Forgotten Beasts (Review): Glancing back at modern wildlife’s ancestors

Words matter. Images matter. The Scientific Inquirer needs your support. Help us pay our contributors for their hard work. Visit our Patreon page and discover ways that you can make a difference.

Dinosaurs get all the love. Velociraptor. Tyrannosaurus Rex. Triceratops. Brachiosaurus. But while they may be the most bankable, they’re by no means the only prehistoric animals and, in many ways, not even the most interesting. Forgotten Beasts: Amazing creatures that once roamed the Earth, a picture book from Pavilion Press, focuses readers’ attention on the lesser known but no less majestic animals that have faded into history.

Written and illustrated by Matt Sewell, Forgotten Beasts surveys a half billion years of life on earth in ninety-six modest pages. Yet the content of the book is the stuff of fantasy or at least Steven Spielberg movies. It’s filled with creatures that once roamed the earth and when Sewell welcomes readers to “the amazing world of forgotten beasts” it turns out we’re in the hands of an able tour guide.

Presented chronologically, the book begins during the Cambrian Explosion (or “radiation” depending on who you ask) when the world underwent a dramatic increase in diversity. The period’s representative creature in the book, the Opabinia, was no bigger than the average pinky, but its appearance was, as Sewell describes it, “weird.” It had five eyes on tiny stumps, a mouth on the underside of its body, and a claw at the end of a forward facing tube. Creepy in miniaturized form.

The Opabinia was no outlier. The oldest animals included in Forgotten Beasts were also the most terrifying. The Jaekelopterus was part scorpion and part lobster only on a massive scale. 8 feet, 3 inches long to be exact. The Dunkleosteus had its own full body armor and massive sharp teeth designed to crack through shell and bone. From its depiction, it appears as if the ancient fish always looked angry. And while any version of a shark is intimidating, even millions years ago, none were as bizarre as the saw-jawed Helicoprion.

Illustrations are instrumental in communicating how awesome these creatures must have been. In Sewell’s case, he opts for restraint, presenting his subjects in a matter of fact, side profile fashion. No action shots here and it’s just as well. His approach drives home the most profound aspect of the book with little fuss. (More on that in a moment.)

It’s always impressive the way the prose is picture books manage to be so precise and economical while never losing their effect. The presence of images plays a big role in making it possible. Nonetheless, Sewell’s lean descriptions are the perfect compliment to his illustrations. He doesn’t take his subjects too seriously and keeps the book’s tone light and playful.

While Forgotten Beasts aims at reminding its readers about the panoply of creatures that once walked the earth, there’s more to it. The biggest elephant in the room is that of evolution. While Sewell doesn’t go out of his way to point out how many modern animals evolved from the creatures in the book (or at least their relatives), it’s obvious. The resemblance of creatures like the Short-faced bear or the owl-like Ornimegalonyx or the Pygmy mammoth to today’s versions jumps out of the page. If there’s one thing that readers should take away from Forgotten Beasts, it’s the sense of continuity that stretches from the long-extinct animals to the modern-day inhabitants of forests, jungles, and oceans around the world.

Matt Sewell’s Forgotten Beasts is a success on multiple fronts. Its illustrations are descriptive yet never distracting. Its descriptions are economical yet never feel like an afterthought. Most impressively, Forgotten Beasts makes a strong case for evolution without having to force-feed jargon or complex arguments. Sewell guides his readers to the facts but allows them to make the final leap themselves.

To buy a copy of Forgotten Beasts: Amazing creatures that once roamed the Earth click here. For more information about Matt Sewell follow him at @sewellspotnjot or @mattsewell. You can also follow Pavilion Press at @PavilionKidsBks or @PavilionChildrensBooks.

WORDS: Marc Landas

IMAGE SOURCE: Pavilion Press

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: