It’s been more than two decades since the original Jurassic Park movie introduced millions around the world to action packed, blockbuster dinosaur shenanigans. The fourth film in the series, Jurassic World, opens today, and will likely affect how a whole new generation of viewers perceive the terrible lizards and the scientists who study them.
Unlike his silver-screen counterpart, paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim, PhD, postdoctoral researcher in the department of organismal biology and anatomy, is not a motorcycle-riding, velociraptor gang-leading, shotgun-toting hunter of dinosaurs. He’s a real dinosaur hunter, the kind that travels to remote places like the Sahara desert to unearth what life was like in the deep past. At only 32, he has already contributed to numerous major discoveries, including Spinosaurus, African dinosaur tracks, ancient fish from Morocco and a 95 million-year-old flying reptile with an 18-foot wingspan.
Science Life also asked Ibrahim a few questions about real-life dinosaur hunting.
Did you watch Jurassic Park as a kid and were you inspired by it at all?
Nizar Ibrahim: I did, of course, watch the original Jurassic Park as a kid and, like most people, I was blown away seeing the CGI dinosaurs rampage over the screen. Sure, I spotted a few scientific inaccuracies, but, hey, it’s a Hollywood movie. It was a fun movie, but more importantly, it introduced a huge number of people to the idea of dinosaurs as agile and dynamic animals. That was really important and only a movie like Jurassic Park could reach so many people in such a short amount of time. That is a legacy people sometimes forget.
[SPOILER ALERT] So apparently there’s a genetically engineered dinosaur in Jurassic World known as Indominus Rex, which is bigger and more deadly than the T. Rex. Who would win a fight between I. Rex and Spinosaurus?
NI: Haha. Good (and highly hypothetical!) question. From what I read they made the genetically engineered Indominus rex about as big, deadly and intelligent as possible. So the odds would be stacked in favor of the “made up” dinosaur. Having said that, the claws and jaws of Spinosaurus could do some real damage, so who knows?
What’s the most important thing you’d like people to know about paleontologists?
NI: Paleontologists are real life time travelers. They are the only people who can really take us on a journey to a “Jurassic World”. Unlike the genetically engineered creatures in Jurassic World, fossils excavated all over the world belong to real animals from lost worlds in deep time. Bizarre, beautiful and awe inspiring animals with real bones, blood and skin. That animals as incredible as dinosaurs really existed and ruled our planet is mind blowing. Paleontologists work on dinosaurs and other extinct animals, piecing together a story more epic than any Hollywood story – the story of life on our planet.
What about dinosaurs?
NI: Calling someone “a dinosaur” still has a negative ring, conjuring up images of “failures of evolution”. Nothing could be further from the truth. We now know that dinosaurs were incredibly successful. If the forces of nature had not “conspired” against them – in the form of a asteroid impact, large scale volcanism, sea level and temperatures changes – they may well have ruled our planet for many millions of years longer. And let’s not forget that birds, the direct descendants of small predatory dinosaurs, are very diverse, even today.
How do you feel about dinosaur representation in Hollywood?
NI: Dinosaurs (along with sharks and many other animals) are often portrayed like mindless killing machines. Sure, some dinosaurs were fierce predators, but they certainly did not spend all day roaring at other creatures and rampaging through the vegetation. They were animals – even the largest predators face difficult challenges, and have to avoid serious injury – and as such they would also spend time resting, searching for a mate, patrolling their territory and in some cases maybe interacting with their young. Sure, made up monsters such as dragons capture our imagination, but dinosaurs are in a class of their own. What makes dinosaurs so incredible is that they were real and we should make a bigger effort of conveying this difference in movies,
Are dinosaur movies like Jurassic World a good thing?
NI: I think Jurassic World appeals to a very deep seated fascination we all have with dinosaurs – young and old, men and women – and I think this is a very positive thing about these movies. It certainly generates a lot of interest in my field and in paleontology in general.
I think there are very few people who can walk towards a towering dinosaur skeleton in a museum and not stand there in awe, grasping the fact that this was an animal with a heart, lungs and a brain. It’s like peering into a window revealing a glimpse of the deep past of our planet. This can be quite unsettling for some people – a planet now ruled by Wall Street was once ruled by creatures straight out of a bizarre, surreal dream. It really makes you appreciate that our time here is not infinite and that our planet had a long history before we entered the scene and that it will have a long history ahead long after the last human has fossilized. Not everyone will ponder these questions after watching a blockbuster movie, but films like Jurassic World are a great gateway to a deeper appreciation of natural history. In fact, the original Jurassic Park movie has inspired a whole generation of new paleontologists now working in museums and universities all over the world.