The Bumper Book of Dinosaurs

'Pregnant camels ordinarily sit down carefully. Perhaps their joints creak!'

OK, it's not his original mnemonic to help remember geological eras, but just about everything else in his remarkably all-encompassing and superbly illustrated book about dinosaurs is the result of Keiron Pim's own intensive work and research -- and what a project it was. It took him two and a half years to write The Bumper Book of Dinosaurs, a fascinating tome that will appeal to children and adults.

"For decades, dinosaurs have roamed around young children's imaginations, " he says, "much as they once wandered the earth."

And he adds: "Some dinosaurs provoke a similar thrill to watching a horror film -- others are just plain comical."

His book features around 200 dinosaurs -- divided into carnivorous theropods, and herbivorous ornithischians and sauropods, and numerous other amazing animals that lived alongside them but were not technically dinosaurs. It also has sections on fossil-hunting, where you can find dinosaurs' footprints, the evolutionary links between dinosaurs and birds, how the dinosaurs' discovery, evolutionary theory and growing understanding of geological 'deep time' combined to shake up all the Victorians' ideas about the origins of life, and the connections between dinosaur remains and mythological beasts.

"For example, there's a theory that the griffin was dreamt up by people who found the skeletons of a dinosaur called Protoceratops in Mongolia, long before anyone knew what a dinosaur was," he says.

Like many men (and some women!) Pim had a childhood fascination with dinosaurs, but he freely admits that he had no experience of fossil-hunting when he was a child growing up in the UK. More recently, there was a "a fruitless look along the cliffs at Lyme Regis, Dorset during a family holiday, prompted by the idea that I'd find my baby daughter Isla a fossil lying on the beach and keep it for her as a memento of the holiday."

He adds: "After much wandering around gazing at lumps of stone and trying to deduce whether they might have been alive around 150 million years ago, I ended up forlornly trudging off to one of the town's fossil shops to buy her an ammonite.

"When we lived in London (and even later when we moved to Norfolk, where I still live) my favourite day out was always a trip to the Natural History Museum" he says. "I would usually leave clutching some little souvenir -- a poster, a pencil rubber shaped like a Stegosaurus, a book of dinosaur facts -- and in writing this book it was very enjoyable to reconnect with the five-year-old within, and rekindle that interest -- while also going far deeper than I ever could when I was young.

"Rather than dinosaurs being kids' stuff, as they're often perceived, an increasing number of adults are developing an enthusiasm for the subject. We're currently going through the most exciting time ever -- a golden age -- in dinosaur palaeontology. Dozens of new dinosaurs are being discovered every year, at a far more prolific rate than in the past -- and scientists are now able to determine what color some of them were, analyze their genetic connections with birds, scan their skulls to find out how their brains were shaped (e.g. did they have an especially large olfactory bulb, thus a keen sense of smell?), and so on.

"The most exciting part of all this is the pure thrill of trying to imagine these gargantuan, often terrifying animals and knowing that such creatures lived on Earth an inconceivably long time ago. I also realised in researching the book that dinosaurs form a way into numerous other subjects: anatomy, history, evolutionary theory, mythology, geology, religion, astronomy (i.e. the meteorite-strike extinction theory)... the list goes on. When you start learning about dinosaurs you learn about so many other things at the same time.

"One of the many aspects of this is that just about every country has its own dinosaurs. Normally when you think of dinosaurs, you tend to think of the American ones -- Tyrannosaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Triceratops, Stegosaurus -- largely because of the power of American popular culture. But our British dinosaurs are as exciting and interesting as anywhere else's, and what's more it was a British scientist (Sir Richard Owen) who invented the word dinosaur. Let's reclaim dinosaurs for Britain!"

Pim helpfully adds hints about how to pronounce their names. The 30-foot-long high-browsing Lessemsaurus, once found in what is now Argentina, is pronounced Less-em-SORE-us. The more modest three-foot Eoraptor (also found in Argentina) is EE-oh-rap-tor and means "dawn plunderer." The 20-foot Efraasia, found in Germany, is ef-RAAS-ee-ah! And the Chindesaurus - possibly the earliest American dinosaur -- is CHIN-dee-SORE-us.

In closing -- let's get back to that mnemonic about pregnant camels. It refers to Precambrian (4500 Million Years Ago) Cambrian (542MYA) Ordovician (488 MYA) Silurian (443MYA) Devonian (416MYA) Carboniferous (359MYA) Permian (299MYA) Triassic (251MYA) Jurassic (199MYA) and Cretaceous (145-65MYA). It makes Jurassic Park sound almost contemporary! But then it wasn't until the Triassic age that dinosaurs turned up on earth, and not really until the Jurassic period that they really ruled the world.

The Bumper Book of Dinosaurs by Keiron Pim is published by Square Peg (Random House) at £18.99 ($35 Canadian).