Author: Patrick (Jurassic Propositions)
Though Jurassic Park is an entertaining film for all audiences involved, it is heavily aimed towards the general population. With just about every film that involves science, certain scientific facts or concepts are altered, usually in order to become more appealing to the general public, and Jurassic Park is no exception. However, many errors in Jurassic Park may simply be attributed to particular misconceptions that, if corrected, would not detract at all to the viewing experience.
Most of the errors in the film concerning the actual process of bone recovery are intended to make it seem more appealing than it usually is in reality. In the beginning of the film, Dr. Grant’s team uses radar technology to image bones, supposedly eliminating the need to prospect for them. However, since sound waves bounce off objects in basically the same way, it would be entirely ineffective in imaging areas underground by taking advantage of the bones having a density different from that of the surrounding rock, as seems to be the idea in the film. The main constituents of fossils are not bone, but rather minerals that have similar densities to rock, so even if using radar worked in that sense, imaging fossils using this particular way would not work. Later, workers are seen brushing off what appears to be a complete skeleton of a theropod dinosaur. They effortlessly brush off loose sediment from the bones, which is almost never the case in reality, as fossils are usually infused in sedimentary rock. In addition, such a complete skeleton being found with all of its bones in the correct places is improbable. When an animal dies, unless it is perfectly preserved in optimal conditions, its bones will shift around due to the decaying process and general outside environmental effects; in addition, many parts of its body are likely to be taken away by scavengers.
Errors in dichotomy are a prevailing issue in the movie, as most genera are confused with species (e.g., Velociraptor being a particular species instead of a genus containing several species). However, the species Tyrannosaurus rex is always referred to correctly as a species, probably since the name is so fixed in popular culture. There are, though, morphological issues with Tyrannosaurus rex. Most notable is the lack of feathers, as most of the non-primitive theropods (Coelurosaurs) are thought to have been feathered (Sereno 1999). This includes Velociraptor, which also does not have feathers in the film. T-Rex’s teeth also appear to be in an incorrect conformation, the top teeth extending out of its mouth and past the lower lips, similar to what one sees in ‘collapsed’ skull fossils; this collapsed confirmation is not possible in a living dinosaur, as its bottom teeth would pierce the top of its palate. It is mentioned multiple times in the film that T-Rex’s (as well as Velociraptor’s) visual acuity is dependent on motion, though this claim is completely unsupported in paleontology. In fact, this idea is inconsistent with visual neuroscience, as any sort of movement causes retinal blurring, limiting visual acuity. T-Rex also does not exhibit a digitigrade pes, which is a synapomorphy of all theropods (Farlow et al. 2000). Consequently, the Velociraptors should also exhibit a digitgrade pes. Another morphological error prevalent in the film is an inaccurate orientation of the hands, which, in the film, are pronated for all bipedal dinosaurs featured: T-Rex, Velociraptor, and Gallimimus, when in fact, both palms should be facing each other, fingers curling in towards the body (Milner et al. 2009).
The most glaring inaccuracy with Velociraptor is its size—paleontological evidence supports Velociraptor being about two feet tall and 7 feet long (Gregory 1988). Along with inaccuracies shared with T-Rex (wrong hand conformation, lack of feathers, non-digitigrade pes, motion-dependent visual acuity), Velociraptor is credited with being extremely intelligent. While it is true that birds and their late precursors, including Velociraptor, did possess a significantly enlarged forebrain (Larsson et al. 2000), this does not necessarily increase cognitive abilities . The enlargement of the brain was most likely due to a greater need for sophisticated motor control once flying and flying-like behaviors (e.g., flapping, hopping and flapping coordination (cursorial movement)) began to appear. This idea is supported by the disproportionally large increase in size of the cerebellum (Larsson et al. 2000), which is largely responsible for movement coordination. On the other hand, Jurassic Park does correctly depict the famous curved claw on Velociraptor’s middle digit, as such a distinct morphological trait adds a unique dramatic effect.
Dilophosaurus is another dinosaur featured, with the distinctive feature of being able to spit venom, causing blindness and paralysis. This feature is entirely fabricated by the producers of Jurassic Park, and no dinosaur has such distinctive features—although it has been recently discovered that at least one dinosaur (Sinornithosaurus) was venomous (Gong et al. 2009). Dilophosaurus did possess a frill, but it was not as exaggerated as in the film and was not retractable. As with all of the theropods featured in the movie, Dilophosaurus also is portrayed with the wrong hand conformation.
The quick tree scene with Brachiosaurus also contained some errors, the most notable of which involving feeding. Sauropodomorphs were herbivores, so in order to more efficiently grind plant matter, their jaw joints were placed below the upper teeth line, so that both lines of teeth could meet together in a crushing pattern, rather than a scissoring pattern that carnivores used (Fastovsky and Weishampel 2005). In the movie, it appears as if Brachiosaurus has a carnivorous jaw conformation.
In addition to sensationalizing science, Hollywood tends to oversimplify and summarize scientific concepts in an effort to appear philosophical or give greater depth to a particular scene or character. This is exemplified in Jurassic Park by Dr. Malcolm’s comment on the extinction of dinosaurs: “Dinosaurs had their shot, and nature selected them for extinction.” This seems to imply that dinosaurs collectively became extinct at a particular time, due to competition from a more competent animal. However, all dinosaur species (besides those that died during the mass extinction at the KT boundary) had particular windows of existence, most of which lasted only about five million years. Furthermore, if there was a natural disaster at the KT boundary that caused the mass extinction (e.g., a meteorite impact), natural selection would not be the factor in selecting dinosaurs for extinction.
Jurassic Park’s theatrics continue to inspire countless children to learn more about dinosaurs. Though this is generally considered a positive thing, they are more learning about specific properties of individual dinosaurs (that are only sometimes accurate), rather than the underlying meanings behind the traits. By providing certain inaccuracies in the films that are designed to entertain rather than educate us, Jurassic Park in part can actually be detrimental to one’s understanding of paleontology and biology. However, it is probably safe to say that the wonder and amazement that Jurassic Park brings about in children who would otherwise never be inspired to learn about dinosaurs is far more important than being completely accurate and is, unquestionably, a major force acting in the propagation of interest in paleontology.
Jurassic Propositions features short essays by students from the University of Chicago’s Dinosaur Science class, which is taught by paleontologist Dr. Paul Sereno. Sereno’s Teaching Assistant, Sara ElShafie, asked the students to act as scientific consultants to the Jurassic Park filmmakers, addressing inaccuracies in the previous films and suggesting ideas or improvements for the next sequel.
1. Sereno, P. (1999). The evolution of dinosaurs. Science, 284:2137-2147.
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4. Gong, E. et al. (2009). The birdlike raptor Sinornithosaurus was venomous. PNAS 107:766-768.
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