And here, we often leave the epic tale. The dinosaurs were dominant, even cocky in our prehistoric visions. The largest, strangest, and most ferocious of all inhabited the Late Cretaceous world of soggy swamps and steaming forests. A wayward asteroid suddenly ended their reign, leaving the meek to inherit the Earth. Just as the dinosaurs once benefitted from a mass extinction that allowed them to step out of the shadow of ancient crocodile relatives 201 million years ago, so, too, were our warm-blooded, snuffly little forebears the recipients of good fortune they never earned nor have ever repaid.
We entirely gloss over the nature of recovery, or what made the difference between the survivors and the dead. We obsess over what we lost—blinded to how, even in the shocking cold that followed the initial heat of annihilation, life was already beginning to reseed and recover. It's an extension of how we often cope in the wake of our own personal traumas, remembering the wounds as we struggle to see the growth stimulated by terrible events. Resilience has no meaning without disaster. And that's what led me to this story, the tale of how life suddenly shifted but nevertheless continued to bring us to the here and now. What I'm going to tell you involves hurt and destruction, but that is only the setting for a turning point that's often been taken as a given or somehow inevitable. This is the story of how life bounced back from the worst day in history. Life's losses were sharp and deeply felt 66 million years ago, but each fiddlehead struggling for light, each shivering mammal in its burrow, each turtle that plopped off a log into weed-choked waters set the stage for the world as we know it now. This is not a monument to loss. This is an ode to resilience that can only be seen in the wake of catastrophe.
Picture yourself in the Cretaceous period. It's a day like most any other, a sunny afternoon in the Hell Creek of ancient Montana about 66 million years ago'.' The ground is a bit mushy, a fetid muck saturated from recent rains that caused a nearby floodplain stream to overrun its banks. If you didn't know any better, you might think you were wading on the edge of a Gulf Coast swamp on a midsummer day. Magnolias and dogwoods shoulder their way into stands of conifers, ferns, and other low-lying plants gently waving in the light breeze drifting over the open ground you now stand upon. But a familiar face soon reminds you that this is a different time.
A 'Triceratops horridus' ambles along the edge of the forest, three- foot- long brow horns slightly swaying to and fro as the pudgy dinosaur shuffles its scaly, ten-ton bulk over the damp earth. The dinosaur is a massive quadruped, seemingly a big, tough-skinned platform meant to support a massive head decorated with a shield- like frill jutting from the back of the skull, a long horn over each eye, a short nose horn, and a parrot-like beak great for snipping vegetation that is ground to messy pulp by the plant-eater's cheek teeth. The massive herbivore snorts, making some unseen mammal chitter and scramble in alarm somewhere in the shaded depths of the woods. At this time of the day, with the sun still high and temperatures above 80 degrees, there's barely another dinosaur in sight—the only other "terrible lizards" plainly in view are a couple of birds perched on a gnarled branch peeking out from just inside the shadow of the forest. The avians seem to grin, their tiny insect-snatching teeth jutting from their beaks.
This is where we'll watch the Age of Dinosaurs come crashing to a fiery close.
In a matter of hours, everything before us will be wiped away. Lush verdure will be replaced with fire. Sunny skies will grow dark with soot. Carpets of vegetation will be reduced to ash. Contorted carcasses, dappled with cracked skin, will soon dot the razed landscape. 'Tyrannosaurus rex'—the tyrant king—will be toppled from their throne, along with every other species of non-avian dinosaur no matter their size, diet, or disposition. After more than 150 million years of shaping the world's ecosystems and diversifying into an unparalleled saurian menagerie, the terrible lizards will come within a feather's breadth of total annihilation.
We know the birds survive, and even thrive, in the aftermath of what's to come. A small flock of avian species will carry on their family's banner, perched to begin a new chapter of the dinosaurian story that will unfold through tens of millions of years to our modern era. But our favorite dinosaurs in all their toothy, spiked, horned, and clawed glory will vanish in the blink of an eye, leaving behind scraps of skin, feather, and bone that we'll unearth eons later as the 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 tense—their remains still with us, but stripped of their vitality, simultaneously existing in the present and the past.
The non-avian dinosaurs won't be the only creatures to be so harshly cut back. The great, batwinged pterosaurs, some with the same stature as a giraffe, will die. Fliers like 'Quetzalcoatlus,' with a wingspan wider than a Cessna and capable of circumnavigating the globe, will disappear just as quickly as the non-avian dinosaurs. In the seas, the quad-paddled, long- necked plesiosaurs and the Komodo dragon cousins called mosasaurs will go extinct, as well as invertebrates like the coil-shelled squid cousins, the ammonites, and flat, reef-building clams bigger 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 almost be wiped out in North America, with lizards, snakes, and birds all suffering their own decimation, too. Creatures of the freshwater rivers and ponds will be among the few to get any sort of reprieve. Crocodiles, strange reptilian crocodile mimics called champsosaurs, fish, turtles, and amphibians will be far more resilient in the face of the impending disaster, their lives spared by literal inches.