The Bare Bones: An Unconventional Evolutionary History of the Skeleton

The Bare Bones: An Unconventional Evolutionary History of the Skeleton

The Bare Bones: An Unconventional Evolutionary History of the Skeleton

The Bare Bones: An Unconventional Evolutionary History of the Skeleton


What can we learn about the evolution of jaws from a pair of scissors? How does the flight of a tennis ball help explain how fish overcome drag? What do a spacesuit and a chicken egg have in common? Highlighting the fascinating twists and turns of evolution across more than 540 million years, paleobiologist Matthew Bonnan uses everyday objects to explain the emergence and adaptation of the vertebrate skeleton. What can camera lenses tell us about the eyes of marine reptiles? How does understanding what prevents a coffee mug from spilling help us understand the posture of dinosaurs? The answers to these and other intriguing questions illustrate how scientists have pieced together the history of vertebrates from their bare bones. With its engaging and informative text, plus more than 200 illustrative diagrams created by the author, The Bare Bones is an unconventional and reader-friendly introduction to the skeleton as an evolving machine.


I don't know why it struck me, but it did with such force that my life’s trajectory was forever changed. I’m speaking, of course, about my passion for dinosaurs, big dead reptiles that have captivated me since the tender age of five. I was that annoying kid in the first-grade classroom who knew all the dinosaurs and corrected the teachers on their pronunciation. I was even given a “Paleontologist Award” by my firstgrade teachers for my, ahem, “abundant knowledge about dinosaurs.” I did have varied interests outside of dinosaurs, including everything from human anatomy to science fiction to role-playing games to music editing (I’m not suggesting these were cool interests). in fact, I even did a stint at a radio station in college (WDCB, Glen Ellyn, Illinois), where I played songs that sounded interesting (at least to me) in headphones. Yet, over time, the allure of fossils kept its pull.

I was never so much into the treasure-hunter aspect of paleontology, but rather the thrill of reconstructing long-dead animals and breathing life into old bones. in other words, I am a zoologist and anatomist at heart who happens to be fascinated by dinosaurs. I see dinosaurs as living animals, and I want to reconstruct how these animals moved and behaved when their bones were still pulsing with blood. As time has gone by, I have come to have a deep appreciation and fascination with all the backboned (vertebrate) animals, their collective natural history, and their evolution. I have come to realize that the questions about dinosaurs that I began to pursue in earnest in graduate school have a broader and more powerful context across our vertebrate family tree.

I was inspired to write this book when I began teaching my own vertebrate evolution and paleontology course for undergraduate students. What I found was that many of these students were fascinated by vertebrate evolution, but that few, if any, went on to careers in museums and academe. Instead, many of my students were future teachers, doctors, veterinarians, and perhaps even politicians. There are many excellent books available on vertebrate paleontology, many of which I consulted in writing this book, but their focus tends to be strongly taxonomic and linearly chronological: who is who, who is related to whom, and in what order do we find them. However, the books that had truly inspired me to become a paleontologist were those that tackled the issue of functional morphology and paleobiology: what does the skeleton tell us about how the animal moved, fed, and behaved? This is the type of questions that motivated me as a student to learn about vertebrate history.

During my formative years and into my undergraduate days, I read a number of books that inspired the more colloquial approach I take . . .

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