A Little Dinosaur Tale

I recently finished a delightful little book by long time dinosaur expert Edwin H. Colbert called The Little Dinosaurs of Ghost Ranch. Columbia University Press published this in 1995. The 250 page book retails for $29.95 in hard cover.

Colbert is currently Honorary Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Museum of Northern Arizona. Previously he had been Professor of Vertebrate Paleontology at Columbia University and Curator of Fossils, Reptiles, and Amphibians at the American Museum of Natural History. Not counting his many professional papers, Colbert has written numerous popular books on dinosaurs and evolution since the late 1940's.

Colbert's book tells the story of the accidental discovery, excavation, and study, of the Triassic dinosaur Coelophysis bauri at Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu, New Mexico. The story covers the 1947 initial discovery through work continuing even today. In case you are not familiar with this little dinosaur, Coelophysis is of late Jurassic age and one of the earliest theropods (the two legged carnivores). The Ghost Ranch site is famous for the discovery of over a thousand extremely well preserved specimens of Coelophysis.

I found this to be an easy and interesting book to read. It is not full of technical jargon. Colbert does a good job of defining technical terms when it is necessary to use them. There are few illustrations in this book: some are photographs of specific people, the fossils, and localities while others are line drawings of bones or skeletons; color plates in the center are artists concepts of four animals which shared the Triassic world with Coelophysis.

The Little Dinosaurs of Ghost Ranch is organized into twelve chapters. The first four cover the discovery, plans and preparation for removal, the actual digging, and cleaning and preparation. Chapter five is historical with Cope and Marsh stories including the naming of the genus Coelophysis by Cope in 1889. Chapters six through eleven discuss various aspects of what the fossils reveal about the animals themselves, their evolutionary relation to other dinosaurs and ancestors, their contemporaries, why this large group (thousands of individuals) died, and their environment. The last chapter discusses the thecodont reptile extinction which allowed for the ensuing explosion of dinosaurian evolution and dominance.

Another point of interest should be noted here. In the third chapter which discusses the various excavation projects through the years at Ghost ranch, the Dry Dredgers own Greg McDonald appears as leader of a group of excavators during 1982. Unfortunately, Greg's name is misspelled as "MacDonald" in the book, an error which misled me until I ran in to Greg at a recent social event; Greg confirmed that he was indeed the person being referred to.

I highly recommend this book to all dinosaur enthusiasts. It is a well written account not only of a famous dinosaur, but also of the methods of paleontologists.

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