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BEASTS BEFORE US: The Untold Story of Mammal Origins and Evolution by Elsa Panciroli, book review

BEASTS BEFORE US: The Untold Story of Mammal Origins and Evolution by Elsa Panciroli, book review
06 Oct
2021
by Elsa Panciroli • Bloomsbury Sigma

One question kept popping to mind as I read this book – how did I not know about this? Author Elsa Panciroli would be less surprised at my ignorance. As an expert in Mesozoic mammals (the Mesozoic era being the one with all the dinosaurs), she’s clearly used to her subject being overlooked. So obsessed are we by the ‘Terrible Reptiles’ that, in popular culture at least, we have entirely overlooked our own forebears. As Panciroli demonstrates in her book, however, it’s a fascinating subject, filled with as many weird and wonderful creatures as any reptilian tale.

The book moves roughly chronologically through ancient time, describing the very first creatures to move out of the water and onto land. Countering many mis-held beliefs, Panciroli uses the fossil record to explain the ways in which animals then branched off into different groups, a process that would eventually end up with both reptiles and mammals. The creatures of the Permian (before the age of dinosaurs) are some of the most attention-grabbing here. While not strictly mammals, some of these creatures (within the group called therapsids) were their precursors. They were also often bizarre. Take Moschops from South Africa, for example – ‘longer than a super king-sized bed, and built like a nightclub bouncer’. Then you have the sabre-toothed therapsids: ‘vampire turtles that have crawled out of their shells’.

Much of this life was wiped out in the Permian–Triassic extinction event. What followed was the Mesozoic, a time when mammals were mostly very small. It’s for this reason that Panciroli thinks that they’ve been overlooked. But she’s certainly persuasive in her argument that far from being lesser beings, scuttling at the feet of the dinosaurs, these animals were undergoing their own extraordinary changes. From the ‘disaster taxa’ (creatures that relatively briefly thrive after mass-extinction events) to the intriguing prospect that the first mammals might have possessed a venom-laden spur on their ankles, there’s much here to intrigue.

The book is also a story about palaeontology and the author’s own work in the field. Some of these parts are pretty technical but definitely of interest to anyone with a fascination about the subject and the ways in which information is deduced from ancient bones.

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