Book in Brief: Dinosaurs of the British Isles

A few months back I finally got a chance to visit one of the dinosaur museums that I had been longing to see since childhood – London’s Natural History Museum. Familiar fossil faces greeted me as I made my way through the historic halls. “Dippy” the Diplodocus stood at attention near the museum entrance, a Camarasaurus loomed in the dark doorway of the dinosaur hall, the claws of Allosaurus cast long shadows against the wall in the upper gallery, and an animatronic Tyrannosaurus – who else could it be? – snarled in a shadowy alcove.

None of these dinosaurs are found in Britain. Cast, bone, and robotics, they all represent creatures from the deserts nearer to my present home. It felt strange to be walking through a museum once overseen by Richard Owen, the anatomist who coined the word Dinosauria in 1842 from a trio of British finds, and have to look hard to spot the local fauna (Hypsilophodon tucked behind the bulk of Canada’s Scolosaurus, a reconstruction of Baryonyx on the bottom floor, the Maidstone Iguanodon propped up in an alcove near the exit). You’d think that England was depauperate of dinosaurs, or at least hosted meek species easily overshadowed by those found elsewhere. Maybe this can be fixed when the museum eventually updates its exhibits. As paleontologist Dean Lomax and artist Nobumichi Tamura demonstrate in Dinosaurs of the British Isles, fossil hunters have dramatically increased the number of UK dinosaurs since the days of Owen.

Dinosaurs-of-the-british-islesThe first portion of the book covers standard territory for dinosaur titles. What a dinosaur is. Early dinosaur discoveries. How fossils form. But what really makes Dinosaurs of the British Isles an essential title for any Mesozoic fanatic is its exhaustive exploration of dinosaurs unique to the UK. Starting with the Late Triassic maybe-dino Saltopus, the book moves upwards in time through the Late Cretaceous,  listing dinosaurs according to the rock units in which they are found. Each of these sections are absolutely packed with photos of fossils, skeletal reconstructions, and life restorations by Tamura, who continues to improve as he draws his way through the tree of prehistoric life. There’s no better single resource for catching up with Britain’s dinosaurs.

That’s why it’s truly a shame that the book’s formatting is chaos. While the content is excellent, the chapter and section breaks are often unclear. The yellow caption boxes set amongst photos of skeletons scattered across many pages are also distracting. Fact boxes, bone photos, restorations, and text are strewn through the pages in a way that left me feeling that I was looking at a printed out webpage rather than a true book. This is the only major criticism I have of the book, and, if it gets another edition in the future, I hope that the informative details within can be arranged in a more user-friendly way.

In the end, however, it’s the scientific details and illustrations that makes books like these. Lomax and Tamura certainly dug deep to provide those, creating a book that will be a rich resource for specialists and amateurs alike. Whether you’re particularly interested in Britain’s dinosaurs – be they classics like Iguanodon or newer discoveries such as Juratyrant – or you’re a dinosaur completist, Dinosaurs of the British Isles is a must-have reference for understanding how these animals have helped establish and altered our appreciation of past life.

Previous “Book in Brief” reviews:

The Antarctic Dive Guide, How to Clone a Mammoth, Sex on Earth

A Dinosaur Reading List for Everyone

So you want to learn more about dinosaurs. There are blog posts and videos, of course, but what if you want to sit down and dig into a fossil-filled book? Where should you start, and what books are best for what you want to know? Here’s a brief list of dinosaur books for enthusiasts of all stripes, from readers looking for a good paleo memoir to those hoping to beef up their technical knowledge.

For Young Dinomaniacs

There are seemingly innumerable children’s books about dinosaurs. These are my favorites:


Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs by Kathleen Kudlinski – Dinosaur discoveries are coming fast and furious, and even relatively recent books might depict outdated ideas about them. What’s great about Kudlinski‘s book is that she shows how our understanding of dinosaurs has changed over the centuries, introducing children to the process of science as well as thoroughly modern dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs: The Most Complete, Up-to-Date Encyclopedia for Dinosaur Lovers of All Ages by Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. – While I’ve listed it in the young readers section, this book is a must-have for anyone looking to update their dinosaur library. Lavishly illustrated by Luis Rey, the book is an excellent resource for readers who just can’t get enough dinosaurs and want to review the most up-to-date, accurate ideas about them. Kids can also grow with this book – it’ll remain an essential part of any dinosaur fan’s library for years and years.


Everyone knows that half the fun of paleontology is imagining how prehistoric creatures looked and moved. These books present some of the best modern paleoart has to offer:


Dinosaur Art edited by Steve White – This glossy volume is a greatest hits collection of some of the most talented paleoartists working today. The reproductions are gorgeous, making it easy to get lost in the beauty of prehistoric time.

Charles R. Knight: The Artist Who Saw Through Time by Richard Milner – Anyone who loves dinosaurs should know the work of Charles R. Knight. He took the practice of illustrating fossils beyond scientific reconstruction into a true artform, and any aspiring paleoartists should know his work well.

All Yesterdays by John Conway, Memo Kosemen, and Darren Naish – Just like any other area of art, illustrating prehistoric creatures has its own trappings and tropes. All Yesterdays tries to break through these by imagining familiar animals in ways not typically seen, from sleeping tyrannosaurs to sauropods at play. In an area of illustration often dominated by “nature red in tooth and claw”, All Yesterdays is a breath of a fresh air.


Heading out into the field to find and excavate dinosaurs is part of the romance of paleontology. These books will let you explore the badlands whether you’re at home or on the way to a dig yourself:

Digging Dinosaurs by John Horner and James Gorman – This is the epitome of the modern dinosaur memoir. Recounting the discovery and study of one of the most important dinosaur nesting grounds ever found, Horner’s memoir is a paleo literature classic.

The Life of a Fossil Hunter by Charles H. Sternberg – Don’t be fooled by the age of this book. Sternberg’s account of his adventures in the field will ring true with many paleontologists working today, and is made all the sweeter by the fact that most of it takes place during a time when North American paleontology was just beginning to flourish.

Unearthing the Dragon by Mark Norell and Mick Ellison – The discovery of dozens of feathered dinosaurs from the Jurassic and Cretaceous rocks of China have dramatically changed our understanding of dinosaurs in the last decade. Norell and Ellison’s book offers a window to this new dinosaur rush and how it’s continuing to alter our perspective of dinosaur lives.


Dinosaurs Without Bones by Anthony Martin – Martin’s book isn’t just about fieldwork, but his cheerful and humorous accounts of literally tracking dinosaurs make this book stand out. With so many books focusing on bones, Martin’s enthusiasm for traces fossils adds a new perspective and gives readers the tools to see the prehistoric behaviors left in the rock.


The history of paleontology documents our attempts to understand where we came from and what life was like long, long ago. Read these to get a handle on how the science fits into the human endeavor to investigate Earth’s past:

The First Fossil Hunters by Adrienne Mayor – People started finding fossils long before paleontology became a scientific discipline. Mayor’s book will introduce you to how fossils – including dinosaur bones – inspired myths, legends, and inspired people to think about where we came from.

The Fossil Hunter by Shelley Emling – Every fossil fan should know Mary Anning. She was one of the first paleontologists and an extremely adept excavator. This biography by Emling chronicles her victories and trials as she pursued the science she loved.

The Bonehunters’ Revenge by David Rains Wallace – The late 19th century “Bone Wars” are the stuff of science legend. While there are other books on the subject, Wallace’s account of the scientific rivalry between paleontologists O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope is the most gripping I’ve ever read.


The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush by Paul Brinkman – Ever wonder why the great museums of New York City, Pittsburgh, and Chicago are filled with Jurassic dinosaurs? Brinkman’s account looks at when early dinomania spurred museums to try to get the biggest and best dinosaurs for their displays, setting the foundation for exhibits that still stand today.

For Serious Students

If you want to give yourself a crash course on dinosaurs and the science of paleontology, these books should definitely be in your library:


The Dinosauria (2nd ed.) edited by David Weishampel, Peter Dodson, and Halszka Osmólska – This tome is essential to the dinosaurian canon. Even though many discoveries have been made since its publication and a third edition is on the way, the fact is that this comprehensive volume is filled with essential information about every dinosaur group and is so widely-cited that it’s important for checking up on references.

Dinosaur Odyssey by Scott Sampson – A hybrid that involves memoir as well as fact, Sampson’s book does an excellent job of making sense of dinosaurs within the realms of biology, ecology, and other branches of science. If you want to understand dinosaurs as animals, this is a great place to start.

The Complete Dinosaur (2nd ed.) edited by Michael Brett-Surman, Thomas Holtz, and James Farlow – Much like The Dinosauria, this heavy volume is a must-have for serious dinosaur fans. The topics included range widely – from field techniques to the details of dinosaur histology – and that makes this book a handy reference for anyone trying to bone up on dinosaurs.

Dinosaur Paleobiology by Stephen Brusatte – How did dinosaurs really live? Brusatte’s book is the most up-to-date exploration of this question, offering an excellent summary of the field for readers who are curious about the methods and ideas involved in exploring dinosaur biology.

Vertebrate Paleontological Techniques, Vol. 1 edited by Patrick Leiggi and Peter May – From discovery to exhibition, dinosaur bones require great care. While every lab has their own preferred techniques, this book is a solid primer for becoming familiar with how to excavate, prepare, care for, and display dinosaurs.

This list isn’t exhaustive, of course. There are many, many other books out there, including many technical volumes devoted to specific dinosaur groups such as tyrannosaurs and hadrosaurs. What are some of your favorite dinosaur books?

Book in Brief: Sex on Earth

Panda sex may have no greater defender than Jules Howard. I mean, presumably the pandas themselves would be more invested in this topic, but as far as I’m aware the bears aren’t usually invited to contribute commentary to the Guardian. They have to rely on Howard, and thankfully he’s been an able defender of the Ailuropoda melanoleuca love life.

More often than not, pandas are cast as cuddly evolutionary mistakes. They seem so backward. On the brink of extinction, some of the captive members of their species haven’t had the good graces to appreciate that we are trying to save them and therefore breed out of gratitude. What a blinkered view of life. Yes, male and female giant pandas have to find each other on just the right day to start the biological process of making an adorable little fuzzball. Yet, Howard points out, pandas were managing to do this for over two million years before our species started destroying their habitat and pushing them to oblivion. We’re the problem, not them, and this goes for zoos, too.

sex-on-earth-howardFor a long time, Howard points out, zookeepers took a very human-centric view of what would turn on a panda. (Panda porn? Seriously?) Given that we’ve all but abandoned our sense of smell to glean information about the world and each other, it took a while for specialists to realize that scent plays an important role in getting pandas ready to mate. The panda baby boom started once researchers finally realized this simple secret. Pandas aren’t evolutionary mishaps. We failed by not only cutting into their numbers, but in thinking that what titillates us would work for a species we last shared a common ancestor with over 66 million years ago. So begins Howard’s new book, Sex on Earth.

I must admit that upon receiving my review copy, my first thought was “Another book about animal sex?” We seem to be awash in literature on the subject, with Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation still the pinnacle of procreation-focused popsci. Not to mention Isabella Rossellini’s Green Porno film series and live show.  But, as I quickly discovered, the crowded field is exactly what let Howard to write a book that stands out.

A great deal of writing – and film – on animal reproduction focuses on the superlative and hyperbolic. Who has the biggest penis? Who does the craziest mating dance? Are animals into BDSM? And on and on. But Howard argues that in focusing on the shocking and lewd, or what seems to be so through the humans lens, we’re actually missing what sex is all about. Worse still, we risk misunderstanding the very nature of sex by projecting our own desires and fears upon the staggering diversity of species that do it differently than we do.

Take the stickleback, for example. With bowerbirds and clownfish that change sex, the spiny little fish might seem a bland place to start. But through a visit to stickleback researcher Iain Barber’s lab, Howard explains how critical the fish has been to researchers wishing to parse the science of courtship and mating. For example, in a classic experiment, Niko Tinbergen showed that the red color of ready-to-mate males makes other males get all het up. Unfortunately, Howard points out, some male researchers were so taken with the vigorous, vibrant sticklebacks that they cast the female fish as dull, unimportant, and, as one zoologist wrote, “nothing but a roving gipsy.” It took until about 1990 for behaviorists to finally realize that females play an active role in choosing their mates and are not simply providers of eggs for stickleback seed. This historical perspective is what makes Sex on Earth different. As Howard weaves his tales of glow worms, hedgehogs, penguins, and more, he always keeps one eye on how humans have interpreted – and often misinterpreted – animals as reflections of ourselves.

Howard had hooked me with the sticklebacks and kept me reading on. Not only because of the clarity and humor in his prose, but for his careful consideration of how our species has warped the sex lives of other animals to reinforce our own preferences and taboos. Sex on Earth isn’t yet another catalog of what we might consider bizarre behavior. There are plenty of sticky details for those wishing to brush up their cocktail party chatter, sure, but Howard has done far better than that. Sex on Earth is a refreshingly self-aware exploration of the most intimate moments in nature and how the incredible variety of life has led us to frame our own thoughts about this near-ubiquitous biological drive. Not to mention that anyone who takes the time to set up a camera system by the side of a local pond to watch frogs make the next generation of little hoppers has not only my interest, but my admiration.

[Note: In an early chapter, Howard lists me along Darren Naish and David Hone as part of a gaggle of science writers who see dinosaur sex everywhere. Given that I’m due to give a talk on just that subject at London’s Natural History Museum next month, I can’t deny the charge.]

Book in Brief: How to Clone a Mammoth

“Will there ever be a real Jurassic Park?” I’ve heard this question more times than I can count. The answer is always “No“. Aside from the problem of getting a viable clone to develop inside a bird egg – one that scientists haven’t cracked yet – DNA’s postmortem decay happens too fast to give us any hope of saying “Bingo! Dino DNA!” someday. But just because it won’t work for Tyrannosaurus doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for other forms of life. In How to Clone a Mammoth, ancient DNA expert Beth Shapiro offers a thrilling tour of the science that might – might – recreate lost worlds from the not-too-distant past.

how-to-clone-a-mammothThe book’s title is a bit of a bait-and-switch. On the very first page, Shapiro explains that for long-extinct organisms such as “the passenger pigeon, the dodo, the mammoth – cloning is not a viable option.” If at all, these organisms are going to come back to us piecemeal as revived genetic material expressed in hybrid creatures that may, or may not, look like the lost species. And this cuts to the core of what de-extinction is really all about.

From a purist’s perspective, extinction really is forever. It’s impossible to recreate lost species exactly as they were, down to every last gene and quirk of behavior. But with a broader definition of de-extinction – creating organisms that can fill vacant ecological roles – an elephant with a touch of mammoth trundling around the Arctic steppe would count as what Shapiro dubs an unextinct species. This is the goal of de-extinction efforts – not to recreate extinct species down to the finest detail, but to generate organisms that rehabilitate ecosystems. Not so much resurrection as carefully-crafted reinvention focused on ecosystem-scale repair.

As a researcher who is shaping this field, Shapiro is the perfect guide to the ongoing discussion about de-extinction. While many news items and conference presentations have focused on the technology required to recreate extinct life, Shapiro carefully considers every step along the journey to de-extinction, from choosing a species to revive to making sure they don’t become extinct all over again. As Shapiro says herself, she’s a realist rather than a cynic, and her finely-honed prose cuts through the hype that has clouded the debate around whether or not we should be striving to recreate lost species when so many living species are hanging on by the barest thread.

In fact, Shapiro uses the tension between those advocating for the return of extinct species and critics who argue that the effort would be better spent saving today’s imperiled organisms to propose a third option that has barely been discussed. Whether or not proxy mammoths, dodos, or sabercats come back, exploring such possibilities may give conservationists new tools to manage and assist threatened species and ecosystems. We’re already carrying out conservation triage on the weak and wounded, so why not use every tool at our disposal to sustain – and perhaps even improve – what we’re already managing by hand? Or, as Shapiro writes near the end of the book, “De-extinction is a process that allows us to actively create a future that is really better than today, not just one that is less bad than what we anticipate.”

Will genetically-modified pseudo-mammoths or passenger-ish pigeons be the first symbols of a new age in conservation? That’s still unclear. But even if we never see shaggy elephants or the shade cast by immense pigeon flocks, de-extinction research already underway has the potential to both tell us about the past and provide us with new tools to decide the future shape of nature. Whether you’re all for de-extinction or against it, Shapiro’s sharp, witty, and impeccably-argued book is essential for informing those who will decide what life will become.

Book in Brief: The Antarctic Dive Guide

I’m not going diving in the Antarctic anytime soon. I’ve averse to cold, I haven’t reupped by PADI certification since I was 16, and, frankly, I don’t have the cash to get there. But, all the same, I’m glad Princeton University Press sent me a copy of Lisa Eareckson Kelley’s The Antarctic Dive Guide.

The bulk of the book, as would be expected of a dive guide, is a listing of dive spots around Antarctica. Each includes a map, coordinates, a summary of what to expect from each site, and more. The overall impression is of a place meant for the hardest of the hardcore. Even some of the descriptions might be enough to make the reader want to pee their wetsuit. The description of Elephant Island warns that “Brash Ice can be a factor to be contended with, as the nearby glacier is very active”, and the Aitcho Islands profile advises “All dive sites have a very strong tidal current, which can sweep you out from land, away from your boat, and towards the center of the English Strait by as much as 1km.” Eep.

antarctic-dive-guideBut all of these frigid descriptions come with beautiful color photographs of sea cucumbers, seals, sea stars, salps, and an array of other marine organisms whose names don’t start with “s”. Far from being a saltwater tomb, the Southern Ocean is full of gloriously weird and colorful life. While I obviously can’t speak from experience, the guide does an admirable job of telling readers what sort of creatures to expect at each site and how to get the best photographs of them. The photos are enough to tempt a desert rat like myself to consider dipping a toe in the icy Antarctic waters.

Above all, though, one short section of the book caught my attention. Leopard seals are the Antarctic’s big, charismatic carnivores, and they have traditionally been cast as villains. Their bad reputation seemed to be earned when, in 2003, a leopard seal drowned marine biologist Kirsty Brown. Yet this was the only such death on record, and many divers have reported leopard seals as inquisitive more than aggressive.

To cut through these conflicting ideas, an array of contributors offer their perspectives on the seals and how to avoid injury at their jaws. A submerged diver usually doesn’t look like prey, for example, but a seal may mistake a diver walking to the edge of the ice for an overlarge penguin, the pinniped’s favored food. Even though relatively little is known about the beasts and their habits, the guide is clear that leopard seals are wild animals and even “friendly” seals that bring divers gifts of dead penguins should not be considered cuddly undersea buddies.

The sea can inspire and entrance. That doesn’t mean we can forget that it is wild. We may visit, but, despite being descendants of fishapods that swam through the water over 375 million years ago, the sea is not a place we’re adapted to in the least. The Antarctic Dive guide does an admirable job at balancing these perspectives, conveying the joys and the risks involved at entering such a beautiful, alien part of the world.

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The Hopes and Heartaches of Curing HIV

It’s one of the most incredible stories in medical science: a cure for HIV. It happened first in 1998 with Christian Hahn (a pseudonym), and then again in 2008 with Timothy Ray Brown. Both cures took place in Berlin, but involved very different scientific approaches and very different scientists.

In her new book, Cured, scientist and science writer Nathalia Holt tells the personal stories of the so-called Berlin patients, their families, and their doctors. She also delves into the complex — and still largely befuddling — science of the HIV virus, and shows how this research has influenced the cancer field.

I learned a lot from Natalie’s book and was eager to pick her brain about how it came together.

Photo by Jon Cohen
Nathalia at work. Photo by Jon Cohen

VH: You’re a scientist studying HIV. When did you get into science writing?

NH: I stumbled into it because I wanted to tell this story. It’s an important story that has had tremendous influence on HIV medicine. Yet little has been written about what these cases mean and how they’ve shaped clinical trials today. However, it wasn’t until I learned the personal stories of the people involved that I decided it had to be a book. Their stories were just too good. I had no idea when I first started working on this project how much I would fall in love with science writing. It’s hard to imagine it not being a part of my life today.

VH: The HIV field has undergone an enormous transformation since the 1980s, both in terms of scientific discoveries and in overcoming stigma. Do you think people are generally well informed about the disease today?

NH: We’ve come so far from those early, fearful days of HIV. It’s hard to imagine that only a few decades ago people living with the virus were kept out of schools, denied emergency services and even barred from some hospitals. Today, HIV transmission and prevention is common knowledge in a way we could have only dreamed of in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, the stigma attached to the disease hasn’t faded away. A recent example is HIV shaming where young men find themselves called “Truvada whores” and the dating world becomes increasingly fragmented between those with the virus and those without. Our ability to treat and cure HIV in the future is threatened by the continued stigma, apathy and ignorance surrounding HIV.

VH: That continued stigma makes it all the more impressive that you managed to get not only Christian, who has chosen to stay anonymous, but also Timothy Ray Brown and Dr. Heiko Jessen to open up about quite intimate things — their fears and hopes, their family’s reactions, even details about their sexual experiences. How did you approach them initially? Was it difficult to develop that kind of trust?

NH: Being an HIV researcher I was fortunate to get introductions through mutual acquaintances. Slowly, our relationships grew. It didn’t happen overnight. From the beginning I knew I wanted to push character development in the book; to show not only the good but also the troubling moments we all have. It was an incredible experience to have these men open up their lives to me. There’s something magical about learning all the little details that make up a person’s life. I’m very grateful for the many hours these men, and their families and friends, spent with me. They inspired me to open the book with an embarrassing story about myself. It seemed only fair.

VH: I won’t say what the embarrassing story was because everyone should go buy the book to find out.

But what about your relationships with your scientist-sources? Part of what’s so interesting about this story is the intense competition (and even, in some cases, backstabbing) among HIV scientists the world over. Do you think your scientific background and professional connections helped you when it came to asking the big players to tell you their stories? Or did some of them see you as entrenched in a particular camp?

NH: Being in the field both helped and hurt. It allowed me to get the details of fights over authorship, backstabbing and clinical trials in a way that would have been difficult otherwise. On the other hand, I entered this stage of reporting with biases that a science journalist probably wouldn’t have. I think this is where being a relatively young scientist is an advantage. I didn’t have decades of these biases to contend with so no one saw me as entrenched in a particular camp. Instead I felt like the big players I spoke with were trying to explain their perspective honestly. Writing about these tense moments wasn’t always easy but I felt it was important to show the influence intense competition can have on research, particularly follow-up studies.

VH: Your writing is often cinematic. I was repeatedly amazed by the way you were able to set up scenes to make the patients’ stories come alive. Here’s one example, in which you describe the dorm room in which Christian takes his HIV meds for the first time:

“The room had one window, awkwardly framed. It was a small pane that came down only to Christian’s chest. He looked out into the evening sky, watching the snowflakes circle down past his window and land in the yard below. The sky was dark gray, the evening creeping into daylight hours as the calendar approached the longest day of the year. Christian had been sick for six months. He had endured endless mornings of retching and dry heaves. He had suffered extreme exhaustion, could barely work, and had kept a chilling secret from friends and coworkers. Now, for the first time in months, he was beginning to feel like himself again.”

From a reporting standpoint, that’s an amazing paragraph. Can you tell me how you constructed it? Did you go visit this room in person, or see photos? Did you have a lot of interviews with Christian, pressing him over and over for more details?

NH: This chapter in particular took a lot of time. I saw pictures of the room, visited the campus, looked up weather reports (I got this idea from an interview I read with Rebecca Skloot) and chatted with Berliners about what winter is like. The moment where Christian is standing at the window is a powerful turning point for him. Although many years have passed he remembers it clearly. It’s an overwhelming memory; I watched him both with tears in his eyes and a smile on his face while describing it. We spent a ridiculous amount of time going over every detail of ten minutes in November 1996.

VH: It was interesting to read that Christian’s doctor, Gero Hütter, was nervous about the big Wall Street Journal article in 2008 that revealed his findings before they were published in a scientific journal. I hear that all the time from scientists — this notion that if they talk to the press before publication they will be ruined. And yet, in Hütter’s case, the article did exactly the opposite. It gave him legitimacy among HIV scientists and seemed to help him get published in a prestigious journal.

Since you now have a foot in both camps, how do you feel about scientists talking to the press about their work? Do you have any advice for scientists looking for recognition, or for journalists trying to get scoops?

NH: I sometimes wonder what would have become of Gero Hütter’s research without Mark Schoofs, the Wall Street Journal reporter. Consider this: Mark Schoofs was able to spot the importance of Timothy’s case in a way that thousands of researchers couldn’t. His coverage of the case influenced the New England Journal of Medicine to accept a paper they had previously rejected. Without that publication it’s hard to say where we would be today. Multiple agencies have cited that one paper as the reason they are funding HIV gene therapy. Mark Schoofs’s reporting may one day lead to millions of lives spared of HIV. So this is my advice to science journalists. Go for the stories you believe in, even if some researchers discourage you. Never forget that you’re an essential part of science and medicine and that your reporting may make all the difference. For scientists, it’s important that we recognize journalists as part of the scientific community and not be afraid to develop relationships.

VH: I like that advice!

There’s a tension in this story that probably exists in every story of a medical science breakthrough, and that’s the balance between hype and cynicism. Nobody wants to praise a result so much that it raises false hopes among patients, and yet, you don’t want to downplay science so much that the whole pursuit comes off as pointless. Any thoughts on how science writers should walk that tightrope?

NH: This is one of the reasons I felt the story had to be told as a book instead of an article. I needed the space to describe what’s happening in HIV medicine today. For me the best way to walk this tightrope was to keep the science sophisticated. To this end I discuss a range of topics: how HIV hides in the body, gene therapy, humanized mice and elite controllers. I wanted readers to feel as if they had enough information to assess for themselves. At the same time, I used interviews with experts in the field to give guidance. No one is ever going to agree with everything but finding that balance between hype and cynicism is so important.

VH: Is there another book in your future?

NH: Book writing is addictive. I’m working on my second book but I can’t talk about it quite yet.

Digging Into the Grand Staircase

When I tell a new acquaintance that I live in Utah, I ‘m often met with a mild side eye. “Are you a Mormon?” is the question that always follows. No, I’m not, I explain, and I moved to the beehive state for a more unconventional reason. I came here for the dinosaurs.

The most famous of Utah’s fossil sites are Jurassic classics. Localities such as Dinosaur National Monument and the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry are rich boneyards from the heyday of Late Jurassic giants. But that’s just one relatively narrow slice of history in a state that offers so much undiscovered Mesozoic history. In 2010, the year before I moved to Utah, paleontologists named eight new dinosaur genera from sites in the state. Several more have followed, with a greater number still in preparation.

At the Top of the Grand Staircase, edited by Alan Titus and Mark Loewen.
At the Top of the Grand Staircase, edited by Alan Titus and Mark Loewen.

The vast majority of the newly-named animals are not from long-known localities, but from Cretaceous sites between 145 and 66 million years old that are only just beginning to be revealed. And of all these places brimming with dinosaur fossils, southern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has most forcefully captured the attention and imagination of researchers. Not only are the fossil organisms being found there new to science, but the variety of life – from plants to turtles to mammals to dinosaurs – has raised new puzzles about evolution and what researchers previously expected about Late Cretaceous history. The new technical volume At the Top of the Grand Staircase edited by paleontologists Alan Titus and Mark Loewen synthesizes what has been uncovered so far.

Recognizing the richness of what would become Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was a long time coming. Titus documents the slow scientific burn in his introductory chapter. John Wesley Powell and other explorers roughly documented the geology of southern Utah’s badlands in the late 19th century, their work setting the stage for later fossil fuel exploration and geological surveys. The paleontological potential of the vast area didn’t spark much interest until the late 20th century, and even then fieldwork out on the Kaiparowits Plateau was relatively sporadic. Nevertheless, enough new, tantalizing fossils were found that they helped spur the creation of the area as Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996, overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.

The fossil rush didn’t take long to start. Within five years, multiple museums were working with the BLM’s paleontology crew – led by Titus – to document the monument’s geology and discover prehistoric creatures never seen before. The badlands are rife with potential,  with, Titus estimates, “hundreds of thousands of hectares of outcrop” that have yet to be explored.

Not all of the monument’s sites are Cretaceous in age. A fine skeleton of the crocodile cousin Poposaurus was found within GSENM’s older Triassic rock, for example. But the monument’s expansive exposures of Cretaceous rock have drawn the most attention and form the backbone of the new volume. A series of formations spanning approximately 93 to 72 million years ago – the Dakota Formation, Tropic Shale, Straight Cliffs Formation, Wahweap Formation, and Kaiparowits Formation – document a time when southern Utah went from being underwater to a lush coastal environment next to a long-vanished seaway. And since everyone loves dinosaurs, the discovery of tyrannosaurs, ceratopsids, hadrosaurs, and other dinosaurs from the Wahweap and Kaiparowits Formations have dominated news from the monument.

But the new volume isn’t all about dinosaurs. In fact, despite Raúl Martín’s lovely Nasutoceratops scene on the thick book’s cover, the contributions relating to dinosaurs make up only a very small part of the book. The first section covers the monument’s geology, from a basic overview to the “implications of the internal plumbing of a Late Cretaceous sand volcano.” Sections on the monument’s prehistoric plants, invertebrates, fish, amphibians, turtles, mammals, lizards, snakes, and crocodylomorphs follow, with the dinosaurs only making their appearance starting on page 445. An assortment of contributions on trace fossils and taphonomy round out the collection.

The hadrosaur Gryposaurus monumentensis, found in GSENM, at the NHMU. Photo by Brian Switek.
The hadrosaur Gryposaurus monumentensis, found in GSENM, at the NHMU. Photo by Brian Switek.

Throughout all these detailed summaries of fossil organisms, there are plenty of references to referred species and yet-to-be-named organisms. Many of the fossils found within the monument are new and yet to be fully described at the time of the book’s publication. In the chapter on horned dinosaurs, for example, the recently-announced Nasutoceratops titusi is called “Kaiparowits centrosuarine A”, so non-expert readers might want to check up to see if some of the animals mentioned in the volume have made their scientific debut. But this also shows the rate at which research into GSENM’s fossils is progressing. Each year new species from the monument are being named, and, according to a recent comment by Titus, there are nearly a dozen that are currently awaiting publication.

Exactly why all this detailed record-keeping is important is hinted at throughout the contributions, but comes into full focus in the very last paper.

Fossils of previously-unknown Cretaceous species are found at sites all over the world, and most prehistoric species from even that one period are still unknown. New species are named all the time.  Yet it’s not simply the novelty of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument fossils that are important, as Scott Sampson and coauthors argue in their closing summary, but their novelty in relation to other organisms that lived elsewhere in North America at the same time. The dinosaurs of southern Utah, in particular, are different at the genus or species level from similar communities that lived at roughly the same time in Cretaceous Canada. This pattern is distinctly different from dinosaur diversity in the following, closing part of the Cretaceous where dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus are found over a much wider range.

Looking into the Kaiparowits Formation from GSENM's Horse Mountain. Photo by Brian Switek.
Looking into the Kaiparowits Formation from GSENM’s Horse Mountain. Photo by Brian Switek.

Why are the Late Cretaceous species of southern Utah so different? As yet, no one knows. Some sort of physical barrier such as a mountain range or river system could be the answer, or maybe there was some aspect of dinosaur evolution and diversification at play that we don’t yet understand. Perhaps looking to the smaller, less charismatic organisms mentioned in the volume will reveal patterns that then lead us to what was happening to our beloved dinosaurs. All of these fossils present a puzzle to researchers that has yet to be fully worked out. In trying to untangle that mystery, from discovery in the field through description and new understandings of paleobiology, perhaps paleontologists will be able to draw on the monument’s fossils to distill new insights into how evolution works.

The process will take decades of researchers and volunteers working at full tilt. I’m happy to be a very small part of that – I’ve joined crews from the Natural History Museum of Utah for a few outings as they’ve searched for new fossil sites within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. I haven’t found anything noteworthy yet, but, if I do, I’ll anxiously flip through this book to puzzle out what I’ve stumbled across. There’s no better guide to those badlands and the ancient life they contain. And rather than marking an end point, the volume is a foundational manuscript for ongoing research that will be indispensable to anyone researching the monument’s prehistoric life. At the Top of the Grand Staircase  is an essential volume for explorers who are continuing to search through what’s left of Cretaceous Utah.

Dinosaurs Inside Out

Last year saw the publication of two of the most beautiful and significant paleoart books in recent memory – Dinosaur Art and All Yesterdays. Each in their own way, the books presented stunning scenes from the ancient past and explained the artistic decisions behind each piece. Yet while both books can be enjoyed by a variety of audiences, they are primarily geared towards older readers. That’s why I’m glad to see Catherine Thimmesh bring some of the same behind-the-scenes paleoart detail to her new young reader’s book Scaly, Spotted, Feathered, Frilled.

Scaly, Spotted, Feathered, Frilled by Catherine Thimmesh
Scaly, Spotted, Feathered, Frilled by Catherine Thimmesh

Paleontological grump that I can sometimes be, I’ve often lamented the profusion of Walking With Dinosaurs style of documentaries. Such shows can be a refreshing step away from field sites and lab benches in moderation, but computer-generated dinosaurs have overshadowed the science that explains how we’ve come to restore the animals so realistically. And while Thimmesh’s book focuses on paleoartists working in traditional media rather than documentaries, the lessons still apply to the general question of “How do we know what dinosaurs really looked like?” Thimmesh’s objective is to show how artists meld scientific fact and speculation to create visions that no human has ever seen.

Rather than acting as a “How to Draw a Non-Avian Dinosaur” guidebook, Scaly, Spotted, Feathered, Frilled uses the changing traditions of paleoart and the various creative questions illustrators face to explore the curious combination of science and art that brings dinosaurs to life. In a six page sequence, for example, Thimmesh covers the weird 19th century image of Iguanodon created by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, Charles R. Knight’s sluggish-looking Tyrannosaurus, and the major dinosaur image shift spurred by the switchblade-clawed Deinonychus to drive home the point the way we envision dinosaurs has always been bounded by our understanding of the fossil evidence at hand but allowed flexibility through hypotheses and the unknown. This sets up the rest of the book, wherein paleoartists discuss their craft.

Thimmesh is the book’s main narrator, but she weaves in points and perspectives from extraordinarily-talented paleoartists along the way. John Sibbick, Greg Paul, Mark Hallett, Tyler Keillor, and Sylvia and Stephen Czerkas explain the painstaking and deliberate process of taking animals often known only from incomplete skeletons and restoring them as realistically as possible while still keeping a sense of action and excitement. Paleoartists need to know anatomy and other scientific particulars as thoroughly as professional paleontologists do in order to figure out a dinosaur’s appropriate posture, musculature, behavior, and habitat. And even the one area where artists typically had free reign – coloration – has started to come into the realm of scientific evidence through the discovery that fossilized feathers retain clues as to what shades such plumage was in life. To draw non-avian dinosaurs, artistic excellence must be married to intricate scientific detail.

But as up-to-date as Thimmesh’s book is in many respects, there is one error of omission that is becoming increasingly frustrating to see. On page one, Thimmesh writes “[N]o one has ever laid eyes on a real dinosaur before.” Sure we have. Birds are living, feathery dinosaurs. They are just as much dinosaurs as bats are mammals. Thimmesh gives a brief nod to “the bird-dino relationship theory” in a caption on page 15, but that’s about all. Yet the realization that birds are truly surviving dinosaurs has provided artists with a wealth of new information from anatomy, behavior, and coloration to draw from. Thimmesh isn’t the only author to consider “dinosaur” to be synonymous with “non-avian dinosaur”, but this traditional disjunction ultimately hides evolutionary fact and exciting new science. From here on out, whoever wishes to write books on dinosaurs must find their own way to grapple with the reality that some dinosaurs survived.

My gripe about tradition aside, however, Scaly, Spotted, Feathered, Frilled is an excellent primer for young dinosaur fans and aspiring paleoartists alike. That is, if those groups are separate – they’re usually one in the same. I spent plenty of long afternoons trying to bring dinosaurs to life with colored pencils and huge sheets of paper, but I never knew how to do more than imitate elements I liked from some of my favorite illustrations. I wish I had Thimmesh’s book during those days. Our understanding of what dinosaurs were really like will undoubtedly continue to change, but Scaly, Spotted, Feathered, Frilled highlights the techniques that have been passed down through generations to do justice to those Mesozoic celebrities that continue to spark our imagination.

The Great Pterosaur Makeover

Nothing has ever flown through the air as magnificently as a giant pterosaur. Not that I’ve seen one to say for absolutely certain. The last of the great leathery-winged flyers died out with the non-avian dinosaurs, in the mass extinction that struck the planet 66 million years ago. Still, I can’t imagine anything more spectacular than one of these gangly, fuzzy reptiles – the largest being as tall as a giraffe with a wingspan over thirty three feet across – pole-vaulting into the air and rising into the Cretaceous sky. And in his new book Pterosaurs, paleontologist and artist Mark Witton pays tribute to these charismatic creatures by reconstructing and restoring them in exacting detail.

Pterosaurs suffer from a bit of an image problem. For one thing, many people confuse these awkward-looking creatures with dinosaurs. So far as we know now, as Witton covers in an early chapter, the variety of pterosaur forms – from tiny toothed flappers to beaked giants that were the largest animals ever to fly – composes the sister group to the Dinosauria. That is, pterosaurs were the closest cousins of the dinosaurs but not dinosaurs themselves. (Although experts continue to debate precisely where pterosaurs are rooted in life’s tree, made all the more complicated by the elusiveness of the very first pterosaurs in the fossil record.)

More than that, pterosaurs are popular enough to be familiar but don’t enjoy the same celebrity status of dinosaurs. That means that images of the Mesozoic gliders tend to lag behind the latest science. Often, famous genera like Pteranodon are still depicted as smooth-skinned cliff dwellers that skimmed the seas for fish, when discoveries have indicated that Pteranodon probably had a fuzzy body covering, could launch into the air from a standing start, and was incapable of scooping piscine meals from the surface waters. And that’s not to mention all the weird and wonderful pterosaur forms, many decked out with spectacular crests, that paleontologists have recently found.

Witton’s new tribute to pterosaurs gives these fantastic fossil creatures a much-needed makeover in two crucial ways. Not only does the book bring the science of pterosaurs up to date – at long last following-up other classics such as David Unwin’s The Pterosaurs and Peter Wellenhofer’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Pterosaurs – but Witton is a highly-skilled and imaginative artist who ably reconstructs the bones of the animals and brings them back to life in startling poses. Witton’s pterosaurs  are fantastical creatures deserving their own time in the spotlight.

Pterodaustro strikes a pose. Art by Mark Witton.
Pterodaustro strikes a pose. Art by Mark Witton.

Not only does Witton’s book contain a slew of highly-detailed skeletal diagrams that will help readers understand the strange skeletal construction of pterosaurs, but his imaginative illustrations of the living animals are true treasures. I’ve scarcely seen a more adorable prehistoric creature than Witton’s rendition of a baby Nemicolopterus crypticus, and the beginning of a chapter on a particular pterosaur group called the Thalassodromidae features one such crested creature skipping along the ground to nab a little dinosaur in apparent revenge for the discovery of a spinosaur tooth embedded in a pterosaur bone. Witton’s wry sense of humor often comes out in these depictions. An illustration of a gaggle of large pterosaurs soaring off panel near the end of the book reads “Realizing that the next chapter is about pterosaur extinction, a flock of the Maastrichtian Romanian pterosaur Hatzegopteryx thambena tries to fly back to an earlier part of the book to avoid the chop.” Marvelous.

Witton’s combination of style and substance makes Pterosaurs a true treasure and an absolute must for anyone curious about the extinct flyers. The book doesn’t shy away from technical terminology – Witton is exact in his use of pterosaur names, osteological landmarks, and other scientific details – but the book is written in a jovial, friendly style that I’d like to think has been influenced by Witton’s excellent work on his blog. Terms like “anurognathid” and “propatagia” will be unfamiliar, and maybe even uncomfortable, for casual readers, but Witton does a heroic job at explaining the terms he employs and guiding readers along without oversimplifying the text. This tone carries the reader from the history of pterosaur discoveries and what a pterosaur is, exactly, through a survey of all the known pterosaur groups and what we know about how they lived. If you’re truly invested in learning about pterosaurs, Witton’s book is a wealth of information that will be of great use to both specialists and curious general readers.

Dinosaurs sometimes ate pterosaurs, and big pterosaurs may have sometimes scooped up dinosaur babies. Art by Mark Witton.
Dinosaurs sometimes ate pterosaurs, and big pterosaurs may have sometimes scooped up dinosaur babies. Art by Mark Witton.

From physiology to feeding habits, Witton’s book covers most everything known about pterosaurs while also laying out conundrums and unknowns. There is still much to discover about these animals, especially since there are sadly none left to observe in life. Still, Witton parts on an optimistic note. “There are more pterosaur researchers now than at any other time in the last 228 years of pterosaurology, and new discoveries are being unearthed, described, and analyzed at record rates,” Witton writes. This groundswell will continue to update and alter our image of pterosaurs. For now, though, there is only one place I know of where pterosaur lives can be observed in some semblance of what they actually were, and that’s in the pages of Witton’s Pterosaurs.

[I should also note that Mark contributed two wonderful illustrations of dinosaurs to my first book, Written in Stone.]

Top Image: Art by Mark Witton, from Flickr.

Don’t Panic – How Humanity Might Survive the Next Million Years

Our species is going to go extinct. We may have descendants – a new species, or some sort of post-human meld that we construct ourselves – but the long roll of lost creatures preserved in the fossil record leaves no doubt that extinction is inevitable. But just as the survival of the human lineage is only a vague possibility at this point, our eventual downfall also remains in the realm of the unknown. Our destruction could transpire in a blink of geologic time, or be at some future point millions of years hence. What will make all the difference is our ability to learn from the past and how we use that knowledge to construct the foundation of our future. In Scatter, Adapt, and Remember, io9 editor in chief Annalee Newitz considers just that in an optimistic exploration of how the key to our long-term survival can be forged from prehistoric clues and technological possibilities.

scatter-adapt-rememberSo far, there have been five absolutely devastating mass extinctions in the history of life on Earth (with a smattering of lesser, but still calamitous, events scattered through time). And if we’re not actually in a sixth mass extinction right now, we’re not very far off from the tipping point. The blame for this state of affairs rests with us.

We’ve drastically altered the Earth’s climate and seas through greenhouse gas emissions, we are spreading invasive species around the world, and we’ve taken a horrifyingly active role in directly destroying a variety of species and ecosystems. And given all this change, we’re not guaranteed a persistent place on the planet. As adaptable as we are, we’re still the last human species in existence and can only claim a relatively short tenure on this planet – our species has only been around for about 200,000 years. Whether we’re snuffed out in the next few millenia or extend the track record far into the future relies on our abilities to understand the risks that face us and responsibly use the best scientific tools at our disposal to mitigate against our self-imposed threats.

Learning from prehistory is one way to outline possibilities of what the future might hold. Paleontologists with an ecological bent have already begun to investigate these potentials, looking to how organisms have reacted to climate change and other familiar phenomena in the past for a view to what makes the difference between persistence, evolution, and extinction. To that end, Annalee* briefly surveys four of the Big Five mass extinctions, reiterating the point that there have always been survivors. If there had not, we wouldn’t exist. Our ancestors, as well as the ancestors of every other species in existence today, persisted through extinction’s worst and continued to change through the ages. And while what makes the difference between death and survival during global disasters is still being debated for all of these extinctions, some trends – such as being a widespread generalist capable of wandering far to rare resources in extinction’s aftermath – give some organisms an advantage over specialists restricted close to home.

Threats to our existence don’t always come in the form of asteroid impacts or intense volcanic activity, as they were during some mass extinctions. Disease and famine have horrifically ended human lives much closer in time. From the fall of South American civilizations to the Great Irish Famine, Annalee also surveys dangers that we create for each other, from the spread of disease and war to the mismanagement of arable land. But after cataloging all the dangers, including the blip in prehistoric time when our species almost went extinct prior to a dramatic rebound, Annalee begins to lay out possibilities for survival in a conversational style that would feel just as at home on io9 as in a book.

Some of these examples in the middle section don’t entirely fire. While the long-range migration routes gray whales employ are certainly important for their survival (the “Remember” example of the title), Annalee recognizes that human conservation efforts and future attempts not to disturb the whales are why the cetaceans still exist in the Pacific today. Still, Annalee sets up the general strategies of being able to wander far, shift with changing conditions, and recall what survival tricks worked in the past as hopes that mold more specific ways in which we might allow humanity to avoid extinction for a long time yet to come.

Lessons of death and survival can be drawn from a variety of examples, from organisms that withstood mass extinctions to people who succumbed to pandemics in recent history. And the point of this reflection, Annalee writes, is to ask “How will we convert our guardedly hopeful stories of a human future into a real-life plan for survival that avoids some of the worst failure modes?”

An initial step involves altering cities, especially as our global population continues to climb. Aside from relatively abstract goals that depend on those living in a particular place – such as an openness to innovation and created areas of shared green space – Annalee also investigates the technologies that may allow us to survive in the near and long term. Carefully-designed subterranean cities might be essential in the aftermath of nuclear war or a terrible asteroid strike, while buildings partly made of biological materials might reduce energy costs while providing us with a space to grow food right where we live. Likewise, a better understanding of the way earthquakes and disease work, paired with models that better predict the damage such phenomena cause, could allow us to make ourselves more resistant to such persistent challenges and respond more effectively. Tragically, as Annalee recognizes, the benefits of such innovations will be spread unequally. Those in affluent, developed nations are more likely to see the kind of safe, green cities that Annalee describes, while people elsewhere will suffer.

The promise of geoengineering raises the same dilemma. Scientists and engineers are trying to come up with solutions to global climate change, ocean acidification, and other problems that are global in scale. Given the experimental nature of programs – such as creating more cloud cover to partly block the sun while also trying to lessen the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – no one really knows what such endeavors would do in this country or that as weather and climate patterns changed. We do not live on a homogenous planet, and alterations that benefit one part of the globe might devastate another. If we’re going to modify the planet to best suit our needs and survival, as Annalee argues we should if we want to celebrate the millionth birthday of our species, who will decide what changes to implement and how?

Many of the possible solutions Annalee discusses are still in the realm of science fiction, or, at least, speculative science beyond the reach of what we can presently achieve. That’s not to say that tweaking Earth to better ensure our survival or even setting up shop on a distant planet are out of the question. Technology, politics, and culture will constrain our long-term efforts at survival, but given how much the human experience has changed during the past century – not to mention our cultural evolution over the relatively scant 200,000 years since our species originated – how strange our future might be is a tantalizing  mystery. Will we live in a Star Trek like existence, strange yet still familiar? Or will “human” mean something entirely different – people genetically altered to cope with life elsewhere in the solar system, or perhaps digital copies of minds that have an almost immortal life inside machines? More likely, humanity one million years hence – if we ever get that far – will be something far stranger than we can imagine today.

We won’t ever live in the glow of another star unless we ensure our survival on Earth, though. The challenge that faces us, Annalee demonstrates, is how to pair new ideas and innovations with what already exists. We can’t simply start from scratch. The world of tomorrow is going to be built on top of and around the world we know. And even if we can predict the forces that might drive us extinct, there’s no guarantee that we’ll have the time or tools to react to such threats. But there’s hope that we can.

In the end, survival will mean stretching our perceptions of what is natural. The idea of “hacking the planet” or altering ourselves to better match our surroundings might sound anathema to some, but the truth is that we are already doing so. The history of Earth is one of dramatic and constant change, and trying to recapture some romantic notion of Nature would be ignoring the reality of persistent planetary permutation and the way we’ve already made use of the Earth (for good and ill). Even restoring damaged habitats requires human intervention and stewardship – places of we think of as wild still bear our distinctive fingerprints. Maintaining the dichotomy of “human-made, bad; natural, good” will help no one. Instead, we need to recognize and come to terms with our capacity for both destruction and preservation – to use the best of our scientific knowledge and imagination to predict what tomorrow might hold and make careful decisions of what the future of Earth is going to be like for our species and all the others that dwell here. Annalee’s new book is a hopeful overview of such a possibility. We’ll never have total control of the planet nor our ultimate fate, but we have the ability to explore what we want the future of our species to be like.

*Since I know Annalee personally and have worked with her for some io9 posts, I decided to call her by her first name in this review.

Further reading: Annalee wrote a guest post for this blog about her favorite icon of long-term survival, Lystrosaurus.

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Biotech’s Beasts

Fluorescent fish, cloned cats, dolphins with prosthetic tails — these are just a few of the many oddball creatures you’ll read about in Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts, a new book by science journalist Emily Anthes.

In it, Emily describes her tour through unconventional animal facilities across the country, from a barn of transgenic goats in California to a lab that’s cloning endangered species in a forest outside of New Orleans. Emily somehow manages to tell a fun story without glossing over complex scientific concepts and thorny ethical issues. The book comes out officially on March 12, but you can pre-order a copy now.

Emily and I worked together at SEED Magazine (back when there was a SEED Magazine…), and we both love Brooklyn and dogs. I learned a lot from her book, and she kindly agreed to answer some of my questions about its content and her writing experience.

Milo and Emily. Photo by Nina Subin
Milo and Emily. Photo by Nina Subin

VH: I want to start with the AquAdvantage salmon, the genetically modified fish that grow super fast. When you wrote about them in the book, the FDA was still — after 17 years! — making up its mind about whether it would allow the fish to be sold as food. Finally, at the end of December, the agency issued a draft document declaring AquAdvantage safe, and we’re now nearing the end of the 60-day public comment period.

So, if the approval happens, what would it mean for the U.S. biotech industry? Why is this fish such a big deal?

EA: The short answer is that this fish is much more than just a fish — it’s a test case. If the fish are approved, they’ll be the first transgenic animals approved as consumer products in the U.S. (The FDA has approved a pharmaceutical that is extracted from the milk of genetically modified goats, but the AquAdvantage salmon would be the first whole GE animals cleared for human consumption.)

Many, many researchers and entrepreneurs who are interested in animal biotechnology are watching this case very closely. If the fish, which have been politically controversial, are approved, it means that good science can still triumph over politics. If they’re not approved, it will send the opposite message, discouraging further research and innovation in all sorts of promising biotech applications.

VH: I think you and I have a similar attitude toward the unnecessary fear (and sometimes, excessive regulation) that seems to swirl around new technologies, whether that’s these new salmon and other GMOs or personal genetics. I loved your quote: “It’s easy to oppose biotechnology in the abstract, but when that technology can save your life, grand pronouncements about scientific evils tend to dissolve.”

Your book is full of life-saving, useful, compelling, and delightful applications of biotechnology. But was there anything you came across in your reporting that you think is really, really worrisome? What’s worthy (if anything) of intense regulatory scrutiny, or even an outright ban?

EA: Well, the practice that most unsettled me was the emerging business of cloning pets. It’s not the cloning itself that bothers me — I have no philosophical problem with making genetic copies of animals, and I firmly believe that cloning, like other biotechnologies, is value neutral, that whether it’s good or bad depends on how we’re using it. But the problem is that right now, cloning remains a highly experimental technology. Clones of some species suffer from health problems at elevated rates, and the cloning process itself is extremely inefficient. To make a single cloned dog, you need lots of dog eggs and lots of cloned embryos. That means that you’re putting a lot of female dogs through unnecessary surgeries and surrogate pregnancies all so one pet owner can get a duplicate of a beloved pet. To me, that’s not an acceptable trade-off.

But if scientists can improve cloning’s efficiency — or figure out how to reduce the health problems among clones — my objections would begin to fade away. As they would if the benefits were higher — if the fate of the world somehow rested upon creating a cloned dog. (That’s why I’m less willing to condemn research projects in which scientists are doing seemingly more useful things, such as cloning disease-resistant animals or endangered species.)

VH: Human cloning — ever gonna happen? Yes or no.

EA: Honestly, I doubt it. Not because scientists won’t be able to do it, but because society won’t accept it. I think people will push to ban human cloning before scientists manage to pull it off. Or scientists will do it once and then politicians and the public will immediately push for legislation to prevent anyone from ever doing the same thing again. (But then again, predictions about the future of technology are notoriously easy to botch. Maybe human cloning will one day become as safe and routine as IVF. That’s not what my gut tells me, but who knows?)

VH: On to some fun stuff now, because your book is chock-full of colorful stories and a lot of Anthes wit. Of all of the famous Franken-critters you met — CC the cat, Winter the dolphin, and your very own GloFish, just to name a few — which was your favorite?

EA: Oh man — that’s an unfair question! It doesn’t seem quite right to choose. But meeting CC, the world’s first cloned cat, was probably the most fun. I’m not sure what I expected, but I definitely did not expect to discover that the scientist who helped create her would have built her her very own, two-story, air-conditioned house in his backyard. Or that she’d live there with her cat “husband” and their three kids. CC is a very cute cat, but it was a little surreal to be a guest in her “home.”

VH: Yeah, that was crazy! I laughed out loud. Did visiting all these animals change the way you interact with your dog, Milo? Or vice-versa: Did your experience as a dog owner change the way you approached these visits?

EA: I’m not sure that having a dog changed how I approached the visits, but they definitely gave me perspective on some of the drivers behind these biotechnological interventions. I certainly understand how strong the bond between humans and animals can be, and I also understand the urge to create or acquire a pet that fits a long list of exact specifications. I spent a long time trying to pick out the “perfect” dog for me, and even now, there are tweaks I’d make to Milo if I could. For instance, he’s very sweet but pretty skittish. If it were possible to give him a strong dose of courage with, say, a round of gene therapy, I’d be all for it.

VH: Your book talks a bit about genetic testing for dogs. From the little I had read about it before, I thought most people were interested in these tests in order to figure out the dog’s pedigree. But you describe how they might be used for medical purposes, too. For example, a breeder could avoid mating two dogs that are both carriers of the same genetic disease. So how common is the use of dog genetic tests for medical purposes? Is it pricey? Do you think it will become a more routine thing?

EA: I don’t think canine genetic testing — for either pedigree or medical purposes — is super common yet. But it has huge potential. There are a variety of commercial labs that offer owners the chance to see whether their dogs have certain disease-causing mutations. Many of these tests cost less than $100, and they’re simple to do — just swab the inside of your dog’s cheek and mail the swabs into the company, which will process the samples and deliver the results. I think this kind of testing is bound to become more common, especially as the price drops and researchers uncover more and more disease-linked genetic mutations.

VH: Very tempting!

My last question is about bioethics. Strachan Donnelley, a philosopher, apparently coined this concept of the “troubled middle” to describe people who love animals and care about their welfare, and yet don’t have a moral problem with eating them or having scientists do research on them. I’m probably in that muddled middle somewhere, and you write that you are, too. Are there any guiding principles in that middle that we can turn to in sticky situations? I guess another way to ask this is, what is at the heart of animal welfare?

EA: Well, the first thing to note is that if you’re in the troubled middle — and I really think that the vast majority of us are — then overly broad, blanket ethical statements don’t work very well. Most of us don’t want to ban all use of animals in research, nor do we want to allow scientists to use as many animals as they want for anything they want anytime they want. So we need to think about each proposed use of animals on a case-by-case basis. In doing that, we should be evaluating the cost to animals against the potential gain. So I don’t mind sacrificing some mice in order to study Alzheimer’s, for instance, but I’m not so willing to sanction animal experimentation in the search of, say, a better treatment for wrinkles.

And the second point that I think is important is that even in those instances in which we decide animal use is justified, we should still take welfare seriously. So just because a mouse is destined for Alzheimer’s research doesn’t mean that we can shrug off our ethical obligations to treat that mouse well during its scientific service. (That means providing anesthesia and pain control, when necessary, as well as comfortable living conditions, physical and mental stimulation, etc.) Even experimental animals deserve the best quality of life we can give them.


The cover art for Frankenstein’s Cat, featured at the top of this post, was done by Diego Patino. Nina Subin took the photo of Milo and Emily.