The worst day ever

Reading Riley Black’s The Last Days of the Dinosaurs for New Scientist, 20 April 2022

Welcome to Hell Creek, in what is now Montana. Readers had best not get too attached to the inhabitants dreamt into being in the first chapter of The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: the Tyrannosaurus rex, “her reddish brown hide now draped in orange and gold from the low-angled light of the evening sun”; the low-slung herbivore Ankylosaurus, defending herself with a tail club the size of a car tyre; the new-born Alamosaurus sanjuanensis chick, that will never get to grow into one of the largest animals to ever walk the Earth.

Tomorrow, a seven-mile-wide meteor will plough into the ancient Yucatán, triggering the extinction of around three quarters of all species on Earth. Along with all non-avian dinosaurs, great batwinged pterosaurs will perish; later, invertebrates like ammonites will stutter and stop in seas made corrosive by acid rain. Most early mammals — those that didn’t go up in flames, or get blasted off into outer space — will eventually starve; and with them, most lizards, snakes, and birds.

Subsequent chapters offer glimpses of the aftermath, each separated by an exponentially longer interval. An hour after impact and in Hell Creek, over 4,500 kilometres away from the impact, a puzzled Ankylosaurus fights for its footing at the edge of a trembling lake. Safe in her burrow, a squirrel-like Mesodma sleeps through a day of pulsing, planetary conflagration. A month in, and little two-toed Acheroraptors are poking about amongst the decaying debris, unaware of the cold and hunger to come.

Time accelerates. A year, a hundred years, a thousand years go by. We venture far from Hell Creek, many times, and learn much about dinosaurs and their long history, about the mechanisms of evolution and climate, and about the deep history of our planet. We learn to abandon old notions of a planet healing itself, or of life returning to some ideal degree of diversity. Mass extinctions are not “opportunities”, and when living designs are lost, in the great game of adaptation and extinction, they stay lost. Life got through by the skin of its teeth.

Hell Creek remains central throughout, as is only reasonable, since its geology appears to record in such extraordinary detail the events immediately following the giant Chicxulub asteroid’s impact. We glimpse it as an Eden, gardened by towering herbivores. We see it go up in flames. We say goodbye to the place as new plants smother and entangle it, creating the jungle environments from which complex behaviours and communities — both primate and avian — will be born. Throughout, the author’s shifting cast of characters remains vivid and charming.

Indeed, it’s as if Black — a palaeontologist and prolific writer, and no doubt familiar to many readers for her Laelaps blog — had set up camp in the very heart of the valley. This is palaeontology written with the immediacy of natural history.

In a long appendix, Black explains what’s real in this book, and what she’s made up. No need to be disconcerted. Without a leavening of intelligent speculation, palaeontologists have never been able to say anything useful. it’s a point Black makes splendidly, with reference to an illustrated study from 1863, The World Before the Deluge.

This book was published just a couple of years after the discovery of the first decent fossilised skeleton of Archaeopteryx — a previously missing link between reptiles and birds. The only problem was the head was missing. “Did Archaeopteryx have a beak? Teeth? Both? Neither? There was no way to answer the question,” Black explains. “And so The World Before the Deluge portrayed Archaeopteryx flying high above Jurassic conifers totally headless.”

Black’s approach is much more sensible, adding to The Last Days of the Dinosaurs whatever she needs — a head here, a behaviour there — to give us living, more-or-less reliable glimpses into the days after the worst day ever suffered by life on Earth.

 

Teeth and feathers

Visiting T. rex: The ultimate predator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, for New Scientist, 13 March 2019

PALAEONTOLOGY was never this easy. Reach into a bin and pick up a weightless fossil bone hardly smaller than you are. Fling it into the air, in roughly the direction indicated by the glowing orange light. It fixes in place above you with a satisfying click. Add more bones. You are recreating the head of the most fearsome predator known to natural history: Tyrannosaurus rex. Once it is complete, the skull you have made makes this point nicely – by coming after you.

The American Museum of Natural History is 150 years old this year. One of its collectors, Barnum Brown, discovered the first fossil remains of the predator in Montana in 1902. So the museum has made T. rex the subject of its first exhibition celebrating the big anniversary.

The game I was playing, T. rex: Skeleton crew, is also the museum’s first foray into virtual reality. It is a short, sweet, multiplayer game that, if it doesn’t convey much scientific detail, nonetheless gives the viewer a glimpse of the first great puzzle palaeontologists confront: how to put scattered remains together. It also gives a real sense of the beast’s size: a fully grown T. rex (and they could live into their late 20s) was more than 12 metres long and weighed 15 tonnes.

An extended version of this game, for home use, will feature a full virtual gallery tour. It has been put together by the Vive arm of tech firm HTC. Early on, in its project to establish a name in the cultural sector, the company decided not to compete with the digital realm’s top dog, Google Arts & Culture. Google, at least until recently, has tended to brand its efforts quite heavily because it brings a wealth of big data to its projects.

HTC Vive, by contrast, works behind the scenes with museums, cultural organisations and artists to realise relatively modest projects. By letting the client take the lead, it is learning faster than most what the VR medium can do. It cut its teeth on an explorable 3D rendering of Modigliani’s studio in the Tate Modern in London in 2017 and created an immersive exploration of Claude Monet’s approach to painting in The Water Lily Obsession, now a permanent feature at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.

The trick, it seems, is to focus, to make immersion and physical sensation the point of each piece. Above all, the idea is to slow down. VR isn’t a traditional teaching aid. The Monet project in particular revealed how good VR is at conveying craft knowledge.

But if, instead, a VR installation delivers a brief, memorable, even magical experience, this, too, has value. Skeleton crew is a powerful prompt to the imagination. It isn’t, and isn’t meant to be, the star of this show. The models are the real draw here. Traditionally fashioned life-size renderings of tyrannosaurs big and small, scaled, tufted and sometimes fully feathered, their variety reflecting the explosion of palaeobiological research that has transformed our understanding of millions of years of Mesozoic fauna over the past 20 years. We can now track trace chemicals in the material surrounding a fossil so precisely that we even know the colour of some species’ eggs.

T. rex: The ultimate predator certainly delivers on its brash, child-friendly title. Terrifying facts abound. T. rex‘s jaws had a maximum bite force 10 times that of an alligator – enough not just to break bone, but to burst it into swallowable splinters.

But the really impressive thing about the show are the questions it uses to convey the sheer breadth of palaeontology. What did T. rex sound like? No one knows, but here are a mixing desk and some observations about how animals vocalise: go figure. Is this fossil a juvenile T. rex or a separate species? Here is a summary of the arguments: have a think.

Staged in a huge cavern-like hall, with shadow-puppet predators and prey battling for dear life, T. rex: The ultimate predator will wow families. Thankfully, it is also a show that credits their intelligence.