Field Guide to the Dead

Most of you will have heard that the following book has been published, and that its author (one Gregory S. Paul) has managed to fill this work out which many of his lavish, rich, and beautiful illustrations. It should come as no surprise that this book will be sought after by dinosaur enthusiasts seeking to get into the paleontological realm to learn more about the world and the nature of dinosaurs. What will come to the surprise of some is that I bought this book [1].

First, a disclaimer (because I feel it should be said at the beginning):

I disagree with Greg Paul on a lot of things, not least being views on phylogeny, the problem of lumping and splitting, and the assumption of certain theropod clades arising from within an avian framework, a theory he championed back in Predatory Dinosaurs of the World (one of the first books on dinosaurs I ever bought) [2]. Greg Paul is a great artist, widely acclaimed and deservedly so for the fantastically revolutionary way of rendering dinosaur skeletons (although drawn from a technique developed while working with Bob Bakker, who used it in The Dinosaur Heresies [3] and earlier) as well as many of this conceptions on dinosaur paleobiology. Along with Bakker, Paul helped push the idea of the active, homeothermic dinosaur into the forefront of dinosaur paleobiology.

But there are some other things that Paul has conceived that have received little support from his peers, while others are just a little harder to take. Where Paul focuses his study is in the realm of theropod paleobiology, and in this, there is a focus on the avian relationships within Dinosauria, and Theropoda specifically. Enough that in his previous book (Dinosaurs of the Air [4]) Paul used various new taxa to contain theropods, such as Avepoda, Averostra, etc., all of which were so inclusive of birds that they included animals well-removed from avian origins, such as the base of Theropoda itself. These bird-centric terms are adapted with gradational terminology (e.g., baso-avepod, or “basal avepod”), which do nothing but imply that theropods are just birds waiting to happen, rather than an alternate or opposing view, which is that birds are merely one subset of theropods.

This perspective is further endorsed in Paul’s previous work in that he argues that troodontid, oviraptorosaurian, and dromaeosaurid theropods are descended from what have otherwise been termed “birds,” taxa like Archaeopteryx lithographica. The phylogeny presumed there was published in both Predatory Dinosaurs of the World and Dinosaurs of the Air and were couched in terms of their difference from the “accepted” mainstream views of phylogeny, which purported instead that oviraptorosaurs, then troodontids and dromaeosaurids, were outgroups of a clade include modern birds and Archaeopteryx lithographica. In The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs, Paul spends enough time describing this concept without any contradicting hypothesis that you might think this was an accepted, if not the accepted, phylogenetic arrangement.

So it should be said that while I disagree with Paul on a few things, these things are pretty substantial, and in this case, I will limit myself to three bad things to say about this book, and leave it at that. I will have (and have said) good things about this book. The above, avian-centric focus is not a “bad” thing (although when dealing with all groups of dinosaurs, so diverse in their morphology and many not remotely avian in form, it could be), and the preclusion of a phylogenetic scheme that is a fringe theory Paul has never managed to publish in a mainstream, peer-reviewed manner could be a “bad” thing, if I ever stopped picking at the minor qualities of the non-field-guidey part of the book, I’d never get past the first few sections.


As noted before, the book is beautifully illustrated. Paul’s skeletal renderings are gorgeous, as always, and the sense of dimension is astouding. Paul’s art tends to the stylistic — that is, the renderings follow a sleek, svelte structure that assumes the lean, elegant, and perfect in the subject he renders; despite this, the art is one of the most recognized form in the paleontological community today. Throughout the book, numerous skeletal diagrams describe the known material of several taxa, some in multiple views. In some cases, the material is incomplete, and Paul renders sections as though complete, such as a vertebral series, a missing skull bone or two, or the phalanges in the manus. And one cannot fault him for this. The skeletal diagrams of (for example) the lambeosaurine hadrosaurs, the centrosaurine ceratopsians, the “compsognathid” theropods, etc, are all composed in a fashion that permits the viewer to compare each and every taxon represented. In some cases, Paul has included various skeletons showing off the growth stages of taxa and “morphs.”

Now for the first “bad thing”:

Paul tends to the complete in the skeletals (which is in itself not a “bad thing”), such that material that is missing from a bone, or the condition of the bone, is corrected, or completed, and presented as whole and perfect. This usually involves a bit of mental reconstruction, and almost certainly Paul draws on various close taxa in order to render these bones “whole.” Unfortunately, Paul also tends to add things that are not preserved at all in the skeletals, such as clavicles, furculae, sternae, presternum “spikes,” gastralia. In addition, some material is rendered from a state of crushing, and not corrected, as in cases where a skull is flattened, and only slightly unflattened for the skull (usually following a published rendering by the original authors) or based on several incomplete composites, some of which may be from different ages. This is not stated in the work specific to the material presented, which leads the reader to view all of these skeletals as accurate, scientific, and perfect. They are not. They are hypothetical renderings in an artistic style of the material as viewed by the artist, which Paul admits may be often rendered from imperfect photographs or angles.

Pencil illustrations abound in the book, drawings of the animals as seen in life rendering, muscle and skin and integument added on. Some of these, such as the full-body rendering of Sauropelta edwardsi, are in decent detail. But Paul also often renders the head by itself in closer view, and the images are much fuzzier, presumably because of the detail range being low when illustrated at small size, then exploded to fit the skull renderings that they accompany.

In some cases the rendering is based on preservation of integument, and this is the second “bad thing” I have to say about this book:

Paul has in the past rendered illustrations of a dromaeosaurid, notably Sinornithosaurus millennii, with a full array of feathers along the leg from hip to ankle, and from the arm from shoulder to finger tip. This is drawn from Paul’s assumption that NGMC 91 (“Dave,” which I discussed here) and the holotype of Sinornithosaurus millennii (IVPP V12811) itself are the same taxon (I will get to more on this below). Despite this, the skeleton of “Dave” lacks the integument Paul ascribes to it, while the compable taxon Microraptor zhaoianus (and Microraptor gui) indicate integument of a different form (feathers are not preserved along the thigh, nor are they preserved inboard of the elbow, preventing a reconstruction of the “wings.” Despite this, the entire thigh and upper arm are shown to contain a fully feathered arrangement, especially extending down the ankle where, in “Dave’s” case, there is an indication no feathers were present, in the form of scales around the ankle.

Paul also presents a rendering of Beipiaosaurus inexpectatus, a basal therizinosauroid, with the most bizarre, clownish integument pattern I have every seen, drawn most certainly from the assumption that the integument preserved as found was rendered as perfectly in the dissarticulated, sometimes broken, fragmented as in life.

So … Paul renders life and skeletons in a fairly unusually, and somewhat inconsistent way, which only obscures for the fresh reader what they are seeing is being treated as the truth of the scientific community.

This post is getting long, so I will stop it here.

In the next part, hopefuly the last part, I will address the Field Guide itself, and the various ways in which taxa are treated. Incase you suspect that I am beating around a bush, yes, I will address my previous post on a preview of this book, found here.

[1] Paul, G. S. 2010. The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs. (Princeton Univerity Press, Princeton.)
[2] Paul, G. S. 1988. Predatory Dinosaurs of the World: A Complete Illustrated Guide. (Simon & Schuster, New York City.)
[3] Bakker, R. T. 1986. The Dinosaur Heresies: New Theories Unlocking the Mystery of the Dinosaurs and Their Extinction. (Morrow, William & Co., New York City.)
[4] Paul, G. S. 2002. Dinosaurs of the Air: The Evolution and Loss of Flight in Dinosaurs and Birds. (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.)


This entry was posted in Art, Biology, Paleontology, Philosophy, Science Reporting, Taxonomy and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Field Guide to the Dead

  1. Just a note on the integument thing. It’s true none of those basal forms have extensive tertials on the humerus (neither do many modern birds, the mistake is showing the humerus extend like a soaring bird rather than retracted). However the holotype of Cryptovolans pauli (appropriately enough) clearly has some hefty feathers anchored to the thigh (which were misinterpreted by Czerkas and Yuan as belonging to the forewing). The position of the legs in the M. gui holotype doesn’t seem like it would have allowed thigh feathers to be preserved, depending on how they were folding. There are some feathers above the level of the ankle joint about as long as the metatarsal feathers that could only come from the thigh. Anyway, given that M. gui and C. pauli are probably conspecific, there’s no reason to think the feathers didn’t extend to the thigh. The thigh feathers on Dave are much longer at the posterior than anterior side (fig 5f in the description), though it’s hard to tell if they’re pennaceous or what.

    • This will actually be the content of an upcoming post which I need to drag myself to finishing. Illustration of avian feather plans is woefully inaccurate to the reconstruction of several artists’ dinosaur arms, and thus the reconstruction of “dinobird” wings, Paul’s included. Direct extrapolation doesn’t help, because the posture of the arm differs (Paul skirts this by extreme folding of the arm, without supporting said folding, pretending de facto folding exists to support the reconstruction).

  2. Oh, also, are you sure Dave preserves scales around the ankle? You restored scales all the way up the metatarsals in your Dave article but the paper only describes skin impressions from the distal phalanges.

  3. Nick Gardner says:

    A stylistic thought, instead of using [#] for inline/in-text citations, why not use (Author, Year)? You’re not constrained by space (the principal reason why citations are used as end notes) here so why not just go ahead and write it out.

    My 2 cents,


    • Nick … this comment comes following a belated absence. I find, however, that based on discussion with regards to Mike Taylor’s views on the subject in PLoS One on the SV-POW! blog, and my replies there, that I would prefer to use numerical links for clarity in the flow of links. This is especially easier because it saves characters and space for me, and pretty much the only reason.

      • Nick Gardner says:

        I’d agree with you if this is how people read things online, and if somehow your little numbers were actually real links (read hyperlinks) to anchors in the reference list.

        you are not constrained by space online, you have the room to put this in, it does not alter the flow of reading and if you insist on using numbers, then ffs, please use real links. This is why I prefer using author-year, I know immediately what reference you are referring to.

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