In 1993, as a dinosaur-obsessed 13-year-old, I saw Jurassic Park in surround sound—the first movie released with the technology. For months I’d anticipated the film: reading fan magazines, making clay dinosaurs, and of course rereading Michael Crichton’s best-selling novel.
This week, nearly 20 years later, I saw the film in IMAX with a new twist on a popular technology: 3-D.
It was even better. The close calls seemed closer, the Velociraptors bigger and badder, the jump-out-of-your-seat moments even jumpier. I was also amazed how convincing the dinosaurs still looked, even after two decades of advances in special effects.
But I wondered how those two decades have changed what paleontologists know about the movie’s dinosaurs. So I called Thomas Holtz, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Maryland, College Park. The main difference? “Feathers, feathers, feathers, feathers,” he told me: Recent science suggests many of the movie’s dinosaurs bore plumage.
For instance, instead of the gray, pebbly skin portrayed in the movie, “Velociraptor would have been as feathered as a bald eagle,” he said. (Also see “‘Jurassic Park’ Raptors Had Feathers, Fossil Suggests.”)
Much of the evidence comes from raptor fossils discovered in China’s Liaoning Province (map), where ancient, low-oxygen lakes preserved the animals perfectly as they died. Some of the fossils still bear “true, honest to goodness” feathers; others have bumps on their shoulders that show where big wing feathers would have attached, Holtz said.
The same may also go for T. rex. Just last year, scientists discovered Yutyrannus, a one-ton, distant cousin of T. rex that was covered in fuzz, like a chick. So “we can’t dismiss the possibility that even a giant T. rex had some feathers,” Holtz said.
Feathers may have kept the prehistoric creatures warm, attracted mates, or even protected eggs if dinosaurs fanned their arms over nests, said Holtz, who is disappointed that the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park 4—to be released in June 2014—won’t have feathers either.
I asked Holtz whether scientists still think Velociraptor was smart enough to open doors, which happens a few times in the movie—in one instance, a raptor turns a door handle to get to Lex and Tim hiding in the park’s kitchen.
He said that Spielberg and Crichton overshot while trying to dispel the idea that dinosaurs are dummies. Velociraptor was probably only about as smart as your backyard opossum, Holtz said. What’s more, further analysis of its skeleton has revealed it wasn’t nearly as fast as a cheetah, as game warden Robert Muldoon says at the beginning of the film. Instead it was short and stocky, like a jaguar, and relied on stealth instead of speed.
“It would have been dumber than in the movie, and slower than in the movie,” Holtz said. “But I still wouldn’t want to meet one without some serious weapons.”
And Holtz believes that Crichton made a mistake setting the book in then-modern times. That’s because adult Brachiosaurus—the four-legged giants that leave Ellie and Alan awestruck—take up to 30 years to mature, which means that the dinosaur-cloning technology would have had to exist in the early 1970s. Even in a cloning fantasy movie, that strains credulity, says Holtz.
Speaking of the cloning technology, Holtz noted we still can’t recover enough viable DNA to bring a T. rex back to life. However, scientists including North Carolina State’s Mary Schweitzer are recovering biomolecules from ancient fossils—so, in that sense, the “knowledge of biochemistry of ancient life has become a reality.”
Even if we did bring dinosaurs back, he added, there’s a fundamental problem—the chemistry of modern air.
“For creatures like passenger pigeons or even the woolly mammoth, the world hasn’t changed that much,” he said. “For a Cretaceous dinosaur, the atmosphere is going to be different [in terms of the] amount of carbon dioxide and oxygen—it’s not going to breathe properly in our atmosphere.”
Despite his nitpicks, Holtz said he liked Jurassic Park—it was the first movie he paid multiple times to see in the theater. It was also the first film to introduce the public to dinosaurs beyond T. rex—giving “scientists and the public a common language to use.”
After seeing Jurassic Park in 1993, I wrote hundreds of pages of a sequel, in which many of the park’s dinosaurs swim to an island off Honduras and establish themselves anew. (My plot also involves Ellie and Alan roaming the island on horseback, which just happened to be my teenage passion.) I never sent it to Crichton, but I’m happy that I’ve gotten the chance to write about the movie 20 years later.