There’s a tendency in children’s publishing to give any book that features a range of prehistoric animals – including dinosaurs – a title that literally places the word ‘dinosaurs’ above all else, in a huge typeface, often followed by a much smaller “and the prehistoric world” or “and other prehistoric animals”. It’s a tendency I’ve alluded to on a number of occasions by referring to ‘otherprehistoricanimals’ appearing in books, as if they’re an afterthought. Well, not here! For this 1978 Random House publication, lavishly illustrated in superb style by Peter Zallinger, is simply entitled Prehistoric Animals. What’s more, dinosaurs only feature on one spread. If anything, those Pesky Mammals are probably given too much due here, given the pathetic 65 million years that they’ve ‘dominated the Earth’ (from a certain point of view). But never mind – this is a very charming little book featuring some beautiful artwork, and definitely worth a closer look.
What’s that, you say? Peter Zallinger is the son of some other famous Zallinger? I have no idea who you mean.
The book gets off to a good start with a truly action-packed cover, featuring a pair of very frightening-looking sabre-toothed cats closing in on an elephant trapped in a tar pit. One of them has paused to take a swipe at what (based on perspective) must be a truly enormous bird, which I can only imagine to be Teratornis. We’re also given a good impression of Zallinger’s artistic style, which differs considerably in technique from Zallinger Sr, but is equally as detail-heavy and ‘realistic’ while retaining a certain stylisation. As a child, I was always on the look out for dinosaur books, and generally eschewed those that had covers featuring prehistoric mammals; however, this would definitely have been an exception. If only the ‘Please Read to Me’ bunnies had been sabre-toothed, too.
The book’s first spread actually features a Carboniferous forest, complete with giant dragonfly-like insect. However, as it doesn’t even feature so much as a single vertebrate animal, I’ve decided to skip it. Sorry. The next spread along is all about, naturally enough, the beginnings of the most magnificent and bestest animal clade of all – the tetrapods. (Fish were evolving for an awful long time before this, but we don’t care about that. Get to the good bits.) On the left, we have Eusthenopteron, crawling its way up on to the beautifully detailed earth. On the right we have Eryops, the comically big-headed temnospondyl we’ve all come to know and love. The latter in particular sports a stripy camouflage pattern that is gorgeous in a subtle, naturalistic sort of way; very reminiscent of today’s amphibians. I also really like the attention to detail in the plant life in this scene, which is as alien-looking as one might expect, given the time periods involved.
Evolution continues apace, as later vertebrates adapt to live on the land full time. (Well, there’s a bit of overlap between these and Eryops, but…never mind.) Dimetrodon and Edaphosaurus are here described as ‘reptiles’, which admittedly was a very normal thing to do until relatively recently, when phylogenetics swept away all in its path, and made Alan Feduccia very sad. We can set all that aside, though, and just admire the wonderful artwork. ADMIRE IT. Both animals demonstrate Zallinger’s excellent grasp of anatomy and attention to detail. Naturally, Dimetrodon looks suitably proud of itself (and kudos for the tricky angle), but Zallinger even manages to make Edaphosaurus look uncommonly dynamic and interesting, what with that well-executed walking posture and muscular tail. For a creature normally depicted (perhaps not unjustifiably) as a pin-headed dullard, it’s quite an achievement.
Moving on, and we come to the Great Schism among amniotes, when synapsids found themselves pitched against what would go on to become the Ruling Reptiles. Here, Zallinger illustrates this great divide by having Lycaenops and Saltoposuchus walking in opposite directions, looking disdainful, while keeping their beady eyes on one another. When compared with later reconstructions, the Lycaenops is strikingly skinny and ‘reptilian’ in appearance, with an apparently scaly hide in spite of its many mammal-like features. Saltoposuchus looks a bit shrink-wrapped in places, but is notably restored with an erect tail, contrasting its altogether droopier appearance in older works (including those by Zallinger Sr). Peter Zallinger was definitely into the whole Dino Renaissance thing, as we shall see shortly. (Lovely ferns, by the way.)
So, yes, that Dino Renaissance thing. Here are the dinosaurs. If anything, the typically over-exposed clade is rather underserved here – three of the dinosaurs featured are theropods, and all of them are saurischians. Struthiomimus and Deinonychus had long been recognised as fleet-footed creatures, but it’s notable that Rexy is depicted in a strikingly modern guise, its tail held firmly aloft, striking a pose with its silly forelimbs. They’re a thoroughly decent bunch for the late ’70s; the Apatosaurus is a little shapeless and dull, but at least it has an appropriate head and isn’t a Giant Blob. A little more variation in colour wouldn’t have gone amiss, but browns, greens, greenish-browns and grey will do, I guess. I do really like the statement that contemporary mammals “could not compete with the dinosaurs for food”. It does help dispel that ‘March of Progress’ idea of evolution, which remains a little too persistent.
Even if the mammals couldn’t compete with the non-avian dinosaurs during the Mesozoic, once the overpowered diapsids were removed 65 million years ago, the furry ones were finally able to diverse. The animal on the left – Barylambda – is seldom mentioned in books like these, and I certainly welcome its inclusion, especially since it resulted in me looking the beastie up on Wikipedia. The unspecified snake is a nice touch that aids the composition of the scene. Meanwhile, on the right, we have a ferocious killer with lethal teeth for ripping and tearing, and a honkin’ great big head. The teeth on Zallinger’s reconstruction appear a bit over-exposed, but otherwise it ranks quite low on the monstrousness-scale as far as Andrewsarchus restorations go. The nails are probably unduly bear-like, but nitpicking aside, it’s an impressive illustration of a big old muscular brute that perfectly reflects contemporary thoughts on its lifestyle and evolutionary affinities.
Oh look, it’s Diat…Gastornis, casually plucking tiny ‘proto-horses’ off the ground as it was wont to do. The appearance of the killer-or-maybe-it-wasn’t bird here is very reminiscent of earlier reconstructions by Charles Knight and, especially, Zdenek Burian. We don’t actually know that it resembled a cassowary with an oversized noggin, you know. Meanwhile, over on the right, we have the awesome rhino-like Uintatherium and Hyrachyus, which was certainly a perissodactyl mammal that existed at some point, and may well have been brown. It also looks a bit emaciated here, although happily Uintatherium is a suitably chunky lad.
Again, I should probably draw attention to all that foliage. The background flora in this book is consistently lush and well done; Zallinger never opts to stick his animals on a nondescript dirt patch with a few ferns or tufts of grass, and he should be applauded for that.
Now here’s something completely different…a shark! But not just any shark, for this would be that controversial kaiju-shark that gets people on certain internet forums all hot under the collar. For whatever reason, it’s here referred to as Carcharodon, which could imply that it’s actually just a great white shark (where it not for the description of it being “50 feet long”). I mean, if you’re going to incongruously refer to the specific name of anything (other than Tyrannosaurus rex), then surely it’s THE MEGALODON. Here, monstro-shark is implied to have been so badass, that it might have hunted the rather older Basilosaurus, somehow. Never mind that it couldn’t have happened – that’s just begging for some ultra-awesomebro palaeoart.
We don’t get that here, of course, but we do get a perfectly serviceable and rather sinister illustration of a huge shark emerging through the green murk, with a disconcertingly skinny (and seemingly lipless – that trope again!) Basilosaurus hanging out in the background. I know I’ve said this a thousand times, but why was Basilosaurus so often illustrated without lips? It’s a mammal. We have modern aquatic mammals with big teeth. Why, why. Why.
Back on dry land, and here’s a truly impressive beast. Forget improbably aged tyrannosaur clones – a Megacerops bellowing away in front of an erupting volcano is where it’s at. It’s remarkable how an artist can take what would be a cringeworthy trope in an illustration of Mesozoic dinosaurs, transplant it to the Eocene, and create something quite spectacular. But there it is. It helps in no small measure than Zallinger’s Megacerops (aka Brontotherium, aka Brontops, etc.) is a very impressive and awesome creation, an imposing wall of flesh, muscle and U-shaped horny bit so unflappable, not even violent volcanic activity will cause it to break its stride. Wonderful stuff. Out of the way, rabbit.
(And before you mention it, yes, one of Burian’s Brontotherium pieces had some volcanoes in the background, too. But not like this, damn it.) EDIT: Joan Turmelle over on Facebook has also pointed out the similarities to the Age of Mammals mural by R Zallinger, which I’m still quite shamefully unfamiliar with. Well observed. There’s an erupting volcano and everything.
And finally…here are some rather cold-looking Neanderthals fending off a cave bear that looks like a slightly dodgy taxidermy mount, but might not be too far from the truth. Again, I do appreciate that the ending here isn’t ‘AND MAN CAME TO DOMINATE THE EARTH’ – rather, it emphasises the paltry insignificance of humans in the grand scheme of things. Humans will only be around in the short term…although unusually, we have some control over just how short a term that will be. I guess I’d better stop before I start getting all topical.
Thanks to Andrew Stück for sending us scans of this book! Much appreciated, there!
Next time: something else! You know, next month will mark 20 years since the first broadcast of Walking With Dinosaurs…that’s got to be worth something.