a paleontologist on what the movie is doing wrong about dinosaurs

Nearly 30 years after Jurassic Park was first screened, the beloved franchise is back with its latest film Jurassic World Dominion, which will be released in the UK on Friday. Our favorite characters, like the Tyrannosaurus Rex and Velociraptorreturn and we meet some new ones, like the giant predator Giganotosaurus

But how accurate is the depiction of dinosaurs in the film?

In the opening scenes, we are re-introduced to world-renowned paleontologist Alan Grant, who charmed millions of viewers in the first film. Once again, he’s on a dig in Utah, digging up fossils. We see him casually brushing away sand to reveal a perfect dinosaur skeleton. Excavations like this are currently taking place all over the world. This is how paleontologists learn about dinosaurs. In reality, excavations are not so simple. They can carve for hours with hammers and chisels to remove hard rock stone by stone. Even then, we try to avoid damaging bones and leave the work of removing fine material from close to the bone until we get back to the lab. It can take several days to remove a single bone from the rock.

Alan Grant wears a lumberjack shirt and wide-brimmed hat
Sam Neill as Dr. Alan Grant in the 2001 episode, Jurassic Park III.

Making progress

Thanks to the fossils that paleontologists have found in such digs, we’ve learned a lot about dinosaurs since the first Jurassic Park movie, including the fact that many dinosaurs in the movie, especially predators, are supposed to have feathers. This includes the Velociraptor † The film shows the young of many predators, many of whom would probably be covered in downy feathers like young birds today, but none of them are shown with these feathers.

Other dinosaurs in the film do have feathers. Some feathered dinosaurs, especially early examples, had simple filaments, like the feathers of a chick rather than an adult bird. Later examples (such as birds of prey) developed more complex and mature bird-like feathers. The mighty herbivore therezinosaurus, with claws longer than a human child, is covered in fuzzy filaments in the film as it would have been in life. We also encounter a bird of prey covered from head to toe in fully formed, adult bird-like feathers. In that respect, Dominion is perfect.

Another design flaw that Dominion almost gets right is the color of these feathers. The bird of prey is usually red. Paleontologists have been able to figure out the color of some dinosaur feathers based on preserved pigments. These dinosaurs were mostly black, brown and red.

Huge velociraptor with red and gray feathers approaches two people
The velociraptor is correctly represented with red feathers.

Unfortunately, there are many elements of dinosaur design that the film does wrong. take the Giganotosaurus† We see this huge predator with a series of spines along the back of its neck and another in the middle of its back. While Giganotosaurus definitely had a strong backbone, there is absolutely no evidence of spines like these, and the design doesn’t look realistic to me.

Size Matters

Giganotosaurus falls victim to the franchise’s biggest design crime: size. So many of the dinosaurs are just too big. Giganotosaurus looks much bigger than t-rex and can easily defeat it in combat. While there is some debate as to which animal was actually larger, the two were the same size and would have been fairly similar. The Giant Ocean Predator Mososaurus is also exaggerated in its size. By the end of the film, he is shown to be twice the size of a humpback whale. It would have been slightly smaller than an adult humpback whale.

The gigantosaurus roams through a grassy landscape
Giganotosaurus, prehistoric predator from the Cretaceous Period.

Another key creature in this film is the grasshopper, genetically engineered with “chalk genes” to achieve terrifying dimensions. Giant insects existed in the past — including dragonflies up to a meter across — but in a period called the Carboniferous, which is almost twice as long ago as the period in which the oldest dinosaurs lived. The oxygen content in the Carboniferous era was more than 50% higher than the present oxygen content. With or without the right genes, such large grasshoppers would not be able to survive in current oxygen levels.

Many new beasts are introduced in the film. Our heroes keep a gang from the Dimetrodone (which has a structure like a sail on its back) and comes face to face with a small lizard-like creature with large tusks known as a dicynodont. Contrary to popular belief, these animals were not actually dinosaurs. They lived in a time called the Permian, more than 30 million years before dinosaurs first appeared. They are actually members of a group called the synapsids which includes the ancestors of mammals. They are more closely related to you and me than to any dinosaur.

3D impression of a giant lizard-like creature
A dimetrodon.

Jurassic World Dominion has some merit. The introduction of feathers and new species show how much we have learned over the past 20 years. However, it is full of errors, speculation and exaggeration. Museums can be a great place to learn real facts about dinosaurs in a way that Jurassic Park Dominion can never compete. Be sure to check out this mediocre, boring action movie, but if you want to learn about dinosaurs, I suggest you start elsewhere.

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