Every now and again I look at the huge number of books-awaiting-review that I’ve amassed, and despair. Reviewing books takes considerable time. Or, at least, it does when you think that it’s good practice to read the books before writing about them. In another of those efforts to keep on top of things, I’ve decided to throw together brief thoughts on a number of recently received books relevant to the TetZooniverse. These musings won’t be the long, detailed reviews that I much prefer to provide but... time is the problem. To business...
The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi, by Julius Csotonyi and Steve White. This fine, beautifully produced volume – TPJC from hereon – is the successor to the 2012 Titan Books volume The World’s Greatest Paleoart (White 2012). Julius Csotonyi is one of today’s most prolific and visible of palaeoartists, his work appearing in museum murals, books and articles, and routinely accompanying press releases on exciting new fossils. TPJC does a brilliant job of showcasing this vast quantity of work, and there’s far more of it than many people will have realised before. The book is dominated by renditions of Mesozoic dinosaurs, but the sections on the Palaeozoic and Cenozoic aren’t short and there are some striking and memorable scenes depicting fish, early tetrapods, stem-mammals and Neogene hoofed mammals.
TPJC is fantastically well designed. The substantial amount of text has a satisfying density (you might not like it if your eyesight is poor), and pictures generally occupy entire pages. Gatefolds allow for the inclusion of giant murals. The print quality is amazing and the pictures are appropriately vibrant. The level of detail in the images is incredible – given that they’re digital composites, I shudder to think what the file size of the originals might be.
As expected for any palaeoartist whose work spans even more than a few years, Csotonyi’s work varies somewhat in style and detail, and his renditions have definitely improved. A few of his older pieces – dating way, way back to 2005 – are included and look a world away from more recent ones, but I don’t say this to criticise: rather, to highlight the fact that – within the space of just a few years – we’ve all had to radically change the way we imagine Mesozoic dinosaurs. Anyway, Csotonyi’s palaeoartworks dating to the last few years – included here – are pretty incredible pieces of panache and accuracy.
There are a few small things that might be ‘wrong’ (when applied to palaeoart, this term should be regarded as synonymous with ‘open for debate’, not ‘wrong’ in the empirical sense). We’ve known that the giant ankylosaur Sauropelta has two rows (not one) of projecting neck spines since 1999 at least, and the naked faces and naked fingers of some of Csotonyi’s non-bird maniraptorans are not in keeping with the fossils we have. At least some horned dinosaurs and other archosaurs probably lacked hooves on the outermost digits of their hands, and I think that the skin texture Csotonyi gives to some of his dinosaurs is too ‘elephantine’. Azhdarchid wing-fingers are really not as long as he shows them and the archaic whale Dorudon has been given a face that’s almost definitely way too shrink-wrappy. Anyway, details, details – we learn from our mistakes, and some of the things I’ve just mentioned are among those that we’ve all been getting wrong until recent years or even months.
Csotonyi’s remarkable versatility is demonstrated by the variety of artistic styles we see. His ultra-detailed, full colour landscape scenes are familiar to many of us, but the digital, stand-alone drawings of animals are less so. There are also small illustrations depicting anatomical details, fossils, skulls and so on, and there are preliminary sketches for some of the pieces. As goes the full-colour landscapes, we get to see a variety of compositing styles. Many incorporate some degree of photo montaging. As is consistently the case with photo montages, I confess that many of them don’t quite work for me – the animals don’t look right against the photo-real landscapes and plants, and the perspective sometimes looks odd. Then again, many of them are designed for use as gigantic murals where things work in different fashion.
Finally, there’s one thing I really, really love about this book, and that’s the whole ‘back-story aspect’ to it. The final, full-colour artworks are accompanied by development sketches, in-progress prototype versions, and explanations and vignettes that convey the development process and, in cases, explain the specific behaviour or hypothesis that’s depicted. Sections of text are also provided by some of the scientists involved in the research that Csotonyi has illustrated. This is no superficial book of pretty pictures.
TPJC is a fantastic book and I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in palaeoart, in current thinking on the life appearance of prehistoric animals, and in neat-looking books. Now for the publication of equally compelling volumes on the other great palaeoartists of our age. And – while I’m here – remember that not all is rosy in the palaeoart stable and that there are many things that we need to talk about (Witton et al. 2014).
And sorry for the inconsistency regarding the spelling of the word ‘palaeoart’. That’s my preferred preference (I’m British), but the Americanesque ‘paleoart’ often wins out (as in this book’s title and the title of the article you’re reading).
Evolutionary History of Bats: Fossils, Molecules and Morphology, edited by Gregg Gunnell and Nancy Simmons. Bats account for about 25% of all extant mammal species and hence have to be regarded as pretty significant components of the group’s diversity. Furthermore, they’re hugely important in ecological terms – as consumers of insects, as dispersers of seeds, as prey for assorted other vertebrates, and as reservoirs and vectors of parasites and diseases. Bats have an excellent fossil record that extends back perhaps 50 million years, but even those most ancient bats – the best represented of these very old taxa is currently the so-called 20-claw bat Onychonycteris – are true bats with fully developed wings. Much of what we understand of bat evolution has changed considerably since the 1990s. Bats have proved not to be members of Archonta within the placental mammal radiation, the shape of the bat tree has proved a bit weird (‘microbats’ are not monophyletic, since rhinolophoids [= horseshoe bats and kin] are closer to fruit bats than they are to other ‘microbats’), and the relationships between the main non-rhinolophoid ‘microbat’ groups have undergone revision as new molecular and morphological data has come in.
This book is full of excellent contributions on bat evolution, fossil history, and the biomechanics of bat flight. The book starts with a review article on the evolution of echolocation by Emma Teeling and colleagues that sets the stage, introducing readers to current views on the shape of the bat tree and on hypotheses of where in the tree echolocation was acquired (and lost?). The key aspects of anatomy involved in echolocation are also discussed. Chapters by Thierry Smith and colleagues, Gregg Gunnell and colleagues, and Gary Morgan and Nicholas Czaplewski review different chunks of the extensive bat fossil record, while Suzanne Hand and colleagues review the enigmatic Eocene bat Necromantis – a large, robust-skulled bat that might have preyed on small vertebrates and perhaps even eaten carrion.
When thinking of fossil bats, we often imagine the spectacularly complete specimens of Messel or the Green River Formation. There are a lot of fossil bats like that, but the vast majority – seriously, there are a lot of fossil bats – consist of isolated, partial lower jaws, teeth, and fragments of limb bones. We can get some idea of what bats represented by such fossils were like, and where they fit within the tree, but it’s tricky, and convergence abounds. Placing fossils correctly has an impact on where we think given groups originated, and therefore on our hypotheses about such things as the evolution of migratory and hibernation behaviour, and on whether given bat groups should be imagined as having evolved within temperate, subtropical or tropical contexts.
And while fossils are great by themselves, they’re integral to the calibration of molecular phylogenies. The molecular phylogeny of the diverse New World leaf-nosed bat clade (Phyllostomidae) and its implications for the timing of this group’s evolution form the focus of Robert Baker et al.’s chapter. Evolutionary dynamics within teeth, tooth morphology, population evolution, the role echolocation behaviour might have had on skull form, and the phylogenetic distribution of vertebral fusion and body size all form the subject of additional chapters.
A set of contributions review and analyse our developing knowledge of bat flight and its evolution. Sharon Swartz and colleagues provide an introduction to bat flight biomechanics, drawing in information from fossils and poorly known anatomical details of the bat wing, while Norberto Giannini weaves together embryology, fossils, evo-devo and anatomy to provide a ‘integrative theory on the origin of bat flight’. Those who recall the several articles that have appeared here on hypothetical proto-bats will like Giannini’s article – a table shows how authors have considered any one of about 12 different things as the key innovation behind the evolution of bat flight, and have variously proposed that echolocation evolved first, that flight evolved first, that both evolved in tandem, or even that bats evolved independently more than once (the Pettigrew diphyletic origins hypothesis, on which follow the links below).
Evolutionary History of Bats is a really impressive collection of papers that does well to paint a picture of bat evolution studies as they stand in the early 21st century. There’s something here for everyone seriously interested in bat history and evolution. It’s timely, exciting and a great synthesis given current advances in our knowledge of this group.
Gregg Gunnell and Nancy Simmons (eds). 2012. Evolutionary History of Bats: Fossils, Molecules and Morphology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Hardback/Softback, index, pp. 560. US$74.99. £44.99. ISBN 978-0-521-74526-0. Here at amazon. Here at amazon.co.uk.
Primates of the World, by Jean-Jacques Petter and François Desbordes. Originally published in French in 2010, Primates of the World is an incredibly well illustrated tour of the world’s extant primate diversity, the bulk of the book consisting of 72 colour plates arranged on a continent-by-continent basis. An introductory section overviews primate history, diversity, anatomy and biology. The (late) author’s specialisation on lemurs is evident, since they’re used to illustrate primate evolutionary specialisation in general as well as how primates deal with predation pressure from predatory birds and carnivorans.
Given that this book was finished before 2010, it isn’t, alas, a complete guide to all the extant primate species of the world (quite a few species and subspecies have been named since then) – but it must be pretty close, since over 300 different taxa are included. It’s worth saying at this point that the precise number of primate species is really hard to pin down, since views differ markedly as to which populations should be regarded as species and which should not. Because of the substantial confusion, people most often talk about ‘subspecies’ alongside ‘species’ as if they’re the same thing, and if we do that the number of taxa worthy of recognition is currently close to 700. Different subspecies are illustrated for many of the species, as are males, females and juveniles in those species that exhibit marked sexual or ontogenetic variation, and maps show ranges. The accompanying text tends to discuss genera, not species. That’s understandable given how many species are concerned, but it’s a little disappointing in places. Four plates, for example, are devoted to macaques, yet only the first two of those plates is accompanied with text that’s anything more than a list of species featured on the plate.
Desbordes’s illustrations are phenomenal – among the best and most accurate portrayals of primates you’ll ever see. I especially like the postures chosen for the animals and the amazingly detailed look of their pelage. Anyone specially interested in primates, or indeed in mammals or the portrayal of animals in art, should obtain the book for these pictures alone.
The book is a neat, convenient size and not all that expensive, and therefore I think it should be considered the most accessible guide to the world’s primates – my point being that, while there are other volumes that comprehensively survey and illustrate the primates of the world (Nowak 1999, Mittermeier et al. 2013), they’re some order of magnitude more expensive than this one. Buy it – it’s great!
Jean-Jacques Petter and François Desbordes. 2013. Primates of the World. Princeton University Press, Princeton. Hardback, index, pp. 186. US$29.95. £19.95. ISBN 978-0-691-15695-8. Here at amazon. Here at amazon.co.uk.
Biology and Evolution of Crocodylians, by Gordon Grigg and David Kirshner. There are a lot of good books out there. But every now and again, a book appears which is truly, jaw-droppingly amazing. Griggs and Kirshner’s Biology and Evolution of Crocodylians (BEC from hereon) is an incredible piece of work – very probably the most significant volume ever published on crocodylians, and one of the most complete, thorough and fascinating tetrapod-themed works that’s ever appeared. Seriously, this might be the zoology book of the century, and very few animal groups ever get literary treatment this comprehensive and impressive. Oh, and – yes – the authors adopt the now generally preferred spelling Crocodylia for the crocodile, alligator and gharial clade (for the full and ugly backstory to this name and its associates, follow the links below).
BEC is huge: 649 pages long, 45 mm thick, and over 2.2 kg. Illustrations feature on virtually every single page, ranging from graphs, charts and tables to colour photos and beautiful diagrams and pieces of art (many produced by David Kirshner himself – he’s one hell of an artist). Grigg and Kirshner have gone to extraordinary trouble to obtain illustrations of a huge number of things – as in, details of anatomy, behaviour, scenes from the field and so on – that are often mentioned or alluded to but generally not shown. They also include photos of many things that have scarcely ever, perhaps never, been shown before. There are, in fact, so many examples that I don’t even know where to start; I’m trying to write a short review here.
BEC covers every facet of crocodylian biology and evolution you can think of. 14 chapters review crocodylian evolutionary history, anatomy, locomotion, sensory organs, feeding behaviour, physiology, submergence behaviour, thermal biology, reproduction, population ecology, and conservation. The discussions are comprehensive and fully referenced and each chapter has its own bibliography. While this volume has to be considered ‘technical’ overall, it’s a pleasant and often fun read – the authors include anecdotes, they ask questions when answers are lacking or unclear, and they write in a friendly, conversational style. Don't be intimidated, or think of this mighty work as a technical treatise only penetrable by specialists. On the contrary, any person with a basic background or interest in biology will be able to follow their clear and well-written explanations and reviews.
I simply cannot praise this volume enough. Unsurprisingly (in view of its size), it’s not cheap, but anyone with a serious interest in crocodylians or reptilian biology or evolution should make an effort to obtain it. I say again – this may well be regarded as one of the best zoology books of... well, of a great many decades. By the way, my plan is to publish a longer, more comprehensive review at some point in the future – I decided to put out something as soon as possible given the book’s significance.
Gordon Grigg and David Kirshner. 2015. Biology and Evolution of Crocodylians. Comstock Publishing Associates and CSIRO Publications. Hardback, index, pp. 649. US$149.95. £96.21. ISBN 978-0-801-45410-3. Here at amazon. Here at amazon.co.uk.
That’ll do for now. More reviews of recently acquired books coming soon.
For previous Tet Zoo articles relevant to various of the subjects mentioned here, see...
- We flightless primates (on bat evolution)
- PROTOBATS: visualising the earliest stages of bat evolution
- Dissecting a crocodile
- Awesome sea-going crocodyliforms of the Mesozoic
- Nasalis among the odd-nosed colobines or The Nasalis Paradox (proboscis monkeys part II)
- The Great Dinosaur Art Event of 2012
- Artistic Depictions of Dinosaurs Have Undergone Two Revolutions
- Why Humans Are Important to Studies of Primate Diversity
Refs - -
Hutcheon, J. M., Kirsch, J. A. W. & Pettigrew, J. D. 1998. Base-compositional biases and the bat problem. III. The question of microchiropteran monophyly. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B 353, 607-617.
Mittermeier, R. A., Rylands, A. B. & Wilson, D. E. 2013. Handbook of the Mammals of the World – Volume 3. Primates. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.