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Cinema Peer Review: ‘Jurassic Park’

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No movie has influenced our modern perception of dinosaurs more than 1993’s Jurassic Park. But although the movie thrilled a generation of future paleontologists, it falls flat on paleontological accuracy.

The mechanism that allows the titular theme park to resurrect dinosaurs—cloning them from bits of DNA found inside mosquitoes trapped in amber—seemed at least somewhat plausible at the time (although the odds of finding mosquitoes that just happened to feed off a dinosaur before they croaked are mind-bogglingly slim). But sadly, more recent scientific investigations have quashed our dinosaur dreams.

In September 2013, a University of Manchester-led team of researchers tried to extract ancient DNA from two stingless bees preserved in hardened tree resin. One bee was just under 60 years old, while the other was a mere 10,600 years old. The researchers found they couldn’t get bee DNA out of these relatively young samples, making it very unlikely that anyone could find an intact DNA sample in a 65-million-year-old mosquito.

Even if it was possible to suck some dino DNA out of an old mosquito, there’s no guarantee we’d get a whole genome. In the Jurassic Park books and movies, the researchers run into this very problem, but patch the holes in the DNA code with frog DNA.

“This is really silly!” Royal Veterinary College biologist John Hutchinson says on his Dinobuzz page. “As paleontological critics have remarked, ‘too much frog DNA and your T. rex croaks.’”

Plus, given how much we know about the close relationships between dinosaurs and birds today, turkey DNA would likely be a better patch than frog DNA. But even if we managed to create some viable dino-frog or dino-turkey hybrid, we’d still need an egg to put the chromosomes in, and this would have to be very species specific. Turtle eggs or bird eggs probably wouldn’t work, and likely neither would a dinosaur egg from another species.

Even if dinosaurs could be cloned, the versions portrayed in the movie don’t quite match up to reality, either. Brachiosaurs were shown chewing like a horse or cow, with the jaw moving side to side, when we know from fossil skeletons that their jaws could only move up and down. A brachiosaur is also shown rearing back on its hind legs, which most paleontologists think would have been impossible given how heavy the dinosaur would have been, and how short its back legs were compared to its forelegs. There’s also no evidence that Dilophosaurus, the venom-spitting dinosaur with the dramatic neck frill, could spit venom or had a neck frill.

And then there are some issues with the movie’s portrayal of Velociraptors, not least starting with the name. What we call a Velociraptor today is either one of two species: Velociraptor mongoliensis or V. osmolskae. But the “raptors” in Jurassic Park are much bigger than either of these, bearing much more of a resemblance to another closely related dromaeosaur, Deinonychus antirrhopus. Was the name change deliberate? What appears to have happened is that Michael Crichton, author of the original novel, referred to a book on predatory dinosaurs by Gregory Paul that argued for bringing Deinonychus into the Velociraptor fold. Crichton then incorporated this as pseudo-fact in the novel, and it subsequently got adopted in the film.

“For whatever reason [paleontologist and Jurassic Park technical advisor] Jack Horner maintained this change (which has been rightly rejected) in interviews about the Jurassic Park films, saying as late as the third installment that only recently had good skulls of Velociraptor become known despite a wonderfully preserved one being used to describe the genus in 1924,” science writer Brian Switek noted at ScienceBlogs.

And what about the big, bad Tyrannosaurus rex that’s the centerpiece of the movie? Good news and bad news: While a real T. rex runs slower than he’s portrayed in Jurassic Park, he also probably wouldn’t ignore you if you stood stock-still against the side of a Jeep, barely controlling your fearful shivering.

In the movie, several of the main characters are saved from becoming T. rex lunch only because our paleontologist hero Dr. Grant instructs them to be still, which causes the dinosaur to lose interest in them. But when University of Oregon researcher Kent Stevens used a scale model of a T. rex head to model the dino’s vision, he found that T. rex probably had a binocular range of 55 degrees, even better than a hawk’s. This implies it had extraordinary depth perception and great ability to pick out objects of all kinds, whether camouflaged or standing still.

In fact, “due to its great scale and broad frontal vision, Tyrannosaurus rex, of all sighted observers to have ever lived, might have experienced the most spectacular view of the three-dimensional world,” Stevens wrote in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. Or, in other words—chomp.

In Jurassic Park, the T. rex is shown keeping pace with a Jeep going at top speed. But many scientists think there’s no way the big beast could go faster than 25 miles per hour, tops. It’s a weight matter: The bigger you are, the more muscle mass you need to get your heavy body moving. Hutchinson once calculated that a T. rexwould need to devote 86 percent of its entire body weight to leg muscles alone in order to run at 45 mph.

But in 2011, German paleontologist Heinrich Mallison proposed an alternative method for a T. rex to reach higher speeds: power walking. By exploiting its powerful buttock muscles to take short, rapid strides, T. rex could have been an accomplished racewalker.

Then there’s the matter of all the dinosaurs running around naked. While at the time of Jurassic Park production, feathered dinosaurs weren’t a completely settled issue, we now know that Velociraptor (or Deinonychus) and probably even T. rex had a least some fluff on their skins. Perhaps we’ll get a feathery special edition 30 years from now—but given that the latest Jurassic Park movie will be keeping its dinosaurs scaly, don’t hold your breath.

Finally, and most damningly of all, most of the iconic dinosaurs shown in Jurassic Park come from the Cretaceous period, not the Jurassic.

Rating: 2 out of 5 “clever girls”

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3 comments
Abhishek Akr
Abhishek Akr

Jurassic Park movie series reveals an incredible talent by the film maker which completely portrays a real history

Achal Bhandari
Achal Bhandari

I reckon it did gud in tellin us all we needed 2 knw abt d extinct species..dinasours

JohnKwok
JohnKwok

Thanks for the excellent job you've done here, Roxanne Palmer, in reporting the actual science. The "velociraptors" in the "Jurassic Park" films should be called instead, utahraptors, large dromaeosaurs - the group of dinosaurs which include the real Velociraptor and Deinonychus, the model for the "Jurassic Park" velociraptor - which were discovered and announced publicly in 1993 by Utah Geological Survey vertebrate paleontologist James I. Kirkland and his colleagues, found in early Cretaceous sedimentary rocks in the state of Utah. (As a brief aside, Deinonychus - which was discovered and described by Yale University vertebrate paleontologist John Ostrom in the mid 1960s - is exhibited at the Peabody Museum of Natural History (Yale University) with both the original type specimen and a life-sized model that bears a most uncanny resemblance to the "Jurassic Park" velociraptor.)