Chinese Feathers and More
By Jack Kallmeyer

The Jehol Fossils: The Emergence of Feathered Dinosaurs, Beaked Birds and Flowering Plants, Mee-mann Chang, Editor-in-Chief. Academic Press, Elsevier, Amsterdam, 2008, $69.95, hard-cover; 208 pp. The book is lavishly illustrated with color photographs and artists' interpretations of reconstructed fauna. The book also includes a few black & white photographs and charts. There is a nine page list of Selected References organized by chapter and a nine page List of Taxa. A single page is included with abbreviations of Institutions and Organizations referenced in the text.

The Jehol Fossils is a large format book packed full of wonderful color photographs of fossils and impressive color artwork interpretations of the living forms. Twenty chapters, all written by Chinese scientists except for one Swedish co-author on Angiosperms, cover the complete biota of this area. Most of us have some knowledge of the remarkable preservation of the feathered dinosaurs from China but these are not the only remarkable fossils being found. Included here are four chapters on plants, six chapters on invertebrates and nine chapters on vertebrates with only one of those on dinosaurs.

You may not have heard of Jehol before but you may be familiar with Liaoning Province where many of the feathered dinosaurs have been found. Liaoning is an area within Jehol Province as I understand it. A map with an enlarged inset is included along with place names but since all place names are in Chinese it was of little help in clearing this up for me. Chang presents his introduction with the history of exploration of the area. The American paleontologist Amadeus Grabau first used the term "Jehol Series" in a 1923 paper. To the date of publication (the original Chinese publication of 2003) "the Jehol Biota include over 60 species of plants, nearly 90 species of vertebrates, and almost a thousand species of invertebrates" (12). Chang describes the paleogeography and its impact on the understanding of plate tectonics in this region. He also discusses the impact that the discovery of feathered dinosaurs, among others, has had on evolutionary relationships.

The first chapter, Mesozoic Pompeii, by Xiao-lin Wang and Zhong-he Zhou goes into the detailed geology of Jehol. This section has numerous photographs of the landscape, quarries and strata to accompany the text. The authors have also included a color stratigraphic chart showing the dated layers and the flora and fauna found in specific strata. The Jehol Biota has been preserved through the actions of volcanism over a 10 million year span that includes the Jehol Group. Wang and Zhou describe the area as volcanically active and having extensive lakes and rivers. Many of the fossils are preserved in volcanic ash or lake sediments. Widespread emission of toxic gasses from the volcanoes has been attributed to mass kills of birds. Unable to fly away from danger, the birds fell into the lakes and streams thus allowing rapid burial and excellent preservation. Some debate exists among professionals as to the geologic age of the Jehol strata but an Early Cretaceous age has the most support according to Wang and Zhou.

Most of The Jehol Fossils contains short chapters on various groups of the studied biota, each by different authors. These include: Gastropods, Bivalves, Conchostracans, Ostracods, Shrimps, Insects and Spiders, Fishes, Amphibians, Turtles, Choristoderes, Squamates, Pterosaurs, Dinosaurs, Birds, Mammals, Charophytes, Land Plants, Angiosperms and Spores and Pollen. Each chapter has a varied amount of introductory information of general interest including habitats and evolutionary relationships. Following that are descriptions of specific specimens that can be too technical for the casual reader. The degree of technicality varies from minimal to extensive. For example, the chapter Insects and Spiders has very little technical descriptive information. An excerpt from the chapter Shrimps is illustrative of the other extreme: "The antennules are biramous and the antennae uniramous. Thoracopods 2~8 are well developed with endopods. The last six thoracomeres are freely exposed. Very well developed, elongate, biramous pleopods are equally present on the pleomeres 1~5" (57). This description continues for another three sentences in similar fashion.

From the dust jacket, "This is a first class scientific and pictorial compendium of the most important fossil locality to be found in generations - surpassing the Mongolian flaming cliffs and rivalling [sic] Messel and Solnhofen." - Kevin Padian. A very succinct and accurate evaluation by Padian. The Jehol Fossils was originally published in 2003 in Chinese. This 2008 translation should go far in introducing the famous Chinese fossils to the broader world. I can't argue with Padian's evaluation but, The Jehol Fossils could have a more general appeal if the descriptive language had been reduced to layman's terms. After all, technical descriptions of these fossils have all been published in professional journals of paleontology so they need not be repeated here. A less technical style of writing has contributed to the appeal of books about other fossil lagerstätten such as Solnhofen, A Study of Mesozoic Palaeontology by Barthel, Swinburne and Morris, Cambridge U.P., 1978; The Fossils of the Hunsrück Slate, Marine Life in the Devonian by Bartels, Briggs and Brassel, Cambridge U.P., 1998; and The Fossil of the Burgess Shale by Briggs, Erwin and Collier, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.

The photographs of the fossils are excellent. Additional close-ups are added in some cases to highlight diagnostic features. Some authors have elected to add arrows to the photographs to point out specific features for clarity. Unfortunately, not all authors used this technique so that photographs usually used to help clarify technical text are of little aid to the nonprofessional.

Considering the scope of The Jehol Fossils, the devotion of 20 pages to the dinosaurs (or non-beaked birds as implied by the book's subtitle) is appreciable compared to the exposure given to some of the other fauna. The more recent discoveries made since 2003 could not be included. Given that, what is shown is very impressive.

General readers will be most interested in the chapters covering pterosaurs, dinosaurs and birds. These three groups are more well known to the general population than are some of the others included in The Jehol Fossils. The impact to evolutionary theory from these Chinese discoveries is also familiar to many amongst the educated public. The text for these three chapters delves into these aspects and the interrelatedness of birds and dinosaurs. Interestingly enough, these chapters have less technical terminology than the shrimp chapter mentioned earlier.

Readability - Variable. Lay readers can appreciate most of the book but sections with technical terminology will require a reader of more advanced background.

On the Upside - Excellent photographs and reconstructions covering the breadth of the treasure trove of fossil discoveries in China. A broad sweep including all taxa.

On the Downside - An expensive book ostensibly of the coffee table variety were it not for the technical terminology. The text varies in technical level to the point that only professionals will understand or appreciate portions of the presentations. Many will wish that more space was devoted to the famous feathered dinosaurs.

Overall Rating - A good book to seek out for an introduction to the famous Chinese fossils but better suited for the coffee tables of professionals.

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