Locked in Time: Animal Behavior Unearthed in 50 Fossils


By Dean R Lomax, illustrated by Bob Nicholls

Dean Lomax, sometime author of articles in Deposits magazine, is certainly making a name for himself, and has been now for many years. For instance, in January 2022, he was on television explaining about a remarkable find at Rutland Water Nature Reserve (see Rutland ichthyosaur fossil is largest found in UK). And now he continues his admirable efforts for popularise his chosen academic subject – palaeontology – in this fascinating book about the fossilisation of behaviour.

But how can that be? Fossils can certainly allow us to reconstruct and picture the forms of life that lived on Earth over deep time, whether that be towering lycopod trees in Upper Carboniferous forests, or the mighty T-Rex in the Upper Cretaceous. However, how can we learn how these animals behaved? David Attenborough’s fascinating films over the decades have allowed us to become fascinated by the daily lives of our fellow creatures: that is, how they reproduce and raise their young, how they hunt or avoid being eaten, and more. Therefore, as the book asks:

what would it be like to see prehistoric animals as they lived and breathed?

In answering this question, Dean’s book shows what can be learnt for the fossil record: about dinosaurs fighting to their deaths to elephant-sized burrowing ground sloths. In fact, he covers 50 extraordinary fossils, in five fascinating chapters that offer an unprecedented glimpse at the real-life behaviours of prehistoric animals, together with illustrations by Bob Nicholls, all derived from body or trace fossils, that is, direct evidence of fossils captured during everyday action. These also include dinosaurs sitting on their eggs, bird-like, Eocene turtles preserved while mating, a T. rex infected by parasites, and the death march of a Late Jurassic horseshoe crab from the Solnhofen limestone of Bavaria (see also Dean’s article, The World’s longest death track: The last footsteps of an ancient horseshoe crab).

Each fossil tells a poignant story about prehistoric life, which clearly so often resembles those modern animals and their behaviour that we watch on our televisions today. In this way, the book provides a striking example of the evolutionary chain linking all living things to their distant ancestors, way back in deep time.

The book is illustrated by striking and scientifically rigorous illustrations by renowned palaeoartist Bob Nicholls. However, if I have one small quibble, it is that those illustrations, while excellent (and they are good, but all in black and white) could have been improved with some colour. I know that would have added to the cost, but perhaps it might be considered for the second edition? Notwithstanding that one small gripe, this book is a great read for those interested in ancient life.

Dean R. Lomax is an internationally recognised palaeontologist, author, television presenter and science communicator. He is currently a visiting scientist at the University of Manchester and is a leading authority on ichthyosaurs. His books include Dinosaurs of the British Isles and Prehistoric Pets.

Bob Nicholls is a world-renowned natural history artist, who specialises in the reconstruction of prehistoric animals, plants and environments. His illustrations and models have been published in more than 40 books and exhibited in over 40 museums, universities and visitor attractions around the world.

Locked in Time: Animal Behavior Unearthed in 50 Fossils, by Dean R. Lomax, illustrated by Bob Nicholls, Columbia University Press (2021), 286 pages (hardback), ISBN-13 978-0-231-19728.

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