Life Finds A Way: The Evolutionary Science Behind Jurassic Park Dinosaurs



This spring, Steven Spielberg’s dino-adventure classic “Jurassic Park” will be turning 20, and Universal will be celebrating by re-releasing the movie in 3D. That’s all in anticipation of 2014’s “Jurassic Park 4,” which may finally be hitting the big screen after more than a decade in the place filmmakers call “development hell.” With the new film, and the chance to reflect on the old one, comes a new opportunity to bring the science of paleontology into the public consciousness.

The science in “Jurassic Park” was remarkably accurate for the time. Though a number of discoveries made since 1993 have proven the film’s dinosaur portrayals false, a few of the film’s speculations have turned out to be true.

Before “Jurassic Park,” movie dinosaurs were big, sluggish, Godzilla-like reptiles who dragged their tails. Old movies didn’t particularly care if they got the anatomy of T. rex right, if Triceratops ate meat or if the dinosaurs they depicted actually existed or were fantasies. “Jurassic Park” was the first dinosaur movie to make scientific accuracy a priority, and it presented the creatures essentially as they really were: energetic, fast-moving animals that had more in common with birds than other reptiles. Indeed, only three years after the film made that argument, feathered dinosaur fossils were discovered, further proving the link between the raptor-like dinosaurs and modern birds.

The film is not without its inaccuracies. We now know the terrifying raptors in the film would be covered in feathers, probably weren’t quite smart enough to open doors (though they were quite smart among dinosaur species) and would be properly termed “Deinonychus” as the name “Velociraptor” belongs to a smaller relative. T. rex did not have vision based on movement (that wouldn’t make for a very effective predator) and nobody has found any evidence that Dilophosaurus spat venom. But despite these and a few other instances, “Jurassic Park” presented a remarkably accurate image of dinosaurs that has gone further to inform the public of their true nature than museums did for decades prior.

The film’s whole message is, of course, that we shouldn’t let scientific power run away with us, but that didn’t stop a number of real life scientists from trying to figure out how to genetically engineer some of their own dinosaurs. Unfortunately for all of us would-be dinosaur tourists, there is no preserved paleo-DNA intact enough to use for such purposes, even if we filled in the gene sequence gaps with something else, as they do in the film. Even DNA from a preserved mosquito would be too degraded and mixed in with too many other substances. We won’t be cloning dinosaurs back to life anytime soon.

But one possible road to 21st century dinosaurs was proposed by paleontologist Jack Horner, the very man who acted as the science advisor on “Jurassic Park,” and who the character of Alan Grant was based on. He reasons in his book How To Build a Dinosaur that bird DNA could be “reverse engineered” to activate dormant dinosaur genes.

Evolution is sometimes a sloppy process. Old genes are sometimes left sitting around in the genetic code long after they have become useless. These dormant genes are turned off and buried beneath other, newer genes. Any living animal contains a long list of dormant genes from millions of years prior. As such, modern birds still carry around the genes for things like teeth, claws, tails, scales and other things they needed back when they were dinosaurs. If we could take an unborn bird embryo, such as a chicken or an emu, reactivate all those old genes and deactivate the new ones like “beak,” “feathers” and “wings,” we could conceivably work backwards until we had ourselves something resembling a dinosaur. If that happens, let’s just remember not to use flimsy electric fence cables that become useless when they run out of power.

 

A version of this article appeared on page 9 of February 19th, 2013′s print edition of the Nexus.

 

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