The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte

Giants ruled the earth in those days. Yet hidden beneath the fronds of ferns or lurking in secret burrows, small beasties lay in wait, ever hopeful of their chance of sneaking out from the shadows, ducking and diving between the thunderous footprints of their powerful forebears. And now, finally, their day has come at last. These quick little mammals are a new generation of paleontologists that are rising to challenge the accepted views of their predecessors, and at their head comes Steve Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh.

Brusatte has condensed much of the most modern research and discoveries into this very readable book, which is slowly hoovering up every non-fiction prize going, on either side of the pond (he’s American).

What particularly impressed me is that his enthusiasm is joined by a deft talent for description. In his hands, even a creature as ugly and uninteresting as a giant salamander becomes an object of fascination:

Metoposaurus was there waiting, lurking in the shallows, ready to ambush anything that ventured too close to the water. Its head was the size of a coffee table, and its jaw was studded with hundreds of piercing teeth. Its big, broad, almost flat upper and lower jaws were hinged together at the back and could snap shut like a toilet seat to gobble up whatever it wanted.

As well as looking at individual animals, Brusatte focuses on the geography and the changing worlds of the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. The book opens with a table showing these three eras in a simple timeline, in addition to maps of the earth during those different periods. I found this incredibly useful. In fact, reading this book may well have been the first time that I really understood the difference between these temporal and geographic boundaries.

With geography as with biology, Brusatte brings his novelistic powers to the fore in relating the earth-shattering events of prehistory. His tale of the asteroid impact that wiped out so much of the world’s megafauna will stay with me for a long time to come:

Then the rains came. But what fell from the sky was not water. It was beads of glass and chunks of rock, each one scalding hot. The pea-sized morsels pelted the surviving dinosaurs, gouging deep burns into their flesh. Many of them were gunned down, and their shredded corpses joined the earthquake victims on the battlefield.

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is one of those books that makes you feel cleverer than you really are. Brusatte presents complicated evidence in an accessible way. He never patronises the reader, nor does he make things look more simple than they really are. However, if you then read up further on the animals that he describes, you will very quickly enter a world where almost everything is incomprehensible to anyone who is unfamiliar with anatomy. If you want to learn about dinosaurs in depth, this book is a perfect start. If you just want the conclusions without being overwhelmed with complex argument, it is also ideal.

My only complaint is its narrow focus on what a dinosaur actually is. Pterosaurs and aquatic animals like plesiosaurs aren’t invited to the party on the grounds that they are no longer defined as dinosaurs. ‘Dinosaur’ is a term that is now used only for the direct ancestors of modern birds, whereas pterodactyls, icthyosaurs and so on are flying and swimming reptiles respectively. It all seems a bit absurd to me, especially when you consider that ‘dinosaur’ means ‘terrible lizard’. If you don’t include the reptiles, these animals aren’t exactly lizards, are they?

Pedantry aside, Christmas is coming and this is just the thing for anyone in your life who loves science, the ancient world, or prehistoric monsters. I think it should be readable for a precocious thirteen year old. I bought it in the physical edition because I thought it might be one of those heavily illustrated volumes, but in fact it would be perfectly fine to read this on an e-reader. The book’s illustrations appear on plates in the chapter heads and they are black and white so you wouldn’t miss anything by reading it on a screen.