Evolving Eden

Yesterday at the library I picked up the book Evolving Eden : An Illustrated Guide to the Evolution of the African Large Mammal Fauna, by Alan Turner and Mauricio Antón. The book is an introduction to the mammalian paleoecology of Africa, from Oligocene times to the present.

I have to say, I was really surprised at how I kept turning the pages. The book's format is mainly brief entries on phylogenetic groups or sites, which make it easy to take in one, skip something you already know, and get sucked into the next one. I really like that kind of book. Probably my favorite is Robert Carroll's Vertebrate Paleontology and Evolution. Eden is not nearly so detailed as that, but nor is it a gripping account of discoveries and derring-do. It is a straightforward laying-out of what kinds of ancient mammals once roamed Africa and how they related to the ancient ecology.

For me, that makes it a relief compared to books that contrive some storyline to fit all the pieces into one narrative. It's much less effort to cruise from one section to the next without all the awkward joinery between them. Mostly, I skipped the hominids and read the carnivores very closely -- Turner and Antón are authors of another book, titled The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives, and their knowledge shows in their discussion of the different African fossil carnivores.

I have a lot of appreciation for the skill behind Antón's reconstructions, and he is clearly one of the best in the business. I especially admire the black-and-white pencil sketches where the featured animal is colorized -- it's a great effect. Sixteen color plates are half reconstructions and half photographs of modern African environments. There are hundreds of pencil sketches throughout the book, including at least one -- and usually several -- for each phylogenetic group discussed. Many of these are sequential reconstructions showing bone and muscle anatomy underneath the fur.

The book is divided into three basic parts: an catalog of brief entries on mammalian fossil taxa, a catalog of fossil sites, and a short section on how the African ecology changed over time (and the animals with it). The fossil site listing is short but worthwhile -- there won't be any news to people familiar with the hominid sites, but it's nice to see a listing in the context of mammals generally instead of hominids specifically.

Overall the book is a bestiary -- just as you might buy a herbal to plan your garden, I have the impression that I could plan my own African paleoecology by just putting together the right elements here. Most people could stand to know these elements, and I wish there were fifty books just like this one for different regions, different faunal elements, and plants.

But I wouldn't think it would be light reading if you don't already have a familiarity with paleontology. To me, the species and site names are intrinsically interesting because I have a context for them. And it leaves out some of the pieces of the puzzle -- plants are discussed in the context of habitats but not as central players, crocodiles, birds, and most small mammals are outside the book's scope. And rain forest animals get little attention, perhaps deservedly considering their relative lack of fossil record but nonetheless missing part of the obvious diversity of living African mammals.

Still, it's a book that can be picked up and put down repeatedly, parts can be breezed through, and the pictures will remain a valuable reference for a long, long time. I certainly was pleased with the book.