Menacing genetically modified dinosaurs are again wreaking havoc in Jurassic World, the newest installment of the Jurassic Park film series. The 1990 novel Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton and the release of the first film in 1993 made the concept of dinosaurs again walking the earth appear very possible and frightening. We checked with Hofstra’s own dinosaur expert, Dr. Bret Bennington, chair of the Department of Geology, Environment and Sustainability, on how much of Jurassic Park and Jurassic World is within the realm of possibility and asked about his own feelings on dinosaur entertainment.
Has any good come out of Jurassic Park in terms of sparking interest in dinosaurs and science? Did Michael Crichton’s background as a doctor help its success?
I don’t have any data, but it seems likely – particularly with the first film and the book – that dinosaurs were elevated in the public eye to a large degree. What made Michael Crichton’s novel compelling was that the science was pretty good. In the two novels of his that I’ve read, Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain, the science is very plausible. The key to good science fiction is the element of plausibility. It doesn’t need to be completely grounded in science, but you need to at least give the reader or the viewer something to grab on to so that they can think, “Okay, this could be.”
In your opinion, what are the biggest obstacles preventing us from bringing back the dinosaurs as imagined in the Jurassic Park movies?
The whole storyline of extracting dinosaur DNA from mosquitoes and other biting insects preserved in amber could conceivably be done, but realistically it’s impossible. There are a lot of different reasons for that.
DNA is a very fragile molecule even under the best of conditions. It doesn’t survive for very long. We can extract DNA from the tissue of extinct organisms. For example, we have sequenced the entire genome of our closest extinct relative, Neanderthal man, by getting remnant tissue from fossil bones and teeth. But Neanderthal fossils aren’t very old – they’re only a few tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years old. The youngest dinosaur is 65 million years old. It’s highly unlikely that any DNA would survive that long even under the best of circumstances.
Even if the DNA did survive, it would probably be in such small fragments that it would be impossible to reassemble into a coherent genome. And if you could do that, getting that DNA into a cellular system where it could be expressed and translated into an embryo is a whole other challenge. So it seems unlikely we’ll be able to de-extinct a dinosaur.
Another approach would be to start with a chicken, which is a living descendent of the dinosaur. The DNA that made a dinosaur still exists in chickens, but the genes inherited from dinosaurs in chickens are switched on and off in different timings and expressed in different degrees. If we could learn how to flip those switches to create a chicken embryo that develops with a tail and jaws and teeth instead of a beak, you’d have a dinosaur – although it would be unlike any particular dinosaur that ever existed.
Scientists are actually working on this, not so much to recreate dinosaurs as to better understand how evolution causes morphological change in species.
Overall the first movie was pretty good, and they were careful to consult with paleontologists to make it realistic. There were some mistakes, and many of those were probably deliberate. The Velociraptors were made bigger and more threatening. The Dilophosaurus was made smaller so it could attack one person in his jeep. The Brachiosaurus was shown chewing like a cow – their jaws and teeth didn’t work that way. Unlike many herbivorous dinosaurs, sauropods like Brachiosaurus could not chew their food – they could only bite and swallow.
It was with the third movie [Jurassic Park III] that they started to get away from science and realism. My biggest complaint was that they had the flying reptiles, the pterosaurs, as these menacing predators attacking people. Most pterosaurs were fish eaters – like a giant albatross – and would not have been threatening to people.
In the trailers for the new movies, I see they have flocks of pterosaurs swooping down on people, grabbing them and carrying them up in the air which is completely ridiculous. Even fairly large pterosaurs probably would have weighed as much as a big duck and would not have the power or the aerodynamic capability to lift a heavy object like a person off the ground.
Science aside, if bringing back dinosaurs was possible, what kind would you most like to see in the flesh?
Predatory dinosaurs would be super interesting because they’re more intelligent and probably had more complex behaviors. It would be wonderful to see exactly how birdlike they were. My favorite dinosaurs as a kid were always the armored and horned dinosaurs. However, if I had to choose an extinct organism to bring back, it would be the pterosaurs, because there is absolutely nothing like them on earth today.
What is your favorite dinosaur movie?
My favorite is Journey to the Center of the Earth with James Mason, although those were actually not dinosaurs in the movie – they were Dimetrodons, which were a pre-dinosaur, non-reptile prehistoric animal. When I was a kid I also loved the dinosaur movies made in the 50s and 60s with the stop motion special effects by Ray Harryhausen.
Are there any extinct species that it might be possible to bring back?
There are recently extinct species such as passenger pigeons and Australian marsupials such as the thylacine [Tasmanian wolf]. But the animal everyone talks about de-extincting is the wooly mammoth. There is a lot of frozen wooly mammoth tissue to work with that comes out of the permafrost in Siberia, as well as a very close living relative in the Indian Elephant. So there is a source of intact DNA and a living host to provide the egg cell. We have to figure out how to swap the nucleus of an elephant with the nucleus of the wooly mammoth.
Will you be seeing Jurassic World this summer?
Maybe. I’m going to wait to read the reviews.