The Rise and Fall of the Di­nosaurs: The Un­told Story of a Lost World by STEVE BRUSATTE

Cosmos - - Spectrum - — JOHN PICKRELL

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.

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