Vertebrate Palaeontology, 2nd ed.

Vertebrate Palaeontology, 2nd ed.

Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 166 (2001) 423±424 Book Review Vertebrate Palaeontology, 2nd ed. Mic...

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Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 166 (2001) 423±424

Book Review Vertebrate Palaeontology, 2nd ed. Michael J. Benton; Blackwell Science, Oxford, 2000, 452 pages, ISBN 0-362-05614-2, £24.95 When A.S. Romer died in 1973, many palaeontologists suspected that his third edition of Vertebrate Paleontology (Romer 1966) would be the last single-authored book on the subject. Robert Carroll proved this to be wrong by publishing ªVertebrate Paleontology and Evolutionº in 1987. This magni®cent volume, with its comprehensive coverage and lavish illustrations, was very much in the Romerian tradition. However, in order to do justice to recent advances in the ®eld, the book was very large, nearly 700 pages. Although undoubtedly an indispensable reference and graduate level text, it had arguably become too large (not to mention expensive) for a one-semester, general undergraduate course in vertebrate paleontology. The ®rst edition of Michael Benton's ªVertebrate Palaeontologyº, published in 1990, was clearly written to ®ll this niche. Comprising a modest 377 pages including appendix, index and references, it proved an easily digestible, affordable introduction to the subject. However, a few compromises were inevitable. The chapters on mammals and human evolution together comprise more than one-quarter of the volume, whereas much more diverse and more speciose groups, most notably teleosts, were given comparatively short shrift. In the second edition of his book, Benton has gone a long way in addressing this problem. The additional space produced by the larger format and 75 additional pages has been devoted almost entirely to non-mammalian groups, resulting in a more balanced treatment overall, while maintaining a manageable size and affordable price. The text is well written and clearly illustrated. Benton's inclusion of important recent advances and controversies gives the reader a strong sense of the dynamic

nature of the ®eld. He has made particularly effective use of ªBoxesº, which allow him to explain biomechanical or evolutionary problems and explore related controversies without interrupting the narrative. His clear, relaxed style makes it very easy to read for pleasure, and the occasional injection of humor (in a particularly inspired passage (page 190) on the role of gizzard stones in dinosaur digestion, we are treated to images of feeding plateosaurs that ªmust have rattled, grunted, and burped furiously as their plant diet was reduced to a digestible stateº) will help to maintain the interest of students who insist on doing the ªall-nightersº before the ®nal exam. Rather than taking a strictly taxonomic approach, in which each vertebrate group is treated exhaustively before the next is considered, Benton mixes the taxonomic and chronological, with a chapter each on archaic ®sh, archaic tetrapods, early amniotes, and the radiation of reptiles in the Triassic before considering the post-Devonian radiations of sharks and actinopterygians. This emphasizes the scope and importance of each radiation by implicitly drawing parallels with the more celebrated dinosaur and mammal radiations Ð something that can be lost on the student in more traditional treatments. Benton begins the book with the usual chapter on vertebrate origins, considers the position of chordates within deuterostomes, and discusses the problems associated with the derivation of vertebrates from within the Chordata. Before beginning his examination of fossil vertebrates, however, Benton provides a chapter entitled ªHow to Study Fossil Vertebratesº, in which he leads the reader through the process of excavation, preparation and conservation, display, and scienti®c study of vertebrate fossils, explaining how these activities relate to the study of taphonomy, continental drift, palaeoecology, functional morphology, systematics, and evolution. This chapter is an invaluable resource for the novice, since it provides

0031-0182/01/$ - see front matter q 2001 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved. PII: S 0031-018 2(00)00220-0


R. Holmes / Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 166 (2001) 423±424

not only the ªhowº, but perhaps more importantly the ªwhyº of vertebrate palaeontology. The next chapter, ªEarly Fishesº, reviews the Agnatha in all its bizarre glory, discusses the origin of jaws, and covers the adaptive radiation of archaic gnathostomes including placoderms, sharks, acanthodians, Devonian actinopterygians, and sarcopterygians. The systematics have been updated to re¯ect work done since 1990, and new anatomical information on some groups, notably conodonts and thelodonts, has been added. The chapter on amphibians, renamed ªThe Early Tetrapods and Amphibiansº, presumably to underscore the uncertain biology of many of these peculiar beasts, has been expanded to include the latest information on the Devonian Ichthyostega and Acanthostega, supernumary digits, ambiguous lifestyles, and all. In ªThe Evolution of Early Amniotesº, Benton lays out clearly the signi®cance of the cleidoic egg to the attainment of full terrestriality, and concisely reviews the skeletal anatomy of the ®rst amniote. This is followed by a brief, but clear overview of the wide range of basic types of Palaeozoic amniotes, paying particular attention to the therapsids of the late Permian, the group that would ®gure prominently in the subsequent origin of mammals. The chapter ends with a discussion of the great Permian extinction. In ªReptiles of the Triassicº, Benton focuses on basal archosauromorphs, describing some of the early offshoots including the bizarre herbivorous rhynchosaurs and the giraffe-necked Tanystropheus, and then discusses the role of basal archosauromorphs in the origin of crocodiles and dinosaurs. Benton then steps back in the next chapter ªThe Evolution of Fishes After the Devonianº to examine ®rst the diversi®cation of sharks, and then goes on to discuss the origin and adaptive radiation of the largest major vertebrae group, the actinopterygians. This is followed by ªThe Age of Dinosaursº, a long chapter that outlines the basic structure and diversity of dinosaurs, examines aspects of dinosaur biology, physiology, functional morphology, biogeography, and life history. Benton takes the opportunity to discuss a number of dinosaur contemporaries such as crocodiles, turtles, lizards and snakes, and the marine mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, and ichthyosaurs. The chapter ends with a discussion of the KT extinction.

In ªThe Birdsº, Benton ®rst discusses Archaeopteryx within the context of the theropod-bird transition, and reviews the competing hypotheses for the origin of birds. After a discussion of the origin of ¯ight, Cretaceous birds, including recent discoveries in China, Spain, and Argentina, are examined. This is followed by a standard discussion of the remaining ¯ightless birds, and ®nally neognath diversity. A large chapter on mammals (76 pages), provides the opportunity for a more comprehensive treatment than possible for any of the other vertebrate classes. It picks up where ªThe Evolution of Early Amniotesº left off, with early cynodonts and the acquisition of mammalian characters. After a brief review of the cynodont radiation, Benton discusses Mesozoic mammals, the origin of placentals, and diversi®cation and biogeography of masupials. This is followed by a standard order-byorder account of placental evolution. A ®nal chapter ªHuman Evolutionº brie¯y covers the fossil history of primates, reviews recent work on the interrelationships of primates, with particular attention paid to the relationships between apes and hominids. Much of the chapter is devoted to fossil hominids and the origin of Homo sapiens. That so much space was given over to such a small and arguably insigni®cant clade will be somewhat disconcerting to workers who study larger, more diverse groups, but the chapter is nevertheless an excellent primer for aspiring physical anthropology students. In the preface, Benton explicitly states that his aims were not only to produce a readable account of vertebrate history for both professionals and interested amateurs, but also to show how palaeontological information is obtained by outlining controversial or novel research topics. He has succeeded admirably on both counts. This text will take its rightful place on the bookshelves of professional palaeontologists, but will also be enjoyed by non-specialists, and welcomed by undergraduate students as an up to date, concise, and entertaining history of the vertebrates. R. Holmes Canadian Museum of Nature, Research Division, P.O. Box 3443, Station D., Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1P 6P4