The Paleontologist Who Finds Anthropocene Insights in the Dinosaur Age
Steve Brusatte explains how these spectacular bygone animals shaped our present, and how they can inform our future.
There’s usually at least one dinosaur-obsessed kid per elementary school classroom, and that number skyrocketed in the wake of the Jurassic Park franchise’s success in the early 1990s .
You might expect that Steve Brusatte, one of the world’s leading millennial paleontologists, to have been that kid. But the cinematic image of dinosaurs as rampaging people-eaters didn’t click with Brusatte. “I remember learning about dinosaurs in preschool and kindergarten, but they never interested me that much,” he told me over the phone.
It wasn’t until Brusatte’s little brother, the real dino enthusiast in the family, needed help with a dinosaur science project that the elder Brusatte, as a teenager, discovered his own passion for the iconic fauna of the Mesozoic era.
“Because I was a little bit older, I think it was less of the schoolyard idea of being captivated by big scary monsters, and more that I became really interested in how dinosaurs and other fossils are clues that tell us about how Earth has changed over time,” Brusatte said. “That’s what really hooked me in—the big mysteries of evolution.”
This broader evolutionary perspective on dinosaurs, and the fragile world that these animals bequeathed to us, remains the central focus of Brusatte’s research to this day. His latest book, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs—due from HarperCollins in April 2018—is an expansive biography of this peerless group of species, intermixed with insights about the methods paleontologists use to reconstruct their lost world.
For Brusatte, these are not abstract or esoteric subjects, to be indulged for the sake of scientific curiosity alone. The triumphant reign and sudden demise of the dinosaurs deeply shaped the planet we inherited from them, and their story is a gold mine of insights into long-term survival on Earth—and how one bad day can ruin it all.
There’s an obvious cautionary tale there, he said, because ”even the mightiest can fall very quickly.” That lesson is more relevant than ever in our Anthropocene age, which is defined by worldwide environmental collapse and a troubling culture of denialism concerning the central human role in this devastation.
But the rise of the dinosaurs, a group that started “small and humble,” is also an important and relatively untold part of their legacy, as are the evolutionary victories these creatures scored, against the odds, over an extraordinary stretch of some 170 million years on Earth. (Humans, by comparison, have only been around for a dinky 200,000 years.)
“I’m really keen on making sure the public understands dinosaurs as more than just fantastic colossal monsters that lived millions of years ago, and to actually see them as creatures that were part of the same world that we live in,” Brusatte told me. “Dinosaurs are great success stories of evolution that can teach us a lot about how our world has come to be, but also how we should interact with our world. They had to deal with the same things we deal with in terms of climate and environmental change.”
Brusatte has refined this outlook on dinosaurs over the course of a prolific career that has intertwined international field expeditions to remote fossil beds, academic and laboratory work to interpret those finds, and active engagement with the science media sphere.
He wrote his first book on fossils while still in high school, and went on to be mentored by a series of world-renowned paleontologists, including Paul Sereno at the University of Chicago, Mike Benton at the University of Bristol, and Mark Norell at the American Museum of Natural History. While he was pursuing each successive degree, Brusatte continued publishing scientific papers, popular articles, and bestselling books about dinosaurs, and aided in the identification of several new species.
“I’ve always intertwined the science and outreach and writing side of things, and I’ve just been really fortunate to have this set of advisors that have given me tremendous opportunities,” Brusatte said. “That set me up to be able to tell the story of dinosaur evolution.”
After completing his PhD at Columbia University in 2013, Brusatte became a Chancellor's Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, where he works with the next generation of aspiring paleontologists to understand Scotland’s native fossils, in addition to a wealth of other specimens collected from his expeditions around the world. So while Brusatte’s first pupil may have been his little brother, he now collaborates with numerous students and peers, many of whom were part of the “tidal wave” of young dinosaur enthusiasts inspired by the popularity of Jurassic Park.
Having spent most of his career quantifying the evolutionary arc of the dinosaur epoch, Brusatte is currently diving into the period following their abrupt disappearance, which ushered in the rise of mammals—including, eventually, humans.
“This is a prime example of what happens when there’s a major climate and environmental disturbance,” Brusatte said of the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event 66 million years ago. “What happens in the aftermath? How does our family tree come out of this time of great extinction? I want to understand that.”
“Dinosaurs are just a tiny fraction of the history of life and the planet,” he continued. “For dinosaurs, but also for paleontology in general, we are in the most exciting phase. We’re in such an exponential period of time where we’re learning so much, and there’s still a lot to be found. I’m just excited to see what comes next.”
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