Days away from the theatrical release of Jurassic World, the fourth installment of the Jurassic Park series, paleontologists and dinosaur lovers alike are eagerly awaiting the return of the most beloved dinosaur franchise in film history. As a professional dinosaur lover, I’ve been having fun revisiting what the scientific community has learned from the fossil record since the first Jurassic Park to see what this new film appears to get right about dinosaurs and where it diverges from the consensus.
Scientists have known for decades that dinosaurs are related to birds and were most assuredly covered in feathers. Even though dinosaurs were being depicted in illustrations with feathery coatings as early as the late 1970s, it was not until the early 1990s that the mounting comparative anatomical evidence from fossil discoveries elevated the hypothesis of birds being avian dinosaurs to near universal acceptance in the paleontological community.
Before this, dinosaurs were depicted in the media as being more similar to crocodiles—scaly, lumbering tail-draggers. Michael Crichton wrote Jurassic Park in the late 1980s before most of these theories had gained mass media appeal, but the book and the movie helped to make it more commonplace to illustrate dinosaurs as faster, more gracile, feathered creatures. The days of B-side horror films with tail-dragging dinosaurs were officially over. As a “flock” of Gallimimus runs by Dr. Alan Grant in Jurassic Park, he watches their fast, graceful movement and behavior, leans over to the children and says to them, “Bet you’ll never look at birds the same way again.”
Legendary paleontologist Jack Horner was the official paleontological consultant (and partial character inspiration) for the original 1993 Spielberg film and can be thanked for the accurate depiction of dinosaurs as bird relatives. Despite having a paleontologist on board and the evidence showing that dinosaurs were in fact feathered, the dinosaurs in every Jurassic Park film are merely scaled. Artistic license is mainly responsible for this omission—at the time feathered dinosaurs just did not seem scary. Also then, paleontologists did not know the full scope and breadth of feathers on the evolutionary tree.
While it was clear back then that theropod dinosaurs, the ones most closely related to birds, were feathered, heaps of new fossil finds since the 1990s show that dinosaurs from all branches of the tree may have had some form of feathers. Although, interestingly, recent research suggests that the common ancestor of dinosaurs was not feathered and the ‘feathery’ coating seen in ornithischian dinosaurs arose independently from the feathers of theropods. It seems today all of the dinosaurs in the newest film remain scaly and featherless for both continuity and drama-sake.