Early in the last century Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Professor Challenger, a “scientist” who found bits and snatches of the world of dinosaurs still living, most famously, on plateaux in the Amazonian jungle. There he found living pterosaurs, dinosaurs, and all manners of strange and wonderfully monstrous animals. Alas – maybe – the animals that Doyle wrote about vanished from the living world in the aftermath of an impact of a rather small asteroid with the Earth, some 65.5 million years ago. During the vast span of intervening years, the Earth has changed. Very dramatically!! The world of the dinosaurs really was not the world of man, but it has only been in the last couple of decades have we been truly able to realize how different these two worlds were from one another.
Until recently, except for the foolishness of the massive floods and perfect gardens found in some of the religious mythologies of the world, if people thought about what the world was like in the distant past, they visualized it pretty much as the world they saw around themselves. As a scientific viewpoint developed in the nineteenth century, particularly within the basic science of geology, there were many acrimonious debates between those individuals who contended that all changes were gradual and based on the same or similar processes as were seen in action today, the uniformitarianists, and the catastrophists, who contended that many calamitous changes, mostly floods of a truly biblical nature, radically altered and changed both the landscape and the life on it. By the beginning of the 20th century, the catastrophists were pretty much considered to be all wet, and uniformitarianism carried the day, the week, the month, the year, the decade, the generation… but not quite the century.
By the beginning of the 21st century, thanks to some brilliant insight, and a lot of hard work, it had become clear that although the world’s environments had stayed rather consistent for long periods, there have been times of drastic change, after which literally everything, from climate to biota, changed. For most folks, the most notable of those drastic changes was the one that ended the domination of the world’s bioata by the larger non-avian dinosaurs, the Cretaceous epoch, about 65.5 million years ago. Although, by far and away, not the largest of these mass extinction events, the devestating changes triggered by the impact of a small asteroid off shore of the northern presumptive Yucatan peninsula were damaging enough; resulting in wholesale changes in the Earth’s biota, virtually every large terrestrial animal species went extinct, along with many marine species. Subsequent changes in the Earth’s climate resulted in today’s world; a much different globe than that the larger dinosaurs dominated.
Although this event, the Cretaceous/Tertiary Mass Extinction, closed the door on the non-avian dinosaurs, it allowed mammals, more-or-less by default, to adaptively radiate and come to dominate the world. Nonetheless, the extinction event, while it changed the biota, did not wipe away the evidence of the world that had existed. That world holds, for many people, particularly evolutionarily oriented biologists, a fascination due the awesomely different biosphere that was present.
About a month ago, I received as a gift, the book titled, The Cretaceous World, by Peter Skeleton and his coauthors. Over the last few weeks I have been enjoying learning about that long gone world. Very well-written, and exceptionally well-illustrated, the book is designed as a text, but unlike many texts, this one is as alive as the inhabitants of the world it describes are not. Pulling together geological, oceanographic, and biological data, much of it gathered in the last few years, the authors create a world that is awesome in its differences from the present one. From discussing in detail forests at the latitude of Pt. Barrow, Alaska, to describing ferocious storms in the central Tethys seaway, along with the immense deserts of the equatorial latitudes, the authors take the reader on a memorable mental tour of a long-lost world.
I have so enjoyed this book that I want to tell people about it. In a way, it is the most wonderful type of science fiction, although I am certain the authors would not appreciate that description. However, they describe in detail a world that changed over the 80 million year history of the Cretaceous, a world based on very hard, and very good science, and have assisted the reader to clothe this world with their mental images. We really will never know what the Cretaceous world looked like, nor will we ever find out much about the vast majority of the animals that lived there (because they were invertebrates and didn’t fossilize), but we have a good basis for knowing the world itself. So, what we see in our mind’s eye may be “science fictional,” but it is the hardest of science fiction, that based on and consistent with all the facts. This world would not be the benign, kind and friendly world of Jurassic Park. Humans in the Cretaceous would find the climate oppressive, the flora unfamiliar, the oceans utterly strange, and full of dangerous reptilian predators, although those are not discussed in the book. And, in general, the megafauna positively frightening and exceedingly dangerous; Cretaceous Park would be a great place for a well-prepared scientist to visit, but you really wouldn’t want to live there.
The animal life, however interesting, is not the center of the discussion. While putting the story together for their students, the authors have really given the rest of us a rare glimpse of an alien World, from a geologist’s perspective. We become aware of the almost familiar orientation of the continents, but the huge oceanic areas render the land masses of those continents much smaller than what is experienced today. While the continents are tectonically moving, they haven’t – yet – encountered each other in the massive collisions that have characterized the last 50 million years. There are not a lot of impressive mountains. Lots of hills, to be sure, but nothing like the Himalayan plateau, and the Alps are in the future as well. Coral reefs are the dream of the cnidarians’ future, but – Wow!, this is the world of the Clamrades! There are huge expances of clam beds comprised of, in many cases, huge clams. What most geologists don’t really seem to flash on, the author’s of this tome missed it as well, is the amount of biomass that must have existed planktonically in the shallow seas. These seas were not the clear blue seas of today’s coral reefs, they were gorpy, green, and thick with life. The huge carbonate “platforms” of the Cretaceous had to feed on something, and clams have a lot higher metabolic rate than do corals.
And the temperatures! Baby, it’s hot out there!!! Diving in the shallow equatorial seas would kill a scuba diver. There would be no way to dump the body’s excess heat, and any exertion at all would be lethal. Rather like diving in the hottest extremes of the Persian Gulf today, one could not spend a lot of time in those oceans. One probably wouldn’t want to, though, as humans could have been considered to a good snack for some of the mosasaurs and other swimming arrays of teeth; LARGE swimming arrays of teeth, that dominated those seas.
The Cretaceous world that the authors describe in detail, really for the first time, is in effect, like an extrasolar world, only one that is 65.5 million light years away in space and time. This world would be a great star of documentaries, although you couldn’t pay me enough to go film the action; nonetheless, I would love to see it.
Enjoy the book and learn about a wholly new place, the Olde Earth.