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A 9-metre-long early relative of T rex that stalked the Early Cretaceous of northern China was the first truly terrifying feathered dinosaur discovered. Brian Choo

Book review: Flying Dinosaurs – How fearsome reptiles became birds

While a week can be a long time in politics, palaeontology typically moves more sedately, in keeping with its subject matter (the slow progression of the aeons).

But one area of fossil research is seeing remarkably rapid developments. Ever since the discovery of feathered dinosaurs in the late 1990s, the dinosaur-bird transition has been a research hotspot, with major new discoveries announced every few weeks.

Very recently, for instance, a new Russian dinosaur was found which supports the idea that all dinosaurs were feathered. Meanwhile a study of dinosaurian growth rates indicated that most were neither warm- nor cold-blooded, but something in between.

Fascination with feathered dinosaurs

The scientific interest in this area has been matched by public attention. The evolutionary transformation involves two highly charismatic groups, dinosaurs and birds, each with great popular appeal.

New book, A$29.99. NewSouth

The concepts involved are also exciting and readily comprehensible (such as evolution of feathers and wings in dinosaurs) and rather easier to convey than, for instance, the intricacies of the Higgs boson.

There has been a steady stream of books on this topic, the latest (for the moment) being John Pickrell’s Flying Dinosaurs – How fearsome reptiles became birds.

The new book is a detailed and timely overview of our rapidly-improving scientific understanding of how massive, lumbering dinosaurs evolved into agile, flying birds.

There is deliberately succinct coverage of important historical events already detailed in earlier books, such as the wheeling-and-dealing behind the earliest Archaeopteryx specimens, and the wild-west “bone wars” between feuding palaeontologists Othniel C Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope.

The latest findings … for now

This frees up most of the book to focus on very recent discoveries not covered in earlier reviews. Many involve new technologies and new fossils; an impressively large proportion of the cited studies are from 2012 onwards (some even 2014).

The most recent fossils from China have suggested that the dinosaurian ancestors of birds probably sported long gliding feathers on both their arms and legs; birds subsequently retained only one set of wings.

Scientists have very recently discovered how to tell the colour of certain dinosaurs and early birds. While colours fade in fossils, the signature of “black” or “orange” (for instance) is retained in the structure of the grains of pigment in feathers. Thus, we now think that Microraptor and Archaeopteryx were mostly black, while Sinosauropteryx had a white and ginger-banded tail.

Hello black bird: Archaeopteryx, the first link found between dinosaurs and birds. Michael Lee, CC BY-SA

The new studies also close the gap between birds and dinosaurs, by finding more and more bird-like traits in dinosaurs. The first feathered dinosaurs from outside China revealed that at least some dinosaurs moulted like birds, replacing downy juvenile feathers with more structured adult feathers.

CT-scanning has also revealed that many dinosaurs had enlarged brains with bird-like proportions of the various lobes. Even more intriguingly, these studies show that juvenile dinosaurs had particularly bird-like skulls, with delicate snouts and bulbous brains. Perhaps birds are perpetually juvenile dinosaurs – in the same way as humans retain many traits found in babies of chimps (our nearest relatives), such as skull proportions and propensity for play.

All these discoveries, and other recent work, is engagingly covered in this book, along with related back-room dealings (regarding issues with fossil ownership, forgery and smuggling).

Another dino book?

But do we really need any more dinosaur books, including this? Though I’m undoubtedly biased, I think we do, as their relevance extends beyond ancient and (mostly) extinct reptiles.

The book features work by a new generation of palaeoartists attempting to capture dinosaurs in a range of behavioural activities such as this threat display of a nocturnal Epidexipteryx. Alvaro Rosalen

Dinosaurs are an ideal vehicle to convey important scientific concepts to diverse audiences (especially but not limited to the very young). They embody issues such as the immensity of geological time, the finality of extinction, and processes such as evolution, continental drift, and global climate and sea-level change.

Above all, they help convey an appreciation for the excitement of scientific discovery and logic of scientific enquiry, vital in today’s technological and (mis)information-rich world.

Flying Dinosaurs should have broad appeal. The interested layperson will find the topics very enlightening and the writing accessible. The pedantic scientist will also find new nuggets of information (the area is too broad and fluid for any single person to intercept all news). All readers will be hard-pressed to pick up any factual errors: Pickrell has a Masters in biology, and the book was proofread by an platoon of scientists.

The only problem with covering such a fast-moving field is the rapid obsolescence of any overview. Pat Shipman’s Taking Wing, a wonderful account of Archaeopteryx as the link between reptiles and birds, was outdated virtually instantly. Unfortunately it appeared in the late 1990s, immediately before the plethora of feathered dinosaurs revolutionised the field.

Like any book on a vibrant field, Pickrell’s book will probably require an update sooner rather than later, but he will probably be thankful that this is the case.

John Pickrell will be talking more about how dinosaurs became birds in a free lecture on Thursday September 4 2014, 5.50pm-7pm (registration requested) at the University of Queensland’s St Lucia campus in Brisbane, as part of his involvement in this year’s Brisbane Writers Festival.

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