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13 December 2016

Why everything Jurassic Park taught you about how dinosaurs look is wrong

There is now evidence to show that most dinosaurs were covered in feathers, but film-makers might not welcome the new, softer, image.

By Anjuli R. K. shere

From plastic, anxiety-prone Rex in the Toy Story franchise to the 2004 horror film Dinocroc, audiences have long been fascinated by dinosaurs. Recent fossil discoveries have led scientists to believe that these lizard-like previous inhabitants of our planet were much more colourful and birdlike than was previously imagined. What exactly this means for future popular culture dinosaur depictions is up for debate. Will the rampaging dinosaurs that have occupied leading roles as antagonists in sci-fi blockbusters for decades adapt to survive?

In a tale that is eerily reminiscent of the Jurassic Park back-story – last year, while trawling the amber markets of Myitkyina, Myanmar, Lida Xing, a palaeontologist from the China University of Geosciences in Beijing, came across an extraordinary piece. Preserved in a stone that had already been shaped and polished for use in jewellery was a fossilised feathered tail, found to belong to a baby dinosaur from the Cretaceous period (which occurred 65.5 million years ago and lasted 79 million years). Dr Paul Barrett of the Natural History Museum in London told BBC News that “the new amber specimen confirms ideas from developmental biologists about the order in which some of the detailed features of modern feathers, such as barbs and barbules (the little hooks that hold the barbs together so that the feather can form a nice neat vane), would have appeared”.

Unlike the amber fossils of prehistoric bird wings from the same era that had been unearthed in June of this year, the structure of the dinosaur tail’s downy feathers demonstrates its unsuitability for flight. Instead it is thought that the feathers were useful for temperature regulation, a particularly important feature for baby dinosaurs like the tail’s original owner. Rather than being an isolated case, the finding supports the conclusion of a 2014 study published in the aptly named scientific journal, Science – that all dinosaurs, avian or not, were covered in feathers or had the potential to grow them.

Now that this is public knowledge, it raises questions about how filmmakers will represent dinosaurs on the silver screen in future. The original Jurassic Park film, released in 1993, was praised for how closely the park’s inhabitants resembled what the scientific community thought dinosaurs looked like at the time. They were intimidatingly naked, depicted as not particularly intelligent, but with quick reflexes and predatory instincts. However, the creative team did liberally employ artistic license to heighten dramatic effect, for example in the scene when Tyrannosaurus Rex chased a jeep at a speed that researchers have now recognised was beyond the capability of the hollow-boned, giant predator.

The starring creatures of the Jurassic Park films were scaly and terrifying – playing into the same widespread repulsion and fear of reptilian beasts that the Godzilla films had, decades before. They fit audience expectations of inhuman monsters. Perhaps future dinosaur films will portray the creatures that were wiped out during one of the biggest mass extinction events in the Earth’s history, as feather-covered creatures who waddled around the planet caring more about keeping warm than wrecking havoc.

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In case audiences are still craving a traditional scary dinosaur narrative, though, might I direct script writers to a new dinosaur species discovered two years ago – Anzu wyliei – which palaeontologists have dubbed “the chicken from hell“? With the head of a giant chicken and the body of a raptor, it has everything needed to fuel the next generation of moviegoers’ nightmares.