Wow, what an amazing book, truly in a class by itself and like nothing I've ever read before. A
couple years ago I read Bakker's groundbreaking non-fictional book,
The Dinosaur Heresies: New Theories Unlocking the Mystery of the Dinosaurs and Their Extinction. I loved it so much, I began
looking for other works by that author. I knew I had to have this one the minute I saw it. It is a novel starring a young female Utahraptor called
Raptor Red as she and her friends and family venture through the
Cretaceous Period. It
is a fantasy adventure, history, and yes, even a romance that takes place 120 million years ago. And if you think it is geared to young children, think again.
(He uses the word "shit" frequently.) This book, I can assure you is
geared toward adults and older children, and it's not as goofy as you might think, although it is often laugh-out-loud funny, as was the
book linked above.
And this, also like the book named above, is filled with Bakker's extraordinary artwork. This includes drawings of the Dramatis Personae, plus a drawing to begin each chapter, and a map of the earth and layout of the continents 120 million years ago. The Utahraptors migrated from China, north then crossed over into extreme North America, and migrated south. There were both red snouts and yellow snouts, which separated into different species. Throughout the story they and other creatures continue their migration in search of food and to escape another predator species, the "Acros," or Acrocanthosaurus, until they end up at the Pacific Ocean in California, then from there they move up into the mountains.
Robert T. Bakker was born in New Jersey in 1945. He earned his B.A. from Yale University in 1968 and his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1971. He is one of the world's foremost paleontologists, and is known for the radical changes he made in the world of dinosaur science and former beliefs. Previous theories perceived these ancient, often gigantic creatures as slow, stupid, and cold-blooded. The herbivores were perhaps slow and not too bright, but there was a vast difference in intelligence and behavior between different species, with the raptors leading at the top of the list in both intelligence and speed. Bakker has a unique gift for reading fossils, tracks, and other "messages" left by this far-removed world of flora and fauna, which has enabled him to recreate the movement of life through these millions of remote years.
By posing questions, such as, how did they survive, obtain food and other necessities? How did they protect themselves? What did they really look like, as in skin and colors? Where did they originate and how did they migrate? Though this novel is entertaining, especially since Bakker gives these creatures real emotions, and puts very human expressions into their minds, which not only enhances the entertaining qualities of the story, it also contains a great many scientific facts.
Only someone far-removed from nature could believe that animals do not think and feel, love and hate, connive and project, and a whole range of other mental and emotional activities that some humans believe are reserved for them alone. By studying animals alive today, who evolved from these most ancient of creatures, Bakker has surmised such qualities as he has given this cast of characters. While raptors are often perceived as vicious and cruel monsters, Bakker recreated them as monogamous, fiercely loyal and protective of their pack, which included family and sometimes the mates of family members. They killed to eat because they were carnivores, as carnivores such as bears or wolves do today.
I will include more of these fun facts as I tell the story, and I also want to mention that there's lots here that is just fun and not necessarily fact! I took enough notes on this story to fill up a pretty good portion of a notebook, so I've had to make difficult choices on what to include. I want to begin with Bakker's Preface.
First, he was a consultant for Spielberg's Jurassic Park, the movie based on Michael Crichton's novel of the same name. They wanted to "get it right," as far as dinosaur facts, but there was an enormous Raptor in the script that was much bigger than any that had been discovered, and that disturbed some of the crew. The largest at that point had been nine feet long and about 120 pounds. It just happened, however, that one of the many invaluable amateur fossil hunters called "Jurassic Irregulars" had made an amazing discovery in a Utah fossil bed—an actual claw from a Raptor that was huge enough to fit Spielberg's creation—which weighed five hundred to a thousand pounds. It was Bakker who named it "Utahraptor," which has become the second most recognized dinosaur species to the general population, after T. Rex.
And it is this discovery, and all the wonderful characteristics of raptors in general, that helped inspire this truly touching story about the life of a particular female. Here are a few sentences Bakker used to describe raptors: "They were kick-boxers. One claw on each hindfoot was transformed into a big curved knife that could disembowel prey with a single stroke." "Speed and agility were other raptor characteristics." "All raptor species were masters of martial arts. They could twist and turn while running at high speed, and they had the capacity to jump while changing direction in midair." "These were smart carnivores." With a "brain as large for its body weight as it is in modern ground-running birds."
And one last point from the Preface. Bakker explain how one can read tracks and fossils, and he was indeed incredibly literate! "Bones and rock are eloquent storytellers, if you know how to listen to them."
Bones, muscles, and joints tell us much about the life and times of the superraptor from Utah—and we can learn more from living species who have raptor characteristics today. Dinosaurs weren't the slow stupid, overgrown lizards that museum displays showed in the 1950s. All dinosaurs show at least some adaptive hallmark of the bird class. Raptors are especially close. In all details of their body construction—hips, knees, ankles, feet and hands, eyes and brain—raptors are designed like ground-running superhawks.
And last, he says, "We can learn from Utahraptor's story. Hers was a beautifully alert
and sentient species." And we are also made keenly aware of Bakker's immense love, respect and fascination for these creatures who owned this planet
so long ago. Let us now take a peek at what is happening in the life of Raptor Red . . . .
"A pair of fierce but beautiful eyes look out from the dull green undergrowth of conifers and ferns that bound the edges of mud flats and riverbeds." And so we begin our journey. Red and her lifetime mate are looking for prey, evaluating each potential victim. Bakker voices her thoughts as she analyses the situation and risks. Her eyes meet those of her mate. They have not consummated their union yet, waiting for the right time when they will be able, as a pair, to support a family, thus making them smarter than a great many humans. They are new to Utah, so they must be wise about their decisions. She notices a male Astrodon, a huge brontosaurian species bullying some females. Though an herbivore, their gigantic size is still a risk to the raptors. The astro is arrogant. No raptor would dare attack them. They do not know about the huge Utahraptors, but they notice a new scent. The females are anxious. The bulls are sparring for a mate. But then they see, and run. A bull separates from the herd and the raptors attack. They slash and begin to rip their victim.
But something goes terribly wrong. The astro has waded into mud where he thinks he is safe. He is not and Red and her mate kill him, then begin to eat. But the astro falls over on Raptor Red's mate, trapping him. He is sinking while Red desperately tries to free him. She cannot, and retreats to watch her life-mate die. She is mourning and in shock, and does not know what to do. Raptors hunt in pairs or packs. Survival will be difficult.
The next chapter goes back eight years when she was just a newly hatched chick in the nest. "First came the scent. This smell—my kind—safety—food was the essence of the message recorded." When she finally opened her eyes, she saw a snout with meat hanging from it. Her mother's snout had a bright red streak from nostril to eye. "Red-snout . . . mother." There was another, that she later learned was father. She also learns that her droppings smell a little like mother and a little like father. The other chicks in the nest, as least for now, were mere "annoyances and competitors," and there was no emotional or social connection. "Grab NOW," was the response when food arrived. She was the most "successfully selfish chick of the brood," but they all survived, and once out of the nest became playmates. The two girls bossed the boys. Red would grow to be a gentle and calm creature. Her sister would be a frenzied, bossy bitch. The family stayed together over four years, until the male arrived whom Red chose for her mate. They had been together three years.
So now she is lonely and in despair. She spends thirty-six hours in sorrow by her mate's side. Until the dactyls arrive to eat. In her rage, she kills one and drags it away. She feels better. One hundred more descend on the Astrodon, then return to the nests to feed their squeaking kids.
Parent dactyls open their mouths wide. Globs of meat fall, regurgitated, hot and steamy, as dactyl chicks stuff their caws, then lean back on their haunches, bellies full, minds peaceful.
But one dactyl remains, looking for his mate. He knows that the mangled body he sees is her. Meanwhile, Red travels for four days, hungry and suffering the cold at night, and it rains.
"Yeech!" Her olfactory chambers are choked by the suffocating aroma of half-rotten lungfish.
More carefully now, she investigates the three-hundred-pound fish. Only half is totally disgusting. The rear half is edible. She cuts the offending front end off with her sharp foreclaws.
Gulp-chunk-chug. A hundred pounds of fish disappear down her gullet.
As she continues her journey, she begins to smell raptor, but something isn't right. As they get closer, two males begin doing the courtship dance, but it is all wrong.
My kind . . . not my kind . . . Her brain struggles with the mixed signals.
Now she can see the color band on their snouts. It's not red. It's yellow. She has never been with a family member with a yellow snout patch.
She thinks to herself. Images of self-recognition express. My kind, red snout—my kind, Raptor—Red.
She goes into attack mode and the males scatter, then she runs, too. The choice was correct. She could
not have mated successfully with a yellow-snout. But she has reached the point where her biological clock tells her it is time to get a mate and reproduce. She
worries that she's become too skinny. Utahraptors are very particular about their mates, who should be plump and well-filled out. Still, she begins
to advertise by scratching trees and rubbing her glands beneath her jaw. And leaving dung piles, all which send a clear message of who she is and what she
wants. And soon what appears to be an eligible male does come along. She encourages him, but something is wrong. Ooh! He's got TICKS. Yuk! She screams
and lunges and he runs off. She thinks, "Males are such liars. I'm a bit underweight—but I don't cover up my parasites. That bug-bitten loser is
lucky I didn't slice him into little pieces."
But by the next morning, things improve. She smells something really familiar. She investigates. Family!! It's her sister and her two chicks. "Raptor Red dances a wild jig of greeting. She hops from one foot to another, going "eeep-eeep-eeep" like an overgrown chick." Life will be just a bit easier now with two adults to supply food. Nothing is said, by the way, as to what happened to her sister's mate. The next morning they kill a female iguanodon and have a feast.
A low grinding sound, like a huge coffee mill, comes from within the iguanodon's cheeks. Twice a second the mighty molars come together. Twice a second the jagged edges of enamel from a hundred tightly packed teeth slide past each other, trapping plant parts and shredding them. Twice a minute the tongue balls up the ground mass of food and pushes it to the rear of the mouth. Once a minute a lump can be seen in the throat. The lump passes down toward the stomach in a slow smooth movement.
It's the finest vegetarian food-processor in the Early Cretaceous, a system that can start with dry, hard, dust-covered cycad foliage and convert it into easily digested plant pulp.
The iguanodon has modest powers of self-awareness. She feels happy and complacent and content. She feels efficient, in a vague "I'm doing what I should be doing and I'm doing it well" sort of way.
Anyways, the raptor's soon have plenty to eat. That night they all curl up, Red next to her snoring sister. The next morning they all wake up with ticks. These they fear, because they can cause pain, disease, and death. But there is a remedy in the form of a bird—a sinorn—that picks them off the raptors' bodies.
For a wonderful hour the adult raptors get groomed and plucked and bitten and deticked. The sinorns even open the edges of the tick-induced wounds, nipping off infected skin. That really hurts, but the raptors endure it. They've been through it before. They know that a few days in the sun will heal the wounds with hardly a trace.
The pack stays at Tick-Bird Meadow for a couple weeks but decide to move on when the area is
invaded by another predatory dinosaur, the huge and dangerous Acrocanthosaurus.
And soon, what Raptor Red has been wishing for arrives, in the form of a young and well-built male. It is love at first sight. However, her sister doesn't
share Red's joy, and soon makes a threatening display, chasing off the male. "Raptor Red is pulled by conflicting instincts," but she cannot
leave her sister and her chicks at this point.
Throughout the story, Bakker also introduces many other creatures who live in the different areas through which the raptors migrate, and they are all written in the same comical style as if they had a voice and deep thoughts. Red and her family also suffer through many dangers. One of the worst is the "thousand-year flood," that fills the entire area with up to thirty feet of water. Here, Raptor Red's calm does her no good, but her sister's ingenuity and quick thinking leads the pack up a tree to safety, as the whole landscape gets washed away. After thirty-six hours the rain stops and they find the tree is full of eyes. To Red's surprise and delight, her attractive male has also found his way up the tree.
I could go on and on because every page in this novel brings new delights, and sometimes sadness, and lots of laughs. I will not give away what happens, or who else we meet in this Cretaceous cast of characters. I will just mention one more, and that is an elderly white dactyl who has been part of Raptor Red's pack for generations. He looks out for them, shows them food, and gets food in return. This year, at age sixty, he has decided to remain a free bachelor, and enjoy himself. And here is a quote about a baby Gastonia, a well armored herbivore that is generally not messed with by any dinosaur of any size.
Ouch! the big Acrocanthosaurus thinks as his tooth crown breaks off, leaving the nerve exposed. He drops the little armored dinosaur he was trying to swallow.
Ouch. He reacts again to a sharp pain on his shin where the armored dino's spikes hit.
WHACK-WHACK-WHACK. The little dino is like a big ultraprickly pinecone, made of bone and muscle, powered by a spastic motor. The acro backs up again, his ankle smarting from a dozen hits from the armored protuberances.
Whump-whack-whump. The baby Gastonia twitches nose to tail again, sending clods of mud over the acro.
No good—not worth the trouble, the acro thinks to himself. He doesn't like food morsels that make him bleed from the inside and out. He's swallowed crocodiles whole before. Their bony ridges were a bit painful as they slid down his gullet. But this little armor-clad demon is much worse.
And another quote that tells of the Cretaceous message board. Please note: "furballs" is the rather derogatory term Bakker uses to describe mammals! You can tell where his favoritism lies!!
Here are posted thousands of messages from other dinosaurs. Challenges from young male Utahraptor. Sexual invitations from deinonych widowers who lost their mates in the flood. Panic signals from Astrodon young, separated from their parents and uncles and aunts. Pompous declarations from acros who boast of their indisputable position as Kings of the Cretaceous.
There are even the small-voiced messages from the multis, plant-eating furballs who live in colonies: I've just dug a new burrow here, and all the shrubs within a ten-yard radius are mine.
The young male Utahraptor's mind is swamped with all the messages criss-crossing in claim and counterclaim. It's a cacophony of aromas, like a dozen rap songs sung at once in the language of scent. He tries to read every one. It's a Cretaceous highway of information, all written in shit.
To end, I must also include a quote from the blurb on the back cover, this from James Gurney, creator of Dinotopia. (That series is available from Dover Publications.)
Raptor Red is a masterpiece of dramatic writing that projects us into the brain and body of a female raptor dinosaur 120 million years ago. Many writers have imagined the Mesozoic world; Bakker lives and breathes it. He becomes a dinosaur, and allows us through his vivid prose to join him on the journey. After reading it I feel I have stepped into another creature's claws.
Truly, as I read this novel, I felt like I had been transported back in time and was surrounded by
characters I cared about, kinda like a Jane Austen romance, where the hero and heroine go through tough times, but continue their passion until the time is
right for them to be together. Meanwhile, other characters come and go, some
causing trouble and some soothing it, some who make you laugh and others who make
you angry. Along the way, you make new friends, and you end up caring about all of them, glad to have made their acquaintance. This book is totally in a class
by itself, like nothing I've ever read. It is sort of a fantasy, but too much a history to be completely fantastical. Absolutely, it is an adventure. And in
the end, we find we love Raptor Red because she is such an amazing being. I absolutely,
positively recommend reading this book. And in these trying times, we all need a story with a warm and cozy happy ending. This is it!
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