A Love Letter To Jurassic Park

9 min read

Bring yourself back to when you were a little kid and learnt about dinosaurs. They were like dragons and monsters BUT REAL! How awesome is it to know that these animals used to walk the same ground that you stand on now. And not only that, we have evidence to how they look like. We have their fossils to show us how big they were, and artists to draw out how they thought they looked like. This is the closest we would ever come to seeing our fantasy animals come to life… and THEY WERE REAL!

Then they announced this movie called Jurassic Park, where dinosaurs walked with actors as if they were really there. Can you imagine how excited any kid would be? I wouldn’t know because I was too young when that happened, but that did not stop me from getting my parents to buy an LD disc of the movie and watching it every week. That also didn’t stop me from re-watching the movie in theaters when it was released in 2013 in 3D. I think I have fully convinced you readers that I absolutely love this movie.

But as a biologist, and as I have come to learn more about the very dinosaurs that I love, the movie starts to unravel and reveal how much this movie strays away from science. Don’t get me wrong, I still love this movie but let me rip into it just a little bit. John Hammond, played by the late Richard Attenborough, older brother of David Attenborough, created the dinosaurs for his park by retrieving ancient DNA from mosquitos trapped in amber and cloning them to bring the dinosaurs back to life. The idea was that these mosquitos would have been feasting on the blood of the dinosaurs and, while full of blood, was trapped and preserved in wood resin uncovered by paleontologists. Scientist then drilled into the mosquito’s blood-filled abdomen and extracted the preserved DNA to make the dinosaurs that we see in the park.

As much as I would like this concept to be possible and one day walk with dinosaurs, the truth is that the scientist would have gotten nothing from the little bloodsuckers. DNA molecules break down very quickly after an organism passes, depending on the conditions of which they were preserved. Amber is definitely not a great way to preserve DNA and research has shown that the average half-life of DNA is about 521 years. That means that you would lose half of the DNA every 521 years. In a few thousand years there would be very little DNA left – not enough to be sequenced into actual codes that can produce life. Although other conditions (such as being frozen) can improve the shelf life of DNA, the time scales we are looking at for dinosaurs are far too large for DNA to survive.

Another issue one might have with the movie is its name, Jurassic Park. But most of the dinosaurs featured are not from the Jurassic! The poster dino child, the Tyrannosaurus, is from the Cretaceous period, as well as the Triceratops and the Velociraptor (fan and personal favourite). In fact, the film only featured 2 dinosaurs from the Jurassic period which are the Brachiosaurus that sneezed on Dr Alan Grant and kids, and the Dilophosaurus which was very inaccurately depicted in the film. And I must put a scale as to how far apart these animals are in terms of time.

Dinosaurs started to appear in the late Triassic period roughly around 210 million years ago. Then came the Jurassic period, ranging from 200 million to 145 million years ago. Of course, around 66 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous period, dinosaurs went extinct during the KT (Cretaceous-Paleogene) extinction event that took out about three quarter of plant and animal life on Earth.

If not for the park bringing the Tyrannosaurus and Brachiosaurus together, they would have missed each other by just about 84 million years! Mind you, we humans (Homo sapiens) have only been around for 300 000 years; we have not even hit our first million years yet. On top of the fact that the name of the film is very off, I highly doubt the DNA from that mosquito can survive 66 million years of preservation to produce the dinosaurs to chase after us. Maybe Cretaceous Park just does not sound as nice as Jurassic Park.

Speaking about dinosaurs that are wrongly depicted, the aforementioned Dilophosaurus had a giant frill added to it and gained the ability to spit venom. Not at all present in the original fossil evidence but the creators of the film have admitted to their mistake in favour of excitement and thrill factor. To quote the movie itself, “the scientist are so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should”. What I find sad is that the success of the film has caused this wrong depiction of Dilophosaurus to overshadow how it really looks like. One can see models and animatronics of them in amusement parks and tourist attractions showing off their nonexistence frills. Another inexcusable mistake is the depiction of Velociraptors. I must confess I adore the way they are portrayed in the film; Velociraptors are not that big. In fact, they are downright small; an average man is taller than they are long. The Velociraptors in the film are based off another larger raptor called Deinonychus but I guess the name does not roll off the tongue like Velociraptor does. Also, these raptors are not feathered, but I wrote a whole other article on that here. There is an in-movie explanation for this difference, claiming that the frog DNA used to patch up the dino DNA altered how the dinosaurs looked as compared to the original animal. Since this is science fiction, I will give it a pass.

As much as I say that the film is doing an injustice to real-life dinosaurs, this film also propelled the field of paleontology into the limelight. The film makers and director Steven Spielberg wanted the BEST DINOSAURS, and spared no expense. They went to find the best paleontologist and asked them to make the best dinosaurs they could with the knowledge they had then. What we were watching was the combination of the ‘dino science of the time’ and the ‘magic of film’ to show us. And from there, it was said that the idea that dinosaurs and birds somehow being related was really given a lot of credit. The way the computer models made the dinosaurs walked and how similar it was to the way birds walk; I think it hatched an idea in them.

We must also accept that science is an ever changing and improving field. New discoveries can completely change the teachings and our understanding of the past. I think the one prime example from the Jurassic Park series would be the Spinosaurus from Jurassic Park III. The Spinosaurus portrayed in the film is a towering beast with a large sail on its back and is much bigger than the Tyrannosaurus. This depiction was made with the intent to having a scary and different-looking dino on screen, but also again not accurate from the actual Spinosaurus. The real Spinosaurus, judging from fossil evidence, does not stand up and run like in the film. The sail would have been bigger and extends down to the tail. In truth, we still do not know how the Spinosaurus is supposed to look like or how they behave; we just do not have enough fossils. But that is the point of science and discovery, we look for more evidence to patch up the model we currently have and when new evidence presents itself, we update the whole system and give us a more complete picture. Science sometimes needs a little help and when the movie industry comes and wants to make a movie in your field of study, scientists are more than happy to chip in and show off their stuff. You can look at Interstellar and their depiction of a black hole as another example.

Do not get me wrong, I really love this movie. The original film is probably an inspiration for many to go into dinosaurs and science in general. At that point in time, the movie was box office breaking and groundbreaking for the field of paleontology. Science is forever moving forward and what we have is a snapshot of what we thought at that point in time. Now when we think about dinosaurs, we have this movie to use as a base and improve on to make new discoveries. Scientist are making new discoveries all the time and we can look forward to a day where we can have an accurate depiction of the dinosaurs we love so much. Maybe one day, somehow, a real-life dinosaur recreated from the past will walk among us. Although there are now 6 movies telling us why that would be a bad idea.

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Written by Lim Meng Hwee
Illustrations by Jarrod Chua


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