Tag Archives: Don Prothero

California’s Amazing Geology

California’s Amazing Geology by Don Prothero is an amazing book about — wait for it — California’s geology!

California is one of the most geologically interesting and complex geopolitical units in the world. But so is Minnesota, and Minnesota is boring, geologically, for most people. Why? Because Minnesota is all eroded down and flattened out and covered with glacial till, so most of the interesting geology is buried, while California is actively engaged in its own geology in a spectacular and visually appealing way!

Lots of places have volcanoes. California has volcanoes that blow up, or that have erupted recently enough (geologically speaking) that you can still see the stuff laying all over the place they spewed out. Lots of places have rifting. Hell, one of the most interesting and important rifts in global geological history is right here in Minnesota. But, do people go to Duluth to see that rift, or to see Bob Dylan’s house? The latter, I think. In Califonria, there are three or four different kinds of major tectonic activity, including lots of plate tectonic movement, some spreading, and a big chunk of the amazing Basin and Range extension phenomenon. (That was where what is roughly Nevada and big sections of Utah and California stretched out to several times its original size. In the old days, Reno and Salt Lake Cities wold have been in the same Congressional District!)

California doesn’t’ just have mountains. It has several different kinds of mountains, most of which are currently actively forming right before our very eyes, or so recently formed they still have the tags hanging off them.

California’s Amazing Geology begins with several chapters on basic geology. If you know basic geology you can skip quickly through this and refer back later when you forget something. Then there are several sections each dealing with a different geological region. Then, there is a chapter that literally puts it all together (“Assembling California”). Following this is a compendium of information on California’s main geological resources (gold, oil, water, etc., including fossils!)

There are three things you need to know about this book. First, it covers everything pretty completely, considering the vastness of California and the fact that the book is 480 pages long. Second, it is very up to date. There aren’t any up to date books about California Geology. Third, it is written by Don Prothero, which means that complicated and nuanced scientific topics are explained in a way that a reasonably educated non expert can totally understand. Books like this all too commonly fall into jargonistic language either because the author has no clue it is happening, or because they are written for a highly specialized audience (and maybe the author is even a bit insecure). Don Prothero does not do that. He simply gives you the information in a respectfully, clear, understandable, but not watered down manner. A lot of people will tell you that is not possible. They are wrong, and Prothero does it all the time.

The illustrations, many by Don’s son, are excellent and numerous.

By the way, if you want to know more about how one goes about writing books like this, and how Don’s approach works, check out this interview with the man himself.

This is a bit of a specialized book unless you frequently visit or live in California. It is suitable as a textbook in college, but also, in just the right California science elective class. If you you are a modern student of natural history and California is in your catchment, this is a must-have book.

I am a little confused about its availability. The publication date is 2017, I got a pre-publication review copy, but it looks like you can actually buy it on Amazon now. But, I’m not sure what happens if you click through, maybe they tell you it will be delivered in January.

Here is the TOC:

FUNDAMENTALS OF GEOLOGY

The Golden State

Building Blocks: Minerals and Rocks

Dating California: Stratigraphy and Geochronology

The Big Picture: Tectonics and Structural Geology

Earthquakes and Seismology

GEOLOGIC PROVINCES OF CALIFORNIA

Young Volcanoes: The Cascades and Modoc Plateau

The Broken Land: The Basin and Range Province

Gold, Glaciers, and Granitics: The Sierra Nevada Mountains

Mantle Rocks and Exotic Terranes: The Klamath Mountains

Oil and Agriculture: The Great Valley

The San Andreas Fault Zone

Melanges, Granitics, and Ophiolites: The Coast Ranges

Compression, Rotation, Uplift: The Transverse Ranges and Adjacent Basins

Granitics, Gems, and Geothermal Springs: The Peninsular Ranges and Salton Trough

Assembling California: A Four-Dimensional Jigsaw Puzzle

CALIFORNIA’S GEOLOGIC RESOURCES

California Gold

California Oil

California Water

California’s Coasts

California’s Fossil Resources

Prehistoric Mammals by Don Prothero: Review of excellent new book

The Princeton Field Guide to Prehistoric Mammals ,by Donald R. Prothero, is the first extinct animal book that you, dear reader, are going to give to someone for the holidays.

screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-11-31-25-amThis book is an interesting idea. Never mind the field guide part for a moment. This isn’t really set up like a field guide, though it is produced by the excellent producers of excellent field guides at Princeton. But think about the core idea here. Take every group of mammal, typically at the level of Order (Mammal is class, there are more than two dozen living orders with about 5,000 species) and ask for each one, “what does the fossil record look like.” In some cases, a very few living species are related to a huge diversity of extinct ones. In some cases, a highly diverse living fauna is related to a much smaller number of extinct ones. And each of these different relationships between the present and the past is a different and interesting evolutionary story.

If you looked only at the living mammals, you would miss a lot because there has been so much change in the past.

The giant sloths may be extinct, but Don Prothero himself is a giant of our age among fossil experts. His primary area of expertise includes the fossil mammals (especially but not at all limited to rhinos). I believe it is true that he has personally handled more fossil mammalian material, in terms of taxonomic breath and time depth, across more institutional collections, than anyone.

Don has written several different monographs on fossil mammal groups, and recently, a general fossil book for the masses, that have, I think added to his expertise on how to produce a book like this. Illustrations by Mary Persis Williams are excellent as well.

screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-11-31-36-amA typical entry focuses on an order, and the orders are arranged in a taxonomically logical manner. A living or classic fossil representative is depicted, along with some boney material, in the form of drawings. Artist’s reconstructions, photographs, maps, and other material, with phylogenetic charting where appropriate, fills out the overview of that order.

The text is expert and informative, and very interesting. the quality of the presentation is to notch. The format of the book is large enough to let the artistry of the production emerge, but it is not a big too heavy floppy monster like some coffee table books are. This is a very comforatable book to sit and read, or browse.

It turns out that if you combine living and fossil forms for a given group, you get a much bigger picture of the facts underlying any one of a number of interesting evolutionary stories.

In addition to the order by order entries, front matter provides background to the science of paleontology, including phylogenetic method, taphonomy, etc. There is a bit of functional anatomy, and extra detailed material on teeth because, after all, the evolutionary history of man mammal groups is known primarily by analysis of (and discovery almost exclusively of) teeth.

The end matter includes a discussion of mammalian diversification, extinction, and an excellent index.

screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-11-31-46-amIf you wold like some background on how a scientist like Don Prothero writes a book like this, you can listen to this interview, in which we discuss this process in some detail.

One of the most important things about this book is that it is fully up to date, and thus, the only current mammalian evolutionary overview that is available, to my knowledge. In some areas of fossil mammal research (including in our own Order, Primates) there has been a lot of work over recent years, so this is important.

I highly recommend this excellent book.

The book as 240 pages, and 303 illustrations.

For your reference, I’ve pasted the TOC below.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

  • Preface 6
  • 1 The Age of Mammals 7
  • Dating Rocks 8
  • Clocks in Rocks 10
  • What’s in a Name? 11
  • How Do We Classify Animals? 12
  • Bones vs Molecules 15
  • Bones and Teeth 15
  • 2 The Origin and Early Evolution of Mammals 20
  • Synapsids (Protomammals or Stem Mammals) 20
  • Mammals in the Age of Dinosaurs 23
  • Morganucodonts 23
  • Docodonts 25
  • Monotremes (Platypus and Echidna) and Their Relatives 27
  • Multituberculates 30
  • Triconodonts 31
  • Theria 34
  • 3 Marsupials: Pouched Mammals 37
  • Marsupial vs Placental 37
  • Marsupial Evolution 38
  • Ameridelphia 39
  • Australiadelphia 41
  • 4 Placental Mammals (Eutheria) 47
  • The Interrelationships of Placentals 50
  • 5 Xenarthra: Sloths, Anteaters, and Armadillos 51
  • Edentate vs Xenarthran 51
  • Order Cingulata (Armadillos) 53
  • Order Pilosa (Anteaters and Sloths) 55
  • 6 Afrotheria: Elephants, Hyraxes, Sea Cows, Aardvarks, and Their Relatives 58
  • Tethytheres and Afrotheres 58
  • Order Proboscidea (Elephants, Mammoths, Mastodonts, and Their Relatives) 60
  • Order Sirenia (Manatees and Dugongs, or Sea Cows) 67
  • Order Embrithopoda (Arsinoitheres) 72
  • Order Desmostylia (Desmostylians) 73
  • Order Hyracoidea (Hyraxes) 75
  • Order Tubulidentata (Aardvarks) 77
  • Order Macroscelidia (Elephant Shrews) 78
  • Order Afrosoricida 79
  • 7 Euarchontoglires: Euarchonta Primates, Tree Shrews, and Colugos 80
  • Archontans 80
  • Order Scandentia (Tree Shrews) 82
  • Order Dermoptera (Colugos, or Flying Lemurs) 82
  • Order Plesiadapiformes (Plesiadapids) 84
  • Order Primates (Euprimates) 86
  • 8 Euarchontoglires: Glires Rodents and Lagomorphs 94
  • Chisel Teeth 94
  • Order Rodentia (Rodents) 95
  • Order Lagomorpha (Rabbits, Hares, and Pikas) 101
  • 9 Laurasiatheria: Insectivores Order Eulipotyphla and Other Insectivorous Mammals 103
  • Order Eulipotyphla 103
  • Extinct Insectivorous Groups 107
  • 10 Laurasiatheria: Chiroptera Bats 112
  • Bat Origins 114
  • 11 Laurasiatheria: Pholidota Pangolins, or Scaly Anteaters 117
  • Order Pholidota (Pangolins) 118
  • Palaeanodonts 120
  • 12 Laurasiatheria: Carnivora and Creodonta Predatory Mammals 122
  • Carnivores, Carnivorans, and Creodonts 122
  • Order Creodonta 124
  • Order Carnivora 127
  • 13 Laurasiatheria: Ungulata Hoofed Mammals and Their Relatives 146
  • Condylarths 147
  • 14 Laurasiatheria: Artiodactyla Even-Toed Hoofed Mammals: Pigs, Hippos, Whales, Camels, Ruminants, and Their Extinct Relatives 151
  • Artiodactyl Origins 153
  • Suoid Artiodactyls 154
  • Whippomorpha 160
  • Tylopods 169
  • Ruminantia 175
  • 15 Laurasiatheria: Perissodactyla Odd-Toed Hoofed Mammals: Horses, Rhinos, Tapirs, and Their Extinct Relatives 186
  • Equoids 187
  • Tapiroids 191
  • Rhinocerotoids 196
  • Brontotheres, or Titanotheres 199
  • 16 Laurasiatheria: Meridiungulata South American Hoofed Mammals 203
  • Order Notoungulata (Southern Ungulates) 205
  • Order Pyrotheria (Fire Beasts) 206
  • Order Astrapotheria (Lightning Beasts) 207
  • Order Litopterna (Litopterns, or Smooth Heels) 207
  • 17 Uintatheres, Pantodonts, Taeniodonts, and Tillodonts 209
  • Order Dinocerata (Uintatheres) 209
  • Order Pantodonta (Pantodonts) 212
  • Order Taeniodonta (Taeniodonts) 214
  • Order Tillodontia (Tillodonts) 216
  • 18 Mammalian Evolution and Extinction 218
  • Why Were Prehistoric Mammals So Big? 218
  • Where Have All the Megamammals Gone? 219
  • How Did Mammals Diversify after the Dinosaurs Vanished? 222
  • What about Mass Extinctions? 228
  • The Future of Mammals 229
  • Illustration Credits 231
  • Further Reading 232
  • Index (with Pronunciation Guide for Taxonomic Names) 234
  • An Interview with Don Prothero

    Ikonokast interviews Don Prothero.

    Don Prothero is the author of just over 30 books and a gazillion scientific papers covering a wide range of topics in paleontology and skepticism. Mike Haubrich and I spoke with Don about most of these topics, including the recent history of the skeptics movement, the conflict and potentials between DNA and fossil research, extinctions and impacts, evolution in general, and the interesting projects Don is working on now.

    The interview is here. Please click through and give this fascinating conversation a listen!

    The Story Of Life in 25 Fossils by Don Prothero: Review

    This is a review of The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution.

    Don Prothero
    Don Prothero
    Fossils are cool. Why? Two very big and complex reasons. First, fossils allow us to reconstruct species that don’t exist any more. This is usually done by studying species that do exist, and using the information we glean from living things to interpret the details of the fossil species, giving it life. Second, fossils tell us about evolutionary change, both by showing us what evolutionary events happened that we would not be able to see in living species, and by showing us change. In order to understand the evolutionary history of life on our planet, we need to look at a lot of different fossil species, to develop histories of change and adaptation.

    (OK, there may be more than two reasons fossils are cool. Feel free to add your fossil are cool ideas in the comments section below. Please to not say “to grind them up to make aphrodisiacs.”)

    So, what if you had to describe the history of life by focusing on a small number of fossils? And, why would you do that? Last year, Paul Taylor and Aaron O’Dea did this with 100 fossils in A History of Life in 100 Fossils. I’ve looked through that book, and it is nice. But here I’m going to review a somewhat more recent book, just out, by Don Prothero, which has at least as much information in it but by focusing on a smaller number of cases: The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution.

    Several of the fossils Prothero chose to illustrate the story of life represent major events or changes in the planet’s evolutionary history and diversification. For example, the nature of the earliest life forms is represented by the stramotlite, which is really fossil scum. Others illustrate key transitions within major groups such as the origin of hard body parts, or the major divisions of animals, such as the origin of the amphibians. Others are exemplars chosen because they are spectacular and/or because they are touchstones to understanding very different times in the past, or important categories of living and extinct forms. These examples include the extremes, as well as good exemplars of the “diversity in adaptations to size, ecological niche, and habitat.” Generally, the chosen representatives are fossils with good preservation, detailed study, and in general, piles of information.

    Prothero also provides rich detail about discovery, early interpretations, and the role of specific fossils (or extinct species) in the history of thought about evolution. In some ways this may be the most interesting parts of the discussion of several of the fossils. And, the book is chock full of excellent and interesting illustrations.

    Lester Park Stromatolite. (Photograph by G. Laden.)
    Lester Park Stromatolite. (Photograph by G. Laden.)
    As a result, the chosen 25 are somewhat biased towards the more spectacular, and intentionally, towards those extinct forms that people tend to gravitate towards because they are either very interesting or very spectacular (generally, both). It would probably be difficult to develop a panoply of species that ignore the dinosaurs, but the history of life on Earth could probably have been written without humans, as long as “providing a viable existential threat to all known life forms” was not on your list of key attributes to do cover, but Prothero takes on human ancestors, and covers more than one, because most of the book’s readers are likely to be humans.

    There are far more than 25 life forms in The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution, because the author makes use of a much richer body of information than just the key chapter-titling form.

    Also, Prothero is a world renowned expert on certain fossil groups, found among the mammals. Well, actually, a lot of fossil groups. And, his expertise is applied richly here, with the selection of a disproportionate share of mammals.

    The author writes excellent, readable prose, and vigorously makes connections between evolutionary questions and evolutionary data. It is hard to say if this book supplants or enhances his earlier major monograph for the public on evolution, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. Either way, you can safely assume the more recent volume is more up to date in areas where research has been active.

    I’m thinking of getting a copy of this book for the local school’s library, as a gift.


    A selection of other books by Donald Prothero: