Steve Brusatte is a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh who has excavated dinosaurs around the world and named 15 new species. He is the author of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, which arrives in bookstores this month.
When I was nine years old, my brother Chris cleared out his bedroom and turned it into a dinosaur museum.
Sure, it wasn’t a “real” museum. Admission was by appointment only. There wasn’t a gift shop or an overpriced café. My brother proclaimed himself curator, but there were no docents or conservators on the non-existent payroll. It didn’t even have a lock on its door.
What it did have, though, were exhibits – of a sort. Posters of T. rex and Triceratops plastered the walls, Jurassic Park toys cluttered the shelves, pieces of real dinosaur bone were given god-like status inside plastic display boxes and a menagerie of stuffed dinosaurs played out a prehistoric scene on top of dinosaur-printed bedsheets.
And then there was the library: more than a hundred books, brimming with every possible factoid about the creatures that so inspired my brother. To flip open one of these books was to enter another world: the incomprehensibly long reach of the Mesozoic Era, which extended roughly 186 million years, from about 252 million to 66 million years ago, when the continents started as one but then drifted apart, climates were boiling, colossal beasts abounded and humans were still tens of millions of years in the future.
Chris was a hoarder of dinosaur gear and dinosaur knowledge. So were many other kids that I grew up with, and although I didn’t consider myself one of them, I understood their obsession. We were born and raised in a speck of a town on the Illinois prairie, a place called Ottawa that had nothing else in common with the cosmopolitan Canadian capital. Surrounded by the flattened anonymity of corn and bean fields, it was a safe and pleasant place to live, but not a particularly inspiring one. We needed to find our excitement elsewhere, and for my brother, that was dinosaurs.
Alas, my brother grew out of his “dinosaur phase,” as my parents liked to call it. But it turned out that his passion was contagious, and it infected me. As I entered high school, and Chris slowly started to trade his dinosaur toys for sports memorabilia, I got hooked. Clandestine visits to his library did the trick. Something about dinosaurs grabbed me, captured my imagination in a way that nothing else ever had. They were simply awesome.
Before long, I came out and told my family that I wanted to be a palaeontologist. Having already been through it once before with Chris, my parents were supportive, although I’m sure they thought I was just going through my own weird teenage rebellion phase. But my enthusiasm for dinosaurs lasted, and it became more than an obsession. I began to understand the importance of dinosaurs, to see dinosaur bones as the clues that resurrect lost worlds, reveal how evolution happens and tell us how the Earth has changed over time.
Two decades later, I am now indeed a palaeontologist. My journey studying dinosaurs has taken me around the world – to the big cities of Chicago to study geology in college and New York to do my PhD, the magisterial Scottish capital of Edinburgh where I now teach on the faculty of the city’s namesake university and to countless deserts, streambeds, road cuts, cliffs and rock outcrops across the globe on the hunt for dinosaur bones.
Through my research, I’ve come to understand the evolutionary story of dinosaurs. They started humbly, as gangly cat-sized creatures repopulating a world scarred by volcanoes. After a 50-million-year battle for supremacy, these early dinosaurs finally bested their crocodile cousins as the supercontinent they lived on fractured apart. Over the next 140 million years, they spread around the globe and diversified into long-necked plant-guzzlers the size of Boeing 737s, sharp-toothed carnivores bigger than buses, and a bevy of spiked, plated, armoured, horned, crested and fanged species that lived in almost every conceivable environment on land – from the dense forests to the sea shores. One bizarre subgroup of meat-eaters shrunk in size, lengthened their arms and developed feathers and wings, becoming birds – about 10,000 species of modern dinosaurs! But then, all of the other dinosaurs died suddenly when an enormous asteroid the size of Mount Everest, traveling faster than a jetliner, struck the Earth, unleashing a chain reaction of fires, tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes and other catastrophes that reshaped the world in a matter of days.
Surely, in this evolutionary story, there is a lesson for all of us. Dinosaurs were real animals that evolved in concert with real changes in climate and environment. They dealt with warming temperatures and rising sea levels. Although the term “dinosaur” is often used as an insult for out-of-touch politicians or washed-up celebrities, nothing could be more ridiculous when you think about it. I challenge anyone to stand underneath the earth-shaking skeleton of a Brontosaurus or bone-crushing head of a T. rex and consider dinosaurs as failures. No, they were nature’s ultimate success stories, the undisputed rulers of the world for more than 100 million years.
Until one day they weren’t. Their shock extinction paved the way for mammals, from which humans evolved. Now, we wear the crown that once belonged to the dinosaurs, but we must do so with caution. If tragedy could happen to them, it could happen to us.
As we keep pumping toxins into the atmosphere and oceans, we seem unwilling or unable to change our ways, despite the best arguments of scientists and environmentalists. The reasons are many, but I think it is largely one of perspective. We have lost respect for the world around us. As technology has brought people closer together through the pull of social media, we seem to be losing a sense of wonder about the planet we call home. More people live in cities than ever before, and people (particularly children) are spending less time immersed in nature. It can be easy to forget that our planet is vast, and old, and fragile, and we are only one small part of a rich legacy of more than four billion years of evolution.
Dinosaurs could still help us. Yes, they provide lessons from prehistory as we try to forge a society resilient to climate and environmental changes, but it’s more than that. Even in our tech-mad world, dinosaurs retain their awesomeness. They are gateway drugs that get kids interested in science and nature, and make them want to go outside, go to museums (or, sometimes, start their own museums in their bedrooms) and learn about the deep history of our planet.
Children still love dinosaurs. I see it every time I go into a classroom. Just a few weeks ago, I visited a small school in a blighted area of Edinburgh, untouched by gentrification and with a vibe out of one of the Trainspotting films. About 50 eight-year-olds gathered around, a diversity of working-class children of many nationalities and languages, many of them recent immigrants whose families were drawn from around the world to Scotland’s growing capital. They put away their phones and tablets, and for 15 minutes listened slack-jawed as I told them about my job studying dinosaurs. For the next 45 minutes, they asked question after question, surprising me with how much they knew about dinosaurs – where certain species lived and how old they were, that some dinosaurs had feathers and evolved into birds, and even how to pronounce tongue-twister names indecipherable to most adults. It seems like they would have continued questioning me for hours if given the chance.
This is the sort of wonder that can’t be faked. Whatever it is, there is an indescribable essence about dinosaurs. I wish I knew what it was, but it eludes me, even as it has captivated me to spend my life on the trail of these creatures.