My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This was the Goodreads Readers’ Choice Best Science & Technology and is well-deserving. When I was eight, I was going to be a paleontologist – I read my Scholastic book on dinosaurs cover to cover over and over, and the young me was convinced he wanted to find a dig up bones. I moved on to anthropology after reading another couple of books, and then archeology – books are amazing, right? Brusatte’s love affair is infectious, and wayback dreams aside, I am primed to love this book, which I do.
This is not your grandfather’s dinosaur book – it is a fascinating journey of historical and contemporary knowledge and research, deep and broad. It’s quite accessible, though a wee academic at times (but I didn’t mind because I was into the subject) – Brusatte writes for a reader, not a professor and that’s refreshing. He covers the timeline from the protodinosaurs to their demise at the end of the Cretaceous, even far more ancient than that with fossils of the earliest life (that they’ve found). Brusatte explains the taxonomy and classification processes, mistakes in the past, trends to the future. Technology plays an enormous factor in understanding how gigantism came about, how long they lived, how big they got, when feathers started (much earlier than you probably think), why the bird descendants and mammals survived…and an amazing one: fossilized melanosomes. Jakob Vinther was able to determine what colors prehistoric animals were by looking at the fossilized pigment-bearing vessels and comparing to modern animals. Pretty freaking cool. CAT scans of skulls and skeletons help identify the dinosaur lung structures that birds also have (I learned something about bird lungs, too…fascinating book, in case I didn’t mention it) and the brain size of T. Rex and others. Scientists are more positive than not that the Rex was smarter than a dog.
He doesn’t talk about pterosaurs, and when talking about the great final-ish extinction, doesn’t talk about the plesiosaurs and kin, but he talks about a lot of others. I was fascinated by the data they’ve gathered and what they can deduce about the tyranosaurs, and T. Rex in particular. The forensics are amazing. I like his sense of humor and skewering of pop science (and the movie).
A trade secret among paleontologists is that many of the fantastical numbers you see in books and museum exhibits – Brontosaurus weighed a hundred tons and was bigger than a plane! – are pretty much made up. Educated guesses or, in some cases, barely that.
He says Yale’s Peabody museum feels to him like a spiritual pilgrimage. The Peabody is another reason I was going to be a paleontologist…first time I saw fossils in person. And Rudolph Zallinger’s mural? Oh, yeah. I had a print of it (I wonder what happened to that…)
So, I’m neither a paleontologist, not an anthropologist (nor an archeologist…that came a little after the first two.) That young me really had no idea how arduous it really is… But I still love learning more about our ancient ancestors.