The Dinosaurs Rediscovered: The Scientific Revolution in Paleontology – Michael J. Benton

Written by Jenna Davenport, Palaeontology MPhil student at Manchester University

When you think about the key people in palaeontology, one of the first names to pop up is Professor Mike Benton from the University of Bristol. Like many students, I have sitting on one of my over-stuffed bookshelves well-thumbed copies of his classic textbooks: Vertebrate Palaeontology and an Introduction to Paleobiology and the Fossil Record, which I have referred to countless times throughout my degree. So when the chance came to review The Dinosaurs Rediscovered, I immediately jumped at the opportunity.

Image of the front cover of The Dinosaurs Rediscovered by Michael J. Benton. Also released as The Dinosaurs Rediscovered: How a Scientific Revolution is Rewriting History.

The book is a thoroughly engaging mix of the latest research in the field and Benton’s own personal anecdotes. Scattered throughout are stunning illustrations depicting some of the dinosaurs mentioned in the text, handily attached to each are key facts such as: the dinosaur’s temporal range, where they have been discovered, the creature’s estimated length and weight, as well as a ‘little known fact’ about the dinosaur in question.

A different aspect of dinosaur palaeobiology is tackled clearly and succinctly in each chapter, ranging from their origins in the Triassic, to the ultimate demise of the non-avian species in the Latest Cretaceous. I also found the summaries outlining the chapters’ key ideas and relevant quotes from researchers involved in that particular field of research such as Dr. Emily Rayfield, Dr. Greg Erickson and Dr. John Hutchinson, both useful and stimulating, leading me, in turn, to search out their work.

Throughout his book, Benton addresses some well known ‘dino pop-culture’ topics such as the cult film franchise ‘Jurassic Park’ and uses these to introduce and explain the latest fascinating advances in dinosaur DNA recovery and the discovery of blood cells and collagen in fossilised dinosaur remains.

A scene from the classic film Jurassic Park (1993) where a scientist is shown extracting dinosaur DNA from a mosquito encased in amber. Credit: Universal.

A season or, if you’re lucky, more, of fieldwork at one of the world’s top dinosaur fossil beds, such as Drumheller in Canada, Montana in the USA or even Mongolia must be every palaeontologist’s dream. So, the chapter on digging up dinosaurs filled me with envy but also wanderlust. Professor Benton describes a few key digs he participated in as a student and also the excavation process of an ‘exhibition worthy’ hadrosaur he helped find in Canada undertaken with Dr. Phil Currie of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, detailing how the fossil was recorded, dug up and prepared for exhibition.

Solving the puzzle about what colours dinosaurs were has fascinated me for as long as I have known about the work being carried out in this field, and I try to catch any conference talk on this subject. The chapter dealing with this was communicated in such a way that it could be easily understood, and not just by specialists. Melanosomes including phaeomelanin (molecules that produce red/ginger pigments) and eumelanin (molecules that produce black/grey pigments) have been found preserved within feathers of dinosaurs, specifically those found in China’s Jehol fauna, such as Sinosauropteryx. The colouration of this dinosaur was discovered and revealed to have countershading as well as bands of light and dark colour along its tail, due to the presence of phaeomelanin it is thought that the darker bands of colour were a reddish-brown colour.

Reconstructed colour patterns of Sinosauropteryx. By using melanosomes, researchers were able to identify countershading as well as
bands of darker and light colours. The scale bar represents 100 mm. From – Fiann M. Smithwick, Robert Nicholls, Innes C. Cuthill, Jakob Vinther – via Wikimedia Commons.

Like most books about dinosaurs, this book ended (before the afterword chapter) with the asteroid-driven mass extinction 66 million years ago. Benton mentions that when he was a student the idea of a mass extinction (especially one caused by an asteroid!) wiping out all non-avian dinosaurs was absurd, and that it was thought to be simply evolutionary processes that caused them to die out. Some of the actual causes thought to have brought about their extinction included: climate change; predation of dinosaur eggs by mammals; caterpillars eating all of the plants; that newly evolved species of plants gave the dinosaurs constipation; their headshields and horns were too big; and even that they all got AIDS (a product of it’s time that was very quickly refuted). Benton then goes through the process of how the asteroid impact theory by Alvarez et al., became accepted scientific fact within a matter of 10 or so years, with more evidence to back it up being found after the initial idea was proposed in 1980.

At the end of the book, Professor Benton has compiled an extremely useful list of summary papers and books for each chapter with a couple highlighted as a good jumping off point.

This is a book that can be enjoyed by both palaeontologists and non-specialists alike and I strongly recommend it to anyone who is interested in dinosaurs and their palaeobiology.


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