Science is always changing. We’re always learning new things about how the world works. When it comes to my science of palaeontology, we’re always discovering new fossils, each one of which is a clue that tells us something about how the world used to be. It’s an intoxicating thing to be a part of. But also a little risky, when it comes to communicating our science to the public, because we’re constantly revising what we think prehistoric animals and ecosystems looked like.
The most famous portrayal of dinosaurs, undoubtedly, is in Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (first published 30 years ago). To celebrate this anniversary, The Folio Society has re-released the book with new illustrations of the dinosaurs by artist Vector That Fox. I was asked to consult on these illustrations, to help ensure they are faithful both to Crichton’s narrative and to the latest science.
We have learned a tremendous amount about dinosaurs since the early 1990s. Right now we are in the midst of a golden age of palaeontology. Somebody is finding a new species of dinosaur, somewhere around the world, once a week on average! This pace has been ongoing for well over a decade now, meaning that since the time the book and first film adaptation of Jurassic Park were released, well over 500 new dinosaurs have been found.
Not only that, but we’ve found many new fossils of previously known dinosaurs that tell us new things about how these long-extinct animals looked, behaved, fed, moved, grew, thought, sensed their world, interacted with each other, and evolved. The prime example are the famous Feathered Dinosaurs of China, thousands of skeletons of meat-eating raptor dinosaurs (close cousins to Jurassic Park’s Velociraptor) covered in feathers. These were discovered in 1996, six years after the book was published. Michael Crichton, therefore, never knew that dinosaurs had feathers.
So what does this mean for consulting on the illustrations for the new edition? First and foremost, I wanted to avoid any glaring errors in the dinosaurs. We now know some species, like the raptors, had feathers. We now know that dinosaurs were not lumbering, dim-witted, slow-growing brutes, but looked and behaved much more like birds. I wanted to ensure that none of these tired old tropes made it into the images, and that there was at least some shout-out to feathers.
But at the same time, the images had to work with Crichton’s words. It wouldn’t make sense to show fully fluffy dinosaurs with bird-like wings, as although this is probably what the real Velociraptor looked like, it just simply doesn’t match how Crichton described the animal based on what he knew when he wrote the book. Out of respect for the history of Crichton’s art—and the obvious fact that readers reading his prose will want to see images that match his words—we tiptoed a fine line: some feathers, but not too many.
This gets me thinking: if another illustrated commemorative version of Jurassic Park is released 30 years from now, what new information about dinosaurs will we know then that we don’t know now?
This blog is by palaeontologist Steve Brusatte