Eyewitness Dinosaur part 2 featured image

Eyewitness Guides: Dinosaur – 30 years on (part 2)

Book Review

As promised, here’s some more from Dinosaur, part of the Eyewitness Guides series, on the occasion of its 30th anniversary – and not a Diplodocus in sight. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the emphasis of this book is definitely not on life reconstructions, which always play second fiddle to gloriously large photographs of fossil specimens. It’s an approach that I doubt a publisher would encourage these days, and indeed the most recent edition of Dinosaur leans far more heavily on (often quite shonky) life reconstructions, with the inevitable yawning theropod on the cover. Of course, it’s not all bones, all the time; after all, the first spread is dominated by a huge photo of, er, an iguana.

Eyewitness what were dinosaurs

It seems a bit of an odd choice – appearing to answer the question “what were the dinosaurs?” with an in-your-face image of what they emphatically weren’t. But this is playing up to the expectations of a contemporary audience, who probably would have seen dinosaurs as big lizards. At first glance, the book appears to confirm this notion, but closer inspection (and, like, actually reading the text) will overturn the reader’s preconceived ideas about what dinosaurs were. They had a number of things in common with lizards, but were not lizards, and scientists know this for reasons X, Y and Z. (Incidentally, tuataras aren’t lizards either, no matter what you might have read in an Eyewitness Guide.) Note also the usual commentary on dinosaurs’ upright posture. The photograph of some model pterosaurs is taken from The Age of Dinosaurs: a Photographic Record, and a number of other images from that book are scattered throughout this one. The pterosaurs aren’t named here, but in The Age of Dinosaurs they represent Quetzalcoatlus, or at least a very 1984 vision of it.

Eyewitness peculiar heads

Ah, that’s better – a huge photograph of a SKULL (or at least a cast). And what a fittingly striking skull to have displayed so prominently on the page, making the most of the available space. It does make me wish that there were more kids’ dinosaur books around now that focused so much on the bare bones, which after all are where most of our knowledge about (Mesozoic) dinosaurs comes from. Furthermore, divorced of any context, the bizarre skulls and spectacular skeletal frameworks of certain dinosaurs make for amazing natural ‘works of art’ in themselves. Just looking at this image now, I’m starting to notice aspects of Parasaurolophus’ skull that I hadn’t really paid attention to before.

Pachycephalosaurus gets to play second fiddle here, although the photograph of a cast of the AMNH cranium (presumably the one belonging to the NHM London) still stands out on the page, especially when compared with the life reconstructions. Again, these are mostly from The Age of Dinosaurs, except for the Charles Knight (or certainly, Knight-style) hadrosaur in the top left. It’s bizarrely retro, apropos of nothing; such images pop up a few times in the book.

Eyewitness fast movers

From skulls to sexy legs, and rather interesting legs at that. They appear to belong to a mounted Hypsilophodon at the NHM, with this photo taken prior to its remounting in the more modern, horizontal pose it can be seen in today. We’re also treated to photos of two beautiful models that are still displayed in the NHM’s dinosaur gallery (as far as I’m aware) – a running Gallimimus, and a Heterodontosaurus pausing to lick its hand. The latter is especially noteworthy for being a depiction of the type of behaviour that’s still seldom seen in palaeoart. By comparison, the very reptilian-looking Gallimimus (complete with row of dorsal spines) has aged rather badly, but it’s still a stunning piece of work. There’s more artistic flair in these two pieces than in hundreds of the dreadful computer-rendered thingies that clog up books today (although I hear Darren Naish has been working on improving that…).

Also: Hypsilophodon run cycle!

Eyewitness two or four

And speaking of, er, movement, the book discusses the differences between quadrupedal and bipedal dinosaurs – in terms of their anatomy and evolutionary history. However, there’s a particular emphasis on dinosaurs that could walk on two legs or four. That means a nice big photograph of an Iguanodon hand, alongside that of, er, Plateosaurus. (I can hear the bellowing coming from Germany. Hey, it was 1992.) I like the inclusion of individual phalanges from a Triceratops and anonymous hadrosaur, showing the adaptations they had in common for walking.

The life reconstructions, meanwhile, are quite peculiarly retro (the Corythosaurus pair especially) and are again relegated to the sidelines. The rather static looking Rexy is, yet again, from The Age of Dinosaurs, where the animal is described as being an obligate scavenger with feeble joints, fragile teeth, and a waddling gait like a duck. Fortunately, there’s none of that here.

Eyewitness dinosaur or bird

Now here’s a spread that would be very different today. For starters, I doubt that it would be dominated by a Coelophysis skeleton, given its rather distant relationship with birds. Still, different time and all that, and it’s the perfect choice for such a treatment at least, because it isn’t half beautiful and fascinating to look at. The Archaeopteryx illustration in the top left is reproduced at an unusually large size for this book, and rightly so, as it’s very pretty too. Typically for the time, Archaeopteryx is directly compared with the contemporaneous Compsognathus, rather than theropods more closely related to birds, i.e. maniraptors. The mere fact that they were contemporaries probably has much to do with it, as does the historical precedent set by the likes of Huxley, and the tendency among many in the palaeontolgoical ‘old guard’ to overlook the more birdlike details in e.g. dromaeosaur skeletons, or dismiss their importance.

If nothing else, this spread certainly hammers home how far we’ve come in our understanding of these animals in just the last 30 years – hell, just the last 20 years.

Eyewitness myths and legends

And finally…myths and legends! Or, myths, legends and misconceptions. Dragons, sea monsters and movie creations are mentioned alongside discredited ideas, like arboreal Hypsilophodon and “the great Brontosaurus hoax,” which wasn’t really a hoax, but never mind. It’s nice to see the book tackle the ways that dinosaurs have entered into human cultures – sometimes by accident – and this seems like a fitting way to close the book, taking everything full circle. I especially like the text here:

“It is common to think that dinosaurs were animals that were big, dull stupid, and headed for extinction because they were poorly designed to cope with the world in which they lived. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Dinosaurs were among the most elegant and sophisticated animals that the Earth has ever seen, and survived for nearly 150 million years – 75 times longer than humans have lived on Earth.”

“Humans” presumably meaning the genus Homo in this case. It probably wouldn’t be necessary to include such a defense of dinosaurs these days – unless you were debating a crank, anyway – but it remains an admirable and fitting sentiment, even 30 years on.

Yes, I know, it’s the 1992 edition. Quiet, you.

On that note, I’m quite sure there are some other significant anniversaries in 2019. Perhaps another look at a pioneering TV show should be on the cards…what do you reckon?

6 thoughts on “Eyewitness Guides: Dinosaur – 30 years on (part 2)”

  1. Seeing the way our perception of dinosaurs and birds has changed is indeed always fascinating. Poor Archaeopteryx has lost a lot of popularity now that we know that practically EVERY small theropod had plumage on some level and was more avian than reptilian, to the point that now, the only thing “unique” about Archaeopteryx is just how generic it is!
    The “Watery End” illustration always kinda creeped me out growing up. Probably due to a mix of the wide, glassy white eye and grinning beak of the sea demon…

  2. Apparently Dorling Kindersley books used to be designed by laying out the images first and then fitting the text around them. This is why sometimes the text seems a bit brief and at others a bit unnecessary. Although it’s easy to do this nowadays it was quite a unique look when they first appeared. I seem to remember they had a London shop in Covent Garden back in the late Twentieth Century, before they got in financial trouble and got bought by Penguin.

  3. What is the name of the creature in the last picture, far left, menacing the Apatosaurs whilst leaping in the air wearing wellington boots?

    1. Good question. Presumably, given the context, it’s Allosaurus. I’ve definitely seen that illustration elsewhere (it’s rather old, as you might imagine) and I have a feeling that that creature might actually be a conflation of different theropods. Not sure, though. The fact that Allosaurus seems to be mistranslated quite frequently in old books as “leaping lizard” might explain the hopping…

      1. I remember reading somewhere that for a time it was actually thought that some theropods could hop like kangaroos due to a peculiar set of foot-prints (which later turned out to have actually been produced by a sea-turtle)

  4. Anybody ever notice how Pacheycephalosaurs are almost always lumped together with hadrosaurs in popular books of this vintage, rather than with their closer cousins the ceratpsians? It’s such a persistent trope I think it should count as a paleoart meme in its own right. Even if the pachycephalosaurs and hadrosaurs aren’t always necessarily technically in the same illustration, they always seem to be on the same page.

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