Tuesday 21 August 2018

Fantastic beasts: when dinosaurs ruled the world

Non-fiction: The Rise and Fall of ­Dinosaurs, Steve Brusatte, Macmillan, hardback, 416 pages, €23.99

King of the dinosaurs: The fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex
King of the dinosaurs: The fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex
The Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

A fascinating new book reminds us that some dinosaurs still live among us.

JK Rowling may have crafted a second (or is it third?) career with her Harry Potter spin-off book and film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. As we learn in this tremendously enjoyable work of natural history, however, even her fertile imagination is no match for the real thing.

Dinosaurs were just so strange, so unearthly, scarcely believable, close to magical. And as author Steve Brusatte reminds us throughout this book - subtitled The Untold Story of a Lost World - they were just animals, bizarre and wondrous though they may have been.

Not fictional inventions, not interstellar lifeforms beamed from deep space. No, dinosaurs were animals of this planet, borne of the same processes of evolution that made every other living thing, including us.

(One of many astounding and delightful facts peppering The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is that, genetically speaking, they were closer to humans than to frogs and salamanders. Dinos, and reptiles and mammals and birds, all descended down one branch of the tree of life, amphibians down another.)

Natural selection, incidentally, provides a straightforward answer to that staple question of inquisitive children: why did the dinosaurs become extinct? The answer is, not all of them did.

Their descendants live on today. They're all around you. You might be looking at one right now. You're almost certainly listening to some. These days, we call them birds. (Ironically, the most famous "flying dinosaurs" - pterodactyls - weren't dinosaurs at all, but closely related reptiles.)

This is such a beautiful notion, it's worth repeating: birds evolved from dinosaurs. Indeed Brusatte, and many palaeontologists, go further, arguing that birds actually are dinosaurs - radically altered in size and behaviour but morphologically the same. Either way, that's what happened to some of them.

The rest, as we know, really did die off. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, as you'd presume from its title, ends with that mass-extinction event. Around 66 million years ago, a six-mile-wide asteroid smashed into what is now Mexico's Yucatán peninsula, creating a gigantic crater which still exists today - and triggering the slaughter of 70pc of all life on earth in a hellish cataclysm of shockwaves, fires, glass and stone projectiles, toxic gases, earthquakes, volcanoes.

Shockingly, much of the death was doled out within just 15 minutes of the asteroid hitting: about the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. Over the following centuries - certainly not more than a few thousand years, an eye-blink in geological times - something akin to a nuclear winter took care of the rest.

The poor old dinosaurs, despite being such spectacular evolutionary success stories for so long, were fatally hobbled by diet. Many plants eventually died and thus, so too did the plant-eating dinosaurs which had escaped the initial inferno. And with all those moving-buffet herbivores gone, the end was nigh for carnivorous dinos, too.

The animals which survived this apocalypse were mostly smaller dinosaurs which had evolved flight and ultimately became birds; water-based beasties such as crocs, fish and turtles; or small land creatures which could burrow underground and had an omnivorous diet. In other words, our ancestors hunkered down and made do, and finally, aeons later, along came people.

Would primates and homo sapiens ever had conquered the world if Yucatán hadn't happened? The question is moot, obviously, but it's a fascinating one. Brusatte tells us they were doing well at this time, and concludes, "No asteroid - no dinosaur extinction."

That sound you hear is mankind shuddering at the possibility of never existing.

The author is something of a rock-star in the field of palaeontology: thus far he has identified 15 new species of dinosaur, and he's only in his mid-thirties. But he pays due homage to those who came before him, and current colleagues, with detailed, affectionate accounts of historic and unfolding discoveries in palaeontology.

In keeping with our Rowling-esque alternative title, the sub-plot of this book is about where (and how) to find them. But interesting as that is, the undisputed main attraction is the menagerie of Fantastic Beasts.

And how fantastic they were, in all senses of the word. Meet the colossal sauropods: vegetarian behemoths which grew to the size of a large aeroplane. Say hello to ankylosaurus, swinging the deadly boney club at the end of its tail.

We've got armoured dinosaurs, dome-headed dinosaurs, duckbilled dinosaurs, bat-like dinosaurs, fast dinosaurs, smart dinosaurs, razor-toothed dinosaurs, dog-like dinosaurs, crested dinosaurs, dinosaurs with feathers, dinosaurs with porcupine-style quills, dinosaurs with huge spinal fans the size of ship's sails… the list is close to endless. Best of all, people like Brusatte are discovering dozens of entirely new species every year.

Not forgetting, of course, the fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex: the biggest bad-ass in a crowded field. Other apex predators - carcharondotasaurus, allosaurus, spinosaurus, carnotaurus - were huge and terrifying by the standards of modern fauna. But T-Rex got its name for a reason: it was, Brusatte recounts adoringly (that's not meant as an insult, by the way), the One True King.

Six metres tall, weighing seven tonnes, running at 20mph, a bite-force of 13,000 pounds, front- and side-vision, super-sensitive to smell, hunting in packs… and estimated to be as clever as a chimp: no wonder Brusatte, along with Steven Spielberg and everyone else, has long been in thrall to T-Rex. Even those comically tiny arms had a purpose, in subduing struggling prey while its five-foot-long skull did the damage.

Maybe the most staggering detail of all is the length of dinosaurs' reign. They arrived after the catastrophic extinction event which marked the end of the Permian period, and Paleozoic era, in 252 million BC. They then rose, diversified, prospered and ruled - after seeing off the challenge of their crocodilian closest rivals - through the Mesozoic era (spanning the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods) for 186 million years.

For perspective, homo sapiens are about 200,000 years old. Modern humans, as we understand the term: 50,000 years. Civilisation, maybe 10,000.

We're mere babes, and in many ways are lucky to be here at all. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is a fitting testament to the previous most successful animal on earth - and a warning that all things must end, even close on 200 million years of dominance.

Darragh McManus' novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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