Most dinosaur books I’ve read take a general ‘big picture’ approach: they go over the well known taxonomic groups of dinosaur (theropods, sauropodomorphs, etc) with additional chapters describing things like the world that dinosaurs lived in, how they behaved, how non-avian dinosaurs became extinct, and the history of their study by palaeontologists. Steve Brusatte’s The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs – which I learned about from the excellent podcast I Know Dino, where Brusatte was recently interviewed – does things a little differently: while still covering a lot of ground on the subject of dinosaurs, it mostly sticks to a chronological telling of the story, placing focus on how and why dinosaurs evolved the way they did.
The book begins with how dinosaurs first evolved in the Triassic, on the supercontinent of Pangaea; following the extinction of many of the dinosaurs’ main rivals at the end of that period, we then learn about their diversification in the Jurassic and their heyday in the Cretaceous, before an asteroid finally ended their reign. There is plenty of detail on the factors that probably influenced dinosaur evolution, such as the movement of the continents, the resulting climatic changes, and the ecological pressures that dinosaurs faced from other reptiles and each other; it was especially interesting to learn more about all this and get a clearer picture of the Mesozoic world. Our knowledge of dinosaurs is constantly changing with new discoveries and technological applications, and it often feels hard to keep up; most of what I thought I knew as a child, when my interest in dinosaurs was at its peak, is hopelessly outdated now. But The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is packed with the most recent information, from the discoveries of new links in the evolutionary chain, to the use of Brontosaurus as a valid genus. The book isn’t afraid to point out what we currently don’t know, but it’s certainly impressive how much we do know.
Another thing that sets this book apart from most other ones I’ve read is how much Steve Brusatte talks about his personal experiences in palaeontology, from the places he has looked for fossils to the colourful characters whom he has worked alongside. This adds an extra level of engagement to the book, and gives a proper idea of what is involved with becoming and working as a palaeontologist. Brusatte’s enthusiasm is infectious, particularly when talking about his younger years and being excited to meet respected scientists like Paul Sereno and Walter Alvarez. At one point, he describes visiting the Great Hall of Dinosaurs in the Peabody Museum in New Haven, Connecticut, which he likens to visiting a religious shrine; I’ve added this museum to my list of places to visit when I’m next in the northeastern United States.
Highly readable and wonderfully informative, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is a must-read for anyone the least bit interested in dinosaurs; even enthusiasts who already know a lot about the subject will hopefully be left thinking about dinosaurs in new and interesting ways.