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Let’s Talk about Jurassic Park: Part 3 – Tyrannosaurus

Hello and welcome back to Mike of the Mesozoic! It’s been a while since the last post – it took me quite a time to really get to the essence of what I wanted to say about Jurassic Park‘s Tyrannosaurus rex scenes. T. rex is probably one of the best-understood dinosaurs in all of palaeontology, and therefore much that can be said about it. So let’s continue our adventures in affectionately analysing the movie through the lens of modern science, and get right down to it!

First of all, we’d better address the big, scaly elephant in the room, and tackle the feather controversy. This seems to be an emotionally charged issue for some reason, as if a forty-foot-long predator that weighed seven tons and had one of the most devastatingly powerful bite forces of all time could be made not cool by putting a feather coat on it. I’d better mention the news story that was circulated pretty widely this summer about the discovery of T. rex scale impressions, prompting newspaper stories that were largely variations on a theme of “turns out Jurassic Park was right all along, nyah nyah.”

(Image nicked from Biology Letters)

Well… maybe. It’s certainly possible that Tyrannosaurus was entirely scaly, of course. But can we say that for a fact? The impressions found were from the neck, pelvic region and tail of a specimen nicknamed “Wyrex” that was recovered from Montana in 2003, and I should probably point out how absolutely tiny some of them are – shown life-size, the impression pictured above would be a little larger than your fingernail. Some of the others are bigger – the largest is perhaps the size of a tea tray – but it’s important to remember that we’re talking about an animal that stood twelve to thirteen feet tall at the hips. I’m not trying to pooh-pooh the scale impression study in any way – it’s a very important and interesting development. I’m just saying that it’s important to remember that a lot of T. rex‘s taxonomic relatives were absolutely, definitely feathered in some way, and that we shouldn’t be surprised if it eventually turns out that it did in fact have a bit of feather action going on somewhere, or in the juveniles. What this means, of course, is that as far as I’m concerned it’s currently impossible to pronounce the Jurassic Park rex definitively right or wrong on the feather issue, and the movie depiction is at least as good a hypothesis as any you’ll find at the moment.


Less controversially, we can talk about eyesight. “Keep absolutely still,” Dr. Grant famously says in the movie, “his vision’s based on movement.” Which is unlikely, all things considered; Tyrannosaurus has what I believe is the largest eyeball of any terrestrial animal known to science, and I don’t even mean relative to its own body size. There’s really no reason to suppose that it wasn’t good at looking at things it might be able to eat. Rexy, as Muldoon calls her in the novel, has another eyesight problem in the movie, though; her skull is set up all wrong for binocular vision.


(Right-hand image nicked from Professor Kent Stevens’ website

Jurassic Park‘s Tyrannosaurus head is boxier and wider across the snout than the real animal, and her eyes seem to be somewhat recessed in the skull, meaning she spends a fair amount of time looking at things off to her side and has great difficulty seeing around her own nose in the front. Her lack of binocular vision is even made somewhat obvious by the filmmaking itself, as the rex animatronic is forced to bring the side of its head to the car window in order to see the children inside (but I still think the dilating pupil is a really cool practical effect shot).


I always thought Rexy’s evil eyebrow ridges looked a bit silly and cartoony in the film, but I can’t really say a lot about them scientifically. The skull does suggest that there would be bumps of horn over the eyes and on the top of the snout, and while they probably wouldn’t look so stylised, nobody can say for certain that the movie is wrong – if Tyrannosaurus had brow ridges like that in real life, they wouldn’t fossilise, and we wouldn’t know.


I mentioned bite force earlier in the article, so let’s get to the animal’s mighty jaws. I have to give the movie kudos for getting T. rex‘s teeth pretty bang-on, by the way; tyrannosaurs have a very distinctive tooth setup, with short teeth in the premaxilla (the frontmost part of the upper jaw) and big, fat, banana-like teeth down the sides, which is exactly what’s shown in the film. I suppose it’s a little unusual that she appears to have a full set of gnashers – tyrannosaurs would lose and replace their teeth every few months, so you might ordinarily expect to see one or two missing in there. As for the power of the jaws – well, the best current estimate seems to be around 8,000 psi (pounds per square inch), and I believe the strongest living terrestrial animal bite is the nile crocodile’s 5,000 psi chomp. I wonder what the chances are that if a rex decided to bite a lawyer on a toilet that the poor chap would simply get chopped clean in half?!


Usually by this point in the post I’ve made some comments about the animal’s general posture, and today is going to be no different. The tyrannosaur’s hands are probably the thing that seems the most dated about Jurassic Park‘s depiction; I’m sure they were perfectly fine and accurate when the movie was made, but science has moved on. This is important, because JP continues to inspire all the popularly held ideas about dinosaurs. Ask anybody you know to pretend to be a dinosaur, and they’ll probably do this:

When, really, they ought to do this:

We now know that T. rex, Velociraptor, and all the other therapod dinosaurs were completely incapable of holding their hands in the Jurassic Park-y, palms-down fashion. Their wrists simply didn’t work that way, and should correctly face inwards as though holding a basketball or a bowl of soup. Such is the continued influence of Jurassic Park that just about every toy dinosaur in the world to this day continues to have Wrong Hands Syndrome. Please, friends of this blog – I urge you to call attention to these poor, crippled dinosaurs with their broken wrists…

Meanwhile, here’s a fun fact about T. rex: just like your Christmas turkey, it had a wishbone!

(photo by Alice Turner, from our recent trip to the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin)

The Tyrannosaurus wishbone – or the furcula, to give it its proper name – has been discovered since the production of Jurassic Park , and in addition to being something you can get a really big wish out of, also represents a subtle change in our understanding of tyrannosaur anatomy. Now that we know the wishbone goes in there, that means it’s got to touch the coracoids (the big flat parts at the front of the pectoral girdle), and that means the shoulders must have been closer together than we’d previously thought. Therefore, Jurassic Park‘s Tyrannosaurus ought more correctly to look like this:

I maybe ought to have moved them a little closer in than this, even.

Speaking of the animal’s hands, that reminds me. How exactly does this happen?

You know, most animals don’t really understand about electricity; once they learn that they can’t touch a thing or they get a painful zap, they just leave it alone. Is there any explanation for how the tyrannosaur is magically able to know that the power is out and that it should immediately grab the nearest fence? And how is it possible that a Tyrannosaurus could touch something with its tiny little arm in such a way that you could see the arm and not the not the rest of the animal? What’s happening in that shot?

And while we’re on the subject of things that don’t make sense…

Okay, so Tyrannosaurus is heavy, but it’s not that heavy. Think “two big elephants” sort of heavy. Have you ever been to the elephant house at the zoo? It turns out the ground doesn’t vibrate, or anything close to it. Dinosaurs were lighter than you would probably think; there is a law of physics known as the cube-square law which basically states that as you increase the size of a thing, the volume of it will increase faster than the surface area, meaning that a three-dimensional object that works perfectly well on a smaller scale will quickly become unsustainable when enlarged. We’ve all seen those movies wherein some ordinary creature becomes subjected to nuclear whatever and becomes a fifty-foot monster version of itself; in the real world, these things would never work, because if you scale up an iguana or an ant or something without adding any special adaptions it will simply crush itself under its own weight of mass. Dinosaurs, on the other hand, were built to be huge and had adaptions for lighter skeletons and so on. To be fair, our methods of calculating their probable weights and therefore our estimates have evolved several times since the movie came out, so I can’t fully blame Spielberg and co. for this one, but still; the point is there.


I think that leaves me with only one more thing I wanted to cover today, and that’s the Jeep chase. It’s really hard to work out a long-extinct animal’s top speed in life, but none of today’s scientific guesses are kind to this scene – estimates range from about 25mph at the top end and 12mph at the bottom, which seems to be something that would pose no problem at all for somebody escaping in a car – but then, it’s important to remember that the chase occurs on a muddy, uneven jungle road directly after a tropical storm. It’s also probably worth pointing out that the T. rex in the film isn’t actually running per se but moving in a fast walk – Rexy always has at least one foot firmly on the ground throughout. This might even turn out to be palaeo-accurate behaviour, in fact, because there was a study by the University of Manchester earlier this year suggesting that T.rex‘s leg bones wouldn’t have been up to the impact stresses of full-on running.

Well, that about wraps it up for Tyrannosaurus rex! Thank you for reading. Join me again next time and I’ll be discussing what’s cool… or not… about the movie’s depiction of Dilophosaurus!


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?