When I was a kid, I liked dinosaurs. I had my favorite dinosaur-themed t-shirts, and a box full of all kinds of different action figures under my bed. The dinosaurs weren't so much action figures as they were just figures, a hunk of hard rubber shaped like a brontosaurus and painted dull brown. I read books about skeletons and watched shows about digging them up. I liked dinosaurs. But I loved Michael Crichton and the book that made him a household name.
Jurassic Park's ascent from best-selling sci-fi phenom novel to a global craze for dinosaur-related everying was an important part of my youth. The book was already a big hit, but when the story became the summer blockbuster of 1993, time seemed to stop for a second. There were kinds of impressive people involved in the project—Steven Spielberg, John Williams, Newman from Seinfeld—but the dinosaurs were the real stars. Having read the book the year before, I'd laid in bed at night imagining what these beasts would look like if we really could bring them back. How would they move? What would they sound like? How would they smell? But I wouldn't have to wonder any more, because Jurassic Park could show me all that, and it did. Except that last bit about the smell. That's still a mystery.
Starting, well, now you can go to the theater and do it all again—in 3D. The extra dimension evidently works pretty well, and now all kinds of kids get to go see Jurassic Park just like you and I did 20 years ago. Maybe they'll want to be paleontologists, too. For 10 minutes, at least. They'll see the Brachiosaurus, the first dinosaur you see in the movie and think, "Oh, that's how they use those long necks!" They'll hear that screeching Tyrannosaurus Rex scream and think, "So that's what they sounded like." They'll probably even wonder whether the Velociraptor's warm breath stinks or not.
But a lot's happened in the past couple of decades, not only in the world but more specifically in the world of paleontology. We now know that not everything the then-very realistic movie is exactly what it was like back in the Cretaceous period. You didn't know? Jurassic Park isn't really Jurassic after all. Most of the dinosaurs come from the later Cretaceous period. That sort of fits into the story line, though, since that rich old white dude and his minions just picked and choosed the dinosaurs. However, other embellishments don't because Steven Spielberg and even Michael Crichton, who was pretty hands-on during production, used their imaginations a little bit.
Take the T. Rex, for example. He's a pretty big scary beast, and the filmmakers actually stayed pretty true to science with its depiction on screen. Brian Switek at National Geographic just published a thoughtful and terrifically detailed comparison of the two. He points out how the movie transformed how we imagined T. Rex's to be from earlier "tottering, tail-dragging representations" in pop culture, even though the filmmakers had to guess about a few things. The movie shows us a frightfully agile creature that can chase Jeeps down muddy roads. One paleontologist told Switek that they've since learned that the T. Rex was even fiercer in real life. Apparently, it liked to throw its food up in the air and catch it, a technique known as "inertial eating." Fierce! We also didn't know in 1993 that the T. Rex probably had feathers. Less fierce.
This sculpture at the University of Götheborg in Sweden is about as close as you can get to a real life T. Rex. He's missing some feathers, though. (via Wikimedia)
Other dinosaurs in Jurassic Park were less accurate to their true life forms. I'm mainly talking about the Velociraptor. Now, let me reiterate off the bat that I am not a paleontologist. I keep up with some paleo-news, but even an expert like Dr. Alan Grant, the character played by Sam Neill and his bandana, would admit they we still don't know everything about the Velociraptor. We do know a bit more than we did in 1993, too.
What you think of when you think of a Velociraptor is probably a six-foot-tall snarling death machine that can jump over small children in a single bound and slice them to shreds with a single swipe of the claw. Well, a dinosaur like that did actually exist, but it's not called the Velociraptor. It's called the Deinonychus, and it looked less like a giant lizard than it did a really angry chicken. It was around couple years after Jurassic Park that the scientific community collectively agreed that some dinosaurs had feathers. What paleontologists are talking about when they refer to the Velociraptor is a much smaller relative of the Deinonychus. It also had the sickle-shaped claw but was a little less than waist-high. It too was covered in feathers.
A depiction of a feathered Deinonychus in Vienna's Natural History Museum (via Wikimedia)
This isn't to say that the Velociraptor wasn't scary or violent or dangerous. However, Spielberg and friends had the creative license to take what to many people were basically imaginary creatures from so many million years ago and bring them to life in an entertaining way. Remember: Jurassic Park is a Hollywood action movie, not a fact-filled documentary. So they took a cooler, more coinable name away from a little dinosaur and gave it to a big dinosaur that they made extra scary. They put a lot of effort into it, too! That doesn't mean they're bad people.
It does mean that, for now, a few of one generation's misrepresentations of dinosaurs is being handed down to another generation. When I was younger and first started learning about the inconsistencies between the movie and real like, I never worried too much. Oh, we'll figure out a way to clone dinosaurs for real by the time I have kids, and they get to learn about these bird-lizards.
It'll never happen. We learned earlier this year that DNA's decays at a rate that would make even the best preserved cells from the dino days useless for cloning purposes. So now, not only do you know that the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park were misleading, you can put away your dreams that you might see actual dinosaurs in real life. Getting old sucks, doesn't it?