Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum
Premise: What if we could clone dinosaurs and made a theme park around them?
You were probably waiting for this one. I had to do Jurassic Park. I’m a paleontologist. It’s a rule, right?
When Jurassic Park came out, I was in my fourth year as an undergraduate (I’d been a senior for a while already, and wouldn’t graduate for at least one more year), studying both geology and biology. I was going to be a vertebrate paleontologist, and I was pretty sure I was going to study dinosaurs. (I never have studied dinosaurs, but I did become a vertebrate paleontologist. 50% is pretty good, right?)
I never did see this in the theater. I saw it a year later when it came out on video. I watched it the evening of the day that I took the GRE exams. Yes, exams in the plural. This is back when there were only two dates a year you could take the GRE and it was a hand-written test. I took both the general and the subject exam in one day. I was fried that night. I remember laughing at the cute dinosaurs while my roomates and friends fell on me in terror.
Since then, this movie has been a popular one to watch with the various geology clubs I’ve been associated with. It’s full of problems with both paleontology and biology. I’ll try to stick to the paleontology problems.
The bottom line is this: We’re probably not EVER going to see cloned dinosaurs. Now, maybe we can do some genetic engineering and get dinosaur-like animals from modern birds, but that’s about it.
I’m only planning to review the first Jurassic Park movie. The others are based upon accepting the assumptions from the first, so there’s little point in considering the others (with the possible exception of the character Robert Burke, from the second movie, The Lost World).
PORTRAYAL OF PALEONTOLOGY: Oh, goodness, it’s wrong. Just wrong. The setting, the outcrops, were all right, but what the science looked like is wrong.
Exposing the fossil: 1) I have never been to a fossil locality where a brush was all that was needed to expose a fossil. Additionally, paleontologists tend NOT to expose fossils as they dig. They only uncover enough so that they can determine the exent of the the fossil. Then they trench around the specimen, keeping as much rock as possible in place. Once a trench is dug, and the fossil is still encased in rock but now sitting on a pedestal, paleontologists will jacket the fossil with plaster and take it into a laboratory to fully remove it from the rock. Never, never, never do we do such detailed preparation in the field. The specimens will be ruined, if not by people walking on them (or helicopters landing nearby), but by the elements. It takes time, sometimes years, to get a fossil out of the ground. The more that remains encased in rock, the better.
Seismic: Not that I fully understand how seismic works, but I’m certain that a single shotgun blast isn’t going to yield an image by which a paleontologist can recognize the half-moon shape of the dinosaur’s wrist bone.
The fossil itself: Y’know, sometimes a complete fossil is found in its death pose, but usually even then some of the bones are out of place. To find as single complete specimen is unusual. To find two, both laid out perfectly, is so unlikely that I could not suspend reality to accept that part of the movie. And something as big as the ‘Velociraptor’ that they portray would almost certainly have damage or distortion somewhere.
Science and funding: Apparently Hammond, the creator of Jurassic Park, has been providing Drs. Grant and Sadler with $50,000 a year to fund their research. That might seem like a lot of money to you, but in reality, that’s chump change. Just saying. Research efforts like those are expensive, especially if Sadler and Grant are getting any salary from it. I’ve submitted some ‘cheap’ grant requests for less than $50,000 per year. That covers my research expenses and only two months of my salary. Most programs need much more than that.
THE DINOSAURS: They did pretty good with the dinosaurs, all things considered. I’m glad that Spielberg isn’t going to go all “George Lucas” on these movies and fix them up though…
Velociraptors and the relationship with birds: What Alan Grant in the movie says about the relationship between birds and dinosaurs is mostly true. Most of us in the paleontological community refer to birds as ‘avian dinosaurs.’ We have chickens and I am always calling them my little dinosaurs. What Dr. Grant says about ‘raptor’ meaning ‘bird’ may also be true, but let’s face it, that’s not evidence that birds and dinosaurs are related. If I start calling a donut a banana, does that make the donut fruit? No. (Besides, ‘raptor’ actually means ‘thief’!)
Speaking of Velociraptors: The true ‘Velociraptor’ is a little animal that would stand about hip-high on most adult people. The veolociraptors in the movie were enlarged to make them look cooler. When Spielberg came up with this, paleontologists said, ‘Well, ok. Sure. It’s a movie. Go ahead,’ basically accepting that this was going to be wrong. But at about the time that the movie came out, a huge new species related to Velociraptor was discovered in Utah, and was named Utahraptor. The velociraptors of the movie could be Utahraptors in real life. And the paleontology community breathed a collective sigh.
Inferences about behavior: Velociraptors hunt in packs. Gallimimus ran in herds. This is arm-waving. This is literary license. This is not something that can be inferred directly from the fossil record. We don’t know exactly how these animals interacted. We don’t know how they behaved. We can observe modern birds and assume that dinosaurs might have behaved in similar ways. Nothing more.
Inferences about perception in dinosaurs: Apparently, Tyrannosaurus can’t see you unless you move. Dr. Grant knew this somehow. OK, we don’t actually know this. There are animals that can only see objects if they move quickly, like some frogs, but we can’t possibly know if this is true with dinosaurs. By the same token, we don’t know if velociraptors can stare you down, either. If we’re going to base this inference on their nearest living relatives, however, I’m pretty sure that T. rex could see you even if you were sitting still.
Modern understanding of dinosaurs: If this movie were to be made today, the velociraptors would most likely be completely covered with feathers. The T. Rex would also have feathers, probably. Any of the theropods would be feathered. Now, I’m not sure about the sauropods – the big Brachiosaurus – I’m sure someone else knows.
By the way, Dilophosaurus: Dilophosaurus does not have the neck frill that is shown in the movie, and it didn’t spit poison, either.
Cloning: So this is biology, and a bit of chemistry. 1) DNA wouldn’t last. Over 65 million years it would degrade so much that it would be unrecognizable. 2) Frog DNA? If they were clever, they’d use bird DNA. Seriously, a FROG?! Now if we really wanted dinosaurs, what we need to do is study the anatomy of dinosaurs and compare that with birds as adults and embryonically. Then let’s try to make the embryo of modern birds develop to make a dinosaur-like skeleton and see what we get… This, I think, is within the realm of possibility, but the ‘dinosaur’ we’d get won’t be any dinosaur that ever walked the Earth!
Females turning male: Actually, such things are possible. In many vertebrates, the temperature of the eggs during development will determine the sex of the young when they’re born. Equally possible, though not mentioned, is parthenogenesis, wherein a female simply gives birth or lays eggs without fertilization. The babies are clones of the mother. This is known in many species of lizards. It’s a stretch, but it’s possible.
I could go on. There are several little details in the movie that I found annoying, but these are the big ones (or so I think). I’ve got other movies to watch and review…