The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: The Untold Story of a Lost World by STEVE BRUSATTE
Macmillan (2018) RRP $ 32.99
AS A TEEN, Steve Brusatte followed University of Chicago palaeontologist Paul Sereno’s work “like a rock star’s groupie”. When he got to meet his idol aged 15, he weirded Sereno out by shoving an envelope of clippings about him in his face.
This enthusiasm makes The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs a joy to read, and the “fanboy stalking” certainly did Brusatte no harm. At 19 he was studying under Sereno and co-authoring a paper with him on a new species of dinosaur.
Rarely has an author attempted to paint the entire sweep of non-avian dinosaur evolution, from 230 million years ago in the Triassic, when dainty cat-sized creatures scampered into being, through to their downfall 66 million years ago.
But it’s a tale he’s well qualified to tell. Despite being just 34, the author has been involved in the discovery of 15 species of dinosaur, working with colleagues in Romania, China and Uzbekistan. The text is peppered with anecdotes from the field, offering a taste of life as a professional palaeontologist. One recent discovery recounted is that of a dinosaur dancefloor of giant sauropod footprints on Scotland’s Isle of Skye.
Born and trained in the US, Brusatte is now a vertebrate palaeontologist at the University of Edinburgh.
T. rex enthusiasts will rejoice as a whole chapter is devoted to the tyrant king. It had the strongest bite of any land animal, and could probably have sliced through a car with ease. “The seat of Rex’s power was its head,” Brusatte writes. “It was a killing machine, a torture chamber for its prey.”
By the time a T. rex was fully grown, this bussized predator was too heavy to run down prey, as 1993’s Jurassic Park led us to believe. In truth, they were ambush predators that relied on strength rather than speed.
But it wasn’t always that way. T. rexes essentially morphed through a series of body shapes and predatory niches as they matured, from “sleek cheetahs” through “gangly-looking sprinters” – and all these generations may have hunted together in one pack, benefitting from complementary skills. As many of the pictures Brusatte evokes in this colourful and informative tome, it’s quite a vision to behold.