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Gorgon: Paleontology, Obsession, and the…
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Gorgon: Paleontology, Obsession, and the Greatest Catastrophe in… (edition 2004)

by Peter Ward

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256679,557 (3.55)7
The gorgons ruled the world of animals long before there was any age of dinosaurs. They were the T. Rexof their day until an environmental cataclysm 250 million years ago annihilated them—along with 90 percent of all plant and animal species on the planet—in an event so terrible even the extinction of the dinosaurs pales in comparison. For more than a decade, Peter Ward and his colleagues have been searching in South Africa’s Karoo Desert for clues to this world: What were these animals like? How did they live and, more important, how did they die?In Gorgon, Ward examines the strange fate of this little known prehistoric animal and its contemporaries, the ancestors of the turtle, the crocodile, the lizard, and eventually dinosaurs. He offers provocative theories on these mass extinctions and confronts the startling implications they hold for us. Are we vulnerable to a similar catastrophe? Are we nearing the end of human domination in the earth’s cycle of destruction and rebirth? Gorgonis also a thrilling travelogue of Ward’s long, remarkable journey of discovery and a real-life adventure deep into Earth’s history.… (more)
Member:tidepooltostars
Title:Gorgon: Paleontology, Obsession, and the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth's History
Authors:Peter Ward
Info:Viking Adult (2004), Edition: 1st, Hardcover, 288 pages
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Gorgon: Paleontology, Obsession, and the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth's History by Peter Ward

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Douglas Erwin’s The Great Paleozoic Crisis compared to Peter Ward’s Gorgon.

Douglas H. Erwin’s The Great Paleozoic Crisis is a state-of-the-art exposition of knowledge about the Permo-Triassic transition. Unfortunately, it’s state-of-the-art for 1993, when it was published, and the art has progressed considerably since then. In particular, in 1993 it hadn’t been realized that terrestrial life suffered just as much as marine life; therefore most hypotheses about the PTr focused on wholly marine phenomena – regressions, loss of continental shelf area (because the continents were all merged into Pangaea), loss of ecological provinces (same reason), increasing oceanic salinity (as evaporate deposits from earlier in the Paleozoic are eroded away). Nevertheless, the book is still pretty good. Erwin discusses a lot of PTr evidence in great detail – carbon and sulfur isotope changes, global warming, global cooling, the emplacement of the Siberian flood basalts, impact. The details of PTr stratigraphy are also enlightening; although the extinction event was rapid by geological time standards, it clearly was not as instantaneous as the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event. While the KT boundary is always obvious when it exists, the PTr transition is not; different stratigraphers place it at different locations in the same formation. This is because stratigraphic units are often assigned based on their paleontology, and different biota disappear and appear at different times – i.e., there are a number of putative Triassic species that actually appear in the uppermost Permian, and a number of Permian species that linger into the lowermost Triassic. Thus if your stratigraphy is based on the disappearance of the last “Permian” species, the PTr boundary will be too high in the section, and if it’s based on the appearance of the first “Permian” species, the boundary will be too low. Pinning the boundary down requires detailed measurement and collection across the boundary, and that isn’t often done. (It doesn’t help that the best exposures of the PTr transition are in Greenland, Italy, Armenia, central Iran, Pakistan, Kashmir, and south China; with the exception of Italy these are all palaces where climate or geopolitics make paleontology difficult).

(This book goes well coupled with Michael Benton’s When Life Nearly Died, which is more up-to-date but less technical. Erwin has a more recent book, Extinction, but I haven’t read it yet.)

Peter Ward’s Gorgon is idiosyncratic; although nominally about the extinction event, it’s actually sort of a paleontological autobiography. We get a lot of detail about Ward’s relationships with colleagues, the hardships of doing paleontology in the middle of nowhere, and South African politics. Ward’s opinions on other paleontologists are enlightening; he does a lot of damning with faint praise, and I wasn’t surprised when he commented sadly that at least one other geologist refuses to do any work with him, to the point that she threatened to back out of an expedition to Antarctica when she heard Ward was also invited. That’s all well and good (and, to be fair, often fascinating), but that’s not what the book is supposed to be about. Information about the PTr appears sporadically amidst all the anecdotes, and it’s in chronological order – the way Ward experienced it – without synthesis. There is some useful geology – Ward explains one of the problems discussed by Erwin, the long-standing misconception that the PTr didn’t affect the terrestrial environmental – quite well. Vertebrate paleontologists are notorious for being biologists first and geologist second. Historically, a lot of vertebrate fossil collecting has been done by field parties that dig up bones and haul them back to the lab for detailed analysis. In many cases, the geological province of the specimens wasn’t described accurately enough – often just as “upper Permian” or “lower Triassic” without a measured section location or geographic coordinates. This lead to a lot of circular reasoning among the lab people identifying and describing the fossils – since “everybody knew” that the PTr didn’t affect the terrestrial environment, nobody ever questioned the assignment of a particular fossil collection site to the lower Triassic, when it was, in fact, upper Permian. This then worked backward; since subsequent collectors “knew” that many vertebrates straddled the Permo-Triassic boundary, nobody worried much about precisely identifying a collection locality. It’s also enlightening to note that since Erwin (above) “knew” that the PTr didn’t affect terrestrial environments, he didn’t even bother to mention the Karoo in South Africa as a PTr transition locality; since it was all terrestrial he apparently didn’t believe any useful stratigraphic information could come from it.

Although interesting enough as a paleontological gossip book, and with some information about actual paleontology, this definitely should not be your only book on the PTr. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 31, 2017 |
I agree that this book doesn't live up to it's title. It's more about his experience than findings. I am glad I read it. Gave me some insight into paleontology and I am intrigued to learn more about Ward's work as a result. ( )
  wolfeyluvr | Jun 22, 2016 |
I found this book tucked away in my eldest's library. Intrigued by the picture of a seeming cross between a reptile and a saber-toothed tiger on the cover (also that catchy title), I decided to give it a go.

My, my, life is full of surprises. First, I was unaware (or forgot) except in the most rudimentary way that there were actual large-ish animals before the dinosaurs. Ward describes his life-long effort to discover more about them through studying fossils and rock strata in a place called the Karoo Desert in South Africa. He is concerned with figuring out how the animals became extinct. Over time, he and his colleagues find that the extinction was rapid (in geological terms--probably less than100,000 years or so)and eventually concluding that the die-out was caused by global warming. The warming was caused, he posits, by an excess of methane gas, which somehow or other--I'm no chemist--leeches the oxygen out of the air.

Okay, so far so good. But the real story here is how obsessed the scientists become: never giving up, living under the harshest conditions one can imagine, eternally picking at the rocks to find fossils. Family and health are given short shrift; these are dedicated people. The story of their lives is more interesting than the story of the Gorgon.

Another fascinating aspect of the book is the coverage of the internal feuds among scientists, who become heavily invested in their own theories.

The book is interesting and compelling, but the technical terms make it difficult for the layperson to keep track of what's going on in the science end of things. If you're interested in paleontology or global warming and can read Stephen Jay Gould's work, this would be a great choice for you. It will require strict attention if your level of interest in science is limited to the kind of book written by Simon Winchester.

1.1 *s knocked off for difficulty level and a slight lack of closure ( )
1 vote bohemima | Jan 9, 2014 |
This book is great opportunity to see how a paleontologist goes about his work. This is written more like a travelogue than a science book, but I highly recommend it, if you want to see all the hard work that goes on in a paleontological ‘dig’ including the dating of a site. The book is also a great introduction to the great Permian extinction that resulted in the death of over 95% of all the species on the planet 250 million years ago. This is very very readable. Highly recommended. ( )
2 vote davesmind | Mar 1, 2009 |
Great book, such interesting work by paleontologists but glad I'm not out there in the Karoo ( )
  siri51 | Jul 30, 2008 |
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The gorgons ruled the world of animals long before there was any age of dinosaurs. They were the T. Rexof their day until an environmental cataclysm 250 million years ago annihilated them—along with 90 percent of all plant and animal species on the planet—in an event so terrible even the extinction of the dinosaurs pales in comparison. For more than a decade, Peter Ward and his colleagues have been searching in South Africa’s Karoo Desert for clues to this world: What were these animals like? How did they live and, more important, how did they die?In Gorgon, Ward examines the strange fate of this little known prehistoric animal and its contemporaries, the ancestors of the turtle, the crocodile, the lizard, and eventually dinosaurs. He offers provocative theories on these mass extinctions and confronts the startling implications they hold for us. Are we vulnerable to a similar catastrophe? Are we nearing the end of human domination in the earth’s cycle of destruction and rebirth? Gorgonis also a thrilling travelogue of Ward’s long, remarkable journey of discovery and a real-life adventure deep into Earth’s history.

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