Those monumental beasts that have captured the imaginations of millions. Capitalizing on this global fascination, author Michael Crichton and director Steven Spielberg tapped into the high concept idea of bringing these monsters back to life. “Jurassic Park” made an estimated $1 billion worldwide in gross revenue and ignited a new wave of dino fever.
I was one of the many theatergoers when the film opened in 1993, and it’s no secret that I’m a “Jurassic Park” junkie. In fact, I still use my “JP” keychain everyday. I also may or may not have played the movie’s theme song on my harp and piano as a kid and proudly wore my “Jurassic Park” t-shirt to school. It was all dinosaurs all the time for awhile there, especially with a focus on learning about the “terrible lizards” during elementary school.
However, it seems that after elementary school the focus on dinosaurs in the curriculum goes, well…extinct. One of my friends still remembers dinosaurs being covered in kindergarten. He was extremely forlorn to discover that that was the last time they’d be explored during his primary education.
I think a good number of people may have had a similar experience. The last time I remember dinosaurs were taught in school was in third grade. (I still have a dino pop-up project book I made in class.)
So when I happened to see online that North Seattle Community College was holding a class called “Dinosaurs Invade North Seattle,” I was beyond excited. Even more thrilling was that an actual paleontologist would teach the course and a free pass and tour to the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture was included. (Click here to see the tour pictures.) I enrolled quickly. The timing was perfect, as not only do I love dinosaurs but I’m right in the middle of writing a pop-science-fiction novel that revolves around speculative evolution.
Dr. Tom Braziunas, paleontologist and instructor of the course, greeted the students as we made our way into the classroom during the first session. Braziunas, a kind gentleman who likes to don hip dinosaur ties and shirts, turned our attention to a long table filled with models and toys. Braziunas shared that he’d been collecting toy dinosaurs (most all to scale) for 50 plus years.
If that wasn’t cool enough, he told us about digs he’s done all over the world including China, Alberta, and Montana and brought out other interesting objects and specimens:
Fossilized dinosaur poop
A Velociraptor claw
And a T. rex tooth (So glad I’ll never be on the receiving end of one of these!)
Speaking of T. rex, Dr. Braziunas had some interesting facts about the star ‘actor’ in “Jurassic Park” and dispelled some of the film’s myths.
Remember the scene where Dr. Grant and Lex are standing in front of the upside down car and Dr. Grant covers Lex’s mouth, telling her not to move because the T. rex won’t see them?
According to Braziunas, T. rex actually had stereoscopic vision (like us) and acute olfactory nerves in its brain. Translation: A T. rex would see you and more than likely smell you. So it would’ve been curtains for Dr. Grant and Lex. Unless they could outrun him. Braziunas mentioned Mr. Rex has been clocked at speeds of up to 20 mph.
One thing the movie did get right was that the T. rex in the film would’ve been just as vicious in real life. Dr. Braziunas said that Rex is not a dinosaur that you’d want to have a close encounter with.
Another interesting “JP” factoid Braziunas mentioned was that the Velociraptors in the film technically aren’t Velociraptors. The inspiration for the Velociraptor was actually a Cretaceous Period predator named Deinonychus.
V. raptors are actually only about a foot and a half or so tall, making them not quite as menacing as portrayed in the movie. It appears that Steven Spielberg or one of the directorial heads for the film didn’t think Deinonychus sounded scary enough, so they chose to go with Velociraptor.
With all that said about the V. raptors, Dr. B did make it clear that he’d actually rather face a T. rex than a raptor. He pointed out that the raptors can move extremely fast and are calculatingly vicious, especially with those slashing claws.
Braziunas also noted that Velociraptors are Cretaceous Period predators, as is the T. rex. So in essence, “Jurassic Park” really should’ve been called “Cretaceous Park,” as most all of the dinosaurs depicted in the film (including Triceratops) lived during the Cretaceous Period. Once again though, like the Velociraptor and Deinonychus scenario, “Jurassic Park” had a nicer ring to it than “Cretaceous Park.”
Last but not least in regards to the “JP” myths, remember this guy?
That’s Dilophosaurus. Braziunas mentioned that this dinosaur did not actually spit venom as portrayed in the film.
So why all the scientific inaccuracies? Spielberg did hire a consultant for the movie, maybe you’ve heard of Montana-based famed dinosaur hunter Jack Horner. In the end, even after hearing the facts from Horner, Spielberg took creative license and chose high drama via frightening dinosaur ‘actors’ to populate the film. What can I say? The scare factor sells.
In closing, the last session of the course revolved around the question that many of us still wonder about today: Why did the dinosaurs go extinct? Braziunas used examples to show the class that the strongest evidence points towards a meteor striking the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico (Chicxulub crater site). He said that the explosion would’ve been more powerful than the combined energy of all the nuclear weapons in the world today. One can’t argue that the strike wouldn’t have had a massive global impact.
Interestingly enough, and as a side note, paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin mentioned on the recent PBS documentary “Your Inner Fish,” that humans were able to evolve due to the dinosaur extinction. Burrowing mammals survived the climate change, thriving underground. These mammals were in essence some of the last creatures standing. Without all the dinosaur predators running around, these mammals flourished and ultimately evolved into primates, etc. Survival of the strongest, I suppose. 😉
I’ve only touched on a little of what Dr. Braziunas taught in his course. He also discussed the possibilities of cloning dinosaurs, how to find dino bones, and so much more. It was truly fascinating. My only complaint was that the class wasn’t longer! If you live in the Seattle area and love dinosaurs, you have to check out this course. Your inner child will thank you!