Monday, October 13, 2014

Book Review: Tales of Prehistoric Life by Daniel Loxton

This spring, Daniel Loxton published his third and final children's book in the Tales of Prehistoric Life series: Plesiosaur Peril, the story of the dangerous life of a young Cryptoclidus in the Jurassic. It was proceeded by Ankylosaur Attack (2011) and Pterosaur Trouble (2013). Today I'll cover all three. The TL;DR version: they're great.



Daniel Loxton's name is probably recognizable to the portion of our readers who also follow skeptical media. He cowrote Abominable Science with Donald Prothero as well as writing and illustrating the children's book Evolution: How We And All Living Things Came to Be. Loxton is also well-known for his work editing the Junior Skeptic section of Skeptic Magazine. Illustrator Jim WW Smith, who has also worked for Junior Skeptic, provides work on the models for the Tales of Prehistoric Life series. Loxton provides the finishing textures and colors, as well as photographing environments.

I especially appreciate Loxton's series for taking up the mantle of the Rourke titles we've covered so many times during the Vintage Dinosaur Art series. Like the Rourke collection, each Tales of Prehistoric Life book is a narrative story, detailing interactions between temporally and geographically appropriate animals. I love this approach. When grounded in modern paleontological understanding of the life and times of the animals involved, it's both engaging and educational. Like the Rourke titles of yesteryear, each book in this series also wraps up with a brief explanation of the scientific grounding of the story.

The Cryptoclidus family swims through a teeming Jurassic sea. © Daniel Loxton.

The animal interactions are firmly in the realm of plausibility. There are moments that seem a bit of a stretch, such as a veritable army of Saurornitholestes laying seige to the Quetzalcoatlus hero of Pterosaur Trouble. However, there's nothing more outlandish than Dinosaur Revolution's more slapstick moments. Since I'm on the record of admiring much of what that series did, you can predict my reaction here. When the Quetzalcoatus quad-launches to escape his attackers, one of them inadvertently hitches a ride before being flung onto the head shield of a Triceratops, and I couldn't help but crack a smile.

3D dinosaur art is too often only mentioned when picking out the worst offenders, so it's easy to forget that it is often done very well, and Loxton's work here is a prime example. For the most part, the animals are integrated into their photographic environments very smoothly, and interact with them believably - there is a sense of weight and heft to the animals as they walk on sand, browse vegetation, or fall into water. The experience is an immersive one, with illustrations filling entire spreads. The point of view is often right in the middle of the action. Loxton's attention to detail rewards free exploration of the environments and their inhabitants. Feathers float on the air in the midst of combat. Age and experience are obvious, as in an old ankylosaur with battle-damaged armor or a pycnofibre-covered pterosaur.


Quetzalcoatlus soars over the late Cretaceous world. © Daniel Loxton.



An Ankylosaurus couple browses in the forest. © Daniel Loxton.


Coloration is handled conservatively. There are no Rey-style color schemes. Proto-birds and dromaeosaurs are given the most colorful integument. I particularly liked the ruddy tones of Saurornitholestes, reminiscent of the Brown Thrashers who inhabit a similar woodland habitat in my neck of the... er, woods. I also enjoyed touches like subtle sexually dimorphic coloring on the Triceratops, and a seaweedy-green on the Cryptoclidus family at the heart of the most recent book. The tyrannosaurs who appear in Ankylosaur Attack and Pterosaur Trouble could do with some plumage and a splash of color (as well as some more neck musculature, which to my eye looked a little skinny). On the other hand, it's refreshing for the tyrant king to step out of the spotlight.


A Saurornitholestes pack smells something big and tasty on the wind. © Daniel Loxton.


Loxton's choices in depicting behavior are the strongest aspect of the stories, as pains are taken to focus on details of Mesozoic life lent us by recent paleontological research. Quetzalcoatlus falls prey to small dromaeosaurs because of tooth marks found on actual fossils of the great azhdarchid. It bears repeating that the pterosaur is depicted performing a quad-launch, too (a touch which pleased Mark Witton greatly). The family unit in Plesiosaur Peril is based on evidence that these marine reptiles were viviparous. It's a stretch to lump Loxton's book series in with the All Yesterdays Movement. But it is certainly complimentary in its dedication to anatomical fidelity and reasonable inference, while offering views of prehistoric life which reflects the way extant animals act rather than what Hollywood dinosaurs are asked to perform for the masses. There's no need to layer on excessive personification or spectacle after spectacle. Loxton's adherence to this is the main reason the books succeed.

The Cryptoclidus family feeds on belemnites. © Daniel Loxton.

My only major critique is that a more readable typeface for the body copy of the books could have been chosen, but that's a small quibble in the big scheme of things. This is as good as prehistoric fiction gets. The life restorations are exactly the kind that the new generation of paleontology fans should have access to: contemporary, not stuck in decades-old knowledge. All books in the series are available at major booksellers or via Skeptic.

Around the web: Check out Loxton's post about Plesiosaur Peril at SkepticBlog. Darren Naish wrote a detailed post about the book at TetZoo - fitting since he served as technical consultant for the whole series. Adam Stuart Smith reviewed Plesiosaur Peril at Plesiosauria.com. Dispersal of Darwin's Michael Barton reviewed Plesiosaur Peril in March (and reviewed the other titles in the series previously). Ankylosaur Attack recieved positive reviews from Quill and Quire, Kirkus, and SkepticDad.

5 comments:

  1. "This spring, Daniel Loxton published his third and final children's book in the Tales of Prehistoric Life series: Plesiosaur Peril,"

    Why final? There's so much more Loxton could do: A theropod story; A sauropodomorph story; Cenozoic stories; & Paleozoic stories.

    "The TL;DR version:"

    What's that?

    "I love this approach."

    I love it too. I'm surprised you haven't reviewed more prehistoric day-in-the-life books outside "the Rourke collection". Off the top of my head, there's Bakker's Step-into-Reading books, Bacchin/Signore's "Dinosaurs" series, Felber et al.'s "A Moment In Time" series, the "Graphic Dinosaurs" series, Holmes/Holmes' "Dinosaur Library" series ("The opening of each book includes a fictional story about the dinosaurs at hand and the rest of the book is used to substantiate the assumptions behind the fiction": http://dml.cmnh.org/2001Jan/msg00494.html ), Keiran's "Discoveries in Palaeontology" series, the "Smithsonian Prehistoric Zone" series, & many more for kids. IDK of as many for adults besides Stout's "The New Dinosaurs" & Bakker's "Raptor Red", the latter of which might have a prequel ("DrBobBakker here. Yes indeed, I and others at my museums are seeking ways to help Jim K. and his colleagues extract the entire family of Utahraptors. As for Raptor Red, I have finished the prequel which, God willing, should appear next year. The first book was optioned for the movies but was deemed too expensive to execute in fine CGI. That was a while ago. Now we could do feathered Utahraptors more easily": http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/29qwys/iama_we_are_paleontologists_dr_robert_bakker_and/ ).

    "3D dinosaur art is too often only mentioned when picking out the worst offenders, so it's easy to forget that it is often done very well, and Loxton's work here is a prime example."

    More examples of the good ones please.

    "The tyrannosaurs who appear in Ankylosaur Attack and Pterosaur Trouble could do with some plumage and a splash of color"

    To be fair, they don't necessarily need plumage to be accurate. To quote Switek (which sums up my opinion on the matter until new evidence shows otherwise: http://www.nature.com/news/palaeontology-the-truth-about-t-rex-1.13988 ), "Thomas Carr, a palaeontologist at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin, argues, for example, that unpublished fossils with skin impressions from close relatives of T. rex show scaly skin. These findings suggest that even though some earlier tyrannosauroids had feathers, the subgroup called tyrannosauridae (which includes T. rex), seems to have undergone an evolutionary reversal from fuzz to scales."

    "This is as good as prehistoric fiction gets."

    That's a pretty bold claim, given how much is out there. Of the aforementioned books, I'd probably rank Bakker's "Raptor Pack" as the best of the best for kids, but that may be partly b/c I'm biased.

    -Hadiaz

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    1. Keep in mind, scales on the underside of the tail and on the few other spots that we have for derived tyrannosauroids do not mean that feathers weren't present elsewhere on the body. The places that we do have scale impressions for tyrannosaurids are also scaly on Yutyrannus. Feathers and scales can definitely be present on the same animal in varied amounts.

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    2. "The places that we do have scale impressions for tyrannosaurids are also scaly on Yutyrannus."

      Source(s)? Last I checked, there are no scale impressions for Yutyrannus ( http://www.ivpp.ac.cn/qt/papers/201403/P020140314391160313630.pdf ).

      As for the the relationship between scales & feathers, see "The feather-scale dichotomy" for what Eve-Devo currently tells us (& yes, it does cover the issue of feathered feet): http://reptilis.net/2012/07/23/feathers-on-the-big-feathers-on-the-small-but-feathers-for-dinosaurs-one-and-all/

      -Hadiaz

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  2. Why final?: Described as such by Kids Can and Skeptic. I'll be asking him about it in an upcoming interview.

    TL;DR: Too long, didn't read.

    As far as other book reviews, time and money are the biggest factors for what we cover. I'd love to do more, for sure!

    3D: Typically when I'm highlighting art, it's just what happens to catch my eye and my tastes tend towards the Henderson/Conway end of the spectrum. More atmospheric/ impressionistic stuff. I was a big fan of much of the work in Dinosaur Revolution and WWD3D (if not the story and voice stuff tacked on to the latter).

    Tyrannosaurs: I'd like to see some fuzz, but it's certainly not a big knock. I can understand why it wouldn't be a priority.

    As far as whether it's a bold claim, well, it's just my opinion. YMMV. They're the exact kind of books I would want to give a young dinosaur enthusiast.

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  3. "Why final? There's so much more Loxton could do: A theropod story; A sauropodomorph story; Cenozoic stories; & Paleozoic stories." Doing a similar series (but without pretty pictures beyond what CC-BY-SA allows me to use, so no viable topic for this blog. I use short stories instead) in German, my bestseller in that series is actually about early tetrapods, so I agree about the potential for non-mesozoic stories. I actually had requests by readers to do the Cambrian Explosion and will do that next. I also have plans to do the Carboniferous and Ediacaran.
    Delighted to say, the dinosaur extinction issue (well, pterosaur extinction, I thought the dinosaur part of that event overdone and wanted to give azhdarchids their deserved time in the limelight) features quad-launching Quetzalcoatlus fleeing a T. rex sporting green feathers on its back as camouflage (I also have large cretaceous theropods being routinely followed by oportunistic dromaeosaurids in the nearby treetops). The third one is about the evolution of feathers and bird flight, so of course everything has feathers, except the viewpoint character, being a Xianglong.
    I find it funny how both Loxton and I chose alliterative titles for our series of prehistoric animal fiction and both have an issue featuring Quetzalcoatlus as its main star. I wasn't aware of Loxton's books until recently.

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