Steve Brusatte loves dinosaurs. He’s worried that you may not love them nearly enough.
“I think dinosaurs are unfortunately seen as a childhood obsession, as movie monsters,” says Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh. “But they are one of the most fascinating topics in science—some of the greatest creatures evolution has ever produced.”
His new book, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, offers a convincing case as to why grownups should have more respect for the bird-like giants who stomped about prehistoric Earth. “I was taught that dinosaurs were big, scaly, stupid brutes so ill-equipped for their environment that they just lumbered around, biding their time, waiting to go extinct,” he writes. “Evolutionary failures. Dead ends in the history of life.”
It’s true that dinosaurs went extinct some 66 million years ago, doomed by a stray comet or asteroid—scientists aren’t sure which. But before that, dinosaurs reigned supreme for 150 million years, thanks in large part to their cleverness and adaptability. Homo sapiens, by contrast, have only been around for an estimated 300,000 years. Compared to dinosaurs, we kind of suck. (My editor objects to this characterization: Unfair! Maybe we will also live for 150 million years! We don’t know yet! But look how terrible everything is all the time. I think we know.)
“Dinosaurs were great successes,” Brusatte tells Quartz. “To rule the world takes some real talent and ingenuity. They weren’t slow-moving; they were fast. They weren’t dim-witted; we can tell from CAT scans that they had big brains and keen senses.” And yet we continue to insult dinosaurs’ intelligence by using their name to describe out-of-touch oafs like disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.
“The word ‘dinosaur’ should be a token of success,” Brusatte says. “Don’t belittle the dinosaurs—they weren’t like this.” Here are just a few reasons to give a damn about dinos today:
Think of dinosaurs as the popular high-school quarterbacks of prehistoric Earth. For many millions of years, they were the undisputed kings of the planet. The long-necked sauropods were so tall they could munch on tree tops. The allosauruses had teeth so sharp they could slice those sauropods apart and eat them for lunch. Everyone was having a great time. Then, out of nowhere, a space rock the size of Mount Everest collided with the Earth, triggering earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, wildfires, and oven-like temperatures, all while clouding the atmosphere with debris so thick that it blocked out the sun.
You know what dinosaurs did about that? They died. We’d do the same thing, too.
“They give us a new perspective on place in our world and how tenuous it can really be,” Brusatte says. “Even if you’re at the pinnacle of nature, there’s no guarantee you’re going to be there forever. The title of the book, The Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs, is an homage to the Roman Empire, because I see dinosaurs as an empire. They had to rise up, and they did. They became stupendously dominant. Then they fell. That’s true so many times in human history—some kingdom is all-powerful, and then it falls.”
The very first mammals evolved during the Triassic period, around 230 million years ago, Brusatte explains. “These mammals remained small, humble, living in the shadows throughout the age of the dinosaurs. They were swimmers, burrowers, tree climbers, gliders. And they always stayed small.” The ones that survived the fallout from the space rock were not much bigger than rats.
It was only once the dinosaurs were wiped out that mammals got a chance to to take their evolutionary shot. “Almost immediately after their extinction, you get cow-sized mammals and big, burrowing, badger-like mammals,” Brusatte explains. “Dinosaurs were so good in their ecological niche at a large size. They were like the incumbents—a politician who’s been in office 30, 40 years. The moment the T. Rex disappeared, mammals started to evolve like crazy.”
Within, at most, 1 million years of the great dinosaur die-off, tree-swinging monkeys were on the scene. In other words, Brusatte says, “it was the collapse of the dinosaurs that directly led to primates, and later to humans.”
When adults think about dinosaurs, we tend to go straight to the marquee names—the T. Rex and stegosaurus, the velociraptor and brontosaurus. But scientists know of at least 700 or 800 species of dinosaurs, and believe that there are many more.
“Dinosaurs and other fossils tell us that diversity is a key to success,” Brusatte says. Because dinosaurs were diverse, they were better able to adapt to environmental changes. When sauropods went on the wane after the late Jurassic period, for example, carnivores lost a common food source—which could have thrown the whole food chain out of whack. Instead, his book explains, some meat-eating dinosaurs “started to experiment with weird diets, trading in meat for nuts, seeds, bugs, and shellfish…. A weird clan of large theropods called spinosaurids evolved sails on their backs and long snouts full of cone-shaped teeth, and moved into water, where they started behaving like crocodiles and eating fish.”
The adaptive ability of dinosaurs has new relevance in the present day, Brusatte says, as climate change leads to what scientists are calling the Sixth Extinction. “A lot of species are going extinct at more rapid rate than in any time in human history,” Brusatte notes.
“They were creatures at the pinnacle of nature, before humans, who had to deal with real changes in climate—volcanoes, asteroids, rising temperatures, rising sea levels,” Brusatte says. “That makes them important. We need to know, what happens when sea levels change and temperatures go way up? Dinosaurs and ancient animals hold the clues.”