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Monday, December 22, 2003

Dinosaurs and Birds

Just read The Bone Museum: Travels in the Lost Worlds of Dinosaurs and Birds by Wayne Grady. Grady also wrote The Dinosaur Project several years ago (which I haven't read) that chronicled a joint paleontological expedition to China in the late 1980s with Candians where some important finds were made.

In the first half of the book the author takes you along on a fossil hunting trip in Patagonia where paleontologists from Canada and Argentina are unearthing a bonebed containing six late Cretaceous theropods known as Gigantosaurus, some of the largest theropods ever found. He does a great job giving you the feel of camp life and the work that's involved in excavating such a find. The book is also a travelogue and there are many alleys and rabbit trails that some may find distracting but are fairly interesting in their own right (for example, some history of Patagonia).

In the second half, the author is once again in his native Canada and this time travels to Alberta to meet up with some of the same scientists to work in an Albertasaurus quarry near Dinosaur Provincial Park, some 80 miles west of Calgary. Once again a feel for camp life is included as well as for prospecting (looking for new bonebeds or individual dinosaur remains) in the badlands of Alberta along with historical portraits of some of its early prospectors including Charles Sternberg, Barnum Brown, and William Cutler. His descriptions of prospecting ring especially true for me since they were very similar to the day my daughter and I spent looking for Cretaceous fossils in the winding canyons and gulleys of western Kansas complete with the difficulty of identifying bone and the way your eyes automatically strain to sort out differences in texture, color, and pattern among the layers of rock.

What holds the book together is an extended discussion of the theory that birds evolved from small theropods. The author covers most of the historical discussion citing T.H. Huxley, who first proposed the idea after seeing Archaeopteryx in the 1860s and on to John Ostrum who revived the idea in the 1960s but also including the views of opponents Alan Feduccia and Larry Martin. Of course, the author sides with Huxley and Ostrum since he traveled to China and Argentina with Phil Currie, a leading exponent of the theory and who was on the expedition that in 1996 uncovered Sinosauropteryx, a theropod with feathers, which opened the door to the possibility and later confirmation that other theropods (including Caudipteryx and Sinornithosaurs ) more closely resembling birds were also feathered (as shown on the Discovery Channel's "Dinosaur Planet" this month where the velociraptors are feathered).

This reminded me of the day my family spent at the Chicago Field Museum after Thanksgiving where the displays associated with Sue, the 90% complete T-Rex discovered in South Dakota, were all about the dinosaur-bird connection. My daughter enjoyed the interactive exhbiit where the kids identify different parts of an ostrich skeleton and link them to Sue. One of the most important aspects of Sue was its wishbone or furcula, the first found on a T-Rex that further points to a link with birds.

In all, an interesting book that gives you a feel for what a fossil dig is like and provides a good bit of history along the way.