Review of REMNANTS OF ANCIENT LIFE
How modern science brings the past to life
Fossils can open up a window to the past. We can see with our own eyes what animals and plants once looked like, and they give us insight into what our planet was like. We can travel back through time to learn something new.
In the last couple of decades, we’re learning more about the ancient past than ever before thanks to advancements in technology. Fossils today tell us so much more than what an animal (mostly) looked like, where it lived, and when it was alive. We’re learning that dinosaurs had feathers, humans interbred with other hominid species, and even whether ancient bird eggs were colored. In Remnants of Ancient Life: The New Science of Old Fossils, Dale Greenwalt shares some of the newest methods to analyze fossils, and what we’re learning in the process.
We typically think of fossils as preserved, dry bones encased in dirt and stone. The age of the rock is then analyzed and the skeleton reconstructed. Scientists then analyze the bones to determine the species. This is certainly a simplification, but as Greenwalt explains, science has made the study of fossils far more complex and diverse. Not only are scientists analyzing bones, but also ancient DNA, biomolecules, ancient protein, and even biometals.
Remnants of Ancient Life tackles the new technologies and shows how they are providing unprecedented insight to the past. A great example of this new technology is how it’s changed our perception of dinosaurs. Dinosaurs were thought to be scaled and leathery like reptiles. But advancements in analyzing pigments, specifically melanosomes, of fossils led to the revelation that dinosaurs were feathered – like birds!
The study of pigments also suggests that dinosaur eggs were also colored, just like bird eggs today – and specifically unlike reptile eggs today. But one area that I found most interesting in this book was how new knowledge about the ancient past can provide novel insights into animal behavior, something we don’t typically associate with fossils. For example, colored dinosaur eggs suggest open nesting for which the color serves as camouflage (reptiles bury their eggs – no need for camo). The open nest also does not retain heat or manage temperature (like that of buried nests), which suggest a shift in parental behavior of dinosaurs – the nest must be protected and monitored.
New knowledge also leads to new hypotheses such as: if dinosaurs were spectacularly colored, did they also have color vision? Most likely yes. What’s fascinating is that new knowledge can have a multiplicative effect on the insights scientists can make.
The book covers far more than dinosaurs, but they capture the imagination so well! He also discusses ancient humans, insects, and plants (there’s a place in Idaho you can dig up leaf fossils for just $10!). This was an intriguing book and I learned a lot about modern fossil science. As is typical of Princeton University Press, this is a more technical science book, though still accessible for those interested. It’s deserving of a TBR spot for the science-inclined reader.
Published: January 2023
Publisher: Princeton University Press
If you think this sounds interesting, bookmark these other great reads:
The Rise and Reign of the Mammals: A New History, from the Shadow of the Dinosaurs to Us by Steve Brusatte (2022) | Read my full review
Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past by David Reich (2018)
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