The Wild And Wonderful World Of Mammals

29:58 minutes

A 3-D rendering of two extinct, furry animals with hooves eating lush green vegetation in an ancient forest.
An artist’s rendering of a pair of the extinct Hyracotherium, otherwise known as eohippus, or “dawn horse.” Credit: Shutterstock

Mammals may be the most diverse group of vertebrates that have ever lived. (Don’t tell the mollusk enthusiasts over at Cephalopod Week.) Many people share their homes with another mammal as a pet, like a dog or cat. The largest creatures on earth are mammals: Ocean-dwelling blue whales are the biggest animals that have ever lived, and African elephants are the biggest animals on land. And lest we forget, humans, too, are mammals.

The history and diversity of mammalians is the subject of a new book by paleontologist Steve Brusatte, The Rise and Reign of the Mammals: A New History, from the Shadow of the Dinosaurs to Us. Steve joins Ira to talk about why mammals have been so successful over the years, and why extinct mammals deserve as much love as the beloved dinosaurs. 

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Segment Guests

Steve Brusatte

Steve Brusatte is a paleontologist and author of The Rise and Reign of the Mammals. He’s based in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. You know, I may be a little biased, but I think mammals are among the most incredible and diverse creatures on the planet. Now that is not to say, we don’t love our cephalopods. Of course, this is Cephalopod Week, and we will have more on that later in the hour.

Many of us, right, we have mammals as pets. You have a dog, a cat, maybe a gerbil or a hamster. And the largest creatures on Earth are mammals. You’ve got your blue whales in the ocean and your African elephants on land, and we can’t forget, we ourselves are mammals.

So this hour, we’re going to investigate the wide world of mammals including where do they come from evolutionary, evolutionary-wise I mean, with my guest, Steve Brusatte, paleontologist and author of The Rise and Reign of Mammals. He’s based in Edinburgh, Scotland. Welcome back to Science Friday, Steve.

STEVE BRUSATTE: Ira, always a pleasure to chat with you and really excited today to talk mammals. We’ve talked dinosaurs before. I’ve studied dinosaurs a lot throughout my career, and now I’ve moved on a lot to mammals because, as you say, mammals are really fascinating and mammals are us.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s get into it. I want to invite my audience in on this too, because we’re going to be taking questions this hour. We want to know from them, what do they want to know about the post-dinosaur rise of the mammals? From the ones that have been long extinct, and I don’t think a lot of people knew that there are long extinct mammals, but I did reading your book, to our closest relatives. Our number, of course, is 844-724-8255, 844 Sci Talk, and as always, you can tweet us @scifri.

So let’s address the– I have to say it, the elephant in the room. I don’t know if there’s a pun intended there, they just come out. As you say, you’re a dinosaur guy. What got into you to start talking about mammals?

STEVE BRUSATTE: I think it’s a natural progression, really. So I started my career studying dinosaurs, I did my PhD on dinosaurs, I’ve written books about dinosaurs, and I love dinosaurs. I’ll continue to study dinosaurs. But as I’ve studied the origin of dinosaurs, and then the evolution of birds from dinosaurs, and then the extinction of the dinosaurs– I think it was natural to start to wonder, well, then what happened? When the dinosaurs died, what happened?

And mammals were what happened. Mammals took over from the dinosaurs, that’s ultimately where we come from and the 6,000 other species of mammals that share our world. Everything from our pet dogs and cats, to bats and whales, and that elephant in the room, and whales, and so on. But really the story of mammals goes back much farther than that, it’s a story that is 325 million years of evolution, and I think it’s a fascinating story. So a lot of my research has turned to mammals, and now with the new book I’m writing about mammals too, and I’m loving it.

IRA FLATOW: Well, how are mammals possible– if we had all these dinosaurs, I mean, were they holding back the evolution of or the population of mammals?

STEVE BRUSATTE: I think there’s a bit of a preconception– and we see this sometimes in textbooks and documentaries and so on, that dinosaurs had their day. And then they died, the asteroid came down, wiped off the dinosaurs, and then mammals evolved to take their place. And it’s certainly true that mammals took over from the dinosaurs, but mammals and dinosaurs actually go back to the same time and place. They have the same origin story.

They were part of this new wave of diversification in the Triassic period about 225 million years ago, after this terrible mass extinction back on the super continent of Pangaea, both dinosaurs and mammals got their start at the same time. And, of course, dinosaurs were destined for grandeur, some of them became larger than Boeing 737 airplanes. And mammals had to stay in the shadows, the dinosaurs kept mammals small. And for 150 million years or so, mammals and dinosaurs lived together, and mammals never got bigger than a badger.

But the more fossils we find, the more we see that mammals were really good at living in those small body niches. They were good at living anonymously, living underground, coming out at night. And there were mammals that could swim, there were mammals that could burrow, there are mammals that could climb, mammals that could glide through the trees on wings of skin– they were just all small. And the more we learn from fossils, the more we see that, yes, dinosaurs kept mammals small, but mammals did the opposite, they kept dinosaurs big. And for 150 million years, you never had a T. rex the size of a mouse or a triceratops the size of a rat, because the mammals were so good at holding down those roles in the ecosystems.

IRA FLATOW: That is really cool, and I think one of the most interesting parts of your book is that some of the mammals that didn’t make it, as you say, there once were wee mammals that glided over the heads of dinosaurs, others that ate baby dinosaurs for breakfast. Armadillos the size of Volkswagens, sloths so tall they could dunk a basketball. Thunder beasts with three foot long battering ram horns. These were the early mammals, or are these the ones that just died out and never made it to this time?

STEVE BRUSATTE: These are a variety of mammals that once lived that no longer are with us. I talk about all of them in The Rise and Reign of the Mammals, in the new book, and some of them are ones that lived with dinosaurs, as you say, these ones that glided over the heads of dinosaurs. Or this mammal called Repenomamus that lived about 125 million years ago, it was buried in a volcanic eruption. It was preserved as a fossil so quickly and so pristinely that its last meal was petrified in its stomach. And that last meal was a little baby dinosaur, a very sad story, really. But I mean, mammals once ate dinosaurs.

And then after the dinosaurs died, all of these other mammals evolved, and it was then that we got things like woolly mammoths, and the giant ground sloths, and these car sized armadillos, and so on. So the point really is that mammals today are extraordinarily diverse, over 6,000 species. Everything from bats to whales to humans. But the mammals that once lived in the past were even more spectacular. And we have their fossils, we can study them, and they are all part of our evolutionary story.

IRA FLATOW: And what happened to them? Why did they die out? Is that a natural– just something natural?

STEVE BRUSATTE: Some of these mammals, yeah, some of them died out just naturally. Just normally as species do, as climates change, as environments change, as new groups rise up and species compete. But a lot of these big megafauna mammals, the really charismatic ones, the woolly mammoth, the saber toothed tigers, the dire wolves, the giant sloths– the ones that you see in natural history museums that are the stars of the Ice Age movies and so on. These mammals lived quite recently. They went extinct, most of them only about 10,000 years ago.

Our ancestors, our Homo sapiens predecessors, knew these mammals. They encountered them. They hunted them. And it was probably largely because of humans, through hunting and through changing environments and so on, that doomed a lot of those mammals. Really continent by continent, whenever humans arrived, not long after a lot of the large mammals died. So maybe if it wasn’t for us, there might still be woolly mammoths and sabertooth tigers.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about some of the creatures that really looked like reptiles, but actually more related to us. Like the dimetrodon, talk about that.

STEVE BRUSATTE: So let’s go back 325 million years, just–

IRA FLATOW: OK, wayback machine.

STEVE BRUSATTE: –snap of the fingers, 325 million years. Put your mind back. This is back in what’s called the Pennsylvanian period of geological time, or what we call the Carboniferous period in Europe. And the world was much different then. This was the age of the coal swamps, the first big vast jungles in Earth history. There were trees that stretched 100 feet into the sky, but these were not the trees were used to today, these were primitive plants. And there were dragonflies the size of pigeons, there were millipedes the size of humans.

There was so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so much humidity. It was this world, in those swamps, those trees getting buried that produced a lot of the coal that we mine today. And it was in that world, almost an alien world, at least to us that a small event happened. It was a small evolutionary step, but it had profound consequences.

And on the great family tree of life, a new group split off. And this new group went their own way, and reptiles went the other way. And this new group is called the synapsid group, and all that define them was that they had a hole in their skull behind their eyes, that jaw muscles could attach to. So basically, they had more and bigger jaw muscles so they could bite a lot stronger. These synapsids were what gave rise to mammals, these were the mammal antecedents. So this is the start of the mammal family tree.

And among the very first synapsids were things like dimetrodon, this animal with a big sail on its back. It walked on all fours, its arms and legs stuck out to the side, kind of like a lizard or a crocodile. It looks kind of like a lizard or a crocodile or a dinosaur, it’s often mistaken as a dinosaur. You often see it in the dinosaur toy sets. You will see it in the new Jurassic World film, you’ll see dimetrodon in there. But he’s not a dinosaur.

IRA FLATOW: Is that because of you? I know you were the advisor on the film.

STEVE BRUSATTE: [LAUGHS] I was the paleontology consultant on the film. I wish I could say that I convinced Colin Trevorrow, the director, to put in some early mammals. But no, he loved dimetrodon from the moment that I first met him. Because it is an iconic animal, you see it in a lot of museums. It does look like a dinosaur.

But believe it or not, it is an early relative of ours. It is more closely related to us than it is to a T. rex or a triceratops. And it was animals like dimetrodon that really inaugurated the mammal line hundreds of millions of years ago.

IRA FLATOW: We keep thinking that one of the unique features of mammals is that they’re warm blooded. Where did that start? How did that happen?

STEVE BRUSATTE: There are a lot of different things that together make what we call the mammal blueprint. The features that define what a mammal is that differentiates mammals from all other animals. And these are things like having hair, feeding your baby’s milk, having really big brains, having really keen senses of smell and hearing. Having canine, and incisor, and premolar, and molar teeth that can serve so many functions at once and can chew food.

All of these things together really define what mammals are. And another part of that package deal is warm bloodedness, and that’s a really unusual thing. Birds are warm blooded as well so it’s not only mammals, but mammals are some of the few animals that are warm blooded. And really what it means is that we can control our body temperature.

We feel this every time we go outside in the depth of, say, a Chicago winter. You know I grew up on the Chicago area, you go outside in winter, it’s well below freezing. You don’t freeze because your body temperature is high, you have this internal furnace inside you. It doesn’t matter if it’s cold, it doesn’t matter if it’s in the morning, if you’re in the shade. You don’t have to go out and bask in the sun like a lizard or a crocodile does in order to warm up.

So being warm blooded, being able to regulate your body temperature, control it internally, have a high constant body temperature, that’s a real superpower. It means you can live all over the world, you can live in cold places. But it means that you have to be able to take in a lot of energy and a lot of oxygen to power that internal furnace. So mammals evolved a way to do that early in their history.

IRA FLATOW: All right, we’re going to have Steve Brusatte stay with us. Talking about The Rise and Reign of the Mammals, his new book. Excellent new book. Our number, 844-724-8255. Stay with us, we’ll take your questions after the break.

This is Science Friday, I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour with Steve Brusatte, author of The Rise and Reign of the Mammals, great new book. And we’re taking your questions. We want to know what you want to know about the post dinosaur rise of the mammals. Our number, 844-724-8255, 844-SciTalk, or you can tweet us @SciFri. Let’s go to the phones. Let’s go to Blue Sky in Tempe, Arizona. Hi, Blue.

BLUE SKY: Hi, Ira. Hi, Steve. My question is, of course, the fossils we traditionally find are many centuries old. But my question for you is, take something like the Mount St Helens eruption. Did that produce new fossils, please?


STEVE BRUSATTE: That’s a good question. And I don’t actually know the answer to that. I haven’t studied that volcanic eruption. And so, you’ve now given me something to read up on. My guess is, it might have because there are a lot of instances in the fossil record like this fossil I mentioned from China of this mammal with a baby dinosaur in its belly. Where animals are buried very quickly by volcanic ash. And Mount Vesuvius erupting and burying Pompeii and preserving a lot of those humans, that’s a similar sort of thing. So Mount St Helens, it might have actually buried some fossils, I’m going to read up on that. That’s a really interesting thing to think about.

IRA FLATOW: Thanks for your question.

BLUE SKY: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Steve, let me ask you, let me ask you this question that I’ve been wondering about because you mentioned the formula for a mammal with the hair and the warm bloodedness. Let’s talk about that hair. Because you say that in the beginning, the hair was a sensory organ and not something for warmth.

STEVE BRUSATTE: I both love and hate talking about hair. I’m losing my hair rapidly. [LAUGHTER]

But it’s one of those things that make mammals, mammals; and mine’s thinning out. Hair is a sublime thing. You think about all the animals out there and nothing else has hair, only mammals.

And hair does a lot of things for mammals. It helps keep us warm. It helps regulate the body temperature, that’s an important part of being warm blooded, being able to regulate your body temperature. And in that sense, hair is kind of the equivalent of closing your windows in the winter when the furnace is on. If you’re burning all that energy, you want to make sure you can keep it in. So hair does insulate.

But also a lot of mammals use hair as whiskers for sensory reasons. Hair is also connected in a very integral way with our skin, with a system of glands that can waterproof our skin. So hair does a lot of different things. It evolved somewhere in the early history of mammals. We have some evidence that some of these proto mammals, these synapsids that were living hundreds of millions of years ago, maybe had hair. We don’t find the fossil hair itself, but we can see the little pits on the bones where the nerves and blood vessels feeding the hair would have run through, so we can infer it.

But then with some of these volcanoes in China, some were Jurassic in age, so they’re 160, 170 million years old. And then later ones were Cretaceous in age like the one I mentioned burying that mammal that ate the dinosaur. With those volcanic eruptions, they buried so many mammals and they preserved them in such a delicate way that you can see the hair all over the bodies of these mammals. I’ve studied some of these mammal fossils in China. I’ve always felt it’s a huge privilege to hold these fossils in your hands. You can see this 170 million year old fossilized hair, and you can really sense just how important hair is.

IRA FLATOW: You have such a cool job.

STEVE BRUSATTE: It is, it is, it is. I always have to remind myself how fortunate people like me are that we get to dig up dinosaurs and mammal for a living.

IRA FLATOW: You get to dig up something that no one else has ever seen before. To me–

STEVE BRUSATTE: That’s the beauty of it, yeah. It’s remarkable, isn’t it?

IRA FLATOW: How does that feel? I mean, you’re standing over something, saying woah, never seen daylight in 100 million years, no one’s no one’s ever seen it.

STEVE BRUSATTE: Ira, I mean, you can tell for me I’m pretty loquacious just kind of talking and talking when I get passionate about something. But this is one of the things I find hard to put into words, to be honest. When you’re out looking for fossils, you find something, whether it’s a bone or a tooth or a shell, and you are the first person to ever see this thing. It’s millions of years old, it’s a clue from another world. It’s– I mean, how do you explain love? You know, I don’t know. It’s like that kind of thing, poets could do it better than me.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, well, let’s see what our listeners are doing. Anna in Boston, hi, welcome to Science Friday. Anna, go–


IRA FLATOW: Hey there, go ahead.

ANNA: All right. So my question is related to kind of the size of mammals and how it’s changed throughout periods. I heard that in the Carboniferous era, the oxygen levels were a lot higher and as a result insects got really big. And I was curious if other animals had also gotten large, and if that was because of O2 levels, if that was because of evolving to deal with larger prey? But yeah, if you could speak at all about how they’ve reacted to different sorts of atmospheric levels.


STEVE BRUSATTE: Yeah, that’s a great question, Anne, I’m glad you brought up size. Because yes, back in the Carboniferous’ time of the coal swamps, there were such big jungles and there were so many trees that were photosynthesizing, they were just pumping out oxygen. And the oxygen levels just went stratospheric. And so that’s why you had dragonflies the size of pigeons, if you can imagine something as grotesque as that.

IRA FLATOW: Can’t imagine it, I cannot.

STEVE BRUSATTE: And so there was more oxygen in the atmosphere then, that’s true. And that means that some animals did get a lot bigger. Now there were other reasons though, later, that mammals got bigger. As I was mentioning earlier, mammals were living alongside the dinosaurs for 150 million years, they never got bigger than a badger. The dinosaurs were just keeping them down.

But then once the dinosaurs died, when that asteroid hit, everything changed. T. rex was gone, triceratops was gone, all of these roles in the ecosystems and the food webs were suddenly open. And some mammals survive that asteroid. We had ancestors that stared down that asteroid because they were small, because they were adaptable, because they could burrow and hide and grow fast and reproduce fast and eat lots of food– that was the winning lottery ticket when that asteroid hit. And then those mammals had a new world in front of them.

And within 200,000 or 300,000 years, you have mammals the size of pigs. Within 1 or 2 million years, mammals the size of cows. So mammals ballooned in size once they had the opportunity with the dinosaurs disappearing.

And a big part of my work, a lot of the fieldwork I do– in fact, I was just there. I was in New Mexico working with my students, my colleagues, great teams of people. Sarah Shelley, Ornella Bertrand, Greg Funston, my post-docs. And Tom Williamson, my great colleague in New Mexico, and Paige, and [? Hal Hunts, ?] and Sophia, and Zoe, my PhD. Since I got to get their names in, they do all the real hard work. I just talk about it and write about it.

But we are out there collecting fossils of those very mammals that were living right after the asteroid. And they became bigger because they finally had the chance to do it. And of course then, mammals continue to get bigger, culminating in blue whales today. The biggest things that have ever lived in Earth history, I don’t think we appreciate that enough. How glorious is it that we can say we share a planet with the biggest things that have ever lived? And I think if whales were extinct and all we had were some petrified bones, we would hold them in as much esteem as we hold the dinosaurs.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Anna, I hope that answers your question.

ANNA: Yeah, thank you so much.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Are they still getting bigger, Steve?

STEVE BRUSATTE: Ira, that’s an excellent question. And it’s a subject I don’t know much about, but I read a lot of the technical literature on this when I was writing The Rise and Reign of the Mammals, and it does seem like whales have continued to get bigger over the last several tens of millions of years. And particularly the baleen whales, the ones like the blue whales that filter feed. And basically they can just open up their mouths and engulf swimming pools sized volumes of water and just filter the krill, so they’re just eating machines.

And so, it does seem like they have gotten bigger and bigger, and maybe they will continue to get bigger and bigger if we give them the space to do it. They are so endangered, the blue whale populations, at least at one point, something like 99% of them were eliminated. So if we give them the space and the time to get bigger, I think there’s every chance that they might.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that’s a point well made. Let’s go to Danny in Houston. Hi, Danny.

DANNY: Hey, good afternoon, Ira. Thank you for taking my call.

IRA FLATOW: Hi, go ahead.

DANNY: My question– thank you. My question for your guest is if you could maybe talk to, I’m not sure if this is his expertise, but if you could talk to the concept of missing link between our ancestors and us today. I talk to my friends about that all the time. What is the missing link, I guess, as a concept?

IRA FLATOW: Hmm. Good question. Steve, is that in your expertise? Speculation?

STEVE BRUSATTE: Yeah, Danny. Yeah, definitely. So I teach evolution here at the University of Edinburgh, I do a first year course and we talk about these subjects. And the concept of a missing link is something that’s– it’s batted around a lot, you see it a lot in textbooks and on television shows. And just it’s just kind of in the pop culture, we’re searching for the missing link.

As scientists, we don’t really hone in on one link that’s missing, that if we have it it’s going to tell us all the secrets, really. What we have are series of transitional fossils that tell us a lot about, for instance, how whales evolved from mammals that once had hooves and once lived on land. We have fossil after fossil that gives a sense of that sequence. You can read those almost like the pages in a book or the stills that would make a moving film.

And we have the same for our ancestry. We have a lot of fossils, mostly from Africa, from the last five or so million years that show how a type of ape basically came down from the tree, started walking on two legs. Still was pretty good at climbing, so it first retained pretty long arms. But they came down, they started to walk on two legs. Then they got bigger brains, their hands were freed to do other things, to make tools and so on. And it was really that progression that culminated in us.

And what I find remarkable about human evolution as the subject I didn’t a huge amount about until writing the book, and I’m still no great expert on human evolution, there’s lots of other books that focus on this particularly. I only give it a little bit in the last chapter of The Rise and Reign of the Mammals because I don’t want to make it all about us.

But the thing that really fascinates me is that up until about 40,000 years ago, there were always multiple species of humans sharing the planet. And oftentimes, there were numerous human species living together in the same environments competing for the same resources. And it was only about 40,000 years ago that the last of these, the Neanderthals, died. Now we absorbed a lot of their genes, because we were able to mate with them and hybridized with them. But now it’s just us, Homo sapiens alone, pondering where we came from. So I hope that answers your question.

IRA FLATOW: And getting to Danny’s question, I mean, a lot of people because they’ve been watched, they’ve watched this over a period of time or films or learned it in school, they think that evolution means we came from the apes, right? We came from chimpanzees or apes in the jungle. That’s not true at all. We have a common ancestor, we did not descend from them, right?

STEVE BRUSATTE: Absolutely. So we did come from an ancestral ape, but we did not evolve from chimpanzees. Chimpanzees are our closest living relatives. We share 95 plus percent of DNA with them. But we did not evolve from a chimpanzee.

Chimpanzees and humans, we go back about somewhere between kind of 5 and 7 million years ago, we had a common ancestor, but we both went our own ways. And chimpanzees have continued to evolve during those 5 to 7 million years, the same way humans have evolved in their own way over those 5 to 7 million years. So today’s chimpanzees are a lot different from what that ancestor would have looked like.

IRA FLATOW: Danny, I hope we’ve given you a lot to discuss with your friends now.

DANNY: [LAUGHS] Definitely. Yes, I appreciate all the information and all the work you all do. Thanks so much.

IRA FLATOW: Thanks for listening.

STEVE BRUSATTE: Thanks, Danny.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I’m Ira Flatow, we’re talking with Steve Brusatte, author of The Rise and Reign of the Mammals. He’s based– I always love it that you’re based in Edinburgh. What a nice place to be living.

STEVE BRUSATTE: It’s a great place that I land– I’ve been here about 10 years, I come from the Chicago area as I mentioned earlier. But it’s a wonderful place, and my wife’s from England, and we’ve settled here. We have a little boy, you know Anthony, is 2 and 1/2 now. And he’s a Scottish boy, it’s the most amazing thing.

It’s also amazing, I wrote the book, really, during the first few lockdowns and when Anthony was very small. So I wrote a lot of it as I was learning how to raise my very own little mammal as he was teething, as he was drinking milk, as his hair was growing out. So it sounds trite, but it’s really true just being with him and learning from him really helped me write the book.

IRA FLATOW: And so what’s next for you? You’ve done the mammals now, you’ve done the dinosaurs, where do you go from here?

STEVE BRUSATTE: I don’t know. You know, I love writing these books. I love taking the science that we do and communicating it as broadly as I can, whether it’s with the books, or whether it’s working on films like Jurassic World. You know I’m very fortunate to have these opportunities. I owe a lot to you, Ira, as you reviewed my dinosaur book for the New York Times back in 2018, that review really helped establish that book.

IRA FLATOW: It’s a great book.

STEVE BRUSATTE: I’m forever grateful.

IRA FLATOW: Still agree.

STEVE BRUSATTE: I’m just appreciative that people are interested in the things I study. I think we’re lucky as paleontologists that fossils just have this connection with people. And I just love communicating that joy and that enthusiasm that I have, and that I’ve had ever since I was a teenager.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you know what I wrote about in that review and which I still see in your work and in this book is that you discover new young scientists for us, from all walks of life, every different place in the world that I think people would never discover before for themselves.

STEVE BRUSATTE: One of the great privileges of being a professor and running a lab is I get to have post-docs and students. And people want to come work here, so I get to work with very interesting people from all over the world. And they really do come from all over the world, from so many different backgrounds. And there are amazing young scientists that are working with me now, they bring so much enthusiasm, so much energy, they bring the new ideas. So I am just completely committed to doing everything we can to make sure that this field of ours is as open and accessible as possible. And I hope things like writing books and working on films and stuff, bringing the research to the public, is a small part of doing that.

IRA FLATOW: So what research– where have you got your spade or your pick going now these days?

STEVE BRUSATTE: The last three years has been rough, because with the pandemic we haven’t been able to get out. And, of course, having a young kid at home I haven’t been able to get out as much. But we were out in New Mexico a few weeks ago, working with Tom Williamson and his crew in Albuquerque, and we were just out for about five days. It was a short trip, but we found a lot of good stuff. We found a lot of mammals, not only mammals, but other things that were living with them in that brave new world after the asteroid– the turtles, and the fishes, and the reptiles, and so on.

But we do also do a lot of work on the Isle of Skye. My parents, who I know are listening, they’ll be coming up, visiting us in Scotland soon, and we’re going to go to Skye and I’m going to put them to work. I’m going to–

IRA FLATOW: Good for you.

STEVE BRUSATTE: –have them try to find some more dinosaur and mammal fossils for us.

IRA FLATOW: This being vacation season, is it possible for us, we mortals to go watch a dig or to observe any kind of excavation here or where scientists are working?

STEVE BRUSATTE: Yes it is, and there’s a couple of ways you can do it. Some museums are actually built on fossil sites, so the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles that I talk about in the book, there’s active excavations. The ash fall fossil beds in Nebraska, there’s active excavations. You go to the museum, you will see people digging.

But a lot of other museums also have public programs, museums like the Burpee Museum close to home in Rockford, Illinois; they take people out every summer. So look at your local museums or look farther afield at what museums are doing if you want to go out and dig your own dinosaurs or mammals. There’s lots of opportunities.

IRA FLATOW: Well good luck to you, Steve. And thanks again for the book, The Rise and Reign of the Mammals, another terrific book from you. Thanks for taking time to be with us today and good luck.

STEVE BRUSATTE: Always my pleasure.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Steve Brusatte, author of The Rise and Reign of the Mammals. We have to take a break, and when we come back, diving into the Cephalopod Week celebrations. Yes, we’re headed to the aquarium.

A conversation about caring for cephalopods in the aquarium. How do you do that? And how do you discover new ones that are right, literally right beneath your nose, I guess, inside a museum? How they discovered one. And we recorded this show this week at the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, Connecticut. We’ll be right back with that after the break. Stay with us.

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Meet the Producers and Host

About Kathleen Davis

Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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