Paleoecology: Ecosystems, environments, and evolution

by Patrick J. Brenchley and David A.T. Harper
Stanley Thornes Pub Ltd (Patrick J. Brenchley and David A. T. Harper), 1998, paperback, 402 pp.
ISBN: 0-412-43450-4; $44.95


Kim Freedman
Department of Geology, University of Leicester, Leicester, LE1 7RH, UK

Brenchley and Harper have aimed to produce a palaeoecology textbook that includes traditional case studies and syntheses of more recent evolutionary palaeoecological investigations and, moreover, to consider evolutionary palaeoecology within a geophysiological framework (i.e. the Gaia hypothesis). Brenchley and Harper should be applauded for their ambitious efforts, and their book will probably be widely used because of the dearth of other recent palaeoecology textbooks. Most classic case studies are included and concisely summarized, either within the text or in separate boxes, and presented with a few relevant figures. The treatment of the case studies generally works very well, and I found the review of case studies in Chapter 6, "Fossils as environmental indicators" especially useful and well-presented. The sections covering evolutionary palaeoecology are a little more variable. In Chapter 5, "Trace fossils", for example, the section of the evolution of trace fossils is particularly successful, probably because it draws upon numerous specific studies on the topic. Chapter 10, "Fossil terrestrial ecosystems", however, contains a very broad-brush review of terrestrial ecosystems through time with the particular cases being discussed independently in boxes. I felt that the generality of this section made it more difficult to remember what I had read. The same was true for the section on morphology and environment in Chapter 4, "Adaptive morphology".

Contents-wise, I thought that Palaeoecology was well rounded, fairly thorough, and pitched at an appropriate level for non-introductory level undergraduates. In other words, students would need knowledge of invertebrate and vertebrate palaeontology before they would really appreciate this book. Even though such students should be familiar with the concepts of evolution, it might have been germane to include a discussion of evolution in this book, as it is particularly concerned with evolutionary palaeoecology. Two chapters, Chapter 7 on "Populations and communities" and Chapter 8 on "Palaeobiogeography", consider techniques which require higher level mathematics, which may be a bit tricky for students (and teachers!) that haven't seen a calculus book for a few years. The figures in Palaeoecology are nearly all black and white line drawings, with the odd black and white photograph. These figures are generally clear and relevant to the text but, just occasionally, the fonts used in the figures trend towards the "need-a-microscope-to-read-it" size. The only other formatting comment is that the outer side margin of each page is about 5.5 cm wide, presumably to leave plenty space for note-making. If you're one of those people who likes writing in textbooks, you"ll enjoy this concession, but I would rather have a 5.5. cm smaller book.

There are, however, some problems with Palaeoecology that ought to be noted before making it required reading for students. Most of these concerns relate to the organization of the book, both as a whole and with respect to particular discussions. Terms like fossil assemblage and fossil association, for instance, are used throughout Chapters 2-6, but their usage and meaning are not discussed until the Chapter 7. Chapter 1, "Investigating the history of the biosphere", includes a short discussion of life modes and trophic strategies, using words like plankton, nekton, infauna, and epifauna which are not defined until Chapter 2, "Environmental controls on biotic distribution". Chapter 2 also contains two boxes on the use of carbon and oxygen isotopes in palaeoecological studies spaced about six pages apart, but it is only in the latter box on oxygen isotopes that the concept of different elemental isotopes is actually explained. There are a number of other examples of terms being used in the text well before they are clearly defined and, to be honest, I found this practice annoying. As an undergraduate, I would have found it confusing, particularly since the book does not contain a glossary nor does its index include the words assemblage, association, or isotope. I think that it would have been better to assume, for example, that students already know what an isotope is and not bother to define it or to assume that they don't know and define the word isotope when it is first used.

The text also contains a number of repetitions, inconsistencies, and mistakes. Now, a little repetition is probably a good thing in a textbook, but I counted five chapters that contained a sentence referring to Vermeij's work on the Mesozoic marine revolution (yet not one mention of it in the index). Although I by no means wish to belittle Vermeij's studies, I would appreciate one good, in-depth discussion of the idea rather than five very brief and fairly similar allusions to it. Each chapter has a separate bibliography. References, however, are frequently cited in several chapters and usually only included in the bibliography for this first chapter in which they appear. This structure means that one often has to flip through the book, searching for the first chapter in which a reference was cited. It might have been more appropriate to have a single bibliography or each chapter bibliography to include each reference cited therein. One example of an inconsistency occurs in Chapter 9, "Evolutionary palaeoecology of the marine biosphere", which contains a potentially very handy table summarizing the available information on mass extinctions. While the text of Chapter 9 contains two separate discussions of the possible role of volcanism in the K-T extinction, volcanism is not listed under causes cited for the K-T extinction in the table. Such mistakes may be minor, but they do detract from the book, as do the numerous typographic errors. These various problems meant that I considered long and hard whether I would recommend this book and, at last, have decided to do so. I think this book fills an important niche in the textbook market and that palaeoecology students will benefit from reading it. I would hope, however, that more attention to organization and details will be given to the next edition of Palaeoecology.

Copyright: Coquina Press
22 October 1999

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