Palaeontologist Riley Black has written an inventive look at the days, years and centuries following the impact of the asteroid that triggered the extinction of about three-quarters of all the species on Earth
20 April 2022
St Martin’s Press
WELCOME to Hell Creek, in what is now Montana. But readers better not get too attached to the inhabitants dreamed into being in the first chapter of a vivid new book, The Last Days of the Dinosaurs by Riley Black, a palaeontologist and prolific writer.
We meet the Tyrannosaurus rex, “her reddish brown hide now draped in orange and gold from the low-angled light of the evening sun”, the low-slung herbivore Ankylosaurus, defending herself with a car-tyre-sized tail club, and the Alamosaurus sanjuanensis hatchling that will never get to grow into one of the largest animals ever to walk the earth.
Tomorrow, a 10-kilometre-wide asteroid, later to be known as the Chicxulub impactor, will plough into the ancient Yucatán in what is now Mexico. It will trigger the extinction of about three-quarters of all the species on Earth.
Along with all non-avian dinosaurs, the great bat-winged pterosaurs will perish. Quetzalcoatlus, with a wingspan wider than a Cessna plane, will disappear. Later, invertebrates such as ammonites will stutter and stop in seas made corrosive by acid rain. Most early mammals – those that didn’t go up in flames or get blasted off into space – will eventually starve, and with them, most lizards, snakes and birds.
Subsequent chapters offer more glimpses of the aftermath, each separated by an exponentially longer interval.
An hour after impact and in Hell Creek, more than 4500 kilometres from the impact, a puzzled Ankylosaurus fights for its footing at the edge of a lake. Safe in her burrow, a squirrel-like Mesodma sleeps through a day of pulsing, planetary conflagration. A month in, and little two-toed Acheroraptors are poking about in the decaying debris, unaware of the cold and hunger to come.
Time accelerates. A year, a hundred years, a thousand years go by. We venture far from Hell Creek, and learn much about dinosaurs and their long history, about the mechanisms of evolution and climate, and about the deep history of our planet.
We learn to abandon old notions of a planet healing itself, or of life returning to some ideal degree of diversity. Mass extinctions are, we discover, not “opportunities”, and when living designs are lost in the great game of adaptation and extinction, they stay lost. Life got through by the skin of its teeth.
Hell Creek remains central throughout, as is only reasonable because its geology appears to record in such extraordinary detail the events immediately following the Chicxulub impact. We glimpse it as an Eden, gardened by towering herbivores. We see it go up in flames. We say goodbye to the place as new plants smother and entangle it, creating the jungle environments from which complex behaviours and communities – primate and avian – will be born.
Throughout, Black’s shifting cast of characters remains vivid and charming. Indeed, it is as if she had set up camp in the very heart of the valley that best captures the catastrophe and its aftermath. This is palaeontology written with the immediacy of natural history.
In a long appendix, Black explains what is real in this book, and what she has made up. But there is no need to worry: without a leavening of intelligent speculation, palaeontologists have never been able to say too much.
It is a point that Black makes splendidly, with reference to an illustrated book from 1863, The World Before the Deluge. This was published just a couple of years after the discovery of the first decent fossilised skeleton of Archaeopteryx – a previously missing link between reptiles and birds. The only problem was that the head was missing.
“Did Archaeopteryx have a beak? Teeth? Both? Neither? There was no way to answer the question,” writes Black. “And so The World Before the Deluge portrayed Archaeopteryx flying high above Jurassic conifers totally headless.”
Black’s approach is much more sensible, adding whatever she needs – a head here, a behaviour there – to give us more-or-less reliable glimpses into the period after the worst day ever suffered by life on Earth.
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