Beasts Before Us: Standing up for the little guy

Book Review

You know we are firmly on Team Dinosaur here at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs. Otherprehistoricanimals get the occasional shout-out, but at the end of the day we just don’t know all that much about them. Marine reptiles are cool, pterosaurs get a free pass as honorary dinosaurs, and we aren’t above putting some cool, freaky Permian synapsids and Cenozoic mammals in the spotlights. Then come the croc-line archosaurs, then the big bugs and amphibians of the Carboniferous and all the way down the hierarchy of charismatic palaeofauna dangle the poor, unloved Mesozoic mammals. Never were mammals more boring and unimportant than during the Age of Dinosaurs.

Not often does a book about prehistoric life come around that completely changes your preconceptions. I mean, in the back of my mind I kind of knew the cliché about Mesozoic mammals wasn’t really true. You know. The cliché that our ancestors lived a modest, terrified existence in the shadows of the dinosaurs, suppressed into mere mice by their sheer saurian awesomeness and only ready to come out of their holes after Chicxulub, our saviour from outer space, brought their reign of terror to a merciful end. I kind of knew that all those small, low-slung, insect-eating, mousy scuttly nocturnal things were probably quite succesful in their own right, just as today’s rodents are. I kind of knew that among them were climbers, gliders, diggers and larger carnivores. But to read a passionate, detailed, accessible and varied account of their story and just how interesting they were, that is a different matter altogether.

Written by Scottish palaeontologist and TetZooMCon speaker Dr Elsa Panciroli, Beasts Before Us tells the story of mammal evolution from the moment the first stem-tetrapods came about in the Devonian, through the dawn of the synapsids in the Carboniferous, through early synapsid success in the Permian and the rise of mammals proper in the Mesozoic. Panciroli then makes the brave decision to have her book end at the dawn of the Cenozoic, the Age of Mammals, which is where most mainstream accounts of mammal evolution begin. It’s excatly the parts of natural history you never hear, and that’s this book in a nutshell. It makes you think about things you never think about. What made mammals hang in there for all those millions of years? How do you go about finding those tiny fossils? Who and what are we forgetting?

Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska. Credit: Instytut Paleobiologii Polskiej Akademii Nauk.

Roughly, Panciroli combines three threads in her book: first, the biological and ecological information on the animals themselves and just what made them special and unique; second, accounts of her own adventures in the field, often accompanied by colourful figures; and third, stories from the history of the science and research of these animals. Although she doesn’t linger on it, Panciroli doesn’t avoid the black pages, the colonialism, sexism and oppression that ensures the deserving don’t always get their due. In every sense of the word, Panciroli stands up for the little guy. She also spotlights important figures whom history has overlooked. A particularly impressive figure is Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska (1925-2015), who spent her youth fighting Nazis and the rest of her life going on expeditions in the Gobi and becoming the world’s greatest prehistoric mammal expert. Surely a name that deserves wider recognition.

It is inevitable that the biological and ecological content of this book is of the greatest interest to me, and Beasts Before Us delivers in heaps. What the book does really well is zoom in on exactly what evolutionary adaptations each new clade has and how these helped them get successful in their ecosystem, without getting completely bogged down by technical stuff. The book features a parade of unusual and interesting creatures, from the well known such as Dimetrodon and Zalambdalestes to the unheard of such as Agilodocodon and Thrinaxodon. Panciroli moves through the clades with a deft touch, hitting that sweet spot between too simple and too complicated. On top of it all, Panciroli’s writing is fantastic. Extremely clear, concise when it needs to be, rich in metaphor when it can be. She also can’t help but get a few cheeky jabs in at dinosaurs. Oh well. I think dinosaurs need little protection from a squishy mammal.

Deliberately blurry photo of April Neander’s artwork

I would be remiss not to mention featured palaeoartist April Neander, whose stylish black and white illustrations give the book that much more character. It’s exactly the sort of stylized, but still scientifically informed artwork that we love so much.

Whatever criticisms I may have come down to mere nitpicks (I have issues with the use of “cetartiodactyla” as a clade – artiodactyla already includes whales, come on. Also references to the duckface phenomenon might be outdated but who am I to judge someone for being out of touch). As an introductory work to early mammal evolution, it’s hard to imagine a better book. At the end of the day, I can give no better endorsement of Beasts Before Us than the mere fact that Elsa Panciroli got me to care about Mesozoic mammals in the first place. You can order it here. Elsa Panciroli’s personal site is here.

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  • Reply
    George Starr
    February 7, 2022 at 11:23 am

    This is the book I didn’t know I needed until now! I just ordered it from Powell’s Books here in the States.
    Thank you for the review. I have to say I’ve always been a bit more dismissive of pre-Cenozoic mammals than I should have been. I mean, their struggles, and their persistence as a clade for hundreds of millions of years is the whole reason I’m able to type out this comment (and enjoy Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs). 🙂

  • Reply
    Andreas Johansson
    February 8, 2022 at 1:04 am

    Tangential, but I quite enjoyed Kielan-Jaworowska et al.’s “Mammals from the Age of Dinosaurs”. Would be a bit outdated now I guess.

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