Author: Steve Brusatte
Type: Non-fiction, single subject
Full title: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World
I read it: November 2018
It was far from certain that dinosaurs were going to emerge triumphant. After all, they were small and meek creatures, nowhere near the top of the food chain during their earliest years. They were hanging around with lots of other species of small-to-midsize reptiles, early mammals, and amphibians in the middle of the food pyramid, fearful of the crocodile-line archosaurs, who held the throne. Nothing was handed to the dinosaurs. They were going to have to earn it.
It is this that we often forget: dinosaurs had to evolve along with everything else. They weren’t plopped down fully formed: T. rex & co. had to get that big gradually. How did they come to dominate?
Steve Brusatte’s comprehensive history fills in gaps for the lay reader, especially as it relates to the prehistoric eras leading up to the dinosaurs. He chronicles the “dinosauromorphs,” the small, early creatures that first developed the dinosaur body plan and habits. There were ancestors predating what we think of as dinosaurs proper—of course there were—but I had never stopped to consider them. Dinosaurs took a long time to come into their own, with the Pangea split being a major game-changer. The full story is still mysterious, and Brusatte even admits that “maybe dinosaurs were just lucky.” Imagining them in the Triassic alongside “the giant salamanders, the early mammal-like synapsids, and the crocodile-like pseudosuchians” paints a vivid and strange picture of all sorts of creatures swarming at once.
Brusatte’s book works as a perfect companion to Lacovara’s Why Dinosaurs Matter. They are both worthy overviews of the topic, and I’d recommend either one for diving into dino facts. Brusatte’s is longer and infused with an extra layer of glee, his status as a younger all-star paleontologist clearly illustrated. He loves that he got to stand on the shoulders of giant-hunting giants and find ways to uncover new facts and theories in his own fieldwork. He uses his own professional story to persuade other readers (especially the young ones) that there is still more out there to know. While writing confidently about this or that established precept, he doesn’t hesitate to throw in a parenthetical like “This assertion can of course be proven wrong with new discoveries.” Brusatte also makes sure to share the stage with other paleontologists young and old, and notes how the profession includes those out in the dusty landscapes as well as those who analyze statistics behind computers.
A similarity between both of my recent dino reads is the time spent on T. rex. Each book has an entire chapter devoted to the animal. While Lacovara focused on the shoulder and jaw muscles that explain the small arms, through Brusatte we learn about the “puncture and pull” method of chomping through prey, as well as hypotheses about pack hunting and how the juveniles compared and contrasted to adults. He notes that scientists have “thrown the whole toolbox at T. rex … As a result, we know more about this Cretaceous dinosaur than we do about many living animals.” I realized how peculiar it was that T. rex was a relatively early fossil discovery yet still remains the largest carnivore to have lived. How was it that we dug up this particular animal, one that actually deserves its mythologized place in the collective consciousness?
Other topics explained in detail include the asteroid extinction event, which was apparently proposed by one man, Walter Alvarez, while he studied a single distinction in rock layers in the mountains of Italy. (Both T. rex and Triceratops would have been around during this catastrophic time in history. No sauropods in North America, interestingly, although they would have been roaming other areas of the world.) There’s also the obligatory and always fascinating connection to modern birds that Brusatte illuminates anew. Theropods established the body mechanisms that later gave such wide success to birds, including an “ultra-efficient ‘flow through’ lung that takes in oxygen during both inhalation and exhalation” as well as relatively fast growth from youngsters to adults. And we learn that feathers did indeed pre-date flight by a good measure.
When my turn came for The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs at the library (for the second time, because I didn’t finish it quickly enough over the summer), my hold was also ready for Jurassic World: Fall Kingdom. There’s plenty of low-hanging fruit to criticize in that eye-rolling yawn-fest, but the worst plot points of both of the new JP movies are the newly created species. Given the wild number of possibilities of actual dinosaurs to display, this is an absurdly unnecessary contrivance. Brusatte notes that “a new species of dinosaur is currently being found, on average, once a week. Let that sink in: a new dinosaur every… single… week. That’s about fifty new species each year.” The best dinosaur entertainment is not in theaters, but in the popular science books that tell the true stories.