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What “Jurassic Park” series got right, and wrong, about science of dinosaurs

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(NEW YORK) — The final installment in the Jurassic Park series hits theaters Thursday, 29 years after the first movie stomped on the big screen.

The films show a world in which several dinosaurs, including Tyrannosaurus rex, Triceratops, Parasaurolophus, Compsognathus and Mosasaurus, have been resurrected and wander freely around an island.

But experts said most of the dinosaurs shown in the movies didn’t coexist during the same timeframe. In fact, they were separated by millions of years. What’s more, many didn’t even live in the same area.

“What they’ve done … is mixed up the dinosaurs as kind of like an alphabet soup of dinosaurs all dumped into a dish, add a little bit of action, stir it up and you have a movie,” Dr. David Burnham, a paleontologist at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum, told ABC News. “Well, of course they didn’t all live at the same time, they all didn’t live in the same place.”

Burnham said this presents a teaching opportunity to educate the public about the giant creatures that went extinct millions of years ago.

“People I interact with, students at the university, volunteers in my program, they come in with all these questions and a lot of them have seen these movies, and so it’s my chance to teach them the scientific details,” he said. “To say, ‘Oh, no, they wouldn’t have lived together.’ ‘Oh, no. This one is from Mongolia. It’s not from North America.'”

The first Jurassic Park movie

Arguably, the three most infamous types of dinosaurs featured in the very first Jurassic Park movie are a Triceratops, a Tyrannosaurus rex and velociraptors.

However, not all three would have been living at the same time.

“Two of them would — there’s no question the Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus bumped into each other,” Dr. Paul Sereno, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago, told ABC News. “They both lived in North America, and they lived to the very end [of the dinosaur era]. They are some of the last of the dinosaurs alive.”

They both lived in the same area in North America and there’s evidence they may have even fought occasionally with each other.

“For instance, paleontologists have found Triceratops fossils with broken Tyrannosaurus teeth stuck in the bone,” Dr. Matthew Brown, director of the Vertebrate Paleontology Collections at the Jackson School Museum of Earth History at the University of Texas at Austin, told ABC News.

However, the velociraptor would not have crossed paths with either.

In fact, what is portrayed as a velociraptor in the film, and in the original book by Michael Crichton, is not a velociraptor.

“The name ‘velociraptor’ at the time Michael Crichton wrote the book had been expanded to encompass animals that we now no longer call velociraptor,” Dr. Bhart-Anjan Bhullar, an assistant professor of earth & planetary sciences at Yale University, told ABC News. “The animal that Crichton was writing about — the animal depicted in the first ‘Jurassic Park’ — that animal is an animal that we now named Deinonychus.”

Deinonychus also lived in the western U.S. but during the early Cretaceous period, between 120 and 110 million years ago

New dinosaurs introduced

Jurassic World Dominion is introducing dinosaur species not seen in the franchise before, including the Atrociraptor, the Giganotosaurus and the Microceratus.

However, none of them would have existed in the same period or — if they did exist at the same time — in the same location.

“The Atrociraptor existed at the end of the time of dinosaurs in North America,” Bhullar said, during the late Cretaceous Period. “Meanwhile the Giganotosaurus existed 20 to 30 million years earlier.”

In a five-minute prologue to Jurassic World Dominion that was released in 2021, the Giganotosaurus and the Tyrannosaurs battle each other — something that would never have occurred.

“Yeah, they’re separated by about 30 million years and also off by [a] continent,” Bhullar said. “Giganotosaurus was the master of the Southern Wild and Tyrannosaurus — 30 million years later — was a similar sort of master of the Northern Wild.”

Also appearing in Jurassic World Dominion is a Dilophosaurus, which has not been seen since the first Jurassic Park movie.

However, it existed in the early Jurassic Period, about 190 million years ago, and wouldn’t have interacted with any of the previously discussed dinosaurs.

Lack of feathers and color

One criticism of the series is that there has not been a lot of portrayal of varied dinosaurs, such as feathered dinosaurs.

Burnham pointed out that the series is a work of science fiction, not a documentary, but he acknowledges that the portrayals of dinosaurs are likely outdated due to our preconceived notions.

“‘Jurassic Park’ has been slow in adopting a feather model,” he said. “I just think it takes time to break a paradigm. We’ve shown dinosaurs as only reptiles for a long time, so I think we’ve been slow to come around.”

Similarly, new research has shown real dinosaurs were far more colorful than they’ve been portrayed in the series. Dinosaurs were likely a rainbow of colors rather than the neutral earth tones shown in the movies.

Serano thinks this is likely due to the colors people are familiar with of the largest animals currently living on the planet, such as elephants.

“I believe that these dull colors are based on what is known to us, most widely pachyderms,” he said. “We go to the zoo, you see an elephant, you see a rhinoceros, you see a hippo and they are pretty dull colored animals in general. And so it’s based on our knowledge of the most common, large animals that we are familiar with.”

And while many of these dinosaurs may never have occupied the same era, the same time period or even the same location, their appearance together on the silver screen may be a perfect chance to bone up on the taxonomy of the giant animals.

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