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Book review: Unearthing the Dragon

Book review
Unearthing the Dragon: The Great Feathered Dinosaur Discovery

by Mark Norell.
PI Press, 2005.
ISBN 0 1318 6266 9.
Hardcover, $30.00.

Fine-feathered adventures in China
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 don’t 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 Norell’s text and Ellison’s 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. Norell’s 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.

Norell tells it as he sees it, which is refreshing, and which makes for a very readable and entertaining book.
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 with.

Those of us who also worked in China, often in the same localities with the same colleagues, can vouch for Norell’s 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 dinosaurs.

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 author’s 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 book.

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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