An Ecologist’s Retrospective on Jurassic Park

It has now been 27 years since Jurassic Park initiated sweeping changes throughout the film industry. This is a film that is synonymous with a lot of childhoods, mine included, so let’s have a look back and ask a few key questions. What have we learned about dinosaurs since? What was wrong even at the time? And does it really matter?

1. Birds and Dinosaurs

Today it’s pretty commonly accepted that birds are dinosaurs (they’re even technically reptiles). T-Rex – chicken comparisons are rife, we know many species of dinosaur had feathers, and museums everywhere now refer to the extinction of ‘non-avian’ dinosaurs. But that wasn’t the case in 1993. There was mounting evidence for the connection between the two, and Jack Horner – who was a consultant for the film and partly inspired the character of Alan Grant – was a major proponent of that connection. He made several suggestions which were incorporated into the film, including the removal of snake-like tongues on the velociraptors, insisting that dinosaurs weren’t lizards, they were birds. There’s also a memorable scene in which Alan Grant describes a flock of Gallimimus as “flocking like birds away from a predator”, a line apparently taken verbatim from Horner.

Yet even in the more recent films, the dinosaurs are featherless, and the velociraptors are still a lot bigger than they are known to have been (though it’s still more realistic than Spielberg’s original vision of nine foot tall raptors). Henry Wu does toss in a line off-hand that due to genetic tampering in order to make the dinos more appealing, several species look nothing like they would have in the past, which I maintain is a clever piece of self-analysis.

2. Ancient DNA and Cloning Dinosaurs

We’ve had a couple of discussions relating to ancient DNA recently here on EcoMass. It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that the technique they use to explain the dinosaur cloning in the film is nonsense – for starters, there’s simply no way that the DNA would be that well preserved.

The Revolutionary Headache of Ancient DNA

But even if it was, would we be able to produce a fully-fledged dinosaur? Short answer is no. Thanks to revelations in aDNA technology, we now have entire sequences for several extinct species, including neanderthals, dodos and mammoths. And there are attempts currently in progress to try and recreate that last one, through the creation of mammoth-elephant hybrids, not through cloning them from scratch. There are also institutes playing around with the idea of creating more cinematic dinosaurs through engineering birds to look more raptor-ish, but it’s less ‘here’s a dinosaur’ and more ‘here’s a bird that looks a little more dinosaur-y’.

3. The Lysine Contingency

This is a small and less-discussed issue, but I like including it for its comedy value. The Lysine contingency is a genetic alteration that prevents the dinosaurs on Jurassic Park from producing lysine, meaning that if not directly provided with it they will ‘go into a coma and die’. Yet lysine is an essential amino acid that no vertebrates can produce. We get lysine from eating products which contain lysine, including meat, dairy, soy, potatoes, and a plethora of other common foods and plants, some of which the dinosaurs would definitely have had access to on that island. The majority of amino acids that we need are actually non-essential (12 of 20), which means that if Steven Spielberg or Michael Crichton had selected an amino acid at random, they would have probably come across one for which this ‘contingency’ would have made sense. Maybe ‘Lysine Contingency’ just sounded cooler.

4. The Island Theory

One thing which I loved as a kid was the wide-eyed joy of the scientists actually seeing dinosaurs for the first time. It’s a theme that crops up in all the JP movies to various extents. But one of the things that now bemuses me as an adult are the sweeping assumptions that many of the scientists spurt forth based on the few observations they’ve made. They are observing a single group of dinosaurs in many cases, at one location. As a Master’s student, I worked with Endre Gruner Ofstad (check out his work here) studying a moose population on an island off the coast of Norway. It’s a great study system, with a near complete pedigree for near every individual moose that has been on the island for 35 years. Yet one of the issues with the research that comes from that population is that the moose are in an atypical environment. It’s a population where natural predators are absent and movement is largely restricted. It’s hard to apply research on their behaviour to other wild populations.

Now take that problem, and apply it to species of dinosaur that are living on a remote island, among species they never would have existed alongside in their history, isolated from their natural predators (and most likely their natural parasites), with reproduction closely monitored and controlled by humans. None of the research you will do from a population, behavioural or community standpoint will likely shed much light on how they actually lived.

Screenshot from 2020-05-25 20-08-19

Though this scene is admittedly still terrifying, the raptors themselves would likely be a little less so, a fact which would certainly play against their characterisation as the stuff of a horror movie (Image Credit: Jurassic Park, 1993)

5. Does Any Of This Matter?

There are of course numerous other errors, that were known at the time or have since been revealed. The T-Rex “vision based on movement” thing is nonsense. Most of the dinos aren’t from the Jurassic era. Jack Horner is a bit of a creep. You can hear expanded version of all these in our two podcast episodes on Jurassic Park, linked below.

Cinematica Animalia · S3E9: Welcome To Jurassic Park (Jurassic Park)

But does any of it really matter in the long run? On the one hand, Hollywood movies can shape people’s perception of science, and their appreciation of it, so theoretically the more accuracy in these films the better. Yet if these movies do want to continue getting made, they need to make choices related to both the plot and aesthetics that engage people, and often that clashes with scientific accuracy. Whilst Michael Crichton’s views on science developed from wary skepticism to near paranoia (not to mention climate denialism) in his later years, the following summation of an interview with him explains it better than I could.

Michael Crichton on science and storytelling

Ultimately, while some of the science might not be spot-on, I think most paleontologists, zoologists and ecologists would agree that the positive effects of Jurassic Park on modern science far outweigh the negative any errors may have brought. It was a cinematic wonder that transformed weird obsessions with dinosaurs into a mainstream delight, and did for paleontology what David Attenborough did for ecology, inspiring a generation to care about dinosaurs.

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who publicly wishes they would stop making Jurassic Park films and privately revels in rewatching them all constantly. You can read more about his research on his Ecology for the Masses profile here, and follow him on Twitter @BigDrFishBoi.

Title Image Credit: Jurassic Park, 1993

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