The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World by Steve Brusatte is a nonfiction paleontology book published in 2018 that tells the story of the dinosaurs. It starts from their emergence on a dramatically changed Earth in the Triassic period, to their growth into dominance in the Jurassic period, and finally their peak in the Cretaceous period before their catastrophic end. Though surely only a snapshot into an extensive scientific field, what it offers the everyday reader is a vivid look into what scientists currently know about dinosaurs and how they have learned what they know. In doing so the book also presents an equally valuable glimpse into the field and lab work of paleontologists throughout history and in the modern era.
Growing up when the Jurassic Park movies were coming out, I loved dinosaurs when I was a kid as many others did. They captured the imagination in ways few living animals could. While I never stopped liking them as an idea, that interest simmered down into something much more passive in my adult life. I picked up this book to feed that dormant interest a little, but little did I know just how much it would reignite that passion.
Brusatte’s prose is exceptionally readable, presenting a lot of information in a conversational style that is engaging and easy to retain. While I can only really speak for myself, I imagine a lot of people are only vaguely aware of certain periods of prehistory — I remembered Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous, as well as their order — with dinosaurs existing sort of nebulously in these distant eras of the past. I knew certain species belonged in certain periods, but never had a firm appreciation of what that meant. Brusatte artfully crafts a timeline for us to follow from chapter to chapter, starting with the Permian Extinction events prior to the Triassic period, that helps to foster a greater understanding of the ever-changing world that dinosaurs lived in, the creatures they competed with, and the ways the dinosaurs themselves evolved.
It was on the subject of the evolutionary history of dinosaurs that I feel I learned the most from this book, which had me excited at each reading session. Having only a rudimentary understanding of the subject, it was fascinating to learn all the secrets to dinosaur biology paleontologists have unlocked and how. For instance, in discussing sauropods—the long-necked leviathans that thundered across the landscape—he goes into a deep explanation of the physical attributes these creatures developed over millions of years that allowed them to reach such titanic proportions. Brusatte colourfully describes the history, biology, and behaviours of these creatures in a captivating way, while making the science behind these discoveries accessible so that this more technical information enhances the reading experience.
Spliced in with this history of dinosaurs are anecdotes about Brusatte’s experiences working in labs and the field as a paleontologist. He uses these stories to not only regale the reader with where and how fossils can be found, but also the happy accidents that many significant discoveries were and the history of fossil hunting, sometimes as far back as the 1800s, in places of interest around the world. Numerous museums and institutions are referenced too, giving me many ideas for places I’d personally like to visit and/or explore. I think these sections helped ground the book in subtle ways too. I was often more swept away with the occasional narrative flourishes and deeper descriptions and examinations of these creatures, but it was equally important to be reminded of all the hard work and dedication a collective of people throughout history have contributed to the field. Without them, hardly any of us would be able to marvel at these ancient wonders for ourselves.
It’s honestly been a little difficult to write this review without just gushing about the fascinating stuff I learned from this book. It goes into some depth with iconic creatures like Tyrannosaurus Rex (the single most researched dinosaur), but casts a wide yet detailed net over their entire time on Earth. This includes a lot about creatures I’d never even known of before that were dominant when dinosaurs were just getting their start. If you’ve got any interest in natural history, science, and/or you’re looking for a thorough primer on modern paleontology, look no further than this book. I simply loved it.
My Rating: 5 out of 5