Dinosaurs: The Myth-Busting Guide to Prehistoric Beasts (2019, Happy Fox Books) is a collection of reprinted, full-color BBC Science Focus magazine articles from 2017 and 2019, available in both hardcover and paperback. Being such, it’s a little surprising that this book only has four credited authors. This includes two articles by paleobiologist Darren Naish, who first walks readers through the rise of the dinosaurs during the Triassic Period (p. 16-23) and then discusses dinosaur biomechanics (p. 38-45), and two by writer John Pickrell, asking how we can know what dinosaurs looked like (p. 26-35) and considering Dougal Dixon’s classic work of speculative-evolution, The New Dinosaurs (1988), and how well it holds up today.
This leaves journalists Henry Nicholls to cover the extinctions of the dinosaurs (p. 64-73) and Brian Clegg (Big Data, 2017) to ask what a real-life Jurassic Park would be like (p. 89-96). This last article is more science-fiction than actual science since, as geneticist Beth Shapiro explains at the top, our chances of cloning a 5,000-year-old mammoth are slim-to-none, let alone a 65 million-year-old dinosaur.
Filling out the rest of Dinosaurs’ nearly 100-pages is a 13-page illustrated timeline of earth’s geological history from the very beginning to the present, a 14-page Q & A section dealing with various dinosaur trivia, and a set of canned profiles on the “Top 7 Dinosaurs”: T. rex, archaeopteryx, anklyosaurus, triceratops, velociraptor, brachiosaurus, and stegosaurus.
The book’s subtitle, “The Myth-Busting Guide to Prehistoric Beasts,” is something of a non-sequitur, as busting popular paleo-myths really isn’t the focus here. The closest we get is in Naish’s second article, which touches on the fact that dinosaurs likely didn’t roar like lions but rather rumbled like crocodilians (p. 41), and that some herbivorous dinosaurs did occasionally consume protein (p. 45), just like modern-day ungulates.
But neither of these asides constitutes the focus of Naish’s piece, or justifies the supposed theme of the book. In fact, Dinosaurs occasionally helps to foster some myths and common misconceptions. A blurb on page 56 addressing the question, “When Was the First Dinosaur Discovered?” cites folklorist Adrienne Mayor’s controversial idea that protoceratops bones found in Mongolia inspired the legendary griffin, a concept which has been repeatedly challenged but remains popular, nonetheless.
Then there’s the issue of how shockingly uneven the images throughout the book are, both in paleontological accuracy and the actual quality of the images themselves, with many appearing blurry or pixilated. While a few fine paintings by noted paleoartist Mark Witton can be spotted here and there, the bulk of the illustrations consist of atrocious, CGI-rendered stock dinosaurs.
Many of these images are not only unattractive but severely dated. A spinosaurus seen on page 11 is standing on two legs, while another one on pages 48-49 has a megalosaurus-style skull. Some images depict theropod dinosaurs with feathers and some don’t. Perhaps the most inexcusable is the archaeopteryx profiled on pages 24-25, which looks like a plucked chicken.
Perhaps nothing beats the pages which just resort to using photos of commercial dinosaur toys, like Papo’s Jurassic Park-inspired featherless “raptors,” or a T. rex in an anatomically impossible spine-snapping pose, or a couple of vintage, lizard-faced stegosaurus by Dor Mei and Imperial, respectively.
It’s not all bad, though. The highlight of the book, artistically speaking, is the section, “What If The Dinosaurs Had Survived?” which features original artwork by the talented James Gilleard. As noted above, this section deals with Dougal Dixon’s The New Dinosaurs (1988), which featured numerous illustrations by the author of speculative future-dinosaurs, and it’s fun to see Gilleard’s take on Dixon’s iconic creatures.
Ultimately, I can’t recommend Dinosaurs: The Myth-Busting Guide to Prehistoric Beasts. If you have the issues of BBC Science Focus magazine that the book drew from, then you already own it. I’ve heard it suggested Dinosaurs would be ideal for kids, but if this is the case, there are still far better, splendidly illustrated books on dinosaurs for young readers out there. Might I recommend Gilleard and Anne Rooney’s Lonely Planet Kid’s Dinosaur Atlas?