, geologist Peter Ward turns his attention reluctantly away from the asteroid collision that killed all the dinosaurs and instead focuses on a much older extinction event. As it turns out, the Permian extinction of 250 million years ago dwarfs the dino's 65-million-year-old Cretaceous-Tertiary armageddon. Ward's book is not a dry accounting of the fossil discoveries leading to this conclusion, but rather an intimate, first-person account of some of his triumphs and disappointments as a scientist. He draws a nice parallel between the Permian extinction and his own rather abrupt in research focus, revealing the agonizing steps he had to take to educate himself about a set of prehistoric creatures about which he knew almost nothing. These were the Gorgons, carnivorous reptiles whose ecological dominance preceded that of the more pop-culture-ready dinosaurs.
They would have had huge heads with very large, saberlike teeth, large lizard eyes, no visible ears, and perhaps a mixture of reptilian scales and tufts of mammalian hair.... The Gorgons ruled a world of animals that were but one short evolutionary step away from being mammals.
With characteristic enthusiasm, Ward transports readers with him to South Africa's Karoo desert, where he participated in field expeditions seeking fossils of these fearsome creatures. He suffers routine tick patrols, puff-adder avoidance lessons, stultifying thirst, and the everyday humiliations of being the new guy on a field team. Besides telling a fascinating paleological story, Gorgon lets readers feel a bone-hunter's passion and pain. --Therese Littleton
From Publishers Weekly
Millions of years before dinosaurs, gorgons roamed the earth. Like a creature out of Greek mythology, the gorgon was a lizard the size of a lion, with a huge head, razor-sharp teeth, reptilian eyes, a long, slashing tail and, perhaps, mammalian hair along with its reptilian scales. Then, almost in an instant, at the end of the Permian period 250 million years ago, the gorgons were gone, along with most other major land and maritime species, both plants and animals. The Permian extinction was greater than the catastrophe that killed off the dinosaurs. Paleontologist Ward (Rare Earth; The End of Evolution; etc.) recounts in this memoir his decade-long search in South Africa's Karoo Desert for clues to the cause of this extinction. By studying the fossil record in the Karoo, Ward concluded, contrary to accepted belief, that the extinction took place simultaneously on land and in the sea, rather than in two stages, and that the gorgon was in essence asphyxiated by a decrease of oxygen in the atmosphere, caused by a series of catastrophes that began with the dropping of sea levels. Some readers may wish Ward had cut to the chase and arrived at his conclusions a chapter or two sooner and focused less on elements of personal memoir, but young people aspiring to be the next Indiana Jones will learn from this realistic account of the quotidian details and battles of fieldwork. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW.
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