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Review: King of the Crocodylians
Ever wonder how many books have been devoted to just a single fossil species? Jack Horner and Don Lessem did The Complete T rex. Ned Colbert published Little Dinosaurs of Ghost Ranch, about Coelophysis. Peter Dodson wrote about The Horned Dinosaurs and Ken Carpenter about The Armored Dinosaurs, but those were groups, not individual species. Besides, all those are dinosaurs. What about less "sexy" critters, like crocodiles?
Longtime NCSE member David Schwimmer, a professor at Columbus State University in Georgia, has published a very nice study of the giant crocodylian Deinosuchus, which was a contemporary of the last Cretaceous dinosaurs and certainly one of the largest crocodylians that ever lived. For that matter, it was one of the biggest land predators ever, even though its squatty crocodylian legs kept it closer to the ground than the big theropod dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus and Gigantosaurus. It may have been up to 12 m long, or even longer, much like those dinos. And maybe it even fed upon them. And this may be the first book devoted to a single non-dinosaurian critter.
For people who get chills from big fierce animals, or even from good in-depth studies of big fierce animals, this is a fine book to curl up with. The interest is not only due to the fact that Deinosuchus was so big and fierce; in fact, it is hard to tell just how big and fierce it was because there are no complete specimens, and much of the skeleton behind the head is only known from fragments. But the charm of this book is that Dave Schwimmer takes readers through the processes by which paleontologists reconstruct animals like this from less than perfect remains. He covers the anatomy, and explains the functional morphology that gives us clues to the animal's behavior (with help from living crocs). He shows the lines of evidence from other animals, plants, and surrounding sediments that tell us what the environment of Deinosuchus was like. He explains its relationships and compares it with other crocodylians in its fauna (and elsewhere in the world), and he sizes it up against other heavy contenders. He demonstrates how paleobiologists have been able to calculate individual ages of specimens and reconstruct the growth strategy that explains how the animal could get so big. He even identifies what may be Deinosuchus poop (coprolites, for you purists)!
After running this whole gamut, Schwimmer astutely acknowledges that his audience may not be completely satisfied, because he has not talked that much about dinosaurs. Could Deinosuchus have preyed upon dinosaurs? Can we realistically visualize it, waiting under the water's surface for a hapless duckbill or juvenile ceratopsian? Could it have dispatched such creatures with a single lunge and crunch? Do we have evidence for any of this? Do you really think I would spoil the ending?
I must, however, clear Dave's name in one respect. Some readers will wonder, "But wait: David Schwimmer. Isn't he the actor who plays the paleontologist Ross on the TV show Friends? How could he write a book like this?" Amazing coincidence: Dave and the actor share the same name, and Dave (like Ross) did a good deal of paleontology work in New York, where there is a good collection of Deinosuchus. But there the coincidence ends. In fact, our Dave has an e-mail tag that reads simply: "I'm not Ross."