Let’s Talk about Jurassic Park: Part 2 – Triceratops

Welcome back to Mike of the Mesozoic! In the last post, we discussed issues of palaeontology and accuracy surrounding Giraffatitan, the first dinosaur to appear in Jurassic Park. This time around we’re moving on to the famous scene with the sick Triceratops, as brought to life by the wizards at Stan Winston Studios.

Before I fully get my Nerd Hat on, I’m going to take a minute to talk about the greatness of this sequence. Has there ever been a more convincing dinosaur special effect on screen? It looks so real. It’s a matter of debate, of course, but I’m inclined to feel that no VFX dinosaur could ever appear so believable. It doesn’t look like a robot or a special effect; it looks like a dinosaur. By the way, before anybody suspects me of being some sort of anti-CGI crusader, I adore and am fascinated by modern VFX; I just feel that there are things that computers do very well, and things for which you need practical effects. For this, you need practical effects, and hoo boy, did the Winston crew do a good job with this one.

Anyway, you’re here to see me run this lovely scene through my Nerd Filter and see what shakes out, so let’s get right on with that. The first order of business is probably to ascertain what flavour of Triceratops is under discussion, as there are currently two valid species known to science, T. horridus (the ‘type species’, or the species on which the Triceratops name is based) and T. prorsus. There are a number of differences between the two species, most notably in the brow horns and snout shape.

 (Image by Zachi Evenor, nicked from Wikipedia)

Interestingly, there is some evidence that Triceratops horridus may have evolved directly into prorsus over a period of one or two million years, as one species is found only in younger rocks and the other only in older. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that the dinosaur shown in Jurassic Park is a member of the horridus species – it is the better-known dinosaur, so it makes sense to assume that the reference material and advice from Jack Horner, who provided palaeontology consulting on the production, would have related to this species.

So how does this stack up as an attempt at depicting an accurate Triceratops horridus? Well, it’s pretty good! As with the Giraffatitan of the previous article, the movie version of this dinosaur is generally on-model, and all of my comments are going to concern relatively small details. For example, Triceratops is shown here sporting two small examples of what are called ‘jugal horns’ (named for the skull bone from which they project):

To my knowledge there is no evidence for double horns like this in the fossil record. Triceratops did indeed sport keratinous jugal horns, but only one on each side of its face:

But that is hardly a palaeo-catastrophe. More noticeable are the dinosaur’s feet:

The movie shows the animal with rather elephantine extremities, but in life Triceratops would have had more pronounced claws on the innermost three of its five toes, as shown in this skeletal reconstruction by the brilliant (and very nice) Scott Hartman:

I hope Scott can forgive me for scrawling in red ink over his art in order to make a point!

The animal’s nostrils, too, would probably be located a little further forward, based on Lawrence Witmer’s 2001 study of dinosaur noses that I also referenced in the previous blog post. I nearly missed this detail, but fortunately my partner-in-crime, palaeo-artist Alice Turner, was on hand to nudge me in the right direction! It would probably look something more like this:

Now let’s talk about the mini-spikes projecting from around the neck frill, which collectively are known as epoccipitals – or, if you want to get all fancy, epiparietals and episquamosals (depending which particular bone of the frill is the one with which they are associated). It’s hard to get a good look in the movie, but from this behind-the-scenes photograph you can clearly make out nine epoccipitals on the left side of the frill (that is, the animal’s left) and another at the centre line:

It seems safe to assume that the right side bears nine spikes also, giving us a total of 19 epoccipitals. That’s not outside the realms of possibility – I believe some Triceratops have been found to have as many as 26, but it does seem to vary hugely between individuals (I’ve seen another with only 15). So, 19 epoccipitals seems fine, and their appearance is generally consistent with what I’d expect. So, good job, Stan Winston Studios!

I have one more point to make regarding the spiky parts of Triceratops, and it’s to point out that the brow horns should probably be sharper and longer. The animatronic model is essentially consistent with what can be observed from fossil bones, but in life the animal would have keratin covering and extending the horns. Allow me to again refer to the Hartman skeletal:

It’s hard to get a good sense of the animal’s proportions and posture from its awkward position on the floor in Jurassic Park, so I’ll refrain from trying to make any meaningful commentary on that. We can, however, get into scales.

Triceratops skin was not, I think, known at the time of Jurassic Park‘s production, so what you see onscreen was guesswork by Stan Winston’s team (probably using related dinosaurs for reference, as the animatronic’s skin seems to resemble that of Chasmosaurus  – image nicked off palaeo-artist Mark Witton’s blog). As it turns out, they weren’t too far off the mark. Fossilised skin impressions for this dinosaur did start to turn up a few years ago, and we know now that the scales were hexagonal, not curved, and featured occasional isolated projections that looked a bit like nipples:

(Image nicked from Rapid City Journal)

In any case, the patterning of the scale sizes and the general convex nature was nailed pretty well by the sculptors, so I’d say they did a good job overall! It would be remiss of me not to mention that there has been some speculation, fuelled by Robert Bakker, that Triceratops may have sported bristles or quills between its scales (based on recently-discovered fossils of ancestral animals and taxonomic relatives), but I should point out that no direct evidence has been found for such a thing, and so at present it’s just an interesting idea that some palaeo-artists have been exploring (although plenty haven’t).

As the Triceratops scene unfolds, it quickly transpires that the attending dino-vet, Dr. Harding, somehow hasn’t noticed that his ‘Trike’ has hugely dilated pupils despite presumably turning this problem over for at least six weeks (the length of the cycle during which the dinosaur routinely gets sick and recovers). Dr. Sattler, in her capacity as a botanist, immediately identifies toxic “West Indian lilac” berries growing nearby and is assured by Harding that the Triceratops never eats them, but remains skeptical, asking to inspect the dinosaur’s droppings. Thus it is that Ian Malcolm soon finds himself infamously considering a “big pile of shit”:

That is a big pile of shit. I can only assume the park staff are scooping it up into mountains for some secret fun of their own, or else this Triceratops has bigger medical problems than just berry poisoning!

This, of course, is where the film moves away from the Triceratops scene and leaves the poisoning mystery unexplained, although the novel version of Dr. Sattler does quickly discover the reason for the dinosaur’s illness:

“Gizzard stones,” Grant said.

“I think so, yes. They swallow these stones, and after a few weeks the stones are worn smooth, so they regurgitate them, leaving this little pile, and swallow fresh stones. And when they do, they swallow berries as well. And get sick.”

To my knowledge, Triceratops gizzard stones – also called gastroliths – have never been found in real life (in the novel, the sick animal was actually a Stegosaurus, but we haven’t found stego-gastroliths either). So this is a bit of speculation on the part of Michael Crichton and the filmmakers; as stated in the previous blog post, we do know that sauropod dinosaurs made use of stomach stones, but it’s probably an oversimplification to imagine that all herbivorous dinosaurs did. Personally, I’m not convinced; we know from the structure of the jaw and from the shape and wear of its teeth that Triceratops habitually chewed its food before swallowing, which I would think would remove or at least reduce its need to ingest gastroliths, but who knows? I could be wrong. We do find dinosaur gastroliths of all shapes and sizes around the areas of North America that also contain Triceratops remains, but until we actually find one preserved with a Triceratops, it’s impossible to say with any certainty. Did Triceratops have a gizzard? Nobody knows for sure.

A related question is: how would the Triceratops get sick from having poison berries in a hypothetical gizzard, which are then thrown up undigested, anyway? They never get as far as the actual stomach, and Sattler is unable to find them in the poo. So how does the dinosaur get poisoned, exactly? In attempting to research this, I found that both the novel and the movie have their plant names mixed up – West Indian lilac is actually a completely different plant to the very toxic Indian lilac, or Melia azedarach. I don’t know anything at all about phytotoxicology (I didn’t even know that the study of plant poisons was called phytotoxicology without looking it up), but I did find out that Indian lilac berries have to be bitten or chewed to release the toxins, otherwise they’re mostly harmless.

If the dinosaur is swallowing gastroliths whole without chewing and accidentally scooping up a few berries along the way, what are the chances that said berries will actually have any adverse effect, especially given that they don’t progress to the stomach? For the sake of argument, let’s say the Triceratops does actually chew a berry or two by mistake, or some of the fruit gets smooshed between some stomach stones, and the toxins are released. These are comparitively tiny berries for a grown Triceratops – could they really have that much of an effect? It’s a question of dosage, isn’t it? I’m sorry, Dr. Sattler, but I’m not sold on your diagnosis! Animals that are susceptible to Melia toxicity – and apparently there are many that are resistant, including birds, goats and horses – tend to die painfully and horribly over a period of a few days, rather than merely getting dizzy and falling over and then subsequently getting better all by themselves like Dr. Harding’s Triceratops (which is also presumably not receiving any useful treatment, given that Harding has no clue what’s wrong with it).

Speaking of Doc Harding, I always thought it slightly odd that he has no reaction at all to five random Park visitors suddenly jumping out of their vehicles and wandering around unsupervised. “Whoa, you guys can’t be out here! Get back to your car,” he doesn’t say. Does anybody else think it’s odd that he doesn’t seem to be the least bit surprised?

Anyway, nobody alive today could pretend to know anything about caring for a sick Triceratops. On the other hand, I could say confidently that I definitely wouldn’t stick my fingers in its mouth, tranquilised or not. In the words of palaeontologist Greg Paul, writing in the August-September 1997 issue of Prehistoric Times:

…Dr Sattler places her hand in the mouth of the sick Triceratops. I shy away from parrots because they can deliver a nasty bite. Would you stick your hand inside an oversized parrot-like beak that could bite through your arm bones like they were mere toothpicks?

Scott Hartman, the artist responsible for the beautiful skeletal illustration reproduced above a couple of times, has also made it clear that the mouth of Triceratops was probably a mean piece of work:

A parrot can easily nip flesh off your finger, and an eagle even more so. With the size and surprisingly sharp hooked beaks and the muscle power of a 6-10 foot long skull I’d think flesh and bone would be very plausible in these guys. In some ceratopsians like Pachyrhinosaurus and protoceratopsians the beaks pretty much had to be the main form of defense when cornered.

Well, I suppose that’s probably all I wanted to say about Jurassic Park‘s Triceratops scene! Next time, I’ll be digging deep into the movie’s famous depictions of an obscure dinosaur called Tyrannosaurus rex… perhaps you’ve heard of it?