The Future of Dinosaurs – review

Book Review

Palaeontologist Dr David Hone (for it is he) has been extremely busy since the release of his previous book, The Tyrannosaur Chronicles, back in 2016 – not content with involving himself in copious amounts of research and numerous scientific papers, he also lectures at Queen Mary University of London by day and co-hosts the Terrible Lizards podcast with Iszi Lawrence by night. (Or something like that.) In between all this, Dr Dave somehow found time to write a follow-up book – The Future of Dinosaurs, published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton, and to be published in the US as How Fast Did T. rex Run? for some godforsaken reason. While the latter sounds like yet another ‘Q&A fascinating facts’ book of the sort that Dave very much sought to avoid writing, The Future of Dinosaurs sums things up perfectly. This is a book that not only looks at the history and current state of dinosaur research, but also discusses the holes in our knowledge – as the (UK) cover puts it, “What We Don’t Know, What We Can, and What We’ll Never Know”. It’s an intriguing, unusual approach that makes The Future of Dinosaurs quite a different prospect to your more usual pop-science dino publications.

Future of Dinosaurs cover

When compared with Dave’s previous book, The Future of Dinosaurs represents a vast increase in scope. The Tyrannosaur Chronicles dealt merely with a single clade of coelurosaurian theropod dinosaurs. This book attempts to tackle all of dinosaur science as it currently stands, and condense it down into a book that one could conceivably read in a single weekend. Given that such a book could quite easily balloon out of all control, it’s impressive that Dave manages to cover so much, keep it succinct, and maintain readability and accessibility (and affordability). Dinosaur enthusiasts (as you, reading this, presumably are) are an obvious audience for this book, but it’s equally suited to someone with a broader interest in popular science who might be interested in a wide-ranging overview of the saurian state-of-the-art.

Of course, and as the cover indicates, The Future of Dinosaurs is about much more than simply laying out all the cool things that scientists have discovered in the last few decades. It also explores the myriad gaps in our knowledge, cautions us against over-extrapolating based on what we have, and indeed considers what we’ll likely never be able to know. Topics range from dinosaurs’ origins and evolutionary relationships, to their physiology, biomechanics, life appearance, potential behaviours and intelligence, and much more besides. Naturally, a vast amount of very cool research is mentioned (and duly referenced), involving computer modelling, photogrammetry, computer-driven cladistic analyses and phylogenetics, and deductions about dinosaur bite forces, scales, feathers, colours, brooding behaviour, habitats, diets, and so on, and so forth.

Dave then takes this research and utilises it in answering – as best as is possible with current knowledge – some of the fundamental questions about where dinosaurs came from, their evolutionary history, and lifestyles. Why did dinosaurs reach such great sizes – what could the evolutionary pressures have been? How did their morphology relate to the ecological pressures they were under – what animals and plants lived around them, and how were they evolving in step with the dinosaurs? Such issues go beyond simply asserting that such-and-such-o-saurus lived during the Late Cretaceous, ate this-and-that and lived alongside X, Y and Z fauna – instead, Dave builds as complete a picture of the dinosaurs’ evolution and ecology as he can, which is highly commendable. (I’d call it an holistic approach, except I fear you’d never forgive me.)

Still, as a Good Scientist, Dave takes a step back at every stage and also asks us to consider the vast amount that’s missing from our knowledge of these animals, particularly when compared with animals alive today. (Behold the intersection of palaeontology and zoology.) Although the science has progressed enormously in the last few decades – exploded, even – dinosaur species are still mostly known from a handful of individuals if we’re lucky, and quite often, just a single one – with parts missing. Often, a number of skeletons will be found, but spread out over potentially hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. Are these definitely the same species (and what is a species, anyway)? Beyond the absolute basics, how can we be confident in making assertions about dinosaur behaviour based on scattered individuals inhabiting ecosystems that we only really know parts of? (Just look at how even the Morrison formation – a single very famous formation – varies over time, and how scientists’ views on it have changed over the years in light of new evidence.)

If we find an especially large individual, how can we be sure that that animal wasn’t unusually big, or, on the contrary, actually nowhere near the maximum size for its species? And, will we ever really know whether theropod teeth were sheathed with ‘lips’? Certainly, there are potential clues to be found in bone texture and the teeth themselves – but, pending more research, the heated lip-wars between quite irrationally angry people on the internet will continue for a while yet.

I must admit that, as a layperson, this solidly scientific approach to pointing out the many holes in our knowledge of dinosaurs did occasionally start to feel like an over-abundance of caution – although ‘caution’ isn’t really the right term. It’s just much more immediately exciting to be told what we do know. Not that there isn’t plenty of that here, as I’ve already explained (and you can find that sort of thing in many other books), but in The Future of Dinosaurs, great breakthroughs seem to inevitably be tempered by Dave pointing out where there’s still so much we don’t know and, in some cases, never can. Dave occasionally comes worryingly close to being a bit of a drag (on himself).

On the other hand, it’s a perfect condensed course in the reality of scientific discovery, especially in palaeontology (obviously). This is the nature of the beast. Fossils are fragmentary, trace fossils can be misleading, and making grandiose declarations on a species’ behaviour based on a single skeleton (or even a handful) is a fool’s errand. Collect the evidence, say what you can from it, speculate within the realms of the plausible, and (most importantly) accept that we still have a huge amount to learn, and that our views will change again when we do. The Future of Dinosaurs does what other books do in educating us about the latest discoveries and research techniques, but also sets out to teach an important lesson that’s critical to science communication. It’s easy to get caught up in the bombast of the (most recent alleged) biggest sauropod ever, or an ornithischian with quills, or a near-complete skeleton of a once poorly known taxon, or whatever people are saying about Spinosaurus this week. But don’t forget about how science really works in the background. Academics and researchers in the relevant fields are unlikely to, but it’s very easy for us laypeople to do so – if we even have a half-decent understanding to begin with.

It’s impressive enough that Dave manages to cover such a huge range of research in a succinct fashion without ever getting bogged down. However, the added layers of discussion and philosophising push this beyond being merely a far-reaching book about current dinosaur science. It’s a rounded, complete look at affairs with some important science communication thrown in, and I hope it finds the wide audience that Dave deserves.

Dave Hone

Dave Hone, pictured enjoying the penguin enclosure at Birdworld last year.

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Dave Hone
    March 29, 2022 at 4:16 pm

    Thanks for the positive review, Marc.

    For the record, I do like penguins and chinstraps are one of my favourite birds but I’m *so* bored of Humboldt’s in every soon and having worked with them they are savage little things and hence my ambivalence / less than enthused expression.

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