Hello Internet! Welcome to my new dinosaur blog, Mike of the Mesozoic. For my first post, I thought I would begin with the first instalment of a series I’ve wanted to write for some time: Let’s Talk about Jurassic Park. In each post in this series, I’d like to address one of the films in the Jurassic Park franchise at a time and discuss palaeo-accuracy and other musings. I hope nobody will interpret my thoughts as serious criticism – I adore Jurassic Park, and it will forever be in my number one favourite movie slot. This is just a bit of fun and curiosity, not some kind of nerd-rage rant. But if we put our dinosaur nitpickin’ hat on, what do you suppose we’ll find?
First of all, let’s say a few words about the now legendary logo. It’s a wonderful design, but if we had to make some corrections…
The original book cover was designed in 1990 by a gentleman named Chip Kidd, who came across a Tyrannosaurus rex skeletal illustration in a textbook, photocopied it, and drew over it to create his iconic, minimalist design. As it happens, the textbook image was directly based on an illustration from a Henry Fairfield Osborn paper from 1917, and was seriously out of date when Mr. Kidd began his work.
It was then later adapted by Sandy Collora to make the movie version for Universal. I don’t want to spend this entire post doing a point-by-point critique of the Kidd logo, but as it happens I did a year or so ago make a “corrected” version of the logo, just to see what such a thing might look like in an alternate timeline. I’ll include that here:
Some quick notes of things I changed – the original was missing some skull fenestrae (openings), the dinosaur’s posture was the old-fashioned (wrong) Godzilla-upright stance, the ribcage was a black blob, the cervical (neck) ribs weren’t swept back enough, and so on. Also the hands and wrists were positioned incorrectly on the original, but my amendments to the posture took them out of the picture. I do want to point out that some of these “errors” may have been deliberate artistic decisions by Kidd, as I think he intended to depict a sort of halfway point between a skeletal illustration and a fully fleshed-out dinosaur; my version is what you might expect to see if a purely skeletal approach were taken.
Anyway, onto the movie proper! The first dinosaur to be depicted clearly onscreen, in my favourite scene in both the movie and probably film history, is the astounding Giraffatitan brancai:
I adore this scene as much as I can adore anything, and I always feel that it represents such a lightning-in-a-bottle sort of cinema moment. In the movie, the protagonists were dumbfounded and delighted by seeing a real, live dinosaur in front of their eyes, just as cinemagoers at the time were dumbfounded and delighted to see a dinosaur depicted with unprecedented realism and beauty. Of course, we’ve all gotten numb to digital visual effects today, but I will always remember seeing this scene in a cinema in the summer of ’93. I don’t know of another movie scene that has ever captured wonderment at the results of technical mastery with such elegance and precision.
But anyway, let me take my Nostalgia Hat off and return to the point. Some readers might be wondering why I said Giraffatitan to invoke what they thought was a Brachiosaurus (and was indeed referred to that way in the movie and related promotional materials) – no, Jurassic Park wasn’t wrong to use that name, at least at the time; Brachiosaurus brancai, the species depicted in the movie, was officially renamed Giraffatitan brancai some sixteen years later in 2009 (I’m probably going to write in much greater, and nerdier, detail on the history of Giraffatitan‘s discovery and description in a later post, as it’s my favourite dinosaur). The name Brachiosaurus is now still in use to refer only to a related but different dinosaur, and both Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan are brachiosaurs (classified in the family Brachiosauridae). Confused yet? Welcome to palaeontology.
Giraffatitan‘s posture is pretty good in Jurassic Park, and to my eyes there is nothing really egregiously wrong with how it’s presented. I’ve heard some experts complain that the legs are bulkier than they ought to be, but I always think that it’s pretty much up for debate exactly how much meat an artist decides to pack around the bones.
The part where it rears on its hind legs to reach the very top of the tree is unlikely but not, I think, actually impossible? I’ve seen this argued both ways. In my opinion, the dinosaur may have been physically able to adopt this pose, although it would certainly do so only very rarely (to mate, perhaps) – it must have been horribly energy inefficient for an animal of that size, and it’s perhaps a stretch to imagine that it would go to that effort just to reach some leaves at the tip-top of the tree when there were still plenty of identically suitable leaves to eat directly in front of its face. I’m prepared to give it a pass, however, and invoke the Rule of Cool, as this is a movie, not a documentary. The animal also constantly makes mellow roaring sound effects, which perhaps might be sort of accurate, actually – it’s been theorised that the distinctive hump atop Giraffatitan‘s head may have contained a fleshy resonating chamber. You know, for making dinosaur noises.
I have more to say about this dinosaur’s second appearance later in the movie, during the treetop scene. Item one on the list was again not known in 1993: the nostrils probably didn’t go on the top of the head hump. A 2001 investigation by Lawrence Witmer concluded that they would be more likely found nearer the animal’s snout, although there is certainly still some disagreement about it.
By the way, how tall is that bloody tree they’re in supposed to be? They climb about ten or fifteen feet to get into it and fall asleep, and when they wake up they’re somehow eye level with a Giraffatitan (which clearly isn’t a juvenile, given the relative size of its head to the humans). Did they teleport thirty feet vertically in the night? I’m going to ring Spielberg right now and demand my money back!
“Can I touch it?” asks Lex, nervously. “Sure,” says Dr. Grant, “just think of it as a big cow.” Because, as we all know, “herbivorous” means “necessarily safe.” Any zoologist will tell you that you do not want to go near a pissed-off hippopotamus – those things can chomp a crocodile to death. Or a bison, buffalo, or boar. Or how about an elephant, the quintessential gentle giant of the modern age? Did you know elephants are responsible for more zookeeper deaths than any other animal? Sure, Dr. Grant. I’m sure the forty-foot-tall herbivore is fine. How would you have any idea if it was safe? Really?
And speaking of the size of Giraffatitan, doesn’t there seem to be rather a lot of these animals?
Okay, so… there’s at least five of these ludicrously enormous, perpetually grazing animals confined to a small area of a small island? Why on Earth do they have so many? The various versions of the Isla Nublar island maps that have been put out officially or otherwise all seem to show a bafflingly small space allocated to these ‘big cows’, too. Even the map included with some editions of Michael Crichton’s original novel depicts a rather humble ‘Sauropod Swamp’.
(Picture pinched from JP Wikia, as my copy doesn’t seem to have the map in.)
Maybe there’s enough vegetation here to sustain five brachiosaurs on a long-term basis, maybe there isn’t; but there’s also the question of how much space each animal would need to comfortably exist in the paddock. I don’t have any idea if they have too little room in the movie, but that’s sort of my point – the park designers would have no idea how much space to allocate for the dinosaurs, really, so why on Earth would they grow five brachiosaurs for such a modest paddock? Especially given that we have no idea what is the upper limit on Giraffatitan size. What if it turned out that they could grow much larger than the fossils we have? Wouldn’t it make more sense to produce just one or two dinosaurs at first, just to see how it worked out?
The space that an animal typically inhabits is called its “home range” – some animals have a small home range and tend to generally be found somewhere in the same small region, whereas others might have a larger range and habitually wander greater distances. This is by no means a fixed quantity, by the way, and can be affected by environmental factors and climate and so on. For example, deer have been found to have a small home range during summer months, and a larger range during winter. Did brachiosaurs like to wander? Well, who knows? We do have evidence that camarasaurs, taxonomic cousins to brachiosaurs, may have migrated seasonally. I don’t know for a fact that five Giraffatitan in a paddock is too many, but it seems like a lot to me. Of course, you could explain this away in-universe if you liked, and rationalise it as another example of the carelessness of Hammond and his designers – given that that was the point of the story and all…
Finally, I should point out that Giraffatitan is shown cheerfully chewing its vegetation, and it didn’t really do that. As with all sauropods, Giraffatitan‘s mouth was just a collection point for tasty green things – the teeth would slice off leaves and twigs that would then be immediately swallowed and sent all the way down that loooong gullet, where they would then be smooshed to a pulp by gastroliths (stomach stones) and digested. And on the subject of how Giraffatitan ate things, I can’t help but wonder quite how it managed to pass food all the way down that monster oesophagus. Mega throat muscles to squeeze the grub downwards? Gallons of dino-drool? Or what?
Anyway, that’s it for today! Next time, we’re going to get deep into Jurassic Park‘s sick Triceratops scene with a fine-toothed Nerd Comb. Stay tuned!