In My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs, science writer Brian Switek travels the American West to learn about the latest developments in our understanding of dinosaur life and biology.

Why do dinosaurs occupy such a prominent place in our fascination?

Whether it’s an 80-foot Apatosaurus, a sickle-clawed Therizinosaurus, or a shovel-beaked Hadrosaurus, dinosaurs challenge our imagination. It’s impossible to look at a dinosaur skeleton without wondering when the creature lived, what it looked like, how it moved, and what it ate. And our history is intertwined with theirs. The extinction of the nonavian dinosaurs allowed mammals to proliferate into a variety of new forms, but our ancestors and cousins also coexisted with dinosaurs for more than 150 million years—dinosaurs dramatically influenced mammalian evolution. Their story is our story.

What aspect of dino history are you most curious about?

I want to know why most dinosaur lineages perished while just one—the feathery avian forms—survived. What made birds different? We can tally all the species that went extinct 66 million years ago, and researchers have identified possible extinction triggers, but we don’t really know how an asteroid striking the earth and changes in sea level translated into disaster. The question of why there aren’t living descendants of Tyrannosaurus is still the greatest of dinosaur mysteries.

What was the most startling thing you learned during your research?

I had never realized how lucky dinosaurs were. The first dinosaurs originated about 245 million years ago, but they were rare, marginal parts of their ecosystems. Cousins of modern crocodiles—bizarre armored herbivores and deep-skulled carnivores—were the dominant creatures of the Triassic. Dinosaurs only really became major players after a mass extinction removed the competition around 200 million years ago. The age of dinosaurs was a combination of accident, opportunity, and evolution.

On the cover, you’re feeding a bouquet to your “Beloved Brontosaurus.” What inspired that image?

The environment preserved in the quarry wall at Dinosaur National Monument, Utah. The rock contains the remains of a 150 million-year-old, fern-covered floodplain that would have been home to huge sauropods such as Apatosaurus and Diplodocus, the plated Stegosaurus, and the massive predators Allosaurus, Ceratosaurus, and Torvosaurus. It was the epicenter of dinosaur giants, full of Jurassic celebrities.

Did you have any difficulty convincing your editor that a chapter on dinosaur sex should be included?

The dinosaur sex chapter was one of the ones she was most enthusiastic about. My editor, Amanda Moon, was with me from the start—the intricacy of stegosaur sex sells itself.