Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Walking with Dinosaurs

Walking with Dinosaurs: A Natural History
© 1999 Tim Haines
288 pages

A dull pre-dawn light spreads across the horizon, illuminating a landscape covered in forest. Rivers trace silvery lines through the dense vegetation, and along their banks icy puddles are melting. It is the beginning of spring at the South Pole.

Take a trip into another world, a world perfectly alien yet somehow familiar -- a world like Earth, but without ice caps, with a surface covered by massive ferns and an endless variety of strangely beautiful and terrifying creatures, the dinosaurs. For 160 million years these great beasts were the dominant species, as ubiquitous as we mammals are today -- but 65 million years ago, their time on Earth came to a terrifying end. Tim Haines walks us through their lives, from the appearance of the first small dinos (220 MYA) to their end. As they rose to rule, the Earth changed beneath their feet, Pangaea giving way to the familiar arrangements of continents we know today. The result is a fascinating and visually stunning work reminiscent of David Attenborough's The Lives of series.

After a short introduction in which Haines makes general observations about dinosaur evolution and the problems inherent in attempting to piece together their behavior, our tour of the past is divided into six sections, spanning from the Triassic (dawn of the dinosaurs) to the late Cretaceous, which is home to familiar beasties like the Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Triceratops.  In between, nearly every species of dinosaur familiar to pop culture is mentioned, with the odd exception of velocioraptors, who became so popular after the release of Jurassic Park. Each setting focuses on a local ecosystem, and begins by introducing the climate and our players. We then follow the various species of dinosaurs through a year, season , or even an entire lifecycle.

Most of the text is presented as a documentary -- based partly in fact, partly in inference, and partly on reasonable guesses. The author mentions that one species of flying dinosaurs spent most of its life riding on the backs of a larger species: in the introduction, he points out that this is completely speculative, as barring time-travel it's not as though we could witness such an event, nor are fossil records likely to comment on interspecies relations. Set off in large blocks throughout the chapters are sections which are strictly scientific, explaining the contributions of a particular geological formation, or commenting on the evolution of birds. Visually, Walking with Dinosaurs is stunning -- a marvel. The quality is astounding for a work done in 1999: the pictures look like photographs, and the creatures aren't merely flat inserts in a background. Somehow they have been modeled in such a way as to appear real, as though they were looking the reader in the eye  as he gazes in wonder at their size, their form, their coloration -- such savage power and grace!  Haines and the visual artists have truly made the world of the Mesozoic come alive with incredible detail, and I'd recommend this easily to anyone interested in dinosaurs -- especially readers who have children.

Related:
New dinosaurs label (retroactively applied to Dinosaur Lives by Jack Horner, as well as Michael Crichton's two novels.)

2 comments:

  1. Have you seen the BBC Series? It was very good.... There's a new one on ATM called Dinosaur Planet which takes it to the next level. Dinosaurs do seem the endlessly fascinate people - even if it's only children who can pronounce their names correctly!

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  2. I've seen a single film called "Walking with Dinosaurs"; my library carried it and "Walking with Prehistoric Beasts", which focused on monsters BEFORE the dinosaurs. Earth has been home to such a variety of marvelous horrors. As I recall, both were very well done.

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