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52 things you should know about - palaeontology


Many text books are so factual that they leave the author little room to apply a personal touch, and instead come across as dry and dusty.  In contrast, the editors here have allowed the authors free rein in both their choice of subject matter and in how they present it.  The result is a peach of a book that ricochets from one aspect of the science to another, in bite size articles that never lose the reader's interest.

I subdivided the articles into basic primers, practical “how-to's”, discussion or review articles and stories.  In addition there are some “hard science” descriptions of evolutionary concepts, as well as gentler introductions to homeomorphy and quaternary sea level changes.  The primers were more academic descriptions of a single aspect of palaeontology, introducing lesser known groups like the Ediacarans and more general topics like ammonites or the future of ichnology.  There were also several articles on geological time, all accessible to the casual reader.

Most of the practical articles addressed biostratigraphy and dating, a field that surprisingly outnumbered any other.  Though of interest, especially when the bugs took centre stage, I would have liked to read more on other invertebrate families, such as the absent trilobites.  The discussion-style submissions were far more varied and made up the bulk of the volume.  Many contributors gave their own opinions on a controversial topic: for example, Pemberton's call to spend more time looking at soft bodied fossils.  The dinosaurs got several entries, including cultural and biological success stories, so called ‘Jurassic’ predators, and locomotion.  I also liked Brasier's cautionary catalogue of false assumptions, and Vos's call to collect fossils bed by bed.

Finally the tales, often describing experiences in the field, were my favourite articles.  The story of fossil hunting with a six year-old was wonderful, while the rediscovery of a giant amphibian made you wish that you were there on Misery Mountain.  Large reptiles and Ebay provided another entertaining diversion, while invertebrates were well represented by ammonites, tiny Welsh graptolites and even mouse teeth!  Thought-provoking sections, such as the potential for human fossilisation, the role of museums and alien life, provided a balance to the less cerebral entries.

Overall this is a book that any geologist would enjoy, with something for everyone.  The spectrum of material reminds us that palaeontology is not the study of dead stuff, but is very much alive and kicking.  I give it 4.5 out of 5.

Reviewed by Jon Noad

52 Things you should know about Palaeontology, by A Cullum & A W Martinius (Eds) 2015.  Published by Agile Libre 137 pp (pbk) ISBN 9780987959447 List price £12 (Amazon).