The University of Manchester says: “Jurassic Park is fiction”

September 12, 2013 • 11:19 am

by Matthew Cobb

Who doesn’t love Jurassic Park? My daughter Evie is inviting her friends round to watch it on Sunday, and we’ll project it onto a wall with sound from some decent speakers for them. It will be fab.

Now we all knew the film was fiction, but the science is looking increasingly ropey year by year. There’s nowt so old fashioned as previous decades’ visions of the future.

And my heartless colleagues at the University of Manchester have gone some way to destroying the dreams of Evie and her pals. First, Bill Sellers showed a few years back that T. rex was a pretty poor runner – it could barely outpace the then global soccerball superstar David Beckham, who was no Usain Bolt. (The exact calculations were T. rex top speed of 17.9 mph, compared to 17.7 mph for Beckham).

Above all, what Bill inadvertently showed was that the jeep would have EASILY outsped (?) T. rex. If you find yourself in a jeep being chased by a T. rex, then just put your foot down. You’ll be fine.

Now another group of colleagues, led by ‘Spider’ Dave Penney (who is also the publisher of Ted Benton’s book on Wallace) have destroyed the very heart of Jurassic Park. They have tried to isolate DNA from copal – the resinous ‘predecessor’ of amber – and failed.

I have been following their work with some excitement, but sadly the results, published today in PLoS ONE, are clear and unambiguous. They had two samples of copal, each containing a stingless bee, one sample from the last few decades (as measured by its radioactivity) and the other from around 10,000 years ago.

Dave worked in a dedicated facility for studying ancient DNA, run by another colleague, Terry Brown. And despite their best endeavours, using the latest ‘next generation’ sequencing approach, they found no DNA related to bees. Charmingly, they say in the discussion:

“We do not believe that our negative results, from two sequencing libraries prepared from four extracts, can be ascribed entirely to technical incompetence.”

Their disappointing conclusion is:

“We were therefore unable to obtain any convincing evidence for the preservation of ancient DNA in either of the two copal inclusions that we studied, and conclude that DNA is not preserved in this type of material. Our results raise further doubts about claims of DNA extraction from fossil insects in amber, many millions of years older than copal.”

So. T. rex wasn’t that fast, and the whole DNA-from-amber thing looks shakey (never mind the extra bonkers nature of the bitten-by-mosquitoes scenario, or using-amphibian-DNA-to-patch-holes-in-the-sequence business). But what about the ‘raptors? Those smart, vicious velociraptors?

You can’t blame Manchester for this one, but as the BBC rather soberly puts it: “they were a little less impressive in reality, standing not much taller than domestic turkeys.”

So not so much this… …as this

File:Velociraptor dinoguy2.jpg

Still scary, mind you – just think of a VERY ANGRY GOOSE with its head at just the right height for beaking your genitals:


Whatever, science or fiction, we still have this end-credits comment from Jurassic Park:

Embedded image permalink

This is very unfair. I don’t think it was Phil’s fault. The raptors were pissed because Spielberg insisted on having all their feathers removed… Given that there are allegedly going to be no feathered dinosaurs in the forthcoming JP4, I suspect they will all be VERY ANGRY once again.

h/t @smprsn

58 thoughts on “The University of Manchester says: “Jurassic Park is fiction”

  1. Vindicated, in two weeks ! Remember in previous posts that I claimed, firstly that there are recognisably similar personality types to be found in different species? A grumpy respondent countered that it sounds like pseudo-science. He should now be living in the ruins of his reputation, amid the wreck of his career for opposing new ideas without bothering to look at the evidence.
    The evidence is mounting. Here is a taster. We know that there certainly can be different personality-types shared by large groups; just look at the differences between men and women. Deliciously different! Just look at human differences between, say, Civil Service administrators, and worldwide adventurers like myself. Worlds apart! Remember the old Monty Python gag about the accountant who wanted to become a lion-tamer? How we laughed. And remember my suggestion that ‘goose-studies’ should be a university course? It is because geese have personalities so very different from other water fowl.
    Ducks are like goats, cats and d*gs, while geese are like amphibia and reptiles. Geese never play, and regard other creatures as a nuisance and not as companions of the farm-yard. Geese either attack or run away, and do not socialise in any way. They lack analytical intelligence; for example, finding a square of blue plastic I have placed on the lawn, they repeatedly try to swim on it. They rush to pieces of white plastic and try to eat it. Ducks, cats and d*gs would never even be tempted because they have the ability to figure it out.
    Geese do ‘triumphalism’ in pretending to have won any encounter (flapping and honking) They are cunning without remorse, even when caught breaking into the strawberry bed. In short, geese are feathered dinosaurs.
    This is the beginning of a beautiful theory.

    1. Oh, geese.

      Now we will see the crocogeese out of the creationists: “twice as likely – where are they”.

  2. I suppose they should change “angry birds” to “angry maniraptorans”. Adding packs or individuals of Velociraptor, Deinonychus, Utahraptor, or even pissed off cassowaries and eagles would for a frightening experience.

    1. From what I’ve read of cassowaries, I’d take the velociraptor in preference. Looks like one good kick would fix a velociraptor; exact opposite applies for a cassowary.

      1. I love cassowaries – they are my favourite dino-bird! 🙂 When I went to Australia & saw one, I didn’t know what they were & emailed my dad, describing them as “big dinosaur birds”; he knew they were cassowaries right away!

        I watched a documentary about them and they showed young ones playing hide & seek with each other.

  3. Above all, what Bill inadvertently showed was that the jeep would have EASILY outsped (?) T. rex. If you find yourself in a jeep being chased by a T. rex, then just put your foot down. You’ll be fine.

    Yeah but I recall that they saw the T rex in a car mirror where objects are closer than they appear. 🙂

    I also wonder if a T rex would really eat a lawyer off a toilet.

  4. If you find yourself in a jeep being chased by a T. rex, then just put your foot down. You’ll be fine.

    You’ve done a lot of off-road driving, Matthew? Maintaining 20km/hr on any of the tropical dirt roads that I’ve driven on is a pretty fraught balance between wanting to get back to the latrine pits before (well, guess) and not ripping the wheels off the landrover. And that is on fairly well travelled roads.
    Velociraptor indeed wasn’t quite as terrifying as JP made out. But the Utahraptor discovered while the film was in production, was a lot bigger. Deinonychus was a potentially nasty mouthful of feathers too.
    I don’t think that I’ve managed to stay awake through a showing of JP(any number). Though if Quintin Tarantino does a JP number, let me know!

  5. I’m suspect of attempts to gauge the running speed of an extinct animal from only its bones.

    As far as the velociraptors go, you should realize that the movie isn’t depicting them at all. They use that name, but the dinosaur they chose to recreate was actually deinonychus. Still too large in the movie (and devoid of feathers), but less of an egregious error.

    1. The confusion stemming from Michael Creighton treating deinonychus as a species of velociraptor in the original novel, IIRC.

  6. I prefer to see it as that it was thanks to the next gen capability to not amplify contaminating DNA (if I understand the methods correctly) that the ratio of false positives to false negatives are made reasonably low here and elsewhere.

    But speaking of old fashion, these techniques have an aging problem. They are no longer “next” generation. And what will we term any next generation methods? “Next gen^2”?

  7. It is uncommon, and I think fantastic, that a sci-fi thriller would describe a process that is both superficially plausible to the general public, and specific enough to inspire actual scientific evaluation.

    When I was young, I read all of Crichton’s books, thinking he had woven science into the stories. I can’t speak for accuracy of his pervasive small group sociology, but I am aware that most of the scientific premises he put forth were fabricated or overblown. Still, I have to give him credit for the JP cloning idea, since it has been truly compelling.

      1. Not so much. After all, if the eagle’s teeth stood 6′ to 8′ tall, it probably wouldn’t be able to run at all.

  8. I must confess that I did not like the Jurrasic Park movies. I wanted to, but found the acting and dialogue to be generally terrible.

    1. I was very disappointed by Jurassic Park because it didn’t have anywhere near enough dinosaurs in. Far too much stuff about people.
      Walking with Dinosaurs was much better, without all those tedious humans getting in the way.

  9. In one museum, either in L.A. or San Diego, their dinosaur section had a pack of fleshed out Deinonychus (without feathers when I saw them)in a Cretaceous forest. Walking among them was kind of creepy.

    I’m curious if they have put feathers on them now, and if so, how that changes the effect?

  10. That’s OK.

    The main takeaway from the film is that the bad guys were bad guys. They were negligent about safety. So of course they likely lied about the process and the results too. There’s no conflict with reality. (Of course, I haven’t watched the films since they were originally released, so this argument may be undone by a single line of throwaway dialog).

    Over (a lot of) time, humans may form a detailed understanding of how animals grow from gametes to adults. And these humans will still be able to recover a lot DNA from the past, just not that far back. But they can extrapolate. And they can use knowledge to reduce the DNA down to that set which produces fossil shapes we’ve unearthed.

    Humans won’t produce dinosaurs. But we might produce dinosaur-shaped things which can live in the cages they’ll be housed in. Humans are cruel like that.

    1. In the book, the problems were caused by the park’s owner being a complete cheapskate who under-cut his head of safety at almost every turn and in general displayed callous disregard for anything but milking the park for every last penny he could. The movie changed him to a kindly man who’s major mistake was hiring his deeply financially troubled son to code the entire computer system for the park and not bothering to pay him well enough.

  11. The DNA from amber could have been one of many techniques used. Or just a simple explanation to fool people trying to steal/copy their work. Like the large guy found out he had been lied to he got very upset and just had to steal the already processed DNA.
    And as for them having no feathers, they are not normal dinosaurs. They were bred with amphibian DNA, these freaky mutant dinosaurs are what we should have expected.

  12. Jurassic Park (in particular the book) just evokes science nostalgia in me. Reading the book I remember being totally fascinated by all the chaos theory stuff which was so en vogue when I was little, plus this late 80s idea of what the future of computers would be like… combined with adventure and dinosaurs and cool locations. Splendid.

    I can forgive the Utahraptor-Velociraptor confusion. Also, the dinosaurs in the Novel/Movie are partly reconstructed using amphibian dna (yeah, whatever 🙂 which can within the logic of the films and books, plausibly exhibit deviations from the historic species.

  13. I don’t think JP should be criticised about the feathers, it was made before most people thought any dinosaurs except birds had feathers.

    The things that did annoy me were firstly the name. Most of the dinosaurs important to the plot were from the Cretaceous. Secondly, it irritates me, for some reason, that almost all the DNA they managed to extract from random mosquitoes came from dinosaur species that are well known today. What are the chances of that?

    Also, there’s no way that Lex Murphy could be a Unix expert and not have pulled up a terminal window instead of using the crappy 3D visualisation of the file system which could only be navigated at the speed of plot.

    1. My two beefs were putting Cretaceous dinos in the Jurassic & the character of the girl who mostly screamed all the time….it harkened back to the 70s & before when female characters were just accoutrements to male characters whose lines mostly included screaming.

      1. Are you talking about the girl who is also an expert hacker and basically saves the day? She’s not a scream queen by a long shot!

        1. Oh sure, they show her “hacking” the computer which involved just navigating around Unix, but only after she did all the “girl” things of being scared of all the dinosaurs (needing to be coddled and coached when around them), and screaming constantly vs. the boy who loved the dinosaurs and wasn’t afraid and rarely screamed.

          1. Well, you’re right, those parts of her role are very clichéd, but she’s also shown to be highly tech-savvy and intelligent, so at least the role undermines the stereotype in other parts.

          2. Part of that is because they switched the ages of the two characters from the book to the movie- the boy was 12 and the girl was 8 in the book, and in the movie the ages were reversed and the girl was played by an actress who was closer to 15 than 12, making it look even worse.

  14. I always WAS a little dubious about the possibility of obtaining 65+ million-year-old DNA from amber. I mean, DNA is an incredibly complex molecule and, as Yeats said in his brilliant summary of the 2nd law of thermodynamics, “Things fall apart.”

    Also, the frog DNA thing…why would anyone use amphibian DNA instead of bird DNA to fill any gaps in the recovered genetic material?

    Well…we KNOW why: Crichton had to find some plausible means by which the dinosaurs could switch genders so that we could actually have a global threat instead of merely a local one. Still, that would have been much more plausibly handled simply by inserting a mischievous researcher who thought humans deserved to get smacked around, a la Twelve Monkeys.

    Oh, well. I did enjoy the creepy and smart raptors, even if they were unrealistic. For some reason they reminded me a bit of cats.

  15. “Oooh! Ahhhh! Sure, that’s how it starts.
    Then later there is a lot of running
    & screaming.”
    –Ian Malcom, from JP3

    1. That was from JP2, actually. Malcom wasn’t in JP3.

      But that quote is a pretty good summary of the plot of all three movies (and presumably the theoretically still in production fourth movie).

      But the really great thing about JP2 was that everything that went wrong in it was the fault of the so-called protagonists.

  16. There’s a fascinating book by Jack Horner called “How to Build a Dinosaur”. In the book Jack discusses the possibility of creating a so-called “chickenosaurus” by turning the genes for teeth and a tail back on and turning off the genes that turn hands into wings during the chicken embryo’s development. The results would be an animal which looks like a small non-avian theropod but which is genetically identical to a chicken. As an added bonus, figuring out how to turn the development of a chicken’s tail back on could provide insight in how to prevent congenital spinal deformities in humans.

    1. Yeah, before reading that book I believed that folic acid was mainly a fancy sounding additive they put in my yoghurt to sell it more expensively. Who’d a thunk you can use it to make chickenosaurs!

  17. “We do not believe that our negative results, from two sequencing libraries prepared from four extracts, can be ascribed entirely to technical incompetence.”

    I do not believe their results can be described entirely to incompetence but a significant fraction can.

    DNA was then isolated from both the non-destructive and destructive extracts using a QiaQuick PCR purification kit (Qiagen).

    For instance, they used the wrong kit! The PCR purification kit removes DNA fragments up to 40bp long because those are roughly the size of primers. Any DNA in the samples would have been highly fragmented and would likely have fallen in the 40bp range. Phenol:Chloroform extraction would have been a much better choice.

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