“An adventure 65 million years in the making”. It’s one of movies’ most memorable taglines. And now, 20 years on from ‘Jurassic Park’, the film has inspired one of pop culture’s most enduring questions: Could we really bring back the dinosaurs?
So, with Spielberg’s super seminal adventure getting a 3D re-release this week, we recruited Dr Paul Barrett, the Natural History Museum’s Dinosaur Researcher (our very own Alan Grant), to help explore the science behind the movie and ask how close we are to making it a reality.
“I actually think it would be quite stupid to bring them back,” admits Paul straight away, “They’re big animals. They really are big. And there’s just so much about them we don’t understand.”
“We don’t know anything about dinosaur diseases, or even how they reproduced,” he says. “They could be getting sick and dying, or they could breed beyond control. What would we even feed them? One goat a week to keep T-Rex happy? Or five? There’s some huge considerations to get over.”
Paul is a leading paleontologist, and in charge of expanding dinosaur knowledge at the Natural History Museum’s (NHM) world famous London exhibition. But, despite his concerns for ‘Jurassic Park’s’ logic, he’s actually a massive fan of the movie.
“In general a lot of paleontologists were really excited by ‘Jurassic Park’,” he says. “It was the first time hyper-realistic dinosaurs really made it onto the big screen. Up until then they were just B-movie monsters. People in funny plastic suits, or even iguanas with spikes stuck on them - monsters that would chase after Raquel Welch. ‘Jurassic Park’ brought those ideas right up-to-date.”
As a student in 1993, Paul took a summer job at the NHM just to help cope with the ‘Jurassic Park’ craze. And, two decades on, the museum’s dinosaurs still benefit from Spielberg’s advert for the species.
“Everyone thought dinosaurs were slow, clumsy and kind of a bit stupid before 1993,” says Paul. “Then ’Jurassic Park’ came along and made them dynamic, fast and very smart… After all, they were around for 160 million years, Man has been around for one…”
“The way ‘Jurassic Park’ has them moving, herding, even attacking other creatures; our perception of those things really hasn’t changed much since it came out,” he says. “It’s actually very accurate in that respect.”
So what about the all important DNA then? Original writer Michael Crichton’s preferred method - harvesting dino DNA from the bodies of amber-preserved mosquitoes that dined on them - seems almost ingenious. Then, by combining the extracted genetic code with that of the humble frog, ‘Jurassic Park’s’ fictional scientists brought the lizards that once ruled earth back from extinction. It must make sense, right?
“A lot of the science portrayed in the movie is actually good science,” says Paul. “It’s a relatively good view of how my colleagues thought about dinosaurs at the time. Even the reason for using frogs makes sense - they’re very common laboratory animals for this kind of work, and we know a lot about their genetic sequences. So it seemed cutting edge.”
That was 1993 though. Twenty years on, we must be closer than ever to actually bringing back the dinosaurs?
Paul pauses, “Probably not…”
“The problem is the DNA itself,” he says calmly. “It’s not there… Dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago, and DNA, as far as we understand the chemistry of it, just doesn’t last that long in geological terms. It actually degrades quite quickly.”
“There have been a couple of claims over the years of getting DNA out of dinosaur bones, but they’ve all been shot down,” he explains. “We have found small amounts of protein from dinosaurs, but certainly not enough to recreate a whole animal.”
“We do have plenty of examples of mammoth DNA though,” Paul continues. “They went extinct in the last few thousand years and have been found preserved in deep-freeze conditions - meaning that extracting it would be relatively easy, although only by comparison. Unfortunately when it comes to dinosaurs though, the DNA just doesn’t survive.”
“’Jurassic Park’’s method of getting it from mosquitoes was a really neat idea,” he adds. “But the ugly fact is the DNA just isn’t there in the first place.”
So, Mammoth Park it is then…
The Natural History Museum runs a popular monthly sleepover event, Dino Snores, for children aged 7-11 – including a torch-lit dinosaur trail, a live creepy-crawly show, and design your own dino t-shirt. You can find more information here