The disaster goes by different names. Sometimes it’s called the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. For years, it was called the Cretaceous-Tertiary, or K-T, mass extinction that marked the end of the Age of Reptiles and the beginning of the third, Tertiary age of life on Earth. That title was later revised according to the rules of geological arcana to the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction, shorted to K-Pg. But no matter what we call it, the scars in the stone tell the same story. Suddenly, inescapably, life was thrown into a horrible conflagration that reshaped the course of evolution. A chunk of space debris that likely measured more than seven miles across slammed into the planet and kicked off the worst-case scenario for the dinosaurs and all other life on Earth. This was the closest the world has ever come to having its Restart button pressed, a threat so intense that—if not for some fortunate happenstances—it might have returned Earth to a home for single-celled blobs and not much else.
The loss of the dinosaurs was just the tip of the ecological iceberg. Virtually no environment was left untouched by the extinction, an event so severe that the oceans themselves almost reverted to a soup of single-celled organisms.
This is a story about two things, Earth’s Big Bang and evolution. K-Pg (pronounced Kay Pee Gee – maybe think of it as KFC with much bigger bones, where everything is overcooked?) marks the boundary between before and after Earth’s own Big Bang, manifested today by a specific layer of stone in the geologic record.
Riley with Jet – image from The Museum of the Earth
Ok, yes, I know that the catastrophic crash landing of the bolide, a seven-miles-across piece of galactic detritus, most likely an asteroid, that struck 66.043 million years ago, give or take, was not the biggest bad-parking-job in Earth’s history. An even bigger one hit billions of years ago. It was nearly the size of Mars, and that collision may have been what created our moon. Black makes note of this in the book. But in terms of impact, no single crash-and-boom has had a larger effect on life on planet Earth. Sure, about 3 billion years ago an object between 23 and 36 miles across dropped in on what is now South Africa. There have been others, rocks larger than K-Pg, generating even vaster craters. But what sets the Chicxulub (the Yucatan town near where the vast crater was made, pronounced Chick-sue-lube) event on the apex is its speed and approach, 45 thousand mph, entering at a 45-degree angle. (You wanna see the fastest asteroid ever to hit Earth? Ok. You wanna see it again?) It also helps that the material into which it immersed itself was particularly likely to respond by vaporizing over the entire planet. An excellent choice for maximum destruction of our mother. And of course, its impact on life, animal life having come into being about 800 million years ago, was unparalleled. In the short term, it succeeded in wiping out the large non-avian dinosaurs, your T-Rex sorts, Triceratops grazers, brontosaurian browsers, and a pretty large swath of the planetary flora as well, burning up much of the globe and inviting in a nuclear winter that added a whole other layer of devastation. Aqueous life was not spared. You seen any mososaurs lately? Even tiny organisms were expunged en masse. (Cleanup in aisle everywhere!)
Image from Facts Just for Kids
Here’s what the Earth looked like just before, just after, and then at increments, a week, a month, a year, and on to a million years post event. It is a common approach in pop science books to personalize the information being presented. Often this takes the form of following a particular scientist for a chapter as she or he talks about or presents the matter under consideration. In The Last Days… Black lets one particular species, usually one individual of that species per chapter, lead the way through the story, telling how it came to be present, how it was impacted by the…um…impact, and what its descendants, if there would be any, might look like. She wants to show why the things that were obliterated came to their sad ends, but also how the things that survived managed to do so.
Quetzcoatlus – image from Earth Archives
But as fun and enlightening as it is to track the geological and ecological carnage, like an insurance investigator, (T-Rex, sure, covered. But those ammonites? Sorry, Ms. Gaea, that one’s not specified in the contract. I am so sorry.) is only one part of what Riley Black is on about here. She wants to dispel some false ideas about how species take on what we see as environmental slots.
Mesodma – image from Inverse
Some folks believe that there are set roles in nature, and that the extinction of one actor (probably died as a result of saying that verboten word while performing in The Scottish Play) leads inevitably to the role being filled by another creature (understudy?) As if the demise of T-Rex, for example, meant that some other seven-ton, toothy hunter would just step in. But there is no set cast of roles in nature, each just waiting for Mr, Ms, or Thing Right to step into the job. (Rehearsals are Monday through Saturday 10a to 6p. Don’t be late), pointing out that what survived was largely a matter of luck, of what each species had evolved into by the time of the big event. If the earth is on fire, for example, a small creature has a chance to find underground shelter, whereas a brontosaurus might be able to stick it’s head into the ground, but not much else, and buh-bye bronto when the mega-killer infrared pulse generated by you-know-what sped across the planet turning the Earth into the equivalent of a gigantic deep fryer and making all the exposed creatures and flora decidedly extra-crispy.
Thescelosaurus – image from Wiki
Black keeps us focused on one particular location, Hell Creek, in Montana, with bits at the ends of every chapter commenting on things going on in other, far-away parts of the world, showing that this change was global. When the impact devastates the entire planet, it makes much less sense to think of the specific landing spot as ground zero. It makes more sense to see it as a planet-wide event, which would make the entire Earth, Planet Zero. It was not the first major planetary extinction, or even the second. But it was the most immediate, with vast numbers of species being exterminated within twenty-four hours.
Thoracosaurus – image from artstation.com
I do not have any gripes other than wishing that I had had an illustrated copy to review. I do not know what images are in the book. I had to burrow deep underground to find the pix used here. I expect it is beyond the purview of this book, but I could see a companion volume co-written by, maybe, Ed Yong, on how the microbiomes of a select group of creatures evolved over the eons. For, even as the visible bodies of critters across the planet changed over time, so did their micro-biome. What was The Inside Story (please feel free to use that title) on how the vast array of bugs that make us all up changed over the millions of years, as species adapted to a changing macrobiome.
Purgatorius – image from science News
I love that Riley adds bits from her own life into the discussion, telling about her childhood obsession with dinosaurs, and even telling about the extinctions of a sort in her own life. What glitters throughout the book, like bits of iridium newly uncovered at a dig, is Black’s enthusiasm. She still carries with her the glee and excitement of discovery she had as a kid when she learned about Dinosaurs for the first time. That effervescence makes this book a joy to read, as you learn more and more and more. Black is an ideal pop-science writer, both uber-qualified and experienced in her field, and possessed of a true gift for story-telling.
Also, the appendix is well worth reading for all the extra intel you will gain. Black explains, chapter by chapter, where the hard science ends and where the speculation picks up. Black incorporates into her work a wonderful sense of humor. This is always a huge plus!
Eoconodon – image from The New York Times
Pull up a rock in the Hell Creek amphitheater. Binoculars might come in handy. An escape vehicle (maybe a TVA time door?) of some sort would be quite useful. Get comfortable and take in the greatest show on Earth (sorry Ringling Brothers) There literally has never been anything quite like it, before or since. The Last Days of the Dinosaurs a joy to read, is one of the best books of the year.
From the time life first originated on our planet over 3.6 billion years ago, it has never been extinguished. Think about that for a moment. Think through all those eons. The changing climates, from hothouse to snowball and back again. Continents swirled and bumped and ground into each other. The great die-offs from too much oxygen, too little oxygen, volcanoes billowing out unimaginable quantities of gas and ash, seas spilling over continents and then drying up, forests growing and dying according to ecological cycles that take millennia, meteorite and asteroid strikes, mountains rising only to be ground down and pushed up anew, oceans replacing floodplains replacing deserts replacing oceans, on and on, every day, for billions of years. And still life endures.
Review posted – May 13, 2022
Publication date – April 26, 2022
I received an ARE of The Last Days of the Dinosaurs from St. Martin’s Press in return for working my ancient, nearly extinct fingers to the bone to write a review that can survive. Thanks, folks.
This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads. Stop by and say Hi!
Profile from Museum of the Earth
Vertebrate Paleontologist & Science Writer
Riley Black is a vertebrate paleontologist and science writer. She is passionate about sharing science with the public and writes about her experiences as a transgender woman in paleontology.
Riley began her science writing career as a Rutgers University undergraduate. She founded her own blog, Laelaps, and later wrote for Scientific American, Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic, and more. Riley has authored books for fossil enthusiasts of all ages, including Did You See That Dinosaur?, Skeleton Keys, My Beloved Brontosaurus, and Written in Stone.
Riley loves to spend time in the field, searching the Utah landscape for signs of prehistoric life. Her fossil discoveries are in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Natural History Museum of Utah, and the Burpee Museum of Natural History. Riley’s work in the field fuels her writing. She believes doing fieldwork is the best way to learn about paleontology.
In your own words, what is your work about?
“What really holds my work together is the idea that science is a process. Science is not just a body of facts or natural laws. What we find today will be tested against what we uncover tomorrow, and sometimes being wrong is a wonderful thing. I love the fact that the slow and scaly dinosaurs I grew up with are now brightly-colored, feathered creatures that seem a world apart from what we used to think. I believe fossils and dinosaurs provide powerful ways to discuss these ideas, how there is a natural reality we wish to understand with our primate brains. The questions, and why we’re asking them, are more fascinating to me than static answers.”
—–IFL Science – IFLScience Interview With Riley Black: The Last Days of the Dinosaurs – video – 15:40 – with Dr. Alfredo Carpineti – There is a particularly lovely bit at the back end of the interview in which Black talks about the inclusion in the book of a very personal element
—–Fossil Friday Chats – “Sifting the Fossil Record” w/ Riley Black” – nothing to do with this book, but totally fascinating
Items of Interest from the author
—–WIRED – articles by the author as Brian Switek
—–Scientific American – articles by the author as Brian Switek
—–Riley’s site – a list of Selected Articles
—–Science Friday – articles by the author
Items of Interest
—–Earth Archives – Quetzlcoatlus by Vasika Udurawane and Julio Lacerda
—–NASA – Sentry Program
—–Science Friday – Mortunaria – a filter-feeding plesiosaur
—–Biointeractive – The Day the Mesozoic Died: The Asteroid That Killed the Dinosaurs – on the science that produced our understanding of how the dinosaurs died out – video – 33:50
—–Wiki on the Hell Creek Formation