Beware of Movies! Fossils and Paleontology

The Beware of Movies! series is meant to point out some of the scientific inaccuracies of popular movies, specifically in points related to the geological sciences.

This post will point out the major inaccuracies portrayed in movies about the science of paleontology. I’m a paleontologist. This oughtta be good…

Commonly, about two seconds after I tell someone I’m a vertebrate paleontologist, they ask me what I think of Jurassic Park. Then I laugh. It’s either that or they ask me if I carry a whip like Indiana Jones. Then I snarl something about how 1) Dr. Jones was an archaeologist and 2) Indiana was the dog!

What paleontology is, and what paleontology is not.

Paleontology is the study of the biological history of the Earth through fossils. We’re looking at fossils. Bones and shells. And scales. And sometimes only footprints and traces. All evidences of life preserved in the Earth’s geological record. Paleontology covers the entirety of the history of life on Earth, from the first bacteria, 3.5 billion years ago, to the Dodo bird that went extinct in the 17th century.

This is in marked contrast with Archaeology which is the study of humans and human cultures, focused to a great degree on artifacts like pottery and stone tools.

Dinosaurs = paleontology. Egyptians = Archaeology.

There’s a bit of overlap, for example if you’re studying fossil humans like Homo erectus. Or (as I have done in the past) if you are studying Bison that were run off a cliff and butchered by Native Americans 10,000 years ago.

Beware of Movies: (Or more correctly, television). Remember that show, “Friends”? Remember Ross. Yeah. He was a paleontologist. Right. He was always shown messing with cavemen and doing archaeological things at the museum where he worked. Nope, he was an archaeologist. Well, you say, maybe he was a paleontologist but had to handle the archaeology, too. Nope. No large museum (like where he was supposedly working) would combine those two fields of study. Nope. He was an archaeologist.

Why is paleontology considered an Earth science?

If you want to take a paleontology class (like mine), you’ll most likely be taking it in a geology or Earth science department. That’s because fossil come out of rocks. The rocks themselves tell us a lot about the fossil and the animal that once was. However, if you want to be a successful paleontologist, you’ll be taking a lot of biology classes, because fossils are, in fact, remnants of once-living things. It’s a very multidisciplinary science, and there is a lot to study to be good at it.

How do we even have fossils?

Fossils are the left-over bits of animals that remain after the rest of the body has decayed away. Fossils are the parts of animals’ bodies that are resistant enough to be preserved in the rock. Generally, this means hard parts. Shells and bones comprise a great proportion of the fossil record (mostly shells, though bones get all the press). What’s important is that not everything gets preserved. For the most part, it’s only the hard parts and only rarely do soft parts get preserved. And of all the hard bits and pieces, only a very, very small proportion manage to survive burial and the conversion to rock. Fossils are super rare!

How does paleontology work?

Misconceptions abound about how paleontologists to their jobs. If you want to see something about what it really is like, I suggest watching the “Fossil Hunters” episode of Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel. Mike Rowe does briefly confuse archaeology with paleontology, but the rest of it is, well, real. I know those paleontologists. They’re doing real science. That’s what it looks like. Not so glamorous.

Beware of Movies: In the movie “Jurassic Park,” one of the opening scenes occurs at a fossil locality where Drs. Grant and Sadler are recovering a velociraptor skeleton. It’s laid out nicely in a lovely death pose, and all the little workers are brushing the dirt away from the bones. There are two massive problems here. 1) Fossils are essentially never laid out in such a perfect pose. Never. They’re usually crushed and deformed in some way. 2) No self-loving, professional, knowledgeable paleontologist would ever completely uncover a fossil specimen like that. We do a little digging and brushing to find the extent of the fossil, then we trench around the fossil and remove it, still encased in rock, to take it back to a proper lab for ‘preparation.’ Preparation is the process of removing a fossil from the rock. Thousands of hours can go into preparing a single fossil. Preparation is utterly avoided in the field except under special circumstances because things can happen (a heavy rain can destroy exposed bones).

 What did extinct animals look like? How did they act?

Movies provide fascinating interpretations of how ancient animals looked. Dinosaurs are a most common subject for, er, wild interpretation. In the earliest movies, dinosaurs were depicted as giant, lethargic lizards, all scaley and sprawled-legged. Over time, as more was learned about dinosaurs, the beasts became more dinosaur-shaped, but still sprawled-legged and slow. Many were depicted with their tails dragging on the ground. The best modern interpretations in movies seem to come from the Jurassic Park movies. They’ve got the postures right, and actually have the dinosaurs moving well (rapidly with legs drawn directly underneath the body). Even this is still not right, because we know now that many dinosaurs had feathers.

So how do we know this when all we have are bones? Bones can tell us a lot. Bones have their shapes due to the stresses put on them. We can examine the shapes of bones, then, to not only fit them together correctly, but also understand how the animal moved. In early reconstructions of dinosaurs, the scientists didn’t pay as much attention to this as they should have, thereby frequently putting things together incorrectly. Since the bones looked like reptiles, the paleontologists assumed that dinosaurs had to have a sprawling stance like modern lizards and reconstructed them that way, despite the fact that the bones didn’t fit right in the joints. Similarly with the old stance of Tyrannosaurus dragging its tail. To do so requires the tail vertebrae to be broken. Modern paleontology has gotten past this, and realized that the stance is much more like that of modern birds and mammals, with the legs directly below the body and the torso held horizontally. Modern paleontology also pays more attention to the scars and marks on bones which indicate where muscles attached. These give an indication of how the bones moved with respect to one another and how quickly or strongly these motions were. Paleontologists today rub shoulders with mechanical engineers, studying the various stresses on bones to understand better how extinct animals moved. We don’t have it all figured out yet, but we certainly know that some dinosaurs were quite fleet-footed and others took their time.

When we watch movies about extinct animals, everything we see about their outward appearance, like color and furriness, is fictional. Some things we do know, like that some dinosaurs had feathers and that most mammals have fur, but so far as colors, we’re just taking artistic license and deciding what they might look like based upon modern animals. But we do know a little bit about feathers, fur, and colors. Sometimes, impressions of feathers are preserved, as well as impressions of skin. This is how we might guess at the texture of dinosaur skin as well as the presence or absence of feathers (or fur). In some rare cases, there are yet fossilized remnants of the structures of the feathers that determine color. Thus we know that Archaeopteryx had at least some black feathers.

Interpreting behavior, like herding in Gallimimus or velociraptors hunting in packs, is much, much more difficult if not impossible. We know how Gallimimus can run, for example, so they could herd, but there’s no fossil evidence for it. Nor can we know that Tyrannosaurus can’t see something unless it moves. This is true for frogs, but Tyrannosaurus is a little different from frogs. Most dinosaur behavior (and that of any extinct animal) that is shown in a movie or TV show is conjecture.

Did dinosaurs and humans (or any mammal for that matter) actually co-exist? How do we know?

 

Jesus riding a dinosaur.

Humans and dinosaurs never lived together. We know this through study of the rock record. We can put rocks in order from oldest to youngest using simple principles, such as the oldest rocks are on the bottom of the pile (principle of superposition). (You can read more about this here.) We can use these principles across continents and get almost all of the Earth’s rocks in relative order from oldest to youngest. When we do this, and then look at the fossils in the rock, we find that human fossils and dinosaur fossils never exist in the same rock.

There were mammals around at the same time as dinosaurs. But nothing like what you see in movies like “Dinosaur.” The mammals back then were small and shrew like. Primates (like the lemurs in Dinosaur) didn’t come about until at least ten million years after the dinosaurs went extinct.

 

6 thoughts on “Beware of Movies! Fossils and Paleontology

  1. Great post – coudl be worse, I get called the dog lady!!! I am also constantly asked if my dogs are blind dogs, to whcih I reply, no they can see perfectly well!!! You have to laugh!

  2. Marvelous piece. I hope you enjoyed writing it as much as I enjoyed reading it. You struck a nic balance between engaging and educational.

    MC

  3. This was great! My 4 yr old son loved this (I read it to him) he has been saying for the past two yrs he will be a paleontologist. I am always looking for things that he will get information he craves and gain from. This was perfect! I wish there was a documentary depicting this article and the job of a paleontologist! Thank you for writing this article!

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