It all started when a phone rang in Bozeman, Montana, in the early 1990s. Hollywood was on the line. On the other end of the line: paleontologist Jack Horner, dinosaur expert at the Museum of the Rockies. Even before the publication of Michael Crichton’s novel “Jurassic Park” Steven Spielberg had secured the film rights. What he needed now was a scientific advisor who knew about the giant lizards.
The problem with the dinosaur genetic code
Jack Horner agreed – and immediately took the wind out of the sails of the film’s basic hypothesis: “We can’t get DNA from a dinosaur,” says Horner. Strands of DNA didn’t last more than a few thousand years. Dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago. “Perhaps one day we will find tiny fragments of the genetic material of dinosaurs,” hopes Horner. “But to fill it up, we don’t have anything better than bird DNA.” The genetic code would be so bad that in the end only one bird would come out.
In the film, however, John Hammond, the creator of Jurassic Park, succeeded in breeding dinosaurs by discovering intact DNA in dinosaur blood. The blood came from mosquitoes that had feasted on the ancient lizards. The insects, in turn, were coated in resin and preserved in amber pretty much intact. The work of breeding could begin – at least in the imagination of the film.
Errors in “Jurassic Park”, the first part of the series
But even expert advice does not protect against mistakes. When the first “Jurassic Park” movie was released in 1993, paleontologists still assumed that raptors looked like lizards on two legs. Today, almost 30 years later, the research community is smarter. “We now know that velociraptors had feathers,” notes paleontologist Stephen Brusatte. “They really did look like some kind of weird bird with wings instead of arms.” Scientists can now see this from real fossils. But the problem was, these fossils weren’t discovered until several years after the first Jurassic Park movie. And so the dinosaurs lacked feathers – until now.
Stephen Brusatte is Jack Horner’s successor as Scientific Advisor for the latest film in the Jurassic World 3 franchise. “It always bothered me a little that this outdated idea of scaly, green-grey dinosaurs has outlasted all the films in the ‘Jurassic Park’ series,” says the dinosaur expert. “But when I was asked to be a science advisor on Jurassic World 3, I was promised the first time we met that some of the dinosaurs would wear feathers in the future. I said yes right away!”
Jurassic World Advisor: Expertise on Demand
When he’s not consulting Hollywood, Stephen Brusatte works at Edinburgh University’s School of Geosciences. He didn’t even have to be present during the shooting of “Jurassic World 3”. He delivered knowledge on demand. “As a consultant, it’s not my job to come up with a plot,” Brusatte explains. He neither writes the screenplay nor does he even look into it. Instead, he strives to bring dinosaur-related expertise to the film. It was his job to be available when the producers had questions. “And they made good use of it!”
Moviegoers can now decide for themselves how realistic all this has become when they go into “Jurassic World” – possibly for the last time.