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Dinosaur Odyssey

Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life

Scott D. Sampson
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Pages: 352
  • Book Info
    Dinosaur Odyssey
    Book Description:

    This captivating book, laced with evocative anecdotes from the field, gives the first holistic, up-to-date overview of dinosaurs and their world for a wide audience of readers. Situating these fascinating animals in a broad ecological and evolutionary context, leading dinosaur expert Scott D. Sampson fills us in on the exhilarating discoveries of the past twenty-five years, the most active period in the history of dinosaur paleontology, during which more "new" species were named than in all prior history. With these discoveries-and the most recent controversies-in mind, Sampson reconstructs the odyssey of the dinosaurs from their humble origins on the supercontinent Pangaea, to their reign as the largest animals the planet has ever known, and finally to their abrupt demise. Much more than the story of who ate whom way back when,Dinosaur Odysseyplaces dinosaurs in an expansive web of relationships with other organisms and demonstrates how they provide a powerful lens through which to observe the entire natural world. Addressing topics such as extinction, global warming, and energy flow,Dinosaur Odysseyfinds that the dinosaurs' story is, in fact, a major chapter in our own story.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94442-8
    Subjects: Paleontology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Philip J. Currie

    I was only 6 years old when I “dug up” my first dinosaur from the inside of a cereal box. The plastic model inspired my imagination in a powerful way that led to regular visits to the dinosaur galleries at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada. Several times a week, I would go to Sixteen Mile Creek near my home to scramble up and down the cliffs of Ordovician sediments, collecting marine invertebrate fossils while I fantasized about discovering dinosaurs. I read (and reread) every book that was available to me about any fossils from anywhere. After readingAll...

    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xix)
    (pp. 1-17)

    A SPONTANEOUS BARRAGE OF EXPLETIVES rang through the air, bringing my coworkers scrambling over the hill. Madagascar’s sweltering midday heat no longer mattered. There before me, beneath a clod of freshly dislodged sediment, were four shining teeth, exposed to the light of day for the first time in more than 65 million years. Most kids could have confirmed that these sharp, recurved, chocolate brown objects, each topped with fine serrations, once lined the mouth of a meat-eating dinosaur, a theropod. Best of all, these teeth were still attached to a jawbone. Further digging revealed a complete and undistorted jaw, with...

    (pp. 19-33)

    BEING BOTH FAMOUS AND EXTINCT, dinosaurs tend to be portrayed as poster children for failure. Yet they are one of Nature’s great success stories, having persisted for about 160 million years. (In contrast, primates have been around about 55 million years, our hominid cousins 7 million years, and humans a mere 200,000 years or so.) During that time, they evolved into a wondrous DIVERSITY of forms and occupied every continent, from pole to pole, becoming the dominant large-bodied land animals of the Mesozoic Era. Plus, they aren’t completely extinct; abundant evidence confirms that birds are the direct descendants of dinosaurs,...

    (pp. 35-51)

    DINOSAURS AND ROCK STARS MAKE unlikely bedfellows. The serendipitous intersection of these organisms takes us back to the island of Madagascar. Our crew of Americans, Canadians, and Malagasy was excavating in a quarry known to us as “93-18,” being the eighteenth site found during the 1993 field season. Despite its lackluster name, 93-18 is the most important fossil locality ever found on the Red Island. This remote hole in the ground near the village of Berivotra in northwestern Madagascar has been the primary focus of several expeditions, yielding remains of dinosaurian heavyweights and featherweights, carnivores and vegetarians, as well as...

    (pp. 53-69)

    DINOSAURS GOT AROUND. Their fossilized remains occur on every continent and from pole to pole, encompassing a tremendous variety of ancient environments: forests, savannahs, deserts, seashores, river floodplains, and mountain valleys, among others. How did these prehistoric landlubbers disperse across oceanic barriers to populate the globe? Did they make marathon swims (particularly challenging for tyrannosaurs, given their tiny arms), or climb aboard vast mats of floating vegetation? No, we now know that earlier dinosaurs spread over great distances simply by walking, whereas many of their descendants hitchhiked aboard continental rafts. And it turns out that the processes underlying continental movements...

    (pp. 71-85)

    SUNBEAMS BREAK THROUGH THE FOREST CANOPY, revealing a group ofTriceratopsnearing a cascading stream. Swollen by seasonal rains flowing from mountain canyons to the west, the stream heads eastward toward a distant inland sea. Wispy fog dances through thick groves of deciduous and evergreen trees. The cool, long shadows of dawn give little hint of the blistering heat just hours away. It’s springtime in Late Cretaceous Montana, about 67 million years ago. TheTriceratopsgrouping consists of seven small juveniles, two midsized subadults, and three enormous adults. Their relative ages are evident not only in differences in body sizes...

    (pp. 87-101)

    AS THE FIRST ORANGE-YELLOW HUES OF DAYLIGHT illuminated the California coast, a great horned owl flapped hurriedly past the window, presumably headed to daytime sanctuary. Stars were still plentiful. Off in the east, Venus sat perched like a beacon just above the horizon, looking more like an oncoming 747 than a planetary member of our solar system. A short time later, the sun climbed above the Marin headlands, revealing the Pacific surf pounding the rocky coastline. Above this grand juxtaposition of land and sea, six turkey vultures soared in broad, sweeping arcs, seemingly in silent celebration of the new day....

    (pp. 103-121)

    WILDEBEEST CROWDED THE RIVER’S EDGE, snorting loudly and jostling nervously for position. The tension in the air was palpable. It was clear that, at any moment, the herd would leap into the murky water and swim to the opposite shore. It was equally evident from their agitated behavior that no one wanted to be first.

    In 2004, following a successful field season hunting dinosaurs (or at least their bones) in the remote Turkana region of northwest Kenya, a few of the crew members decided to travel to the Masai Mara National Reserve to experience the famed Mara ecosystem firsthand. Situated...

    (pp. 123-141)

    WITH FEW EXCEPTIONS, wherever you find plant-eating animals, you’ll also find meat eaters. In fact, almost all ecosystems have at least two levels of consumers—that is, consumers that eat other consumers—with feeding, or trophic, pyramids sometimes topped by such renowned beasts as lions or orcas. This ecological structure enables the flow of solar energy to pass from plants to herbivores to carnivores, with each succeeding link in the consumer chain limited to a drastically reduced pool of available energy.

    The world of dinosaurs was no exception to this rule. During the latter two-thirds of the Mesozoic, theropod dinosaurs...

    (pp. 143-155)

    IT’S HUMBLING TO STAND in the belly of an ancient redwood, to be enveloped by one of the largest living things on Earth. The thick trunk surrounding me on this particular day was heavily charred, its base hollowed out by some long-ago fire, leaving behind an expansive interior cavity. Fires don’t ravage this forest often, at least not in the human sense. But measured in redwood lifetimes, sometimes well in excess of 1,000 years, fire is as inevitable as death. Fortunately, evolution has endowed these majestic trees with flame-retardant bark and other survival strategies, even allowing them to benefit from...

  15. Plates
    (pp. None)
    (pp. 157-173)

    IN THE SUMMER OF 1987, I was a young, eager, and naive graduate student at the University of Toronto trolling for a great research project. I was already well along the path to becoming a paleontologist and had pretty much settled on dinosaurs as my target group. In particular, I liked the idea of working either on theropods or the horned ceratopsids likeTriceratops. But I still needed access to some unstudied fossils. While returning east after digging up ichthyosaurs (those dolphin-like, seagoing reptiles from the Mesozoic) in my home province of British Columbia, my coworkers and I stopped by...

    (pp. 175-191)

    DINOSAUR PHYSIOLOGY IS ONE of the great paleontological mysteries. Were dinosaurs warm-blooded, like birds and mammals, or cold-blooded, like lizards, crocodiles and most other animals? Among vertebrates, these divergent strategies are often associated with active or sluggish lifestyles, respectively. The recognition of birds as direct descendants of small, carnivorous dinosaurs makes this enigmatic question all the more intriguing. Did the warm-blooded metabolisms of birds arise after the split with dinosaurs, or was it inherited from a common ancestor from within the dinosaurs or perhaps some other still more primitive group? Finding a satisfactory solution to this metabolic mystery is essential...

    (pp. 193-211)

    IN HIS 1997 PULITZER PRIZE–winning book,Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond asked this provocative question: Why was it that Europeans became world conquerors, invading distant lands and establishing colonies in the name of Spain, Portugal, Germany, England, and France? Why wasn’t it, say, Africans or South Americans or Australians spreading around the globe to invade Europe instead? Many previous explanations incorporated either explicit or implicit notions of racism, assuming that Caucasians were somehow superior to other races. In contrast, Diamond’s powerful answer pointed to a combination of external factors, including geography (the major east-west trending axis of Eurasia...

    (pp. 213-231)

    JURASSIC PARK, MICHAEL CRICHTON’S best-selling novel translated into Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster movie, is a story of science gone wrong. Reckless humans embark on an entrepreneurial journey in which technology outstrips wisdom and the result is catastrophe. Despite this cautionary message, one of the questions now asked most frequently of paleontologists is whether such a re-created dino theme park might ever be realized. Will we one day possess the technological prowess (presumably still without the corresponding wisdom) to clone dinosaurs and set up a prehistoric zoo? For better or worse (I suspect the former), the short answer is no. However, such...

    (pp. 233-253)

    THE WALKIE-TALKIE CRACKLED with the disappointing news, realizing our collective fears. The helicopter had failed to lift the largest block containing the bulk of the duck-billed dinosaur skeleton. Our crews from the Utah Museum of Natural History (UMNH) had spent much of the last two field seasons working more than 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the nearest road, hiking daily through the hilly Utah badlands while carrying tools and supplies—rock saws, hammers, awls, brushes, plaster, burlap, and water—in order to unearth the 75-million-year-old bones. From stem to stern, this plant-eating dinosaur would have been about 11 meters (34...

    (pp. 255-271)

    WHEN IT COMES TO the death of species, the Grim Reaper assumes several guises. The most common, referred to as BACKGROUND EXTINCTION, tends to be slow paced, ongoing, and small-scale, analogous to the daily sporadic deaths of people in every major city. The causes of background extinctions are typically small-scale as well—for example, flood, drought, or the arrival a new competitor species. The termmass extinction, in contrast, is reserved for extremely rare, large-scale events in which numerous species and even entire groups vanish over a relatively brief period. Whereas each event of background extinction tends to be localized,...

  22. EPILOGUE Whispers from the Grave
    (pp. 273-282)

    By now, it should be evident that these fascinating creatures called dinosaurs played a pivotal role in Earth’s history. Perhaps your newfound knowledge of dinosaurs will enter conversation at parties or serve you in trivia contests with the youngsters in your life. Yet you might reasonably ask (as many have asked me), “What relevance do dinosaurs have today?” Do they serve any utility beyond their entertainment value? Let me try to persuade you that dinosaurs still have much to teach us, if we care to listen.

    I’ll begin my case with what may seem an outlandish claim:

    Dinosaurs may well...

    (pp. 283-304)
    (pp. 305-316)
    (pp. 317-318)
  26. INDEX
    (pp. 319-332)