Benton, M.J. 1997: (Second Edition). Chapman & Hall. 452 pp. £24.99. ISBN 0-412-73810-4 (Pbk).
For many more reasons than that all fossils degrade to dust, this revised version of Benton’s Vertebrate Palaeontology text is considered worthy of review in the BMS newsletter. Many of us based in academic institutions have to cover vertebrate palaeontology as part of teaching modules, and, given the relative percentage decrease in palaeontologists on academic teaching staffs, this is likely to increase.
The first edition of this text, published in 1990, swiftly achieved prominence on recommended reading lists, and, there is little doubt that this revised and much expanded second edition will occupy as similar position. There has been a notable lack of english language vertebrate texts published in recent years, with a reliance on Romer’s classic Vertebrate Paleontology, published in 1966, now somewhat dated, and Carroll’s Vertebrate Paleontology and Evolution from 1986, at $66 exceeding the pockets of most undergraduates and now difficult to obtain.
With any review of successive editions of texts, it is appropriate to compare and contrast the two volumes. In simple statistical terms, the new edition is has expanded somewhat, with 452 pages of text in crown quarto format as compared with 377 pages in royal octavo format of the first edition. Physically, this makes Vertebrate Palaeontology an appropriate companion volume to Clarkson’s Invertebrate Palaeontology and Evolution, and the long anticipated update of Brasier’s Microfossils, all by the same publisher. Of course, the increase in volume would be of little use if the content wasn’t considerably updated – and Benton succeeds in covering the majority of advances in vertebrate palaeontology over the last seven years or so.
As is common with virtually any vertebrate text, there is a considerable bias towards the tetrapods. However, lower vertebrates – such as are probably more often encountered by the readership of this newsletter – are covered reasonably comprehensively. The section on conodonts has expanded from a single paragraph in the first edition, into a few pages in the revised edition, reflecting the fairly rapid increase in our understanding of the group over the last half decade or so. Similarly, Lower Palaeozoic fish receive considerably more attention than before. Recent advances in other fields, including the nature of the Devonian tetrapods, nesting dinosaurs, the K-T extinction event, birds and hominid evolution are also included.
Benton has made a concious effort to arrange the subjects in stratigraphic order, rather than following previous texts in following taxonomic groupings. Although this entails flicking back and forward through the book on a few occasions, it suceeds in emphasing that the major evolutionary and extinction events occured across taxonomic boundaries. Certain areas deemed worthy of highlighting, including cladistic phylogenies, important faunas and biomechanical aspects are dealt with in self-contained boxes throught the text, giving succinct precis’s of these topics.
Applied areas of vertebrate palaeontology, of particular interest to many members of the BMS, are largely overlooked. There is a lack of recognition of the increasing role that microvertebrate remains play in biostratigraphy. In a similar vein, the text also lacks any discussion of biostratigraphic or marine palaeoecological techniques which play a prominent role in many palaeontological studies, the emphasis being much more towards palaeobiology. Although these topics can be picked up on in other undergraduate texts such as Clarkson, it does mean that Vertebrate Palaeontology is not as comprehensive as it could be.
One anticipates that Benton’s Vertebrate Palaeontology will be come the “industry standard”, and as such it should occupy space on the shelves of all involved in undergraduate teaching.
Ivan Sansom, School of Earth Sciences, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT.