REVIEW: The Last Days of the Dinosaurs : An Asteroid, Extinction, and the Beginning of Our World by Riley Black
An exciting narrative nonfiction book about the day the dinosaurs went extinct…and what happened next.
Picture yourself in the Cretaceous period. It’s a sunny afternoon in the Hell Creek of ancient Montana 66 million years ago. A Triceratops horridus ambles along the edge of the forest. In a matter of hours, everything here will be wiped away. Lush verdure will be replaced with fire. Tyrannosaurus rex will be toppled from their throne, along with every other species of non-avian dinosaur no matter their size, diet, or disposition. They just don’t know it yet.
The cause of this disaster was identified decades ago. An asteroid some seven miles across slammed into the Earth, leaving a geologic wound over 50 miles in diameter. In the terrible mass extinction that followed, more than half of known species vanished seemingly overnight. But this worst single day in the history of life on Earth was as critical for us as it was for the dinosaurs, as it allowed for evolutionary opportunities that were closed for the previous 100 million years.
In The Last Days of the Dinosaurs, Riley Black walks readers through what happened in the days, the years, the centuries, and the million years after the impact, tracking the sweeping disruptions that overtook this one spot, and imagining what might have been happening elsewhere on the globe. Life’s losses were sharp and deeply-felt, but the hope carried by the beings that survived sets the stage for the world as we know it now.
Most people are going to pay more attention to the first part of this title. I know I did. That is a big mistake. The bulk of the book actually deals with the section behind the colon. True the book does start out on a hypothetical “last day” as the asteroid was hurtling towards its date with destiny – our destiny – near Chicxulub and shows various animals unsuspectingly going about a normal day in the Cretaceous. But then BAM comes the shockwave and firestorm heard, felt, and experienced (eventually) around the world. Bye, bye most non-avian dinos.
Black tells the story, in parts, as if from an omniscient voice describing the experiences of various animals. An aging Triceratops dies of cancer, collapses in Hell Creek and is soon surrounded by various small carnivores and omnivores who have availed themselves of the soft parts they can get to (don’t read this before eating) but who are anxiously awaiting one who can open the “pantry” to the rest. And along comes a T Rex following her nose to the sweet stench of decay who rips him open. The banquet is served. Other dinos scratch at their lice, or gulp huge mouthfuls of vegetation (I would not want to be standing behind one of these mainly due to hindgut fermentation), and do what they did … up until Earth’s big bang.
The description of the impact is fascinating but also why the asteroid needed to have hit just there, just at that angle, just at that time in order to have the worldwide impact that it did. I didn’t realize that there was another – larger! – asteroid impact some tens of millions of years later that didn’t do a fraction of the damage that the one which hit near Chicxulub did. A few days earlier or later, or maybe a few hours earlier or later and things – and evolution – could have taken a totally different pathway. And none of us might be here to ponder this or give a damn.
The chapters are divided into the day of impact, the first hour after, next day, a month later, a year later, a hundred years later, one thousand years later, one hundred thousand years later, and lastly a million years later. In these Black talks about the changes that happened, why certain species managed to hang on through the firestorm and superheated temps immediately after the impact and then the darkness and cool “impact winter” that followed. But it’s not just the animals that are discussed but also the plant life and how each interacted with the other. Though Black doesn’t try and describe how the ferns felt about all this.
Black is a paleontologist who knows a lot about this subject. But still there is some speculation which tries to fill in gaps of absolute knowledge. Black freely admits that some of this will probably eventually be discredited when various scientists have discovered more things and more ways to study these things. Just look at the vast amount of knowledge that’s been gained in the last thirty years about dinosaurs. But there are after notes included that explain why she made the choices she did and what she based these on. Then there is the fact that she engages in “storytelling” from the animal’s perspective. This annoyed me at first but eventually I got used to it.
Black writes well and in an engaging manner. This isn’t dry as dust scholarship though my attention span did begin to fade towards the end. I think the audience is intended to be interested lay people rather than fellow scientists. She says that there is still fierce debate over the exact extent of the asteroid impact. Current climate conditions are also chucked in along with her fascination with dinosaurs, the latter tending to drag on a bit. But then if I wasn’t also interested in them, I probably wouldn’t have read the book. B