Dinosaurs grabbed me, as usual, when I was a kid, but I wouldn’t say that my fascination has endured as it has with some. Nevertheless, at some point last year, I had a moment where I decided to seek out more information on these creatures and their extinction. This is not the first book I added to my to-read list, but it happens to be the first book I’ve read, mostly thanks to getting an eARC from NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press. The Last Days of the Dinosaurs wasn’t what I was expecting, yet it was a pleasant surprise.
Have you ever watched one of those “documentaries” on Discovery Channel that are more like recreations? It starts with an asteroid hurtling towards Earth, and then there are computer-generated sequences of dinosaurs running for cover while a narrator in a refined British accent explains how they are all about to die. That’s what’s going on here. Riley Black narrates the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs (and many other species). She chooses a main character for each chapter, a Triceratops, Edmontosaurus, or sometimes even a plucky mammal perhaps distantly related to us. Then she uses that focal point to explore changes to the environment and the evolutionary adaptations and accidents that contributed to some species surviving and others … well, not.
That is the crux, of course: we think of the extinction event as “the end of the dinosaurs,” and it was … but it was also the beginning of the Age of Mammals. Without that asteroid, then in all likelihood there wouldn’t be us. Moreover, Black correctly situations this mass extinction on a continuum of other such extinctions throughout the history of life on Earth—each extinction altering the balance enough to allow different types of life to take hold in ways never before seen. So while it probably sucks from the perspective of a species going extinct, these extinctions are, in the end, part of the natural cycle. Also, the dinosaurs had a pretty good run—orders of magnitude longer than we humans have been around—so I don’t feel that sorry for them.
At first, Black’s decision to narrate events without any reference to how we might know, for example, that dinosaurs used trees as back-scratching posts, annoyed me. I like the story of how. I want to understand how the human ingenuity that is the scientific method led to the knowledge we have of events millions of years in the past. That is what I think is so cool.
Fortunately, Black did something clever. After the conclusion of the book (I was surprised to run into it only 70 percent of the way in), there is a lengthy appendix where she goes, chapter-by-chapter, over the “how” of each event. So if you are a stickler like me, don’t throw the book out after the first couple of chapters: stick with it, and you will be rewarded!
Indeed, one of my first thoughts as I was reading the book and ran across phrases like “lush verdue” was, “Oh, Riley Black can write.” I say this because there is a difference between a competent science communicator and a writer, and Black is both of these things. So that, in turn, makes the choice to split the narrative from the scientific explication even more palatable: as I said above, reading the first part of this book is very much like watching a recreation documentary. It’s compelling in a way that perhaps mixing the two wouldn’t have been. So while the choice irked me at first, I not only have come around, but I’m fully in favour of it simply because Black has the writing skills to back it up.
I learned a lot from this book too. Paleontology has come a long way since I was a kid. I had heard the news that even non-avian dinoasurs probably had feathers, or at least a fuzz approaching feathers. I’ve followed some cool announcements about estimates of T-rex populations, etc. But they never really come back to dinosaurs in school after that initial fascination as a kid, so there was a lot I didn’t know. For example, I was under the impression that the death of most non-avian dinosaurs was a gradual, drawn-out process following the impact event itself. Black marshals evidence that disagrees: according to some studies, it’s more likely that the infrared pulse from the impact fried pretty much all organic life on the surface of the planet within minutes. That is to say, the dinosaurs died very quickly, with only a few holdouts under the water or the ground to represent their species for the remainder of their lives. So that was new to me. Similarly, Black’s telescoping orders-of-magnitude approach to chapters—a minute after, a day after, a month after, a year after, a hundred years after, etc.—helped me wrap my head around the time frame of the recovery of life.
Beyond informing us about the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs, this book has a lot to teach us about the ways in which ecosystems interact. Black spends a great deal of time focusing on the complex interconnections among creatures, from the relationship between pollinators and flowers or seedcones and birds to the roles played by apex predators like T-rex, brought low more often through the smallest micro-organisms than through a challenge from another dinosaur. I think we humans often have this tendency to think very discretely, and Black’s writing really encourages us to see the dinosaurs in a holistic way, as part of this vast tapestry of life, rather than as an entirely different type of life form.
As a final aside, I had the pleasure when reading the conclusion of learning that Black is, like me, a trans woman (and, like me, transitioned in adulthood). I’m not saying I like the book more for that, but it was really like a cherry on top of this reading experience, seeing more of us out there, thriving, writing about our passions. That’s the future I want.
So, if like me you are having one of those random urges to learn a particular topic, and that topic happens to be dino-related, I recommend this book!