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The Rise and Reign of the Mammals: A New History, from the Shadow of the Dinosaurs to Us

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Humans, too, offer much to marvel at: as Brusatte points out, we are sentient apes that have changed the world. But we are only a chapter in a far bigger story.

Mammal Ancestors: the story of mammals starts in the Carboniferous period. Two groups of animals would develop from the early amphibians: the Diapsids (reptiles and dinosaurs) and Synapsids (mammals). As the climate became drier, they diversified in various ways. For Synapsids, their teeth would become diverse, allowing them to handle different kinds of food. The Synapsids would lead to the Therapsids, who have a more upright posture. At this time, indications that this group is becoming warm-blooded become apparent. They would also develop one mammalian feature: hair. I am not a paleontologist nor any other kind of scientist, but recently I have become obsessed with books that explain how the world became what it is today. That obsession led me to listen to this book. Watching these pieces of the past come together was deeply gratifying, if not a little dizzying. The present is so familiar that it feels inevitable. But it was striking to see modern civilization, even modern humans, in context, to recognize how all that we are now actually hinges on countless moments of invention, improvement and experimentation in the deep past.

Beautifully told. Brusatte writes with precision and panache. From tiny fossils he conjures up vivid worlds. Seen through his eyes, the mammals are every bit as engaging as the reptiles from whom they inherited the earth. ... When the first Jurassic Park film was released in 1993, it inspired a host of budding school-aged paleontologists. Brusatte was one of them. Don't be surprised if in decades to come this lovely book leads to more of them choosing to focus on the mouse-sized mammal rather than the megalosaurus." — The Times (UK) I've previously read Brusatte's book The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World. As he tells in the beginning of this volume, he was lured into paleontology by dinosaurs, those fearsome extinct creatures that have enraptured generations of children. I was one of those kids, so his dinosaur book was retreading well known territory for me. It was written in an accessible style and I was delighted when I realized that he had penned a similar book about early mammals. A fascinating account of how mammals survived the great extinction that destroyed the dinosaurs and evolved to their current position of dominance. A worthy sequel to [Steve Brusatte's] The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs.

Mammals and Changing Climates: during the Oligocene and Miocene periods, other recognizable mammals like rhinos, camels, horses would appear. Grasslands would develop and spread during a cooler and dryer climate. Mammals would form various adaptations for eating grass, like having longer teeth or constantly growing teeth. During this time, the Marsupials in the southern continents would start to die out, replaced by placental animals, except in Australia. I read and enjoyed Brusatte's earlier book, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World, so reading this one was a no brainer. This one was much like the dinosaur book, a description of the development of mammals from their earliest appearance to today. The author is a practicing paleontologist and includes much about other scientists in the field and what is involved in finding the rare fossils that are our primary clues to how these creatures lived and changed over time. He includes much interesting detail about their anatomy and their lives. It's amazing how much they can tell from just a few teeth. Alternately admiring and critical, unvarnished, and a closely detailed account of a troubled innovator.

I don’t think we appreciate this enough,” says Steve Brusatte, a palaeontologist at the University of Edinburgh and author of The Rise and Reign of the Mammals , which sets out to bridge the fascination gap. “Just imagine if whales were extinct, and all we had were their bones. I mean, they would surely be as famous, as fascinating, as dinosaurs.” I’m one of those people who struggle to remember what came first, Triassic or Cretaceous, and who have no idea what the difference is between a phylum, a kingdom, and a family in biological classification. This book is for the ignorant like myself – detailed, yes, but also captivating and helping to learn. I’m not likely to retain all the information about cynodonts and gorgonopsians for long, but reading about them was actually great fun thanks to the Author’s engaging style. Also, thanks to the helpful timeline at the beginning of the book to which I referred every chapter or so, I might finally be able to remember my geological periods… The vivid descriptions like that of the ocean encroaching into the Carboniferous forests and making all the coal can certainly help my memory.

We humans are the inheritors of a dynasty that has reigned over the planet for nearly 66 million years, through fiery cataclysm and ice ages: the mammals. Our lineage includes saber-toothed tigers, woolly mammoths, armadillos the size of a car, cave bears three times the weight of a grizzly, clever scurriers that outlasted Tyrannosaurus rex, and even other types of humans, like Neanderthals. Indeed humankind and many of the beloved fellow mammals we share the planet with today—lions, whales, dogs—represent only the few survivors of a sprawling and astonishing family tree that has been pruned by time and mass extinctions. How did we get here? The book continues with the fairly well-known story of how mammals evolved during the Age of Dinosaurs, mostly occupying the ecological niche of small and often burrowing animals, many of them insectivores and mainly active at night, with dinosaurs taking up all the daytime slots. It was precisely this sort of lifestyle of course, that allowed (a few) mammals to survive the asteroid strike and to proliferate once the world had recovered, and with dinosaurs out of the way.Mammals shared our planet with the dinosaurs throughout their long reign, from the initial split of our amniote common ancestor into synapsids (us) and diapsids (them), to their extinction at the end of the Cretaceous. Over the course of some 100 million years, a parade of lineages evolved—archaic mammals all—piecemeal developing the traits we recognize as mammalian today: pelycosaurs, therapsids, cynodonts, mammaliaformes, docodonts and gliding haramiyidans, multituberculates, and therians who gave rise to today's placentals, marsupials, and monotremes. However, the above must not be mistaken for a linear march of progress. "[M]ammals were a still unrealized concept, which evolution had yet to assemble" (p. 20). Simultaneously, it does not behove us to call these now-extinct groups evolutionary dead ends. "In their time and place, these mammals were anything but obsolete" (p. 88). I read this with my 9 year old son. We read and listened every night for an hour and my son enjoyed every minute of this book. Steve takes you through a fascinating story of mammals from where he left in his previous book providing a lot of interesting and entertaining facts. Whenever we think of Paleontology we are easily taken into the world of dinosaurs but this book makes the average and prolific mammalians look like heroes dwarfing the big giants in his own style with his witty and lucid writing. Not to mention the now-extinct megafauna of the last Ice Age. Woolly mammoths, sabertooth tigers - all that awesome megafauna that sadly is lost to us now. Within just a few hundred thousand years of the asteroid impact that wiped out all nonbird dinos some 66 million years ago, mammals moved in to fill the vacancy, rapidly getting a lot bigger, ballooning from, say, mouse-sized to beaver-sized ( SN: 12/7/19, p. 32). Pretty soon, they got a lot smarter too. In a geologic blink — a scant 10 million years — mammals’ brains caught up with their brawn, and then the Age of Mammals was off to the races ( SN: 5/7/22 & 5/21/22, p. 18). In The Rise and Reign of the Mammals, palaeontologist Steve Brusatte weaves together the history and evolution of our mammal forebears with stories of the scientists whose fieldwork and discoveries underlie our knowledge, both of iconic mammals like the mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers of which we have all heard, and of fascinating species that few of us are aware of.

The epic story of how our mammalian cousins evolved to fly, walk, swim, and walk on two legs [...] [Brusatte's] deep knowledge infuse[s] this lively journey of millions of years of evolution with infectious enthusiasm." Finally, you might be left wondering how this book compares to Elsa Panciroli's Beasts Before Us which covered early mammal evolution up to the K–Pg extinction. There is overlap here in more than one way; Brusatte co-supervised her PhD project describing the docodont Borealestes from a Scottish fossil. I was therefore mildly surprised that he does not mention her book. There is some inevitable overlap as both books walk through the same groups, though Brusatte provides a fuller picture by covering mammal evolution up to today. Panciroli's book stands out for its fantastic writing, though, so you cannot go wrong by reading them both. As in his last book, Brusatte excels at explaining complex research methods and scientific concepts. One example is Tom Kemp's concept of correlated progression. Several times during early mammal evolution, a whole suite of anatomical, behavioural, and functional traits were changing together, making it hard to unravel what was driving what. For instance when cynodonts shrunk in size and changed their growth, metabolism, diet, and feeding styles. Then there is the revision of the mammal family tree based on DNA sequencing. The classic tree, championed by zoologist George Gaylord Simpson in 1945, was based on anatomical features. By the early 2000s, DNA-based genealogies suggested that many supposed relationships were actually cases of convergent evolution, resulting in a new classification that reflected geographical patterns rather than anatomy. The new groupings came with some tongue-twisting names: Afrotheria, Xenarthra, Laurasiatheria, and Eurarchontoglires. A final example is tooth morphology, an important diagnostic trait in this story.

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This is a very beautiful story-driven, well-written book. This is like a fun novel you’re reading.” — Dax Shepherd, Armchair Expert

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