Imagine a big fat goggle-eyed carp that somehow has scrabbling claws. No? Okay, try picturing a leather sofa that's even more eager to eat you than to eat your pocket change. Too odd?  Alright, what about this: take a plump sheep, sheer it bald, give it the aforementioned scrabbling claws, fill its mouth with razor-sharp teeth, and maybe color the resulting … thing … a pretty shade of green.

None of it works, does it? We've had a vigorous two centuries to help us imagine the color, variety, and sheer charisma of dinosaurs, members of the larger group of Sauropsida. But the massive group that emerged at the same time, from the same era, the Carboniferous? We just can't get a handle on the Synapsids.

“You may think that a planet full of dinosaurs is hard to imagine, but the strange figures of the Permian   dreamtime represent a true alien world,” writes Elsa Panciroli in her completely captivating new book “Beasts Before Us: The Untold Story of Mammal Origins and Evolution,” in which she spends an encouraging amount of time writing about Synapsids. “Yet it was one that foreshadowed our own world.”

This was 299-252 million years ago, when these two colossal new kinds of life forms, the Synapsids and the Sauropsids, emerged from the record of life and began filling many niches of a warmer, more oxygen-rich world. The Sauropsids branched out into pterosaurs, ichthyosaurs, lizards—and dinosaurs, the stars of the show. The Synapsids gave rise to the broader mammalian world—including us.

In order to tell her stories, Panciroli must do two things simultaneously, and she does both extremely well. First, she has to present the deep-time history of her own profession of paleontology, ranging from the eccentric, larger-than-life founding figures like William Buckland, Othniel Charles Marsh and Richard Owen, the first person to study what he dubbed “dinosaurs,” to the men and women, ranging all over the world today, crawling over crevasses and rummaging through museum fossil drawers in order to broaden our knowledge of our ancestors and distant cousins.

The second thing she has to do is far trickier: like all popular science writers (this is her first book, but good gracious, she should write more), Panciroli must make a great many complex concepts clear and understandable to a lay person readership. When it comes to synapsids, the first necessary clarification is a tendency of popular science to refer to synapsids as “mammal-like reptiles,” which understandably irritates Panciroli. “The truth of mammal origins is so much more fantastic,” she writes, “and knowing it transforms how we see ourselves and the animals we share our planet with.”

The planet that's being shared comes into Panciroli's story very prominently; a steady theme throughout the book is the surprising fragility of the modern terrestrial environment. “Humans are replicating many of the conditions of previous mass extinctions,” Panciroli writes, raising the specter that humanity may go the way of all those earliest synapsids. Time will tell.


‘Beasts Before Us: The Untold Story of Mammal Origins and Evolution’

by Elsa Panciroli

Bloomsbury, 2021

320 pages