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In Quest of Great Lakes Ice Age Vertebrates. (Books).

In Quest of Great Lakes Ice Age Vertebrates. By J. Alan Holman. Michigan State University Press, East Lansing, Michigan, 2001. ix + 230 pp. Hardback $59.95. ISBN 0-87013-591-0

This book is a fine contribution to regional studies of ice age vertebrates (fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals of the past two million years) of North America. Such a work on the Great Lakes region (Ontario, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin) has not been attempted before. And, this region is important because it included the "heartland" of so many important and interesting large mammals, such as mammoths, American mastodons, giant beavers, and Scott's moose.

Perhaps the breakdown, due to rapidly changing climate, of the particular moist, open spruce forest habitat favoured by many of these species resulted in important extinctions about 11,000 years ago. But as the author cautions, it may be wise not to see the problems of this major faunal extinction (amphibians, reptiles, birds, and marine mammals seem to have weathered the 'catastrophe' extremely well!) in terms that are too simple. His closing statement about this extinction is "that a complex of environmental and human-impacts appear to have coincided at the end of the Pleistocene in a way that was devastating to the ecologically dominant, large mammalian members of terrestrial communities.

The author of this book is highly experienced and a world leader in his specialty, the study of Quaternary amphibians and reptiles. He is presently professor emeritus of Geological Sciences and curator emeritus of Vertebrate Paleontology at Michigan State University. Alan Holman has published more than 240 papers and 4 books, as well as having written many articles for natural resource and conservation magazines.

Holman's writing is clear, and the style interesting enough to intrigue many readers, especially regarding the species descriptions that form the core of the book, Chapter 7, "A Bestiary of Great Lakes Region Ice Age Vertebrates." These discussions are combined with details of each animal's body structure, habits, habitats, and ecological importance. Holman spices the text with the odd catchy verse--like that introducing the shrews, compounding the impact by describing shrews as tiny, fidgety, hyperactive animals with snouts like those of mice caught in pencil sharpeners!

The book has ten chapters beginning with definitions of concepts and terms for the general readership and a discussion of how the last ice age affected our physical and biological world. He mentions tools and techniques for collecting vertebrate fossils, as well as the protocol and ethics required to develop and maintain a useful collection. Of course, of great importance in understanding the chronological framework is Chapter 6, "Dating the Fossils."

Following the heart of the book (Chapter 7) is a summary of important Pleistocene vertebrates sites in the region (Chapter 8). Of particular significance, mainly because of its extensive well-preserved fauna, is the Sheriden Pit Cave site in Ohio. Indeed, Kenneth Tankersley has just informed me that it not only has the first evidence of human use of giant beavers but has also yielded one of the latest radiocarbon dates for that species. Then follows an examination of compelling problems of the Pleistocene relative to faunal interpretations, underlying ecological makeup of the region's fauna, associated range adjustments, effects of Pleistocene extinction on the vertebrate fauna, the aftermath of the ice age, and a glimpse into the future.

A great deal of research has gone into this book as can be seen in the nearly 570 references to both general and specific topics in the individual chapters of the book. The references for Chapters 7 and 8 (the most satisfying for the professional paleontologist) are so extensive that they are subdivided into general, provincial (Ontario), and state sections--a boon for those with more parochial interests.

A few minor criticisms: There are some typographical errors (e.g., Pakenham not Packenham, p. 97; Stalker, A. M. not MacStalker, A., p. 206; Mosimann, J. E. not Moisimann, J. E., p. 222). And, regarding giant beavers (Castoroides), comparative studies with modern beavers lead me to believe that giant beavers did not have roundish, muskrat-like tails as depicted in Figure 122, but relatively narrow, flat tails. Also, cheek-tooth patterns are more like those of Castoroides' Pliocene ancestor Dipoides than the capybara (p. 124).

A wealth of figures (168) illustrate the text. They include maps, stratigraphic sections and plan views of the most important fossil localities, diagrams of fossils, and restorations of ice age vertebrates in their natural surroundings, as best as can be determined by the fossil evidence. Unfortunately, the quality of the restorations vary from rather coarse depictions by Barbara Gudgion and others (e.g., Figure 99 of a Vero tapir) to Harry Clench's deft ink sketch of Jefferson's ground sloths feeding in parkland habitat (Figure 71).

A very strong point of this book is its great teaching potential. There are multitudes of clear, succinct explanations of technical terms and concepts that provide a sound basis for greater understanding of a sometimes complex subject.

Finally, I wish to congratulate Alan Holman on providing the public and his scientific colleagues with a most interesting and worthwhile book on ice age vertebrates of the Great Lakes region.
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Author:Harington, C.R.
Publication:Michigan Academician
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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