Each of the already extended titles in Hannah Bonner’s “When” series, When Fish Got Feet, Sharks Got Teeth, and Bugs Began to Swarm & When Bugs Were Big, Plants Were Strange, and Tetrapods Stalked the Earth, further extends their nearly unwieldy length with the subtitle “A Cartoon Prehistory of Life Before the Dinosaurs”. In the third installment of her signature series, Bonner finally brings us to the time When Dinos Dawned, Mammals Got Munched, and Pterosaurs Took Flight in this “Cartoon Prehistory of Life in the Triassic”.
Hannah Bonner reaches her best form in this book, finding the perfect balance between informative text, “serious” illustrations, and silly but informative cartoons. All three aspects mix and match freely and seamlessly in this book, even more so than the previous two book in the series, making for perhaps the most engaging read of the three.
The book opens with an interview with the “winners” of the Permian Extinction, each explaining their strategies for “beating” the event. Bonner then proceeds linearly though the Triassic Period, highlighting each significant new group as it comes onto the scene. One of my favorite pics is the “Triassic Explosion”, putting on full display the sudden diversification and experimentation that started halfway through the Triassic once ecosystems had begun to recover. One can clearly see that it’s not for nothing that the Triassic has a reputation as an age of weirdos.
A good example of the interplay between cartoons and “serious” information I mentioned earlier occurs across pages 22-27. Bonner accompanies her rather lovely illustrations of various snapshots in time throughout the Triassic with a series of comic panels clarifying the progression of several “ruling dynasties” of animal groups throughout this length of time. Therapsids (represented by a dicynodont) find themselves comfortably occupying the role of dominant life form, then losing it to early archosaurs, only for the more specialized dinosaurs to ultimately dominate their fellow archosaurs in turn. It’s a great way to educate readers on the concept of faunal succession over time, that’s neither too esoteric nor too dumbed-down.
One thing Bonner has always excelled at is shining a spotlight on the less charismatic species of whatever time period she focuses on, demonstrating their importance to our understanding of prehistory while somehow making them interesting to a degree few other authors can replicate.
If there’s one time period in the Mesozoic that has creatures strange enough to distract from the dinosaurs, it’s definitely the Triassic, and it would just be unconscionable to write a book about this time period without featuring some of these bizarre critters front and center. Doubtless this book will be many a youngster’s first introduction to some of these weirdos. I wish this book had been available to me as a little Dino Dude: I can only image how blown away I would’ve been to see drepanosaurs, Longisquama, Sharovopteryx, and half-shelled turtles all on the same page.
Bonner’s educational chops are top-notch. Her writing deftly balances accurate scientific information with approachable everyday language, which is perfectly complemented by her lovely environmental compositions and silly-but-informative cartoons. She even includes a tongue-in-cheek demonstration of her paleoart process, in a humorous exchange with the early mammal Morganucodon who gives her feedback on how much fur to give it.
The complete “When” series has since been collected into a single volume titled When Fish Got Feet, When Bugs Were Big, and When Dinos Dawned, which also corrects some bits of information that have since proven incorrect, though as the most recent book in the series, the Triassic section needed little updating. I might’ve been more biased towards feathering the dinosaurs myself, though I suppose there’s still room for interpretation on the earliest dinosaurs.
Hannah Bonner’s When Dinos Dawned, Mammals Got Munched, and Pterosaurs Took Flight delivers a real bang of a finish to her excellent series on the prehistory of life leading up to age of the dinosaurs. I highly recommend each book in the series, though you should probably buy the collected volume When Fish Got Feet, When Bugs Were Big, and When Dinos Dawned to get the most value for your buck (and the most up-to-date information). If you’re curious about my thoughts on the previous books in the series, check out my reviews of When Fish Got Feet, Sharks Got Teeth, and Bugs Began to Swarm & When Bugs Were Big, Plants Were Strange, and Tetrapods Stalked the Earth. I am pleased to say every entry in this series gets my enthusiastic Dino Dad Stomp of Approval!