A nimble introduction to the world of dinosaurs, those supposed “dead ends in the history of life.”
We are living in a golden age of paleontology, especially as it relates to the proto-reptilian and proto-avian critters of a few hundred million years past. As Brusatte (Paleontology/Univ. of Edinburgh) notes, researchers are finding an average of a new dinosaur species every week, vastly expanding not just our inventory, but also our understanding of the evolutionary history of the dinosaurs. Americans may be delighted to learn that North America is “the single richest dinosaur ecosystem known to scientists during the entire Age of Dinosaurs anywhere in the world,” essential in understanding how the dinosaurs fit into their environments and existed alongside each other and other creatures. Granted, this North American trove began to form at a time when all the present continents were more or less together in the “supercontinent” of Gondwana; even so, Brusatte sorts out old mysteries of distribution such as why South America is so comparatively light in dinosaur fossil evidence. The author writes lyrically of the reptilian life of the era, which featured “plesiosaurs with long noodle-shaped necks, pliosaurs with enormous heads and paddlelike flippers, streamlined and finned creatures called ichthyosaurs that looked like reptilian versions of dolphins,” and so on—none of which, he adds, are quite dinosaurs in the technical sense, a distinction that, among many others, allows Brusatte plenty of room for paleontological geekiness. The author closes with an account of why the age of the dinosaurs came to an end, following a conjectural path that was once considered radical but is now mainstream. He notes that the ecological catastrophe that it entailed, once it healed “a mere five hundred thousand years after the most destructive day in the history of Earth,” opened the door onto our own mammalian world.
A must-have for fans of ancient reptiles and their lost world.