The overwhelming feeling one gets from reading The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is of motion. Rather than static relics exhumed from rocks of the deep past, dinosaurs are in motion: they came from somewhere; they lived somewhere; they migrated from one continent to another. The approach the author Steve Brusatte takes is obvious in hindsight, but a revelation all the same: his questions are predicated on a past world in motion. Continents drifted apart, climates changed; dinosaurs moved, evolved, transformed in response. They were animals in the context of their time and place, and Brusatte explains that context. What, for example, happened after the various extinction events that first enabled and eventually extinguished the dinosaurs? How did the Triassic climate prevent dinosaurs from spreading across Pangaea?
The author, too, is in motion: Brusatte is a working paleontologist in mid-career. His work is very much in progress. Brusatte discusses the fieldwork and research projects he’s been involved in, which makes The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs something of a memoir, but those sections do for paleontology what Sean Graham’s American Snakes (reviewed here) does for herpetology: they treat science as a verb.
We see paleontologists try to grapple with questions both large and small. Not just questions about individual fossil specimens, but larger questions. Like, what is the dividing line between dinosaurs and the dinosauromorph reptiles that preceded them? Or between dinosaurs and birds? There’s a lot of talk about cladistics: it’s surprising how much computers running statistical analyses play a role in answering some ostensibly theoretical questions.
Despite the intrusion of math, The Rise and the Fall of the Dinosaurs is addictively readable. Brusatte’s depiction of extinction events is so well written—the passage describing the Chicxulub impact is the stuff of nightmares—that I had to check the acknowledgements for a ghostwriter. Nope. He has a background in journalism; he does write that well.
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is also a refreshingly uncomprehensive book. There’s a chapter on tyrannosaurs and a chapter on T. rex, as well as a chapter on feathered dinosaurs and birds, but next to nothing on ornithischian dinosaurs and surprisingly little on dromeosaurid raptors. If you haven’t figured it out by now, this isn’t a dinosaur textbook. Lots of stuff has been omitted. Brusatte has chosen—wisely, I think, given the sheer volume of dinosaur books out there—to explore a small number of subjects in depth. He’s providing context in terms of the dinosaurs’ surroundings and in terms of how discoveries were made, rather than everything briefly, and that’s made for a much more interesting, original and distinctive book.