23 January 2023

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, by Steve Brusatte

Posted by Callan Bentley

A terrifically told update on dinosaur paleoecology and evolution by an enthusiastic practitioner of the Mesozoic arts. Brusatte paints himself as coming of age in the time of Jurassic Park, an obsessed ‘fanboy’ of dinosaurs and celebrity paleontologists, who then matures and innovates through an impressive series of field experiences and methodological devices to become a professor, author, and leader in the field. Brusatte’s own story isn’t the centerpiece of the book, but it is a prominent thread in the weave of the book’s narration. It makes the book unique. But overall, the volume is a chronological recounting of what we know about the history of dinosaurs, told utilizing the most up-to-date insights from science. Brusatte disassembles various hoary old myths and emphasizes modern conclusions such as feathers, childcare, and the relationship of theropods to birds. Interestingly, he doesn’t dwell much at all on the question of warm-bloodedness (homeothermy), but the other issues get ground in to the point where (at least with birds), I found myself getting tired of the repetition. I have spent a bit of time thinking and learning about dinosaurs, so I’m not sure that I got too many “new” insights out of this volume, but it was certainly and enjoyable read – almost manic in its ardor. That counts for something – the excitement is infectious! One thing I think I’ve taken away from it is a better understanding of evolutionary differences between major regions of the globe. For instance, sauropods being prominent for a time in North America, but then declining here while they were still abundant in South America. Brusatte does a great job of reminding you what was happening elsewhere, as he paints a picture of any given innovation that is time/space specific. Another take-away for me: I now better understand the Triassic, a time when crocodilian-line archosaurs were in competition with the earliest dinosaurs, and winning handily. The dominance of dinosaurs didn’t come until after the end-Triassic extinction. Brusatte effectively presents a clearer picture of the ecological dynamics of the post-Permian landscape, but demonstrates that paleontologists were challenged by the similarity in skeletal morphology of the two groups. There was apparently some pronounced evolutionary convergence at work. Dinosaur-like crocodilians, and even crocodile-like dinosaurs. To me, that was a new insight, and worth the read.