Science Goes To The Movies: Jurassic World 2
It’s the 25th anniversary of the debut of Jurassic Park. And with Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom currently at the top of the summer movie food chain, its progeny continue to dominate the box offices.
But even as the original Jurassic Park gave viewers the latest in paleontological science in dino looks, the research has progressed to include feathers and wildly different body shapes for old favorites like Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor. Even newer research into dinosaur vocalization suggest they would have sounded more like modern birds than roaring lions. Paleontologists Julia Clarke and Ken Lacovara join John Dankosky to discuss.
Ken Lacovara is Dean of the School of Earth and Environment and Director of the Jean and Ric Edelman Fossil Park at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey.
Julia Clarke is a professor of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin in Austin, Texas.
[MUSIC PLAYING] SPEAKER 1: The most spectacular science shocker ever filmed. Too real to be science fiction, now science fact.
[FILM REEL SPINNING]
JOHN DANKOSKY: That sound signals another edition of science goes to the movies. 25 years after the original Jurassic Park debuted, another sequel is out and topping the charts. It’s Jurassic World– Fallen Kingdom. The dinosaurs are again facing extinction this time from a volcano on their island home.
SPEAKER 2: How many can you save?
SPEAKER 3: 11 species. Blue is the last of her kind.
JOHN DANKOSKY: We’ll hear more about Blue. But what do real paleontologists think about these on-screen dino stars. We’re here to talk about it.
Yes, that alert means, you guessed it, we’re going to be talking spoilers here. So if you don’t want to know how it ends, you can plug your ears or turn off the radio, start your weekend early. Now, on to my guests. Julia Clark is a professor of paleontology at the University of Texas at Austin. Welcome, Dr. Clark, to the show.
JULIA CLARK: Thank you very much. Pleasure to be here, John.
JOHN DANKOSKY: And Kenneth Lacovara, dean of the School of Earth and Environment, and the director of the Edelman Fassel Park of Rowan University. He’s also the author of Why Dinosaurs Matter. Welcome back to the show, Kenneth.
KENNETH LACOVARA: Thank you. Great to be here.
JOHN DANKOSKY: If you have some favorite dino moments from this film or other questions for our guests about dinosaurs, our number’s 844-724-8255. That’s 844-SCI-TALK. Or you can tweet us at @scifri.
All right. Well, Julia, I’ll start with you. We gave away a little bit of the plot here. We’ll talk a little bit more about what happens to these dinosaurs. What did you think of the film overall? Two claws up, or not so much?
JULIA CLARK: You know, I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. To me, it was a Gothic throwback to the moments of Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion dinosaurs, except they weren’t stop motion anymore.
JOHN DANKOSKY: OK. So maybe a little bit of a throwback for you. Kenneth, what about you? What did you think of the movie overall?
KENNETH LACOVARA: Well, I look at these things as fun summer monster movies. As a monster movie, it was great. It was pretty fun. I wouldn’t look at it like a textbook. But it’s a good time.
JOHN DANKOSKY: OK. Maybe not like a textbook. What were some of the highlights for you, Kenneth? What are some of the things that stood out?
KENNETH LACOVARA: Well, I study the sauropod dinosaurs– the really big ones. And it’s always a thrill for me to see those fleshed out. And I try to imagine what it would be like if I could actually stand next to one of them. But I also really liked what Julia mentioned– the kind of Gothic setting of some of these, where the dinosaurs kind of looked like gargoyles. I thought that was pretty cool.
JOHN DANKOSKY: How would you, Julia? Some things stand out to you?
JULIA CLARK: Well, in addition to kind of the optics of the film, I really enjoyed the kind of closing commentary by the Jeff Goldblum character where he talks about something that’s actually really true– this idea that there have always been crises. Not all the time, but throughout Earth history, there has been periods of rapid global change. I like that closing reminder that we’re in one now.
I didn’t expect it. And it was nice to hear at the end of the movie for me.
JOHN DANKOSKY: I’m wondering, Julie, if we can start with how the dinosaurs looked. We’re talking about stop-action dinosaurs in those old movies we used to watch. Obviously, the computer-generated effects make them look much better than that. But they don’t necessarily look like how you think dinosaurs looked, including the fact that they didn’t have feathers.
JULIA CLARK: Yeah, I know. It’s challenging for me. Because the thing that’s supposed to be so distinct about dinosaurs is that they were once alive. They’re real creatures. And they’re not dragons or gargoyles. But they just haven’t been updated.
And to me, a feathered dinosaur or dinosaurs with like a wide variety of body coverings can be scary. I think we just have to look to something like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds– a great movie can be made with very scary feathered dinosaurs. So I would have loved to see some really creepy fuzzy and feathered dinosaurs and a more updated look.
JOHN DANKOSKY: I’m John Dankosky. And this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. And we’re talking with Julia Clark and Kenneth Lacovara about the new Jurassic Park movie. Are there some things, Kenneth, that you might change about the way the dinosaurs looked? You mentioned seeing these gigantic herbivores standing over you. Is it what you would have expected to see if you were there?
KENNETH LACOVARA: Well, I think they do a pretty good job with most of the dinosaurs, particularly the large one. I agree with Julie. It would be great to see feathers on ones that we know now had feathers. When they portray the giant sauropods– like they had a camarasaurus in there and a brachiosaurus. And they always kind of portray them as these passive, lumbering, kind of dopey creatures.
And these dinosaurs would have been fierce and nasty. The most dangerous animals in many places are the herbivores. If you go to Africa, the hippos are the most dangerous large animals there. They’re herbivores of course. So they don’t want to eat you. They just want to kill you.
More people are injured in Yellowstone by the bison than by the grizzly bears. So you don’t want to be anywhere near a giant sauropod that weighs tens of tons. These animals would be aggressive, and territorial, and super dangerous to be around.
JOHN DANKOSKY: But also on the flip side, an awful lot of the super predators that walk the Earth right now– they don’t spend their time looking to eat humans. They’re kind of just sitting around. And if they’re hungry, they might eat something that walks. I don’t know, Kenneth, this would flip the monster movie though on its head if the herbivores were the ones that could trample you and the velociraptors just sort of sat around until they got a bit peckish.
KENNETH LACOVARA: Well, true. But predators– they also tend to be very cautious. If you’re a cheetah and you break a toe, you’re probably going to starve to death. So predators are cautious animals, whereas herbivores tend to just kind of blunder into situations. And they can sustain pretty serious injuries and still eat grass.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah.
Yeah, Julia, you want to pick up on this? Because the way that the dinosaurs actually act in the movie isn’t necessarily the way that we’d see them act in real life if they were walking around.
JULIA CLARK: Well, I completely agree with Ken. I think that one of the biggest things that kind of deviates from what we know about dinosaurs, or what we know about animals generally, is the behaviors. What calls out to me is the examples where right before the large carnivore is going to eat somebody, it just yells out. It’s sort of like as if you’re going to be like, wow, mm, a cheeseburger. You know?
It’s really not something that we’d see in nature. And we don’t see this sort of like anger. The animals can be aggressive. But there’s not the idea that they’re going to warn you they’re about to consume you. That would be a very maladaptive trait.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, actually, we’re going to take a break. And when we come back, we’re going to talk about some of the noises that the dinosaurs do make. It’s something you’ve been studying. And we’re going to figure out if they sound too realistic or not. You can call us with your dinosaur questions– 844-724-8255. That’s 844-SCI-TALK.
This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. We’re talking about movie dinosaurs with real paleontologists. The new Jurassic World movie has been stomping all over box office this summer, with more roaring t-rex, and bright velociraptors, a genetically-engineered surprise as well. There’s a volcano threatening the last dinosaurs on Earth. A rescue mission turns into an evil plot.
I won’t give away the whole thing. But I will tell you there are some spoilers ahead with our guest paleontologists Julia Clark and Kenneth Lacovara. We’ll get to some of your phone calls in just a moment. Or you can tweet us at @scifri.
So Julia, I’ve been looking forward to this. Your research includes the evolution of sounds that these animals made. We’ve got a sample of some sounds from the dinosaurs in the movie. There’s a big carnivore and then the t-rex heroically saving our main characters.
What do you think about that? How did they do?
JULIA CLARK: Oh, my gosh. I was trying to like de-code or breakdown some of the sounds that I heard. Some of it almost reminds me of a Star Wars movie– some of the same sounds mixed in there at the end.
There’s some crocodilian undertones. And then there’s this roaring kind of mammalian overtone to me. That’s not a technical use of undertone and overtone. Yeah.
What seems to me about these sounds is that they’re a little too familiar. I think we need to expect these sounds to be perhaps a little bit more unfamiliar if we were to really journey back to the Jurassic world.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, how do we know anything about how dinosaurs would sound in the first place? Do we have any tissue that would suggest what noises they make?
JULIA CLARK: Well, this is an area of research that we’re really just getting started with. And in many ways, we thought we’d never know the sounds that dinosaurs made. And I think that we’re going to get a lot closer to that. And what do we look at? Well, we really have to understand how living dinosaurs or birds make sounds.
So we need to understand not just our songbirds that we know a lot about, but we need to look at weird earlier branches in birds, such as ostriches, and emus, and other things that can tell us about how living dinosaurs make sounds. And then we also are looking for fossil records of parts of the sound-producing structure, and trying to get at what these structures might have been like.
And in fact, just a couple of years ago, we found the first fossilized evidence of a vocal organ from the age of dinosaurs. So hopefully, paleontologists are all out there digging through their collections. And maybe we’ll find more such evidence to kind of get at this story.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, you mentioned ostriches and crocodiles. Let’s actually listen to these animals to see how they sound. And maybe this gives a little bit better blueprint for how our dinosaurs would sound. First, an ostrich.
Interesting. OK. And now, a crocodile.
JULIA CLARK: Yeah. They’re fun sounds. What do you guys make of those? How do they sound compared to the movie?
JOHN DANKOSKY: I don’t know. Kenneth, what do you think? You listen to those sounds. The crocodile sound to me actually sounds a lot like some of the dinosaurs in the movie. I didn’t really hear the ostrich in there.
KENNETH LACOVARA: Yeah, I think it does. I’d love to see those sounds scaled up to t-rex size. And as Julia was saying before, like feathers can be scary. Crocodile sounds can be scary. I think we need a new scary.
JULIA CLARK: Yeah.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Go ahead.
JULIA CLARK: Oh, I was just going to add like I think what a lot of people don’t realize is both of those sounds were produced with the animal’s mouth closed. So that’s a very big difference from the majority of those large raptors. We saw a lot of their saliva. We saw a lot of the inside of their mouths while they were making these sounds.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah. Rachel tweets at us, “whenever a dinosaur yells in the presence of characters, I always assume the noise is pretty loud. Would it deafen humans?
We don’t know how loud the dinosaur sounds are. But as you say, Julia, they probably wouldn’t be roaring with their mouths open either. They’d be making grunting noises or rumbling noises with their mouths closed.
JULIA CLARK: Well, there’s actually one thing that we know kind of generally across animals, which is that the frequency of the sound they produce has an inverse relationship to how big they are. So for example, in general, large animals make low frequency sounds, and a little mouse makes a very high frequency sound.
So if you scale that up to something that are these largest terrestrial animals that ever lived– we did sort of back-of-the-envelope calculations. We need to take this further to really make it science and rigorous. But you would be almost below human hearing for animals of the size that certainly Ken’s creatures get to if you were just looking at what living animals, kind of that inverse scaling relationships.
Could they deafen humans? We might even have acoustic sounds that are fairly rare today that would be perhaps much more prevalent in this Jurassic or Cretaceous world.
JOHN DANKOSKY: I want to get to some phone calls. Finn is calling us. Finn is in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Hi there, Finn, you’re on the show.
SPEAKER 4: Say Hi.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Hi there, Finn. What’s your question?
FINN: Do all dinosaurs have big teeth?
JOHN DANKOSKY: Oh, do they all have big teeth? OK. So that’s a question for Kenneth. How about you, Kenneth? Do all dinosaurs have big teeth?
KENNETH LACOVARA: Well, they don’t all have big teeth. In fact, the biggest dinosaurs have some of the tiniest teeth. So you can tell a lot about what an animal, including dinosaurs, eat by looking at their teeth. And so t-rex has these giant 9-inch teeth that are very fat and scary. But if you look at the super-massive herbivorous dinosaurs, like the titanosaurus, they have tiny, little teeth. They’re not much bigger than pencils.
And they don’t do any chewing with these. They just use them like the tines on a garden rake, to just strip vegetation from the landscape. And then they gulp it down whole. And their stomach is the size of a horse. So they let it sit in there for weeks or months, and let the bacteria do all of the work.
So when you look over the whole range of dinosaurs, you’ll see all kinds of teeth. And those different shapes or morphologies can all be traced back to the kinds of food they were eating.
JOHN DANKOSKY: So Kenneth, when you see in the movie the dinosaurs that you study ripping off the tops of trees, the foliage, and then chewing, that’s probably not what they were doing.
KENNETH LACOVARA: Yeah. They weren’t chewing in the real Cretaceous. They’re just pulling the vegetation away from the plants or the stems and gulping it down whole. I did notice in the movie, actually, it looked like a brachiosaurus was chewing. And they wouldn’t be doing that, because they have such huge stomachs they can just process all the food after they swallow it.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Julia, did you have any problems with how the eating of the dinosaurs was portrayed?
JULIA CLARK: Well, Ken makes a great point about these large herbivores. And chewing is just not a thing in nearly all dinosaurs. But the thing that really got me was the gooey, slippery, kind of super slimy saliva, and the tongues.
So these were pretty mobile tongues. They were a little frightening. And then this saliva that at one point gets on the Chris Pratt character looks to me like something that you’d buy at a novelty store. The majority of reptiles, including birds, do not produce that. So that’s not really directly related to eating, but maybe to the other– well, parts of eating, saliva. Yeah.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, Finn, thank you very much for your question. Actually, we’ve got another question from McKenna in Wilson, North Carolina, who’s also asking a question about how dinosaurs eat and maybe what they eat. Hi there, McKenna, you’re on the show.
SPEAKER 5: Hi, this is actually her mother. We’re a little anxious about being on air. But I’ll try to translate her question for her.
JOHN DANKOSKY: That’s fine. I’m anxious all the time. Go ahead.
SPEAKER 5: We wanted to know if we would really make a good meal for these carnivorous dinosaurs.
MAKENNA: Are we too bony?
SPEAKER 5: Yeah. Are we too bony?
JOHN DANKOSKY: See, that’s the important question. Thank you very much for your question, McKenna and mom. So I don’t know. Are we too bony? Who wants to answer that?
KENNETH LACOVARA: Well, yes. For the carnivorous dinosaurs– you’re made of meat, and dinosaurs are made of meat. And so you would be an excellent meal for them. And for a big thing like a t-rex, they would probably nosh on us like M&M’s.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Would they like it though? Would we be the type of food, Julia, that they’d be seeking out?
JULIA CLARK: I’m with Ken on this one. I think a large carnivore, if it’s hungry, is going to go for us certainly. If we’re in this imaginary landscape, we are going to be a beautiful prey choice. That said, I think these animals seem to be hungry all the time. And like you see them eat like four or five humans in one scene.
And I just feel like they would probably be satiated and decide to go lounge on top of something rather than continuing to consume more humans. But yeah. Basically a bite and swallow kind of thing. They’re not going to try to pick little pieces of our deliciousness off.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Kenneth, so where some of the new insights into dinosaur science coming from right now? We have this image in our mind of a paleontologist out digging up bones. But there’s a lot going on in the lab too. What are we learning?
KENNETH LACOVARA: Yeah. There’s a lot going on in the field and in the lab. We’re discovering about a new dinosaur species a week now in the field. And our lives in the field are pretty much like they were 100 years ago. We’re living outside. We’re living in tents. We’re using pick axes, and rock hammers, and chisels.
But now, in the laboratory, really everything has changed. And we regularly use 3D laser scanners. In my lab, we use 3D printers to print dinosaur bones at a 1/10 scale and turn them into robotic mechanical models of limb joints so that we can test our biomechanical hypotheses.
JOHN DANKOSKY: I’m just going to stop you right there. You’re 3D printing bones of dinosaurs to create robot dinosaurs?
KENNETH LACOVARA: Yes, to create robot parts of dinosaurs. We haven’t yet created a complete robot dinosaur. But for example, we’ve created a robotic forelimb of a dinosaur that I found in South America, dreadnoughtus.
And we’ve attached wires to the muscle attachments hooked up to little servo motors driven by a program that one of my students wrote. And we can test the energy that goes into the system and the energy consumed in the movement. And we also have a little artificial cartilage in there.
Our guiding assumption is that the more efficient we make this model, the closer to the truth we’re getting about how dinosaurs actually moved. And so we can do this in the robotic realm. And that’s great, because that thing has agency, right? It’s really in the world. And it has all the forces that act on everything applying to it.
But then we can also take that and use advanced medical modeling software, and do a similar set of experiments in the virtual world. And we have to simplify those a little bit, because they are computer simulations. But the advantage of that is we can do thousands and thousands of iterations. So we can kind of get an independent validation by using the robotic models and the virtual models.
JOHN DANKOSKY: I’m John Dankosky. And this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.
Julie I’d love to know what sort of innovations are happening in your world in the lab. It sounds pretty exciting what’s happening in Ken’s world. I’m sure it is in yours too.
JULIA CLARK: Well, we share a lot of similar technologies. So I would say that the availability of CAT scanning or x-raying bones– you can do surface scan. But you can also x-ray whole animals. And the techniques that are really kind of moving fast, and being developed, and being iterated a lot now are around imaging soft tissues and their relationship with bony parts.
And this is what is going on in my lab. So we’re trying to look at living animal muscles and how they attach to these fossilizable parts. Because in the fossil record, I’m not going to ever find a complete– well, I never say never– but vocal organ. But what I might find are the support structures for the squishy bits that produce the sound.
And so what I want to do is understand how those relate so I can maybe predict properties of the squishy bits that don’t really fossilize well. So that’s the kind of key work that we’re doing, is looking at crocodile vocal organs, bird vocal organs– which are very, very different– and trying to understand how these vocal cords that produce sound relate to these fossilizable parts.
JOHN DANKOSKY: OK. We just have a couple of minutes left. And we’ve established a few things. Maybe the dinosaurs don’t sound exactly right. There’s no feathers on the dinosaurs. The velociraptors are probably a little too big for real velociraptors.
But I’ll start with you, Julia. If you were making a movie about dinosaurs coming back to life, what are some things you would do differently? What’s the movie you would tell?
JULIA CLARK: I love Ray Harryhausen– who I keep mentioning– but is this early innovator in bringing dinosaurs to life. But I want to see us move past that. I want to see something that’s incorporating a lot more accuracy, because the important thing about dinosaurs is that they were once alive. They are real animals. And so that’s what’s different from a dragon or anything cool that we can dream up in our imagination. And that’s part of their terror is that they were real.
And so I think a movie like The Birds, by contrast, where it was just seagulls and crows that had this malicious intent and started attacking people, is actually just as scary a film. I’m not trying to see another movie about seagulls and crows. But I would like to see more real animals that are truly scary. So I think that would be cool.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, Kenneth, you just have a couple of seconds left. What would you do different?
KENNETH LACOVARA: Well, I agree. Dinosaurs were real. They dominated Earth’s ecosystem for the better part of 165 million years. And there’s no reason to gild that lily. They’re more diverse, more unbelievable really than we could have ever imagined. And so you make a realistic dinosaur, and you’ve made a really scary beast that’s going to make a good movie star.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Kenneth Lacovara is author of Why Dinosaurs Matter. He’s dean of the School of Earth and Environment, director of the Edelman Fassel Park of Rowan University. Thanks so much, Kenneth.
KENNETH LACOVARA: You’re welcome.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Thanks to Julia Clark, a professor of vertebrate paleontology at the University of Texas at Austin. Thank you so much, Julia.
JULIA CLARK: Thank you.