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Book review: Unearthing
the Dragon: The Great Feathered Dinosaur Discovery
by Mark Norell.
PI Press, 2005.
ISBN 0 1318 6266 9.
Philip J. Currie
If you are scanning the shelves of your favorite bookstore for a new dinosaur
book, you might miss this one because of its oriental design and garish montage
of Chinese photographs. The subtitle and two small photographs of fossils are
the only visual indication of the central theme of the book. But dont
be fooled by the cover!
Unearthing the Dragon: The Great Feathered Dinosaur Discovery by Mark
Norell is as fine a dinosaur book as it is good travel literature. I suspect
that many people will purchase the book because of the drawings and color photographs
by Mick Ellison, which not only illustrate many of the most important specimens,
but also document a society in transition. Both Norells text and Ellisons
photographs have a witty sense of humor, making the book a delight.
My decision to become a dinosaur hunter came when, as an 11-year-old, I read
one of Roy Chapman Andrews books about expeditions to Mongolia and China.
Norells tales of travels to the Far East have some of the same qualities
that inspired me to become a scientist, and his vivid descriptions of conducting
cutting-edge research in exotic places is likely to have the same effect on
a new generation of kids.
Working in the field in central Asia and conducting research on Chinese fossils
pose hazards that are perhaps not unique, but are nevertheless linked to an
ancient culture that is very different from what most North Americans experience.
The illegal collection and sale of spectacular fossils from northeastern China
is only one of the peculiarities that Norell and others have learned to deal
tells it as he sees it, which is refreshing, and which makes for a very
readable and entertaining book.
Those of us who also worked in China, often in the same localities with the
same colleagues, can vouch for Norells realistic descriptions of what
it is like to conduct research there. While very different in most ways from
the situations that Roy Chapman Andrews dealt with in the 1920s, it is no less
exciting, and the stakes are just as high.
For the professionals and enthusiasts, Unearthing the Dragon includes a
succinct synthesis of all the research on feathered dinosaurs and early birds
that has been published in Nature and other journals since 1996. The author
has been involved with two of the Chinese teams one headed by Ji Qiang
and the other centered around Xu Xing that have been responsible for the
recognition, recovery, preparation and description of the majority of feathered
The book also describes and illustrates other elements of the rich flora and
fauna known as the Jehol Biota, from early flowering plants, to insects with
preserved color patterns in their wings, to fuzzy flying reptiles and mammals
with preserved hair.
A particularly informative section is the authors analysis of the controversy
that still surrounds the origin of birds. This subject normally is dealt with
by the different factions sniping at each other in the scientific journals and
media, and it is refreshing to see a well-organized, clinical discussion of
all aspects of the arguments. Norell (like most other paleontologists working
closely on this subject) clearly believes that birds are the direct descendants
of non-avian dinosaurs, and he is merciless in pointing out the bad science
practiced by those opposing this view. However, a paper in the October Journal
of Morphology, by Alan Feduccia of the University of North Carolina in Chapel
Hill, disputing birds dinosaur ancestry demonstrates that a minority camp
is still able to keep the fires of dissention burning.
Unearthing the Dragon is not a perfect book it has the usual assortment
of bumps, warts and typos (especially in the captions) that plague many books.
And the enthusiastic but somewhat cavalier approach to fieldwork that Norell takes
will not meet with the universal approval of his peers. But Norell tells it as
he sees it, which is refreshing, and which makes for a very readable and entertaining
Currie, a professor of biology
at the University of Alberta, has been collecting dinosaur fossils for many years
and was co-leader of the Canada-China dinosaur project.
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