This book takes the rather refreshing view that the most interesting things we know about the dinosaurs are to be gleaned not from their skeletons — impressive as they are, they are mute; we don’t even have whole skeletons in many cases, or even know exactly how the parts that we do have go together. Cue trace fossils: footprints, nests, all the ways the dinosaurs impacted their landscapes and left signs of their passing (not to mention their eating, breeding, and — hold on, sorry, in the spirit of this book I have to do this — their passing of various waste products).
From that parentheses you will have gathered than Martin takes delight in being down to earth about things. He makes no bones (ha) about the fact that a lot of useful information can be gained from traces like coprolites and urolites — and that he hopes that someone will find other traces, like those of dinosaur mating rituals and even the act itself. There’s so much that we don’t know, and which bones can’t tell us, but if we find some kind of fossil trace of dinosaur flatulence, we’ll have support for the idea that they had bacterial microbiomes to help them digest food (since it seems reasonably clear that many of them didn’t have the expected gastroliths).
Despite that, and a healthy enjoyment of jokes and light asides, this is a really informative and fascinating book which gives you an idea of the scope for investigation in trace fossils, even those which don’t preserve more than a tiny fragment of dinosaur life. It also looks at how we can use modern equivalents (e.g. in the same ecological niche, or with similar physiology) to get an idea of what we’re even looking for in the fossil record.
Where I would normally quibble is Martin’s fictional reconstructions, but I think he’s very clear that they are fiction, and that he’s using them to illustrate a point, so I won’t dock him any marks for that.
The mark of really good non-fiction for me is that it makes me want to steer my career in the direction indicated, in this case paleontology. Now, a lot of it sounds like too much work outdoors for me, but all the same, I feel the fascination.
(It’s okay, Mum. I’m sticking with doing-something-with-biology as a vague direction for now. I promise you’ll have me out of your
hair bank account one of these days.)