Sunday, 29 September 2013

In pursuit of early mammals

A multituberculate (Catopsbaatar) about to fall prey
to a dinosaur (Saurornithoides)

This fascinating book is the autobiography of the eminent paleontologist Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska and an introduction to the early history of mammals.

Her descriptions of the Polish-Mongolian expeditions in 1963-71 recount the daunting logistics of working in the Gobi Desert 1000 km from Ulaanbaatar and transporting back fossils weighing several tons. The excitement of the fossil hunt is apparent: "I turned the block over and was left speechless! I had in my hands an almost complete, beautifully preserved skull of a small dinosaur." With this as a starting point we follow Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska's subsequent career, which included eight years on the faculty of Oslo University. In 2002 she returned to Gobi with her grandaughter Zosia; ten years on Zosia checked the references for the current volume. 

The second half of the book focuses on the evolution of mammals. It is restricted to the crown group that includes the living monotremes, marsupials and placentals and extinct groups with which they share a common ancestor. Arguably this includes the fossils of greatest interest to the general reader. For a more comprehensive treatment of the subject there is Mammals from the Age of Dinosaurs (2004) by Kielan-Jaworowska, Cifelli and Luo.

The new book contains potted biographies of many eminent vertebrate paleontologists, including some of the author's predecessors as well as recent stars such as Zhe-Xi Luo. It is richly illustrated with historical photos and line drawings of fossil mammals from the age of dinosaurs.

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