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Results roll in from the dinosaur renaissance

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World

Steve Brusatte
Morrow
2018
416 pp.
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Paleontological research has accelerated in exciting ways over the past two decades, as kids who grew up on Jurassic Park and the dinomania of the 1980s and 1990s have joined the ranks of legendary paleontologists leading the “dinosaur renaissance.” Steve Brusatte’s The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs takes readers on a tour of the new fossils and discoveries that are shedding light on the dinosaurs’ evolutionary story.

The dawn of the dinosaurs, the Triassic period, is still one of the most poorly understood periods in dinosaur history, but it’s also where some of the information gaps are being filled most rapidly and most surprisingly. Whereas the end of the age of dinosaurs was abruptly cut short by a meteor, their ascent was complex and drawn-out. New finds from Poland, New Mexico, and Argentina show that dinosaurs were uncommon and relatively unspecialized for the first 30 million years of their existence, and they lived alongside relatives of today’s crocodiles that looked much like dinosaurs themselves.

Elsewhere in the Mesozoic era, we meet a variety of newly discovered dinosaurs alongside old favorites. As the giant supercontinent Pangaea split apart during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, dinosaurs on newly drifting continents were isolated from each other and began to evolve their own characteristic features. South America was home to the snub-snouted, tiny-armed abelisaurs, Africa to the shark-toothed carcharodontosaurs, and in Transylvania, a bizarre set of dinosaurs includes relatives of Velociraptor with not one but two sets of killer sickle claws on their feet.

A chapter of Brusatte’s book is dedicated to the evolution of birds from their nonavian dinosaur relatives, one of the most intensively studied aspects of dinosaur evolution over the past 20 years. The veritable flood of fluffy and feathery fossils from China has revealed an amazing diversity of winged dinosaurs. These specimens indicate that feathers evolved long before flight but also suggest that powered, flapping flight may have evolved multiple times in dinosaurs. (We need look no further than the totally weird bat-winged Yi qi to see that dinosaurs experimented with many ways to get airborne.)

EMILY WILLOUGHBY/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

For those who love Tyrannosaurus rex—and I suspect that most people are at least a little curious about the most famous of the dinosaurs—two of the book’s nine chapters are dedicated to new research on the Tyrant Lizard King and its tyrannosauroid cousins. Tyrannosaurs weren’t all giant bone-crunchers with tiny arms: the earliest members of the group started out as small, lightly built, long-armed predators with fancy crests on their heads. Many were feathered, as evidenced by those found in China, where the right kind of conditions preserved soft tissues such as skin.

Unfortunately, the diversity of plant-eating ornithischian dinosaurs gets relatively short shrift in The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs. Brusatte only briefly covers new research on this group, one of the three major lineages of dinosaurs that has contributed greatly in recent years to our understanding of the big picture of dinosaur evolution and palaeobiology. Recent advances in understanding dinosaur growth, biogeography, extinction dynamics, and fine-scale evolutionary changes through time, for example, have only been possible because of the comparatively abundant fossil record of duck-billed hadrosaurs and horned ceratopsians.

Brusatte’s personal stories of his work behind the scenes in museum collections and at dinosaur dig sites are full of adventures and humor. Abundant photographs and illustrations help bring these stories to life.

Throughout the book, we’re introduced to a cast of palaeontologists from around the globe, including Ricardo Martínez, an Argentinian palaeontologist who discovered one of the oldest dinosaurs (Eoraptor); Lü Junchang, a Chinese palaeontologist who named the “Pinocchio rex” tyrannosaur Qianzhousaurus; and Grzegorz Niedzwiedzki, a Polish palaeontologist who has found thousands of ancient footprints, including trackways made by the ancestors of the dinosaurs. Brusatte highlights the international and multidisciplinary nature of modern-day palaeontological research, as well as important historical figures and events.

The contributions of female paleontologists were a bit rarer to find, however. Although the book doesn’t set out to provide an exhaustive list of notable researchers, focusing mostly on Brusatte’s own collaborations over the years, this was nonetheless surprising, given the fact that at
least a third of the current membership of our flagship professional organization, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, are women.

Ultimately, however, readers will come away from this book with a greater appreciation for the great strides dinosaur palaeontologists have made in the past few decades. I’m hopeful that many will likewise be excited for the work that remains to be done.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Natural History, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Ontario M5S 2C6, Canada.