Book Review: Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life

Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life
By Scott D. Sampson
University of California Press, 2009

As readers of my other blog Caterpickles know, my family and I are huge fans of the PBS Kids show Dinosaur Train. My husband even uses clips of it to teach his students at Harvard how to do research. He’s particularly fond of their definition of a hypothesis, which he describes as “pedagogically brilliant.”

So when I learned that Dr. Scott Sampson, the paleontologist on the show, had written a book geared to the adult dinosaur enthusiast, I immediately rushed out to buy it. I spent the next several days tormenting my husband by reading him synapse-popping passages from it while refusing to allow him to borrow it for even one second of reading on his own.

Dinosaur Odyssey takes you on a dinosaur-centric tour of the epic of evolution that starts with the Big Bang. The scope of this 332-page book is every bit as expansive as that sentence implies. By page 97, Dr. Scott has treated his readers to clear and entertaining discussions of the Big Bang, geothermal processes, continental drift theory, ecology, evolution, and weather patterns. In the second half of the book, Dr. Scott discusses more obviously paleontological topics, including Mesozoic food chains, predator-prey relationships, climate change and its effect on dinosaur evolution, and inevitably, extinction. There’s even a chapter devoted to explaining exactly why Jurassic Park couldn’t happen. Along the way, Dr. Scott weaves in fascinating information about the various dinosaur discoveries paleontologists have made in the past twenty-five years.

Processing all that information is no small task. Fortunately, Dr. Scott takes Albert Einstein’s principle of science writing to heart: “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Convection. It's just like that. (Image by Leon7 via Wikipedia)

Take for example, his discussion of plate tectonics in Chapter 4, in which Dr. Scott uses the image of a lava lamp to describe the action of convection forces in the Earth’s mantle (p. 56).

Or the passage on p. 31, in which he compares the humble egg to “a portable sea,” the evolution of which during the Carboniferous period 320 million years ago eliminated the need for reproduction to happen in or around water, making it possible for some of the Earth’s earliest inhabitants to live on land.

As you might expect, this book is packed full of fascinating facts. Did you know that a single gram of soil can contain 10 billion individual bacteria? That a cubic inch of soil can contain a mile of interwoven fungal matter known as a mycelial mat? That the forest floor under just one of your feet may contain 16,000 invertebrates with 120,000 legs? That four-fifths of all animals on Earth are nematode worms found in soils around the globe? Or that the largest organism on Earth is a 2400-year-old, 1.2 million pound honey mushroom that takes up a three-foot-deep and 3.5-mile-wide swath of land?

Fascinating stuff, right? Dr. Scott rather rapidly follows these mind-boggling statistics with the much less savory observation that thanks to the action of a bevy of beetles, ants, earthworms, and even smaller life-forms that break down and recycle organic remains the soil all these beasties live in, the soil in which we grow our food, the very stuff that filters and cleans our water is “best thought of as ‘bug poop.'” Um… yum?

There’s plenty of intentional humor sprinkled throughout the book as well. For example, in describing the paleontological debate over whether the T. Rex was primarily a hunter or a scavenger of dead meat, Dr. Scott makes the wry comment that the scavenger theory “effectively relegate[s] Tyrannosaurus to the status of prehistory’s biggest maggot.”

Although this book is geared for the adult dinosaur enthusiast, The Four-Year-Old recognized Dr. Scott from the author photo on the back of the book and insisted that I read bits of it to her. Naturally she didn’t understand most of it, but Dr. Scott’s discussion of dinosaur metabolism on p. 226-7 (were Allosaurs warm-blooded, cold-blooded, or something in-between?) and the impact the answer to that question would have on their caloric needs really caught her attention.

It turns out whether Allosaurs were cold-blooded, warm-blooded, or something in between directly affects how much prey they would need to hunt down and eat. The warmer the blood, the higher the metabolism, the more an Allosaur eats. As Dr. Scott puts it, for an adult Allosaurus, the difference in body temperature could mean the difference between hunting and killing prey the size of a 37-pound border collie or simply snapping up a “slightly overfed toy poodle” once a day. If Allosaurs were neither warm nor cold-blooded but something in between, Dr. Scott reports that a daily basset hound might be sufficient. (The Four-Year-Old on hearing this, promptly informed me that her T. Rex friend, who is full-size but “too friendly to eat us” requires only one “overweight and mean chicken a day.”)

The Four-Year-Old, hard at work on Cretaceous Park, with a little help from the reference text.

The other part of this book that I highly recommend sharing in some form with your own pint-sized Dr. Scott groupie are the first few pages of Chapter 13, in which Dr. Scott describes the barriers to creating a real-life Jurassic Park. Again, most of the discussion zoomed right over The Four-Year-Old’s head, but the idea of a dinosaur park captured her imagination. She spent the rest of the afternoon designing and drawing her own Cretaceous Park. (By the way, on the off-chance Dr. Scott or indeed, any of the world’s 99 other active paleontologists happen to read this review, my daughter has a question about disease pathways in Giganotosaurs that I need help with.)

Pretty much the only downside to this book is the paper it’s printed on. While the lovely heavy paper makes for a wonderfully solid-feeling tome, I wish that paper weren’t so glossy. The gloss reflects the light and forces me to hold the book at a strange angle in order to read it. Next edition, Dr. Scott, think matte finish.

And now it’s your turn. What are you reading this week?

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