April 24, 2013

When dinosaurs ruled the earth

By Brian Switek
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Dinosaurs keep grabbing our attention because they are the closest things in the earth’s history to monsters: flying, fanged, scaly things that speak of a past that is part mythology and part science fiction. These creatures actually roamed the earth—and continue to do so. Birds, believe it or not, are dinosaurs.

Does that fact diminish the mysterious aura of the tried-and-true dinosaur? It shouldn’t. Thanks to advances in science and the discovery of more fossils, new details of dino life keep emerging. It’s next to impossible to reconstruct 230 million years of existence, so the civilization they lived in will always be under construction. Our curiosity will never die.

Author Brian Switek, a dinosaur aficionado turned professional writer, tries to reconstruct that world in My Beloved Brontosaurus, posing questions and exploring the possible answers. This ambitious objective is immeasurably helped by Switek’s good humor and enthusiasm. Reading the book, you know that Switek understands this is a fool’s errand, but the guy can’t help himself: He’s fascinated by the results of the research—and what it promises.

Thanks to Switek’s non-technical delivery, we are too. Using living organisms is a great way to examine dinosaurs. So if we look at the example of birds and crocodylians, we can hypothesize that dinosaurs may have hidden their genitalia in a slit called a cloaca, which would have made sexual relations tricky business. Parasites, and the spread of them through cannibalism, may have contributed to the dinosaurs’ demise, though many researchers favor a fatal, gigantic asteroid. Who’s right? It’s impossible to say.

It may surprise you that Switek’s book provides clarity. The dinosaurs didn’t just show up, bellow, and then disappear. They were around far longer than humans, who have been around a mere 200,000 years. Dinosaurs, Switek writes, represent “evolution and extinction—triumphant and ultimately tragic creatures that beautifully illustrate the duality of life’s constant thread. They are guideposts to the past and harbingers of what the future might bring.”

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My Beloved Brontosaurus

My Beloved Brontosaurus

By Brian Switek
Scientific American/FSG
ISBN 9780374135065

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