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Dawn of the Dinosaurs: Life in the Triassic (Life of the Past) Hardcover – October 26, 2006
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"Forget Jurassic Park―the really interesting dinosaur story happened during the 'Triassic Park' era, a period 251–199 million years ago that followed life's biggest extinction event. If you want to know the whys and wherefores, this is the book for you..." ―BBC Wildlife
"The text, by Nicholas Fraser... pulls off the balancing act between providing reliable information and a comprehensible story that is easily understood by non-academics.... [an} impressive book." ―Lab Times
"Fraser (curator, vertebrate paleontology, Virginia Museum of Natural History) has prepared a serious work on Triassic paleontology... A refreshing approach in a market saturated with 'just so' stories and sanitized tales of evolution." ―Choice
"... [T]here is a widespread perception that most Triassic terrestrial environments were parched deserts that were almost devoid of life.... Nick Fraser's book is a welcome antidote to this situation, providing the most comprehensive account of life, and death, in the Triassic that is currently available to a popular audience." ―Geological Magazine, Volume 146/1 - 2009
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2007 AAUP Public and Secondary School Library Selection
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Fraser opens by describing the early Triassic landscape. It is often said that the Triassic was hot and arid, but Fraser also tells of more hospitable environments, some home to amphibians and crocodile-like animals. There is an overview of the animals, especially the vertebrates, and the plants that supported them. The rest of the book goes chronologically through the Triassic, with sections devoted to various geographic locations in each period.
There are many animals named here, far more that a reasonable person can memorize. My approach was not to try to remember names, but to get an idea of the diversity in the various environments. It is necessary, however, to know some of the groups of animals. For example, the ornithodira were the pterosaurs and dinosaurs and their unique common ancestors. To keep track of these I looked up some in Google, and I printed off cladograms from [..]
There is quite a bit of specialized vocabulary, especially regarding vertebrate anatomy and the time divisions within the Triassic. Some of this is found in the glossary and in the appendices. I suggest that you go to the appendices before reading the book and make sure you are familiar with the material. I also found myself looking up a number of words on the web.
Despite the specialized vocabulary, I would not say this is an advanced book. There are no difficult concepts here, no obscure principles and no mathematics. It may take time to absorb the vocabulary, perhaps more than one reading, but someone with a modest knowledge of ancient life can follow it. And it is worth it because, as far as I can tell, this very important period in the history of life is not well represented in popular media. There are explanations of such things as how to tell a dinosaur ancestor from a crocodile ancestor and how animals interact with each other and with their environments. There are also explanations of debates among paleontologists, showing the evidence and arguments they use. Thus it goes beyond a mere catalog of animals and that is why I ccall it "intermediary".
One section of the book is titled "The Birth of Modern Terrestrial Ecosystems" and it's very appropriate. The mass extinction at the end of the Permian had wiped out nearly all animal life and, unlike Noah's flood, this catastrophe left no boat filled with millions of animals ready to repopulate the earth. The few survivors grew in numbers and diversified and by the end of the Triassic there were new ecosystems very different from those before the crash. I'm not saying that you should regard Triassic animals as merely transitional forms on their way to becoming modern. Nature doesn't work that way. They thrived because they were well suited to their times and places. It's just that the world they created is very much the one we live in today.
While this is not primarily a picture book, I have to say that Douglas Henderson has created a number of attractive pictures which illustrate the text well.
Still, the book did introduce me to many animals I knew nothing about and given that I am something of an amateur paleontology buff that is saying something. Also, even if one didn't read a single word of text I would definitely say go and get this book owing to the simply spectacular and gorgeous artwork of Douglas Henderson.
Part one consisted of three chapters and looked at the Early Triassic, setting the stage for the period's climate, geography, geology, fauna, and flora. The world was quite a bit different 240 million years ago; there was only one continent (Pangaea), no polar ice caps, and the world's dry zones were on the equator (not today, where they are centered 30 degrees north and south). Though there is still considerable debate, a megamonsoon system seems to have dominated the world's climate. Although there was considerable regional variation, overall the world was warmer and more arid, particularly in the Early and Middle Triassic.
Fraser did not note that some ideas of the Triassic being a desert planet of sorts is influenced by the knowledge that vast areas of today's world are covered by grasslands, and since grass didn't exist back then; "artists and paleontologists have unwittingly enhanced the view of the Triassic world being an unforgiving place, with sparse ground cover." In reality it is quite likely some other plant filled in the grass niche back then. Also, such desert-dominated depictions don't seem to be able to account for how large herbivores might have survived.
A number of extinct shark groups existed back then, including freshwater species. Amphibians were still a major faunal component particularly in the early Triassic; Fraser discussed very early frogs, gharial-like trematosaurids, suction-gulping bottom-dwelling plagiosaurs, and the alligator-like metoposaurs. One strange group of reptiles he came to again and again in later chapters is the Drepanosauria. Very odd animals, they had barrel-shaped trunks, tails that often had a "compressed leaflike appearance," and sometimes a clawlike bone at the end of the tail (some species may have even had a prehensile tail). Some drepanosaurs were arboreal it seems, maybe pangolin-like, while others were deep-tailed aquatic forms. The first true mammals date back to the late Triassic.
His review of the plant fossil record was interesting; I had no idea of the problems. Many aspects of plant anatomy readily detach from the parent body, such as flowers, fruits, and seeds, and many plants lose their foliage in winter; as a result, it can be hard to link a separate plant part with the parent plant, or a fossilized plant might be missing its most distinguishing characteristics. Plants of the time were non-flowering, dominated by club mosses, horsetails, true ferns, seed ferns, cycads, and conifers. Fraser mentioned in later sections (and in this one) examples of possible Triassic flowering plants, but each time it would seem they are just odd examples of seed ferns.
Part two looked at the Middle Triassic. He noted the excellent insect fossils of Gres a Voltzia in France (including egg clusters, coloration patterns, and plant galls), nothosaurs (including locomotive methods and sexual dimorphism), the possible function of _Tanystropheus_ and its long neck, the sail-backed archosaur _Lotosaurus_, and discussed issues of diversity levels in the fossil record (along the way criticizing a bit "lion lies down with the lamb" depictions that unrealistically cram in as many different organisms as possible into one painting).
Part three detailed the Early Late Triassic. Highlights included the uniquely Triassic insect group known as the titanopterans (some had a wingspan of up to a foot and appear to have had organs to produce loud sounds), _Sharovipteryx_ (an arboreal glider, something apparently common in the Triassic), _Longisquama_ (whose featherlike appendages have been difficult and controversial to interpret), drepanosaurs (were they pterosaur ancestors?), flying fish, the crocodile-like phytosaurs, the huge predatory _Postosuchus_, the armored aetosaurs, the hippo-like _Placerias_, the mysteries of the Ghost Ranch _Coelophysis_, the proposed bird-like genus _Protoavis_, from Scottish sandstones the odd _Scleromochlus_ (it might have hopped and it is debated over whether or not it was related to pterosaurs), and from South America the world's oldest dinosaurs, _Herrerasaurus_, _Eoraptor_, and _Pisanosaurus_.
Part four was on the latest Triassic, how modern ecosystems started to arise though many ancient forms still existed. Highlights include the sphenodontians (which today exist only as the rare tuatara of New Zealand but in the past had a great variety of habits and forms), the gliding kuehneosaurs, the geology of the great Newark rift valley of eastern North American (which like the African Great Lakes possessed species flocks of related fish, though instead of cichlids were instead a group known as the semionotids), a formation noted for numerous trackways and thanks to new prospecting and imaging techniques numerous excellent insect fossils from the Solite Quarry along the Virginia-North Carolina state line. Other interesting items include the freshwater amphibious reptile _Tanytrachelos_ (apparently an aquatic insectivore) and _Uatchitodon_, a reptile that had distinct groves on the sides of it teeth not unlike venomous snake and the Gila monster. The final section of the chapter very briefly reviewed theories over mass extinctions towards the end of the Triassic.