When the Dinosaurs Reigned

The remains of a Velociraptor and a Protoceratops in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia.

A New History of a Lost World
By Steve Brusatte
Illustrated. 404 pp. William Morrow/HarperCollins Publishers. $29.99.

If the idea that Morocco once butted up against New York strikes you as just ho-hum; if your mind doesn’t boggle that 10,000 species of dinosaurs still exist; and if you’re not impressed that Tyrannosaurus rex was strong enough to bite through a car — then this book is not for you.

But if John McPhee’s love affair with rocks in “Annals of the Former World” floats your boat, and so does Janna Levin’s entertaining narrative in “Black Hole Blues and Other Songs From Outer Space,” you’re going to love “The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs,” by the paleontologist Steve Brusatte.

Brusatte skillfully brings dead dino bones to life as he shares — no, gushes about — his personal journey as a young fossil hunter and the people he’s met along the way. It’s an “I can’t wait to tell you, listen to this!” page turner, dropping one aha moment after another. “Somewhere around the world,” he writes, “a new species of dinosaur is currently being found, on average, once a week. Let that sink in: a new dinosaur every … single … week.” Poof. Mind blown. You think he enjoys what he does?

Credit...Mick Ellison and Denis Finnin

The geek in me loves the tsunami of fine details flooding the page, written in the breezy style of a rising star millennial scientist. Brusatte systematically takes us through the various stages of dinosaur evolution, starting with the pre-dino Triassic Period, when a mass extinction cleared the path for their rise. Dinosaurs could not have flourished without these dramatic events that reshaped the earth just over 250 million years ago — lava spewing from countless erupting volcanoes, smothering life wherever it flowed, greenhouse gases blanketing the planet, heating the ancient ocean and triggering a sweltering global warming that helped wipe out most living land animals.

Yet the head-scratcher remains: Why did early dinosaurs survive the hell of the Triassic extinction, leaving them — free of competitors — to multiply and dominate? “I wish I had a good answer,” Brusatte confesses. “It’s a mystery that quite literally has kept me up at night. … Maybe dinosaurs were just lucky.”

The author can’t be blamed for devoting a whole chapter to the king of the dinosaurs: T. Rex. The perfect “killing machine” has been a fan favorite in movies dating back to the classic “King Kong,” after all, achieving its greatest role in Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” — the film that changed the author’s life. “So many scientists are impulsively drawn to the majesty that is the King, the way so many people are obsessed with movie stars and athletes,” Brusatte writes. He offers plenty of meat about Rex to chew on, especially the way it chewed: its bite terrifyingly unique among all dino carnivores. “Rex bit deeply into its victim, often right through the bones, and then ripped back.” As befitting a king, T. Rex’s technique has been given its own name: “puncture-pull feeding.” Yet missing from most movies is the evolving picture of Rex as an ancestor of birds, with feathers sticking out between its scales to keep it warm, and perhaps doubling as a mating display. And Rex was no dummy. Measurements of the brain cavity show “Rex was roughly as smart as a chimp and more intelligent than dogs and cats.” And while dinosaurs did roam the entire length of the planet, North America was Rex’s sole domain. Its teeth lie buried all over the continent.

The often discussed dino demise 66 million years ago obscures their 150-million-year reign, making them among the most successful creatures ever to walk the planet. “Far from being failures,” Brusatte writes, “they were evolutionary success stories.” Their fossilized remains can be found just about everywhere on earth. And while we talk about the fall of the dinosaurs, tens of thousands of species of dinosaurs are still among us. We call them birds. You may not believe it, the author says, but “birds are just a weird group of dinosaurs” that evolved wings and learned to fly. “The realization that birds are dinosaurs is probably the single most important fact ever discovered by dinosaur paleontologists.”

Young scientists like Brusatte and his buddies share a palpable sense of wonder. “I get the creeps when looking at the earliest Triassic tracks. I can sense the long-distant specter of death.” This emotional connection, and Brusatte’s collection of personal stories and characters, make his book special. There’s the tale of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch, “bursting with dinosaur bones,” becoming a mecca for young paleontologists who flocked there after her death. Chances are, says Brusatte, ”if you go see a big dinosaur exhibit today you’ll see a Ghost Ranch Coelophysis,” the “quintessential Triassic dinosaur.”


We also meet Baron Fronz Nopcsa von Felso-Szilvas, the flamboyant “tragic genius” spy whose World War I fossil-hunting adventures in Transylvania would end in the murder-suicide of him and his lover. “Dracula,” Brusatte writes, “has nothing on the Dinosaur Baron.”

And there’s the incomparable Barnum Brown, who in 1902 would discover the first T. Rex and go on to become “the first celebrity paleontologist” — if alive today he “would be the star of some outrageous reality show. And probably a politician.”

Paleontology has plenty of personalities, and Brusatte pulls no punches describing their political and racial baggage. You’ll get to know Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the prestigious American Museum of Natural History, who, because of his views on white supremacy, immigration and eugenics, is “often dismissed today as a bygone bigot.” Osborn, Brusatte notes, was “probably not the type of guy I’d want to have a beer with.” But his science was spot on.

Like Woody Allen’s Zelig, Brusatte is always at the right place at the right time. At Hell Creek, Mont., for the discovery of a “Triceratops graveyard,” startling evidence that Triceratops was a pack species. Hanging with his mentor Mark Norell in his fabled Central Park office at the American Museum. In China, drooling over the collection of feather-covered fossils curated by the “world’s greatest dinosaur hunter,” China’s Xu Xing, just a stone’s throw from the “paleontologista” Jingmai O’Connor and her “leopard print Lycra, piercings and tattoos.” We marvel at the talented biologist Jacob Vinther, whose microscope found the color in dinosaur feathers that allowed them — like peacocks — to become better at flirting. (Only by accident, typical of evolution, did they learn to fly.) As an awe-struck fanboy Brusatte makes a pilgrimage to Italy to watch the iconic Walter Alvarez show off his historic discovery: a thin layer of clay in an obscure gorge, the long-sought remains of a disintegrated asteroid, and the first solid evidence for the idea that a cataclysmic impact wiped out the dinosaurs.

The physicist Richard Feynman marveled at how nature’s beauty is hidden in her details. He could find extra enjoyment in the beauty of a flower because he also understood the inner workings of the plant. The beauty of this book lies in the details, too, and in the stories of the scientists who dig them up.

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