Ammonites Book Review
by Neale Monks & Philip Palmer
The Natural History Museum (2002). ISBN 0-565-09169-7
Review by Phil Eyden
Ammonites are one of the first fossils we all hear about at school. We all know they were related to squids and octopi, generally have spiral shells and died out along with the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. They are usually mentioned in passing in books on prehistoric life but rarely in detail so it is a great pleasure that finally a book has been written about the biology and lifestyle of these fascinating creatures.
The authors are both palaeontologists who work at the British Museum of Natural History in London and are leading experts in their field of mollusc evolution so the information in the book has come straight from the experts involved in the primary research itself. Don't let this put you off because the book has been written from a popular stance, you really don't need to know a great deal about cephalopods before reading it. It starts off with a basic grounding in cephalopod biology and progresses through themes of lifestyle and morphology. The most complex sections of the book to absorb are the sections dealing with the various orders and sub-orders of ammonoid, not through any fault of the text but simply due to unpronounceable names of many of the specimens making them hard to visualise. No Blue-Ringed ammonite or Humboldt ammonite here, instead we have Epiwocklumeria and Oxynoticeras.
The book is divided into several chapters and is copiously illustrated with twenty-one colour plates and many more black and white photographs and line drawings. Many of the photographs are especially interesting including a photograph of the enigmatic aptychus structure in situ and a photo of a specimen of ammonite that still displays traces of pigmentation, thin lines that run parallel to the keel along the spiral of the specimen. The chapters cover a basic introduction, shell morphology, form and function, aspects of biology, classification and extinction. A short appendix provides a useful glossary (forgotten what a protoconch is?) and another provides a short list of further reading about ammonites and cephalopods in general. Being a popular book and not an academic publication, do not expect to find a detailed list of research papers or even a bibliography although there is a short list of scientific publications should the reader wish to take the subject further.
My only criticism is that it would have been interesting to include more speculative reconstructions of the soft-bodied creature itself as not a single fossil has yet been found displaying the soft bodied anatomy. There is only one, reconstructed with a very squid-like head, and in a book dealing with biology it would be interesting to see nautiloid alternatives.
All in all, a very good book, very readable and containing some fantastic photographs. If you have ever owned or found an ammonite fossil and wish to know more about these beautiful creatures then this is the book for you. Do not expect visual identification charts, extensive bibliographies, rarity guides or extended discussions about the use of the ammonite in stratigraphy or you may be disappointed, but if biology is your thing then buy it. You won't regret it.