Life on Earth has survived at least five major extinction events, but it is the dinosaurs’ mass die-off that most captures our imagination. It appears to have been a dramatic one, as Thomas Sumner writes in "Devastation detectives try to solve dinosaur disappearance" (SN: 2/4/17, p. 16). A fiery asteroid impact carved out a chunk of what’s now below the Caribbean Sea, killing many animals instantly. Far more species slowly dwindled, with debris from the impact blocking the sun and altering the climate worldwide. A new twist, Sumner reports, is growing evidence of the planetary reach of long-lived eruptions that created the massive Deccan Traps in present-day India. The volcanic spew broadly coincided with the asteroid strike 66 million years ago, and some think it might have had a significant or even a leading role in the extinction. Others disagree, but the story of the dinosaurs’ final days certainly continues to grow more complex and intriguing the more we learn.
No matter the cause, it’s clear that some living things managed to get by and eventually to thrive (hello, mammals and birds). In her article "With dinosaurs out of the way, mammals had a chance to thrive" (SN: 2/4/17, p. 22), Meghan Rosen examines new details about what survived and how. Working backward from later animals, some scientists are profiling the kinds of traits that would have been useful in an apocalypse, with some interesting results. Seed-cracking beaks, for example, might have given some avian ancestors an edge over dino relatives with teeth.
In "Some lucky birds escaped dino doomsday" (SN: 2/4/17, p. 26), Susan Milius makes the excellent point that we now know that not all dinosaurs died out. Some live on as birds. It’s something that I, having learned otherwise as a child, still sometimes overlook. Evolving thinking about the end of the dinosaurs makes the story a little messier, a little less easily summarized to schoolchildren. But it does more clearly reveal life’s ebbs and flows, and both its vulnerability and resilience to unimaginable planetary insults. Even widespread destruction can lead to the blossoming of new life. Even when we think the dinosaurs are all gone, we find some that have been here all along, beside us.
Writing about endings and new beginnings is fitting for me personally as I prepare this issue, the last under my direction as Editor in Chief. After more than nine years at Science News, I am pursuing a new opportunity on the West Coast, closer to my family, the Pacific Ocean and my beloved chaparral. Although my staff at first looked as if an asteroid were falling when I told them of my departure, this will be a much more peaceful transition. Science News is a vigorous enterprise, in print and online, thanks to the Society’s leadership under Publisher Maya Ajmera and to readers like you who continue to support the important journalism we do. Our team of experienced science journalists remains devoted to bringing you the latest news from a broad range of scientific fields. It has been humbling to learn from them — and from those of you who have reached out to me — during my time here. This team will continue to thrive, especially since Elizabeth Quill has agreed to step in as acting Editor in Chief. Quill has done a fantastic job on a number of projects, including our year-end issue and series of e-books. She certainly has the talent and dedication — the beak that can crack seeds, if you will — to lead Science News to its next great evolution.