Welcome back to Mike of the Mesozoic! In today’s article, I’m going to continue my series affectionately analysing the science of the dinosaur depictions in the original Jurassic Park movie and get to talking about what is probably one of the most misunderstood dinosaurs in the world: Dilophosaurus.
First of all, let’s get the obvious out of the way – Dilophosaurus did not spit venom, and did not have a fleshy neck frill. Thanks for reading, everybody! Tune in next time! No, I’m just kidding. Honestly, I find the fictionalisation of Dilophosaurus a little annoying – not because the filmmakers shouldn’t be allowed artistic license, and actually I do understand their reasons for having done this (more on that in a little bit), but because of the knock-on effect on popular culture. The first image that comes up when I Google this animal looks like this:
I think it’s possible that the public perception of this dinosaur has been destroyed forever, and that’s a little sad, because I think Michael Crichton and co. had decent motivations for doing this with their depictions. It’s become apparent to me from my participation in Jurassic Park fan communities that the Dilophosaurus issue is sometimes misunderstood, and so for what it’s worth, I’d like to clarify a couple of things. It’s sometimes thought that the reason for the dinosaur’s outlandish appearance in the movie is that it is some kind of bizarre genetic mutant from InGen’s lab, but I’m going to suggest that that may not actually be the point. The Dilophosaurus in the novel was, I think, part of the book’s overall theme that playing God and attempting to control nature is deeply and inherently dangerous, as described in this passage:
“It was Muldoon’s view that some dinosaurs were too dangerous to be kept in a park setting. In part, the danger existed because they still knew so little about the animals. For example, nobody even suspected the dilophosaurs were poisonous until they were observed hunting indigenous rats on the island – biting the rodents and then stepping back, to wait for them to die. And even then nobody suspected the dilophosaurs could spit until one of the handlers was almost blinded by spitting venom.”
Crichton then goes on to explain that the park management had tried unsuccessfully to locate and remove the dinosaur’s venom sacs, and that nobody would be able to figure it out until they had an opportunity to autopsy a deceased animal. The novel Dilophosaurus is essentially an elaborate metaphor for the folly of attempting this kind of scientific control, and it seems reasonable to interpret the dinosaur’s expanding frill in the movie – which pretty much appears from nowhere, taking both Nedry and the audience by surprise – as a visual, cinematic translation of this metaphor.
So I understand the perfectly valid artistic reasons for wanting to do this. On the other hand, it does then raise some questions about animal behaviour. Frilled lizards, the nearest obvious inspiration, use their expanding neck frill when frightened in an attempt to appear larger, but not whilst killing prey – it’s strictly a defensive behaviour they exhibit whilst stressed. I’m not sure why a predatory animal would go to the trouble of doing a scary performance for the benefit of the thing it’s about to eat. Cobras, too, can display a hood and spit venom (often aiming for the eyes of their attacker), but again, this is a defensive move as a response to a threat, not predation behaviour. As the Dilophosaurus spends a lot of time standing directly in front of Nedry, out in the open, regarding him curiously, we can probably assume that it isn’t afraid of him, and doesn’t feel particularly threatened. So what would be the function of a threat display in the context of a normal predation event?
As far as Dilophosaurus being able to spit venom goes, this, too, is all fiction; but the only actual exposition about the dinosaur in the movie isn’t exactly transparent about the veracity.
“If you look to the right, you will see a herd of the first dinosaurs on our tour, called Dilophosaurus. One of the earliest carnivores, we now know Dilophosaurus is actually poisonous, spitting venom at its prey, causing blindness and eventually paralysis – allowing the carnivore to eat at its leisure. This makes Dilophosaurus a beautiful but deadly addition to Jurassic Park.”
Apart from the misuse of the word “poisonous”, the problem here is that for a lay audience, it isn’t clear whether this revelation has been made only in the context of the movie, or the actual real world. “We now know Dilophosaurus is actually poisonous.” Do we? No wonder there’s so much confusion about how this animal should appear.
So – all that having been said – let’s get onto how the animal should actually look. First of all, the movie Dilophosaurus is too small, although we don’t necessarily have to consider that an inaccuracy as such, as it could easily be a juvenile. I would expect the dinosaur’s head to be about level with Nedry’s head or shoulders if fully grown, perhaps taller (and it is of course true that we can’t be exactly sure what is the upper limit on a dinosaur’s size – it may well be that they could get larger than the specimens we’ve found so far). I believe the animal’s size was changed so that it would be more distinct from the Velociraptor depictions in the movie, and that’s fair enough.
Something I do have a problem with in Jurassic Park, though, is that changes have been made to Dilophosaurus that don’t seem to have been motivated by storytelling concerns at all, and which remove some things that make the animal interesting. The jaws of Dilophosaurus in particular are very distinctive, with a striking snaggle-toothed ‘notch’ (called a subnarial gap) where the maxilla and premaxilla bones meet beneath the nares (nostrils), resulting in quite a sizeable diastema (tooth gap). The movie, on the other hand, seems to have opted for generic “raptor”-style jaws, and I’m not entirely sure why.
If I remember correctly Crichton only got the idea for venom-spitting in the first place because he thought the animal’s jaws might be too weak for regular predation, so communicating that visually might have actually been nice, although it seems likely that Dilophosaurus may have done just fine with capturing and eating large prey in a normal fashion (and there is a theory now that it may have been a fish-eater, which seems reasonably likely, we think, as some other piscovorous dinosaurs have jaws and nostrils not dissimilar to this). Oddly enough, though, the very last shot of the Dilophosaurus in the film, in which it corners and snarls at Nedry in the Jeep, is quite striking, as it makes the animal’s jaws suddenly seem much closer to what they ought to be.
Anyway, let’s talk about the head crests:
The movie Dilophosaurus has much more pronounced crests than the real animal; whereas they ought to be graceful half-moon sweeps backward from the nasal bones to meet the lacrimals, the film animal looks like it’s had a pair of sandals glued onto its head. They did at least get the “finger-like” projections at the back of the crests right, albeit a little exaggerated, and they do have the crests coming together correctly over the nose, so that at least is good. The animal’s general proportions, despite everything else, are actually pretty okay – Dilophosaurus did indeed have quite a long neck and long arms (although, as with all of Jurassic Park‘s theropods, and as stated in an earlier post, the dinosaur’s palms should be rotated to face inwards, not pointing down at the floor, as this is anatomically impossible). Its hands are too big and chunky, though, and seem to only have three fingers – there should be a small, reduced fourth claw visible.
That’s about all I wanted to say about Jurassic Park‘s Dilophosaurus! I feel as though I’ve been quite critical today – Dilophosaurus is by far the worst dinosaur depiction in an otherwise very respectable movie, and whilst I’ve tried to be fair, and not unnecessarily scathing, I do feel the need to balance out the end of this article with a little positivity. So, having complained about gross binosaur toys at the beginning of the post, it only seems fair to mention that some toy companies, most notably Schleich and Papo (pictured below), have been pretty good about putting out some nice, not-JP-influenced Dilophosaurus figures. So, a round of applause for those companies! We appreciate you.
Thank you for reading! As ever, if you have any thoughts about the movie, Dilophosaurus, or my analysis thereof, please leave them in the comments below!