Dinosaurs. You could fill a library with the books written about them. Why write another one? Because the field is moving fast: new fossils are constantly being found, new species are being described, and new techniques allow us to ask completely new questions. Being a young career-palaeontologist at the top of your field is another good reason. And Steve Brusatte does not lack ambition. Rather than singling out any one topic, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs gives you the whole epic story, from the early beginnings right up to the abrupt end. Given the brief Brusatte has set himself he obviously doesn’t cover everything exhaustively, but he succeeds admirably in giving you a very relevant overview of where we are now.
Brusatte has previously authored the textbook Dinosaur Paleobiology. The current book, however, is a pop-science account of these fascinating reptiles. Ordered roughly chronologically, it starts off with the Permian mass extinction some 252 million years ago. Brannen’s recent book The Ends of the World did a marvellous job introducing the five major mass extinctions, but Brusatte can be equally evocative in his descriptions. As in Martin’s The Evolution Underground, Brusatte advances the idea that underground burrows were crucial to survival.
Brusatte introduces the dinosauromorphs, the close evolutionary forebears of the dinosaurs. He talks us through the Triassic, when all the world was united in the supercontinent Pangaea, small dinosaurs competed with early mammal relatives, and the world was ruled by a reptilian sister group that would leave us the crocodiles. After the end-Triassic mass extinction, the dinosaurs were left standing and rose to dominance during the Jurassic and Cretaceous. We meet the sauropods, gigantic long-necked herbivores, and the various theropod carnivores that terrorised them. Two chapters introduce the tyrannosaurs and its most famous representative: Tyrannosaurus rex, which Hone details further in The Tyrannosaur Chronicles: The Biology of the Tyrant Dinosaurs.
And then there is the evolution of flight and the fantastic fossil discoveries of feathered dinosaurs in recent decades (some good entry-level books are Feathered Dinosaurs: The Origin of Birds or Flying Dinosaurs: How Fearsome Reptiles Became Birds). Brusatte ends with the Cretaceous mass extinction, Alvarez’s impact hypothesis, detailed in T. rex and the Crater of Doom, and the various lines of evidence leading up to it. The reign of the dinosaurs may be over, but Brusatte reminds us that some dinosaurs survived and are still with us today as birds, on which much more in The Ascent of Birds: How Modern Science is Revealing their Story.
“[…] Brusatte excels at making current scientific methods that have been crucial in the study of dinosaurs understandable”
Brusatte livens up the science with enthusiastic stories of discoveries in the field and the many talented palaeontologists he has worked with. Never too chatty of forcedly funny, these anecdotes are woven in skillfully and are relevant to the story at hand. Similarly, he introduces important historical figures such as, of course, Marsh and Cope, whose infamous rivalry known as the Bone Wars has been detailed in books such as The Bonehunters’ Revenge: Dinosaurs, Greed, and the Greatest Scientific Feud of the Gilded Age or The Gilded Dinosaur: The Fossil War Between ED Cope and OC Marsh and the Rise of American Science. But also Barnum Brown (the title of his biography, Barnum Brown: The Man Who Discovered Tyrannosaurus rex, explains his fame), or the eccentric Transylvanian Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felsö-Szilvás who offered a credible explanation for why Transylvanian dinosaurs were so small (see more about this phenomenon of dwarfism in Transylvanian Dinosaurs). Brusatte successfully brings these figures to life, shining a light on what palaeontology involved in decades gone by.
The thing that really makes this book stand out for me, though, is that Brusatte excels at making understandable current scientific methods that have been crucial in the study of dinosaurs. Whether it is radiometric dating, morphological disparity analysis, photogrammetry or finite element analysis, Brusatte casually but skillfully explains these methods with an ease that is enviable. So much so that he doesn’t even need to use illustrations to make himself clear. Instead, the book is illustrated with both period and contemporary black-and-white photos of fossils and the scientists who discovered them.
As befits a book of this scope, the production is rather lavish. The American version, published by William Morrow, has a really nice cover illustration by Todd Marshall. I was initially a bit disappointed by the more abstract illustration of Macmillan’s UK version, but the embossing of the drawing and the title gives it class. And Marshall’s drawings are still present opening each chapter.
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs has received rave reviews, and it is easy to see why. The enthusiasm Brusatte has for his profession virtually drips off every page. I used this phrase before when reviewing Squid Empire, and it applies here: this book is fiendishly readable – I tore through it in just two evenings. Brusatte is a masterful storyteller who knows how to keep your attention, and the book is both wonderfully written and admirably accessible. Be warned though, you might just want to become a palaeontologist after reading it.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
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