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Ruffling feathers? Are cinema-goers ready for a more realistic depiction of dinosaurs?

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This week sees the UK release of the fifth entry in the highly successful Jurassic Park film franchise, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, which stars Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas-Howard alongside a cornucopia of CGI rendered prehistoric beasts. If the record-breaking earnings of the opening weekend of the film’s 2015 predecessor, Jurassic World, is anything to go by the sequel is likely to be a huge box office success. But enthusiasm for the franchise is not shared by everyone. Palaeontologists have taken aim at the film-series for its inaccurate interpretation of Dinosaurs, in particular, the scaly visage and the lack of feathers of some of the film’s bipedal carnivores including the Velociraptors and the movie’s figurehead, the T-Rex. Is it time that the series presented a more accurate representation of these prehistoric species rather than the generic reptilian movie monsters audiences are more comfortable with?

The latest entry in the Jurassic Park franchise is also the latest to ignore modern scientific representations of dinosaurs (Universal, 2018)


If a future film in the franchise was to depict its theropods, two-legged carnivorous dinosaurs such the menacing Velociraptor, with feathers it wouldn’t be the first time that an entry into the Jurassic Park series had radically changed the public’s perception of dinosaurs. Despite glaring alterations to some species, such as the silver-screen Velociraptors having a much more formidable height than their real-life, turkey-sized counterparts, and presenting animals from the Cretaceous period rather than… well…  the Jurassic period, 1993’s Jurassic Park was revolutionary in exposing audiences to up-to-date scientific understanding of dinosaurs, as was its source material, the 1990 Michael Crichton novel of the same name.

The film established more realistic movements and stances for the prehistoric animals in comparison to how they had been depicted in various B-movies like in the fur-tastic One-Million-Years B.C (below). Comparing the stance of the T-rex for example in both films, Jurassic Park establishes the tail as balancing the predator’s massive jaw.

Before Jurassic Park dinosaurs had been depicted as slow ponderous beasts like those seen in the Raquel Welch starring pot-boiler One-million Years B.C (Hammer Films, 1966)

This included the destruction of the idea that dinosaurs were slow, lumbering beasts. Instead, the film opts to show quick moving animals such as the herd of stampeding Gallimimus which threaten to trample palaeontologist Alan Grant. The notion of dinosaurs as cold-blooded and reptilian is also challenged in the film. Science was considering the idea at the time that dinosaurs were, in fact, warm-blooded, a notion reflected in the scene in which a Velociraptor’s breath steams a small window.

A chilling scene from 1993’s Jurassic Park depicts not just the menace of the Velociraptor but also its warm-blooded nature (Universal)

The film was not just influential with changing the perception of dinosaurs in the eyes of the general public, it is also credited with creating a new interest in palaeontology, with many current palaeontologists crediting the film as inspiring their entry into the field.

 

Why avoid feathers?

Would the T-Rex rampage from the original film have been any less thrilling if the T-Rex had been adorned with feathers? (Universal, 1993)

It’s extremely likely that studios avoid presenting dinosaurs with feathers in order to prevent audiences drawing comparisons with birds. Could an audience find a feathered dinosaur threatening?  I’d argue that would depend on the skill of the film-maker. I doubt that the T-rex’s rampage in the original Jurassic Park would be any less impressive and suspenseful had the creature bore feathers.

Then there’s the idea that dinosaurs are not simply movie monsters, these were real animals and presenting them in a realistic way should be desirable. This includes indications towards their evolutionary pedigree.

The growing consensus amongst evolutionary biologists is that avian species are quite simply living examples of the theropod group of dinosaurs. Although the idea that birds are the evolutionary ancestors of theropod dinosaurs is not a new one, both Thomas Huxley and Reverand Edward Hitchcock noticed the striking similarity between certain dinosaur tracks and bird feet in the 1800’s, at this point thousands of feathered dinosaurs have been discovered solidifying that relationship. So much so, that these two-legged carnivorous dinosaurs are now believed to have survived the extinction events which wiped out their contemporaries, the sauropods, by developing larger brains and smaller forms. It’s also strongly implied that the thermal properties of feathers would have helped these species survive the drop in temperature caused by the Chicxulub impact ejecting 1.7 billion tonnes of black-carbon into the atmosphere.

The most famous example of bird-like theropods is the Velociraptor made famous by their depiction in Jurassic Park series of films, which was actually more closely based on another theropod species, the Deinonychus (or ‘Terrible Claw’).

“There is no doubt that birds are dinosaurs,” Luis Chiappe, director of the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County told National Geographic. “The evidence is so overwhelming, I would put it next to whether you’re going to question if humans are primates.”

 

More than ever before, the time is now right to present a more accurate depiction of some dinosaurs’ feathered nature, with recent findings bringing attention to this facet of certain species. The first non-avian dinosaur with feathers, Sinosauropteryx prima, was only unveiled to the public in 1996, therefore it wasn’t possible for the first film in the series to display its antagonists with feathers rather than scales. But the situation is markedly different now, with discoveries of preserved dinosaur feathers becoming more frequent. For example, since the release of Jurassic World in 2015, palaeontologists have discovered the remains of a feathered dinosaur tail, preserved in amber which caught the attention of the general public.

The feathered tail of a coelurosaur preserved in mid-Cretaceous amber from Kachin State, Myanmar. (Lida Xing et al,)

The specimen consisting of 8 feathered vertebrae, sealed in 99 million-year-old amber, was sold in Myanmar market in 2015 and trumps other previous examples of feathers sealed in amber as it can be ascribed to a particular species. The feathered tail can be determined to belong to a dinosaur rather than a bird species due to the fact that the vertebrae are flexible and not fused into a rod as with modern birds. The team that investigated the tail using a C-T microscope believe it belonged to a juvenile coelurosaur and determined that it had a light brown upper shade with a white underside.

Artist’s impression of a coelurosaur

A victim of its own success?

The original Jurassic Park debuted in cinema at a time when science was delving deeper into the biology of dinosaurs than it ever had before, but the series has sadly failed to develop with the science that originally inspired it. The sad irony is that a film series which modernised the image of the dinosaur now clings to twenty-five-year-old interpretations of these magnificent beasts that it created. The 25 years of developments, that have taken place since that original film, have delivered to us a picture of dinosaurs that are stranger, more wonderful and perhaps more terrifying than Steven Speilberg could have dreamed during the filming of his 1993 classic.

An image created by, palaeo-artist Lida Xing of the feathered Australovenator… pretty intimidating despite the down (Lida Xing)

What a shame that we may not see these developments on screen. The Jurassic Park films are frozen, much like the DNA liberated in the first film or the tail sections found by real-life palaeontologists, not in amber, but in the trepidation of breaking away from an image of the dinosaur they helped create. One that audiences are familiar and comfortable with.

In a way, the Jurassic Park films are a victim of their own success. Had the original movie not gone to pains to present a more accurate picture of dinosaurs, likely no-one would care that the sequels fail in this area. They would be granted the same lee-way as any other dinosaur movie. But ultimately, that’s the point; Jurassic Park, the original wasn’t just ‘any dinosaur movie’ that’s why we’re still talking about it today.

 

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About

Robert is a member of the Association of British Science Writers, qualified in Physics, Mathematics and Contemporary science. As well as contributing articles on topics as diverse as quantum physics, cosmology, medical science and the environment at Scisco media, he also writes the Null Hypothesis blog which examines pseudoscience and poor science reporting in the news media.

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