came a World War I spy, and put in a bid to be­come king of Al­ba­nia be­fore shoot­ing him­self and his long­time boyfriend in 1933, just af­ter the rise of Hitler.

Af­ter dis­cov­er­ing fos­sils on his lav­ish fam­ily es­tate es­tate in the 1890s, Nopcsa im­mersed him­self in study un­til he was qual­i­fied enough to an­a­lyse them him­self. He is cred­ited with de­scrib­ing a suite of minia­ture di­nosaur species found around his home­town of Hațeg. Th­ese in­clude a cow-sized ver­sion of a sauro­pod that in other parts of the world reached 70 tonnes in weight.

Nopcsa hy­poth­e­sised that di­nosaurs con­fined to an is­land would have ex­pe­ri­enced dif­fer­ent evo­lu­tion­ary pres­sures than their main­land coun­ter­parts, and that per­haps the land on which the bones were found had once been iso­lated by wa­ter. Food and space are of­ten scarce in is­land en­vi­ron­ments, which means their in­hab­i­tants can be nat­u­rally se­lected for dwarfism, be­cause the smaller an­i­mal needs less food to sur­vive.

In 2010, re­searchers an­a­lysed the in­ter­nal de­tail of the bones to es­tab­lish be­yond doubt that Nopcsa had been right – th­ese were dwarf ver­sions of some of the larger di­nosaurs found in other parts of the world, and Tran­syl­va­nia was in­deed an is­land in the late Cre­ta­ceous pe­riod.

Weird Di­nosaurs is full of th­ese fas­ci­nat­ing tales, de­liv­ered with de­scrip­tive aplomb. Pick­rell is the ed­i­tor of Aus­tralian Ge­o­graphic (and a former deputy ed­i­tor of Cos­mos), and his back­ground in science jour­nal­ism al­lows him to de­scribe pre­his­toric scenes in vivid colour and minute de­tail.

In the chap­ter Mon­ster from the Cre­ta­ceous La­goon, for ex­am­ple, he brings us to a river­bank in north­ern Africa 95 mil­lion years ago – the buzzing in­sect sound­scape, the beat of the mid­day sun, and an enor­mous preda­tor lurk­ing be­neath the wa­ter.

“A fizz of bub­bles hints at the pres­ence of giant, car-sized coela­canths and lung­fish lazily mov­ing through the wa­ters,” he writes. “None of th­ese fish has no­ticed what is stealth­ily glid­ing to­wards them be­low the wa­ter with a flick of its great tail. Made ob­vi­ous above the wa­ter by a great red sail, which slices through the sur­face, this killer moves al­most silently and in­vis­i­bly through the murky wa­ters.”

From Alaska to Aus­tralia, Pick­rell de­scribes in vi­brant de­tail the thrill of dis­cov­er­ing fos­sils and pon­ders the ques­tion, what marvels are ly­ing undis­cov­ered in dark cab­i­nets around the world? And if we’ve only just dis­cov­ered three-quar­ters of the di­nosaurs known to science, what might be next? Pick­rell says there could be whole new di­nosaur fauna wait­ing to be dis­cov­ered.

This book does its part to pique the in­ter­est of this nascent army of di­nosaur-hunters. Pick­rell says it was his plea­sure to take the sto­ries of ex­perts and trans­late them for a broad gen­eral au­di­ence.

“I spent a lot of time meet­ing palaeon­tol­o­gists in coun­tries all over the world, get­ting them to tell me about di­nosaurs and their own ex­cit­ing tales of dis­cov­ery,” he says. “I found that a great priv­i­lege and huge fun.” The en­thu­si­as­tic di­nosaur hunter is alive and well with this writer. He isn’t the first, and this book sug­gests he will not be the last.

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