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Dino Docs: Jurassic World

I held hope that Jurassic World would be the film to finally bring accuracy to mainstream dinosaur films. Were my expectations met, or completely destroyed? A review of Jurassic World.

With the world following the aftermath of the American presidential election with nervous anticipation, I decided to take my mind off the chaos by watching something just as ludicrous and confusing: Jurassic World. On my old Max’s-blogo-saurus website (may it rest in peace), I wrote an article expressing excitement for what I thought was going to be the film that made dinosaurs great again (why does that phrase sound familiar?). Then I never wrote on that URL again and didn’t write about dinosaurs for another three years. I’m not saying that Jurassic World was the cause for my so-called dinosaur “hiatus”; I’m just saying it didn’t exactly help. Now that your view of this film is tainted, let’s dive teeth-first into the 4th edition of Dino Docs!

What’s It About?

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: an eccentric billionaire builds a theme park centered around genetically engineered dinosaurs on an island in the Caribbean. But wait! One of the big, carnivorous dinosaur clones turns out to be really dangerous and escapes captivity, causing mayhem wherever it goes. It eats a few people, chases a couple of kids, convinces some raptors to eat some of the island’s security force and almost eats the main characters. Then, when all hope seams lost, a Tyrannosaurus shows up to save the day and the main characters get off the island. In other words, it’s Jurassic Park but with a hybrid dinosaur.

Is it Scientifically Accurate?

Simply put? No.

Let’s start with the Ex Machina of Jurassic World, aka the mosasaur. In one of the most admittedly awesome visual sequences of the film, we see a mosasaur jump out of the water to swallow a great white shark whole. Despite being a cool visual, a mosasaur swallowing a 5-meter long shark wouldn’t have been possible. Even though no official size has been given, the J.W. mosasaur is likely in the range of 55-65 meters in length, surpassing the largest blue whale on record by over 20 meters (1). To compare, the largest known specimen of a mosasaur is about 18 meters long and the average size of mosasaur genera ranges between 5 and 11 meters (2)(3). So while we all love the shark scene, the 40 meter size difference between the J.W. mosasaur and its living counterparts would simply make this scene impossible.

The other glaring issue is the pterosaur breakout scene, in which two genera of pterosaur (Pteranodon and Dimorphodon) try to pick up and drag away terrified people. I would say that this is probably the most inaccurate scene of the movie for a couple of reasons. First, Dimorphodon couldn’t lift people due to its size. With a 1 meter wingspan and a weight of only 2 kilograms (4 pounds), Dimorphodon wouldn’t have been able to lift a baby (4). While Pteranodon is far larger with a wingspan of approximately 7 meters, it wouldn’t have been able to lift a person either (4). Pteranodon’s skeleton was pneumatic, which means that it had spaces between its bones which were filled with air sacs. While these air sacs allowed for Pteranodon to fly efficiently, they also made Pteranodon a lightweight. With a maximum weight of about 20 kilograms (45 pounds), it would have been impossible for Pteranodon to lift an adult without compromising their ability to fly (5).

Those were just the big issues. Others include the incorrect posture of Stegosaurus, dinosaurs that are somehow bulletproof, incorrect mosasaur appearance in the forms of tail proportions and the presence of a dorsal frill and inaccurate flexibility of the raptor’s wrists and tail. These issues are mostly minor, and even for a paleo-geek like me, aren’t too disturbing. On the other hand, there is one issue that I will never get over…

Hollywood Hates Feathers

Let’s talk about the true protagonist of Jurassic World: Velociraptor. As you may be aware, the real Velociraptor was more or less a hyperaggressive turkey as opposed to the bear-sized reptiles shown in Jurassic World. The largest Velociraptor specimens were no taller than a golden retriever and weighed roughly 15-20 kilograms (44 pounds) (6). However, this inaccuracy can be forgiven since multiple raptor species are actually a fair bit larger than the Velociraptors of Jurassic World. What cannot be forgiven is the lack of feathers.

It is common knowledge that the dromaeosaurids, or raptors, all possessed some sort of plumage. Since the mid-90’s, multiple genera of raptor have been discovered with evidence of feathers (7). In addition to the numerous genera found in China, fossilized raptor feathers have also been discovered in Madagascar, North America and Mongolia in the form of Velociraptor itself (8)(9). Based on this, the question must be asked: Why did Hollywood refuse to make Velociraptor feathered? Did they really believe that by giving their 6-foot murder turkey feathers it would make them less terrifying? I would argue that it would make them more frightening. After all, there are living birds with the ferocity and intelligence of their extinct counterparts.

The worst case scenario of giving Velociraptors feathers would be a few Sesame Street jokes. The best case scenario? An entire generation terrified of realistic dinosaurs and their living relatives.

Can Raptors Communicate with Humans?

The most interesting sub-plot of Jurassic World was the relationship between Chris Pratt and the pack of Velociraptors. Watching him train Velociraptors like he was Ace Ventura was certainly entertaining, but does it hold up in the realm of science? Kind of. The Jurassic Park franchise goes out of its way to demonstrate the intelligence of Velociraptor, making these raptors seem to be on-par with animals like dolphins or chimps. In reality, comparing the brain sizes of raptors to modern animals makes it clear that they weren’t exactly Einsteins; the brain of Velociraptor is comparable in size to that of a pigeon or a hawk (10). To clarify, raptors were amongst the smartest dinosaurs known; only the troodontids posted higher brain-to-body ratios. The comparison to a hawk is particularly insightful, as birds of prey are commonly trained in the present. The relationship between trainer and bird primarily revolves around hunting and little else, so this template would likely be the extent of any Velociraptor interaction with humans.

Rather surprisingly, the pack-hunting nature amongst Velociraptors may be more problematic. The notion of pack hunting comes from a single discovery in which four individuals of the raptor genus Deinonychus were found surrounding an adult Tenontosaurus, a large iguanodontid comparable in size to an elephant (6). Aside from this discovery, there is little to no evidence of pack hunting amongst raptors. In fact, I would argue there is more substantial evidence of pack hunting amongst Tyrannosaurids than there is for raptors. So while watching Chris Pratt train raptors was fun, it’s hard to say for certain if these animals could even stand each other, let alone a mediocre Indiana Jones rip-off.  

Why are all the Dinosaurs the Same Color?

Other than the Indominus Rex which is completely white, every dinosaur in this movie is the same bland color. Everything from the Ankylosaurus to the Velociraptors is more or less the same shade of greyish-green. The scene that comes to mind is when the two kids come across a field of different dinosaur species, only for them all to have the same color. While it may take some time for us to learn what color most dinosaurs were, we already know that some genera where quite vibrant. Feathered dinosaurs from China have been revealed to have had an array of vibrant colors, ranging from the black and blue Microraptor to the white and orange stripped Sinosauropteryx (6)(11). Feathered dinosaurs aren’t the only ones either; one remarkably preserved genus of Nodosaurid (less armored Ankylosaur relatives) was shown to have a reddish-brown skin tone to camouflage with its surroundings (12).

In fact, of all the known dinosaur pigmentations, none of them were fully green or grey. So why would Jurassic World make all of its dinosaurs two dull colors? You would think that this would be the area that they would overembellish on. At the moment of writing this, nobody knows what color a Tyrannosaurus or a Stegosaurus would have been. So why would you waste the opportunity to give them cool designs, say…  a red-orange Stegosaurus and a tiger skinned T-rex? Sure, it may be a tad overzealous; but hey, it’s not like they can say that Tyrannosaurus didn’t have tiger skin. So until it is proven otherwise, why not give it a try?

Hollywood Also Hates Every Dinosaur Not Named Tyrannosaurus or Velociraptor.

If you knew nothing about dinosaurs outside of the Jurassic Park franchise, you’d probably think that there are only 20 odd species in existence. While the overreliance on dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor is understandable due to their market value, I don’t understand why these movies restrict the number of dinosaurs on screen. There are over 1,000 species of dinosaurs and yet Jurassic World had to use a hybrid dinosaur as its antagonist?  When new species are introduced, they are typically vanilla individuals like Apatosaurus and Allosaurus. There are so many weird dinosaurs that have been largely ignored in this franchise, some of which I believe would be wonderful additions.

A few of my personal recommendations include Therizinosaurus, the feathered and herbivorous dinosaur with meter-long claws; Deinocheirus, a duck-billed, sail-backed ornithomimid that was the size of Tyrannosaurus; Yi qi, more commonly known as the “dino-bat”; and Amargasaurus, a sauropod species with two rows of spikes protruding from its back. I believe that adding any of these dinosaurs would certainly make these movies more interesting, or at the very least a tad more bizarre.

Can we Please Get an Original Jurassic Park Movie?

I honestly don’t hate this movie as much as I remember. Hate isn’t the right word; it’s more disappointment. Disappointment that after twenty years of advancing research in the field of paleontology, the same scientific issues applicable to Jurassic Park can also be applied to Jurassic World. Disappointment in that, for all the hype  this film got because of a “dinosaur hybrid”, it was more or less the same plot as Jurassic Park. I think that’s where my fundamental issue lies; the two instalments of Jurassic World are just recycled storylines and visuals from the original trilogy. Is it too hard to ask for something a little bit different?

Here’s what my ideal Jurassic Park film would be. First, it’s set in a small, remote town with no connections to the outside world, preferably surrounded by a forest. Second, I would ensure no one in the town knows anything about dinosaurs, so when people start vanishing into the woods or being found with peculiar scratch or bite marks, nobody has any idea what’s happening to them. Third, I will embellish science fiction and say that my preferred villain would be some form of small theropod capable of flight that has developed a taste for blood; a dromaeosaurid like Rahonavis or the dino-bat Yi qi perhaps? My point is, I would love to see a Jurassic Park horror film set outside of an island.

People may forget it now, but the novels and the subsequent Jurassic Park fall within the horror genre. I believe that a return to this style and a departure from the action-heavy films would be great for the franchise. Maybe not for its own box office, though with COVID that isn’t exactly a big concern, now is it?

If the Jurassic World short film Battle at Big Rock is any indication, I believe Jurassic World 3 is indeed returning to the horror/thriller style of the novels. Frankly, if Jurassic World in its entirety was replaced with Battle at Big Rock, I think my outlook on this franchise would be much more positive.

References:

I do not take credit for any images found in this article.

Jurassic World title courtesy of Universal Studios, found here

Jurassic World mosasaur courtesy of Universal Pictures, found here

Jurassic World raptor roaring courtesy of Universal Pictures, found here

Chris Pratt and the raptors courtesy of Universal Pictures, found here

Stegosaurus & co. courtesy of Universal Pictures, found here

Sinosauropteryx courtesy of Robert Nicholls, found here

Feathered raptors courtesy of the brilliant Mark Witton, whose artwork can be found at his blog here

Therizinosaurus courtesy of the fantastic John Conway, via his book All Yesterdays

  1. Record-Breakers – Whale and Dolphin Conservation.” Whale & Dolphin Conservation UK, 5 Oct. 2020, uk.whales.org/whales-dolphins/record-breakers/.   
  2. Grigoriev, D.V. “GIANT MOSASAURUS HOFFMANNI (SQUAMATA, MOSASAURIDAE) FROM THE LATE CRETACEOUS (MAASTRICHTIAN) OF PENZA, RUSSIA.” Proceedings of the Zoological Institute RAS, 2014, doi:http://www.zin.ru/journals/trudyzin/doc/vol_318_2/tz_318_2_grigoriev.pdf.  
  3. Everhart, Michael J. Oceans of Kansas: a Natural History of the Western Interior Sea. Indiana University Press, 2017.
  4. Unwin, David M. Pterosaurs: from Deep Time. Pi Press, 2006.
  5. Witton, Mark P, and Michael B Habib. “On the size and flight diversity of giant pterosaurs, the use of birds as pterosaur analogues and comments on pterosaur flightlessness.” PloS one vol. 5,11 e13982. 15 Nov. 2010, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0013982  
  6. Prothero, Donald R. Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries: Amazing Fossils and the People Who Found Them. Columbia University Press, 2019.
  7. Pickrell, John. Flying Dinosaurs: How Fearsome Reptiles Became Birds. NewSouth, 2014.
  8. Than, Ker. “New Winged Dinosaur May Have Used Its Feathers to Pin Down Prey.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 5 Nov. 2015, www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/new-winged-dinosaur-may-have-used-its-feathers-pin-down-prey-180957166/.
  9. Yong, Ed. “Evidence That Velociraptor Had Feathers.” National Geographic, 12 Sept. 2009, www.nationalgeographic.com/science/phenomena/2009/09/12/evidence-that-velociraptor-had-feathers/.  
  10. Singer, Emily. “How Dinosaurs Shrank and Became Birds.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 12 June 2015, www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-dinosaurs-shrank-and-became-birds/.
  11. Black, Riley. “Microraptor Was a Glossy Dinosaur.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 9 Mar. 2012, www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/microraptor-was-a-glossy-dinosaur-119691559/.  
  12. Canales, Manuel. “It’s Official: Stunning Fossil Is a New Dinosaur Species.” National Geographic, 3 Aug. 2017, www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/08/nodosaur-dinosaur-fossil-study-borealopelta-coloration-science/.

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