Tag Archives: biology

The Last Days of the Dinosaurs by Riley Black

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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.

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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!)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter pages

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.”

Interviews
—–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
—–Excerpt

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

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Filed under Non-fiction, paleontology, Science and Nature

Life’s Edge by Carl Zimmer

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…the question of what it means to be alive has flowed through four centuries of scientific history like an underground river… More than 150 years later, despite all that biologists have learned about living things, they still cannot agree on the definition of life.

I have had the pleasure of driving up a mountain through mist and cloud, and of walking in London through pea soup fog. Where exactly did the clear air end and the more particulate air begin? It is not entirely…um…clear. Sure, there is a difference between standing, or driving in air that one cannot visually penetrate and looking through a wide outdoor expanse on a cloud-free, crystalline winter day. But it is not a barrier drawn with a straight edge. Thus it appears with the line between living and not-living. With the examples detailed in Life’s Edge, it is clearer than ever that there are more things under heaven and earth than had been dreamed of in our philosophies. There are those, certainly, who proclaim that this or that specific location is where the thing called life begins. Rules have been drawn up to plant markers, to draw lines. But like an outdoor crime-scene police-tape, the fog of what lies within and without wanders freely past those lines, with no regard for the designs or preferences of humans.

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Carl Zimmer – image from The Psychology Podcast

New York Times science columnist and multiple-award-winning science-writer Carl Zimmer’s fourteenth book takes readers on an exploration to that amorphous borderland between the living and the non-living. It is a journey that raises a lot more questions than it answers. Zimmer employs a tried and true approach, each chapter moving on to the next lab, the next researcher, the next wild bit of research, and filling in with nice chunks of science history, as he circles around the question.

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Alysson Muotri – image from The Stem Cell Podcast

Many of the things Zimmer reports on are fascinating. Some, however, will disturb your sleep. For an example of the latter, Alysson Muotri, at the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, takes skin samples and reprograms them into neurons to study neurological diseases and possible treatments. They are grown into miniature organs called organoids, and are allowed to reproduce, up to a point. When he started growing these things, he assumed that they could never become conscious. “Now I’m not so sure, he confessed.” Zimmer tells, also, of a researcher, a very long time ago, who was notorious for experimenting on living animals.

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Cerebral organoid – image from European Research Council

Clearly a significant concern for our culture is where “life” begins, and further, where “human life” begins. It all comes down to definitions. Is Thomas Aquinas’s notion of the “ensoulment” of human embryos the same as defining when life becomes human life? There have been other notions employed in the history of Christianity. Zimmer looks at how legal definitions of life, for purposes including supporting abortion laws, and concerning a widening spectrum of medical and legal issues, fail to hold up under scientific scrutiny.

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”It’s Alive!” (or is it?) – from Frankenstein – image from Buzzfeed

The concern here is not just what is life, but how can we tell when something actually is alive? He looks at how humans perceive life and react to it. We have a sense of life being present or absent, an intuition that is not unique to our species. Ravens hold what can only be seen as funerals for dead flock members. Chimps engage in group laments for late members, as do many other creatures.

To be alive is to not be dead…Humanity did not come to this realization through logic and deduction. Our understanding of death is not like Darwin’s theory of evolution or Thompson’s discovery of the electron. It has its origins in ancient intuitions.

Zimmer looks at metabolic rate. In the 17th century, there was a widespread fear of being afflicted with a death-like state that might leave its victims without detectable breath or heartbeat, thus generating a rampant terror of being buried alive. This concern inspired a well-known short story.

The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. – Edgar Allan Poe, The Premature Burial

Zimmer reports on a woman who was pronounced dead, twice. (third time’s the charm?) Where is the line between brain death and true, no backsies, total death? Can a person meet the criteria for brain death one day, and later not meet it?

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From The Night of the Living Dead – image from Wikipedia

But what constitutes life? How about adding some ingredients to agar, leaving it alone for a few hours and then finding a thriving slime mold, one with remarkable survival skills. What about spores, some of which can survive in space? Are spores alive? Or only potentially alive, or an ingredient in a recipe for making life?

Scientists have been arguing over whether viruses are alive for about a century, ever since the pathogens came to light. Writing last month in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, two microbiologists (Hugh Harris and Colin Hill) at University College Cork took stock of the debate. They could see no end to it. “The scientific community will never fully agree on the living nature of viruses,” they declared. – from Zimmer’s Secret Life piece in the NY Times

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“I vunder vut it vood be like to be really dead” – image from The Indy Channel

Whether you prefer your undead to be of the vampiric, zombie, or reanimated sort, or are more inclined to unicellular spore candidates, or maybe pre-conscious organoids, there are plenty of candidates for entities on the fringes of life.

In addition to providing readers with a better handle on the attempt to delineate the line between life and not-life, there are plenty of interesting questions raised and fun facts to be gleaned. We learn, for example, that Erwin Schrödinger was set up by the government at Trinity College. (But he may have simultaneously both been there and not, depending on whether any students saw him give a lecture.) We also learn that when Vitamin C was discovered, the discoverer wanted to name it “Godnose.” And how about meteorites as a possible source of Terran life? Or maybe they contributed one or more of the ingredients necessary for the recipe? I particularly enjoy when science writers imbue their work with a sense of humor. That is mostly lacking here, which is disappointing. But there is plenty of material to keep your brain cells flashing on and off.

Who decides on a definition of life? In an ideal world, science should lead on matters that are subject to physical investigation and repeatable experimentation. And yet…

It may be enough for you to align with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who, when it came time to issue a ruling pertaining to pornography, said that he knows it when he sees it. We as a species tend to think that we know life when we see it. But it would be a good thing to recognize that all extant definitions of life are squishy, relying on philosophy or religion for their support. So I would appreciate it if no one would use their definition to tell me or anyone who does not share their perspective what they can or cannot do. Because when it comes to folks twisting science to political ends, I know it when I see it.

Life’s Edge may not provide a definitive guide to the line between living and nonliving. Such a line does not really exist in biology. But it does point out where the arguments lie about where those lines might be drawn, or, at least, where they might be investigated. It raises the larger question, though, of whether that line can, at least from a scientific perspective, be drawn at all.

Life is what the scientific establishment (probably after some healthy disagreement) will accept as life.

Review first posted – March 19, 2021

Publication dates
———-March 9, 2021 – hardcover
———-March 8, 2022 – trade paperback

I received an e-book ARE if Life’s Edge from Dutton in exchange for an honest review, and some of those interesting things that have been growing, unasked, in my basement.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, Tumblr, PInterest, and Twitter pages

I heartily recommend you check out Siddhartha Mukherjee’s amazing NY Times review What Does It Mean to Be a Living Thing?

Items of Interest from the author
—–What is Life – audio – A series of live conversations between writer Carl Zimmer and eight leading thinkers on the question of what it means to be alive.
—–Slate – excerpt – What on Earth are These Things? – on organoids
—–NY Times – The Secret Life of a Coronavirus – is it alive?

Songs/Music
—–From Sondheim’s CompanyBeing Alive
—–Aerosmith – Livin’ On the Edge
—–Opening of Saturday Night Fever – The Bee Gees Stayin’ Alive
—–Madonna – Borderline
—–GaGa – Edge of Glory
—–Shruti Haasan – Edge
—–Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life – Every Sperm is Sacred

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