Everything people ask me about dinosaurs, they learned from Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park has a lot to answer for (both positive and negative) with respect to palaeontology and as someone working on both dinosaurs and pterosaurs you can imagine that it comes up in conversation sooner or later with just about everyone I have met (outside of the profession, and more than a few inside too) in the last (*gulp*) 15 years. Both the initial film and the two sequels (plus the books, computer games, toys etc.) have entered popular culture in a way far beyond even King Kong or 1 000 000 years B.C. ever did. While it certainly generated a new wave of interest in palaeontology, provided direct funding for research through the Jurassic Foundation, and made things like ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ possible though the technological advancements made in computer imaging, sadly a few things I wish had been different. Or more specifically people would stop asking me about.

I’m not just going to sit here and pick holes in the films (and I could do that at great length) and get pithy over why some dinosaurs should have been 30 cm longer, or had slightly different claw shapes or whatever, but there are some things that come up again and again and again in conversation. They are not even necessarily things ‘wrong’ with the film per se – I understand the need for a bit of dramatic license etc., but well, these are the things that always come up and always need explaining. I doubt anyone will ever read this and by extension *not* bother me about it, in all likelihood, someone will say “I read this think online that said palaeontologists always get asked about the same things from Jurassic Park. So, you know those Velociraptors….”. However, I do at least find it a little interesting that *some* of the things I get asked about are not the ones I might have expected, and if nothing else it makes for a nice easy post.

“So how do you know what colours they were then?”. Well, for one we don’t, obviously. Fossils don’t normally preserve colours or even patterns (though there are some amazing and dramatic exceptions). Secondly, almost every animal in the entire series was yet another shade of greeny-brown with the exception of the Ceratasaurus which was on screen for all of 5 seconds so it’s not like they went out on a limb with their choices. Thirdly, while we don’t know and can’t know, we can make some shrewd guesses. Some colour patterns (notably forms of camouflage) turn up again and again in all kinds of lineages, so it would not be a surprise if some dinosaurs living in similar environments had similar patterns, and both lizards and birds are capable of producing some dramatic colours come breeding time and certainly many dinosaurs had elaborate advertising structures attached to them and could have produced a range of bright colours and signals.

Brachiosaurus stretches

Brachiosaurus stretches

“Could the Brachiosaurus really rear up like that?”. Well, yes and no. In general, the jury is out on the whole ‘sauropod rearing’ issue, with evidence both in favour and against various animals being capable of the feat. However, if there is one group of sauropods ill suited to the task, it is the brachiosaurids where the forelegs are already much longer than the hindlimbs making rearing much harder and more dangerous and of less benefit than in say a diplodociod (in addition to the fundamental difference in neck positions). Some probably could, but the species they chose to show it off? Probably not. This incidentally is not nit-picky but annoying, I have no problem with them stretching ideas a little, but why not use an animal that probably *could* do it, rather than one that probably *couldn’t*? It would make no difference to the stories, effects, animation etc. but would be more plausible and more accurate.

“So could they really spit poison like that, and did they have those frills?”. We’ll ignore the magical shrinking Dilophosaurus (and the fact that it hopped, I actually liked that concept) and stick to its special ‘features’. First off, the ‘frilled lizard’ style frills – did they have them? Who knows? Unless we find an incredibly well preserved dinosaur with one, we can never rule it out as it would not leave any traces in the osteological (bony) fossil record. They aren’t common even in modern reptiles (though cobras have a fair go through another method) so I’d be surprised if many animals had them, but over a few thousand genera and few million years they were certainly possible. As for the venom side of things, again there is nothing to support it in terms or ‘spitting’ (though one might expect grooved teeth if any had a toxic bite – some were reported, but this turned out to be an incorrect analysis). I rate it is a highly unlikely, there is no evidence and it would be an unusual adaptation to be sure, and with no obvious modern analogue, but not impossible.

Not actually that fast

Not actually that fast

“Was T. rex really that fast?”. No. Nothing like in fact. We see her sprinting after a jeep that is going well over 30 mph and the rex gains on it quite happily over the fairly short chase despite having to run through a tree at some point. Even the highest realistic estimates put the top speed under 25 mph and 15 is far more reasonable. In fact John Hutchinson told me that he spoke to some of the original animators for this sequence who informed him that when they let the rex run at the right speed it looked wrong, so they actually slowed it right down and it appears to go so fast simply because every time you see it, it is right behind the jeep despite it moving at half the speed.

“Who would win a fight between Tyrannosaurus and Spinosaurus?”. Don’t know, don’t care. It *is* interesting to speculate if it means you can talk about bite forces, tooth structure, claw shape and mass vs length equations, but in terms of on screen drama? Who cares? There are two stonking great theropods ripping hell out of each other on a 30 ft screen. Even I wasn’t thinking about that watching it, how come the rest of the audience wasn?

“Were the Velociraptors really that intelligence / could they open doors”. The short answer of course is that it’s damn hard to know. In the case of intelligence the dromaeosaurs were certainly among the most intelligent of the dinosaurs as can bee seen from their relatively large brain to body size, the fact that they were derived predators and possibly social to boot – all indicators of high intelligence. Though of course brain size is not always such a good indicator of intellectual capacity, as can be seen by the incredible intelligence of some birds compared to even many primates. Still, the ability to set up a simple trap with one animal acting as a ‘decoy’ or ‘beater’ is not beyond their theoretical capabilities. As for doors, well in the movies they had quite literally a helping hand thanks to a rotated wrist (which I assume made it easier for the puppeteers inside the suits) giving them an easier time of it. Anyone who has worked in a zoo or on a farm will be able to tell you that some animals, no matter how apparently anatomically unsuited for such activities, can release bolts and open doors. Intelligent or not and hampered by a proper wrist joint, I am confident a dromaeosaur could get through a door in a couple of tries.

Not like in the movies

Not like in the movies

Finally, two things that aren’t much mentioned, that I really didn’t like. Again, they just seemed unnecessary and could have been changed without affecting any part of the story, special effects, script etc. yet would have done science a favour if they had been correct. The first is the amazing skeleton that is uncovered in Montanna. Why is it complete, articulated, and just lying on the surface under a layer of dust, and with every bone flawlessly preserved? I don’t think the public given two minutes to think about it would guess that skeletons are normally like that, and of course the truth is almost the opposite. Why both to show something so obviously false (and not just to a palaeontologist) when it is irrelevant to the plot. Why not spend quite a lot less time and effort making a far less perfect skeleton, which would be more accurate?

Secondly, there is the ‘nerds’ stereotype of the scientists. Yes, this is primarily a kids action film and stereotypes help characterise people quickly, and certainly we do actually get some heroics form our nerds. But why do they have to be dressed in field gear, only think in names and abstract concepts, pontificate at every opportunity (irony alert) and generally come over as absent-minded nerdy specialists who can’t do anything outside their own field (Grant can’t even use a seatbelt!). Would it really have killed them to add a bit more depth, given one of them the odd line, or at least just eased the characters away from such rigid stereotypes? In the Lost World we even see the Bob Bakker parody appear, and while the venerable palaeontologist may be just like that, the rest of us aren’t. Please give us a little more credit, no-one sits in the field for years at a time, or the opposite – sits in an office, ignorant of the world beyond his research subject, dusty tomes and ancient bones. The truth is the opposite in fact, and this style of research went out a century ago, in a way it is fascinating that the concept has survived for so long in the public imagination, but it is still wrong.

That about wraps it up really. In general I enjoyed the films, and while there are errors, frustrations, and issues with the dinosaurs, their portrayal and the science and scientists behind it, I think it was good for palaeontology as a whole. This post is aimed more at the public lack of imagination over what the film meant for dinosaurs and research, than the film makers themselves. So many people saw the film, and clearly *thought* about the film, and yet the only thing that often struck them were apparently the same half dozen questions. It seems that our ability to reconstruct a dinosaur accurately is taken for granted (if only they knew about the missing bits of Spinosaurus) but they worry that we got the colours right, when in fact on the palaeontological front the reverse is probably true in terms of what concerns the scientists. Still, any interest is a positive thing if it encourages people to ask questions, and certainly some are prompted to delve deeper than the superficial issues outlined above and for that I am honestly grateful.

Obviously for once these are not my images, and are cribbed from various sites. I’ll plead fair use, but if Universal want me to take them down, get in touch.

19 Responses to “Everything people ask me about dinosaurs, they learned from Jurassic Park”

  1. 1 Zach Miller 08/07/2008 at 2:34 am

    Jurassic Park 3 just kinda shot science to hell. You almost get the feeling that “at least they tried” in the first two movies. But then you get tubby, skin-jiggling brachiosaurs and Pteranodons that fly like bats and lift kids off the ground (and have teeth).

    People always ask me if T.rex could see if you stand still. It takes a surprisingly long time to explain WHY that’s wrong.

  2. 2 Dave Godfrey 08/07/2008 at 3:27 am

    In fairness to the film-makers I’ve heard that the Dilophosaurus is supposed to be a juvenile, hence why its so small. However if that was the case you could argue that maybe they should have made the frill and crests smaller (or possibly even omitted them altogether).

  3. 3 David Hone 08/07/2008 at 6:57 pm

    According to a book I had, they shrank Dilophosaurs so as to avoid confusion with the raptors, but in doing so made it far more similar in size, not less so. Getting rid of the crests / frill would hardly have elped. They would have been better served just making one of them a differnet colour rather than their homogenous green / browns.

  4. 4 BeenThereDoneThat 09/07/2008 at 8:16 am

    The biggest misconception that JP has left the public with is the notion that, were it not for the presumed asteroid hitting 65 mya, dinosaurs would still be alive today. In fact, much geochemistry has shown that the world after the extinction of the dinosaurs was very different from the one they lived in. Even today, our atmosphere has substantially-less oxygen than in the Cretaceous, thus rendering any DNA-derived dinos DOA.

  5. 5 andy 12/07/2008 at 8:14 pm

    Though it’s not a very relative point as it’s entirely speculative, I doubt that velociraptors would have had the ability to open doors as they were considerably smaller in real life than in the movie.
    In the movie they were sized up to the height of an adult human being, finding the doorhandle at the comportable height where we find it.
    In real life the handle would probably have been above it, so it had to reach or maybe jump to get a hold of it. This, I think, would make it rather hard for a velociraptor to open the door.

    I never really understood why velociraptor was upsized in the first place as there is a very commonly known dromaesaurus – deinonychus – that actually was about the size of the animals shown in the movies.

  6. 6 David Hone 14/07/2008 at 8:48 pm

    andy: I still think they could have opened doors, they would have been much shorter yes, but porbably still capable. I know cats that open doors well enough by jumping, so thye should have no trouble. I think the name change came about solely as a tool for Crichton, since he tied the ‘raptor’ part into the South American folklore about the ‘raptor spirits’ on the mainland.

    BTDT: I still think any reseurected dinosaur (or pterosaur) would be OK in modern times, well small ones at least. You might suffer quite a bit, but you can easily live in at atmosphere very different to what you are used to at sea level, look at climbers who can scale Everest with no artifical oxygen, or divers who use a helium / oxygen mix. No doubt they would not do too well, but I suspect they would live. Vertebraste bodies are remarkably tolerant to stress.

  7. 7 Zach Miller 15/07/2008 at 1:28 am

    I think Crichton called them “Velociraptor” after reading Greg Paul’s “Predatory Dinosaurs of the World,” in which Velociraptor and Deinonychus are synonymized.

  8. 8 Dave Godfrey 16/07/2008 at 11:22 pm

    If the KT extinction hadn’t happened I don’t see why dinosaurs wouldn’t have survived. The groups that survived to the present managed to adapt. to changing atmospheric conditions. I also expect that if we could resurrect the dinosaurs, and found they kept dying due to lack of oxygen, that problem would be first on the list to be fixed.

  9. 9 David Hone 17/07/2008 at 7:39 pm

    Quite Dave, and while they clearly didn’t adapt to *something* at the end of the KT, the crocodiles, lizards, birds, fish, mammals and more all managed it.

  10. 10 Alessio 28/07/2008 at 12:16 am

    I agree with your post except for one thing:

    scientists are NOT nerds? Pffh,really? XD

    Not all of them,obviously,but a large part of the so called “experts” are nothing more than big,spoiled kids who nitpick eachother,carry their ideas in an almost religious,fanatic way and elaborate theories only to gain personal glory and recognition…No offence,bear in mind 😉

  11. 11 Dave Raikow 19/02/2009 at 3:29 am


    Whenever, I tell people I’m an ecologist, they say “What, like recycling?”.

  12. 12 launcher 19/06/2009 at 2:08 am

    I don’t think the seatbelt scene in the J.P. movie is a good example of Dr. Grant’s ineptness outside of his field. In fact, he shows resourcefulness by taking two female buckles – the only elements of a seatbelt available to him – and tying them together.

    Of course, this act foreshadows the dinosaurs’ own ability to reproduce despite the intentional absence of males on the island.


  13. 14 Dan 03/09/2009 at 9:48 am

    TV and movies have a huge impact on how people see not only dinosaurs, but anything they aren’t educated about. Look at CSI. Need I say more?

    But getting back to dinosaurs, Jurassic Park did lead people to believe certain things about dinosaurs that simply aren’t true. Or at least aren’t certain facts anyway.

    Another movie that led many into believing things about dinosaurs that aren’t totally true is Disney’s Dinosaur. That movie would have us believe that many kinds of dinosaurs could speak english, when in fact most were latin-speaking dinosaurs. I think a couple species could speak german, but that evidence has yet to be proven as fact.

    • 15 David Hone 03/09/2009 at 10:17 am

      I do take your point, but I think part of the problem (though not mentioned above) is that these things become cultural icons so that people use them as frames of reference. Previously if any journalist wanted to talk theropods they would mention T.rex, but now Velociraptor gets nearly as much press coverage. This is not always a good thing as it can reinforce incorrect stereotypes (like the idea of them as super fast, super intelligent animals). From another perspective it’s interesting as 1 000 000 years BC for example was a great piece of entertainment, but few people came out of the cinema assuming that humans and dinosaurs coexisted yet many took much of Jurassic Park literally even when it was largely fictional. A product of a different time (and media coverage, marketing etc.) or what else I am not sure, but the contrast is certainly there and certainly marked. It does seem that films = entertainment, but Jurassic Park = entertainment + fact.

      • 16 Dan 03/09/2009 at 10:37 am

        You are right. When JP first came out, there were all of a sudden so many “experts” on dinosaurs. Oh yes, the movie MUST have been more than entertainment!

        And speaking of humans and dinosaurs coexisting, there are actually groups who believe this. And it wasn’t even a movie that prompted such thinking! I used to be such a believer!

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