Dinosaurs, Palaeontology and Evolution: 10 of the Best Books for natural history lovers

Palaeontology and archaeology: discovering the Earth’s past

Palaeontology and archaeology are traditionally the domain of experts, but thanks to some excellent literature, the mysteries of our distant past are becoming increasingly available to us all. Many of us have a passion for dinosaurs and fossils ignited in our childhood. The more we learn and read, the more that passion grows. The best way to indulge your passion for palaeontology is to get onto the ground. Visit the sites at which significant discoveries have been made. View fossils which have changed the course of history. Meet and learn from experts in the field, and hear their unique insights.

Odyssey Traveller offers three tours designed especially for senior travellers with a passion for palaeontology and fossils. On our China Dinosaurs small group escorted paleontology tour, it is even possible to participate in a dig, or help to sort and tag fossils within a laboratory. Or in Argentina, visit Ischigualasto – considered by experts to be one of the world’s leading palaeontological sites. This is one of the highlights of the Argentina Dinosaur dig including Titanosaurus small group tour. Finally, the Gobi Desert- Mongolia Dinosaur dig small groups palaeontological tour involves living and working like a palaeontologist, accompanying a research team in the fossil rich Tugrigiin Shiree.

Odyssey Traveller offers educational tours designed especially for senior travellers. We encourage travellers to research and open their minds to developing knowledge.

The following suggested reading list includes recent and significant publications in the field of palaeontology or natural sciences. The books reflect a range of genres, from essay collections through to memoir. Feel free to add your own suggestions, or let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

1. Weird Dinosaurs: The Strange New Fossils Challenging Everything We Thought We Knew (2017)

by John Pickrell
From the outback of Australia to the Gobi Desert of Mongolia and the savanna of Madagascar, award-winning science writer and dinosaur enthusiast John Pickrell embarks on a world tour of new finds, meeting the fossil hunters working at the frontier of discovery. He reveals the dwarf dinosaurs unearthed by an eccentric Transylvanian baron; an aquatic, crocodile-snouted carnivore bigger than T. Rex, which once lurked in North African waterways; a Chinese dinosaur with wings like a bat; and a Patagonian sauropod so enormous it weighed more than two commercial jet airliners.
Other surprising discoveries hail from Alaska, Siberia, Canada, Burma, and South Africa. Why did dinosaurs grow so huge? How did they spread across the world? Did they all have feathers? What do sauropods have in common with 1950s vacuum cleaners? The stuff of adventure movies and scientific revolutions, Weird Dinosaurs examines the latest breakthroughs and new technologies radically transforming our understanding of the distant past. Pickrell opens a vivid portal to a brand new age of fossil discovery, in which fossil hunters are routinely redefining what we know and how we think about prehistory’s most iconic and fascinating creatures.

2. The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution (2015)

by Donald R. Prothero

Every fossil tells a story. Best-selling paleontology author Donald R. Prothero describes twenty-five famous, beautifully preserved fossils in a gripping, scientific history of life on Earth. Recounting the adventures behind the discovery of these objects and fully interpreting their significance within the larger fossil record, Prothero creates a riveting and enlightening overview for anyone interested in the history of life on our planet.

The twenty-five fossils lovingly portrayed in this book catch animals in their evolutionary splendor as they transition from one kind of organism to another. We witness extinct plants and animals of microscopic and immense size and thrilling diversity. We learn about fantastic land and sea creatures that have no match in nature today. Along the way, we encounter such fascinating fossils as the earliest trilobite, Olenellus; the giant shark Carcharocles; the “Frogamander” and the “Turtle on the Half Shell”; the “fishibian” Tiktalik; the first bird, Archaeopteryx; the walking whale Ambulocetus; enormous marine reptiles and the biggest dinosaurs known; the gigantic hornless rhinoceros Paraceratherium, the largest land mammal that ever lived; and the Australopithecus nicknamed “Lucy,” the oldest human skeleton. We learn about the scientists and adventurers who pioneered paleontology and the larger intellectual and social contexts in which their discoveries were made. Finally, we are told where to see these splendid fossils in the world’s great museums.

Ideal for all who love prehistoric landscapes and delight in the history of science, Prothero’s new book will be a treasured addition to any bookshelf, stoking curiosity in the evolution and life on Earth.

3. Flying Dinosaurs: How Fearsome Reptiles Became Birds (2014)

by John Pickrell
The discovery of stunning, feathered dinosaur fossils coming out of China since 2006 suggest that these creatures were much more bird-like than paleontologists previously imagined. Further evidence―bones, genetics, eggs, behavior, and more―has shown a seamless transition from fleet-footed carnivores to the ancestors of modern birds. Mixing colorful portraits with news on the latest fossil findings and interviews with leading paleontologists in the United States, China, Europe, and Australia, John Pickrell explains and details dinosaurs’ development of flight. This special capacity introduced a whole new range of abilities for the animals and helped them survive a mass extinction, when thousands of other dinosaur species that once populated the Earth did not.
Pickrell also turns his journalistic eye toward the stories behind the latest discoveries, investigating the role of the Chinese black market in trading fossils, the controversies among various dinosaur hunters, the interference of national governments intent on protecting scientific information, and the race to publish findings first that make this research such a dynamic area of science.

4. The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals Paperback (2000)

In The Crucible of Creation, paleontologist Simon Conway Morris describes the marvelous finds of the Burgess Shale–a fantastically rich deposit of bizarre and bewildering Cambrian fossils, located in Western Canada. Conway Morris is one of the few paleontologists ever to explore the Burgess Shale, having been involved in the dig since 1972, and thus he is an ideal guide to this amazing discovery. Indeed, he provides a complete overview of this remarkable find, ranging from an informative, basic discussion of the origins of life and animals on earth, to a colorful description of Charles Walcott’s discovery of the Burgess Shale and of the painstaking scientific work that went on there (as well as in Burgess collections held at Harvard and the Smithsonian), to an account of similar fossil finds in Greenland and in China.
The heart of the book is an imaginative trip in a time machine, back to the Cambrian seas, where the reader sees first-hand the remarkable diversity of life as it existed then. And perhaps most important, Conway Morris examines the lessons to be learned from the Burgess Shale, especially as they apply to modern evolutionary thinking. In particular, he critiques the ideas of Stephen Jay Gould, whose best-selling book Wonderful Life drew on Conway Morris’s Burgess Shale work. The author takes a fresh look at the evidence and draws quite different conclusions from Gould on the nature of evolution. This finely illustrated volume takes the reader to the forefront of paleontology as it provides fresh insights into the nature of evolution and of life on earth.

5. The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World (2011)

by Shelley Emling

Mary Anning was only twelve years old when, in 1811, she discovered the first dinosaur skeleton–of an ichthyosaur–while fossil hunting on the cliffs of Lyme Regis, England. Until Mary’s incredible discovery, it was widely believed that animals did not become extinct. The child of a poor family, Mary became a fossil hunter, inspiring the tongue-twister, “She Sells Sea Shells by the Seashore.” She attracted the attention of fossil collectors and eventually the scientific world. Once news of the fossils reached the halls of academia, it became impossible to ignore the truth. Mary’s peculiar finds helped lay the groundwork for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, laid out in his On the Origin of Species. Darwin drew on Mary’s fossilized creatures as irrefutable evidence that life in the past was nothing like life in the present.

A story worthy of Dickens, The Fossil Hunter chronicles the life of this young girl, with dirt under her fingernails and not a shilling to buy dinner, who became a world-renowned paleontologist. Dickens himself said of Mary: “The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and deserved to win it.” Here at last, Shelley Emling returns Mary Anning, of whom Stephen J. Gould remarked, is “probably the most important unsung (or inadequately sung) collecting force in the history of paleontology,” to her deserved place in history.

Odyssey Traveller offers specialised tours for lovers of palaeontology. Our China Dinosaurs Small Group Escorted Palaeontology Tour has a guaranteed departure in April 2019. And our Argentina Dinosaur Dig including Titanosaurus Small Group Tour is scheduled for a September departure.  If you have a keen interest in natural history, you might like to check out our list of specialised tours based on dinosaurs. We also offer small group tours based on archaeology, including Neolithic Britain, and the Art and Architecture of Myanmar. Odyssey Traveller offers small group tours designed especially for seniors, and we welcome both couples and solo travellers. To keep in touch with Odyssey Traveller and receive information on our upcoming tours, please call or send an email. We’d love to hear from you!

6. Walking on Eggs: The Astonishing Discovery of Thousands of Dinosaur Eggs in the Badlands of Patagonia (2001)

by Luis Chiappe & Lowell Dingus
Walking on Eggs is the riveting inside story behind one of the most significant paleontological discoveries in history. In November 1997, Luis M. Chiappe and Lowell Dingus led an elite team of paleontologists and geologists into the rugged and desolate badlands of Argentina. Unsure of what they would find, Chiappe and Dingus knew that this region had produced many spectacular specimens of dinosaurs and fossil birds over the last century. Nothing could have prepared them, however, for the headline-grabbing discovery they were about to make: a massive dinosaur nesting ground covering more than a square mile and littered with tens of thousands of large, unhatched dinosaur eggs.
Containing the first fossils of embryonic dinosaur skin ever found, the eggs gave rise to a host of mysteries. What species laid the eggs, and when? How were they preserved? And most intriguingly, what ancient catastrophe — deeply rooted more than 70 million years in the past — prevented them from hatching? In clear, comprehensible language, Chiappe and Dingus frame their scientific investigations within the context of a gripping detective story, illustrating how they used paleontological and geological evidence to establish the identity and age of the eggs, as well as how they established the cause of death.
Chiappe and Dingus also recount a return trip to the badlands in 1999 in which they set out to learn more about dinosaur social and reproductive behavior. Their investigations once again unearthed a key piece of the historic puzzle: the bones of a twenty-foot predatory, carnivorous dinosaur. As they decipher the evidence — divining origins, discovering identities, and pinpointing possible causes of extinction — Chiappe and Dingus interweave their field adventures with chapters illuminating the crucial precedents behind their groundbreaking work. Complementing the text are beautiful hand-drawn reproductions of what the dinosaurs and their landscape might have looked like, created by an artist who joined the expedition team in Patagonia. Infused with passion and an infectious sense of awe, Walking on Eggs illustrates the ups and downs of the scientific process and invites dinosaur lovers of all ages to experience the exhilarating sense of discovery.

7. Dinosaurs Without Bones: Dinosaur Lives Revealed by their Trace Fossils (2015)

by Anthony J. Martin

CSI meets Jurassic Park in a fascinating, revelatory look at dinosaurs and their world through the million-year-old clues they left behind. What if we woke up one morning all of the dinosaur bones in the world were gone? How would we know these iconic animals had a 165-million year history on earth, and had adapted to all land-based environments from pole to pole? What clues would be left to discern not only their presence, but also to learn about their sex lives, raising of young, social lives, combat, and who ate who? What would it take for us to know how fast dinosaurs moved, whether they lived underground, climbed trees, or went for a swim?

Welcome to the world of ichnology, the study of traces and trace fossils―such as tracks, trails, burrows, nests, toothmarks, and other vestiges of behavior―and how through these remarkable clues, we can explore and intuit the rich and complicated lives of dinosaurs. With a unique, detective-like approach, interpreting the forensic clues of these long-extinct animals that leave a much richer legacy than bones, Martin brings the wild world of the Mesozoic to life for the twenty-first century reader.

8. Rereading the Fossil Record: The Growth of Paleobiology as an Evolutionary Discipline (2015)

by David Sepkoski

Rereading the Fossil Record presents the first-ever historical account of the origin, rise, and importance of paleobiology, from the mid-nineteenth century to the late 1980s. Drawing on a wealth of archival material, David Sepkoski shows how the movement was conceived and promoted by a small but influential group of paleontologists and examines the intellectual, disciplinary, and political dynamics involved in the ascendency of paleobiology. By tracing the role of computer technology, large databases, and quantitative analytical methods in the emergence of paleobiology, this book also offers insight into the growing prominence and centrality of data-driven approaches in recent science.

9. Time Traveler: In Search of Dinosaurs and Other Fossils from Montana to Mongolia (2003)

by Michael Novacek

Michael Novacek, a world-renowned paleontologist who has discovered important fossils on virtually every continent, is an authority on patterns of evolution and on the relationships among extinct and extant organisms. Time Traveler is his captivating account of how his boyhood enthusiasm for dinosaurs became a lifelong commitment to vanguard science. He takes us with him as he discovers fossils in his own backyard in Los Angeles, then goes looking for them in the high Andes, the black volcanic mountains of Yemen, and the incredibly rich fossil badlands of the Gobi desert.

Wherever Novacek goes he searches for still undiscovered evidence of what life was like on Earth millions of years ago. Along the way he has almost drowned, been stung by deadly scorpions, been held at gunpoint by a renegade army, and nearly choked in raging dust storms. Fieldwork is very demanding in a host of unusual, dramatic, sometimes hilarious ways, and Novacek writes of its alluring perils with affection and discernment. But Time Traveler makes sense of many complex themes – about dinosaur evolution, continental drift, mass extinctions, new methods for understanding ancient environments, and the evolutionary secrets of DNA in fossil organisms. It is also an enthralling adventure story.

10. Stratigraphic Paleobiology: Understanding the Distribution of Fossil Taxa in Time and Space (2012)

by Mark E. Patzkowsky and Steven M. Holland

Whether the fossil record should be read at face value or whether it presents a distorted view of the history of life is an argument seemingly as old as many fossils themselves. In the late 1700s, Georges Cuvier argued for a literal interpretation, but in the early 1800s, Charles Lyell’s gradualist view of the earth’s history required a more nuanced interpretation of that same record. To this day, the tension between literal and interpretive readings lies at the heart of paleontological research, influencing the way scientists view extinction patterns and their causes, ecosystem persistence and turnover, and the pattern of morphologic change and mode of speciation.
With Stratigraphic Paleobiology, Mark E. Patzkowsky and Steven M. Holland present a critical framework for assessing the fossil record, one based on a modern understanding of the principles of sediment accumulation. Patzkowsky and Holland argue that the distribution of fossil taxa in time and space is controlled not only by processes of ecology, evolution, and environmental change, but also by the stratigraphic processes that govern where and when sediment that might contain fossils is deposited and preserved. The authors explore the exciting possibilities of stratigraphic paleobiology, and along the way demonstrate its great potential to answer some of the most critical questions about the history of life: How and why do environmental niches change over time? What is the tempo and mode of evolutionary change and what processes drive this change? How has the diversity of life changed through time, and what processes control this change? And, finally, what is the tempo and mode of change in ecosystems over time?

Odyssey Traveller offers specialised tours for lovers of palaeontology. Our China Dinosaurs Small Group Escorted Palaeontology Tour has a guaranteed departure in April 2019. And our Argentina Dinosaur Dig including Titanosaurus Small Group Tour is scheduled for a September departure.  If you have a keen interest in natural history, you might like to check out our list of specialised tours based on dinosaurs. We also offer small group tours based on archaeology, including Neolithic Britain, and the Art and Architecture of Myanmar. Odyssey Traveller offers small group tours designed especially for seniors, and we welcome both couples and solo travellers. To keep in touch with Odyssey Traveller and receive information on our upcoming tours, please call or send an email. We’d love to hear from you!

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