The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs (2018) by Steve Brusatte

Before there was fantasy and science fiction, before there was literature, before there were learned gentlemen, before there was agriculture, before there were humans, before there were freaking capuchin monkeys, before there was grass, before there were, in some cases, flowers, there were the dinosaurs. And they have a story to tell too. 

If you are interested in Dinosaurs but are not a scientist and generally unfamiliar with palaeontology and the history of life, then this book is a great introduction to the material.

The story of the dinosaurs is also the story of scientists, palaeontologists in particular, and their maverick escapades in braving heat and mosquitoes to dig around in the rocks. This is not the kind of scientific book that decades ago would have been written in which the writer would set down the facts in an impersonal, lecturing way, but a much more informal, personal account in which writer Steve Brusatte narrates his cooperations with scientists from all over the world, from Argentina to Poland to China, in the pursuit of knowledge. Through personal, easy to read anecdotes he guides us through the evolutionary history of the dinosaurs. Compared to a book like Contingency and Convergence by Russell Powell, this is easy-to-follow material for the Tired Generation. I wanted to say that this is Dinosaurs For Dummies, but that’s too mocking. He took material that can be very dry and made it accessible in a way that is not easy to do. 

Besides following the history of life and mentioning which dinosaurs appeared when in the timeline, he also tells stories about the history of palaeontology. About the discovery of various sites and about the Bone Wars in the late 19th century and so on. These are fine embellishments to make an otherwise dry tale come to life. What I also appreciated was that Brusatte connects the dinosaur timeline with the geological information about the splitting up of Pangaea and with climatological information. So, we get a fuller picture about what the Earth looked like and what the climatic zones and ecosystems were, and how the various dinosaur species emerged in which locations under which climatic circumstances. But the amount of information that Brusatte communicates is not that much; this is still pop science writing in which concepts like niches and food chains and continental drift all need their explanations.

Another perspective that I appreciated is that Dinosaurs are actually quite recent creatures. They’re not that old, especially not in the total timeline of life on Earth. In fact, they can even be seen as part of the modern world. They arose after a mass extinction – not the giant meteor but another mass extinction way before that, 250 million years ago, at the start of the Triassic age. And this was a time of experimentation and species radiation that shaped our modern world. This was the moment when crocodiles, turtles, lizards, amphibians and small mammals arose that are similar to species today, and many insect species that are similar to the ones that fly around today. And dinosaurs were part of that, part of the modern world. The time before the dinosaurs was much weirder. Also interesting is an update on the early dinosauromorph ancestors and the Triassic crocodiles whom the early dinosaurs competed with. There was a whole convergence going on with crocodiles walking upright and looking like dinosaurs.

If Steve Brusatte were to meet a living Tyrannosaurus rex in real life, he would probably jump on its neck and smother it with kisses. He looks at the animal like a squealing fangirl looks at a boyband celebrity. So much so that he dedicates two fat chapters only to T. Rex and its ilk. And, fine, I accept that there is a lot to talk about with this animal because so many skeletons have been found, but Brusatte keeps going on about how T. rex is the King and the Tyrant how he sits on his Throne and took over the world and it just got tiresome. I’m not twelve anymore.

But Brusatte makes it up with two excellent chapters at the end about the evolution of birds and the Cretaceous mass-extinction. He clarifies that birds really are dinosaurs. Features of the bird body plan emerged over the course of millions of years in dinosaurs and evidence of the presence of feathers on dinosaurs keeps mounting. It is also in line with what I mentioned above: the perspective that dinosaurs have always been part of the modern world, even if many got extinct. 

A sequel came out that I will read soon: The Rise and Reign of the Mammals (2022).

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6 Responses to The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs (2018) by Steve Brusatte

  1. piotrek says:

    Oh, so it’s just a science book, not an epic about the struggle of Dinosaur Empire against Alien Kingdom, misidentified by scientists as an asteroid strike?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. bormgans says:

    Funny, I´m reading the mammal book atm, when I need a break from Perhaps The Stars.

    Not fully convinced yet, quite dry at times, and hard to connect with a succession of beasts I don´t really know. But I´m not that far in, it should get better when he gets to actual mammals. I also learned a few things already so…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was the kind of dinosaur kid who obsessively drew and catalogued every prehistoric animal that I could find in pop science books at the library. I expect to know a lot of them. But in my non-sff slot for reading, I am switching between non-fiction and graphic novels. Im gonna pick up some graphic novels first before starting the mammal book.

      Liked by 1 person

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