The Spielberg effect

With the release of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Stephen Kelly reveals how the Jurassic Park films have transformed the study of dinosaurs

By The Daily Telegraph
  • Published 11.06.18
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Thomas Adams, a palaeontologist from Texas, United States, remembers the first time he saw Jurassic Park. And the second, and the third, and the fourth. They were, after all, all in the same month - and led to him quitting his job as a record store manager to study dinosaurs.

"That film is responsible for me becoming a palaeontologist," he says. "I was 25 and very, very affected by it. It re-sparked all that love of dinosaurs I had as a child. I've now been doing palaeontology for 23 years. And it's all because of Jurassic Park."

Although a late-starter, Adams' story is not unusual. Talk to any palaeontologist who grew up in the Eighties and Nineties and the chances are they will tell you the same thing - of childhood dreams forged in the wake of the 1993 Steven Spielberg blockbuster.

Steve Brusatte, 34, a reader in vertebrate palaentology at the University of Edinburgh, saw it with his brother when he was nine.

"It blew our minds," he says. "The film presented a new image of dinosaurs. All of the books, movies and TV shows I remember seeing as a kid portrayed dinosaurs as dim-witted, slow-moving, boring animals just sitting around waiting to go extinct. Jurassic Park was a revelation. It showed a more accurate image of dinosaurs as active, energetic and intelligent."

And for Rebecca Hunt-Foster, a 39-year-old palaeontologist in Utah, United States, Dr Ellie Sattler, the character played by Laura Dern, proved inspirational.

"Seeing a woman scientist who was strong, smart and brave had a huge impact on my 14-year-old self," she says.

Jurassic Park did not just shatter box office records (the film grossed more than $900 million worldwide) and spawn a film franchise - the fourth sequel Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom was out last week; it led to a surge in the number of people studying palaeontology and a quantum leap in the amount we know about dinosaurs. "If it wasn't for Jurassic Park getting the public excited about dinosaurs and then in turn having the public come in to museums, we would be struggling as palaeontologists," Adams admits. "Because what happens is: museums and universities and other institutions are going, 'Hey, people like dinosaurs, so we're going to give you funding to do research, to develop technology'."

And, says Adams, the increase in funding and the rise in the number of palaeontologists has led to a spike in the volume of dinosaur discoveries. "Prior to the mid-1980s, it was like one or three new discoveries a year. Today we're looking at about 50 new species discovered a year. And the reason is because there are more people looking for dinosaurs and they're going to different places looking for dinosaurs. That happened post- Jurassic Park, post-1993."

Such discoveries include the Acrotholus audeti, possibly the oldest bone-headed dinosaur in the world, discovered in Canada in 2008; and last year's confirmation that the long-necked Patagotitan mayorum - nicknamed the Titanosaur when it was discovered in southern Argentina in 2012 - was the largest animal to ever walk Earth. New technology, too, has revolutionised our understanding of the prehistoric world.

"Over the last decade CAT scans of Tyrannosaurus rex skulls have allowed us to visualise the brain cavity," says Brusatte. "And we've learnt from this that the T.rex had binocular vision."

This contradicts one of the most famous scenes in the original film - which employed several well-respected scientific advisers - in which Sam Neill's Alan Grant tells his companions, as a T.rex bears down on them: "Don't move! He can't see you if you don't move."

" T.rex actually had a strong depth of 3D vision," says Brusatte. "It could also hear a range of sounds and had a great sense of smell. If the T.rex was after you, it was probably going to get you."

The boom in palaentology has also led to the paradigm-shifting discovery that most dinosaurs had feathers. The theory that birds evolved from dinosaurs was already accepted as scientific fact by the time Jurassic Park was made, but it was only in 1996 that a feathered fossil was first found - in Liaoning Province, northeastern China.

"Those dinosaurs in China were buried by volcanoes," explains Brusatte. "It took a one-in-a-billion preservational situation to get something soft, like skin or muscle or internal organs, preserved. Then more and more just came out of the woodwork. We were flooded with feathered dinosaur discoveries and now we know, 20 years later, that probably most dinosaurs, if not all dinosaurs, had some type of feathers."

Of course, the Jurassic Park films have not taken all this information on board. Every palaeontologist has a favourite bugbear - whether it's the over-inflated size of the shark-eating Mosasaurus in 2015's Jurassic World or the tiny Dilophosaurus in the original which sported a frill and spat venom.

"There's no evidence it had a frill," says Paul Barrett, dinosaur specialist at London's Natural History Museum. "Or that any dinosaur was venomous. And we knew that at the time." But most agree that the inaccuracies - while a "double-edged sword," to quote Barrett - can be a positive force.

"There's an interesting phenomenon that occurs when these movies come out," says Adams. "The professional field goes on a rampage about how inaccurate everything is. But I'm always thinking, 'You know, that's OK. They don't have to be'. They don't make movies for palaeontologists. They wouldn't make any money if they did. And they get people excited about dinosaurs and that leads to people coming to the museum and there I can go, 'Hey, you're here, let's take a moment to talk about what real palaeontology is. And so that's a wonderful thing to be able to do."

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