Make no bones about it, dinos are dinero. Ask Steven Spielberg or any museum director with a roomful of Velociraptors. Although most of us know triceratops from T-Rex, we know precious little about fossil finders who, according to trailblazing paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews, "hunt dinosaurs with whisk brooms" in faraway corners of the globe. Novacek's action-packed account of his pioneering road trips to the wasteland of Mongolia's Gobi desert should change all that.
In 1989, Novacek, provost of science at the American Museum of Natural History, led the first Western expedition in 60 years to the fossil-rich Gobi. Slow to hit pay dirt, his crew suffered through three summers of suffocating sandstorms, an armada of insects and rations of freeze-dried pork chops and warm beer with only 80 ancient turtle shells to show for their troubles.
Then in 1993 they stumbled on the mother of all animal graveyards in the sun-scorched Ukhaa Tolgod section of the Gobi. "A strange feeling started to take hold in me," writes Novacek, who theorizes that the animals were trapped by brief but catastrophic sandstorms. "A rush that made me shiver every time I saw yet another mammal skull or dinosaur skeleton sculpted in the rock." Among the hundreds of skeletons was a spectacular new species called Mononykus, a relative of present-day birds, whose larger brain case made it one of the Einsteins of dinosauria.
Novacek puts flesh on the bones with intriguing theories about a day in the life of a Cretaceous dino. Although the chapters on hard science can plod along, Novacek manages to deliver adventure and revelation in one book. (Anchor, $24.95)