When Dinosaurs Conquered the Skies

I have received a few books from Quarto Publishing in the past, including When the Whales Walked & Kaleidoscope of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Life. Both of these really tickled my fancy, and have earned Quarto a reputation for quality material as far as I’ve seen. Lately they’ve begun an expanded series on evolution that builds off When the Whales Walked. While the first book took a more generalized look at evolution overall, subsequent books have focused in on more specific topics. When We Became Humans and When Plants Took Over the Planet cover the evolution of humans & plants respectively, of course, while the latest entry follows perhaps the most famous evolutionary superstars outside of our own lineage.

The series so far. You won’t find any indication of their explicit relation to each other other than a picture of the other covers on some of the books’ exteriors, but Amazon labels these as the “Incredible Evolution” series.

When Dinosaurs Conquered the Skies examines the evolutionary origin of birds from their ancestors among the non-avian dinosaurs. Written by the famed paleontologist Jingmai O’Connor and illustrated by Maria Brzozowska, this book follows a pretty similar format to its predecessor, which also briefly looked at bird evolution (including a welcome look at all-too-often-neglected Early Cenozoic birds), though this one of course goes into far greater detail. (It certainly goes into greater detail than Dinosaur Feathers and Dinosaurs Are Not Extinct, but as those were primarily poetry and cartoons, respectively, I suppose the comparison isn’t necessarily warranted.)

You can’t discuss bird evolution without good old Archaeopteryx!

The book packs a lot of information in, and delivers as up-to-date information as a print book like this possibly can. Several pages go into detail about the structure of feathers. We see examples of how the various components evolved, from the simple quills & fuzz of dinosaurs like Psittacosaurus and Yutyrannus, to modern pennaceous feathers. In a microcosm of the theme of Kaleidoscope of Dinosaurs, we see how the molecular building blocks of the feathers are sometimes well preserved enough that we can correlate them to the colors that they would have possessed in life, allowing us to reconstruct the Red Panda-like patterns of Sinosauropteryx or the rainbow iridescence of Caihong.

We also get discussions about the “Trees Down” vs. “Ground-Up” hypotheses, overviews of specific, bird-rich geologic formations, and best of all for a book like this, Cenozoic birds! So many dinosaur books act as if the story of dinosaurs stops stop at the Cretaceous/Paleogene (K/Pg) Extinction Event, when they are alive and well today as birds. Yet here a good portion of the book is devoted to the birds that came after the so-called “Age of the Dinosaurs” supposedly ended. (In fact, as the book points out, bird species far outnumber mammal species, so perhaps we should still consider it the “Age of Dinosaurs” to this day!) It’s an indication of just how much of an afterthought this point is in many other books that I find it worthy of mentioning here, even if ideally that should be a baseline given for a book on bird evolution!

One of several species profile pages in the book, this one covering birds of the Paleogene period. I especially love Waimanu, the early penguin. There’s just something so clearly transitional about it.

Maria Brzozowska‘s art is pleasant to look at, and nicely complements the “informed informality” of the text. The art in this book does not look out of place next to Hannah Bailey‘s illustrations in the first book in the series, but these look somewhat more… I think “precise might be the word I want to use? I guess it feels somehow more defined than Bailey’s slightly looser style.

I love this dromaeosaur family spread. They look so pretty, and so accur… wait a second.
WTF happened with that Deinonychus? Was it traced from one of those cheap CGI stock photos that litter the internet?

I have a couple criticisms, one regarding formatting and the other… well, I’ll get to that in a second. On the first point, I feel like there wasn’t much rhyme or reason in the placement of the profiles on different geologic formations. They feel somewhat randomly placed throughout the book, and I think they might have done better grouped together sequentially, particularly the Jehol Biota, which shows up twice. While first Jehol spread discusses it as part of the history of paleontology, and the second goes into more detail on the specific nature of the area, the formation is oddly re-introduced the second time as though it hadn’t just been discussed a few pages ago. It’s possible that the arrangement of the formations was meant to tie in to the conversations taking place in the pages around them, though this wasn’t necessarily made clear in the pages themselves.

The second point dredges up a bit more controversy. While I can appreciate that O’Connor would want to focus on the science and not burden the younger target audience with sociopolitical issues, the Burmese Amber page probably should’ve included at least a small note on the ethical complications of study nonetheless. Many scientists have expressed concern with regards to acquiring Burmese Amber for study, as sales tend to directly benefit armed conflict in the area, with some organizations even recommending an embargo on studying specimens from this region for the time being. Any discussion of these finds practically begs for these issues to at least get a passing mention. It especially stuck out to me since the text goes so far as to mention the specimens have earned the nickname “Blood Amber” as a reference to their color, while completely ignoring the obvious double-meaning that term has since incurred. That being said, I certainly wouldn’t advocate that this book ignore Burmese Amber entirely. The specimens here are truly extraordinary, with details preserved that one could hardly have imagined in their wildest dreams, from legs & wings, up to and including a few whole bird bodies perfectly preserved!

Overall, I greatly enjoyed When Dinosaurs Conquered the Skies for much the same reasons as I enjoyed When the Whales Walked. It goes into even more detail on evolutionary history than its predecessor, while also presenting a parade of different birds demonstrating the wide array of adaptations and evolutionary pathways this clade has experimented with since its beginning. Seeing how this series has consistently hit its mark at least half the time, I am now very eager to check out When We Became Humans and When Plants Took Over the Planet too, and see if they fare just as well as their counterparts. In the meantime however, I can recommend When Dinosaurs Conquered the Skies as one of the better youth books on the origins of birds, and I am happy to give it my Stomp of Approval!


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