In The Last Days of the Dinosaurs, Riley Black walks readers through what happened in the days, the years, the centuries, and the million years after the impact, tracking the sweeping disruptions that overtook this one spot, and imagining what might have been happening elsewhere on the globe. Life’s losses were sharp and deeply-felt, but the hope carried by the beings that survived sets the stage for the world as we know it now.
Picture yourself in the Cretaceous period. It’s a sunny afternoon in the Hell Creek of ancient Montana 66 million years ago. A Triceratops horridus ambles along the edge of the forest. In a matter of hours, everything here will be wiped away. Lush verdure will be replaced with fire. Tyrannosaurus rex will be toppled from their throne, along with every other species of non-avian dinosaur no matter their size, diet, or disposition. They just don’t know it yet.
The cause of this disaster was identified decades ago. An asteroid some seven miles across slammed into the Earth, leaving a geologic wound over 50 miles in diameter. In the terrible mass extinction that followed, more than half of known species vanished seemingly overnight. But this worst single day in the history of life on Earth was as critical for us as it was for the dinosaurs, as it allowed for evolutionary opportunities that were closed for the previous 100 million years.
"The worst single day in the history of life on Earth" came 66 million years ago when a space rock slammed into Earth and subsequently wiped out about 75% of living species, according to journalist Black (Skeleton Keys) in this impressive account. Black begins by exploring how creatures living in the "Hell Creek Formation beds of central Montana and the Dakotas" experienced that day, imagining the zone from the time of the impact, and the first day (the sun is "blocked by the choking smoke"), month (the area is "a skeleton of what it once was), year (forests are "skeletal), and century following. Black avoids the pitfall of overdramatizing, instead bringing the global disaster to life in elegant prose, imagining, for example, the actions of a young male Edmontosaurus, an 18-foot-long herbivore, and a 25-foot-long armored Ankylosaurus as the world around them changes. She effectively demonstrates the complexity and interdependence of various ecosystems, and the appendix is an extra treat in it, Black explains how scientists know as much as they do about the behavior and physiology of species alive millions of years ago, and identifies where she used literary license to set a scene. This is top-drawer science writing.