Since The last days of the dinosaurs by Riley Black. Copyright © 2022 by Riley Black and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.
Imagine yourself in the Cretaceous period. It’s a day like most others, a sunny afternoon in ancient Montana’s Hell Creek about 66 million years ago. The ground is a bit mushy, fetid mud saturated from recent rains that caused a creek from the nearby floodplain to overflow. If you didn’t know better, you might think you were wading along the edge of a Gulf Coast swamp on a summer day. Magnolias and dogwoods weave their way through stands of evergreens, ferns and other low-lying plants gently waving in the light breeze that drifts across the open terrain you now stand on. But a familiar face soon reminds you that it’s a different time.
A Triceratops horridus ambles along the edge of the forest, three-foot-long eyebrow horns swaying slightly back and forth as the chubby dinosaur drags its ten-ton scaly mass over the damp earth. The dinosaur is a massive quadruped, apparently a large, hard-skinned platform intended to support a massive head decorated with a shield-like frill protruding from the back of the skull, a long horn over each eye, d short nose horn and parrot-shaped beak ideal for cutting vegetation that is ground to a messy pulp by the plant eater’s cheek teeth. The huge herbivore snorts, causing unseen mammals to chirp and rush somewhere in the shady depths of the woods. At this time of day, with the sun still high and temperatures over 80 degrees, there is hardly another dinosaur in sight. The only other “terrible lizards” clearly in sight are two birds perched on a gnarled branch that peek out from within. the shade of the forest. The birds seem to be smiling, their tiny insect teeth sticking out of their beaks.
This is where we will see the age of the dinosaurs crumble.
In a few hours, everything in front of us will be erased. Lush greenery will be replaced by fire. Sunny skies will darken with soot. The carpets of vegetation will be reduced to ashes. Twisted carcasses, speckled with cracked skin, will soon dot the razed landscape. tyrannosaurus rex– the tyrant king – will be knocked down from his throne, along with all other species of non-avian dinosaurs, regardless of size, diet or temperament. After more than 150 million years of shaping the world’s ecosystems and diversifying into an unprecedented saurian menagerie, the terrible lizards will be on the brink of total annihilation.
We know that birds are surviving, and even thriving, in the aftermath of what is to come. A small flock of avian species will carry the banner of their family, perched to begin a new chapter in dinosaur history that will span tens of millions of years into our modern era. But our favorite dinosaurs in all their glory full of teeth, spikes, horns and claws will disappear in the blink of an eye, leaving behind bits of skin, feathers and bone that we will unearth aeons later as 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 time – their remains are still with us, but stripped of their vitality, existing simultaneously in the present and the past.
Non-avian dinosaurs won’t be the only creatures to be taken down so badly. The large bat-winged pterosaurs, some of which have the same stature as a giraffe, will die. flyers like Quetzalcoatlus, with a wingspan wider than a Cessna and capable of circumnavigating the globe, will disappear as fast as non-avian dinosaurs. In the seas, the four-paddle, long-necked plesiosaurs and cousins of the Komodo dragon called mosasaurs will disappear, along with invertebrates like the cousins of the coiled-shell squid, ammonites and clams. dishes larger 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 be nearly wiped out in North America, with lizards, snakes and birds also suffering their own decimation. Creatures in freshwater rivers and ponds will be among the few to get a reprieve. Crocodiles, strange imitation reptilian crocodiles called champsosaurs, fish, turtles, and amphibians will be far more resilient in the face of impending doom, their lives spared by literal inches.
[Related: If that asteroid had been 30 seconds late, dinosaurs might rule the world and humans probably wouldn’t exist]
We know the ecological murder weapon behind this Cretaceous case study. An asteroid or similar body of space rock about seven miles in diameter slammed into Earth, leaving a geological wound more than fifty miles in diameter. Most Cretaceous species disappeared in the process. It is difficult to emphasize this point enough. The disappearance of the dinosaurs was only the tip of the ecological iceberg. Virtually no environment was spared from extinction, an event so severe that the oceans themselves have almost reverted to a soup of single-celled organisms.
But the reason we returned to this place and this infamous moment is to understand not only why there is no Ankylosaurus descendants at the zoo but also how and why we existed. The Age of Mammals, a marker literally carved in stone, would never have come into existence if this impact had not allowed for evolutionary opportunities that closed over the previous 100 million years. The history of life on Earth has been irrevocably altered by a simple phenomenon called contingency. Had the asteroid’s arrival been canceled or significantly delayed, or had it landed somewhere else on the planet, what happened in the millions of years after impact would have unfolded. under a modified scenario. Perhaps non-avian dinosaurs would have continued to dominate the planet. Perhaps marsupials would have dominated as the most common beasts. Maybe another disaster, like massive volcanic eruptions in ancient India that happened around the same time, would have triggered another kind of extinction. It is likely that the Reptilian Age would have marched unhindered, but without the origin of any species sufficiently introspective 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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