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Book Review: Poinars': "What Bugged the Dinosaurs? Insects, Disease, and Death in the Cretaceous"

Book Review: Thinking small when thinking of extinction, Reviewed by Fred

For The Inquirer

"What Bugged the Dinosaurs? Insects, Disease, and Death in the Cretaceous"
By George Poinar Jr. & Roberta Poinar
Princeton. 266 pp. 61 color illustrations. $29.95

One hundred million years ago, a female sand fly settled on a sauropod for
what turned out to be her final blood meal. Something startled the dinosaur,
and the insect's dining was interrupted. She escaped the thrashing beast
only to become trapped in the sticky resinous sap of an araucarian tree.
Her "straining, desperate movements attracted the attention of a small
predator patrolling the bark, who nipped open a minuscule hole in the end of
her abdomen, deftly pulled out the reproductive system, and devoured the
protein-rich eggs. Some of the gut contents of the entrapped insect spilled
out onto the fresh resin as life ebbed away. She lay on one side in a drop
of spilled blood, disemboweled, head and mouthparts clearly visible, wings
outstretched. . . . An additional resin flow entombed the small female fly"
in what we now call Burmese amber.

Of the many large and small dramas of Cretaceous life that Oregon State
University zoology professor George Poinar Jr. and retired research
scientist Roberta Poinar vividly recount in What Bugged the Dinosaurs?, this
one is the most significant. For when the Poinars studied that remarkably
well-preserved ancient event in their laboratory, they discovered that the
dinosaur blood was infected with a pathogenic microorganism.

Had the fly survived to bite another beast, it might well have passed the
disease along, much as insect-borne diseases are spread from animal to
animal today. That is not the only way insects bugged dinosaurs. They often
competed for the same food or were irritating biters, stingers, and

Of course, they had their beneficial traits as well. They were pollinators
of plants that fed herbivorous dinosaurs. They were food for carnivorous
dinosaurs or the animals on which they fed. They were the "Sanitary
Engineers of the Cretaceous" (title of Chapter 9), playing a major role in
recycling the nutrients in dung and the vital chemicals in the bodies of
dead animals and plants.

In natural history museums, plodding, hulking herbivorous dinosaurs and
their fierce carnivorous cousins command the public's attention. Few
visitors pay attention to the smaller reptiles, amphibians, and mammals of
the Mesozoic Age (that includes the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous

Even fewer consider the plants and insects that made up the largest part of
the ecosystem. Almost no one thinks about the disease-causing bacteria,
parasites, and symbionts whose interaction with dinosaurs probably drove
their mutual evolution faster than changing climate and geography.

What Bugged the Dinosaurs? is the Poinars' attempt to remedy those
oversights. They assert that it is impossible to describe life in the
Cretaceous Period without paying particular attention to insects.

The book deftly guides readers through the science essential to that
understanding. Their prose puts readers on the scene when fossils form in
rocks and amber, when plate tectonics reshape the arrangement of continents,
when species and ecologies evolve, and when individual creatures thrive,
compete, ail, suffer, and die.

Chapter by chapter, the authors introduce a wide range of insect species
that bite, swarm, irritate, and even take up residence within and on the
dinosaurs that readers know so well. They draw their stories from the fossil
record, especially the amber of their expertise, comparing Cretaceous
insects with their present-day descendents.

After discovering the ancient ecology, readers follow the authors into the
laboratory where they analyze delicate evidence in the form of magnificent
color images. Finally it is time to interpret findings and draw conclusions.
While acknowledging that an asteroid impact brought a catastrophic end to
the Cretaceous and the dinosaurs (at least the non-avian ones), the Poinars
question whether the great reptiles may have already been in serious

Had disease, parasitic infestation, and competition with insects already set
them on a path toward extinction? That is not a new question, but it remains
an important one in paleontology. It is the kind of question that continues
to inspire scientists and readers alike.

The Poinars' answer to that question is yes, but they make sure their
readers know that the conclusion is less important than the open issues that

Scientists relish unexpected discoveries like the unfortunate insect in the
Poinars' amber sample. Readers who love paleontology will feel the same way
about this remarkable book, savoring its fascinating trove of questions and

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of many books for young readers,
including "Collision Course! Cosmic Impacts and Life on Earth."

Patricia Kane-Vanni,
pkv1@erols.com <mailto:pkv1@erols.com>  or paleopatti@hotmail.com

"Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions.  Small people
always do that, but really great ones make you feel that you too, can become
great." - Mark Twain
Posted on Mon, Jan. 28, 2008