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Sea Dragons: Predators of the Prehistoric Oceans Hardcover – October, 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
Ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs and mosasaurs, oh, my! The prehistoric oceans and shallow seas that covered most of present-day North America and Europe were rife with such now-extinct monsters. They evolved from land reptiles that returned to the water, but they didn't all coexist: the ichthyosaurs, looking a lot like dolphins and most docile of the group, first appeared about 250 million years ago, followed by the plesiosaurs, which looked like swimming velociraptors; pliosaurs, first cousins to the plesiosaurs and able to take on a shark bigger than a great white; and finally the mosasaurs, almost 60 feet in length. Pliosaurs and mosasaurs went extinct at the same time as the last terrestrial dinosaurs, 65 million years ago. Acclaimed illustrator and author Ellis (The Empty Ocean) conducts an exhaustive and generously illustrated survey of what paleontologists know about these monsters of the deep. Many species are known only from a partial skeleton or two, so many questions remain, such as, how did they propel themselves though the water (some scientists guess that plesiosaurs propelled themselves like penguins or dolphins) and what does the gravel found near some fossils mean (perhaps the sea dragons used it for ballast, like modern-day crocodiles, or perhaps they used it in gizzard-like structures, like the chicken). One of the biggest unanswered questions about dinosaurs is what their skin looked like, but Ellis applies his imagination and extensive knowledge of maritime animals skillfully in the grayscale drawings that bring these creatures back to life. Casual dinosaur fans may find the dense detail tough going, but die-hard Jurassic buffs will want this for their collections.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
"This is really the first book to present a detailed summary of the history of ideas on marine reptile paleontology. It's also very readable and accessible, which is one of Ellis's trademarks as a writer."
Top customer reviews
Richard Ellis, like Robert Bakker and Carl Zimmer, has opened the door for the rest of us. Through this great book he is allowing us-- the average reader with an interest in the sciences-- to be a part of that world. His book is a total compendium that describes all the major families of these reptiles: Icthyosaurs, Mosasaurs, Pliosaurs, and of course that perennial candidate for the Loch Ness Monster, the Plesiosaurs.
Thank you, Richard Ellis. I love this book!
Ellis is an excellent artist, but his black and white illustrations are often not well posed to show the particular features he discusses in his text. There are few detail drawings to show the particularities of form, bone structure, dentition, or skin that he mentions. A few drawings look to be at odds with his text.
Ellis's text includes pairs of sentences where the second repeats the first with minor modification or elaboration as if he intended to discard the first but didn't. There are paragraphs that are dustbins of assorted sentences with no topic. There are paragraphs that change topic in mid stream. There are collections of paragraphs with neither topic sentences nor transitions between paragraphs. Sideshows are numerous and only wander back to the main topic with difficulty. Ellis uses long footnotes that should have been incorporated into the text. He does provide good translations for many of the species names.
Most technical areas of anatomy or cladistics are dealt with by quoting a jargon-filled paragraph, noting its incomprehensibility to lay readers, and skipping on to something else. Ellis notes opposing viewpoints but does little to clarify which is to be preferred or why. There are no cladograms or old-style trees of proposed descent whatsoever. No group of Sea Dragons is dealt with in any specific order. There is very little paleoenvironmental information to make clear why a given animal is said to have lived in a particular setting, and only one or two illustrations supply any such information.
Many of these problems might be attributed to inadequate editing. Sea Dragons is the first book I've read in ages that contains misspelled words as opposed to spell-checked misuses. The organizational and editing problems can be seen most obviously where Ellis discusses the mosasaur Globidens, a supposed bivalve-eating creature with rounded teeth. Globidens is mentioned five different times on different pages, but in detail with an illustration only the last time. At that point we are reminded that the ichthyosaur Grippia was also a presumed shellfish eater, but in the previous mention of Grippia, one hundred and forty-some pages earlier in the proper section on ichthyosaurs (Ellis truly loves ichthyosaurs; they turn up in every section), we were told twice only where Grippia was found. In the last section, Ellis first has plesiosaurs going extinct with the ichthyosaurs 20 million years before the K-T asteroid strike, then two pages later has them going extinct "around the K-T boundary," "about 65 million years ago." These would be small matters if they were isolated occurrences, but they are not.
Ellis includes the obligatory attack against creationists in the middle of his section on ichthyosaurs. Creationists have such problems with truth and accuracy and there are so many obvious points on which to criticize the ludicrous nature of their views that it is embarrassing to have Ellis pointlessly write that "here we will assume quite the opposite" when his disorganization and omissions obscure the evidence for evolution marine reptiles do provide. Assumptions aren't good enough to overcome willful ignorance.
Sea Dragons desperately needs a listing in each section of the species/genera discussed and those placed on a graph with location on one axis and time on the other. A side-by-side listing of European and North American geological divisions with radiometric dates should be included. The illustrations need a scale bar or human figure for comparison.
For younger readers, certainly not Ellis's target audience, I would recommend any of David Norman's books that touch on marine reptiles, recognizing that he has little to say on Mosasaurs.
For adult readers, Christopher McGowan's Dinosaurs, Spitfires, & Sea Dragons or Richard Cowen's History of Life provide a more cogent though far briefer account of these truly great dragons of the seas. For those willing to brave the terminology and jargon, Ancient Marine Reptiles, Jack M. Callaway and Elizabeth L. Nicholls, eds., remains the most informative volume.
The first section of the book provided an introduction to Mesozoic marine reptiles in general, detailing the history of research into these animals and briefly detailing some extinct marine reptiles that are not explored in greater detail later, notably the mesosaurs (marine reptiles up to 3 feet long that lived in the Permian, about 300 million years ago), sea turtles (including extinct species), nothosaurs (Triassic animals that may be ancestral to plesiosaurs and possibly had a seal-like ecological niche), and placodonts (somewhat turtle like reptiles that fed on shellfish). The idea of endothermic marine reptiles is discussed, Ellis noting that not only marine mammals and birds are endothermic but also that several species of fast-swimming pelagic sharks and tuna as well as the leatherback turtle maintain temperatures higher than the waters in which they swim. Also whether or not marine reptiles were viviparous (meaning they bore live young rather than laid eggs) or not is discussed, a subject explored at greater length with each group in its respective chapter.
The first group of animals explored at length is the ichthyosaurs, a remarkable group who bear a great deal of resemblance in form to fast swimming shark, dolphin, and tuna species. They were a group of marine reptiles that were highly adapted to a marine existence, existing from the early Triassic (about 250 million years ago) and perishing well before the end of the Cretaceous (about 93 million years ago). Their ancestors a mystery, early ichthyosaurs were long and slim, somewhat eel-like in form, though later species were highly streamlined. The group is fairly well known, with one locale in Holzmaden, Germany, yielding about 35 ichthyosaurs a year and having produced all told over 3,000 specimens; from these and other fossil sites we know that they gave birth to live young and it is highly unlikely that they possessed echolocation but instead were highly dependent upon vision. Ellis reviewed many ichthyosaur species, notably _Shonisaurus_ (at 50 feet the largest described ichthyosaur to date though Ellis noted that an undescribed specimen from British Columbia is 75 feet long) and _Temnodontosaurs_ (a 30 foot long species with eyes 9 inches across, the largest eyes of any animal that ever lived).
Next Ellis examined the plesiosaurs, a group that is found from the uppermost Triassic to the very end of the Cretaceous (they were around for about 140 million years). Completely unlike ichthyosaurs in form, they possessed long necks with small heads (one species, _Elasmosaurus_, had a neck 47 feet long with 70 neck vertebrae). Much of his chapter on this group noted the many controversies that surround them. How they swam is subject to a great dealt of debate; did they paddle (the limbs moving in the vertical plane, like a human doing a crawl stroke or the movement of a waterwheel in a mill), row (moving in the horizontal plane, in a manner similar to how oars are used on a boat), or "fly" (the limbs moving roughly in a figure-eight pattern, much like modern sea turtles, sea lions, and penguins; and if they did fly did they have two "wings" in use or four)? Did they lay eggs or bear live young? How did they hunt; did they hunt from the surface or well beneath it and what sort of motions were their necks capable of?
The next group are the pliosaurs, a group that some feel is somewhat artificial, either believing the distinction between small-headed, long-necked plesiosaurs and large-headed, short-necked pliosaurs artificial to start with or noting that the pliosaur body plan may have arisen independently several times from ancestral plesiosaurs during the Mesozoic. This group possessed some of the largest predators ever, notably _Liopleurodon_ (most believing it 50 feet in length though Tim Haines, author of the book _Walking With Dinosaurs_ and producer of the BBC TV program of the same name was accused by others of being "irresponsible and sensationalistic" in claims that it was over 80 feet long). Ellis noted several remarkable specimens, such as a pliosaur (_Leptocleidus_) from Australia, "Eric," an almost complete skeleton comprised entirely of precious opal, and one dubbed by detractors "Plasterosaurus," a _Kronosaurus_ specimen that required massive amounts of reconstruction and liberal use of plaster.
The last group examined is the mosasaurs, a kind of marine lizard that appeared in the fossil record 90 million years ago. Not exactly small-sized animals (_Mosasaurus_ reached 58 feet in length), they were arguably the dominant marine predator for about 25 million years, existing after the extinction of the ichthyosaurs (some say there is a connection, though others think that faster, more evasive fish evolved, making ichthyosaur pursuit tactics to metabolically costly and that mosasaurs were ambush not pursuit predators) and during the decline of the pliosaurs. Like the ichthyosaurs, the mosasaurs are relatively well known with many fossils from locations as far apart as Africa, Belgium, Alabama, and Kansas (the Niobrara Chalk formation of Kansas has yielded 1,823 mosasaur specimens, many of which were collected by O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope in a collecting and naming frenzy that produced such a taxonomic muddle that experts are still confused). I thought Ellis did a very good job in discussing mosasaur physiology and behavior as well as what evolutionary relationship they have (if any) with snakes and found this section particularly enlightening.
Not bad, some of the other reviews note the book's flaws better than I can.