Friday, May 15, 2015

Review: Prehistoric Predators

Two years ago, after the director of Jurassic World confirmed that the movie would not feature feathered Velociraptors, John Conway wrote a brief but influential blog post about the effects of what he called Awesomebro culture on perceptions of nature and, specifically, palaeontology. While pitched at a popular audience, Prehistoric Predators, newly published by Cider Mill Press, hits the scene at a time that palaeoart hobbyists, professionals, and enthusiasts are looking critically at the ways that palaeoart can evolve in a pop culture that still holds on to a view of dinosaurs as monsters. Illustrated by Julius Csotonyi and written by Brian Switek, the book is tightly focused on its titular topic, offering almost a hundred pages of ancient beasts in the heat of predatory action.



In the hands of lesser talent, a project like this could go off the rails. But Csotonyi has proven himself time and time again in his adherence to accuracy as well as drama, and Switek is the most prominent writer continually working the palaeontological beat, not afraid of nuance and uncertainty as he portrays the science to his readers. They're supported in the project by an impressive production team, who have wrapped their words and images in a beautiful package. The skin of Csotonyi's vibrant Giganotosaurus close-up cover art features a pebbly, textured surface, with glossy teeth and title text. The end-papers are a pattern made of some of the book's featured predators. And the book is a generous size, measuring just a bit under 12" x 11", as large as it is the the recent Titan Books publications Dinosaur Art and The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi. With a retail price of $20 US, it's a great deal for the amount of art and information within.

The Mesozoic gets the vast majority of the attention, comprising about 2/3 of the book's pages, so there's no doubt about the book's real stars. The theropods of Prehistoric Predators are decked out with feathers and filaments, from the plumes of Ornithomimus to the moss-and-rust fuzz covering Daspletosaurus (an update of his Judith River mural at the HMNS - the original is much less fuzzy). There's a good variety of takes on integument, and though it's not a focus of the text, readers will come away with a view of dinosaurs that is thoroughly contemporary, and for the most part the animals feel real, weighty, as if caught in mid-action by a preternaturally brave photographer. There are spots where feathers are a bit too detailed to my eye, a bit too shaggy, a bit too closely tracing the contours of the body. When dealing with a group of animals experimenting with plumage, I suppose it makes sense to assume that not all would be covered in a "dynamic shell" of feathers, as Matt Martyniuk has put it. It can be hard for me to completely buy illustrations that split the difference between fuzz and full, birdy plumage. But this is an issue that is larger than is wise to tackle in a review.

Though the overall project will satisfy anyone coming to see high stakes conflict, we do get glimpses of animals in less extreme circumstances, such as the alvarezsaur Linhenykus keeping an eye on the horizon, Cryolophosaurus wading at the Antarctic coast, or Guanlong drinking water in the amber light of dusk. The book features a handful of new pieces, with my favorite being a spread featuring new-look Spinosaurus squabbling with a pair of crimson-headed Deltadromaeus over a sawfish. Csotonyi has also confirmed that besides the Daspletosaurus noted above, several other pieces that have appeared elsewhere have been revised for new information. A bit of dodgy stock art shows up, with the worst case being the introduction to the Permian period, and readers familiar with Csotonyi's work would be able to pick those inferior animals immediately, even without warning.

For younger readers and others who aren't as familiar with palaeontlogy as LITC readers, this would be a solid choice for an introduction to what we know about the history of carnage-dealing beasts on Earth. Switek ably summarizes the featured geological eras and offers plenty of evidence-based descriptions of the animals. Again, even if we are mostly concerned with feats of predation here, readers learn about their palaeoecology, the varieties of theropod diets, and the ranges of size they attained (still an underappreciated fact, in my experience). Therizinosaurus gets a whole spread, Oviraptor is featured prominently, and Sinornithosaurus is seen from the point of view of its prey animal (with no mention of the controversial claim that it had venom glands). Only a few animals are depicted with scale diagrams, and not all of the "lesser" participants in the illustrations are named, but the amount of information is impressive. Switek's descriptions are approachable and light on jargon, taking confused time-travelers by the hand as they visit these lost worlds and their fantastic denizens.

In Prehistoric Predators, the Awesomebro is served up with a hearty helping of modern palaeontological knowledge. I'm optimistic that the book can lead readers to learn more about other aspects of extinct life that are less red in tooth and claw. There will always be a side of palaeontology media that focuses on the monstrous side of life, but that's no different than any nature media. It's refreshing to see it done with such care.

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