Back to Jurassic Park: A Paleontological ViewS

After twenty years, the original Jurassic Park is back in theaters. The movie’s dinosaurs – once state of the art, now woefully behind the science – are a reminder of our complicated relationship with our favorite prehistoric beasts. New science is bringing dinosaurs to vibrant, feathery life as never before, yet we still cling to the familiar scaly beasts depicted in the king of the tyrant dinosaur films.

I was ten years old when I first watched the revived dinosaurs roar across the screen. I couldn’t wait for it. Magazine articles teased at how amazing the movie was going to be, promotional tie-ins brought dinosaurs and junk food together, and I convinced my parents to finally let me read the novel on which the film was based.

I devoured Michael Crichton’s book in less than twenty four hours, but even such direct imaginary stimulation didn’t compare to how I felt when I saw Velociraptor, Triceratops, Dilophosaurus, and, most amazing of all, Tyrannosaurus brought to life through the combined power of new paleontology and Hollywood special effects mastery. Jurassic Park came the closest we may ever get to what the film’s fictional genetic engineers tried to do – recreate the best possible approximation to dinosaurs as they were during their Mesozoic heyday. This is a high achievement, yet isn’t necessarily a good thing. Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs have fossilized in our imagination, overshadowing new findings and restorations that are making dinosaurs stranger still.

The convergence of film technology and scientific revision that made Jurassic Park such a success could only happen once, and made the film a classic. Prior to 1993, the cinema dinosaurs I knew were jerking puppets, animated caricatures, or stop-motion models that never seemed to mesh especially well with their human costars. Jurassic Park brought dinosaurs into our world, and made them something more than the mindless antagonists they were traditionally cast as.

Jurassic Park also debuted at a time when paleontologists were ramping up ever-more-detailed investigations into dinosaur biology. They delved into the microstructure of dinosaur bone, examined the ecology of the long-dead creatures, rearranged the dinosaur family tree based on a new methodology called cladistics, and began to realize that birds were dinosaurs too. Paleontologists have gained even more momentum since that Dinosaur Renaissance. What we know about dinosaurs is changing so quickly now that even the beasts we thought we knew just twenty years ago look unfamiliar to us now. If Jurassic Park were made today, the dinosaurian cast would be far more vibrant and complex than the monsters that set off a mid-90s wave of dinomania.

The biggest change to Jurassic Park is an extension of a paradox that runs to the core of the first film. Very early in the story, the fictional paleontologist Alan Grant rhapsodizes about how bird-like “raptors” – read: Deinonychus, changed to Velociraptor for the movie – must have been, and terrifies a small child in his attempt to prove that even avian-ish dinosaurs could be terrifying. (Slashing at volunteers with dinosaur claws is not a normal field practice, even after paleontologists soak up their usual allotment of beer and liquor at the end of a rough day in the badlands.) Yet, by today’s standards, Jurassic Park’s raptors look exceptionally scabrous and reptilian compared to the feathery creatures that real-world paleontologists have restored.

Back to Jurassic Park: A Paleontological ViewS

Where the film to be remade today, Jurassic Park would look less like an open-air reptile zoo and more like an aviary. Both direct fossil evidence – from feathers to quill knobs on bones – and the evolutionary relationships of known feathery dinosaurs has shown that Velociraptor was a feathery predator and that Tyrannosaurus was a gargantuan fuzzy carnivore. The extra integument wouldn’t have made them any less fierce. If you stopped to laugh at a fluffy Tyrannosaurus, you’d just be giving the theropod a head start. And even other dinosaurs more distantly related to birds might have had unusual body coverings – splashes of bristles or shaggy feather-like structures on the backs and tails of the park’s Triceratops and Parasaurolophus. No doubt Alan Grant would be thrilled by the makeover.

The irony is that Jurassic Park so firmly established the image of naked dinosaurs that many fans are resistant to the idea that their favorite dinosaurs were fluffy. In fact, Colin Trevorrow, who was recently tasked with directing Jurassic Park 4, commented that there will be “no feathers” in the next sequel. Despite the first film’s progressive take on the bird-dinosaur connection, including the parting scene where the avian dinosaurs we call pelicans fly alongside the helicopter carrying the catastrophe’s survivors as a reminder that dinosaurs are still with us, the franchise has been reticent to catch up with the best paleontology has to offer. The first fuzzy non-avian dinosaur was described in 1996, just three years after Jurassic Park initially debuted. If we were to go back to “Site A” now, we’d undoubtedly encounter dinosaurs made all the more bizarre by their body coverings.

Back to Jurassic Park: A Paleontological ViewS

Feathered dinosaurs via Dr. Brian Choo

Of course, diehard fans might say that the grotesque appearance of the Jurassic Park dinosaurs is because – according to canon – inGen researchers used frog DNA to patch up the missing bits of dinosaur genomes. That’s the conceit that allows “chaotician” Ian Malcolm to later feel smug when the dinosaurs, like the frogs the DNA was taken from, switch sexes to create a breeding population. But splicing a Tyrannosaurus with amphibian genes would make no sense when we know that birds are living dinosaurs. Indeed, the avian twig of the dinosaur family tree evolved 150 million years ago, and every bird today – from hummingbirds to penguins to pigeons – are living dinosaurs. There is a workaround, though. Some bird species are capable of parthenogenesis – females can lay viable eggs without mating with a male. “Life finds a way”, indeed.

Even though the original Jurassic Park dinosaurs will remain featherless when they return to theaters, imaginary paleontologist Grant’s insistence that dinosaurs were exceptionally bird-like is spot on. It’s a reminder of what the franchise could reclaim if science and special effects are brought back into collaboration again.

Perhaps a film like Jurassic Park can only exist under just the right conditions. In 1993, paleontology had just radically shifted our understanding of what dinosaurs were like, special effects had advanced to an astounding degree, and dinosaurs had been demarcated as b-movie kitsch for so long that a serious, scary science fiction fable offered an unprecedented opportunity. Without some future revolution in special effects or a jarring image change for dinosaurs, we might never have the chance to pull the veil back on amazing dinosaurs in the same way ever again. Yet dinosaurs as we know them continue to change and evolve as our understanding draws more detail from their bones. Those new images from the scientific community are trickling piecemeal into pop culture, but the resistance to the very idea that some of our favorite dinosaurs were enfluffled underscores the need for a film to popularize our shifting perception of prehistoric life. We need a little more of Grant’s abashed love of bird-like dinosaurs more than ever.

Jurassic Park is more than an extreme case of science communication success. I expect that as the upcoming generations of paleontologists establish themselves in academia and as the talking heads of basic cable documentaries, they will draw a formative part of their fascination back to the film just as their mentors and advisers cited the Tyrannosaurus at the American Museum of Natural History or books of dull, swamp-bound dinosaurs. Simultaneously, the film is a kind of flickering museum. Not just of 1990s style and the days when interactive CD-ROMs were a source of novel excitement, but, despite their inaccuracies, dinosaurs as we saw them at a time when paleontology was truly just beginning to investigate biological questions that always seemed beyond the reach of science.

Now that we’re going back to the original Jurassic Park, we can gauge just how far the science has come and how much more wonderful our new dinosaurs seem. I hope the franchise follows its own precedent. When the tale of Jurassic Park eventually continues, why not celebrate and preserve our new fuzzy, fantastic dinosaurs?

Brian Switek is a science journalist who writes the Laelaps blog at National Geographic. His forthcoming book is My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs.