- - Sunday, June 17, 2018



By Steve Brusatte

William Morrow, $29.99, 404 pages

As a boy Steve Brusatte was taught “that dinosaurs were big, scaly, stupid brutes so ill-equipped for their environment that they just lumbered around, biding their time, waiting to go extinct. Evolutionary failures. Dead ends in the history of life.” He didn’t believe a word of it.

Mr. Brusatte became a dino nerd, haunted science conferences, badgered adult experts as he came to see dinosaurs as the most fascinating creatures ever to walk Earth.

Now a grownup paleontologist who has discovered dozens of species, he explains that these reptiles arose after a global catastrophe, the Permian extinction, which was driven by rampant volcanism — Siberia oozing lava for a few million years, melting Asia’s surface, poisoning air and decimating 90 percent of all living things.

But some survived and began to recover when the magma cooled. They struggled, adapted, diversified, engaged in predatory and symbiotic relationships with other animals and plants, thrived, explored and filled every environmental niche. They morphed into dinosaurs and “reigned” for 200 million years.

Dinosaurs came to dominate the planet as fully as we do now, albeit they were not just one self-serving species but an entire menagerie, animals of many shapes and all sizes, up to the biggest ever. Earth was theirs and the fullness thereof. It took another global catastrophe to destroy them — this time the huge Yucatan meteorite — and even then some survived. (Mr. Brusatte’s account of that cataclysm alone is worth the list price.)

Yes, today’s dinosaurs are a biological class twice as numerous as our own, to wit 10,000 species of birds vs. 5,400 mammals. As Latin survives in the living languages of French, Spanish and Italian, dinosaurs are with us still — some of them snarfing up thistle seeds from my backyard feeder even as I write.

Today’s fliers inherited anatomical features from their ancestors — “hinge-like” toe joints that cannot twist, bones made lighter and stronger by air sacs, superior breathing apparatus, feathers. Proto-dinosaurs had primitive stubbly feathers; proper dinos had better ones; birds developed the best feathers with aerodynamic shapes to enhance flight.

In “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” Dylan Thomas remembers the gift of a book “that told me everything about the wasp except why.” “The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs” tells the who, what, when, where and how, all of which might add up to the why. Mr. Brusatte does for dinosaurs what E.O. Wilson did for ants and Carl Sagan for stars, making them more accessible and appealing.

He almost humanizes them, and certainly humanizes his fellow paleontologists by writing chattily about colleagues. Mr. Brusatte illuminates arcane sciences in lucid, idiomatic English (save for the unavoidable Latinate names, e.g., Zhenyualong, Qianzhousaurus, Pachycephalosaurus).

In passing, he celebrates key elements in the collective scientific process to better understand dinosaurs: technology and luck. The luck comes in locating lodes of dinosaur fossils in far-flung places from Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch to southeast China. The technology comes in borrowing devices invented in diverse realms from medical suites to military arsenals.

Mr. Bursatte proffers a crash course in geology and plate tectonics, the study of the spreading of continents from the original single supercontinent, Pangea. He revisits the founding of scientific paleontology by 19th-century oddballs and tyrants. He limns every major group of his subject animals in this encyclopedic narrative, telling everything now known about dinosaurs — until new science discovers new facts and abandons old ones as inevitably as the moon blots out the sun now and then.

As to the matter of size, he celebrates the sauropods, the largest animals ever on Earth, 10 times heavier than elephants. “They became biblically huge and swept around the world; they became dominant in the most magnificent way — and they would remain so for another hundred million years.” The reason they could grow so large was a combination of traits.

Serpentine necks allowed them to reach higher foliage and feed in wide arcs without wasting time and energy moving. Their growth rates were rapid (in part a function of capacious feeding) so they could reach titanic size in reasonable life spans, not centuries.

They developed a breathing system that processed air continuously rather than in-and-out like ours. Their bones became honeycombed with air sacs that augmented the hyper-functioning lungs, made the skeleton lighter, and dispelled heat. “If sauropods had lacked any one of these features” — the long neck, fast growth, efficient lung, and air sacs that lightened skeletons and cooled bodies — “it wouldn’t have been biologically possible” to become behemoths.

However ubiquitous and successful its subjects, however illuminating the text, this is not a perfect book — a fault of the editors. They opted for the luxury of abundant illustrations, and while Todd Marshall’s drawings are stunning the photographs are ill-chosen, unclear and poorly captioned. And the index is wholly inadequate. But never mind; if you ever loved a dinosaur, buy this book.

• Philip Kopper is the author of “The National Museum of Natural History” (Harry N. Abrams Inc.).

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