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Out of Thin Air:: Dinosaurs, Birds, and Earth's Ancient Atmosphere 1st Edition. Edition

4.2 out of 5 stars 24 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0309100618
ISBN-10: 0309100615
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

University of Washington paleontologist Ward (Rare Earth) clearly sets forth the premise of his provocative book: "changing atmospheric oxygen levels over the last 600 million years have caused significant evolutionary change in animals." He argues that, for extended periods, there was less than half the amount of oxygen present today in the atmosphere, and a need to develop respiratory systems to deal effectively with ambient oxygen levels has been the dominant factor in creating species diversity, extinctions and basic animal body plans. Ward takes readers on a tour from the Cambrian through the Permian to the Jurassic, examining the dominant life forms in each period and arguing that oxygen availability, or lack thereof, is responsible for the evolution of endothermy, egg shells, live births and most of the major extinctions in Earth's history. He also claims that dinosaurs were successful for so long because they were able to make use of primitive air sacs (that became fine-tuned in modern birds), thus enabling them to outcompete all others in their oxygen-depleted environment. Ward's ideas deserve careful scrutiny and are likely to be discussed broadly, although his often awkward writing gets in the way of his message. Illus. (Oct. 11)
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About the Author

Peter Ward is professor of biology, professor of earth and space studies, and adjunct professor of astronomy at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is a co-founder of the Institute for Astrobiology at the University of Washington and principal investigator of the University of Washington’s node of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. He has published twelve books, including The End of Evolution, which was short-listed for the Los Angeles Times book award, and the bestselling Rare Earth.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 296 pages
  • Publisher: Joseph Henry Press; 1st Edition. edition (September 26, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0309100615
  • ISBN-13: 978-0309100618
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 9.1 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #722,664 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Mountain climbers struggling to breathe astride the 29,029 foot (8,848 meter) summit of Mt. Everest routinely see birds gracefully flying above them, engaging in nonchalant aerial acrobatics at altitudes where humans risk hypoxia (oxygen starvation) while standing still.

The avian respiratory system is at least 33% more efficient than any mammalian lung. Birds combine lungs with an extensive system of air sacs - permitting a unidirectional airflow of 'fresh' air with a higher oxygen content. Mammals are saddled with bidirectional lungs that mix 'fresh' and 'stale' (carbon dioxide-laden) air.

Since birds descended from dinosaurs - they are avian dinosaurs - what does this say about dinosaurian respiration, the world in which they evolved, and more specifically the atmospheric chemistry of the planet they came to dominate?

"Out of Thin Air: Dinosaurs, Birds, and Earth's Ancient Atmosphere" by Peter Ward hypothesizes that the history of atmospheric and oceanic oxygen levels throughout geologic time has profoundly impacted the nature of animal life on Earth - everything from morphology (body plans) and physiology to evolutionary history and diversity - was contingent on oxygen levels which have varied radically over time.

Ward, a paleontology professor at the University of Washington, and a NASA staff astrobiologist, is an expert in paleo-atmospheric chemistry and supports his claims with ample and compelling evidence.

Earth's atmosphere presently consists of 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen, the final 1% composed of various gases; carbon dioxide being the most notable and problematic. 4.54 billion years ago Earth's atmosphere was a hothouse dominated by carbon dioxide. Oxygen was so scarce that Iron could not rust.
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Ward's book is really quite interesting to explain the "logic" of life's development on the earth, starting with the first animals (540 MA). Everything is linked to a timeline showing the rise and fall of oxygen levels over the geologic eras. It would be fatal to the book's premise, I believe, if subsequent research drastically revises this timeline.

As for criticism of Ward's writing style, there were creative forays in his writing that I most enjoyed. On a number of occasions, he takes us on an imaginary trip to visit Earth at a particular era. We are in some sort of conveyance that is boat, submarine, and plane. Like a tour guide, he explains what we are seeing -- bare rocks covered with moss and lichens, the faint haze of hydrogen sulphide in the air, the first primitive pre-phyla of the Burgess shale slowly moving across the sea bottom.

There is some repetition -- this can be criticized, but can also be helpful if one does not whiz through the book rapidly, but goes back every few days for another bite. This is not a thriller, but a rather challenging book of lay science. It is filled with mouthfilling Latinate words. A little extra help by way of some selective repetion is not that objectionable, I think.

One aspect of the book that is radically new is the analysis of the physiology of various prehistoric families of creatures. Their livers, their lungs, their feathers, their bone structure. Only in fairly recent times has this sort of discussion even been possible, and the field is sort of a "terra incognita."

Because the book covers new ground, it will remain to be seen how will the findings hold up in decades to come.

I found it intelligent, lively, and filled with new assertions and new insights. I do NOT agree with one reviewer that the book is too expensive. I got my copy from Amazon for a considerable discount from the nominal price.

Buy it if you think you will enjoy it.
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Did periods of low oxygen in Earth's ocean and atmosphere - `thin air' - drive the evolution of animals? Ward meticulously correlates oxygen levels with virtually all animal species' evolutions on land and sea from the Cambrian thru-out the following half-billion years. Altho the timings of the oxygen/carbon-dioxide levels versus ancient animals' ages are both still somewhat speculative, Ward's theory seems to be the most plausible explanation I've read so far.

What caught my attention and attracted me to this book was the realization that birds migrate over the Himalayas (the book's dust-jacket and chapter headings picture Eurasian cranes in flight) while the fittest of our species struggle in the thin air to reach those heights. What enables birds to do that? Ward traces birds' respiratory system's origin to the pre-avian dinosaurs and says that at sea level birds' is a third more efficient than mammals' and at a mile high theirs is two times more efficient. However I was disappointed that he doesn't explain why birds' dinosaur ancestors survived the K-T extinction 65mya which killed off all the other dinosaurs, or how they evolved into today's birds. His focus is more on us mammals.

Some reviewers grumble that Ward's prose is flawed which impeded their reading. Granted it's a little rough but the fact that he's breaking new ground and promptly delivering the results to us, should earn him some latitude. The scope and novelty of his research is impressive, let's not quibble about its form. Perhaps his fault is that he rushed to publish his `first draft' rather than take the time to polish it, but I'm glad he did altho as I said, I think he wraps it up too hastily. (His "Under a Green Sky" was published just 5½ months later - I'll tackle it next.)
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