J is for Jurassic

Jurassic Park OG Velociraptor, photo from Filmexperience.net.

Scientists are actually preoccupied with accomplishment… focused on whether they can do something. They never stop to ask if they should do something.

Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park

Chances are that you have seen Jurassic Park or one of its sequels. Chances are that you found some part of it exciting. Perhaps you found other parts to strain credulity. That’s ok. The Jurassic Park franchise is not entirely accurate. At first, I thought it was too pandering, too dumbed-down to create realistic dinosaurs. But I was wrong. At least about the relative realism of the dinosaurs.

No, they weren’t exactly Jurassic. The dinosaurs named and depicted did not completely act like their namesakes should have acted. The velociraptor and the dilophosaurus in the first movie were particularly off. But Spielberg got a lot of other things right. And he made dinosaurs really popular, which probably led to more people studying dinosaurs and more funding for dinosaur studies. Well played, Mr. Spielberg, well played.

Not Especially Jurassic

So what exactly is Jurassic? It’s a geological time period. Geologic time is divided up into eras and periods, chiefly to provide names for future geologists and paleontologists to memorize. Also, it’s shorter to write Jurassic than it is to write 200 to 145 million years ago. The entire era of the dinosaurs is called the Mesozoic, which means the middle (meso) era that had animal fossils (zoic), as opposed to the Paleozoic, which means older time of fossils, and the Cenozoic, which is the recent era, i.e. now.

The Mesozoic also had three divisions: Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous. Triassic was called that because the Germans wanted that time period to have another three categories that they called the Trias. Kind of like the basic rule of magic; if you say a thing three times, then it becomes real.

Cretaceous referred to “chalk,” because a lot of the fossils found in this geological level were discovered in England in the chalk layer–think White Cliffs of Dover. In comparison, a lot of the Jurassic fossils were found in the Jura region, a span between France and Switzerland. Overall, all these names signify that they didn’t have a systematic way of coming up with period names, not all organized like Paleo-, Meso- and Cenozoic.

Real sample Jurassic dinos. Athena poster.

In general, the Triassic dinosaurs were the simplest, but remember from the “Extinction” post a few days ago that Triassic critters were emerging from a time where Siberian volcanoes had torched most existing life. Triassic dinos started out as dog-sized, so it took a while for them to get bigger. By the time of the Jurassic, they were a bit taller, growing head crests and back plates and all sorts of things!

Crichton’s book was a thriller, too. Photo from checkcola.

But there were no T-rexes, no triceratops, no velociraptors in the Jurassic period. The vast majority of the dinosaurs in the book, and all the movies based on the book, come from the Cretaceous period. I think there’s a simple explanation for this mismatch. Cretaceous Park simply doesn’t have the same ring to it. At some point, author Michael Crichton was sitting in his office, flipping pencils at the ceiling and staring out the window–y’know, writing–and he just started mumbling “triassic park” … “mesozoic park” … “cretaceous park” …. “Jurassic Park–that’s it!!!!”

The Message

Jurassic Park was not a documentary, not a history or scientific research article. It’s a story, and both book author Crichton and movie director Spielberg wanted to wrap that dinosaur story in a morality tale with a message about scientific meddling. The underlying story involves recreated dinosaurs, creatures regenerated using speculative science that mixed and matched DNA. A small part of its purpose was to bring ideas about how dinosaurs lived into the general public. But the bigger part was to send a warning message about playing with scientific ideas. In that sense, it has more in common with Frankenstein than with Jacques Cousteau.

In the story, for the three of you who need reminding, a bio-engineer invents techniques that allows dinosaurs to be revived so that he could create a theme park for them. He uses some DNA from their blood (200 million year old mosquitoes, which are the least of the scientific problems). The scientists who restore the dinos also play around with the genes, trying to prevent the animals from reproducing or displaying unwanted behaviors. It doesn’t go so well. The real message is not that dinosaurs are dangerous or even scary, but that we have no business attempting to play with dinosaur DNA.

Because the history of evolution is that life escapes all barriers. Life breaks free. Life expands to new territories. Painfully, perhaps even dangerously. But life finds a way.

TRex from OG movie can crunch cars. From DP Stream movie.

What Was So Wrong with the Dinosaurs?

Still, to satisfy the purists out there, I’ll point out a few of the pluses and minuses in the movie’s Jurassic dinosaurs. It’s worth noting that Spielberg hired a number of dinosaur consultants to guide the animals’ design. For many people, seeing dinosaurs run with their tails for balance, the way that paleontologists had been describing for years, was exciting. Many say that Jurassic Park was the first movie with dinosaurs in them who looked something like what dinosaurs looked like. So we should give it a lot of credit for attempting to get things right.

What was wrong? For one thing, dinosaurs don’t roar. They didn’t have the vocal chords for it. So take out all the roaring T Rexes, in particular. They did hoot, snort, and cry, just no roaring. T Rex also didn’t have bad eyesight. He did have a spectacular sense of smell, though, which Jurassic rex has. And he had the jaw power to crunch a car, as he does in the film. But he couldn’t run that fast, not as fast as a car. He usually didn’t have to.

The real velociraptor, graphic from wikimedia

The other big problem was with the velociraptors. Or small problem, maybe. Velociraptors were not human-sized, intelligent beings that hunted in packs like wolves. Instead they looked a lot more like ducks. They were small, with long tails. It’s quite possible they had feathers and plumage. But as feral as they might have been or as sharp their teeth, they probably wouldn’t have been that terrifying. Unless there were fifty of them or something.

Spielberg apparently knew very well that his velociraptors were inaccurate. The movie dinos are really far more like Deinonychus, a carnivore with a raised claw, thought to live in groups. The director wanted them to look like Deinonychus but thought the name “velociraptors” sounded better. The misnomer stuck.

The last significant error was with the dilophosaurus. That was the little guy who meets the chubby fellow with the glasses that tries to smuggle out some DNA. A bunch of dilos come out of nowhere, launch these weird-looking frills and spit paralyzing venom before they attack our smuggler dude. That’s a hard Nope. Dilophosaurus didn’t have the crests or the venom.

Yeah, but they were cool, weren’t they? And, when the Trex chomps the lawyer, everybody cheers. When the diplo spits on the Bad Smuggler Dude, everybody cheers.

The most recent movie, Dominion(?) was long, meandering, and dopey; it was a strong argument for ending the franchise. But my favorite scene was when the apatosaurus comes into the logging mill. Everyone just gets out of the way because even an herbivore is in charge when it’s 45 meters long. As it should be.

My favorite Jurassic World scene, the apatosaurus, from fossilera.com.

Don’t even mess with the apatosaurs.

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