The Real Jurassic World

Does the latest summer blockbuster get its dino details wrong?

SCIENCE by Gregory Beatty

dino

Jurassic Park was wildly popular with audiences when it hit theatres in 1993. Of course it was: it’s a fun movie with dinosaurs, and the computer effects were groundbreaking.

And it’s a pretty safe bet that scientists, being people, liked the movie too.

But at the same time, Jurassic Park had its shortcomings.

It’s true that author Michael Crichton, who wrote the book Steven Spielberg’s movie was based on, spun an imaginative science fiction story about a doomed amusement park full of cloned dinosaurs. But while the genetically engineered dinosaurs scenario has a seductive sheen of plausibility, Jurassic Park is riddled with flawed science.

Just take a look at the central premise: dinosaurs are cloned from preserved blood taken from the stomachs of ancient blood-sucking insects preserved in amber. Nope. Totally bogus. While dinosaur-era insects have been found trapped in amber there’s no way Jurassic Park owner John Hammond’s team could’ve extracted viable DNA from the dino-blood in their bug-tummies to make clones after 65 million-plus years.

It’s just amber, a fossilized tree resin. It’s not carbonite from Star Wars.

And where did the Mesozoic plants that so entranced paleobotanist Ellie Sattler (played by Laura Dern) come from? Did Hammond (Richard  Attenborough) have some plant-eating insects encased in amber stashed somewhere, and used the same DNA extraction technique to clone them?

The depiction of paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill) working in the field was wonky too. Also, he had a stupid, second-rate Indiana Jones hat.

Then again, Jurassic Park came out 22 years ago and its attention to details like upright-walking dinos with stiff, non-draggy tails makes its other sins forgivable.

But judging by the trailers, Jurassic World might trade bemused nit-picking for actual annoyance — and not just among scientists, either.

Without Feathers

Dinosaurs have always been popular but thanks to the Internet, legions of knowledgeable enthusiasts are well aware of new discoveries — like the horned “Hellboy” skull in Alberta the other day.

But in the last two decades, many of those discoveries have caused paleontologists to radically revise some long-held theories about dinosaurs.

For example, we know many dinosaurs had feathers — a fact that anyone who went to last summer’s big Science Centre exhibit Dinosaurs Unearthed would know.

The producers of Jurassic World must have missed that memo and a few others, unfortunately. From the trailers, JW’s dinosaurs look old school. No feathers, dull colours, booming roars. Unless every special effect in the trailer was secretly re-done for opening day, Jurassic World’s dinosaurs will be more out of date than the original Jurassic Park’s were.

So what do we know about dinosaurs we didn’t used to?

“There’s been some big changes in the last 20 years,” says Tim Tokaryk, the Royal Saskatchewan Museum’s curator of paleontology at the T-rex Centre in Eastend.

“One relates to the interdisciplinary approach paleontology has taken,” says Tokaryk. “We’ve hooked up with University of Regina physicists to use the synchrotron in Saskatoon to look at [fossils] in more minute detail than was possible before.”

Tokaryk says tools like the synchrotron and sophisticated computer programs now let paleontologists analyze dinosaur biomechanics. That helps scientists figure out all kinds of things — like, for instance, how a tyrannosaurus chewed its food.

“In 2009 we hosted a conference on fossils from southwest Saskatchewan,” says Tokaryk. “One study took all the individual skull pieces of Scotty [a T. rex skeleton found in 1991] and scanned them to look at how the skull moves, and how it reacts to food consumption and other things. That was all a result of using computer technology in an imaginative way.”

Another boost has come from China’s growing openness.

“Half the new discoveries about the origin of birds are the result of considerable collections made in China,” Tokaryk says. “We’ve been able to look at pristine [fossils] that have feathers and determine colouration based on elements that pigments leave behind. This is fleshing out the picture of a world that never could’ve been imagined 20 years ago.”

The origin of birds is important, because scientists now know they evolved from a subclass of dinosaurs called theropods in the late Jurassic Period 150 million years ago. Theropods include velociraptors, T. rexes and other carnivores. So, yup: birds really are dinosaurs. And like their distant descendants, fossil evidence suggests they had feathers.

Cooler still: pigment residues show that instead of being dull grey, as dinosaurs are traditionally depicted in movies, they were often quite colourful.

You won’t see any feathers in Jurassic World though. So the movie gets an “F” there.

Prehistoric Mysteries

Other aspects of dinosaur knowledge, though, are still up for debate.

The roaring dino, for instance, is a Hollywood staple. But some paleontologists argue dinosaurs may have had limited vocal capability — instead, relying more on visual communication through their bright colours, and features such as crests and frills. Scientists used to think these were for defense but evidence shows most were relatively fragile. That strongly suggests they were more likely to be ornamental.

“Soft tissue preservation is extremely rare with dinosaurs,” says Tokaryk. “Now, certain groups, like the Parasaurolophus, which is a duck-billed dinosaur, had a large crest atop its head that had chambers. By making a replica, scientists were able to reconstruct probable vocalization. But for other groups, where we don’t have soft tissue [like the larynx] and a big enough sample size, it’s difficult to determine vocalization.”

Early depictions of dinosaurs showed them walking with bent limbs like modern lizards. But through biomechanics, paleontologists have long known many dinosaurs walked upright — which gave them increased breathing capacity and greater endurance. It also helped them support their great weight.

Dinosaurs didn’t drag their tails on the ground, either. Tail weight was typically a counter-balance to their heads, with their hips acting as a fulcrum — which gave them more mobility.

There’s also a debate over whether dinosaurs were warm-blooded, cold-blooded or somewhere in between. They used to be regarded as cold-blooded ectotherms like modern reptiles, which would skew them toward the slow-and-lumbering end of the animal activity scale. But birds are warm-blooded endotherms. If dinosaurs were too, they’d have a speeded-up metabolism that would enable them to be more active.

“Part of the problem is we’ve clumped dinosaurs into one mega-group and applied broad stroke interpretations: hot-blooded, cold-blooded, scavenger, hunter, whatever,” says Tokaryk. “We realize now, because of technology and newer finds, that it’s not black and white. Based on our current assessment of [birds], which can be extrapolated to the past, some dinosaurs technically reached warm-bloodedness.”

Some modern birds fly solo but others flock. And in the late ’80s and early ’90s, says Tokaryk, paleontologists started finding evidence of herding and pack behavior.

That, at least, made it into the Jurassic Park movies.

“We’d always interpreted or inferred that the T. rex and its relatives were solitary and only got together to mate,” says Tokaryk.

But that’s not the case. “Phil Currie has found two sites in Alberta where a member of the family, the Albertosaurus, engaged in social behavior and wasn’t solitary,” he says.

Dinosaur extinction is another hot topic. It’s agreed that a big meteor hit the Gulf of Mexico area 66 million years ago, and the subsequent cataclysm precipitated the dinosaurs’ extinction (except for birds, of course). But the exact process — and role played by volcanoes, tsunamis, global warming, giant ash clouds that killed vegetation, and other factors — is still unclear.

Despite the fact paleontology deals with the distant past, it’s still very much alive as a science. It’s just too bad that Jurassic World doesn’t try harder to portray the feathery, colourful reality of dinosaurs.

Then again, maybe we’ll all be surprised when we actually see the movie. It sure wouldn’t be the first time dinosaurs have defied all expectations.


Flesh, Bone And Stone

Several discoveries of soft tissue dinosaur remains have been made in recent years that have given paleontologists greater insight into the internal organs, blood vessels, digestive system and other aspects of dinosaur anatomy.

“In our museum, there’s a skeleton of a Mosasaur,” says the RSM’s Tim Tokaryk. “That’s a 25-foot lizard that swam in Saskatchewan seas around 75 million years ago. The skull has part of the throat preserved. I think it’s one of only two specimens in North America. Among my research projects, when I get to it, is looking closely at tracheal preservation.”

Dinosaur DNA reconstruction a la Jurassic Park remains the holy grail. It seems impossible, but never say never. “If I say no I’m going to be proven wrong in the next five years,” Tokaryk chuckled.

At least Tokaryk doesn’t have a boring job.

“Paleontology is unique because it combines two sciences: biology and geology,” he says. “The growth in understanding of what’s possible in biology is unfathomable. It’s quite likely that in the future, through modern genetic strains, we’ll gain some idea of what was going on back then. That’s especially so with theropod dinosaurs, which are the split ancestors of birds. It’s more difficult, though, with groups that have no modern analog.” /Gregory Beatty


Looking For Fossils? Just Sask For Them

When John Hammond contacts Dr. Alan Grant in Jurassic Park, he’s working in the field in Montana.

Saskatchewan is a key site for paleontology too, says the RSM’s Tim Tokaryk.

“We have the best history of birds from the interior seaway of North America, ranging from about 95 to 65 million years ago. Nowhere else in the world has these groups of non-flying, foot-propelled diving birds in such variety.”

Each summer, Tokaryk and his colleagues head out into the field. Often, though, it’s a race against time.

“As paleontologists we depend on erosion to expose remains,” he says. “We don’t just go digging in a hill and hope to find something. But that process, with wind, rain and such, destroys material very rapidly. We’ve found fossils such as a complete turtle shell or dinosaur limb bone, but weren’t able to get to them at that time. Then we come back later, and they’re destroyed.”

Sometimes discoveries are made by the public. So what should you do if you stumble across possible fossil remains?

“It’s best to leave the stuff where you found it,” says Tokaryk. “Take a photograph and e-mail it to us because, again, paleontology combines two sciences, and understanding the geology is extremely important to recreate the environment where the fossil came from.”

The Royal Saskatchewan Museum’s e-mail is info@royalsaskmuseum.ca and the T-Rex Discovery Centre’s is trex.centre@gov.sk.ca. Keep your eyes open this summer. /Gregory Beatty

2015-06-11