You’d think that a new Jurassic World film would make dinosaur fans happy. I was certainly excited to see a short “prologue” to the blockbuster franchise pop up on YouTube last week. The five-minute video is replete with computer-generated dinosaurs wandering around and minding their own Mesozoic business (and is designed to be a teaser for Jurassic World: Dominion, which will be in theaters in June 2022). It’s supposed to be a fun glimpse at what life was like for non-bird dinosaurs before they went extinct and then were revived millions of years later for an amusement park experiment gone horribly wrong.
But in the reactions to the prologue online, I saw more paleo-pedantry than joy at the toothy and toothsome saurians. A dinosaur named Oviraptor is shown eating eggs, some complained, because of an old, mistaken assumption that the original specimen was a nest thief. Flying pterosaurs are depicted diving after fish—despite scientific evidence that they would have hopelessly face-planted in the water if they tried. And, while the scene is stirring, it would have been absolutely impossible for a Giganotosaurus to kill a T. rex, critics noted. Those carnivores lived on different continents, and at different times.
I get it. I love dinosaur facts as much as the next paleo buff. When rumors started to percolate a decade ago that there would be a third sequel in the Jurassic franchise—a follow-up to the movie that blew my young dino-obsessed mind back in 1993—I wrote a few pieces more or less begging Universal to update their dinosaurs for the 21st century. I wanted to see the weird new species that had been dug up, and feathers and bright colors to match the current scientific understanding of dinosaurs. I even wound up doing some science advising for the Jurassic World marketing team, gathering accurate dinosaur facts and figures to be included with toys (though I haven’t been involved with them in a few years). The toys themselves were, of course, somewhat artistic renderings of dinos. Trying to make ever bit of plastic match what dinos really looked like was not the point. As the Jurassic movies have made it abundantly clear, the creatures they showcase are to real dinosaurs as french fry–flavored vodka is to an intact potato. That is, there’s a little bit of resemblance, which is important. But ultimately the flavored vodka and the cinema-saurs alike are not here to cater to the most refined and demanding sensibilities.
And why shouldn’t moviemakers share their own, imaginative versions of terrible lizards? Dinosaurs don’t exclusively belong to science (nor do any other organisms, living or extinct). Science is a framework for understanding nature—but it is just one prism among many through which we can view Tyrannosaurus and its stompy kin. The permineralized, ancient skeleton of an Allosaurus can be an object of scientific curiosity, every tooth socket and bony flange named and analyzed. Paleo-artists can turn to traits from living animals to fill in the gaps in the scientific dino data, hoping to get as close as possible to real-life accuracy in their renderings. But theirs is not the only legitimate interpretation of the animal. Time and again, Allosaurus has rampaged across the screen as a chomp monster. In another context, the dinosaur might stand as a gentle imaginary friend. In yet another, the dinosaur helps corporations hawk oversweet breakfast cereals. And, honestly, I think my girlfriend makes a pretty fetching Allosaurus in her fursuit—though, yes, Allosaurus did not have fur.
The story of our fascination with dinosaurs does not even start with science. From ancient China to what is now the American West, people of various cultures found and interpreted the bones of dinosaurs long before paleontology—the formal study of fossilized plants and animals older than 10,000 years old—was even a concept. The word dinosaur didn’t exist until 1842, when famously cantankerous anatomist Richard Owen used the name to group together a trio of weird fossil reptiles that had turned up in England. “Dinosaurs” quickly became a pawn in a power play when paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh started up the “Bone Wars” of the late 19th century, competing to name new dinosaurs and other fossil creatures to win the title of America’s preeminent paleontologist. It was hardly about the pure pursuit of the truth, especially when the men were so rushed to publish that Cope famously placed the skull of the marine reptile Elasmosaurus on the end of the tail and not the neck —a mistake he attempted to hide by trying to reacquire all the journal preprints showing the wrong reconstruction lest he look like a bonehead.
The fact is that it’s impossible to get a modern rendering of a dinosaur exactly “right.” Today, when you picture a dinosaur you’re relying part on evidence and part on imagination—even if you’re a strict book reader and museumgoer. The scientifically vetted dinosaurs of exhibits and nonfiction books necessarily exist at the intersection of science and imagination—otherwise, our relationship with dinosaurs would be restricted to bland descriptions of old bones that would seem to have little to do with living animals. For all we’ve come to learn about dinosaurs, we still know vanishingly little. We don’t know what color most dinosaurs were. We don’t know what most dinosaurs sounded like. We don’t know what time of year different dinosaurs mated in or what their courtship looked like. We don’t know what many dinosaurs ate beyond “meat,” “plants,” or “some of both.” So much basic biology that is readily observable among living species is hard-won when it comes to the fossil record. If we honored accuracy among all else, no one would dare draw a stegosaurus as anything more than immaculately clean permineralized bones.
Even mainstays like the very, very well researched T. rex can look different depending on who you’re asking. I ran smack into the maw of this realization when I visited a pair of traveling museum exhibits: T. rex—The Ultimate Predator at the American Museum of Natural History and Sue: The T. rex Experience at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Both boasted full-size, artistic re-creations of what the real T. rex looked like in life. And they were fundamentally different. Two teams of artists, both advised by scientists for major museum exhibitions, had come up with two vastly divergent interpretations of the same species. The New York version had wrinkly, bright orange skin and a mane of protofeathers running up its back, drooling jaws open as if the dinosaur were about to jump into a stirring rendition of The Muppet Show theme. The Denver dinosaur was pale, scaly with nary a plume to be seen, with an overall chunkier and smoother look. Perhaps you could try to tally up which was more accurate—but even that could require a panel of ultimately subjective judges, and produce a verdict that might shift over time.
Yes, some renderings of dinosaurs are clearly unscientific, failing to hue to basic facts we know for certain. Having T. rex and the carnivore Giganotosaurus fight each other in the Jurassic World prologue is, from a scientific perspective, so incorrect that even dino-infatuated kids can tell you that never would have happened. But the fact is that what a dinosaur represents is always in the eye of the beholder, whether that’s a graduate student or a kid in a sandbox playing with plastic toys. Dinosaurs come alive because we come together to imagine them, with all the different angles and disputes that shared dreaming can bring. I love to see the actual remains of once-living creatures that embody extinction, evolution, and Deep Time. That doesn’t interfere with me rooting for my favorite dinosaur-style monsters as they rip and tear across the screen.