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Life Among the Fossils

Tim Tokaryk

Dinosaur Impressions: Postcards from a Paleontologist. Philippe Taquet. Translated by Kevin Padian. 256 pp. Cambridge University Press, 1998. $24.95.

One of the enduring facets of paleontology is the act of discovery. Whether it is in the field, uncovering some behemoth; in a museum, gazing at a collection with a fresh eye; or, in this case, simply reading a book. In Dinosaur Impressions: Postcards of a Paleontologist, Philippe Taquet, the director of France's National Museum of Natural History, illustrates discovery on several levels, taking the reader on an informative and entertaining journey.

His story begins early in his career, when enthusiasm and hunger for knowledge and excitement are at their peak. "How would you like to leave Paris and examine the dinosaurs recently uncovered in Niger?" his boss asked one day. Having just left the university, off he went to the deserts of North Africa, where he discovered and collected a distant relative of the duckbilled dinosaur. And as his story unfolds, we learn the intricacies of such paleontological principles as comparative anatomy, evolutionary relationships and even the history of dinosaurs.

Cretaceous slice-of-life.Click to Enlarge Image

Taquet also explores the large crocodiles of northern Africa, first in a museum, then in the field. With skulls 5 feet long, these were no small reptiles—and they remind us that dinosaurs weren't the only fearsome creatures in prehistory.

Examining these and other Mesozoic animals in Niger, Taquet invites us to consider the paleogeographical aspect of species and continental drift. This "waltz of the continents, which sometimes looks like a Samba" is integral for the understanding of the relationships of faunas and floras, in this particular instance, between eastern South America and Africa.

Following Taquet to places such as Morocco to hunt sauropods or to Central Asia in search of Mesozoic mammals is a treat not only for the I-discovered-this-or-that information of dinosaurs—but also for the weave of history, cultures and paleontologists. In Morocco, for example, a "wrinkled old man" who lived near a sauropod excavation site would daily observe the activities in this isolated region of the country. "What responsibility we are taking on in overturning his routine, his life, and his way of thinking," Taquet observes. "Right before his eyes, a stone's throw from his house, [we unearthed] bones! Turned into rock! 185 million years old! Belonging to an animal 12 meters long!"

Taquet pays homage to unsung explorers before him such as Josue-Helman Hoffet, a French geologist who explored much of Vietnam more than 60 years ago and discovered the region's first dinosaur bones. When he retraced Hoffet's steps, Taquet, too, had to pay the price of disturbing the "sacred buffalo" grounds, as the local villagers referred to these sites, by coming to a trade agreement with the local priest. I wonder if any other institution would accept the purchase of a pig as a field-expense claim?

Dinosaur Impressions leads the reader to many new adventures, partly because we, at least us North Americans, are so inundated with our own culture. "It seems that everywhere we go in Europe today, our movie and TV screens have been invaded by a gang of American dinosaurs!" Taquet notes. "But we shouldn't forget that the first representatives of these enormously popular reptiles were found in Europe." Much of the progress of paleontology has come from the non-English speaking world, such as France and Germany, whose majority of works are in their native tongue. Taquet and Kevin Padian, who translated the original 1994 edition to produce this volume, not only enlighten us but also remind us that paleontology consists of many artists who paint the canvas of the past. One hopes that more works like this are undertaken.—Tim Tokaryk, Eastend, Saskatchewan, Canada

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