Work under Review
New York: Random House, 2007. 428 pages
There is no shortage of dinosaur books for children, and this is reflected by Tom Holtz’s admonition on the inside flap that “the world doesn’t need another A-to-Z list of dinosaurs.” Typically, dinosaur books are organized by name, vague groupings of creatures, or by time period, rather than any evolutionary or biological theme. Many of these volumes have passable to excellent art, but are light on scientific content, and more informative books are generally inappropriate for children. What, then, does this new book offer over other popular dinosaur books?
The major strength of Dinosaurs is that Holtz has done an excellent job explaining dinosaur science as a process; that is, how paleontologists understand the biology of dinosaurs through inferences from the fossil record. There are four basic sections of the book: basic principles of dinosaur science; the relationships and major groups of dinosaurs; the evolution of Mesozoic faunas through time; and dinosaur paleobiology; and each is infused with explanations of how science is done. Complex topics are clearly explained in a way that both children and adults will understand. Particularly impressive is that Holtz spends an entire chapter explaining the principles of cladistics, the method by which scientists reconstruct the evolutionary relationships of organisms. Although cladistics is fundamental to modern organismal biology, few popular books (and perhaps no children’s books) tackle the subject in any detail, and Holtz should be applauded for taking the plunge. This explanation is also practical for the reader, because Holtz often refers to cladistics in other sections of the book when explaining the relationships of dinosaurs and how scientists make conclusions about dinosaur paleobiology.
Another advantage of this book over others is the inclusion of sidebars written by a variety of dinosaur experts. These short articles cover topics that are not directly discussed in the main text, including dinosaur growth, diseases, and feeding. Not only do these sidebars broaden the topics discussed in the book, but also they introduce a diversity of opinions and information that wouldn’t be possible with a single author. The quality of these contributions varies (some are more informative than others), but they are superb overall and put the book on a level above most other children’s dinosaur books.
Dinosaurs may not be the first book that I’d reach for to teach children about evolution, but it does an excellent job integrating the principles of evolution and natural selection into the discussion of dinosaur topics. Evolution is used to explain how we know the relationships of dinosaurs, provide hypotheses about dinosaur behavior, and explain why different growth strategies might be beneficial. Holtz’s introductory chapter on evolution is short, but it effectively communicates the basic principles of natural selection and concepts like the evolutionary tree of life.
This is one of the best popular dinosaur books I’ve read. Although focused for children, it will also be informative for students and adults. The book is packed with up-to-date and clearly explained information, and the author maintains a website for future updates (http://www.geol.umd.edu/~tholtz/dinoappendix/). Given the information content, clear explanations, full-color semi-glossy printing, and hardback binding, this book is an excellent value at the list price of $34.99.
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Randall B Irmis is a PhD candidate in the Department of Integrative Biology and Museum of Paleontology, University of California, Berkeley.