Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy; by Mark Witton

 

Let’s begin with the obvious question: no, I don’t know why I bought this book.

I’m not a pterosaurologist, a pterosaur enthusiast, or even a palaeontology enthusiast in general. I had a couple of dinosaur books as a kid, but that’s all (favourite dinosaur: Ankylosaurus. Big, dumb, slow, inoffensive, boring, but more or less invulnerable. My kind of lizard).

I don’t make a habit of reading a bunch of non-fiction on random topics. I’d like to, but I don’t. I do read widely online, but I rarely get around to actually reading one of the many non-fiction books I own, let alone going out and buying a brand-new hardback.

So what gives?

Like I say, I’m not sure. I was trying to find out some stuff about pterosaurs one day (as you do), since I knew virtually nothing about them; came across the guy’s site; liked his style; saw his book was just out; saw the stellar reveiws for the book; bought the book in a moment of whimsy.

And the result?

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Well, last time I did a non-fiction book, I decided to give myself a fairly strict framework for reviewing, so I’m going to follow that again here (although I’m probably also going to put up a brief ‘what I learned’ post for my own reference). So to begin:

What Is This Book?

This is a book about pterosaurs. Its subject matter is broad: everything we know about pterosaurs. Its intended audience is also broad: anybody who might be interested in pterosaurs.

What I mean by that is that this is an unusual style of book. There are many things about this book that suggest that it is intended for a lay audience: it is written mostly in a conversational style, complete with occasional jokes, and, particularly early on, it explains a lot of its terminology as it goes along, even words that must be second nature to palaeontologists. It also has paintings to illustrate, which are in an approachable, unpedantic, slightly… ‘childish’ sounds insulting, but it’s also fairly accurate, in that there are bold colours, broad brushtrokes, and more interest in conveying attitude and impression than in recording the finest details in a precise manner (which is probably a good thing, given that we don’t know a lot of the details). So it doesn’t really read like a dry textbook for pterosaurology experts. On the other hand, particularly later on, Witton sometimes forgets to explain his terms, and even ignoring the technical items the vocabulary still made me reach for the dictionary a couple of time. There are many, long, repeated detailed discussions of osteological analysis, with many uses of words like ‘zygopophosis’. So while you maybe don’t need to know about palaeontology to understand it, you may find that either a basic understanding of it or a high tolerance for not really understanding everything may be very useful (it may be a step too advanced for all but the most obsessive dinosaur-fan child, for instance). And by all accounts this is actually one of the top resources on pterosaurology, containing pretty much all the information available (it doesn’t go into every little detail, of course; it’s an overview of the topic). So it sort of aims itself at every part of the market, from interested laymen right up to workers in the field.

I think that maybe the explanation for this is that pterosaurology is still a small enough field that you can be a serious scholar and a populariser at the same time – and this book is both a serious and technical overview and an attempt to popularise the field to those who know little or nothing about it. Indeed, the preface to the book frames the entire thing as an attempt to explain to people why there is an international conference on pterosaurology, and why he’s going, by trying to demonstrate to his audience both the variety and the ‘sheer awesomeness’ of pterosaurs.

What is This Book Good For?

The primary reason I think why people might want to read this book is that it will tell them things about pterosaurs. In that regard, it’s very good. There’s a lot of information here about pterosaurs, and while I wouldn’t exactly say it was an easy read, it’s a much, much easier read than you might expect a technical book about pterosaurs to be. The writing does its best to be approachable, and even when things do get difficult the light sprinkle of wry humour goes a long way to smoothing things over.

It’s also very attractive. The aforementioned paintings vary from brightly inoffensive to really very pretty; Witton (who painted them himself) tries to give his models character and personality, and largely succeeds. In fact, while the simple style of the artwork means it may not be hanging in a gallery any time soon, I think it’s perfect science illustration. So often people think that technical illustration should be dry, precise, detailed… but the precision and the detail, the caveats, are already in the text. What illustration should instead be doing is conveying meaning – making the words spring to life, showing their significance. You don’t need precision for that, you need spirit; and Witton does a very good job of this. Whether it’s, say, a Sordes tensing its muscles to pounce, or a size comparison that conveys the dimensions, attitude, demeanor, and ultimate ridiculousness of a Tupandactylus by showing his fiancée feeding one a mouse, or just the way slight differences in shading in a ‘bauplan’ show the greater shoulder strength of a Campilognathoides compared to its relatives, the illustrations don’t just feel like an obligation on the author, but a joy, and genuinely help to convey the sense of the text, while also, in their attractiveness and occasional whimsy, helping to lighten what I might otherwise have found somewhat heavy text.

More than that, though, the attractiveness extends throughout the book. It feels like a book where somebody has actually taken the time to think of the reader, and not assumed that the readers have superhuman powers of concentration. The type is not too tightly set, there’s plenty of white space (bright white shiny space, in fact), the flow of text is broken up by frequent illustrations (paintings, technical drawings, maps, photographs, etc), there are superfluous but visually pleasing chapter-specific bright strips of colour at the top of each page, and so on. The author wanted the book to look nice, and largely succeeded. Even the cladograms (don’t worry, you don’t need to know the word ‘cladogram’ to read this!) are not heavy, businesslike geometry patterns, but instead are delicate caligraphic ornaments. This doesn’t feel like merely a scholarly exercise; it feels serious, to be sure, and, yes, scholarly, but it also feels halfway to being a coffee-table book for your guests to see.

So it’s a book that lets you feel that you’ve learned something, but it doesn’t make you work too hard for it, and it tries to make the experience as pleasant as possible along the way. I think there are a lot of people who might like this book.

I should also say that the book is unusually good at conveying the enthusiasm of the author. Not only is the author’s passion for his subject clear (but not in an intrusive or obsessive way, I felt), but he makes the reader feel like they’re getting in on the ground floor of an exciting project. The fossils he studies may have been around for a hundred million years, but pterosaurology is clearly a booming field – there may only be ‘a few dozen’ experts so far, but that’s more than ever before, and new findings, both from the earth and from computers, seem to be revolutionising the field. I was shocked by how many of the dates given were in the last twenty, ten, even five years, whether the dates of groundbreaking analyses or of unprecedented new fossil discoveries. It’s clearly an exciting time to be a pterosaurologist, and that excitement pervades the book. Of course, part of that is the luck of the subject matter rather than a virtue of the book, but I feel it’s worth mentioning nonetheless. And as for the future, I wouldn’t be surprised if this book helps inspire a good number of the next generation of experts.

What Problems Does This Book Have?

Well, its virtues are also its vices, I think. Writing for a broad audience is very difficult, and Witton doesn’t always manage it. Sometimes (though not for the most part) the humour feels forced and unnecessary, and too many times I felt thrown in at the deep end, with vocabulary insufficiently explained, and with not enough illustrations. This was never a fatal problem for me – I didn’t feel I didn’t know what was going on, just that I didn’t know exactly what was going on – but I think it is a noticeable flaw (albeit a very understandable one).

There are also problems arising from the format of the book. On the large scale, the book begins with a series of chapters introducing pterosaurs one bit at a time (what they are, what their bones are like, what their soft bits were probably like, how they flew, etc), followed by chapters on each major group of pterosaurs one at a time; each of these chapters in turn largely recapitulates the overview contents, modified and more detailed for the specific type of pterosaur being considered.

This structure creates two major problems and one minor one. One major problem is that it felt in the first half of the book as though I were only getting half the picture. I was learning all this abstract stuff in order to understand the pterosaurs that would be introduced later on, but I kept itching to actually get to the pterosaurs, and to see how this abstract material was going to be applied. The second major problem is with the second half of the book: since each chapter follows the same format, and each follows a similar format to the first half of the book as a whole, there’s a great deal of repetition involved. Which can sometimes become a little… boring. I have to confess, my eyes did glaze over during some of the osteology discussion. The minor problem is that ‘major pterosaur groups’ are defined cladistically, or at least in accordance to what Witton considers to be the correct cladistic analysis of pterosaur relations, not by how interesting groups are or how big they were, which sort of feels like it implies some false equivalencies, and because the chapters are ordered according to his phylogeny, he hasn’t ended up with the right chapters in the right places, from a narrative point of view. When you’re finding a book repetitive, the last thing you need is a bunch of families with few distinguishing features about which little is known. [Though he does manage to end with the azhdarchids, which I guess was sort of inevitable…]

Another problem with the content was the relatively lack of a geographically and chronologically cohesive picture of the pterosaur forms of life. There is a chapter on the rise and fall of pterosaurs, complete with a simple chronological diagram, but it is tucked away at the end – a logical place to put the end of the pterosaurs, I suppose, but I felt that that was information that would be more useful earlier in the book. And when it came, I felt there wasn’t enough of it. I’d have had a lot more illustrations of chronology. Likewise, synchronically there were occasional mentions of this pterosaur being found alongside that pterosaur, but there was no cohesive account of this – I could tell you now a bunch of facts about different types of pterosaur, but I probably couldn’t tell you, for a given date, what pterosaurs you’d have found and where.

Finally, I would have liked to have seen just a little more behind the curtain. Witton gives a lot of conclusions, and he does seem to give a pretty fair accounting of why he chooses one theory over another, at least on the major questions. But as a non-palaeontologist I’d have liked a little more info on exactly how people come up with these theories in the first place. There’s a lot of ‘certain features of the humerus indicate…’, but relatively little specification of what features those are and why. This is particularly an issue on the taxonomy side. Witton gives an awful lot of reason to doubt the conclusions of pterosaurologists – lots of examples of them being slightly wrong, very wrong, totally wrong, and so wrong that they can’t tell the difference between a pterodactyl and a crocodile. Not to mention being temporarily mislead by fake fossils. It would have been nice to have had more on the other side, explaining exactly why people are so confident that this is a strange and unusual whateveritismajoid and not a different thing altogether.

Oh, and I don’t normally do this but: this book seriously could do with more proofreading. There are too many typos for a book that otherwise seems to have received a lot of love and attention – they’re not on every page, by any means, but there’s probably at least a dozen. Unfortunately, they are most common in the early chapters for some reason – if it had been the other way around, I might not have noticed, but when there are typos in the opening pages, it sort of sets the tone. Again, I don’t want to make this a bigger thing than it is, but it should be mentioned.

So in Summary?

Ultimately, these complaints are largely quibbles, and to the extent that they are serious they are inevitable – it’s just not possible to write a book that satisfies every possible reader. Trade-offs have to be made. The result is something that, read in an uncharitable fashion, might unfortunately perhaps be considered to fall between two stools – not detailed or Serious enough to be useful to experts, not simple and unchallenging enough to be useful to ignoramuses like me. But I think that for the most part the opposite is true: that this is a useful and enjoyable overview to meet all needs (though of course, not being a pterosaurologist, I can’t promise that experts will get anything out of it; however, more knowledgeable reviewers than me seem positive about it).

Verdict:

Readability: 3/4. For a book on a recondite subject, with oodles of technical vocabulary and an inevitably (given its structure and aims) high degree of repetitiveness, it’s actually very readable. An interested layman should mostly be able to understand everything, perhaps minus the occasional detail. If more scholarly science books were written like this, I’d read more of them. [Well, I wouldn’t, but I’d feel worse about not reading them]

Informativeness: 3/4. Generally, packs a lot of information into a fairly small and unthreatening book. The amount of information you can get out of this is, however, limited both by the nature of the book (a general overview rather than a detailed analysis of one particular aspect of the subject) and by the state of the field, which is a long way from working out all the details.

Overall: 6/8.

P.S. and always good(/bad) to see the unkillable “W: X, Y, Z” format for academic titles lumber on.

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