The fiery end of the dinosaurs kicked off the golden age of mammals
It was a normal day in the Cretaceous—then an asteroid hit the planet. Riley Black's new book explores how the extinction of dinosaurs gave way to new life.
Excerpted from The Last Days of the Dinosaurs by Riley Black. Copyright © 2022 by Riley Black and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.
Picture yourself in the Cretaceous period. It’s a day like most any other, a sunny afternoon in the Hell Creek of ancient Montana about 66 million years ago. The ground is a bit mushy, a fetid muck saturated from recent rains that caused a nearby floodplain stream to overrun its banks. If you didn’t know any better, you might think you were wading on the edge of a Gulf Coast swamp on a midsummer day. Magnolias and dogwoods shoulder their way into stands of conifers, ferns, and other low-lying plants gently waving in the light breeze drifting over the open ground you now stand upon. But a familiar face soon reminds you that this is a different time.
A Triceratops horridus ambles along the edge of the forest, three-foot-long brow horns slightly swaying to and fro as the pudgy dinosaur shuffles its scaly, ten-ton bulk over the damp earth. The dinosaur is a massive quadruped, seemingly a big, tough-skinned platform meant to support a massive head decorated with a shield-like frill jutting from the back of the skull, a long horn over each eye, a short nose horn, and a parrot-like beak great for snipping vegetation that is ground to messy pulp by the plant-eater’s cheek teeth. The massive herbivore snorts, making some unseen mammal chitter and scramble in alarm somewhere in the shaded depths of the woods. At this time of the day, with the sun still high and temperatures above 80 degrees, there’s barely another dinosaur in sight—the only other “terrible lizards” plainly in view are a couple of birds perched on a gnarled branch peeking out from just inside the shadow of the forest. The avians seem to grin, their tiny insect-snatching teeth jutting from their beaks.
This is where we’ll watch the Age of Dinosaurs come crashing to a fiery close.
In a matter of hours, everything before us will be wiped away. Lush verdure will be replaced with fire. Sunny skies will grow dark with soot. Carpets of vegetation will be reduced to ash. Contorted carcasses, dappled with cracked skin, will soon dot the razed landscape. Tyrannosaurus rex—the tyrant king—will be toppled from their throne, along with every other species of non-avian dinosaur no matter their size, diet, or disposition. After more than 150 million years of shaping the world’s ecosystems and diversifying into an unparalleled saurian menagerie, the terrible lizards will come within a feather’s breadth of total annihilation.
We know the birds survive, and even thrive, in the aftermath of what’s to come. A small flock of avian species will carry on their family’s banner, perched to begin a new chapter of the dinosaurian story that will unfold through tens of millions of years to our modern era. But our favorite dinosaurs in all their toothy, spiked, horned, and clawed glory will vanish in the blink of an eye, leaving behind scraps of skin, feather, and bone that we’ll unearth eons later as the only clues to let us know that such fantastic reptiles ever existed. Through such unlikely and delicate preservation our favorite dinosaurs will become creatures that defy tense—their remains still with us, but stripped of their vitality, simultaneously existing in the present and the past.
The non-avian dinosaurs won’t be the only creatures to be so harshly cut back. The great, batwinged pterosaurs, some with the same stature as a giraffe, will die. Fliers like Quetzalcoatlus, with a wingspan wider than a Cessna and capable of circumnavigating the globe, will disappear just as quickly as the non-avian dinosaurs. In the seas, the quad-paddled, long-necked plesiosaurs and the Komodo dragon cousins called mosasaurs will go extinct, as well as invertebrates like the coil-shelled squid cousins, the ammonites, and flat, reef-building clams bigger than a toilet seat. The diminutive and unprepossessing won’t get a pass either. Even among the surviving families of the Cretaceous world, there will be dramatic losses. Marsupial mammals will almost be wiped out in North America, with lizards, snakes, and birds all suffering their own decimation, too. Creatures of the freshwater rivers and ponds will be among the few to get any sort of reprieve. Crocodiles, strange reptilian crocodile mimics called champsosaurs, fish, turtles, and amphibians will be far more resilient in the face of the impending disaster, their lives spared by literal inches.
We know the ecological murder weapon behind this Cretaceous case study. An asteroid or similar body of space rock some seven miles across slammed into Earth, leaving a geologic wound over fifty miles in diameter. Most species from the Cretaceous disappeared in the aftermath. It’s difficult to stress the point strongly enough. The loss of the dinosaurs was just the tip of the ecological iceberg. Virtually no environment was left untouched by the extinction, an event so severe that the oceans themselves almost reverted to a soup of single-celled organisms.
But the reason we’ve gone back to this place and this one infamous moment is to understand not only why there are no Ankylosaurus descendants at the zoo but also how and why we came to exist. The Age of Mammals, a marker literally set down in stone, would never have dawned if this impact hadn’t allowed for evolutionary opportunities that were closed for the previous 100 million years. The history of life on Earth was irrevocably changed according to a simple phenomenon called contingency. If the asteroid’s arrival had been canceled or significantly delayed, or if it had landed on a different place on the planet, what transpired during the millions of years that followed the strike would have unfolded according to an altered script. Perhaps the non-avian dinosaurs would have continued to dominate the planet. Maybe marsupials would have held sway as the most common beasts. Perhaps some other disaster, like massive volcanic eruptions in ancient India that picked up around the same time, would have sparked a different sort of extinction. It’s likely that the Age of Reptiles would have marched on unimpeded, but without the origin of any species introspective enough to engage in such ruminations about time and its flow. This day was as critical for us as it was for the dinosaurs.
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