A New History of Their Lost World
By Steve Brusatte
Find it on Bookshop
Most of the time when I learn about dinosaurs from someone, I get either way too much information about them or not nearly enough. This book strikes the balance perfectly.
We get a high-level, non-technical overview of all the different eras of dinosaurs in chronological order. From the first to appear, to those that evolved, to those that dominated until they were wiped out, and finally those that survived enough to carry on. Brusatte truly covers the rise, domination, and eventual fall of the group of animals we know as dinosaurs.
He does some myth-busting where needed, including the rumors that T. rex was a scavenger (very unlikely), its arms were useless (evidence points to them being strong and good at holding prey close), and they can’t see movement (they had good 3D vision).
To accompany our dinosaur stories, Brusatte gives a great sense of what it’s like to be a paleontologist on a dinosaur hunt, from only the perspective a scientist can have, without the dryness that scientists tend to cling to (I’m a scientist, so I can say that).
Arc of the Dinosaurs
Where did dinosaurs come from? Brusatte paints a colorful, weird picture of what the Earth was like right before dinosaurs appeared.
There were slimy salamanders bigger than dogs, loitering near the water’s edge and occasionally snapping at a passing fish. Stocky beasts called pareiasaurs waddled around on all fours, their knobby skin, front-heavy build, and general brutish appearance making them seem like a mad reptilian offensive lineman. Fat little things called dicynodonts rummaged around in the muck like pigs, using their sharp tusks to pry up tasty roots. Lording over it all were the gorgonopsians, bear-size monsters who reigned at the top of the food chain, slicing into pareiasaur guts and dicynodont flesh with their saberlike canines. This cast of oddballs ruled the world right before the dinosaurs.
When the dinosaurs arrived, the planet still consisted of the supercontinent of Pangea, surrounded by the single ocean Panthalassa. Here, the first dinosaurs lived and reproduced. The first large-ish species came on the scene: proto-sauropods got up to 2-3 tons (Brusatte helpfully compares this to 1-2 giraffes). They were the largest around for a while, through the Triassic period. That is, until the climate shifted.
Huge volcanic eruptions wiped the ecosystem slate clean, allowing dinosaurs to diversify, multiply, and grow to even larger body sizes. Pangea split, lava flowed, fire and storms raged. During a very chaotic period in Earth’s history, dinosaurs took advantage and thrived. To this day, scientists aren’t sure why.
Once the Jurassic period began, true sauropods got very large. Famous species like Brontosaurus and Brachiosaurus grew to more than 30 tons. But even more mindblowingly, titanosaurs (a group of supersize Cretaceous species) became more than 50 tons— bigger than a Boeing 737. 🤯
These species dominated in North America and Asia, but because of the new oceanic division between them and Europe and high sea level separating them from southern continents, they never achieved worldwide dominion.
If T. Rex was at all bird-like or warm-blooded, it probably needed to eat around 250 pounds of food every single day. That’s one very large man or two small women. It’s the equivalent of the diet of 3-4 large male lions. Brusatte’s imagery is divine, and quite effective in describing the life of a T. rex:
Just imagine T. rex as a giant land shark. Like a Great White, all of the action was with its head. Rex led with its noggin and used its clamp-strong jaws to grab its dinner, subdue it, kill it, and crunch through its flesh and guts and bones before swallowing. T. rex simply had to hunt headfirst, because its arms were pitifully tiny.
What happened on that day—when the Cretaceous ended with a bang and the dinosaurs’ death warrant was signed—was a catastrophe of unimaginable scale that, thankfully, humankind has never experienced.
While the asteroid/comet (scientists aren’t sure which) destroyed many dinosaurs on impact, this wasn’t universal. Many survived impact, only to be doomed later by traits that used to aid them: large size, carnivorous diet, and/or slow reproduction. The winners after the big event were the small proto-mammals that had the necessary traits to survive an uncertain environment.
Brusatte makes it very clear that he believes that dinosaurs are still alive today in the form of birds. They are the descendents of small feathered dinosaurs that survived the end of the Cretaceous period. Hey, why not? He convinced me.
When I observe this type of behavior—the cunning, the agility, the nastiness—it’s easy to see the inner Velociraptor in an otherwise forgettable seagull.
Being a Paleontologist
While people might become paleontologists because they like dinosaurs, they stick around for the thrill of the hunt, and the difficulty of solving puzzles. The luck of finding a fossil between two layers of dateable rocks. The painstaking process of taking skeleton measurements to figure out who descended from whom. The heartbreaking occurrence of a single fossil with a potential major story that is too broken or incomplete to be confirmed.
Brusatte draws an analogy of paleontology to geneology— using family trees to untangle how families and relationships have changed over time. Where did ancestors live? When did migrations happen? How did families merge together? These are the questions that keep dinosaur hunters up at night.
Absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence, as all good paleontologists must continually remind themselves.
Analogies to Climate Change
Perhaps the most haunting impressions left by this book were the comparisons Brusatte drew to our current looming global disaster: climate change. Dinosaurs were the most dominant animals for millions of years, until very suddenly, they weren’t. They had thrived for so long, evolving amazing abilities to take advantage of niches. And then they were almost entirely gone.
Humans now rule the planet Earth. We feel secure in our intelligence and our technology to ensure our continued reign. But our own actions are sealing our fate. We are altering the planet around us, in ways that we will not be able to survive unless we change. The dinosaurs were wiped out, why not us?
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs follows a beautiful arc from dinosaur inception, to domination, to downfall, to modern legacy. Along the way, the reader learns about the life of a paleontologist, and our best guesses at the lives of the dinos they study.
I’ll end this by saying that the author is extraordinarily humble in the acknowledgements. Of course all science is a huge team effort, and paleontology is no exception. Many people still take much of the credit, but Brusatte makes sure to acknowledge the giants whose shoulders he stands on.
I’d like to thank many funding agencies—too numerous to name here—for regularly turning down my grant applications, giving me ample time and freedom to write this book.
Want to read more? Find The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs here: Bookshop
This book made it onto my list of the Top 10 Best Books of 2022! See the full list here.
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