When Jurassic Park hit screens in 1993, it was more than a cinematic marvel—it was an effective tool of science communication. In broad strokes, the film's depictions of dinosaurs were in line with the latest paleobiological research of the early 1990s, showcasing for the first time creatures that were fast, clever, and warm-blooded. The film’s breathtaking vision even ushered in a renewed fervor for paleontological research now referred to as “the Jurassic Park phase”: In the 1990s, scientists uncovered ancient DNA for the first time; today, advancements in genetic engineering make talk of woolly mammoth de-extinction sound less and less fantastical. (Thanks, Michael Crichton!)
Yet much of our scientific understanding of terrible lizards has changed since the '90s. We now know many dinos bore feathers, hooted instead of roared, and exhibited complex social behaviors and mating rituals. But you wouldn’t know that from seeing 2015’s Jurassic World, the fourth installment in the JP series. After its premiere, paleontologists around the world swiftly eviscerated the movie for its purposeful ignorance of the two decades of research that challenged the now outdated depictions of dinosaurs in the original film. Some even said that World was a step backwards from Park, drawing on only the most lumbering, inept, and ultimately unfounded characteristics of our falsely featherless friends.
Scientific tools have never been more powerful, and we have never had such a nuanced portrait of creatures that roamed the earth millions of years ago. Rather than imitate the hand-me-down Hollywood dinosaurs of yore, the newest Jurassic World should learn from the last quarter century’s most astounding advancements in dinosaur science. Here are five ideas.
1. Seriously: where are the feathers?
Paleobiologists have been uncovering strong evidence of that dinosaurs including velociraptors and relatives of Tyrannosaurus rex had downy, colorful plumage since the mid-1990s. Yet virtually all the dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park series have continued their featherless existence. It’s perhaps this omission that most ruffles paleobiologists', er, feathers: after all, this revelation has implications not only for dinosaurs’ appearance, but also their genetic ties to modern-day birds. “While I didn’t expect the dinosaurs to be accurate, I was a little disappointed that there weren’t any feathers,” admits paleontologist Steve Brusatte at the University of Edinburgh. “That’s the one thing I really would have liked to have seen.”
We get it, it’s hard to suddenly switch from unfeathered to feathered in the same film franchise—and perhaps cinematographers feared that fuzzy dinos would detract from the scare factor. But truthfully, I think I’d be more terrified of a malicious, very real creature than an overblown imaginary one.
2. Bigger isn’t always better
We can understand why a Hollywood movie would want bigger baddies, but scientifically, the proportions of the Jurassic Park and World dinosaurs turn out to be far-fetched. In the former, the horse-sized velociraptors should actually have been the size of dogs. In the latter, the absurdly gigantic mosasaur (which technically wasn’t even a dinosaur) snacking on great white sharks didn’t grow longer than about 50 feet from head to tail. While some gargantuan dinosaurs certainly did exist and may have weighed over 100 tons, those giants tended to be herbivores.
Plus, even with accurate dimensions, T. rex would already have trouble chasing down jeeps. According to Brusatte, T. rex lumbered more than sprinted, chasing its prey in brief bursts of energy. The dino probably maxed out around 10-25 mph—fast enough to make quick work of a human on foot, but not to catch a moving vehicle. To keep pace with speeding cars, T. rex would have needed over 85 percent of its total body mass in its thighs alone, Brusatte writes in his new book, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs.
3. Jurassic soundscape
The roars and bellows in Jurassic Park and World echo those of lions or elephants—appropriately grandiose for surround sound. Yet while sounds don’t fossilize, the shapes and sizes of bits of rib cages and nasal cavities have hinted that dinosaur noises were actually more ostrich- or crocodile-like in nature. Dinosaur communication was probably “not very complex,” says Matthew Carrano, a paleobiologist at the National Museum of Natural History. At least, not compared to the vocal cord vibrations of mammals or serenades of songbirds. Hisses, grunts, booms, and hoots were likely what reverberated through the prehistoric landscape.
Paleontologists have so far been able to construct what they are fairly confident is an accurate simulation of what one dinosaur sounded like: the duck-billed parasaurolophus. The parasaurolophus sported a large cranial crest that protruded in a backwards sweep from the top of its head like a lever. Suspecting the crest that may have served as a resonating chamber, researchers used computer modeling to construct a parasaurolophus crest. The end result: a low bellow that you might otherwise hear from a tuba.
4. Armed and not-so-dangerous
The puniness of T. rex’s arms compared to the rest of the dinosaur’s hulking power has made it the butt of countless jokes. But rather than deriding what were essentially human-sized arms on an animal the size of a school bus, we should be asking why T. rex even had arms—and why they were as muscular as they were.
We now know that the ancestors of T. rex used their forelimbs quite a bit, snatching prey and tearing at them with well-developed claws. As these small, wiry dinosaurs evolved, however, they grew larger, developing massive heads and eventually losing their reliance on their forelimbs. The T. rex was essentially a “giant land shark,” as Brusatte puts it. Yet for some reason, the arms never disappeared completely: evolution kept them around, well-endowed enough to toss around a couple hundred pounds, Carrano says.
Why? They may have been weapons, allowing the T. rex to slash at prey at close distances. Or perhaps, as Brusatte and others believe, T. rex used them as shackles to hold struggling prey while the gnashing teeth did the dirty work. Others theorize that the arms may have played a role in mating, for displaying flashy feathers or bracing mates during copulation. In any case, clearly they were developed enough to be of some regular use. A more accurate dino film would have T. rex utilizing these limbs, rather than just including them as feeble ornaments.
“Their arms were actually more muscular than ours,” says Carrano. What’s more, contrary to most film depictions, the arms of T. rex and many other dinosaurs were built such that their palms would have faced inward rather than downwards. Few dinosaurs had the bone structure required to give their wrists that amount of flexibility, so they constantly looked as though in mid-clap—or about to arm wrestle. Speaking of that prospect, a human "probably wouldn’t win a wrestling contest against a T. rex,” says Carrano. “But you wouldn’t lose that badly.”
5. When facts are stranger than fiction
Sadly, we now know that the dino-DNA-in-amber hypothesis wouldn’t work, at least not for creatures as ancient as T. rex. “For a long time, we thought fossils in amber were perfect … as in, if you got rid of the amber, [what was inside] could just get up and fly away,” says paleontologist Victoria McCoy of the University of Leicester. It turns out that amber and fossils don’t do as good a job preserving organic remains as the movies depict; we now know that DNA is a fickle, delicate molecule, certainly not built to survive 150 million years.
But real-world scientists are finding creative ways to work around this snag. Some are reverse-evolving chickens; others have managed to retrieve dinosaur proteins from fossils (which, thankfully, is still possible). But without an entire dinosaur genome, genetic gaps would need to be bridged using other DNA—likely with something avian or reptilian. In other words, we will never be able to reverse-engineer dinosaurs exactly as they were, because all that's left of them is, at best, a handful of pieces of a highly degraded biological puzzle.
Perhaps this opens a door for the next Jurassic World: an honest depiction of dinosaur genetic engineering, feathers, chicken genes and all. "I would love to see a Jurassic Park-style movie that was, instead of a disaster movie, a hopeful movie where the scientists are working out how to clone the dinosaurs,” says McCoy. Such a world could also feature the myriad new shapes, sizes, colors, and textures that fossil finds are revealing at an astonishing rate. We don’t need more like the hybrid Indominus rex when there’s already so much diversity still waiting to be discovered.
Part of the legacy of Jurassic Park was the scientific spark it ignited in millions of young future scientists across the world. But there’s also a magic to the pure elation of seeing the latest scientific research brought to life on the big screen. Because let’s face it: dinosaurs were pretty cool, just as they actually were.