Think back to that tense, classic scene from the original Jurassic Park movie, released all the way back in 1993.
Two ferocious female velociraptors—whip-smart, six feet tall and as fast as cheetahs—have cornered the movie’s two child protagonists, Tim and Lex, in the kitchen. They systematically stalk their prey, sniffing the air to track the kids and communicating with each other through chirps and screeches, their gigantic talons clacking on the tile floor. They come within inches of devouring our heroes before the two outsmart them and escape. Pretty tense stuff, right?
Now imagine that scene again, except this time, the raptors are less than two feet tall and covered in feathers.
Not as scary, but far more accurate.
So… when are the Jurassic Park movies gonna start featuring more realistic dinosaurs with feathers?
— Andrew Bloom (@andrewbloom37) June 6, 2018
“Unfortunately, (the feather) discovery was made just after the original Jurassic Park came out, so they were unable to include it in the original movie,” says Thomas Holtz Jr., a vertebrate paleontologist with the University of Maryland Department of Geology. “And they’ve stuck to their guns in terms of the appearance rather than updating it based on newer information.”
The art of producing true visual representations of dinosaurs, the last of which went extinct about 65 million years ago, is an impossible task. Some of it is based on the fossil record, but most of it is informed guesswork.
I know it’s just a movie, but I think it’s better to see dinosaurs rendered as faithfully as possible to our current understanding of them. These films have a big impact on how people understand dinos
Plus I personally think dinos look better with feathers, but that’s irrelevant
— The Woolly One 🐑 (@SheepScientist) June 6, 2018
As with anything that involves less than absolute certainty, conventional wisdom tends to change over the years as we learn more about what dinosaurs may have looked like.
And what they certainly did not.
As far back as the early 20th century, there was some inclination among the scientific community that certain species of dinosaurs had feathery body coverings. In the 1980s, as the ancestral link between dinosaurs and modern-day birds became more clear, that theory deepened.
It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, though, when paleontologists started pulling well-preserved fossils out of the soil in the Liaoning Province of China, that hypothesis turned to evidence.
Dinosaurs had feathers. Not just a few.
“Many dinosaurs, not just meat-eating ones, seem to have a body covering that is sometimes referred to as ‘dinofuzz,’” says Peter Dodson, professor of paleontology at the University of Pennsylvania Department of Earth and Environmental Science. “It’s a fibrous material covering the body, not necessarily feathers, but what might be called ‘protofeathers,’ and this on animals that were not flying. We find specimens in small meat-eating dinosaurs where, if we don’t find the feather impressions themselves, we find the bumps that hold them, the trailing bone in the forearm that shows where those feathers attach.”
In 2016, a team of scientists published a paper on a feathered dinosaur tail preserved in a piece of amber that they found for sale at a market in Myanmar. While talk of amber and dinosaurs naturally brings to mind mosquitos, John Hammond, and outrunning a hungry Tyrannosaurus rex in a decaled theme park Jeep, this discovery’s consequences were a little less dramatic, yet no less interesting.
This particular sample was so well preserved that the scientists could make out the color and texture of the small predator’s feathers.
“We now know that many small, carnivorous dinosaurs were fuzzy. They were covered in a hairlike coat,” says W. Scott Persons, a dinosaur paleontologist at the University of Alberta in Canada. “That’s not to say all dinosaurs were predominantly feathery. We do know that many dinosaurs were scaly, in particular, a lot of the really big dinosaurs, just like a lot of the really big modern-day mammals you think about: elephants, rhinos, hippos.”
The sauropods, your brachiosauruses and other long-necked plant-eaters, looked more like scaly reptiles than birds. As did triceratops and other horned dinosaurs. As did the duck-billed plant-eaters, the hadrosaurs. As did the larger carnivorous dinosaurs.
They were more inclined to shed heat rather than keep it in like the smaller animals, hence the skin covering as insulation.
But even the smaller predecessors to the ferocious Tyrannosaurus rex could have looked a little more cuddly that what we’re used to.
“We know that primitive Tyrannosaurs were very fuzzy,” Holtz says. “We can say parts of [Tyrannosaurus rex] were not fuzzy. But to say that no parts of it were, it’s still a question mark.”
An Imperfect Science
What if elephants and their predecessors—all the mammoths, all the mastodons—went extinct more than 65 million years ago? What if we were just finding their fossilized remains now?
How, then, would we assume elephants looked?
We would know how big they were and have a pretty good idea of their skeletal structure and posture, thanks to their bones. We’d know they probably used their giant tusks for defense, dominance rituals and other uses for horns exhibited by modern animals. Judging from their teeth—flat, for grinding instead of ripping—we could probably make some informed guesses about their diet.
But what about that trunk? How about those big ears? How would we ever guess those distinctive features correctly with scant soft-tissue evidence left over from eons of degradation?
That’s the issue paleontologists face when it comes to representing how dinosaurs looked on the outside. They can make educated guesses based on the fossil record and outward features from current ancestors such as reptiles and birds. But they can never truly know.
“All paleoart is wrong, we just often don’t know why it’s wrong,” Holtz said. “I tell paleoartists, ‘Just don’t violate what we actually know and make good art. Don’t obsess about whether you’re going to be 100 percent accurate, because you’re just not.’”
All sorts of factors play into how accurately we can depict dinosaurs. The conditions in which the remains are found play a huge role. Soil with fine sediment, like you would find at the bottom of a lake or in a volcanically active area, is preferred for preservation. So are environments without much oxygen to feed the bacteria that eats away at soft tissue. Fossil beds such as the ones in Liaoning—examples of this Lagerstatten type of preservation—are where you find fossils with the most skin texture and pigmentation clues.
Until recently, for example, scientists thought all edmontosauruses exhibited the same facial features as their duck-billed relatives—only to find a fossil in Alberta that presented clear evidence of a rooster-like comb on the top of the dinosaur’s head.
“It may be the most commonly found dinosaur in the world,” Persons said. “That’s one dinosaur, despite having loads and loads of skulls for, that we had gotten wrong in terms of its appearance.”
“I don’t think there’s an instance out there when we’ve missed putting a trunk on a dinosaur. That’s not to say we haven’t made a number of serious errors, and there aren’t often a lot of missing soft parts we don’t know about.”
The Jurassic Park Effect
Every paleontologist seems to have his or her own quibbles with the Jurassic Park series.
Like when Dr. Grant tidily dusted off a perfectly formed velociraptor skeleton with a paintbrush. It’s much more difficult than that. Or how the Tyrannosaurus rex couldn’t see anything unless it moved. Absolutely no evidence of that.
How inaccurate are the raptors from Jurassic Park? Well, it would be like looking at the hideous creature on the right, and unironically calling it a normal, healthy wolf. pic.twitter.com/NQVbzC3vCi
— Patrick Murphy (@prasokour) March 9, 2018
One, though, seems to come up most often: Velociraptors were as smart as chimpanzees. Yes, dromaeosaurs, like the velociraptor, did appear to be among the brainiest of dinosaurs, given the ratio of the size of their skull brain casings to the rest of their bodies. Certainly much smarter than those dunce sauropods, who sacrificed brain mass in the name of longer necks. You know, for eating leaves.
But velociraptors as intelligent as primates? Not quite.
“What we know is the relative brain size of a velociraptor was more like the brain size of an opossum,” Dodson said. “Nobody would ever suggest that opossums are paragons of intelligence, but opossums are brainier than most dinosaurs, using this comparative method.”
— Discovery Channel UK (@DiscoveryUK) July 6, 2016
Paleontologists have a bit of a complicated relationship with Jurassic Park, the franchise which released its fifth movie installment—Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom—in early June.
Sure, it’s not great science, but it’s much preferable to popular depictions of dinosaurs that came before. And it starts the conversation.
“It’s such a huge ambassador for paleontology,” Persons said. “It has done science outreach on a scale I couldn’t possibly hope to achieve myself.”
Jurassic Park was the first mainstream depiction of dinosaurs that embraced the change in scientific consensus from sluggish, cold-blooded crocodilians to the more active, warm-blooded creatures we now know them to be. Remember that Tyrannosaurus rex Jeep chase scene from earlier?
Even when the series gets things very wrong, it’s usually a net positive. Holtz said that basically, nothing about the first movie’s dilophosaurus depiction was scientifically sound: No frills, no poison spit, and it was actually much bigger than it appeared on screen.
But, without Jurassic Park, how many people would even know what a dilophosaurus was?
“While it is a terrible piece of science, it is a very clever piece of science fiction,” Persons said. “If you were going to resurrect as many dinosaurs as are in Jurassic Park, the odds are that one of them would have something crazy bizarre that we as paleontologists don’t know about and couldn’t possibly know about from our available evidence.”
Dawn of a New Age
So we’ve finally reached the pinnacle of our understanding of dinosaurs. Everything that we now know about these magnificent creatures will remain exactly the same for the foreseeable future, right?
Nope. The fact is, with new species and new evidence about identified animals being unearthed on a regular basis, we have no idea what the best science will say in 50 years or if it will even resemble what we think we know now.
When Dodson earned his PhD in 1974, he assumed that the fossil record was all but complete, and it was then up to the paleontologists to interpret it. Well, he just got back from China, where a friend of his showed him a 90-foot spinal column of a Xingjiangtitan, one of seven sauropod skeletons that scientist had pulled from the Gansu province over the past two years. Coupled with the fact that fossil hunting is ever-popular in the U.S. due to its unique legal status—if you find a fossil on your property, it’s legally yours—the future of paleontology seems bright.
“Discovery is immensely important,” Dodson said. “If a young child is interested in dinosaurs, I guarantee he or she can go into the field of dinosaur paleontology and will be able to describe multiple kinds of new dinosaurs in their lifetime.”
“We’re not done. We’ve only scratched the surface.”