Twenty-five years ago, I was simultaneously exposed to the largest screen and the largest creatures I had ever seen in my life, at the age of five. I had just watched Jurassic Park. The impact was terrifying but also, permanent. Till today, my fascination for dinosaurs and palaeontology (the study of ancient animal life) has only multiplied.
Even though more than a century and a half of palaeontology had passed at the time of the film’s release, it was probably the first form of popular fiction that depicted dinosaurs as the wild animals they would have been in real life; not just as proverbial ‘godzilla’ archetypes. But look past the filmmaking and deeper into the science, and a few discrepancies reveal themselves. Not least among them is the name itself.
The reign of the dinosaurs spanned 3 time periods (the Triassic, the Jurassic and the Cretaceous, collectively the Mesozoic Era) between c. 235 million years ago and c. 65 million years ago. That’s around 170 million years, an eternity compared to the paltry million-odd years that humans have been around for. Unfortunately, not all dinosaurs in this movie, or the subsequent ones, belonged to the Jurassic.
The other issue is the depiction of these animals itself. While Steven Spielberg tried to be as accurate to scientific data as possible, there were quite a few liberties taken with their morphology, behaviour and even nomenclature, chief among them being the forward-facing arms of the 2-legged ones.
So, as a lover of this movie as well as the science, let me help you separate the bone from the rock. Here are 10 dinosaurs from the 1st 3 Jurassic Park movies and an autopsy of their depiction.
1. Pachycephalosaurus: This dome-headed animal, affectionately referred to as ‘Friar Tuck’ in The Lost World, is one of the many dinosaurs that didn’t live during the Jurassic period. Instead, it was from the Late Cretaceous period. Barring the aforementioned ‘arms issue’, its depiction in The Lost World was largely faithful to science. But while they may have butted their domed heads as a show of dominance, ramming a steel jeep door would definitely have cracked their skulls open. Fortunately, jeeps didn’t exist at that time.
2. Gallimimus: Another Late Cretaceous dinosaur, Gallimimus’ name literally means ‘chicken mimic’. Seen as a stampeding herd in Jurassic Park, the films show them with shorter bodies and more importantly, they don’t depict them with feathery fuzz (much like a modern chick), as fossil evidence suggests they may have had.
3. Stegosaurus: Well hello there, Jurassic dinosaur! About time one of you showed up! Now, observe the screenshot from The Lost World below, on the left. On the right is Sophie, the most complete Stegosaurus skeleton ever discovered. She’s a young adult, meaning she wouldn’t have grown much bigger than that. Notice how the 2-storey tall ‘Stegy’ from the movie would not have been much taller than a fully grown human in reality. That’s literally a huge difference. Also, those tail spikes are called thagomizers. Yes, they don’t just look intimidating, they even sound intimidating.
4. Triceratops: Over this way is another dinosaur from the Cretaceous. One of the most iconic-looking creatures from the past was unfortunately given the measly role of a diseased plot device in Jurassic Park. However, she (all the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are female, remember?) made a stampeding return in The Lost World, albeit fleetingly. Notice that in that sequence, we clearly see the 2 long horns above the eyes curving upwards, along with prominent bones around her frill. Research conducted on several fossils of different developmental stages however, has led us to believe that Triceratops’ horns grew out upwards for the little ones, along with prominent frill bones. As they grew older, horns started curving downwards and the bones in the frills started disappearing into the frill itself, becoming nearly imperceptible.
5. Compsognathus: Here’s the animal that made Pete Stormare’s character regret messing with the wrong dino in The Lost World. Depicted quite faithfully, their name is what can cause confusion. The creatures in the movies are not the Compsognathus from the Cretaceous period, but in fact, the Procompsognathus, a primitive carnivore from the Triassic period.
6. Brachiosaurus: This enigmatic sauropod (the long-necked dinosaurs) was the world’s window to the silver screen park. The good news is that it was, in fact, from the Jurassic period. The bad news is that it wouldn’t have been able to rear up on its hind legs, nor go underwater (doing so would have to result in all the water of a lake being thrown out. You can Archimides for this observation). The creature itself, is an ‘approximation’ of the proportions of Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan.
7. Dilophosaurus: The gluttonous traitor Dennis Nedry met his end in Jurassic Park at the hands (or rather, frill) of this dinosaur. In reality, this Jurassic dinosaur’s ‘no frills’ existence was more than just figurative. Much larger than the movie version, it would have probably stared directly into Nedry’s murky soul. There’s no evidence of any frills, nor of any sacs that held venomous spit and it would likely have made a much louder and terrifying sound than that shriek.
8. Spinosaurus: Jurassic Park 3 director Joe Johnston managed to bring in an ‘arch enemy’ dinosaur that was more terrifying than the Tyrannosaurus. In fact, this Cretaceous fish-eater is the largest land predator ever discovered. In terms of depiction, it probably had webbed feet to enable swimming. Its long fore limbs give us reason to believe that it would sometimes walk on all fours. A much more streamlined head with bulbous snout-ends was perfectly designed to enable hunting in water.
9. Velociraptor: The most malicious of all the films’ dinosaurs (the Jurassic World films are not in consideration), Velociraptor was not as clever a girl as the films suggest. They probably didn’t have the intelligence to open doors and test fences. The real Velociraptor was from the Cretaceous (getting tiring, isn’t it?), about the size of a turkey, had a proportionally longer snout and would’ve been covered in feathers like a bird. It was also discovered in Mongolia, and not in the US. The creature in the movies fits the description of another dromaeosaur (the clade of dinosaurs that Velociraptor also belongs to) called the Deinonychus.
10. Tyrannosaurus rex: The real T.rex would have been every bit as terrifying as the movie star, and then some. Contrary to Dr Alan Grant’s postulate, it had among the best vision that any animal has ever had. It was also an adept runner, though it wouldn’t have caught up with a speeding jeep. The Cretaceous killer was among the last line of predatory dinosaurs before a killer meteorite collided with the Earth, resulting in the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs. There’s reason to believe it was also covered in feathery fuzz, but the most surprising aspect is the sound it would’ve made. To avoid any spoilers, I’ll leave it to you to listen for yourselves.
Lead image credits: Ishaan Kumar