Dennis Drabelle, a former contributing editor of Book World, is writing a novel based on the Bone Wars.
‘We’ve already established that I did some silly things in high school, when my obsession with dinosaurs overtook my better judgment,” writes paleontologist Steve Brusatte toward the end of his new book. He goes on to sketch his brassiest teenage move of all — picking up the phone one day in 1999 and calling Walter Alvarez at the University of California at Berkeley. Answering on the second ring, the great geologist explained his seminal theory on what led to the extinction of dinosaurs: the cataclysmic crash of a comet or asteroid into the Earth 66 million years ago.
After reading “The Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs,” I think I have a pretty good idea of what made Alvarez so receptive: his young caller’s infectious enthusiasm for all things dinosaurian. As a grown-up (he’s now in his mid-30s), Brusatte’s mastery of his field, formidable explanatory powers and engaging style have combined to produce a masterpiece of science writing for the lay reader. I would add that you’ll find “Rise and Fall” fascinating even if you don’t give a damn about dinosaurs — but first, show me someone who doesn’t give a damn about dinosaurs.
A native of Illinois, Brusatte studied at the University of Chicago and Columbia; he teaches at the University of Edinburgh. His specialty, dinosaur genealogy and evolution, gives him a wide-angled view, and his book cites the work of colleagues too numerous to count. Most of them have become his friends, including mentors he’s learned from, fellow Americans he’s dug up fossils with, Chinese he has sought out and two Eastern Europeans, one Polish and the other Romanian, who have “the best nose[s] for fossils of anybody I’ve ever known.”
The only scientists Brusatte speaks ill of are long dead: the batty 19th-century rivals Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh. “Once chummy,” Brusatte writes, they “had let ego and pride metastasize into a full-on feud, which was so radioactive that they would do anything to one-up each other in an insane battle to see who could name the most new dinosaurs.” Here is one of the few places in the book where I wish the author had dug a little deeper. Culp and Marsh didn’t want merely to name dinosaurs; they also wanted to describe and classify them in scientific journals, each man showing off his erudition, buttressing his claim to be the discipline’s top dog. The Bone Wars, as the conflict was called, reached their nadir when Marsh had a fossil field dynamited to keep Cope from exploring it; to gain an edge, in other words, Marsh destroyed knowledge. And yet between them, the combatants presided over the discovery of hundreds of species, including what Brusatte calls “ones that roll off the tongue of every schoolchild: Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Brontosaurus, Ceratosaurus, Diplodocus, Stegosaurus.”
Neither Cope nor Marsh, however, found the tongue-rollingest dinosaur of all, Tyrannosaurus rex. That pleasure went to Barnum Brown, whose abilities took him from “a speck of a village on the Kansas prairie” to Montana, where he made the discovery of his career in 1902, and then to New York, where he became curator of vertebrate paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History.
Brusatte sums up the carnivorous Tyrannosaurs as “the transcendent terrors that fire our imaginations,” but for me, his short course on the vegetarian sauropods is the most riveting part of the book. Some of these creatures were the largest land animals ever, notably a subgroup called the titanosaurs, which could weigh in excess of 50 tons. (For comparison, the largest elephant on record tipped the scale at 11 tons.) What Brusatte calls “the money question” is this: “How were these dinosaurs able to attain sizes so completely out of scale with anything else evolution has ever produced” on land? (For the record, blue whales can weigh up to 170 tons.)
Over the next four pages, you watch enrapt as Brusatte outfits the sauropods with the features crucial to their humongousness. Long necks that gave them access to a vast range of plants high and low. Fast growth rates. Extraordinarily efficient lungs capable of processing oxygen not only on the inhale but also on the exhale. Skeletons both sturdy and light, which lent the behemoths a surprising flexibility. And the ability to get rid of excess body heat. Add this all up, and you have creatures that “became biblically huge and swept around the world.”
Another bravura section — the whole last chapter, really — chronicles the dinosaurs’ Alvarezian end. “It was the worst day in the history of our planet,” Brusatte begins, and he means our planet’s entire history, not just the period up to that point (66 million years ago). Slamming down on what is now the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, the unguided missile “hit with the force of over 100 trillion tons of TNT, somewhere in the vicinity of a billion nuclear bombs’ worth of energy.”
Not all dinosaurs died out as a result of this juggernaut and its effects on the atmosphere. Spared were ancestral birds, whose startling claim to membership in the dinosaur club was first made by Darwin’s friend and defender Thomas Henry Huxley. It took decades to confirm Huxley’s hunch, but the connection is now clear. Scientists have dug up dinosaur fossils with proto-feathers, and drawings in “The Rise and Fall” — notably that of a rather frilly T. rex — show what they would have looked like in the fullness of life.
Brusatte makes another point about that planetary disaster: Devastating as it was for dinosaurs, it opened the way for surviving small mammals to flourish and develop until, eons later, one evolutionary line produced the species Homo sapiens. Absent “the worst day in the history of our planet,” then, you and I probably would not have shared this interlude with the scintillating Steve Brusatte.
of the Dinosaurs
a Lost World
By Steve Brusatte
William Morrow. 404 pp. $29.99