Mega-Predators of the Past

While browsing my local bookshop recently, I discovered a fun new book called Mega-Predators of the Past, the latest release by Melissa Stewart, author of Pinocchio Rex. Its somewhat unique hook is a focus on prehistoric predators OTHER than the famous non-avian dinosaurs, giving some lesser-known primeval hunters a chance at the spotlight.

Meganeuropsis & the closely related Meganeura are the quintessential “giant prehistoric bugs”. They also appear in Paleo Bugs, and Bugs! Explorer.

Readers are introduced (in no particular order with respect to fame, ferocity, or timeframe) to a slew of carnivorous animals from various periods in Earth’s history, from giant bugs to the mighty Megalodon, all beautifully illustrated by Howard Gray. The compositions are generally striking, and I note no major issues with any of the reconstructions, which is always great to see! The coloration is generally thoughtful, and I noticed that the Short-Faced Bear and the Terror Birds were colored pretty similarly to their closest modern relatives (the Spectacled Bear and Red-Legged Seriema, respectively). I also enjoyed the various expressions of terror on the part of the scale bar silhouette people: it added a perfect smidgeon of humor that gives the book a little extra character.

I like how the Terror Birds in this illustration are colored in a pattern reminiscent of their closest modern relative, the Seriema.

One thing I found interesting was Stewart’s preference for using “common names” when at all possible, sometimes even transliterating the animals’ scientific names to create one. For example, Pelagornis sandersi becomes “Sanders seabird”, and while “Megalania” has been sunk into the genus Varanus and thus that name does not appear in the book, Stewart applies the popular (mis)translation of its old name in reference to it.

For a relatively well-known prehistoric creature, it’s odd that I haven’t seen Archelon much in the books I’ve reviewed other than in The Voyage of Turtle Rex.

Some creatures are too well-known by their scientific names to be referred to as anything else, however, and so certain names like Archelon appear unchanged. I would contrast this book with I Am NOT a Dinosaur! in this regard, actually, as the latter similarly went back and forth on common vs. scientific names, though there was less rhyme or reason to the shifts in that one. Both books do make the mistake of referring to Carcharodon megalodon, as it has been reassigned to the genus Otodus, though as the more recent release, Mega-Predators has less of an excuse for this error. (Ted Rechlin’s comic book, Sharks: A 400 Million Year Journey, managed to get it right in the interim between the two.)

I’m eagerly awaiting the next release from Unnatural Selection‘s author/illustrator Katrina van Grouw, as she has been doing some work on Pelagornis which will appear in it.

Speaking of I Am NOT a Dinosaur!, one non-avian dinosaur actually does makes an appearance, but only in the form of an Albertosaurus becoming prey to the giant alligator Deinosuchus! Otherwise, dinosaurs only appear in the form of their avian descendants like Pelagornis or Kelenken.

Note: this might be one case where the scientific name might be MORE recognizable than the “common name” they used for this book. This monitor lizard originally went by the name “Megalania”, and is still often referred to as such, even now that it has been placed with other monitors into the Varanus genus.

In a book with up-to-date and nuanced information, such as the discussion on whether Arctodus was a true predator, and the depiction of Titanoboa as a largely aquatic predator, I think Mega-Predators ends on a very fitting note. Similar to a rhyming cartoon about prehistoric monsters I rather like, Stewart wraps up by noting that the largest predator of all time still shares the planet with us, in the form of the Blue Whale. I get the sense most people tend to think of baleen whales as almost “honorary herbivores” as they pose no threat to any creatures we humans tend to care about, but to the krill and other small critters they feed on, the Blue Whale must seem like a world-ending kaiju!

Melissa Stewart and Howard Gray have delivered a fantastic book that knocks it out of the park in educational content and engaging presentation. The focus of the book brings some much-needed attention to some less famous creatures from the fossil record, and I absolutely recommend picking it up if you come across it. With all that said, I am pleased to give Mega-Predators of the Past my Dino Dad Stomp of Approval!

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