Dinosaurs at the Movies – Spotting the Anomalies in Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park was released in 1993, directed by Steven Spielberg with a screenplay based on the novel by Michael Crichton, who sadly passed away this time last year. This movie showcased the developments made in CGI (computer generated images) and depicted dinosaurs and pterosaurs with a new realism and accuracy.

However, the film makers did not let the palaeontology get in the way of a great storyline. For several types of prehistoric animal shown in the film and the subsequent sequels, their appearance and behaviour stretched plausibility to a great extent and some sequences and dinosaur scenes were given what might be termed the “Hollywood treatment”. For example, an adult Tyrannosaurus rex able to chase down a speeding jeep, Dilophosaurs having venom and being able to project it in a similar way to a spitting Cobra. These attributes, whether it is giving T. rex tremendous speed or empowering Dilophosaurus with poison glands are simply not legitimised by what is seen in the fossil record.

Take for example, the Tyrannosaurus rex chasing Jeff Goldblum, Sam Neill et al in the jeep chase scene.  Recent studies using advanced computer modelling techniques from scientists at Manchester University has calculated a T. rex top speed to be around 18 mph, about as fast as a professional footballer.  That is still fast for an animal in excess of 13 metres long and weighing 5 tonnes or more, but hardly fast enough to catch a speeding jeep.  Even on wet, slippery ground a four-wheel drive jeep could speed away from a Tyrannosaurus in second gear.

To read the article on the running speeds of dinosaurs, based on the studies undertaken by the University of Manchester team: So Tyrannosaurus rex could chase down David Beckham

Perhaps the best known, anomaly regarding how dinosaurs were depicted in the Jurassic Park films concerns the main monster villains of the movies – the “Raptors”. Velociraptors are depicted in the film and these creatures appear about as tall as a person and more than 3 metres long. Velociraptor mongoliensis is one of the better known Dromaeosaurs, it was much smaller, standing no more than one metre tall, and an estimated 1.5 metres long, the tail making up a considerable proportion of this animal’s total body length. It may have weighed less than 15 kilogrammes, the Velociraptors in Jurassic Park were scaled up and as a result they looked all the more fearsome and ferocious. Fossils of Velociraptor have been found to date in Asia, the United States does have its very dinosaur candidate for a 3-4 metre long fearsome, “Raptor” movie star – Deinonychus. Known from several specimens, this fearsome hunter was similar in size to the Velociraptors shown in the film, there has even been fossil evidence found indicating that Deinonychus hunted in packs, a behaviour frequently illustrated by the Velociraptors in the Jurassic Park trilogy. Deinonychus was named and described by the American palaeontologist John Ostrom in 1969. It was Ostrom who was largely responsible for re-writing scientific thinking and portraying certain types of dinosaur as active, agile, warm-blooded creatures. Ironically, John Ostrom was a mentor and close colleague of Dr. Bob Bakker who acted as one of the main scientific advisors to the movie makers.

During the filming of the first Jurassic Park, scientists discovered the fossilised remains of the largest known genus of Dromaeosaur in the fossil record. In 1991, the fossilised remains of a fierce hunter, perhaps measuring as much as 6.5 metres long were unearthed in a quarry in Utah. This animal was formerly named and described in 1993, it is called Utahraptor.

Despite the exaggerated size of the Velociraptors and other anomalies seen in the Jurassic Park movies, they are immensely enjoyable and broke a number of box office records. Strange things do happen in nature, no one has ever seen a dinosaur and the technical consultants on the film such as Dr. Bob Bakker remain highly respected and admired palaeontologists. After all, it has recently been proven that the largest lizard on Earth, the Komodo Dragon has a venomous bite.  So if reptiles around today can still startle scientists, you can bet the fossil record of the Dinosauria has a few surprises buried beneath our feet.

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