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Good Reads  Palaeontology  Palaeozoology & Extinctions

The Last Days of the Dinosaurs An Asteroid, Extinction, and the Beginning of Our World

Popular Science New
By: Riley Black(Author), Kory Bing(Illustrator)
287 pages, b/w illustrations
The Last Days of the Dinosaurs offers a beautifully written narrative of mass extinction and its aftermath, and adds thoughtful observations on the role of evolution in ecosystem recovery.
The Last Days of the Dinosaurs
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  • The Last Days of the Dinosaurs ISBN: 9781803996530 Paperback Apr 2024 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
  • The Last Days of the Dinosaurs ISBN: 9780750999526 Hardback Apr 2022 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
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About this book

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.

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.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A unique on the story of dinosaur extinction and its aftermath
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 15 Jun 2022 Written for Hardback

    The day an asteroid slammed into the Yucatán Peninsula some 66 million years ago is a strong contender for "the worst day in history". The K–Pg extinction ended the long evolutionary success story of the dinosaurs and a host of other creatures, and has lodged itself firmly in our collective imagination. But what happened next? The fact that a primate is tapping away at a keyboard writing this review gives you part of the answer. The rise of mammals was not a given, though, and the details have been hard to get by. Here, science writer Riley Black examines and imagines the aftermath of the extinction at various times post-impact. The Last Days of the Dinosaurs ends up being a fine piece of narrative non-fiction with thoughtful observations on the role of evolution in ecosystem recovery.

    Before delving in, a brief word on what is not in the book. Black does not discuss the history of the research that discovered evidence of an asteroid impact, such as the iridium spike and the crater. Nor does she go into the ongoing debate on the relative contributions of the asteroid and Deccan Trap volcanism. Instead, Black's approach is to imagine a day in the life of the survivors at various time points post-impact: after an hour, a day, a month, a year, a century, all the way up to one million years. She focuses on the Hell Creek formation in western North America as it offers one of the clearest windows into the mass extinction and its aftermath. Most chapters have a short coda that looks at how life was faring elsewhere on the planet. Black's style of choice is narrative non-fiction: she is resurrecting individual animals and imagining their lives. As she explains in her preface, to allow full immersion, she is not interrupting the flow of her story with notes and references, which are found at the back of the book. An extensive, 58-page(!) chapter-by-chapter appendix reveals her process and discusses what we know, what is hypothetical, and where she has speculated to smooth over the gaps in our knowledge.

    Now, when this book was announced, just the prospect of dipping into the story of the disaster and the ensuing recovery already had me excited. However, The Last Days of the Dinosaurs surpassed even these expectations for two main reasons.

    First, there are plenty of exciting new ideas and scientific findings here. Black's interpretation of the impact will no doubt ruffle some feathers as it is particularly catastrophic. Forget the oft-depicted idea of an asteroid seen streaking across the sky, Black writes, this thing came in fast at some 45,000 miles per hour (~20 km/s). Forget, too, the oft-depicted drawn-out hunger winter for the surviving dinosaurs. I had not come across this idea before, but Black writes how a global heat pulse that lasted several hours fried anyone that could not crawl underground or stay submerged underwater. This is based on estimates of the amount of material ejected by the impact that, upon re-entry, heated the atmosphere to several hundreds of degrees centigrade. It would have ignited global wildfires. Finally, the impact injected vast amounts of sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere as the impact site was rich in calcium sulfate. The ensuing acid rain "might have effectively erased some of the slowly forming fossil record" (p. 256), explaining why fossils are hard to find in the layers around the K–Pg boundary.

    Regarding the survivors, Black has plenty of interesting ideas too. As seen at other times and other places, there was a fern spike. A rapid initial proliferation of ferns is frequently seen in devastated ecosystems where plants have died. And why did birds survive? One novel idea is that the survival of beaked, but not toothed birds is part of the answer. "Maintaining a mouth of sharp teeth comes with a reliance on animal food. [...] A consumer that feeds on other consumers has very little to survive on now. But beaked birds do not face the same constraints" (p. 117). With the extinction of toothed birds and pterosaurs, the beaked birds were poised for an evolutionary radiation. Something similar happened with the mammals. Black prominently mentions the idea that Elsa Panciroli promoted in Beasts Before Us, that "it was competition between mammals that limited the number of different forms and niches Mesozoic mammals evolved into" (p. 158). With the extinction of more archaic mammaliaformes, the placental and marsupial mammals would flourish.

    The second reason the book surpassed my expectations is Black's reflections on the process of evolution and its role in ecological recovery. This is where her prose sings in places. One thousand years post-impact "[...] there is no script for what's about to unfold, no cast of characters that inevitably must be filled" (p. 142). One million years post-impact a reptilian resurgence seems unlikely, but "the rise of the mammals is anything but assured [...] When a global disaster ends one evolutionary dance, shifting the tempo, another begins, with no certainty as to who will lead" (p. 182). She poignantly notes how the fossil record "is not in any way a complete record of life on Earth. It is a record of fortuitous burials" (p. 254). And on the process of evolution, she writes how variation and happenstance provide "the raw material for natural selection and other evolutionary forces to shunt down different pathways. Not that there is any intent to this. It's a passive state, a constantly running routine that is merely part of existence itself" (p. 196). This is music to my ears and Black's writing is one of the highlights of this book.

    Writing about such an iconic event carries the risk of intense scrutiny. No doubt, some experts and other palaeo-nerds will disagree with some of the details presented here. I think her appendix is sufficiently explicit about where she speculates and where she has chosen not to hedge her bets on different explanations. I was willing to read the book in this spirit, as one possible interpretation of how things might have unfolded, though one that Black carefully backs up with scientific evidence. My quibbles are rather minor instead. One is that the book has no index, the other is that there are no notes to the appendix. Relegating the discussion of the underlying science to the appendix is a defensible choice. But not properly referencing the studies mentioned here is, to me, a minor blemish on an otherwise excellent book.

    If you have any interest whatsoever in dinosaurs and their extinction, this book comes highly recommended. Her take on the topic, dipping into the extinction and recovery at various moments post-impact, is novel. I am not familiar with other books attempting this. As a bonus, I expect that many readers will come away with a better understanding of the process of evolution.
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Riley Black has been heralded as 'one of our premier gifted young science writers' and is the critically acclaimed author of Skeleton Keys, My Beloved Brontosaurus, Written in Stone, When Dinosaurs Ruled and Deep Time. Her work has appeared in Science, The New York Times, Nature, Smithsonian and more. Black also has a strong online presence, connecting with over 27,000 followers on Twitter, and has written on nerdy pop culture for websites like Slate, io9 and the Guardian. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Popular Science New
By: Riley Black(Author), Kory Bing(Illustrator)
287 pages, b/w illustrations
The Last Days of the Dinosaurs offers a beautifully written narrative of mass extinction and its aftermath, and adds thoughtful observations on the role of evolution in ecosystem recovery.
Media reviews

"A marvellous look at what happened after the asteroid hit Earth will make readers feel like a kid discovering dinosaurs for the first time. Black blends the intricacies of science with masterful storytelling for a cracking, enchanting read"

"Immerse yourself in the last moments of the dinosaur empire, as Riley Black weaves a tale of destruction, survival and rebirth in the wake of a killer asteroid. You feel what T. rex and Triceratops felt as their world ended in an apocalypse of fire and famine on the single worst day in Earth history, and what our mammal ancestors felt as they emerged on the other side, in a ghostly void ripe for renewal. This is pop science that reads like a fantasy novel, but backed up by hard facts and the latest fossil discoveries. Black is pioneering a new genre: narrative prehistorical non-fiction"
– Steve Brusatte, Personal Chair of Palaeontology and Evolution at the University of Edinburgh and Sunday Times-bestselling author of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

"This book is as vivid as a fairy-tale, brought to life by Black's scientifically informed imagination. The Last Days of the Dinosaurs reveals the links between the deep past and present-day ecosystems. Black guides you through Earth's darkest hours – when an asteroid decimated the thriving dinosaurian world – and out the other side into a bright new evolutionary landscape. Facts are woven deftly into the narrative, parachuting you back in time to watch events unfold first-hand. This tale could be bleak, but Black turns our planet's interstellar wound and subsequent transition into a story of hope and resilience. Mostly told from the animals' perspectives, you share the experiences of a host of organisms including mammals, insects and plants. It's Call of the Wild meets Armageddon"
– Elsa Panciroli, Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and author of Beasts Before Us

"While the human endeavour of palaeontology is infused into every page of this book, Black skilfully shifts it to the background and instead carries us straight into the forests, rivers and plains of the Cretaceous and Paleogene world. Black's writing brings the last days of the dinosaurs and the critical first days, years and millennia afterwards to vivid life, portraying a dynamic world full of living, breathing creatures. I'd never before thought about what it must have felt like for a dinosaur to have lice, or for an early primate to be woken by birdsong, but now these images are seared into my memory, thanks to Black's skilful imagining of this lost world"
– Phoebe A. Cohen, Associate Professor in Geosciences at Williams College, Massachusetts

"During the most famous mass extinction, the dinosaurs died and the mammals survived. Riley Black brings every step of the crisis and the recovery to life in this novelization of the crisis. See it unfolding through the eyes of the victim dinosaurs and the survivor mammals. The lightness and pace of the writing is founded on thorough and careful analysis of the rich scientific evidence that lies behind the story"
– Michael J. Benton, Professor of Vertebrate Paleontology at the University of Bristol and author of The Dinosaurs Rediscovered

"This is top-drawer science writing"
Publishers Weekly, starred review

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