Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Lot of Fuss Over Feathers

It’s not unusual for a new science fiction movie to stir up a lot of discussion and debate on the internet, but in my experience, the science tends to take a back seat to the fiction. But Jurassic World has the internet all a-buzz over the science, arguing whether or not the dinosaurs should have feathers.

It shouldn’t be a big surprise that I fall on the “yes they should” side of this debate. My main reason is simple: that’s how dinosaurs were. Leopards come with spots, moose come with antlers, and velociraptors came with feathers. One of the best things about the first Jurassic Park movie was that it focused on depicting the dinosaurs as amazing animals, and those animals became firmly established in the minds of the public. Even the things the movie got wrong have endured so well that they are now common misconceptions about dinosaurs. If you want a movie to do justice to dinosaurs as incredible, real creatures, and not just movie monsters, you take everything that comes with them, even the parts that are unfamiliar to you.

Of course, people on the other side of the debate have made several points in favor of leaving the dinosaurs featherless. Here, I’ll respond to some of the most common anti-feather arguments:

“Why are we arguing about the appearance of creatures that lived tens of millions of years ago? Scientists can’t possibly know for sure what they looked like.”
It is absolutely true that there’s a lot about dinosaurs paleontologists don’t know, and in particular there are a lot of big mysteries surrounding their appearance. Feathers are not one of these big mysteries.
Dozens of non-bird dinosaur fossils from several dinosaur families have been discovered with preserved feathers. Some dinosaurs, including some tyrannosaurs and the famous Sinosauropteryx, had primitive fluffy downy feathers, while many “raptors” have been found with feathers almost the same as bird feathers; some even have wings. Some dinosaurs were mostly scaly with patches of feathers, while others were mostly feathered with patches of scales. This, we know.
What we don’t know is exactly how many dinosaurs had feathers. Tyrannosaurus, for example: we’ve never found a Tyrannosaurus fossil that gives us a good idea of its body covering, aside from a few small patches of scales, but some of its close relatives – and many of its slightly-less-close relatives – had abundant feathers, so there’s a very good chance the tyrant king sported them, too. In fact, there's probably more evidence for a feathered T. rex than a fully scaly one. Over the last couple of decades, more and more new fossils have added to the list of dinosaurs that definitely or likely had feathers.

Sinosauropteryx, the first non-bird dinosaur discovered with feathers.
Notice all that primitive feather fluff around the bones!
Picture from Wikimedia Commons.
“I don’t want to see a fuzzy/fluffy dinosaur! That’s not cool or scary at all!”
This one is strange to me. There are plenty of fuzzy/fluffy animals that are cool and scary. Grizzly bears are fuzzy all over. Lions have big fluffy manes. Eagles are covered in feathers and they’re awesome. Cassowaries are feathered and they are downright terrifying. Do a Google search for “feathered dinosaur” and you’ll find plenty of cool-looking artwork.
Besides, who says dinosaurs have to look cool and scary? They’re animals. They don’t exist to entertain us. Like I said above, feathers are just part of some dinosaurs. Who are we to remove them just so we’ll think they’re “cooler” that way?

“The dinosaurs of Jurassic Park are genetically modified creatures, not real, accurate dinosaurs. This easily explains why they don’t have feathers.”
True, but you can also easily explain giving them feathers for the same reason. Here:
As the first movie explained, the dino DNA is incomplete, so the scientists fill in the gaps with frog DNA. Jurassic World could simply say that their methods have improved, leading to more complete DNA, and thus more accurate dinosaurs, now with feathers.
Or, if their methods haven’t improved, perhaps their knowledge has. Scientists now know that many dinosaurs were feathered, so the Jurassic World scientists have tweaked the incomplete DNA to give the dinos feathers to be more consistent with our scientific understanding.
These explanations wouldn’t even take up much screen time. You could have a tour guide spout one off in 30 seconds at the beginning of the movie. This wouldn't be at all difficult for movie-goers to grasp.

“Giving the dinosaurs feathers would be inconsistent with earlier movies!”
The previous movies are already inconsistent. Between the first and third movies, the velociraptors changed in color, shape, and integument (they had quills in the third one), and none of those changes were explained, and it wasn't a big deal.
Plus, I think the benefits of showing accurate dinosaurs outweigh any problems of inconsistency.

“Adding all those CGI feathers is time-consuming and expensive!”
If Journey to Dinosaur Island, by some studio I’ve never heard of, can do it, Universal Picture’s Jurassic World can do it.

“The other movies had inaccuracies too! What about the oversized raptors, or the spitting Dilophosaurus?”
True, the earlier movies have a bunch of scientific errors. But that’s not an excuse for the new movie to be as wrong as it wants. Paleontologists and educators are still struggling to correct those misconceptions from 20 years ago, why add more with the new movie?
Besides, this case is arguably different. This isn’t just a mistaken or un-proven depiction of one species of dinosaur, this is intentional ignorance of one of the most revolutionary series of dinosaur discoveries of the last few decades, for no reason other than “people don’t like it.”

“Jeez, it’s just a movie! It’s entertainment, not education!”
But why can’t we have both?
Jurassic Park was, and still is, a monumental part of public perception of dinosaurs. When people think dinosaurs, they think the Jurassic Park dinosaurs. Not only was it the first movie to depict truly life-like dinosaurs, it cemented a new image of dinosaurs into the public mind, an image that still persists today. Jurassic World had the chance to do that again. By introducing updated, more accurate depictions of dinosaurs, this new movie could have inspired a new, enduring public image of dinosaurs – a more correct one! Instead, they’re giving us the same outdated dinosaurs we saw back in 1993.

Deinonychus, my favorite dinosaur,
fantastic, fearsome, feathered.
From Wikimedia Commons.
I know how the movie industry works: you make product to sell to consumers. So I don’t expect every sci-fi movie to be entirely accurate. But I can’t help but feel insulted on behalf of all paleontologists that, after two decades of incredible research and discovery which has majorly updated the way we understand dinosaurs, the biggest dinosaur movie since – well, probably Jurassic Park itself – is just going to ignore all of that.

I love Jurassic Park because it showed me the most real dinosaurs I’d ever seen. I’d love to see one of its sequels do it again. 

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