Early Miocene Paleobiology in Patagonia

High-Latitude Paleocommunities of the Santa Cruz Formation

Patagonia has not always been the cold, arid and dry place it is today. About 17mya – because the Andes were much lower allowing humid winds from the west to reach the area – it consisted of substantial forests and grasslands. It was also inhabited by strange and wonderful animals, many of which are now extinct, such as glyptodonts, huge snakes and the giant, tapir-like astrapotheres.

Their remains and others of a more familiar nature are found in the sedimentary rocks of the Santa Cruz Formation, the best examples of which can be seen along the southern Atlantic coastline. It has been from these sites that specimens have been collected for more than 150 years, after the first extraordinary remains were sent to Charles Darwin in the 1840s, who forwarded them to Richard Owen for study.

This excellent book sets out to discuss the biology of all of these different species and interpret their ecological interaction and the environment in which they lived. Using the latest methodology, the chapters are written by a large number of different specialists. They include discussions on biostratigraphy, ichnology, marsupials (both carnivores and non-carnivores), the so-called “terror beds” and their relatives, South American ungulates, and also excellent chapters introducing the subject matter of the book and summarising the findings of the authors of the chapters. Differing viewpoints are discussed without prejudice and readers are often left to make up their own minds. In addition, the whole volume effectively represents a huge and extremely useful and important resource of references to the work on the palaeontology and palaeoecology of Patagonia.

However, it is clear to me that the real interest of the authors is fossil mammals. And who can blame the, given the fascinating specimens that have turned up in this part of the world? Despite this (and its expensive price tag), this well-written and well-illustrated book will be fascinating and useful for postgraduates and established academics, undergraduates studying vertebrate palaeontology and evolution, and amateurs with an eclectic taste in fossils and fossil ecosystems.

Early Miocene Paleobiology in Patagonia: High-Latitude Paleocommunities of the Santa Cruz Formation by Sergio F Vizcaino, Richard F Kay and M Susan Bargo, Cambridge University Press, New York (2012). 370 pp., £99 (US$155) hardback, ISBN: 978-0-521-19461-7