The Science of Jurassic Park & More: Part Two

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Today we are incredibly excited to be continuing our deep-dive into the world of palaeontology with Doctor David Button from London’s Natural History Museum.

In Part One, David tackled questions such as feathers on dinosaurs, the pose-ability of Sauropod’s necks, and much more. If you missed it, click here to take a read.

All images in the article ahead are also courtesy of our friends at Jurassic Vault – so go show them some love if you haven’t already!

We’re excited to dive into today’s part – where we will kick off by talking about new dinosaur species!


Any dinos we don’t know about yet?

Yep: many new dinosaur species are still being discovered every year, and this shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. Some of these are very unusual – for example the ‘batwing’ dinosaurus Yi and Ambopteryx have only been discovered in the past couple of years. So, amazing things are undoubtedly still to be discovered.


What are the chances of finding another BIG carnivore or sauropod, like bigger than anything known right now?

Interestingly, recent years have seen the discovery of multiple species of very large sauropods – e.g. Dreadnoughtus in 2014, Notocolossus in 2016, and Patagotitan in 2017. Cretaceous fossil sites in South America are becoming increasingly well-known, and Cretaceous strata across Africa are also starting to be better explored. These are both times and places from which titanosaurs were particularly common, and so are the most likely places to yield both new exceptionally large sauropods, and massive theropods that may have fed on them. So, I reckon there is a good chance of finding more colossal dinosaurs in the future.


Were dinosaur’s adequate swimmers? Also, how long did young dinos stay in their "fledgling" stage with mother? Is there a way to tell?

The powerful legs of dinosaurs meant that most were probably competent swimmers. Evidence from oxygen isotopes, preserved gut contents and tooth marks indicates that spinosaurids mainly ate aquatic organisms and probably spent a lot of time in the water – indicating that they must have been able to swim well. The unusual dromaeosaurid Halszkaraptor, meanwhile, shows skeletal characteristics very similar to living aquatic birds, with powerful kicking legs, and short, flipper-like forelimbs. It also seems to have been semiaquatic in lifestyle.

An exception to this may be provided by the ceratopsians. Multiple large bone beds are known which preserve the remains of ceratopsian herds that drowned in flash floods. Hadrosaurs, meanwhile, were common in the same times and places, but do not occur in these death assemblages. Modelling of the centre of gravity shows that the heavy heads of ceratopsians would have pulled them forwards in the water, making it difficult for them to stay afloat. It hence seems that, during these events, hadrosaurs were able to easily swim to safety whereas many more ceratopsians struggled and drowned.

It is hard to tell how long dinosaur chicks stayed with their parents – or, in many cases, whether parental care was performed at all. Footprint evidence shows young dinosaurs associating with adults, but it is unclear whether these represent parents with their babies, or simply casual mixed-age associations. Furthermore, age segregated trackways are also known. Collections of footprints from a small number of differently-sized individuals – for example from rebbachisaurid sauropods – have been suggested to represent family groups, but this is similarly difficult to test. Similarly, although mixed-age associations of Psittacosaurus are known, it is unclear if they represent a parent or helper watching over a crèche or, more likely, simply young psittacosaurs joining together for safety in numbers.

Consequently, even though we know of cooperative behaviour in many dinosaurs, it is hard to distinguish whether genuine parental care from simple gregariousness. Even when we do have strong evidence of parental care in dinosaurs – such as in oviraptorosaurs – we unfortunately still have no real evidence as to how long that care may have lasted after hatching. Nevertheless, it seems plausible that many dinosaurs would have cared for their young for weeks or even months after hatching, like modern-day birds.


Is the Spinosaurus quadrupedal or bipedal?.. or is it still a great mystery within the palaeontology community?

Establishing exactly what Spinosaurus looked like is difficult, as we have so little fossil material of it to go on. Not only are only a small number of Spinosaurus skeletons known, but each is also highly incomplete. As a result, reconstructing a complete view of Spinosaurus requires comparison between the skeletons of different individuals, which can make figuring out accurate proportions difficult. Furthermore, it seems likely that some of the material referred to Spinosaurus actually belongs to a related genus, Sigilmassasaurus, posing even more problems for trying to extrapolate between them to get an overall picture of Spinosaurus.

With all those caveats, I hence think it is most likely that Spinosaurus was capable of bipedal locomotion – like its relatives such as Baryonyx. However, it does still seem likely that its legs were at least relatively short, and so it would look different to its depiction in the Jurassic Park franchise. Still, greater certainty on how Spinosaurus looked and moved will need to wait for the discovery of more complete skeletons of the animal.

Was there any dinosaur media (film, cartoons, documentary, series) that influenced them to follow the path resulting in palaeontology?

Many of my colleagues list Jurassic Park as their single biggest influence in pursuing palaeontology. However, for me, the biggest influence was a magazine series – Dinosaurs! – published by Orbis in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It was very effective at presenting dinosaurs as animals that we could learn about, rather than as monsters, as well as the lines of thinking that allowed us to do so. Certainly, fondly remembered, and almost certainly my single biggest early childhood influence.


In your opinion, where is the line drawn between entertainment and reality? e.g. Would a chase scene in Jurassic Park be as entertaining to a cinema audience if the animal was paleo-accurate to current knowledge and theories.

I, obviously, would generally prefer it if films were as accurate as possible, simple as that is something I find satisfying and interesting. I was, for example, very disappointed by the lack of feathers in Jurassic World, not only because they would have been accurate but also, more importantly, it showed a lack of imagination on the film maker’s part. They could have made all sorts of cool, modern-looking dinosaurs, reaching deeper horror through mixing something we think we know – a bird – with something primordial and deadly. It would also have furthered one of the key threads of Jurassic Park itself.

However, that does not mean I necessarily expect films to be accurate – after all, their job is to sell movie tickets, not to educate. Films in general make continual errors regarding everything from computer science through basic human biology, and I think that audiences are aware of that. Jurassic Park holds up despite being scientifically dated because the movie is effectively using the dinosaurs as metaphors – both for arrogance and the power of nature – as opposed to being a documentary about them. Whereas I would expect a documentary film (e.g. the Walking with Dinosaurs movie) to be well-researched, a genre-film’s job is to relate a narrative, not present facts.

So, overall, I as a moviegoer would personally would prefer it is dinosaurs in films were accurate. However, I do not expect it, and certainly think the use of artistic licence to make the films more entertaining is entirely appropriate. After all, this is their job, not education. Indeed, if we are relying on blockbuster films to educate people about science, we have much bigger societal problems than public understanding of dinosaurs at hand.

How do you feel about Jurassic Park/Worlds speculation on soft tissue and threats? For example Dilophosaurus frill and venom, Troodon venom and nesting habits, and the T. rex "bad eye sight". Also re classification like Deinonychus = Velociraptor???

The ‘bad eyesight’ of Tyrannosaurus in the films actually annoys me, as the size of the orbit and the brain structure indicates that Tyrannosaurus would actually have had good eyesight (like modern birds). The “it cannot see you if you don’t move” thing never made any sense, as a large predator would not be able to function like that. Consequently, I am glad that the Jurassic Park franchise has moved away from that in more recent years, as it has produced a persistent belief about dinosaurs that is entirely inaccurate. Similarly, there is no evidence for venom or an extendable frill in Dilophosaurus (or any other dinosaurs). Consequently, these are best viewed as not so much soft tissue speculation as just making things up for cinematic sake.

That being said, I do appreciate the need for artistic licence in movies, and giving those animals those attributes certainly did help add tension, excitement and action to those scenes. I hence can understand why those features – especially in Dilophosaurus – are included, even though they are entirely fictitious. I am glad that the movies have since acknowledged that many of the cloned dinosaurs are very different to their real counterparts, as it helps balance the need for spectacle with an open admission that these attributes are entirely fictitious.

However, I must admit that I sort of draw the line at the nesting habits of Troodon. I can accept the venom as artistic licence, but the whole thing about it laying its eggs in bodies in Jurassic Park: The Game is so absurd and preposterous that I cannot even enjoy it. I get that they wanted a new level of threat and horror from a dinosaur, but it just makes no sense at any level – no large vertebrate would incubate its eggs in that way, as it would just be a recipe for infection and death of the chicks. I mean, what, were they supposed to have spliced its DNA with an ichneumon wasp or something? Why on Earth would they have done that?!

The Deinonychus were reclassified as Velociraptor in Jurassic Park partially due to the arguments of Greg Paul, who generally supports lumping many dinosaur species together. However, this view is not backed by any other palaeontologist, and so I would rather it was not used and the dinosaurs were correctly classified. However, I acknowledge that the other half of the argument  - that “Velociraptor just sounds cooler” – means that this will never happen in the Jurassic Park franchise.


And fave dino?

It is hard to say, but my favourite dinosaur may be the prosauropod Plateosaurus. This is for a couple of reasons: firstly, a lot of my PhD research was on this animal; and secondly, I just like prosauropods. They seem like they would have been rather incompetent, unintelligent, cumbersome, bulky, reeking, omnivorous, foul-tempered animals, and something about that appeals to me. I am also fond of sauropods – particularly Camarasaurus, as a lot of my PhD research also concerned that animal.

Other favourite dinosaurs include the ornithischian Thescelosaurus (again, this is helped by me having worked closely on it) and hadrosaurs such as Corythosaurus. I also like rebbachisaurid sauropods such as Nigersaurus.

That draws a close to part two of our “The Science of Jurassic Park & More” series. Make sure to join us next week for our third and final installment.

For now, make sure to follow him on Twitter if you aren’t already, and stay tuned to The Jurassic Park Podcast for all the latest Jurassic Park news!


Written by:
Tom Fishenden