The time is finally here. After fourteen years, Spielberg has opened up the Jurassic World for us again, and everybody’s talking about it. In the twenty years since the release of Jurassic Park, we’ve learned a huge amount about how dinosaurs looked, moved, behaved and reproduced. We’ve learned about how their appearance changes through development, about their social behaviour and how they held themselves, and we’ve learned more from their genetics than we ever thought imaginable when Michael Crichton was writing his Jurassic novels.
“We have learned more in the past decade from genetics than a century of digging up bones”
That sentence might be the most accurate part of the entire movie. We’ve learned a lot about dinosaurs in the past twenty years, but it seems that there has been little attempt to update the view of dinosaurs presented in the film from the creatures we know (and maybe love) from the original film.
There are numerous minor inconsistencies. Although the film is previewing as I write, it is clear from some of the smaller details in the trailer that even some easy fixes have been ignored. and the flock of Gallimimus depicted running past the safari vehicle shows their hands held pointing downwards, a detail we know for certain is incorrect. The therapod arm was incapable of twisting in that way; instead they held their hands facing inwards as if about to clap.
That’s Not Even An F***ing Mosquito!
Entomologists in the audience may also note that the “mosquito” in amber shown during some of the opening shots is not actually a mosquito at all. Never mind any issues with the premise of extracting viable dinosaur DNA from a 65 million-year-old sample, that’s not even a mosquito! Good luck extracting anything but crane fly DNA from the sample pictured. Other more general complaints have pointed out how little of the diversity of dinosaurs is represented in the films – 20 new species have been discovered since 1993 and more than 700 species are now known, but the film seems to retain it’s focus on a familiar few – T. rex, Velociraptor, Stegosaurus and Apatosaurus, with at least a fleeting appearance for the chicken-like Gallimimus.
Let’s leave aside the scientific holes in the overarching premise. I can put aside the fact that scientists have demonstrated that DNA molecules have a half-life of just 500 years and cannot be preserved in bone, blood or amber for even close to the amount of time necessary. Let’s accept the premise that they’ve found a way around that. I’m even willing to forget my qualms about the idea that you could genetically engineer a hybrid dinosaur – this is theoretically possible at least, but astronomically unlikely to work when we consider what would need to be done to match up chromosomes, genetics and epigenetics to produce a viable, let alone terrifying hybrid. Let’s leave all that behind and just go with it. Scientists have brought back dinosaurs and made a lovely theme park where we can all go and gawp at them and . But how realistic are those dinosaurs?
Flight of Fancy
By far the biggest issue palaeontologists have raised with the early views of Jurassic World is the lack of feathers. Yep, the evidence is pretty solid now that many, if not all dinosaurs had proto-feathers – lighter, fluffier filaments of keratin (the main component of hair and bird feathers). A flock of well-preserved, feathered dinosaur fossils were found in China throughout the 1990s, and we have good evidence for over 40 species of feathered dinosaur. The discovery last year of a feathered dinosaur in Brazil has further confirmed the wide geographic and taxonomic distribution of feathered birds. Not all dinosaurs had feathers, and the evidence isn’t clear on whether some species were entirely covered, or just had patches. But some dinosaurs definitely had feathers.
Although we haven’t any evidence of feathers in many species, this doesn’t mean they didn’t have them. Feathers are delicate structures and easily degrade without being fossilised – only special conditions result in fossilised feathers, but we can infer their existence by looking at the dinosaur evolutionary tree. Some academics have argue that because we find evidence of feathers on very distant parts of the evolutionary tree, they likely evolved in the ancestor of all dinosaurs and were retained by most species.
Recent thinking has increasingly moved towards a view that most dinosaurs may have been warm-blooded and feathered. Larger species were unlikely to be covered in feathers as they would rapidly overheat, but they may still have grown patches of feathers (just as we grow patches of hair to form eyebrows), and some scientists believe even T. rex had feathers. Among the species for which we have direct fossil evidence of feathers is the infamous Velociraptor. However Spielberg decided not to include this evidence in the new film, and instead stuck with the traditional image of scaley, reptilian dinosaurs.
A paper published last week suggested that science might have come around to save Jurassic Park in the nick of time – the headlines rang in that most dinosaurs had scales, not feathers. Jurassic World was right after all! Well, not really. We have ample evidence that many therapods were indeed feathered, including Velociraptor. This study simply showed that, based on the evidence we have to date, it is possible that feathers were relatively rare amongst dinosaurs and evolved several times independently in distantly-related dinosaur lineages. The absence of even a single feather in the new film is a serious oversight in terms of scientific accuracy.
Fact Vs Fiction
So what does it matter if Jurassic World is inaccurate? It’s a film, it’s fiction, it’s entertainment. Why does science have to spoil everybody’s fun? Well, for starters I don’t think being accurate means not being fun. The idea of feathered dinosaurs is a complete change in the way we think about dinosaurs – a fascinating discovery that could have been an interesting inclusion in the film. But it’s more than that. While feathered dinosaurs might not be as scary (I disagree, but then I don’t get on that well with birds, either), or might not fit with the plot, I do think it is a terribly missed opportunity to add some genuine educational value to an entertaining film. The Jurassic Park series has been so popular because it captures our love affair with dinosaurs, with discovering something about the lives of these ancient, mysterious and magnificent creatures. And ultimately, I think the truth is far more interesting, awe-inspiring and entertaining than any fiction you could ever spin. So why couldn’t Jurassic World be just a little bit more accurate? Would it really have hurt anybody to put Gallimimus’s hands on the right way, or give Velociraptor a few feathers? Not doing so hurts every person whose only image of the world of Dinosaurs comes from that movie. And the idea that to be accurate we have to be boring is a very sad one indeed.
Featured image used under a creative commons licence from Wikimedia commons. Original image by DinoGuy2M.