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The Public is Ready to See Dinosaurs with Feathers

You see dinosaurs every day. Instead of stomping around or stalking short-shorted men, they flit and frolic above our heads. Birds – modern dinosaurs – are the enduring lineage of the long-dead beasts that fill our museums. Only the millions of years of separation hide the simple fact that everything we consider to be a bird-like characteristic was first a (non-avian) dinosaur characteristic. That includes feathers.

You won’t see feathers on any dinosaur in Jurassic World. And though are good reasons for this, the public is ready to see fluffy velociraptors and T. rex. We need to see them.

FeatherTime_1Click to enlarge.

The original Jurassic Park had a few good excuses to not feature feathered dinosaurs. For one, though the idea of fuzzy dinos had been suggested for decades before the movie came out, it wasn’t until three years after its debut that Sinosauropteryx was established as the “first” feathered dinosaur.

Another was the way the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park were created. The DNA extracted from the preserved mosquitoes wasn’t complete, and therefore needed frog DNA to make it whole (why inGEN didn’t use bird DNA, which literally contains inactive dinosaur genes, is beyond me). Frogs didn’t have feathers so neither did the dinosaurs.

Then there was the narrative decision to make dinosaurs in Jurassic Park scary. World-famous paleontologist and technical adviser to all Jurassic Park films Jack Horner said in a conversation at Los Angeles’ Natural History Museum that he pushed director Steven Spielberg to have feathered dinosaurs, but was denied.

“Technicolor, feathered dinosaurs just aren’t as scary,” Horner quoted Spielberg.

To be clear, scientists now believe that many if not most dinosaurs had some kind of plumage. The clever velociraptors featured in the first Jurassic Park (in reality the size of turkeys) were likely covered in feathers that resembled modern birds. It’s likely that even T. rex had proto-feathers – more like quills – perhaps used for display.

But wherever dinosaurs fell on the feather spectrum, from basic quills to gliding feathers, the fact is that we now know that these incredible animals looked a lot more like modern birds than we thought. That’s what we need to see.

FeatherTime_2Click to enlarge.

In Jack Horner’s mind, “dinosaurs could be any color that birds are…including pink.” That definitely would make for a less terrifying T. rex, and is again the reason why Jurassic World does not have any feathered dinosaurs. To the film’s credit, there are a few lines about genetically modifying the dinosaurs for the visitors dealing with the feather furor. “These aren’t what dinosaurs actually looked like,” the film’s lead geneticist yells. “These aren’t natural!”

The Jurassic Park franchise isn’t a monster-movie franchise, at least not as we typically think of them. In 1993, the original film was an adventure, not a slasher flick. Minutes of dialogue were devoted to establishing the connection between modern birds and dinosaurs. The unforgettable, sweeping scores of John Williams never inspired dread. Maybe suspense, but never terror. Children fed gentle giants, philosophy and ethics weren’t forgotten concepts, and practical effects really let us see dinosaurs, as a culture, for the first time.

Feathers may be more fun than scary. It’s true. A fluffy pink T. rex does not a monster make. For the direction that Jurassic World is taking, that decision is even justifiable. But think of the future paleontologists and biologists that walked out cinema doors in 1993. Imagine the awe that filled them (which the original film still manages to do, over twenty years later). Jurassic Park created wonder, created curiosity, because it showed audiences what these extinct creatures might look like were they still walking around.

As science writer Brian Switek says, a velociraptor without feathers isn’t a velociraptor. Can Jurassic World capture the public’s imagination and sense of wonder without featuring our best approximations of dinosaurs’ true appearance? Maybe. (I personally was consistently entertained.) Nothing requires these films to be scientifically accurate. But we are ready for reality, ready for feathers. We want to be taken back in time again.

Kyle Hill is the Science Editor at Nerdist Industries. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.

IMAGES: Constantijn van Cauwenberge; Powered by deviantART//Monopteryx; Durbed



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