7-minute read keywords: evolution, mass extinctions, paleontology
The day an asteroid slammed into the Yucatán Peninsula some 66 million years ago is a strong contender for “the worst day in history”. The K–Pg extinction ended the long evolutionary success story of the dinosaurs and a host of other creatures, and has lodged itself firmly in our collective imagination. But what happened next? The fact that a primate is tapping away at a keyboard writing this review gives you part of the answer. The rise of mammals was not a given, though, and the details have been hard to get by. Here, science writer Riley Black examines and imagines the aftermath of the extinction at various times post-impact. The Last Days of the Dinosaurs ends up being a fine piece of narrative non-fiction with thoughtful observations on the role of evolution in ecosystem recovery.
It is no mean feat to try and tell the history of a discipline as enormous as palaeontology through images in a mere 256 pages. Yet this is exactly the challenge that David Bainbridge has taken on with this book. He has curated a striking selection of vintage and modern palaeoart, archival photos of fossils and their discoverers, and scientific diagrams through the ages. The resulting Paleontology: An Illustrated History manages to combine the old and the new with the familiar and the unfamiliar into one neatly crafted package that makes for a very nice gift.
Scottish geologist Charles Lyell quipped that the present is the key to the past. To say that the reverse also holds is more than just circular reasoning. Felisa Smith, a professor in ecology and evolutionary biology, studies extinct mammals and applies this knowledge to the present. This book is a neatly crafted package that gives the reader all the required background knowledge, while its case studies make for fascinating reading. (Spoiler alert: packrat middens are my new favourite discovery.)
Deep time is one of the most mind-boggling yet underappreciated concepts to come out of the disciplines of evolutionary biology and the earth sciences. As an editor with Nature for over three decades, Henry Gee has had a front-row seat to numerous exciting scientific developments that have enriched our understanding of Earth’s vast 4.6-billion-year history. This high-octane popular science book is his take on the genre of the “earth biography”.
In 2019, Princeton University Press published Fungipedia, being a brief compendium of mushroom lore. The format was clearly successful, because in 2021 they expanded the concept into a small series, adding books about flowers, birds, trees, and now dinosaurs. A further two on geology and insects are in the making. Each of these is illustrated, pocket-sized A–Z miscellanies with a hardback, cloth cover that is very giftable. In Dinopedia, palaeontologist Darren Naish has written 75 entries on dinosaurs and relevant people and places, and added a selection of his illustrations. Is October too early to start talking about stocking fillers?
Given that we are nothing but mammals, it is perhaps understandable that humans are rather mammal-centric, something that conservation organisations capitalise on. But where palaeontology is concerned, dinosaurs get all the love. And that does early mammals little justice says Scottish palaeontologist and Palaeocast co-host Elsa Panciroli. Far from mere bit players cowering in the shadows of these “terrible lizards”, mammals have a long and rich evolutionary history that predates the dinosaurs but is poorly known outside of specialist circles. Panciroli’s debut changes all that and does so in a most readable and immersive fashion.
The idea that extinction is a bad thing and diversity a good thing seems self-evident to us. But, by surveying more than two centuries of scholarship, science historian David Sepkoski shows that this was not always the prevailing belief. Rather than a book discussing mass extinction, Catastrophic Thinking is more meta than that, discussing how we have been discussing mass extinction. So, we have an interesting premise, but also an interesting author because—bonus detail—the work of his father, J. John (Jack) Sepkoski Jr., was instrumental in recognizing the Big Five mass extinctions. I could not wait to get to grips with this book.
When it comes to modern palaeoartists, Mark Witton has become a leading light in my opinion. Next to bringing a background as a professional palaeontologist to his artwork, he also wrote The Palaeoartist’s Handbook, which is a unique resource for this field as far as I can tell. Who could be better suited to produce a homage and sequel to one of the most iconic palaeoart books of all times: Knight’s Life through the Ages?
Since it was coined in the year 2000 by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer, the term “Anthropocene” has taken the world by storm – pretty much in the same way as the phenomenon it describes. Humanity’s impact on the planet has become so all-encompassing that it warrants giving this period a new name. As a colloquial term that is all snazzy, but are we actually leaving a tangible trace in the rock record to signal a transition to a new period?
If you are interested in dinosaurs, the last two years have seen a slew of great books published, and there is more in the pipeline. The latest I am reviewing here is The Dinosaurs Rediscovered from the well-known British Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology Michael J. Benton. With a huge number of possible topics you could write about, and an already saturated book market, Benton has set himself a very specific aim: to show how the science of palaeobiology has moved from a descriptive, speculative scientific discipline, to a hard, testable, rigorous one. In other words, given that palaeontologists nowadays regularly make some pretty amazing and precise claims about creatures long extinct, how, exactly, do they know that?