Old rocks, new story…

Author:  Steve Brusatte

Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs coverI have a confession to make.   I’m the kind of guy who gladly drives a thousand miles (one way) to visit a dinosaur museum in the middle of Wyoming for a long weekend.  While that might make my perspective a bit warped, I really don’t think that you have to be a complete dinosaur fanatic to enjoy The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs.  But I can also say that it doesn’t hurt one bit.  Written by Steve Brusatte, a dinosaur aficionado who has managed to go pro, the book presents a thoroughly updated version of the lumbering beasts that have captured the imaginations of countless individuals over the centuries.  It’s truly is quite a spectacular trip.

It may come as a bit of surprise, but dinosaur science has been advancing in leaps and bounds over the past few decades.  With the discovery of many new fossils since the 1990s, in particular an amazing array of exquisitely preserved feathered dinosaurs from the Yixian Formation in the Liaoning Province of China, scientists’ views on dinosaurs have been completely transformed.  Brusatte – an Illinois native who currently teaches at the University of Edinburgh – has played a significant role in promoting many of these changes and he uses this book to lay out the details in their full depth and breadth.

T. rex photo

Sue, the intimidating T. rex at the Field Museum in Chicago.


Bookending the story between two epic planetary disasters – the massive lava flows that formed the Siberian Traps to start the Triassic period 250 million years ago and the asteroid that suddenly ended the Cretaceous period by crashing into the Yucatan peninsula 66 million years ago – the author explores the remarkable saga of the dinosaurs from beginning to end.   From some of their earliest representatives, like Coelophysis, to its more recent cousin Tyrannosaurus rex, Brusatte explores details of the lives of numerous types of dinosaurs.

Steve Brusatte photo

The author, digging in the rocks of southern Portugal.

Most books about paleontology tend to casually toss around the names of the various geologic eras and periods, expecting the reader to keep up with all of the jargon.  But when Brusatte describes the timetable of the Mesozoic Era, he keeps it simple, clearly and effectively displaying the divisions between the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods and the logic behind them.  His repeated efforts to illuminate both the geologic and biologic events of the time period – and the crucial impact of the former on the latter – are the embodiment of exceptional science writing.

Brusatte also displays a profound respect for the animals he describes.  Many dinosaurs were as intelligent, innovative and awe inspiring as the animals that inhabit the planet today.   Just because they lived many millions of years ago and eventually became extinct doesn’t mean they weren’t highly sophisticated creatures fully in tune with their environment.  Moreover, the author makes it clear that the ancient ecosystems that they lived in were just as vibrant as the ones we’re currently in the process of destroying.

Full of details about what life was like for these incredible animals, the book is at its very best at the end when Brusatte describes what it would have been like on that fateful day 66 million years ago.  The day of the asteroid, when life on earth almost came to end.  His ability to really take the reader there, while effectively describing much of the science that has allowed us to learn about it, is quite extraordinary.

The author also shares a lot his own personal experiences as he strives to make sense of the fossil record, traveling the world and sharing the joys of discovery with dozens of talented colleagues.  His infectious enthusiasm is enough to make me wish I’d been brave enough to pursue something so fascinating when I was young.

In the end, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs succeeds in making a very old story entirely new again.  Filled with new characters, more detailed plot lines and a much richer overarching narrative, this account of life on a planet ruled by dinosaurs is fun, fresh and simply captivating.  This dinosaur fanatic couldn’t recommend it more wholeheartedly.

By the way, the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in East Thermopolis, Wyoming is well worth a visit, even if it’s a little out off the beaten track.  You can even dig for dinosaur fossils nearby.

— D. Driftless

photos by Connie Mae (Sue) (CC BY-SA 2.0) and Christophe Hendrickx (Steve) (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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