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BOUND TO PLEASE / Famous fossil-hunter shines new light on dinosaur history

The Japan News

By Yung-Hsiang Kao / Japan News Staff WriterThe Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

By Steve Brusatte

Macmillan, 404pp

As long as I can remember, I’ve had dinosaurs on the brain, making my parents take me to the American Museum of Natural History in New York so many times that by age 8 I had the notion I could give tours of its dinosaur halls. Later I wanted to study paleontology with famed dinosaur discoverer Paul Sereno at the University of Chicago, but my parents felt it was too far from New York and I didn’t apply for admission.

A handful of years later, Illinois-born Steve Brusatte did apply. He studied with Sereno and then had American Museum dinosaur curator Mark Norell as his PhD mentor. Still in his 30s, Brusatte teaches at the University of Edinburgh and is one of the world’s leading paleontologists.

In his brisk and highly readable book, “The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs,” Brusatte tells the story of dinosaurs based on the latest research and evidence, with fossils of new species being found “on average, once a week.” New techniques using computers and statistics are also mentioned, but Brusatte keeps the fossils in focus.

Brusatte can relate this history with such ease because he has participated in much of the firsthand research in the book. Many of the photos are from his research in the field.

He arranges the chapters along the timeline of the dinosaurs, from just before their rise to just after their fall. The dinosaurs are not the only stars of the story. He introduces readers to the people involved in the research as well, from contemporaries to historical figures, including a Transylvanian baron who was also a spy and tried to make himself a king.

Such anecdotes keep the prose lively and provide the background to the science as he shows readers evidence, that, for example, many dinosaurs, including ancestors of the birds we see outside our windows, already had bird-like lungs.

A major factor in the advance of dinosaur research is the abundance of fossils being found in China, especially fossils of feathered dinosaurs. Brusatte provides convincing evidence that the ability to fly may have helped certain animals survive the mass extinction after the asteroid strike that formed a crater where Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is now.

He uses a humble, conversational tone throughout, but he holds to his convictions when necessary.

“If there is one, single straightforward proposition that I would stake my career on, it would be this: no asteroid, no dinosaur extinction.”

One minor error aside (about a dinosaur logo for Standard Oil rather than Sinclair Oil), overall, I can’t think of another recent book from which I learned so much in so little time. This is the first book any adult who is interested in dinosaurs should read. He opens up the world of dinosaurs to all types of readers, including experts who can scour his sources for more information.

Though based in Scotland, Brussate has been to many parts of North America, China, Europe, Africa and South America to discover and examine fossils. The differences he describes in the fossil record caused by geography are eye-opening.

Brusatte “put journalism aside” to enter a career in paleontology. Had geography not played a role all those years ago, perhaps I could be digging up dinosaurs, too, but it’s much more comfortable reading his book in bed than hacking into rocks in the baking sun.

Where to Read: Anywhere you can observe living dinosaurs, such as pigeons or seagulls.

Maruzen price: ¥2,200 plus tax

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