02 August 2022

The Last Days of the Dinosaurs reviewed

The Last Days of the Dinosaurs cover

Some say the world will end in fire. Some say in ice.” – Robert Frost

We got both at the end of the Cretaceous. Heat pulse. Impact winter. It didn’t end the world, but it came closer than anything before or since.

Look back at old books about dinosaurs, and you might see something like, “We may never know why they went extinct.” It’s amazing how much we can learn in one lifetime. We learned about Chixulub impact, the presumptive “smoking gun” meteor strike that killed the dinosaurs, decades ago.

But no account that I have ever read before The Last Days of the Dinosaurs delivered such a clear and compelling explanation for why dinosaurs went extinct, but birds, mammals, and a few other lineages didn’t.

The answer seems to be down in the underground.

Black paints a vivid picture of a world on fire after the meteor struck. The air temperature with like an oven and forests lit up like matches. Unlike forest fires today, animals could not hope to outrun the flames by crossing a lake or fiver. The only way out was down, into the ground. An ankylosaur or ceratopsian or tyrannosaur couldn’t do that, but small mammals and birds could. Just a few inches of soil coverage made the difference between life and extinction.

Black’s description of the impact and its immediate aftermath are the highlight of the book, but not the bulk of the book. Despite the title, most of the book is the first days of the mammals (in an ecological sense rather than an origin sense). 

In that sense, the book has a problem: the best material is right up front, and the extended “what happened next” doesn’t have the same built-in drama. 

This is not to say the rest of the book is boring – far from it. I appreciated the personal last chapter, which Black draws parallels between the devastation of regrowth of, well, the planet, with her own personal journey.

But the book doesn’t stop with the last chapter. For the scientifically minded who want some of evidence behind Black’s descriptions, the endnotes for each chapter are little mines of information. 

My only quibbles are not about the fossils or rocks, where Black is as knowledgeable as anyone. There is a tiny passing comment about the low level sense of smell in birds, which is a common myth that I believed, too. I might not have caught it if it hadn’t been for listening to an interview about birds’ smelling ability. Black also refers to “the numbers game” a couple of times without explanation, and I don’t know if every reader will understand it’s a reference to a reproductive strategy (r selection: make a lot of low cost offspring with a high chance of dying).

And, putting on my graphic design hat for a moment, the cover is just so smart. I love it.

This is my favourite of Black’s books (so far). I know there will be more good stuff coming from her.

External links

The Last Days of the Dinosaurs publisher site

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