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1 October 2007 Glorified Dinosaurs: The Origin and Early Evolution of Birds
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The following critiques express the opinions of the individual evaluators regarding the strengths, weaknesses, and value of the books they review. As such, the appraisals are subjective assessments and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or any official policy of the American Ornithologists’ Union.

Glorified Dinosaurs: The Origin and Early Evolution of Birds.—Luis M. Chiappe. 2007. John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken, New Jersey. ix + 263 pp., 197 text figures. ISBN 0-471-24723-4. Cloth, $69.95.—Exquisite and tantalizing images, either never before seen or strewn across the landscape of primary literature, will have readers thumbing through the pages of Glorified Dinosaurs in uncontrolled anticipation and unbridled excitement. At last, here is a summary of the exponentially burgeoning knowledge on Mesozoic birds. Yet this book encompasses so many levels, from elementary to professional, that it may not be immediately clear for what audience it is primarily intended. Ultimately, the common denominator is a relatively simple one. For the lay and up to college-level audience, the book will be hugely successful, so much so that it should come with a cautionary label: it may place young readers at risk of a career in paleontology.

Glorified Dinosaurs makes for very easy reading. Chiappe's amiable and non-confrontational personality is apparent as he guides readers through the sometimes rocky terrain of scientific controversy. His style is conversational, peppered with anecdotes and firsthand references to personalities in the field. The reader will feel very much as though he were engaged in conversation, and Chiappe's exhilaration for fossil discovery is contagious.

A dual personality of Glorified Dinosaurs is revealed in Chiappe's attempt to provide didactic lessons in the familiar format of popular natural-history magazines. Thus, the text is interspersed with full-page illustrated pedagogical sidebars explaining everything from phylogenetic analysis to plate tectonics. This format, becoming increasingly familiar in university textbooks, is a reincarnation of the belabored footnotes of Victorian literature. Sometimes these standalone digressions provide valuable background, but they have varying appeal to different readers. Some sidebars are needlessly reiterated in the text. Some are inadequately explained to stand alone, and thus merely introduce concepts rather than circumscribing them. For example, it is particularly unfortunate that parsimony-optimized cladistics is summarized so succinctly from a conceptual perspective, yet not illustrated with a sufficiently simple example that a novice could follow the steps mechanically. Elsewhere, sidebars seem to have been included more for consistency of formatting style than for their content. The colored backgrounds of sidebar text can be a distraction or even an impediment to reading for the visually challenged.

Another unfortunate side effect of the simultaneous outreach to professional and amateur audiences of Glorified Dinosaurs is the haphazard and inconsistent use of anatomical and scientific nomenclature. The use of vernacular descriptors is intended for the benefit of lay readers, yet euphemisms used to introduce structures and concepts need not replace the latter repeatedly throughout the text when, in other cases, proper Latin names are used without apology. Moreover, some vernacular terms are so imprecise as to be misleading. For example, Chiappe repeatedly refers to the pervasive homoplasy revealed by cladistic analysis as “evolutionary experimentation.” This is unfortunate, because the existence of parallelism in closely related organisms is an important evolutionary concept.

Whether in text books or popular literature, readers are all too often presented with dogma; yet, in truth, science is all about uncertainty. Chiappe paints an accurate picture of scientific discourse that, in itself, will be a valuable lesson for aspiring professionals. Among the nearly unique features of Glorified Dinosaurs in comparison with recent literature is Chiappe's willingness to confront and openly discuss contentious issues regarding the genealogical, temporal, and behavioral origins of birds. His purview of the primary literature is remarkably thorough, being considerably more up-to-date than one might think from the list of “Further Reading,” none of which postdates 2005. (Note, for example, discussion of the hallux of the tenth Archaeopteryx, described in 2007.) Chiappe provides a balanced hermeneutic of opposing views that are either too superficially treated in textbooks or too often avoided altogether by proponents of the theropod ancestry of birds. To his credit, he lays bare unrealistically strict interpretations usually put forth by the detractors of specific hypotheses. For example, he distinguishes between the roles of vertical climbing and perching as primary adaptations versus opportunistic arborealism in discussion of cursorial and arboreal models for the origin of avian flight. Chiappe also shows surprising insight regarding the chasm of views on the timing of avian origins based on molecular clocks versus paleontology. Lineages of polymorphic genes necessarily predate organismal divergences, and fossils can only provide minimum ages of organismal lineages. Sadly, in too many cases after both sides of an argument are presented clearly, Chiappe simply states without providing documentation that one or the other view has since been discredited.

Several faults unfortunately mar this otherwise polished product. The life-reconstruction artwork is cartoonish and, in some cases, patently incorrect. For instance, Hesperornis is depicted with frog-knees, even though Chiappe acknowledges that the entire crus would probably be bound to the torpedo-like body, as in loons. If the strength of this book is Mesozoic avian paleontology, then certainly its weakness is Cenozoic avian paleontology and neontology. Inclusion of illustrations of certain modern skeletons would have greatly enhanced the conveyance of comparative anatomy and behavior. Knowledgeable readers will wince at statements that nuthatches are zygodactyl and that gannets and pelicans have supraorbital salt glands, leaving them a bit uneasy about the accuracy of descriptions of lesser-known Mesozoic fossils. The proximal expansion of the cnemial and patellar regions of foot-propelled divers is for hypertrophied pedal and digital flexors and extensors, not to provide a lever for the hind limbs. The supracoracoideus muscle is not characteristically smaller in birds with high wing loading; quite the reverse is true. Gruiformes and Pelecaniformes are suggested to have originated in Gondwana, owing to the geographic distribution of extant species, but genetic evidence contradicts their monophyly. Many readers will be disappointed to find no list of characteristics shared by birds and alvarezsaurids or to define Enantiornithes, inasmuch as these are central to the lengthy discussions of these taxa. At times, there is protracted use of Latin binomials without adequate accompanying illustration—for example, where alluding to the great diversity of enantiornithe tarsometatarsi. Chiappe also seems to have experienced author's fatigue. The first half of the book is more conceptual, whereas the second is more taxon-specific. The eloquent verbiage of earlier chapters eventually gives way to increasingly frequent grammatical and spelling errors, and repetitive themes and phrases.

I confess disappointment for the authoritative professional reference this book almost is, but is not. Professional utility could be greatly augmented without detracting from the meandering narrative, simply by including numerical citations in the text and a full bibliography of primary literature at the end, as well as by the addition of key character matrices where they are available. Certainly, no other author could have succeeded in accommodating both audiences, for Luis Chiappe's experience and international networks in the field are unparalleled. I may be faulted for measuring a popular text with a professional's yardstick, but one should not underestimate the influence this text could have on the professional growth of its readers. It was indeed a natural-history magazine article that led directly to my first professional ornithological field experience. This also will likely be the first point of reference for many nonspecialists in the ornithological community. A book that is otherwise so inspiring should not be dumbed-down for lay readers who are clearly eager to learn the Latin names of fossils and anatomical structures. I have no doubt that some interested readers of Glorified Dinosaurs will be insatiable. Apparently, I am one of them.

Peter Houde "Glorified Dinosaurs: The Origin and Early Evolution of Birds," The Auk 124(4), 1464-1466, (1 October 2007).[1464:GDTOAE]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 October 2007

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