As Jurassic Park taught pretty much anyone from my generation, Palaeontology is a fascinating field. You’re talking about giant lizards that used to stomp about the Earth, what’s not to love. It consists of what I consider to be two main strands. Classifying the fossils we find, and experiments that garner raised eyebrows from funding committees, and thumbs up from the founder of Jurassic Park.
On the face of it, one of these sounds immediately more interesting than the other. But the experiments would not be possible without first understanding the fossils we find. It’s also yielded some pretty amazing things by itself. The first of those things is possibly the most well-known: That lots of dinosaurs had feathers. We’ve seen them preserved in fossils, and we’ve seen evidence on the bones of other dinosaurs. In fact, flying in the face of everything Jurassic Park tells us, Velociraptor was really covered in feathers and about the size of small dog. Some people say this isn’t scary. Some people have never met geese.
It goes further than that though. It’s reckoned T-Rex probably had feathers too, due to its similarity with dinosaurs like Velociraptor. But no-one says T-Rex isn’t scary. Cowards. It’s even widely accepted that birds should belong in the same category as dinosaurs.
Classification also gives us dragons. Recently unearthed in China is a fossil of a dinosaur that clearly had both feathers, and wings like a bat. They called it Yi Qi (pronounced ee-chee), which means “strange wing.” This thing though wasn’t much bigger than a turkey and probably only used its wings to glide. So it might be a little early to get the Game of Thrones crew on the line. And judging by recent internet reactions, they probably have enough on their plate.
There is a problem with studying palaeontology, classifying things only goes so far if all you have are fossils. If you want to study elephants, go look at elephants. If you want to study dinosaurs…tough, here’s a rock. So scientists got creative, freakishly creative. So the experiments begin. The experiments which suggest to me that palaeontologists should have to undergo full psych evaluations.
Some are just odd: A group of scientists wanted to work out the mechanics of how dinosaurs like velociraptor walked. However, they didn’t have a velociraptor, so they grabbed some chickens, stuck plungers on their backsides and said “close enough.” They did get some pretty useful data on dinosaur locomotion, so maybe they’re onto something.
Continuing in the vein of doing weird things with chickens, recently another group of scientists wanted to study the evolution of bird beaks. So they got some chicken embryos and tweaked about with their genes. They blocked the part of the gene that allowed beaks to form. Instead, a toothy snout like a crocodile or a dinosaur grew from two bones in the skull. Maybe instead of Jurassic Park we’ll have Dino-Chicken Park.
There are also some pretty insane theories about what happened to the dinosaurs. My favourite says that it was dark matter that got them in the end. Dark matter is something which supposedly makes up most of the mass of our universe. However, it doesn’t interact with light, so we’ve never been able to see it, or understand it. CERN, in Switzerland is currently on the lookout for the stuff. There are theories that say our solar system passed near some dark matter. The gravity from this dark matter then knocked a heap of asteroids our way, one of which landed and triggered the extinction of the dinosaurs. (It should be noted however that a lot of scientists consider this the Ralph Wiggum of dino-theories.)
As much as my inner child will loathe me for saying this, we’ll probably never have Jurassic World. It’s unlikely we’ll ever find anything close to intact DNA strands, and merging them with an animal as different as a frog, just won’t work. But I take comfort in the insanity of some of the experiments going on. They’re insane, but they’re creative, taken from a generation who grew up with the hope that anything was possible.
And Jurassic World is full of inaccuracies. Velociraptors were really feathery geese, and Stegosaurus and T-Rex didn’t even co-exist (in fact, we’re closer to T-Rex than Stegosaurus was). In the end though, I don’t think it matters too much. To inspire a new generation, they just need to want to be Chris Pratt (and who doesn’t, so hot right now) with his Velociraptor buddy patrol. Then when they ask, we can tell them everything. We can show them the insane truths and the crazy experiments that put fiction to shame. Then we can all sit down, turn on Jurassic Park and get misty-eyed when that theme starts playing.