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Book review: Sticks ‘N’ Stones ‘N’ Dinosaur Bones

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“I’ll tell you a story — and some of it’s true –
that explores and explains
what the Bone-Hunters do.”

You’re probably already familiar with the Bone Wars, or the Great Dinosaur Rush, but you won’t have seen this real-life rivalry between two prolific 19th century palaeontologists portrayed quite like this before. Based loosely on historical events, this fanciful version of proceedings, written by Ted Enik, sees both parties in the ‘war’ inventing dinosaur species by the dozen. So, how come I’m reviewing it here? Well, the link may be tenuous, but a plesiosaur makes an appearance at the beginning and end of the book, and that’s all I required to give in to curiosity…

Sticks n Stones

The book opens with a factual introduction that sets the scene, after which, the story takes the form of an engaging Dr Seuss-like poem. The rhyming, rhythmical text is snappy and funny, and at 33 pages long this is a sizeable volume. The story is supplemented on every page with charming stylistic artwork by G.F. Newland. For example, in a preface to the book, we see our plesiosaur restored, and in another early scene, we see our plesiosaur skeleton being unearthed. There’s a passing resemblance of the two main protagonists to their real-world counterparts, O.C. March and E.D Cope, which is surely no coincidence.

Sticks n Stones

Enik states up front that this is a whimsical “take” on events, though it isn’t stated explicitly what is and isn’t made up, so it might be worth saying a few words here to tease out fact from fiction. The story starts off steeped in reality. Our protagonists really did exist, as did the Bone Wars, and the two palaeontologists went to great lengths to outdo each other, as described in the book. However, after this early set up, the story quickly goes off the rails in terms of factual accuracy! While Cope and Marsh might have been liberal when erecting new species, they never made up species out of pure cloth, as happens in Enik’s story. Obviously, Cope did not describe a “NeverTopThisOne-Ginormous-asaurus”, nor did March announce a “WhoAreYouKidding?-Extravaga-saurus”. However, I’ve taken these suggestions on board as possibilities if I ever have an opportunity to name another new species of prehistoric reptile myself! Also, to my knowledge, neither palaeontologist ever used mechanical arms in their digs, though it is a good idea!

Sticks n Stones

The plesiosaur that makes an appearance is, of course, Elasmosaurus, which was pivotal in the real-world Bone Wars. Elasmosaurus was originally reconstructed wrongly by Cope in 1868 with the head on the end of the tail. Despite scrambling to recall all preprints, and despite successfully replacing the erroneous reconstruction with a more accurate one with the head on the right end of the vertebral column, it was all in vain. According to lore, Marsh became aware of the mistake, and swiftly proceeded to place Cope in a headlock and deploy a bout of ‘noogies’ lasting the rest of Cope’s life. Not true (well, perhaps metaphorically so), but Marsh did repeatedly make the most of Cope’s blunder, using it as ammunition in their rivalry and mocking Cope and his “incompetence” at every opportunity. This served to fuel the animosity between the two men, which Jane P. Davidson (2002) has described as “not only a professional rivalry but a genuine hatred of one another”. The story of the Elasmosaurus is so rich and peculiar that I was surprised Enik didn’t make more of it in Sticks ‘n’ Stones. The Elasmosaurus in Enik’s fictional tale is more incidental to the story, a background character portrayed in the artwork, but not referred to in the main prose.

Sticks n Stones

Given the light tone of the book, it would be inappropriate and unfair to cast too critical an eye over the cartoonified Elasmosaurus, so I won’t. Ahh, go on then, I can’t resist, just a little analysis. The swan-necked posture was certainly impossible in all plesiosaurians – the vertebrae don’t articulate that way. The neck is also short by a fair few vertebrae – I count 48 neck vertebrae in one illustration, 28 in another. There were, in fact, no less than 71 neck vertebrae in Elasmosaurus! To go any further with this unjust analysis would be remiss, this is not a text-book, and any book that raises the profile of plesiosaurs and palaeontology in general is good news!

Sticks n Stones

Overall, this is an entertaining and distinctively illustrated romp of a story that I enjoyed thoroughly. I’ll be passing my copy onto my young niece and nephews who, no doubt, will appreciate it just as much as I do.

Available from Amazon.com here and Amazon.co.uk here.

Written by Adam S. Smith

April 19th, 2014 at 4:24 pm

Book review: Plesiosaur Peril by Daniel Loxton

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In Plesiosaur Peril, author Daniel Loxton plunges us into the Jurassic ocean, to recount a day in the life of a baby Cryptoclidus. The book is the third in Loxton’s ‘Tales of Prehistoric Life’ series, which includes the stories Ankylosaur Attack and Pterosaur Troubles.

Plesiosaur Peril

In this short children’s story we follow a juvenile Cryptoclidus and the rest of her pod as she goes about her daily chores. She seeks some gastroliths, gulps salty sea air, hunts for food, and eventually follows some prey that leads her astray. Of course, this isn’t an ocean paradise free of danger. The villain of the tale is Liopleurodon and our heroine soon finds herself in a perilous situation – you’ll have to get your own copy to discover if curiosity killed the Cryptoclidus!

Plesiosaur Peril

The book is aimed at children aged 8–12 so the paragraphs are short, snappy, and easy to read. There’s a healthy balance between text and imagery, and the visuals, also by Daniel Loxton (with Jim W.W. Smith), illustrate the story beautifully. They consist of a combination of real world photography and computer-generated digital art, which blend almost seamlessly.

Plesiosaur Peril

The fossil remains of Cryptoclidus and Liopleurodon are known from the Oxford Clay Formation of Europe (165 million years ago), so the two species certainly lived alongside each other. It is apparent from the accurate appearance of the plesiosaurs that they were thoroughly researched. Darren Naish is credited in the acknowledgements and presumably takes credit here. The proportions and anatomy are just right, and the same is true for the other prehistoric creatures that show up throughout the story: ichthyosaurs, ammonites, belemnites; all beautifully rendered and well-researched. They are the best I’ve seen in any book of this kind.

Plesiosaur Peril

Quite sensibly, the story itself isn’t bogged down in facts and figures, however, the last page of the book provides some insights into both plesiosaur species for those wishing to dig a little deeper. In particular, this section outlines some of the evidence for the events recounted in the story. Darren Naish has also posted a detailed online article on his Tetrapod Zoology blog, covering some of the behaviour depicted in the book, beating me to it by several weeks! So, instead of covering the same ground, I direct you there.

Plesiosaur Peril

In conclusion this is a lovely and visually striking book that makes the perfect bedtime story for any child with (or without, for that matter) an interest in prehistoric life. I look forward to seeing what the future may hold for the ‘Tales of Prehistoric Life’ series.

Plesiosaur Peril is available from Amazon.com here and Amazon.co.uk here,  and also from Amazon.com via the Plesio-store here.

Written by Adam S. Smith

April 16th, 2014 at 5:37 pm

A new domain for The Marine Reptiles Forum

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The marine reptiles forum, which was unfortunately hacked last year (2013) and has been offline for several months since, is now back up and running. Richard Forrest was able to salvage all the old posts and user information, and has restored the forum at a dedicated new domain: marinereptiles.org. The forum is home to an open community of fossil marine reptile researchers and enthusiasts, and is an  excellent place to discuss all manner of topics related to prehistoric marine reptiles. The site is run by Richard Forrest (plesiosaur.com), Mike Everhart (oceansofkansas.com), and myself, so we’ll do our best to minimise spam and approve genuine new members without too much delay. Registration is now open so see you there!

The marine reptiles forum

Written by Adam S. Smith

January 18th, 2014 at 5:33 pm

The Plesiosaur Directory wins the 2013 Golden Trilobite Award

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The Golden Trilobite is awarded annually by the Palaeontological Association to “high quality amateur and institutional websites that promote the charitable aims of the Association”. I’ve no idea who nominated my website this year, but my thanks go to whoever raised it to the attention of the the PalAss Council, because it was a welcome surprise to learn that the Plesiosaur Directory was awarded the 2013 Golden Trilobite.

The golden trilobite award

I’m obviously delighted and honoured for The Plesiosaur Directory to win this award, and I thank PalAss for  recognising the site in this way. The Plesiosaur Directory started life as a small Geocities hosted site way back in June 2001, under the full title of “THE PLESIOSAUR DIRECTORY: A REVIEW OF THE SAUROPTERYGIA”. The site transferred to its own domain in March 2006 (plesiosauria.com), and remained in a basic html format until 2011, when I finally learned a bit of php and launched a new version of the site. This has been steep learning curve for someone with no training, and things are only going to get more difficult, as my next task is to convert The Plesiosaur Directory to a database driven site (at the moment only the plesiosaur bites blog is database driven), which will make it far easier to update and manage. The site has received other accolades in the past, such as when the journal ‘Science’ featured it in the “best of the Web in Science” (2006, Vol 313, Issue 5791, P.1211), so I suppose this means I must be doing something right.

However, these accolades remind me that there’s so much work left to do. Frankly, I’m not satisfied with the site as it stands, and I’m fully aware there are a great many genera missing from the directory, and numerous pages are rapidly becoming out of date as palaeontology marches on relentlessly. Some of the content hasn’t been updated since 2001, and was therefore written by a 20-year-old student version of myself. Back then, I could barely string together a coherent sentence. There are all sorts of reasons why I’ve let things slowly slip a little. However, this award will spur me on to upgrade the code, fill in those missing gaps, update the various galleries and pages, and write blog articles more frequently. There’s certainly no shortage of topics to cover.

The Plesiosaur Directory isn’t the only site dedicated to plesiosaurs. There are, in my opinion, other sites equally deserved of such an award. The Plesiosaur Site (plesiosaur.com), in particular, run by Richard Forrest, contains a wealth of data on plesiosaurs. Especially useful is the database containing information on plesiosaurian collections, distribution, taxonomy, and references. A major inspiration. Richard also hosted The Marine Reptiles Forum on plesiosaur.com until it was hacked earlier this year. We hope to get that back up and running soon.

For more information on the Golden Trilobite, including previous winners, see here. 

Written by Adam S. Smith

November 10th, 2013 at 5:10 pm