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Review: Jurassic Park Was a Foreshadowing Avian-Dinosaur Affair

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When “Jurassic World Dominion” lands in theaters this June it will put a bookend on a more than $5 billion, six-film franchise that’s captivated moviegoing audiences for nearly 30 years.

“Jurassic World Dominion is the culmination of the franchise,” director Colin Trevorrow said in a legacy featurette video released by Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment. “It concludes a story that Steven Spielberg started telling in 1993.”

To embrace the culmination of the Jurassic saga, I recently revisited the original 1990 “Jurassic Park” novel by Michael Crichton, which was later adapted into the film by Spielberg. The novel experience evolved into a masterclass of unorthodox in its time, yet valid paleontology theory.

Receiving a medical degree from Harvard Medical School and selling more than 200 million books, Crichton was widely known for packing his novels with authentic scientific subject matter mirroring his own scholarly background. “Jurassic Park” was no exception.

For some readers, the morality of “Jurassic Park” is a cautionary tale of what can happen when man attempts to play God with nature. To others, the science fiction classic about the failures of a soon-to-open amusement park aiming to exhibit genetically created dinosaurs is a mortal lesson about the abuse of unprecedented scientific power in a reckless pursuit of the almighty dollar. Even broader, “Jurassic Park” is about inadvertent consequences from the illusion of control.

For Crichton, and for his leading protagonist in the novel – paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant – there is another recurring thesis unmistakably present. That is both Crichton – and perhaps Grant testifying on behalf of Crichton – bridge persisting similarities between birds and dinosaurs. In fact, in Crichton’s no. 1 New York Times bestseller that debuted 32 years ago, there are more than 50 revelational references connecting birds to dinosaurs before such a connection was scientifically substantiated.

Crichton, who in 2008 died of cancer at the age of 66, previously said he first started writing “Jurassic Park” in 1981. Fossil evidence uniting birds and dinosaurs did not gain momentum until the early 1990s. And it wasn’t until 1998, eight years after the release of the “Jurassic Park” novel, that paleontologists revealed the discovery of two small and new dinosaur species that were covered in feathers, a breakthrough that indirectly corroborated and completed Crichton’s earlier birds-are-dinosaurs argument.

One of the paleontologists involved in the seminal discovery of feathered dinosaurs was Dr. Philip J. Currie, an internationally renowned paleontologist, museum curator and professor at the University of Alberta.

“Crichton was ahead of his time linking birds and dinosaurs,” Currie says. “Under a modern biological or palaeontological classification scheme, birds are part of the Dinosauria and therefore are dinosaurs.”

That’s an endorsement and clarification of particular significance for Crichton’s work. Among Currie’s research interests are Cretaceous theropods and how they evolved into modern-day birds. He has scrutinized and advanced knowledge of the anatomy and relationships of carnivorous dinosaurs, the origin of birds, dinosaurian migration patterns and herding behavior, among others.

Currie also has a special connection to “Jurassic Park” – he was one of the paleontologists used to model Alan Grant, played by Sam Neill, in Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” film.

The screenplay for the “Jurassic Park” film, produced by Universal Pictures, was written by Crichton and David Koepp. The film does not emphasize the bird-dinosaur association to the extent the novel does, but the notion does turn up a few times, memorably, at the introduction of Grant.

In the first act of the movie, while examining fossilized velociraptor (or raptor, for short) remains in Montana, Grant points out the raptor fossil’s half-moon shaped bones in its wrists. “It’s no wonder these guys learned how to fly,” Grant says, drawing snickers from onlookers at the dig site.

Grant proposes that dinosaurs have more in common with present day birds than they do with reptiles due to dinosaur pubic bones turned backward like birds. He calls attention to the fossilized raptor’s vertebrae being full of air sacs in the hollows, a characteristic of birds. “And even the word raptor means bird of prey,” Grant explains.

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Unrelentingly faithful to his theory, towards the end of the novel, Crichton reinforces the unexpected, but correct notion, declaring outright that “dinosaurs were fundamentally birds.”

“Most of us palaeontologists these days would say that any alternate ideas are untenable,” said Currie, “and that birds ARE dinosaurs. Period. The evidence is overwhelming at this stage.”

For a long time, paleontologists’ first and lone fossil joining birds with dinosaurs was the archaeopteryx, a bird-like dinosaur from the Late Jurassic era discovered in 1861. Much more recent evidence is largely based on paleontology’s discovery of hundreds of skeletal features shared by birds and theropod dinosaurs, along with fossilized soft tissue findings indicating many dinosaurs had body coverings and distinct birdlike feathers.

“The connection between theropod dinosaurs and birds is very well established now,” said Dr. James M. Clark, an American paleontologist and professor of biology at George Washington University, who discovered the world’s oldest pterodactyl fossil. Clark’s laboratory specializes in the evolution of extinct land vertebrates, including those from fossil deposits of the Age of Dinosaurs. “The discovery of theropod dinosaurs with full-fledged feathers two decades ago was the icing on the cake.”

Anatomical similarities also yielded behavioral likeness between birds and dinosaurs. Fortified throughout his prophetic narrative, Crichton was all over it.

Demonstrating the avian-dinosaur relation, Crichton’s prologue foreshadows the infamous raptor and ends by defining raptor, like the movie does, as a bird of prey. Crichton later associates raptors with birds due to their abrupt and bobbing head movements while walking, along with their long, straight and dipped tails.

Disseminated throughout the “Jurassic Park” novel are other clues coupling birds with dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are described to walk and move their heads up and down like birds. Crichton denotes raptors are fine-boned as a bird and presumably as intelligent. He educates the reader that dinosaur hips were bird-like, not lizard-like.

In the novel, Dr. Henry Wu, chief genetic engineer of InGen and the leading brains behind the de-extinction of dinosaurs, is described to be conducting avian cloning rather than reptilian cloning. Wu hypothesizes that dinosaurs had nucleated red cells, akin to modern birds, indicating that dinosaurs were not reptiles. “They are big leathery birds,” Wu says.

Crichton wrote bird behavior into a juvenile tyrannosaurus rex that ducks it head under the water to catch fish out of a lagoon. Dr. Ellie Sattler, a paleobotanist star in the story, watches an adult T-rex inspecting a goat carcass when it hears a bird chirping, which makes the T-rex snap its head up and scan in small, jerking, birdlike shifts.

Crichton even put birdlike qualities in the notorious (and embellished on film) dilophosaurus, including the way it moves, bends, and even hoots.

The quotable Dr. Ian Malcolm, a mathematician in “Jurassic Park” who specializes in Chaos Theory, watches a pack of raptors during a feeding session and comments that the raptors dart forward like birds. Dr. Malcolm deduces that raptors have the skin and appearance of reptiles, but they move like birds and exhibit speed and predatory intelligence of birds. “Is that about it?” he asks Grant, who confirms the supposition, answering, “It's actually rather close to what paleontologists believed a long time ago.”

Likewise, in the novel, InGen CEO and Jurassic Park creator John Hammond meets his demise by being attacked and killed by a group of diminutive but vicious compsognathus dinosaurs who surround him and chitter “like excited birds.”

When being rescued at the end of the novel from the doomed Isla Nublar via helicopter, Grant looks down at a pack of raptors positioned along the beach in a rigid formation and opines that the raptors want to migrate.

And of course, the film’s end scene sees Grant looking out a helicopter window at a flock of pelicans flying nearby, a pioneering hint that dinosaurs evolved as such, and aren’t extinct at all.

© 2022 Jeremy Curtis

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