The Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs
Macmillan, hardback, 416 pages, €23.99
JK Rowling may have crafted a second (or is it third?) career with her Harry Potter spin-off book and film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. As we learn in this tremendously enjoyable work of natural history, however, even her fertile imagination is no match for the real thing.
Dinosaurs were just so strange, so unearthly, scarcely believable, close to magical. And as author Steve Brusatte reminds us throughout this book — subtitled The Untold Story of a Lost World — they were just animals, bizarre and wondrous though they may have been.
Not fictional inventions, not interstellar lifeforms beamed from deep space. No, dinosaurs were animals of this planet, borne of the same processes of evolution that made every other living thing, including us.
(One of many astounding and delightful facts peppering The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is that, genetically speaking, they were closer to humans than to frogs and salamanders. Dinos, and reptiles and mammals and birds, all descended down one branch of the tree of life, amphibians down another.)
Natural selection, incidentally, provides a straightforward answer to that staple question of inquisitive children: why did the dinosaurs become extinct? The answer is, not all of them did.
Their descendants live on today. They’re all around you. You might be looking at one right now. You’re almost certainly listening to some. These days, we call them birds. (Ironically, the most famous “flying dinosaurs” — pterodactyls — weren’t dinosaurs at all, but closely related reptiles.)
This is such a beautiful notion, it’s worth