Nonfiction Review: “My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and our Favorite Dinosaurs” By Brian Switek

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RECOMMENDED Brontosaurus

If you’ve ever wondered how a great dinosaur and a backyard hummingbird could be related, or dreamt of seeing a gangly pterodactyl fly, then Brian Switek’s “My Beloved Brontosaurus” is for you. A sometime researcher and National Geographic blogger with a T-Rex tattoo, Switek shares the latest news about these most well-studied of extinct creatures, peppering his humorous style with controversies that reveal many of our common dinosaur beliefs to be totally wrong.

“My Beloved Brontosaurus” is a rich hybrid of science, memory and travel writing that makes a love song to the forgotten and hidden. Drawing on journal articles, social media discussions, conventional reporting and personal road quests, Switek takes us to the quirky edge of discovery, both about prehistory and ourselves.  “I was once a dinosaur,” he writes, as he stumbles across a dinosaur toe in the Utah badlands and shares an inside joke with an illustrator at a conference presentation. Throughout, Switek channels a childhood dinosaur obsession into a moving meditation on life and death.

Dinosaurs were not always the giants of Jurassic dominance.  Some were little, early creatures who got bullied by vicious dog-like mammals, while the later super-giants proved far more nimble, brightly colored and highly social than we thought. The most fearsome killer of them all, T- Rex, fended off painful tiny parasites that made life hell. No wonder they look so angry.

The book ranges through dinosaur birth, growth, social life, coloring, voicing and sex. Yes, Switek convinces us that dino sex is a very important area of study, as was their family life, health and gaudy appearance (with brightly weird hair that resembled on occasion a hipster chin shadow or nascent afro).

Some of the illustrations are humorous and ironic, but the purpose is serious. Switek’s disarming meditation turns ultimately to the tragic nature of stardom. It’s not easy being champ. The famous Brontosaurus, for instance, never existed; it was a misnomer for unrelated artifacts. Its unbelievably successful cousins are long gone, except for sixty-million-year-old bones of infants entombed in mothers’ wombs and mysterious footprints. “My Beloved Brontosaurus” starts as a paean but ends as a lament. The fate of the world’s most successful animals, he suggests, may well signal something prophetic about ours. (Ted Anton)

“My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and our Favorite Dinousaurs”
By Brian Switek
Scientific American / Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 272 pages, $26

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