book review

The Palaeoartist’s Handbook, by Mark Witton

I’ll start by saying that I’m no artist. And I have no intention of trying to become one in any form, let alone a Paleoartist (specializing in artistic reconstructions of living things known from fossils). That being said, I can heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in fossil animals, ancient ecosystems, or even just beautiful illustrations of both. The truly impressive quality of this book is that I can even recommend it to someone interested in living animals, as there’s much within that describes how living animals look and function and how that’s applied to the past.

The subtitle of this book is “Recreating prehistoric animals in art”, and the book essentially delves into the process of how one can look at fossils and interpret them into a fully realized organism. The first two chapters define Paleoart (= the subtitle of the book, see above), and go through a brief history of the genre. The history was quite interesting, demonstrating how interpretations of fossil organisms, and the methods used to examine and reconstruct them have changed through the years.

Chapter 3 is titled “Researching, Resource Gathering and Planning a Paleoartwork”. At first glance, this chapter seems to be aimed directly at one who is actually going to create Paleoart, and as I said earlier that’s not me! As with this entire book, however, the focus is on the research itself, and the animals themselves and the principles of imagining and portraying extinct life. So this chapter was actually quite interesting for myself, as someone looking for information on how we believe extinct animals looked. Additionally, there’s a table at the end which lists “Paleoart Memes” which was quite fun to read through. From Marine Reptiles being portrayed as almost fully exposed on the surface of the ocean to the constant violence and roaring of prehistoric creatures, this table is a compilation of ideas that are often repeated in Paleoart but are unlikely to be accurate portrayals of the animals involved. Of course prehistoric animals would have occasionally vocalised, and of course ocean-going animals occasionally spend time at the surface, but the constant repetition of these scenarios is what creates a false impression of the prehistoric world. Animals today don’t habitually yell at each other, especially not while pursuing prey. It’s counterproductive for a Lion to keep roaring while it’s chasing down a gazelle, just as it’s unlikely that Tyrannosaurs unleashed a scream every time they burst from cover after some hapless hadrosaur.

The next 5 chapters (comprising about half the book) are titled “Reconstruction Principles” with various subheadings. This section delves into the nitty-gritty of how we know what we know about extinct animals, and how to find out more. I appreciated the fact that these chapters, while dealing with reconstructing extinct animals, continually offered living examples of the principles being examined so that the ideas presented were always backed by living examples. We can’t KNOW what Tyrannosaurus rex exactly looked like and how it moved without a direct observation of the living animal (which isn’t going to happen without some real sci-fi intervention). We can KNOW what living animal bones tell us about their life appearance and behaviour, and so we can work backward from there. One of the big debates out there about dinosaur life appearance is the visibility of their impressively long and intimidating teeth. For so long dinosaurs’ teeth were prominently on display and exposed to the air and viewer. If we look at living animals, however, we can see that even enormous teeth, such as those of monitor lizards (various Varanus species), are usually concealed within lips most of the time. As with many of these ideas, they are speculative, but looking at the extent of features within living species of animals that we can actually observe help us to familiarize ourselves with the diversity of structures and behaviours and enable us to make better speculation about what extinct animals looked like. This is essentially the theme of this book, and it’s a case that is made wonderfully throughout with countless demonstrations of research on living animals’ correlates between bones and life appearance (as well as trackways, traces and even cave art).

Chapter 9 brings the principles we’ve explored through the middle half of the book to their logical conclusions: “The Life Appearance of Some Fossil Animal Groups”. Using the evidence we have from living species (some of which are related/descended from the fossil species in question), and fossils, Witton describes what many groups of extinct animals may have looked like in life. Absolutely fascinating stuff, this was a wonderful tour through an ancient and unreachable world. The groups covered are all Tetrapods (those ‘four-limbed’ vertebrates from Amphibians to Birds), which is understandable given that adding Invertebrates to the list would substantially extend the book. Some Invertebrates are briefly mentioned in the next chapter along with Plants and surrounding environment: “Recreating Ancient Landscapes”.

The final three chapters are the most artist-focused in the book, detailing how a Paleoartist can depict extinct animals and environments in evocative ways while still remaining true to the science involved. As I’ve said a few times now, I’m no artist, but even these chapters proved interesting reading with analyses of some of Witton’s personal reconstructions and how they may be accurate or inaccurate based on the evidence available.

Finally, I’d like to mention that the book is (probably unsurprisingly) chock-full of wondrous illustrations created by not only Mark Witton himself but a handful of other amazingly talented paleoartists. In addition to this wealth of beautiful paleoart (which in my opinion is worth buying the book for in and of itself), there are countless diagrams and charts that add so much to the presentation of the material. All in all, The Palaeoartist’s Handbook is a fascinating read, full of information about extinct and living animals and ecosystems and detailing how we know what we know about the past. We may not be able to visit past ecosystems in person, but with a book like this, we can begin to truly imagine what they may have been like.

For Other Norfolk Naturalist Book Reviews, see:

The Social Biology of Wasps, ed. by Kenneth Ross and Robert Matthews

Pterosaurs, by Mark Witton

Flora of Middle-Earth, by Walter Judd and Graham Judd

book review

The Social Biology of Wasps

by Kenneth G. Ross and Robert W. Matthews (ed.)

This book was published in 1991 so it’s certainly not hot off the presses but I’ve recently read it and thought it was worth a Review.

The Social Biology of Wasps is a collection of chapters written by different authors, which can sometimes make the book repetitive but for the most part this volume maintains a consistency of quality and focus that keeps the whole tied together.

The title of this book is key. As much as I would love “The Biology of Social Wasps” this book is more focused than that, instead detailing Social Biology of Social Wasps. The positive side to this focus is that it allows the subject of sociality in the vespids to be explored in great detail, but the negative result is that natural history and basic biology of most species is not discussed in any detail. In this book it allows a more focused discussion, but I would occasionally find it frustrating to find the asnwers to basic questions about the species discussed (what do they eat, what are their nests like, what’s a typical life cycle?) missing or mentioned only in passing in a way that made it difficult to connect some of the arguments of social theory with the species subjects of said arguments/theories.

The first half of the book is called “The Social Biology of the Vespidae”. The chapters in this section begin with two chapters detailing some background on the family tree of Vespidae (where the subfamilies fit) and a very brief overview of the solitary and presocial vespids.

The next six chapters overview the social biology of different groups of vespids. The first, Stenogastrinae, was fascinating to me because it was a group I had never heard of. Stenogastrines are also known as hover wasps and because they’re in the tropics they haven’t received as much study as the temperate wasps. A quote from this chapter will illustrate some of the fascination I felt: “Authors… described with wonder their hovering flight… their shy habits, and their strange, camouflaged nests hidden in the wet and dark parts of the jungle, hanging from roots and threadlike fungi along streams and near the spray of waterfalls.” Another highlight from the chapter on hover wasps was the illustrations of their varied nest architecture, which range from cells lined up in a stack along a stem to cells arranged in a ring, facing inward, creating a donut shaped nest.

There are excellent drawn illustrations through the volume, many done by Amy Bartlett-Wright. Amy is a scientific illustrator and artist who has been doing this now for 35 years. Check out her website:

These chapters overviewing the subfamilies do well to illustrate what we know and what awaits further study in the social biology of these wasps. They often highlight similarities between strategies but also fascinating differences. One of the comments mentioned multiple times through the book is the influence that ants have had on wasp evolution, as there have been suggestions that they have driven many of the nest designs and defensive strategies of these insects by their relentless ubiquity. A quote that describes this: “There is no potential nesting site in the tropics that is entirely free of ants, many of which readily accept wasp brood as food. It seems likely that the Azteca-wasp nesting associations [an association where Polybia wasps nest inside the nests of Azteca ants, using them as unwitting guards against more dangerous ants] are only the most conspicuous examples of ant-wasp interactions, and that further study will reveal that swarm-founding wasps have as many “words” for ants as Inuit have for snow.”

As I mentioned earlier, these overviews could have done with a little more natural history in my opinion, but as the focus of the book is on the sociality of the wasps, the brevity of such information can be forgiven (the book is already 600 pages long minus the references section).

The second half of the volume is titled “Special Topics in the Social Biology of Wasps”. This half of the book is where repetition between chapters occurs, but usually it’s helpful rather than hindering. Most of the chapters take a particular aspect of the wasps’ biology and use it as a lens to view their sociality through it, demonstrating the various pressures or influences that piece of the puzzle has. For excample, three chapters in a row are about Nutrition, Genetics, and Nest Architecture. Each of these chapters looks at the Social Wasps through their particular focal point and illustrates how it could have provided an impetus for these insects to gain sociality, or at least start them on the path they’re on now. Because of this, it can be repetitive, but usually the repetition reinforces the fact that these are distinct, but not mutually exclusive influences on the evolution and maintenance of sociality. They should be looked at as pieces of the same puzzle, rather than all-encompassing explanations by themselves. One of the most intriguing chapters for myself was Robert L. Jeanne’s chapter “Polyethism” which convincingly demonstrated how individual behaviour can lead to sociality and even maintain it in the colonies of these wasps today, mostly through the comparison of direct reproductive fitness and indirect reproductive fitness.

The chapters on the nests of Social Wasps are fascinating as well, because a nest is something constructed not by an individual as in birds, but by a group of cooperating insects (in many cases, several generations of cooperating insects). These chapters are illustrated with some of the more bizarre nest arrangements (as well as the more familiar) and demonstrate some of the ways in which nest types could develop in relation to each other.

The chapter on the exocrine glands was not particularly fascinating to me, and felt somewhat out of place, since no other chapter dealt with physiology/anatomy of the subject species.

The final chapter, “Evolution of Social Behavior in Sphecid Wasps” was an excellent overview of Sphecid wasps’ social biology. This chapter gave plenty of examples of the diverse paths wasps have evolved down, and the many questions that are raised by viewing comparatively wasps and bees.

Because this book was published almost 30 years ago now, I’m sure that much would be updated and edited in a newer edition. Some of the questions raised will have been answered, many would have branched into further questions. I’m not a professional Social Wasp Biologist, and so I can’t say what those answers are, where the questions now lie, of the focus of such studies are now. I can tell you that as far as I know, there is no other overview volume like this one for Social Wasps. So if you’re fascinated by them like I am and can handle dense science writing, then dive in and learn to appreciate the incredible insect societies that blossom and buzz all around us.