Allie Ford Reviews Flying Dinosaurs: How fearsome reptiles became birds
Flying Dinosaurs: How fearsome reptiles became birds by John Pickrell
Studying dinosaurs means finding fossil bones, putting them together and putting them on display in museums, next to pictures of grey/brown scaly lizard-looking creatures. Despite wanting to be a palaeontologist when I was young, that was about my understanding of their work before reading this book. Now I realise just how much of the picture I was missing!
After initially telling readers ‘Everything you were told as a child [about dinosaurs’ was wrong’, John Pickrell goes on to discuss almost everything, taking readers on an adventure through the history, science, politics, economics and personalities of fossil studies. It turns out that in the twenty years since Jurassic Park, we’ve learned more about dinosaurs than we had ever discovered prior to the movie’s release.
The first chapter of Feathered Dinosaurs takes us from the discovery of archaeopteryx in Bavaria in 1861, via the idea that dinosaurs might be warm-blooded (proposed by John Ostrom in 1969), to the first unequivocal finding of a dinosaur with feathers in China in 1996. From there, we explore hoaxes, evolution, flight (or not – some feathered dinosaurs probably used feathers to glide, and others might have used them for brooding their young), dinosaur sex, vocalisations and skin/feather colouring, before finally considering why it was that the early birds were some of the great survivors of the Cretaceous extinction, while so many other species didn’t make it. I’m not sure exactly when during my reading of the book I found my imagination substituting the dull, scaly, plastic models from childhood with brightly coloured, fluffy feathered, squawking bird-like creatures, but part way through I do remember thinking that it seemed quite obvious that some of the dinosaurs should have looked that way, and wondering why it took us so long to realise that.
Pickrell’s book is easy to read, combining vast amounts of evidence and of ideas around key themes. Sometimes the theme is introduced with a ‘flash-back’ to the time when these creatures roamed the land; other chapters begin with the background to a mystery, or an introduction to the personalities involved in that part of the story. Gradually more of the threads do weave together, but there are so many different species, locations and people that I admit to having to flick back and forth from time to time. The book does include a handy A-Z of feathered dinosaurs in an appendix at the end (I only found it when I finished the book proper – a mention of it earlier would have saved a lot of searching!), as well as a beautiful illustration section in the middle. Again, more direct referencing from the text to the images would have been helpful, but they were worth the wait, especially the cute-but-slightly-terrifying Epidexipteryx. Pickrell presents compelling evidence for most of the ideas discussed, but never shies away from sharing dissenting views. Indeed, dinosaurs aside, the book shows all the factors at play in any area of modern science: funding challenges, competing interests, personalities, and the way paradigms shift gradually as a weight of evidence mounts against the preceding idea, before the new idea eventually takes its place on centre stage. This book is likely to be of interest to anyone of any age who wants to know more about dinosaurs, evolution, science, birds, or who just wants an interesting non-fiction read.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, a couple of descendants of the feathered Cretaceous therapods are squawking at me to get them some breakfast…. Come to think of it, their scaly little feet do look very dinosaur-like….
Allie fell in love with science when she spotted test tubes full of different coloured solutions at high school. She studied astrophysics and chemistry at university. She taught Bioastronomy for several years, as well as being an active participant in the Science in Schools program, and touring Australia as a cast member in the RiAus/BBC Science of Doctor Who Live show. Allie loves reading and learning new things, often ‘helped’ by her two parrots (who prefer eating books to reading them).