Sunday, 31 March 2013

All Yesterdays - book review

(This review first appeared in Fortean Times FT 299, April 2013, but I've since updated it following a clarification about who did what on the writing front.)

All Yesterdays - Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals

John Conway, C. M. Kosemen, Dr Darren Naish, Scott Hartman
Irregular Books,
100 pages, e-book on most reader formats from £5.99 (Kindle) or paperback £22

This playfully iconoclastic look at dinosaurs persuasively argues that our received wisdom about how they looked and lived may be completely wrong.

The artists behind some of the best-known dinosaur reconstructions often took only a cursory glance at mounted dinosaur skeletons, but rarely – if ever - went to the trouble of actually measuring them. Charles R. Knight, probably history's greatest "paleo-artist", frequently drew dinosaurs freehand, with little reference to any actual specimens. The depiction of those days of dinosaurs as sluggish lizards (with volcanoes going off in the background) is now outmoded. A paradigm-shift has turned dinosaurs into agile, feathered and likely warm-blooded creatures.

But as Yesterdays points out, most dinosaur "reconstructions" are really just lazy reproductions of what other artists have imagined before. Most current dinosaur reconstruction show what Naish and Co. call “shrink-wrapping” – their skin is stretched tight over the bones, with little or no allowance for the "soft tissues" that haven't survived fossilization. Yesterdays has a go at rectifying this.

Paleontologist Dr Darren Naish - as part of various team efforts, he's discovered three new dinosaur species to date – provides Yesterday's introduction and Koseman, together with Conway, provides the bulk of the text. (My review as it appeared in print in Fortean Times, and apparently most other reviews, incorrectly had Naish down as the sole writer. Conway contacted me to clarify this, and to concede that it had been "obviously very unclear.") Koseman, Hartman and Conway - the book's instigator - are its capable "paleo-artists."

Among Yesterday's many surprises is its quilled dinosaurs – recent discoveries suggest fossils of Triceratops and its earlier relatives had signs of porcupine-like quills or fuzz. Then there's a game of "Spot the Dinosaur" that imagines large and hard-to-see prehistoric animals lying in ambush in spectacular natural camouflage. There's even a "Can you tell what it is yet?" game, challenging readers to identify an unfamiliar dinosaur – reconstructed as a shambling mass of feathers, a sort of feathered Bigfoot. I won't give away which quite well-known dino it is.

Dinosaur behaviour doesn't survive fossilization either. Turtles, monitor lizards and crocodiles exhibit "playing" behaviour, so we're treated to an image of vast, bulky long-necked dinosaur Camarasaurus at play. There's also a Tyrannosaurs that's not roaring and attacking, but doing instead what it probably did for several days at time – sleeping off a meal of several tonnes. And speaking of behaviour, there's speculation on some of the weirder aspects of dinosaur sexuality, and even some interspecies dino-porn.

By far the best - and the most jaw-droppingly thought-provoking – bit of Yesterdays is the "All Todays" section. Were we non-mammal, non-human paleontologists from the far future with only bones and no knowledge of the "soft tissue" to go on, we may well have interpreted whales from their remains as a sort of serpentine fish that could swallow large prey whole. Many other logical but completely wrong conjectures by far-future "paleos" are spectacularly illustrated here. There's a fuzzy iguana, an earless (domestic) cat with protruding fangs and a leathery, skull-like face, tiny-eared rabbits with necks jutting forwards, a hippo reconstructed as an armour-piercing "apex predator" (based on its massive teeth), and flightless swans with arms ending in tadpole-skewering spikes. It does make you wonder what the "paleos" of our age could have missed in the dinosaur fossils of the distant past.


© Matt Salusbury

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

‘There Be Beasts' The First London Cryptozoology Club Mini-Conference - 13 April

I'll be helping out at ‘There Be Beasts ....’, the London Cryptozoology Club Mini-Conference is on Saturday 13th April 2013
11am – 7pm (first presentation at 11.30)
Upstairs at The Old Kings Head, 47-49 Borough High Street, London, SE1 1NA
Tickets: £5 / £2 concessions (students, OAPs, people in receipt of benefits)

To register and purchase tickets please email or call James Newton on 07805 356461

Confirmed talks:

• “On the Track of Unknown Animals Worldwide” Richard Freeman, Zoological Director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology

Richard Freeman of the CFZ at the Fortean Times UnCon 2010

• “Mermaids: A Natural and Unnatural History” Paolo Viscardi, Natural History Curator and Mermaid Anatomist (works at the Horniman Museum).

• “Current Developments in Bigfoot Research” James Newton, self-confessed Armchair Cryptozoologist. This includes recent research suggesting that Bigfoot may be much closer to us humans than we thought, not a Gigantopithecus at all but a manimal with a culture and a language, that knows how to stay hidden!

• “Does the Pink-Headed Duck Still Survive in Burma?” Richard Thorns, Writer, Ornithologist and Explorer

• 'The Legendary Parakeets of London and Friends' Scott Wood, Co-organiser of The London Fortean Society

Getting here: Nearest train: London Bridge (5 minutes walk)
Nearest tube: London Bridge (5 minutes walk)

Buses: 17, 21, 35, 40, 43, 47, 48, 133, 141, 149, 343, 381, 521, RV1

I've heard James Newton, Richard Freeman and Richard Thorns speak on these topics, all recommended!

See here for London Crytozoology Club's sceptical, pub-based "Tunbridge Wells Bigfoot" investigation earlier this year.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Haringey Heads exhibition flyer

Here's the Haringey Heads photo exhibition flyer. There's a follow-up exhibition at the Bruce Castle Museum, July to September, including the London Open House weekend, details to follow.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

The First Fossil Hunters - book review

The First Fossil Hunters - Dinosaurs, Mammoths and Myth in Greek and Roman Times, Adrienne Mayor, Princeton University Press 2011, 349 pages, paperback $18.95

This review first appeared in Fortean Times FT298, March 2013

The Greek island of Samos was once believed to bear traces of Neades, enormous primeval beasts whose piercing cries tore chasms into the ground. After Greeks encountered elephants in Alexander the Great's wars, the explanation for Samos's giant bones was revised. These were no longer the monstrous Neades but the remains of the god Dionysus's war elephants, brought to Samos to do battle with the Amazons.

Ancient Greeks had spotted the similarity between living elephants and the fossil mammoths abundant beneath the soil of Samos. And the Greek biographer Plutarch observed "ancient Egypt was once a sea," accounting for the "abundance of mollusc shells in its mines and on its mountains." Herodotus claimed to have seen Egypt's fossil shellfish for himself.

But apart from that great pioneer of zoology Baron Georges Cuvier, whose works noted that the Greeks had collected fossil mammal bones, the extensive palaeontology of the Classical world somehow slipped out of the history of science and into the dustbin of "damned" data. In this first paperback edition of The First Fossil Hunters, Classicist and science historian Adrianna Major digs up this fascinating lost world.

The Greeks believed the long-dead protagonists of their epics were literally larger than life, that the humans of their own era had become pale shadows of the mighty ten-foot-tall heroes and demi-gods of old. Contemporary philosophy was able to explain how a "degenerate" nature could by then only produce puny, five feet tall humans.

Jumbled elephant or mammoth bones separated from their tusks could easily be mistaken for those of an upright giant hero. A veritable bone fever gripped Greek cities, they collected the treasured relics of these prodigious heroes, even to the point of looting expeditions and wars with rival cities.

Fossil exposures caused by collapsing "mounds" became ancient Greek tourist attractions. The historian Philostratus, writing in the second century AD, recalled joining a seaborne rush to visit a 30-foot long "human" skeleton temporarily visible after a sea cliff at Sigeum collapsed.

The original gold-guarding griffons –identified as indigenous to what's now Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Eastern China – were described as "quadrapedal birds" without wings - their curiously vestigial wings came later. The usually meticulous poet Aeschylus describes Prometheus bound, pecked and tormented by "wingless gryphons". Gyphons were, suggests Mayor, the often perfectly preserved skeletons of the beaked dinosaurs Protoceratops and its smaller relative Psittacosaurus, found in dunes in those regions, often among gold-bearing deposits, buried by Cretaceous sand storms.

There's a wealth of examples from ancient Greece and Rome, and mentions too of ancient Egypt – where devotees brought blackened fossil teeth and bone shards of fossil mammals by the tonne to the shrine of Set (aka Sutekh), prince of darkness at Matmur and Qua. The "dragon bones" mined in China until the 1920s and ground up for traditional medicines were so called as a term of convenience, the Chinese knew they were in fact unearthing the bones and teeth of prehistoric giraffe relatives and deer, which is why Chinese dragons are often depicted with antlers.

Fans of Fortean Times's own "Classical Corner" fans will love the extensive "Ancient Testimonia" appendix, with quotations on obvious fossil finds from numerous Greek and Roman sources – some so undeservedly obscure these are their first English translations.



Friday, 8 March 2013

Does one and a half million deer mean more food for Britain's Big Cats?

A recent study by the University of East Anglia into deer population in Thetford Forest on the Norfolk/Suffolk border reveals the UK deer population is much bigger than previous believed - as many as one and a half million. This is reaching population levels not seen since the Ice Age. While it's been covered a lot in the news of late, so far I haven't come across any discussion on the implications of this for Britain's "Alien Big Cat" population.

Bits of deer are among the items on Jonathan McGowan's stall showing evidence of British "Big Cat" kills that he's collected over the years

British "Big Cat" expert Jonathan McGowan (he prefers the term "large cat" to describe the predators at large in the UK, which aren't so alien anymore,) in a talk on Britain's "large cats" at last year's CFZ "Weird Weekend" conference, said "Deer are the key to big cats… Throughout Britain, wherever there are deer in large numbers, there a large cats." He mentioned sika deer in particular, which are "great breeders." Sika deer are now established in Norfolk, and are turning up occasionally in Suffolk, and Suffolk's wildlife and conservation people have been concerned for some years now that muntjac deer in particular are destroying the bluebells in the bluebell woods. Back in 2009, Dr Simone Bullion's The Mammals of Suffolk was already talking about "the triumph of the deer."

Further afield, roe deer have been reported living in an urban cemetery in Sheffield, and wild muntjac are occasionally seen on the very urban London Borough of Haringey's Parkland Walk.

An explosion in deer populations and a much bigger population of deer than we knew about would presumably mean that if there is a "large cat" breeding population established in Britain - with so many deer to feast on - it must be doing rather well! Could it be that the "large cat" population, with a greater food source than we thought, could itself be bigger than we imagined?

Apparently, the massive deer cull that's being suggested as a result of the UEA study - around 60 per cent of the total UK deer population is being proposed - won't help reduce numbers all that much. In the Thetford Forest, the study showed about 2,000 deer a year are being "pushed out" of the forest by population pressures. Dr Paul Dolman, lead author of the UEA study, interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Today programme yesterday (11/03/13,)said that where there are regular deer culls, the deer tend to move out of the area. (Wouldn't you?!)

So not only is the "large cats'" favourite food source much bigger than previously believed, but deer are colonising new areas - good news for Britain's yet-to-be-officially-confirmed "large cat" population.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

YAT Comedy Sketch Show in Aid of Luke's Year in Uganda: The Title Could Be Catchier

The YAT Comedy Sketch Show in Aid of Luke's Year in Uganda: The Title Could Be Catchier is on Friday 22, Saturday 23 March and Sunday 24 March at the Young Actor's Theatre, 70-72 Barnsbury Rd, London N1 0ES (nearest Tube: Angel). The curtain goes up at 7.30.

Tickets are £7, you can order tickets by phoning the YAT box office on 020 7278 2101, Monday-Friday 10am-5pm.

While exact details of the show are still being kept under wraps for the moment, I understand from a source close to the production that it's a live comedy show that's something to do with the Young Actor's Theatre, and that it follows a comedy sketch show format, that it's to raise funds for Luke Reilly's forthcoming year-long teaching assignment in Uganda. The source also admitted that the title could have been catchier.