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What 'Jurassic World' gets right – and wrong – about dinosaurs

Published November 26, 2014 8:36 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Mark Loewen knows his dinosaurs.

The prolific researcher has traveled the globe to study them, from Madagascar to Mexico. Besides being a research associate at the Natural History Museum of Utah, he's also a geology and geophysics professor who teaches the popular "World of Dinosaurs" course at the University of Utah. He routinely dissects the original "Jurassic Park" with his students; what it gets right, what it gets wrong. So what does Loewen make of the "Jurassic World" trailer that debuted Tuesday morning?

The teaser offered fleeting glimpses of the dinos – and Chris Pratt's furrowed brow about a mysterious new one. Loewen thinks the movie looks like a good reboot, and his analytical eye found a satisfying improvement over the original, a couple dubious representations — and a potential homage to the real-life experiments to bring dinosaurs back to life. Here's what "Jurassic World" seems to get right, and wrong, about what one day could become our scaly, murderous overlords.

• Raptors are supposed to have feathers.

The killing machines running alongside Pratt are green and scaly, even though we know that velociraptors had feathers. Loewen figures the movie keeps the raptors that way for continuity's sake. Besides the featherless bodies, they're also disproportionately large like the first "Jurassic Park's" raptors – though their size was kind of, sort of vindicated later. The same summer that the original came out, paleontologists discovered our state dino — Utah raptor — which about matches the size of Spielberg's creations.

Velociraptor also isn't a Jurassic-era dino; it belongs to the Cretaceous.

• Possible spoiler warning: The hybrid dinosaur might be part spinosaurus.

Loewen is speculating, but he figures the scientists used the iconic T-Rex and a spinosaurus — a predator famous for the sail on its back — to make their mystery monster. There is a quick shot of the beast's underbelly, and it seems to have the arms and bipedal legs of the theropod family that its parents belong to. And "by looking at the teeth, [Pratt] pulls a tooth out of the Battle Ball, whatever you want to call it," Loewen said, "… and that's almost certainly a spinosaurus tooth."

• Same-era dinos actually appear together.

As visitors paddle down a river, their kayaks float by stegosaurus and brachiosaurus, two dinosaurs that actually would have coexisted. That might not seem like much, but it's a noticeable improvement over the first movie. Remember when Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler, who have just seen their first live dinoaur, look across the valley and see older-era braciosaurs in a small lake with the much more recent parasaurolophus? Those species are so far apart in time, the chronological gap between them is greater than the gap between parasaurolophus and us, Loewen said.

• The shark-eating reptile needed a lot more water

If you're wondering "what was that behemoth?" — it's a member of the pliosaur family, big aquatic reptiles that technically aren't dinosaurs. If Loewen had to guess, he thinks it's based on liopleurodon, a fearsome predator of its mid-Jurassic heyday. Devouring the shark was a great homage to the ill-fated cow of the first movie, Loewen said, though there's a distinct problem with the pliosaur's environment.

"No way that water was deep enough to hold that specimen," he said. Besides a renowned dinosaur expert, Loewen is also a scuba diver. That shallow, Caribbean-esque water in the tank is probably no more than a few dozen feet deep. The spectacular monster that lunged out of the water was easily about 100 feet long, and would have needed a much deeper tank, he said. Regardless, it sure looked spectacular, Loewen added.

But there's one more question surrounding the pliosaur's existance for Loewen: where did they get the DNA? Mosquitoes aren't exactly known for feeding on marine life. In fact, "DNA doesn't last in the stomach of a mosquito;" termites' stomachs are better at preserving DNA, he said. And speaking of recreating dinosaurs…

• The 'Dino-Chicken' Project

The trailer alludes to learning more about dinosaurs through recent genetic research — an homage, Loewen speculates, to the research of Jack Horner. The scientist, a real-life basis for Alan Grant and a consultant on the films, has beeen devoting himself to what's been called the "Dino-Chicken Project": reverse-engineering dinosaurs from the DNA of their evolutionary descendents, birds. So far, scientists have been able to modify embryos so that chickens have teeth and the three-fingered hands of the archaeopteryx.

If mankind ever does make a dinosaur theme park on an island?

"I'd pay a thousand dollars" to go, Loewen said.

Michael McFall

Twitter: @mikeypanda






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