Black, Riley. The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: An Asteroid, Extinction, and the Beginning of our World. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2022) Kindle Edition.
I freely admit I grabbed this because it was on sale and I wanted something completely unrelated to anything else I am working on (Scottish history, Vlad III, academic histories of various kinds). I enjoyed the heck out of all but part of one chapter. The book is a celebration of life, and of what survived the worst single-event extinction in planetary history.
Black does a fantastic job balancing hard science with very plausible might-have-been-likes. The introduction explains why Hell Creek is the main lens through which the dinosaurs’ world is studied, and gives a bit of background on paleontology, including why the K-T event is now supposed to be the K-Pg event*. Black writes very well and puts you into the places and times being discussed.
The book starts in the late Cretaceous, with a Triceratops and a Tyrannosaur. It’s hard to go wrong with that combo, at least for those of us who went through a dino-mad phase as kids. Black discusses the ecology of Hell Creek, the world of the dinosaurs, and what happens when they die. Then the camera pulls back a bit to take in the boloid aimed for Earth.
The impact and the following hours and days are described very well. You might want to read this with some ice water at hand, because trying to imagine a world that gets turned up to “broil” for 24 hours is pretty miserable. Black handles the gore, and the chemistry, quite well. The story moves around the world, considering what effect the erupting Deccan Traps had (an important one, actually), and the effects of the impact event on the seas. The author then jumps to one week, one month, one year, and so on.
This brings up what I considered a strength but others found as a weak point: the book jumps around from the main narrative to look at other places around the world at the same time. So Hell Creek is the main story, but Black will cut over to Antarctica, the Indian Subcontinent, the Atlantic (once it opened up enough), and so on. Also, Black dramatizes events, using data available through scientific papers and sources. Some people don’t like this approach. I found it useful, BUT I’m also well read on paleoenvironments and so on, so it wasn’t entirely new to me.
Black hammers one point pretty hard: nothing was predetermined. The non-avian dinosaurs went extinct because they were perfectly adapted to their world. When the world went to hell, literally, that was that. But nothing said that the meteorite would hit at that angle in that place. Nothing said that the Daccan Traps would ease the global cooling. No special gift led primitive primates to develop so quickly compared to other mammals, or that monotremes and marsupials would fade out compared to true mammals. Black’s other oft repeated point is that life didn’t stop. That’s one of the author’s pet peeves, or so it appears. Existence did not cease with the dinosaurs. That world ended, but ferns and cycads hung in there, fish, reptiles, things that could hide underground or under water all made it. Perhaps not for long, but the story didn’t end with Chixulub.
Black takes the story up to a million years after the impact, then offers a last chapter meditation on change, extinction, and the resilience of both dinosaurs and life on Earth. I admit, I skimmed this, because it brings in the author’s personal life and I’m not really interested.
However, the appendices are fantastic. Here Black explains what we do know, how we know it, what is still being argued over (99% of everything), and the sources used for each chapter. This is an excellent way to document the material while keeping the bulk of the book fun for non-experts, without resorting to long footnotes. I like chatty footnotes in academic books, but they don’t suit a semi-narrative like this one.
I’d recommend the book to people who want to know more about the death of the non-avian dinosaurs and what came after. A bit of background knowledge in science is helpful but not really needed, since the author does a good job explaining terms and concepts. Some of the authors hypotheses have already been challenged, which I’d expect. After all, paleontologists seem to love nothing more than a good argument. OK, finding an intact member of a new species probably comes first, but a good argument’s not far behind.
*Sorry, to me K-Pg is either KP&G, the power company, or the initials of what is now KPMG before they added the M. It’s the K-T line to me.
FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book with my own funds for my own use, and received no remuneration from the author or the publisher for this review.
The worst single-event extinction in planetary history?
Only because we aren’t sure what caused the others. We can’t prove that most were caused by something other than single-events.
(And the principle of uniformitarianism inclines us to accept that single-events were a likely cause of such disruption.)
By “single-event,” the author meant a one-day, single initial cause. Things like the eruption of the Siberian Traps and the Cambrian Extinction seem to have been slower, with the die-offs taking more than 48 hours, and to have had a longer cascade of secondary causes.
I should have been clearer in my initial description.
But but… Toolmaker Koan by John McLoughlin told us that the “meteorite” that wiped out the dinosaurs was actually a space station knocked out of orbit during the World War between intelligent dinosaurs!
The dinos killed themselves! [Very Big Crazy Grin]
I thought everyone agreed that the dinosaurs became extinct because they were allergic to flowers. /s ;-]
I read one theory that said the ferns started to die off because of climatic shifts, and that the plant-eaters died of constipation because the flowering plants and other things lack a certain chemical in ferns. I . . . don’t want to know how this was determined, and I feel very sorry for the grad students who got to test coprolites for consistency and, ahem, let us say, depositional spread.
Even worse job for a grad student (this was one of my former students) followed ape (I think it was mandrills), collected their droppings, and analyzed the droppings’ DNA to find out who was related to whom. She had to tell me all about it, “Ms. P, I knew YOU would understand!”
I hadn’t known about the Deccan Traps previously. Uck, nasty one-two punch with the approximate timing.
Two RrrAWWWWrrrs up.
Bought it, about halfway through it (yeah, I’m also a dino nut). You might enjoy this link, although they’ve become quite commercial lately – https://blog.everythingdinosaur.com/ . They do try to keep up with recent discoveries and new species, at least.
I’d been meaning to read this anyway and am partway through it. I’ve been appreciating this author’s writings for years, and one thing is quite clear — Riley Black remains an exceptionally talented writer. Insightful, well-informed, deft and gifted with ability to explain complicated things simply.