Not Digging the Dinos

dinobooks3210I enjoy a good dinosaur book as much as any former nine-year old, but was honestly disappointed with two new dino books this year.

How to Build a Dinosaur by well-known paleontologist Jack Horner, was the first.  The author’s name caught my eye immediately and the “Extinction doesn’t have to be forever” subtitle paired with a cover image of a dino paw breaking out of an egg shell stirred thoughts of recreating an extinct beast a la Jurassic Park.

Horner’s discussion of fossil finds, genetics, and pure science kept me reading, but his end game — seeking funding to manipulate a chicken’s embryonic growth and simulate a dinosaur — was anti-climactic.  I’m not saying it wasn’t an interesting idea; it just wasn’t the science I had expected.

It’s true that chickens host many genes inherited from dinosaurs.  And some inactive genes can be prodded to activate.  But much of the old genome (the dinosaur gene set) did not get passed down and no amount of embryonic poking will recover it.  A manipulated chick would become a strange little chicken — not a dinosaur — no matter what the ancient relationship.

The other disappointment, Grave Secrets of Dinosaurs by Phillip Manning, was interesting but written too soon.  Its story is unfinished.  Dakota, a hadrosaur mummy unearthed in the Hell Creek Badlands in 2004-2005, was a remarkable find: a dinosaur still wrapped in a pebbled blanket of skin after 65+ million years!

Manning gives a great amount of background information on long term preservation — both the soft tissue mummy type and the more familiar mineralized fossil sort.  And he shares his understandable excitement regarding the dinosaur remains that appear to yield more than just stone bones.

Manning takes us into the field during the excavation, plastering, and transport of the huge dinosaur.  He also covers the tests done by CT scanners and electron microscopes.  The science presented is fascinating.  The preliminary results (showing that original biomolecules survived millions of years!) are tantalizing.

But that’s what prompted my disappointment.  They were preliminary results.  More scans and more tests were needed.  In fact, Manning ends his book before the team determined whether Dakota was male or female — an expectation remarkable in itself.  The studies aren’t finished.  Most of the science is undone, conclusions unknown.  The book was published prematurely.

The dinosaur mummy awaits more scans and more tests, but what is a reader to do at the end of the book?  Preliminary results leave you hungry.  It’s as if Miss Marple had assembled the suspects in a room following a fascinating murder investigation only to have the last few pages torn away.

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