Fossils From Lost Worlds

I’ve found myself continually surprised by the fact that I can still stumble across books I have never heard of before, proving the world of prehistoric children’s literature somewhat larger than one might think! Hélène Rajcak & Damian Laverdunt’s Small and Tall Tales of Extinct Animals ended up as one of my favorite recent surprises, so it should come as no surprise that I jumped at the chance to read their latest book, Fossils From Lost Worlds.

The strange proto-velvet-worm Hallucigenia, along with our changing views on the appearance and composition of Burgess Shale Fauna.

Originally published in French under the title Les animaux des mondes perdus, again with professional advice from Cécile Fromont-Colin of the MNHN, Rajcak & Laverdunt’s latest work shares a few broad similarities with its predecessor. It retains the same format as Small & Tall Tales in devoting a pair of pages to each featured species, with a full page life reconstruction on the right half, and a comic page on the left that portrays some aspect of either its natural or scientific history. They are grouped into several separate sections as well, though this time they are organized according to geologic era rather than geographic region. This book also has the privilege of maintaining a more lighthearted tone throughout, focusing as it does on the life and times of its featured fauna, rather than the increasing rates of global extinction throughout human history.

A brief visual history of speculation on the origin of birds. The first panel depicts William Beebe’s hypothetical”Tetrapteryx”, famous for its seeming prediction of Microraptor. The second depicts the hypothetical “Proavis”, which was the most commonly reproduced illustration of a transitional bird, and one occasionally presented in less scrupulous popular media as an actual taxon. The final panel and main illustration depict Microraptor, though strangely sans its black feathers discovered via microscopic analysis, which the book made a point of depicting in the earlier entry for Archaeopteryx

A major recurring element in Fossils From Lost Worlds concerns historical (mis)interpretations of various extinct animals, which gives a good sense of the progress made in paleontological research over the years. I love reading about the history of paleontology almost as much as I love the fossil taxa themselves. It really helps put the current consensus into perspective, and makes one appreciate the hard work of those who came before to bring us to the knowledge (and further questions!) we possess now.

Various hypotheses about the function of the head crest on Parasaurolophus. The reference to “acid-spitting” is likely a misinterpretation of the creationist belief that they could breathe fire, possibly with a little cross-pollination with the Jurassic Park Dilophosaurus thrown into the mix. You can find discussion and rebuttal of this strange hypothesis on plenty of blogs, as well as Phil Senter’s Fire-Breathing Dinosaurs?

One that note, I also appreciate that Rajcak & Laverdunt took the time to introduce us to a few important paleontologists and events from throughout history, such as Mary Anning, the Bone Wars, Roy Chapman Andrews, and more. I myself even learned a few things, such as the role of Jean-Loup Welcomme in modernizing our understanding of the giant hornless rhino Paraceratherium. I also caught at least one reference to Adrienne Mayor’s work in what we might call “geomythology”, which she discusses in The First Fossil Hunters. Mayor is mentioned by name for her suggestion that eroding Protoceratops skeletons may have inspired the mythical griffin, and while the paleontology community has lately pushed back against this connection, it’s still fun to see it referenced in a book for younger audiences.

I really like the 3-panel illustration of the Messel Pit through time, which provides a good sense of the fossilization process at this site. I also note a fun cameo in the Propaleotherium illustration on the right by a Darwinius climbing through the trees, best known for the famous “Ida” specimen.

Fossils From Lost Worlds makes for a thoroughly enjoyable read for fossil enthusiasts of any level of expertise. The illustrations include plenty of fun references for more experienced readers, while the book can be readily understood by anyone. I highly recommend it, especially to anybody who also enjoyed Small and Tall Tales of Extinct Animals. I am pleased to give it the Dino Dad Stomp of Approval!

One comment

  1. Thank you for this review! It definitely makes me want to get a hold of it, next time I go to a book store 😀
    I have actually seen their previous one (Small and Tall tales) in book stores, but never bothered to open it and see for myself how good they are.
    The illustrations look exquisite, I expect the content to be very accessible for kids and efficient at teaching them about palaeontology!
    I’m as surprised as you to find a non-black Microraptor, I figure they didn’t pay enough attention.
    Overall this review helps me greatly, as I am often at loss when I do public speaking about dinosaurs and people ask me examples of books they can get to their kids/nephew who is crazy about dinosaurs and wants to learn more… I don’t have kids and don’t plan on having any in the near future, so I’m completely disconnected from that world.
    So thank you again for this review!

    Like

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