Donald Prothero has taught multiple generations of paleontologists, biologists, and science enthusiasts in his 35 year career. He has written more papers and books than I can count and I, along with many others in the field, have read a great deal of his work over the years and know his contributions to the field quite well. I was recently offered the opportunity to read and review his latest book, Giants of the Lost World: Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Monsters of South America (Smithsonian Books, 2016) and I am quite honored to share my impressions of the book with all of you here today.
I am a big fan of art and figures in scientific books and so the first thing that I do with any book is check out the cover and thumb through the illustrations. This book, from the artistic standpoint, does not disappoint the modern reader. Images are clearly captioned and placed in appropriate places in coordination with the narration of the book. Photographs, reconstructions, and supporting graphics (phylogenetic trees, maps, etc.) are all black and white, save 16 color plates which also include computer generated models of some taxa. These illustrations are high quality, modern scientific interpretations of extinct animals which, for readers that enjoy visuals when they read scientific books, enhance the reader's understanding of the worlds that are being discussed in this book. What's more, the book's sources for illustrations are taken, often, from the internet; an innovative approach to sourcing illustrations.
I say worlds in reference to the illustrations rather than "the world" because the narrative of this book is not simply the history of South America, but the history of the lands that South America bordered, touched, and influenced (or has been influenced by) in terms of both flora and fauna. Additionally, global extinctions are discussed at the global scale, as they should be. The treatments of the debate over the modes and scopes of great extinctions like that at the Cretaceous- Paleogene boundary is intense with details of geology, biology, and physics explained that caused specific events to occur as we know them from the fossil record. The well laid foundation of historical events in the book is key to discussions of the flora and fauna of different eras and this history is very well detailed. The language of the history is scientific, but easy to approach for casual science enthusiasts like many of the readers of this blog. However, seasoned scientists can appreciate the professional language and how it is made accessible to not only scientists but also the general public in a manner that is professional and respectful.
The treatment of the animals in this books is likewise respectful and equal across taxa. A paleontologist focusing on fossil rhinoceroses and other mammals for a great portion of his career, one might expect Donald Prothero to be extremely biased toward the mammals that he discusses in the book. It is true that a good portion of the book does discuss mammals, their rise to dominance over the landscape, and the many different stages of their evolution; however, reptiles, dinosaurs, and birds receive considerable attention as well and there are even mentions of amphibians and marine life.
This book is written for a popular audience and discusses and describes extremely high level concepts in a manner that is accessible, fun, and well illustrated. The work is educational but entertaining such that it is an easy read. The chapters can be read as stand alone units but together represent a rich history of a continent, its animals and plants, and the world in which it is a part. This is a book that should be read by professional and casual paleontologists that love mammals, reptiles, birds, and the overall pursuit of more knowledge.