The little ginger-colored creature on the cover of Michael J. Benton’s Dinosaurs Rediscovered is a Sinosauropteryx, a 2-pound dinosaur that lived in China in the early Cretaceous Period, roughly 125 million years ago. The illustrator didn’t make up the color. This was the first dinosaur to have its feather color determined.
Benton and his colleagues at the world-renowned Paleobiology Research Group at the University of Bristol in England discovered melanosomes in the fossilized feathers of a Sinosauropteryx; melanosomes are hollows in feathers that held the pigment melanin. “We could say for the first time,” Benton writes, “we had discovered for sure the colour of a dinosaur.”
Assumption-shifting moments like this fill the pages of “Dinosaurs Rediscovered.” Benton writes movingly about having seen during his own career the birth of a revolution in technologies like chemical analysis, CT scanning, and digital imaging, all adding new dimensions to field techniques. This revolution has reshaped how science characterizes all aspects of dinosaur life and physiology. Since the same period has seen a series of dramatic new fossil finds, Benton’s choice of title seems less like publisher hyperbole and more like a report from the trenches. The book conveys a sense of an entire discipline in a state of giddy upheaval.
As Benton writes, even a few years ago dinosaur paleontologists thought the broad outlines of dinosaur origins had been definitively established. But that origin story has been drastically rewritten recently in the wake of new discoveries, like the ones that pushed the date itself back 15 million years to the early Triassic. “Perhaps, if you had been transported back in a time machine, you would have barely noticed the first dinosaurs,” he writes. “Among all the abundant, hefty, and noisy rhynchosaurs, synapsids, and crurotarsans snuffling around, the few, small, bipedal dinosaurs nipping in and out of the undergrowth would have seemed like a sideshow.”
In sharp and engaging prose, “Dinosaurs Rediscovered” covers the history of dinosaur research and the nuts and bolts of how researchers know the things they know. Individual dinosaurs are profiled, and popular questions are hashed over, such as whether or not dinosaurs were warm-blooded, how intelligent they were, and in what ways birds are living descendants of dinosaurs. Fans of the “Jurassic Park” movies are given the cold news that “DNA is not a tough molecule” and isn’t likely to produce living, cloned dinosaurs anytime soon. Likewise, the hero of “Jurassic Park” – and the rest of the dinosaur world – Tyrannosaurus rex, is brought up often to illustrate new theories, such as a locomotion model that predicted the king of the dinosaurs would have “bounced along at a steady lope, making strides 4 metres (13 feet) long, but always with at least one foot on the ground (it did not have a so-called airborne phase, as seen in fast runners such as ostriches and racehorses).”
Dinosaurs dominated the planet for roughly 170 million years (as opposed to humanity’s paltry 150,000 years), and as Benton points out, their secrets are being revealed at a greater pace today than ever before. He is ideally placed to convey the sheer extent of all those changes. Benton takes his readers through dozens of individual species, giving a quick thumbnail of their vital stats. He also includes a map of how the continents looked when each species was alive.
The final impression of “Dinosaurs Rediscovered” is one of infectious excitement. Benton has been learning about dinosaurs and teaching about them for decades, writing dozens of books and textbooks and shaping the understanding of paleontology for an entire generation. This book is an engrossing and beautifully designed result of that lifelong passion. It belongs on the shelf of every adult collector of dinosaur books.