Jurassic Fact: The Science of Fiction in Jurassic Park
The Jurassic Park franchise has been adored by millions for over twenty years. For the nineties’ generation, it had the same sort of impact that Star Wars had in the seventies. Like the crown jewel of Lucasfilm, the series has captivated the imagination of both young and old, even inspiring many to pursue a career in science.
Still, there are a few detractors. While some of them are simply people who think the films are nothing more than over-budgeted disaster flicks without a lot of dimension, the more serious complaints come from paleontologists –the true-life dinosaur detectives that the character of Alan Grant was modeled after. There are many exaggerations within the books and films.
Raptors are portrayed as hyper-intelligent serial killers. The T-Rex is showcased as a “land shark” that can only eat you if you are in motion. And, most damningly of all, none of Jurassic’s dinosaurs have feathers, a trait shared by nearly all of the smaller theropods (maniraptorans—including birds). There are memes all over the internet poking fun at these problems—scenes from the movies with the words “This is all a lie.” at the top.
And yet, the whole of the canon is heavily science-based. Not only were the novels and films all developed with the advice of real scientists, but they also advanced the public’s understanding of our favorite scaly monsters by decades. Before Jurassic Park, most laymen considered dinosaurs to be slow, dull-witted, evolutionary dead ends—nothing more than big lizards.
However, scientists knew since the eighties that they were more like birds, and that birds are in fact a modern family of dinosaurs. This wasn’t known by the general public until Jurassic Park was released. From then on, dinosaurs were seen as fast, socially complex, dynamic animals that were every bit as engaging as anything roaming the plains of Africa. For all that the franchise did to exaggerate these once-real animals into entertaining movie monsters, it still contains many scientific concepts that are nothing less than spot-on.
Here are a few of the reasons why the science of science-fiction shouldn’t be ignored.
The whole point of Jurassic Park is genetic engineering. Scientists do in fact clone animals from DNA, though they’ve never done it with prehistoric animals. DNA decays during the fossilization process, making extraction nearly impossible. Soft tissue has recently been found from a T. Rex, and though this is better than what you can get from bones, it’s still not nearly enough. The only really accurate thing about the genetics in both the book and film is that it’s all ridiculously complicated.
One interesting thing about Jurassic Park is that, at the time, it used relatively unknown dinosaurs. Not many people had heard of Velociraptor or Metriacanthosaurus (a name seen when Nedry steals the embryos) until the movie was released. Sure, the filmmakers exaggerated for the story, but they clearly did gain some real knowledge and advice from paleontologists.
The first Jurassic film introduced animals that were warm-blooded and active, a far cry from the lumbering, tail-dragging creatures from King Kong and Godzilla. In terms of behavior and locomotion, these were the first accurate dinosaurs in the history of film—and the best looking, too. Though the teeth of Tyrannosaurus may not have protruded from its closed mouth, the rest of the animal is based almost perfectly on the actual skeleton.
However, there are still a few problems that cannot be ignored. There’s no evidence that Dilophosaurus—the “spitter”—was venomous. The animal was much larger than what was shown in the movie, and it wouldn’t really have needed deadly chemicals to subdue its prey. This isn’t to say that poisonous dinosaurs didn’t exist at all. There are poisonous animals all over the planet, including even some modern dinosaurs like the hooded pitohui bird. Some scientists even think that Sinornithosaurus, a small raptor dinosaur, may have been venomous, though not all experts are convinced.
Based on the scientific assumptions of the time, the biggest problem with this film (other than the fact that you cannot get extinct animal DNA from mosquitoes) was T. Rex’s vision—he’ll lose you if you don’t move. The eye sockets on a Rex skull face forward, indicating that vision was important. Studies of its brain case also show that the optic nerve was well-developed, meaning that its vision was probably as good as a bird’s. In the novel, however, all of the dinosaurs had bad vision due to the amphibian DNA used to fill the gaps in their genes. For the film, Steven Spielberg chose to limit this problem to the Tyrannosaur in order to give the unstoppable killing machine a weakness.
THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK
The Lost World features a T.Rex family. This is not without precedent. Dinosaur eggs and even hatchlings have been discovered right next to adults, indicating that many species cared for their young like modern birds. In a few cases, even packs of T. Rex-like dinosaurs have been found together consisting of different sizes and ages. Some see this as a coincidence, but it is intriguing evidence nonetheless.
An interesting dinosaur, also featured in the first novel, is the Procompsognathus triassicus. The film version of The Lost World mentions details of its actual discovery (named by Eberhard Fraas in Bavaria, 1913). People call them Compsognathus (“Compies”), but the novel and film clearly call them PRO-compsognathus—a dinosaur which fits with the movie animals more than the larger Compsognathus. This creature illustrates an interesting theme for the franchise. Robert Burke, the paleontologist character from the movie (based on real life scientist Bob Bakker), tells another character that the “compies” are probably harmless scavengers, much too small to be considered a threat.
We all know how that theory turned out—the little dinosaurs were rapacious, poisonous pack hunters. While this probably wasn’t true of the real animals, the idea shows that, theoretically, much of what scientists know about these extinct creatures is based on educated guesses that, while well-informed, could be in error. The behavior of the Jurassic movie dinosaurs, though false beyond doubt in some instances, says something important about the world of theory. Assumptions could be wrong—and if extinct animals are resurrected, fatally wrong.
JURASSIC PARK III
The second sequel had a big problem. The Velociraptors were “smarter than dolphins, whales, and primates.” Of course, this was just a theory of Dr. Alan Grant’s, but from the first novel onwards, the clawed killers had always shown a great aptitude for solving problems. They could open unlocked doors, set traps, and communicate with a rudimentary “language”.
Real raptors performing feats like these seems extremely unlikely, but the idea of raptor intelligence isn’t really so far-fetched if you think about it. Studies of their braincases, along with the braincases of troodontids, their close relatives, show that these dinosaurian minds were every bit as keen as a modern bird’s. How keen that actually is depends on who you talk to. A few birds, such as crows and parrots, show extreme intelligence, regardless of their brain-to body ratio. Other animals also show unexpected smarts, such as green anoles and monitor lizards. Even goldfish are said to have a good memory, as tested by scientific procedures. The bottom line is, there isn’t a way to know for certain whether dinosaurs were intelligent, but it is likely that some of them were, by animal standards.
While the movie’s Spinosaurus had some problems (jaw strength, sail shape, lack of occasional four-legged locomotion), it was still rendered like a scaly grizzly bear—a fish eater, comfortable in the water—that dwarfed the T. Rex. This is important, for if you look at the many dinosaur genera, they each seem to fill a specific ecological niche in the same way that modern mammals do. Raptors were like wolves, Tyrannosaurs were like lions, and the Triceratops just screams rhinoceros.
The Pteranodons in III were gnarly looking—but, like the Pterosaurs in the Jurassic World films, they were extremely over-exaggerated. Real Pterosaurs, while being expert fliers, were a lot more flimsy than the movie versions. They couldn’t pick a person up with their feet, and it’s more likely that they used their beaks to capture much smaller prey animals. Also, Pteranodons didn’t have teeth, so the ones on Isla Sorna must have been extensively mutated through genetic engineering.
This film had a couple of nice details in reference to dinosaur science. Claire mentions the name “archaeornithomimus”—an obscure dinosaur that no one but a scientist could have even heard of. There are also many scientific themes in this movie, such as bio-engineering and hybridization (the film basically boils down to a Frankenstein remake).
The Mosasaurus, an ancient marine lizard, was depicted as a gigantic shark/dinosaur killer. Some have pointed out that no Mosasaur could get that big, as the largest specimen discovered was 56 feet long, but there’s really no way to know how large an extinct animal could have gotten with age. The screen version only looks a bit longer than the 50-foot Indominus Rex, anyway. One cool thing about this monster, as pointed out by Dr. Thomas R. Holtz, is that it has “palatal” teeth on the roof of its mouth. The special effects team clearly did their research.
Despite this, there’s one unforgivable aspect of the film—raptors without feathers. The first movie can be forgiven, for a feathered dromaeosaur (raptor family) hadn’t been discovered yet, but by 2015, it was common knowledge. Perhaps it’s a good thing they went this route, for a fully feathered raptor would have created continuity problems with the other films. They also have a clever way to atone for the inaccuracy—these dinosaurs aren’t genetically pure. Gaps in the gene sequences have always been filled with the genes of other animals, and the Dr. Wu character said that they would look different if they had a full DNA strand.
Let’s talk more about the Raptors. Everyone says, “Real Velociraptors weren’t even close to that size.” This is both true and false. A real animal, Velociraptor mongoliensis, did exist during the Cretaceous period, and it was the size of a coyote. However, as explained in the original novel, the raptors of Jurassic Park are actually a close relative of Velociraptor called Deinonychus antirrhopus. At one point, researcher Gregory S. Paul considered Deinonychus to be a species of Velociraptor, and Michael Crichton followed this usage in the book. Jurassic Park’s Deinonychus may be about a foot taller than the largest known specimen, but that’s not too much of a stretch.
As far as accuracy, the raptors were quite well done for what was known back in ‘93, aside from their hands. The palms of real raptor hands (as well of those of all theropods) always faced each other, not down. The animals always looked like they were about to clap in applause at the fantastical world of prehistory.
Did they hunt in packs? Some scientists don’t think so, but there is some evidence that they might have. Groups of Deinonychus have been found with the remains of their prey, the herbivorous Tenontosaurus. This could represent wild, “mob” feeding without any true cooperation, but the footprints of multiple raptors have also been discovered together, suggesting that they traveled side by side at least on occasion.
JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM
There’s a plethora of new dinosaurs being unleashed in Fallen Kingdom, including the Allosaurus and the Baryonyx. There’s also the Carnotaurus, a theropod with bull-like horns. The overlapping scales of the movie version are consistent with actual fossilized skin impressions, but the crocodilian spikes on its back are an exaggeration. Stygimoloch, a small bone-headed herbivore, also makes a appearance, and while there’s some debate over whether the real animal was simply a juvenile Pachycephalosaurus, its portrayal in the film is pretty spot-on.
The Indoraptor, Ingen’s new hybrid, obviously never existed, but what’s interesting is that it looks like the way dinosaurs were first portrayed back in the 19th century with animals like Iguanodon and Megalosaurus. I’m sure this was intentional on the part of the special effects team.
While our favorite dinosaur movies may be exaggerated for the sake of entertainment, they are still clearly steeped in science, and the moviemakers definitely do their research. The Jurassic saga also reminds us that theories, no matter how firmly believed, can sometimes turn out to be wrong.
We’ll have to wait until Jurassic World is a reality to know what the majestic beasts were really like—or, we could just go buy a pet cockatiel.
What is your favorite representation of dinosaurs in pop culture? Let Your Geek Sideshow and tell us in the comments!