How Jurassic Park led to the modernization of dinosaur paleontologyJune 23, 2018
Paleontologist Steve Brusatte loves Jurassic Park. Without it, he jokes, he wouldn’t even have a job. So he’s not going to criticize all the inaccuracies in the Hollywood franchise. But he’s also studied dinosaurs his whole life (real ones, with feathers), so he loves talking about giant creatures that ruled over the Earth millions of years ago.
In his new book The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World, Brusatte, a professor at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, charts the origins of dinosaurs from the beginning of the Triassic period all the way to their abrupt disappearance about 66 million years ago. He also takes a close look at the evolution of the field of paleontology, and how it has diversified and grown by leaps and bounds in recent years — thanks in part to Steven Spielberg’s iconic 1993 movie.
Brusatte recently spoke with The Verge about his book, how technology is leading to new dinosaur discoveries, and how Jurassic Park inspired a whole new generation of paleontologists.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Your book The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World looks at the world of the dinosaurs in a new way. It’s a narrative history of where they came from and how they died out. Why did you decide to write a book like this?
I think it was a couple of things. When I got into dinosaurs, I was a little bit older. I wasn’t one of those annoying five-year-old kids who knew the name of every dinosaur and could spell the name of every dinosaur. Instead, I was an annoying teenager, and I became really enthralled by fossils when I was about 14 or 15 years old. I read pretty much every book I could find. Because I was a little bit older, I wasn’t really reading kids books. I was reading adult popular science books, books by people like [Robert] Bakker, Jack Horner, and Stephen Jay Gould. Those books were just such a gateway for me into science, and they really sparked my interest. So for a while, I’ve wanted to write my own.
There are so many dinosaur books for kids. You can probably find hundreds of them at a bookshop or library. But there aren’t so many for adults, which is strange because we’re in this real golden age of paleontology with all these new discoveries. There hasn’t been something for a while to try to tell the story of dinosaurs to an older audience that shows why dinosaurs are interesting, why they’re relevant, why it’s important to understand them, and to use them to hopefully tell a good story to people that maybe haven’t thought much about fossil evolution or even science since high school.
What impressed me the most about this book was that it puts everything into context: the whole evolution of dinosaurs and how creatures like the Tyrannosaurus rex fit in that larger story.
It’s a story that I don’t think has really been told before, even in the books I read about dinosaurs when I was younger. They were mostly field adventure-type books, which were great, and, of course, I tell some field stories in this book. But those were books about the excitement of finding new things and of being up in the field and exploring unknown places. There really hadn’t been a book that has been done on the whole evolutionary story of dinosaurs. I think, in part, that’s because there were big gaps in this story that we didn’t really know until recently. So if Bob Bakker or Jeff Warner or any of these other folks would have even wanted to write a book like that, they probably couldn’t do it very easily.
Ultimately, I think it’s an amazing story of how these reptiles survived an extinction and then rose up very gradually to take over the world and established this empire that grew into monstrous sizes. And then some of them grew feathers and wings and turned into birds, and then when they were at the top of their game, they were struck down. So I hope it’s a story that engages people because I think it’s one of the most fascinating stories in the whole history of our planet.
You mentioned that paleontologists didn’t really have a complete picture of the history until now. What has changed in recent years that allows you to tell this story?
Right now, we’re in a golden age of paleontology. People are finding more dinosaurs now than ever before: somebody somewhere around the world is finding a new species on average once a week. So, 50-some new species a year. It’s a number that sounds too unbelievable to be true, but it’s actually the case, and that’s been going on for about a decade now. That’s all because there are so many more people looking for dinosaurs all over the world. Countries like China, Brazil, and Argentina have opened up, and they’re training their own young scientists, with their own universities, their own museums, and they’re going out to find things. And it’s a much more diverse group of people than ever before. There are many young women in the field now. That didn’t use to be the case. So we’re just in this exciting phase of discovery, and that means, with all these new species, that’s just adding clues that can help us tell that story better.
But also there’s a lot of new technological advances that people 10, 20 years ago wouldn’t have dreamed up. It’s become normal to CAT scan fossils to see inside the heads of dinosaurs to see what their brains were like, what the sensory organs were like, to gauge how smart they were, what their senses were like. It’s also pretty standard to use computer animation software to study how dinosaurs moved, [to figure out] how fast they could run, how high they could hold their necks, how they fed, how hard they could bite, that kind of stuff. So that’s just led to a lot more evidence.
In particular, we’ve learned a whole lot more about the rise of dinosaurs. That’s where a lot of the great new discoveries are. We’ve known about the fall of dinosaurs for a while, all the way back to 1980 when [Luis and Walter Alvarez] first proposed the asteroid idea. But the rise of the dinosaurs has really just been discovered over the last 10 to 15 years. So many new fossils of these Triassic-age dinosaurs from so many parts of the world have revealed this unexpected story that dinosaurs didn’t just spread around the world like some infectious virus the moment they originated. They were not superior to the other animals that they were rising up with in those early days after the Permian extinction on Pangea. Instead, it was a long, slow, almost tortured rise to dominance that took about 50 million years. If it was 10 or 15 years ago, we just wouldn’t have really known that story at all.
I’ve always wondered how a real Jurassic Park, with dinosaurs from all over the time scale, would function.
I think it’s an amazing thought experiment. I think it’s very implausible to bring back dinosaurs. I never like to say never because that shuts off our desire to do things and discover things. But when it comes to resurrecting dinosaurs, ever since Jurassic Park came out, everybody’s been looking for dinosaur DNA. But despite 25 years of looking, nobody’s found even a single fragment of dinosaur DNA. That’s just because DNA degrades so rapidly once an animal dies.
I would also argue that I wouldn’t want to bring back dinosaurs, even though I study them and am so enthralled by them. There’s little that I’d want more to see — through a very powerful pair of binoculars — than a T. rex alive, interacting with this world, hunting, caring for its young. [But] I do think that it wouldn’t really be right to bring them back because I don’t think they could really cope in our world today. They lived in a different world. They evolved at a different time.
With all that said, if somebody were able to create a theme park like this, it would be wild to see how these dinosaurs would interact, because T. rex didn’t live with Brachiosaurus, and neither of them lived with Dilophosaurus or Velociraptor. These are things that lived at different times and in different places. So a T. rex would have never evolved to deal with the velociraptor, so to see those two very different types of predators would be wild.
What do the Jurassic Park films do for the public’s imagination of dinosaurs, and how does it contribute to this ongoing paleontology renaissance?
I love the films, particularly the first Jurassic Park. You’re not going to hear me nitpick about how each scene has some inaccuracy, like this dinosaur would have been three centimeters bigger or it’s not quite the right color, or that one’s holding its arms a little bit wrong. I’m not going to do that. I just think that’s unnecessary and beside the point because you know these things are not science documentaries; they’re entertainment.
I think the first Jurassic Park was the best thing that’s ever happened to dinosaur paleontology. That led to an explosion of public interest in dinosaurs. This introduced dinosaurs to a whole new generation, and this newer image of dinosaurs as an active, energetic, and intelligent animal. It was so different than the dinosaurs I read about in my books in school, and that was great. It reignited this interest in dinosaurs, and that led directly to a lot of museums putting out dinosaur exhibits. A lot of universities put out courses, and [there was] a lot more interest and money in the field. A lot of my colleagues got jobs specifically because of Jurassic Park, because a museum of university wanted to hire a paleontologist after that. So I do think there is a really, really good chance I wouldn’t have my job today if the book was never written, if the movie was never made. I think dinosaur paleontology right now would still be a really niche discipline, with only a handful of people around the world studying it, and probably not a very diverse group of people. The film changed the whole potential of the field, and we’re reaping the benefits of that because there are so many people of my generation all around the world that were so enthused by the film.
Is there anything that you wish the films did differently?
I think it’s one of the great ironies that the Jurassic Park films now are out of date. It’s something everybody says — and it may sound a bit cliché because you have pretty much every paleontologist say it — but the one thing I would like to see is feathers on some of the dinosaurs, because we now know so many dinosaurs were covered in feathers.
Now, I understand that a large percentage of the public would probably find them weird if they did have feathers, and I can only imagine that’s one of the reasons that the writers and producers haven’t put feathers on the dinosaurs. But at the very least, I would love to see feathered Velociraptors, because we know they had feathers, and we know they had actual wings, and they would have looked so much like birds. As far as I’m concerned, that makes them even more terrifying. I mean think of a pack of rabid turkeys with big sickle claws on their feet, chasing after you, surrounding you, and trying to rip into you. I think that’s more terrifying than the Velociraptors as shown in Jurassic Park.
What piece of technology has helped you the most in your job?
CAT scanners. That’s just allowed us to study the anatomy of dinosaur bones in a detail we never could before, particularly the internal anatomy. There’s so much information in the inside of a skeleton and particularly the skull. The CAT scans allow us to see the brain cavity, the sinuses, the blood vessels, the nerves — all of these things that are so central to intelligence and sensory perception [that informs] the behaviors of these dinosaurs. That just opened up a new world that just wasn’t really accessible before.
The field has become really techy. I don’t think it’s unique to paleontology, but it used to be that paleontology students would mostly study geology. They would mostly cut their teeth by doing field work and taking part in dinosaur digs hacking bones out of the rock. Of course, that training still continues, but nowadays so many of our young students are trained in mathematics and statistics. They’re ace computer programmers. That’s where the field is going: using every tool at our disposal and collaborating with other fields, other people, and other perspectives to really understand what dinosaurs were like as real animals. But also using mathematics to study things like evolutionary trends and rates, building family trees, quantifying how fast or slow dinosaurs evolved, how they spread around the world.
I think the techie side of paleontology doesn’t really fit the public’s image of a paleontologist. Most people think a paleontologist as gold prospectors. There is still very much that image in documentaries and in television shows of this very macho, masculine, testosterone-driven, Indiana Jones-style character that goes out to some corner of the world. But that’s not really the case, and I tried to show in the book how we’ve become a very diverse field.