Once again it’s time to look at a number of recently-ish published books relevant to the auspices of the TetZooniverse and see what they have to offer. Today: fossil primates and weird birds!

Cover of Begun (2016). Credit: Princeton University Press

The Real Planet of the Apes, by David R. Begun. David Begun has, for some years now, been at the forefront of research on fossil apes (the hominoids), his publications emphasising a complex history for apes that involved Europe and the movement of lineages in and out of Africa. This research has gone hand-in-hand with discoveries of fossil hominoids in Spain, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, Kenya, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, it now being clear that apes were diverse, abundant and widespread during the Miocene in particular, over 50 genera being known from this time interval (caveat: a few of the animals Begun discusses are not hominoids in the strict sense but close kin of them within the more inclusive clade Catarrhini). As discussed here before, it is important to note that Miocene apes were doing a great many more things than apes are today, and that apes occupied niches later taken over by monkeys.

You might remember the 2003 Scientific American article that Begun wrote on ape history. The images shown here (by John Gurche) don't appear in the 2016 book, however. Credit: Scientific American

The inevitable but understandable result of the realisation that apes were doing so well in the Miocene is an article (Begun 2003) and book that uses the ‘planet of the apes’ moniker. Indeed, this excellent 2016 book might be seen as an expanded and augmented version of Begun’s popular Scientific American article.

Begun’s book provides the ‘on-the-ground’, ‘point-of-view-of-a-dedicated-specialist’ perspective that I find really valuable. Begun discusses his personal thoughts, hypotheses and adventures pertaining to various of the relevant taxa (among them Ekembo, Afropithecus, Dryopithecus, Hispanopithecus and Rudapithecus) and also relates stories and anecdotes concerning relevant palaeontologists, some of whom are well known for their technical work but obscure when it comes to biographical information. I’ve seen a few summaries of the book which imply that it focuses on the hypothesis that Dryopithecus is a stem-gorilla. That idea isn’t in there (Begun interprets Dryopithecus and kin as early members of the lineage leading to gorillas, chimps and humans), but – in any case – it would merely be part of a far bigger story: this is both a compelling discussion of one researcher’s view of the field and a great overview of hominoid anatomy, diversity and evolutionary history. I especially remember cases where Begun mentions disagreements with colleagues (his Ankarapithecus discussion) and where he talks about negative results (his tale of a dig site that failed to yield the goods).

Just in case you need a reminder of how hominoids are related to other primates. Image from my in-prep textbook project, on which go here. Credit: Darren Naish.

And – to those of you who remember those intriguing comments Begun made about bigfoot in his Scientific American article, he does follow up on them here…

The Real Planet of the Apes is written in a non-academic, friendly tone, is well designed and well illustrated, and should be obtained by those seriously interested in fossil primates, primate diversity and evolution, and in mammal history more generally. Oh - having just read some amazon reviews, I should note that this book is not the ‘new story of human origins’ that some people might assume, and is best suited for readers who want the insider view of a specialist.

David R. Begun. 2016. The Real Planet of the Apes. Princeton University Press, Princeton. Hardback, index, pp. 246. £22.95. ISBN 978-0-691-14924-0. Here at amazon.com. Here at amazon.co.uk

Cover of Cleere (2010). Great design. Credit: Princeton University Press

Nightjars, Potoos, Frogmouths, Oilbird and Owlet-Nightjars of the World, by Nigel Cleere. Impressive new books on birds appear so frequently that it’s almost impossible to keep up with them, let alone obtain them. Nigel Cleere’s Nightjars, Potoos, Frogmouths, Oilbird and Owlet-Nightjars of the World is not new – it was published in 2010 – but it’s so incredible that I feel compelled to talk about it. I’ll call it Nightjars etc from hereon. At 464 pages in length, Nightjars etc is impressively chunky, but it’s also impressively glossy: this is a very special book that features a mind-boggling number (580, actually) of outstandingly good, beautifully reproduced photographs of wild nightjars and their kin (the caprimulgiforms).

The book is arranged on a species by species basis. The entries are brief, providing summarised descriptions of overall appearance, habitat, vocalisation, range, status and so on, and excellent, highly detailed maps illustrate distribution. But we’re here for the photos. Again, I have to say that the photography is unbelievable. There are virtually always two, three or more photographs of a given species, showing it at close range, and often in flight.

Newsflash: some caprimulgiforms look a bit odd. This is a portrait of an owlet-nightjar. Credit: Darren Naish

One shockingly trivial thing I hadn’t realised about nightjars before looking at these photographs is that the pupil in the nightjar eye is exactly as big as you’d expect it to be for a bird – because their eyes always look so dark (even in photos taken during the day) I’d previously assumed that their pupils were huge all the time (hey, it’s not such a dumb idea: their eyes are often half-closed).

As you’d predict (this is group containing about 135 species) there are tens of species that you’ve probably never seen in photographic form before. And if you know anything about nightjars and kin, you’ll know that there are several species that haven’t been photographed (or photographed well) in life. They’re in here too, featured as sumptuously photographed museum specimens. And I just have to mention the fact that the photo of the male Long-trained nightjar Macropsalis forcipata extends over two pages.

Full-page shot of Lyre-tailed nightjar (Macropsalis lyra) pages 192-193. That 'full tail' shot is awesome. There are two more pages showing this species as well. Credit: Birds n' such

Now, there’s already an excellent book out there on nightjars and kin by the same author: I refer of course to the Pica Press volume Nightjars: A Guide to Nightjars and Related Nightbirds, ably illustrated by Dave Nurney (Cleere & Nurney 1998). That 1998 book is – while identical as goes the species covered – very different in that it has extensive, massively referenced, text and plates that only feature artwork. The way I see things, Nightjars etc can therefore work as a ‘photographic supplement’ to Nightjars: A Guide. With these two books by your side, there is nothing else you could possibly want on the caprimuliforms of the world!! Err, unless you need vocal information..

With these two books by your side, all your nightjar (and related nightbirds) needs will be met. Credit: Darren Naish

Anyway, Nightjars, Potoos, Frogmouths, Oilbird and Owlet-Nightjars of the World is spectacular and I strongly recommend it. It’s obvious that it will be a must-have for anyone interested in these birds, but it will also be cherished by those interested in birds more generally. It looks incredible and is just an amazing visual reference on a spectacularly odd and curious group of birds.

Nigel Cleere. 2010. Nightjars, Potoos, Frogmouths, Oilbird and Owlet-Nightjars of the World. Princeton University Press, Princeton. Hardback, index, pp. 464. £34.95. ISBN 978-0-691-14857-1. Here at amazon.com. Here at amazon.co.uk.

For previous Tet Zoo articles relevant to things mentioned here (and for other recent book reviews), see...

Refs - -

Begun, D. R. 2003. Planet of the apes. Scientific American 289 (2), 64-73.

Cleere, N. & Nurney, D. 1998. Nightjars: A Guide to Nightjars and Related Nightbirds. Pica Press, Mountfield, UK.