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Will We Ever Be Able to Clone Dinosaurs?

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Jurassic Park turns 20 this year, and today, a 3D version of the film hits screens nationwide. We asked Brian Switek, a science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history, to weigh in on the movie's basic premise—that dinosaurs are cloned using DNA taken from mosquitoes.

When I was a little dinosaur fan, all I wanted was a pet dinosaur. An Apatosaurus would have been choice—big enough to be impressive, but not especially likely to eat me. But that’s never going to happen. As much as I hate to say that science will never solve a particular question or problem, the barriers to a real life Jurassic Park are insurmountable.

Time is the critical factor. The last of the non-avian dinosaurs—the undeniably awesome ones that haunt museum halls and our dreams—died out 66 million years ago. That’s so distant from us that we can’t even really comprehend how long that is, and we lost whatever chance we might have had at cloning dinosaurs within a relatively short time following the end-Cretaceous mass extinction.

This is not the dinosaur goo you’re looking for…

You may have heard that paleontologist Mary Schweitzer and colleagues have extracted some soft tissue remnants from the Cretaceous dinosaurs Tyrannosaurus and the hadrosaur Brachylophosaurus. These claims have been controversial, but they cannot be discounted. Schweitzer and others have built a startling argument that in exceptional cases, fragments of original dinosaur protein may have survived to this day. But that’s not what we need to clone a dinosaur. The starting point of any dinosaur resurrection exercise is DNA. Unfortunately for paleo nerds such as myself, DNA has a relatively short half life. There’s virtually no chance of ever recovering dinosaur genetic material.

For years, researchers have known that DNA starts to break down almost immediately after an organism perishes. Even in exceptionally-preserved animals from more recent times—such as frozen woolly mammoths found in Arctic permafrost—the genetic material of the creatures has unraveled into fragments of what once was. But it was only late last year that University of Copenhagen palaeogeneticist Morten Allentoft and coauthors figured out what the rate of DNA degradation is.

The disintegration of “Mr. DNA”

By looking to bones of recently-extinct avian dinosaurs—specifically, the 8000- to 600-year-old bones of giant, flightless birds called moa that once strode over New Zealand—the geneticists calculated that DNA has a half-life of 521 years. That’s longer than researchers expected, but not nearly long enough to allow us to ever obtain Tyrannosaurus or Triceratops DNA (much less far more ancient dinosaurs such as Brachiosaurus and Dilophosaurus). Even under ideal conditions wherein bones would remain dry and chilled at a temperature of 23 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, the entirety of a creature’s genome would be obliterated within 6.8 million years, or about 59 million years short of the last non-avian dinosaurs.

It’s really as simple as that. No DNA, no revived Velociraptor. (I’m not entirely sure whether that’s a good or bad thing.) And the whole “dinosaur blood from amber” would not have worked, either.

Let’s assume for a second that the fossilized tree sap and insect within were exempt from biological reality and actually contained DNA. Drilling through the amber to get to the insect’s gut contents would be an exercise in contamination—mashing genetic material from the tree, insect, and dinosaur gunk together.

But for the sake of the movies, let’s stretch our suspension of disbelief a little bit further. Let’s say that through magic or other equally impossible methodology, scientists are able to extract dinosaur DNA from ancient bone or other source. That is just the very first step in getting anywhere near recreating a Spinosaurus.

Parasaurolophus Puzzle

Any ancient dinosaur DNA would have come in dribs and drabs, just as with Ice Age mammoths, Neanderthals, giant sloths, and sabercats that have yielded genetic tidbits. The trick is identifying those pieces and figuring out where they belonged in an animal’s complete genome. That requires a baseline acquired from a close relative—modern Asian elephants work for mammoths, and our own genome for Neanderthals. But living avian dinosaurs are so far removed from Pachycephalosaurus and kin that their utility in figuring out the arrangement of non-avian dinosaur genomes would be quite limited. And that’s to say nothing of the pseudogenes and non-functional parts of the genome. We haven’t even completely sequenced the genome of our own species—we’re still at about 99 percent of the functional part—so we’re quite far from fully reconstructing an extinct genome.

Jurassic Park recognized this difficulty. That’s why the fictional engineers of the book and film took the boneheaded move of mixing frog DNA with dinosaur genes to create complete animals. And I don’t say “boneheaded” because of the plot twist consequence of “unauthorized mating” among the dinosaurs. By the time Jurassic Park came out, paleontologists were confident that birds were a surviving lineage of dinosaurs—a fact beautifully supported by a slew of fuzzy, fluffy, feathery dinosaurs that started popping out of the fossil record in 1996. Patching Velociraptor with bird DNA would have made a lot more sense, especially given the fictional paleontologist Alan Grant’s virtual obsession with pointing out how bird-like Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs were.

A Raptor By Any Other Name

So a Velociraptor or Tyrannosaurus genome wouldn’t be a feat of resurrection, but reinvention. Even if it were possible to retrieve dinosaur DNA, we’d have to reverse engineer the dinosaur genomes according to our best possible estimates of their anatomy and behavior. More hurdles abound.

Creating a complete DNA profile doesn’t get you anywhere if those genetic cues can’t be translated into a viable embryo that is going to grow to term. Understandably, Michael Crichton and the film adaptations of his work totally glossed over this point, especially since researchers can’t clone birds. It’s easy enough to say “We’ll stick an artificial nucleus inside an ostrich egg and the rest will take care of itself,” but that ignores the essentially biological interactions that actually constitute a living, growing organism. Since birds have outsourced the growth of their offspring outside the body, there may not even be a way to successfully clone a bird, and so there would be no method by which we could bring dinosaurs back even if we had all the requisite raw materials. It’d be like assembling all the materials for a cake and turning on the oven, but having no clue about the cooking chemistry of how to achieve the desired, tasty result.

There will never be a real Jurassic Park. But I’m not especially sad about that. Our favorite dinosaurs may never come back to life in a literal sense, but paleontologists are finding ways to extract ever-more details about dinosaur lives from what remains of the creatures. Science fuels our speculation, allowing dinosaurs to still live in the place where fossil facts and imagination meet. We still have our dinosaur dreams.  

Brian Switek tried really hard not to be a killjoy in this post. So much for that. He enthuses about fossil finds on his National Geographic blog Laelaps, and in his books Written in Stone and My Beloved Brontosaurus, out this month. “Brontosaurus” was slain by science over a century ago, yet the great dinosaur’s ghost is still with us. In My Beloved Brontosaurus, Brian follows the legacy of the cherished sauropod to explore how science has changed dinosaurs over the past thirty years, and has transformed familiar Mesozoic species into creatures more wonderful than anything we could have imagined. He lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, to be closer to the petrified inspirations of his writing.

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Atlanta Shelters Give Pups a Temporary Home for the Holidays
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The holidays are looking a little brighter for adoptable dogs from two animal shelters in Atlanta, Georgia. As ABC News reports, a new program called Home for the Pawlidays is providing temporary homes to longer-term residents of Fulton County Animal Services and DeKalb County Animal Services for the week of Thanksgiving.

The initiative was organized by Atlanta's LifeLine Animal Project, a local group dedicated to providing healthcare and homes to shelter dogs. The dogs that were chosen for the project may be older, have special health needs, or other issues that make it more difficult to find them forever homes.

But from November 18 to 25, the dogs are getting to spend time away from the shelter and in the homes of loving foster families.

“We were thinking, everyone gets a break from work, and they should get a break from the shelter,” LifeLine’s public relations director Karen Hirsch told ABC News.

Some caretakers have already fallen in love with their four-legged house guests. Foster Heather Koth told ABC that she hadn’t been considering adoption, but after meeting Missy the shelter dog, she now plans to foster her until she has a permanent home or possibly adopt the dog herself.

And for the dogs that can’t be kept by their temporary owners, just a week of quality playtime and sleeping in a real bed can make a huge impact. You can check out photos of the pets who are benefiting from the program this week below.

[h/t ABC News]

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25 Things You Didn't Know About Turkeys
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Most of us probably associate turkey with a sumptuous Thanksgiving spread, but there’s a lot more to the big bird than how delicious it is alongside your grandma’s famous cranberry sauce. Here are a few bits of knowledge you can drop over the dinner table—when you’re not fighting with your family over white meat or dark meat, that is.

1. THE NORTH AMERICAN WILD TURKEY POPULATION WAS ALMOST WIPED OUT.

Wild turkey
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Wild turkeys once roamed the continent en masse, but by the early 20th century, the entire U.S. population had been whittled down to a mere 30,000 due to hunting and the destruction of their woodland habitats. In the 1940s, many of the remaining birds were relocated to parts of the U.S. with recovering woodlands so the turkeys could repopulate. Despite these efforts, by 1973, there were still just 1.5 million wild turkeys in North America. Today, that number is up to about 6 million.

2. TURKEY APPENDAGES ARE LIKE MOOD RINGS.

Wild turkey
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The dangly appendage that hangs from the turkey’s forehead to the beak is called a snood. The piece that hangs from the chin is the wattle. These fleshy flaps can change color according to the turkey’s physical and mental health—when a male turkey (called a tom, of course) is trying to attract a mate, the snood and wattle turn bright red. If the turkey is scared, the appendages take on a blue tint. And if the turkey is ailing, they become very pale.

3. TURKEYS CAN FLY.

Wild turkey in flight
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Well, domestic turkeys that are bred to be your Thanksgiving centerpiece can’t. They’re too heavy. But wild turkeys can, reportedly at speeds up to 55 miles per hour. Though they don’t go very far—usually less than 100 yards—wild turkeys are among the five largest flying birds in the world. They’re in good company: Others on the list include the swan and the albatross.

4. THEY CAN ALSO SWIM.

Wild turkey drinking water
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Turkeys don’t swim often, it seems, but they can, by tucking their wings in, spreading their tails, and kicking. In 1831, John James Audubon wrote, “I have been told by a friend that a person residing in Philadelphia had a hearty laugh on hearing that I had described the Wild Turkey as swimming for some distance, when it had accidentally fallen into the water. But be assured, kind reader, almost every species of land-bird is capable of swimming on such occasions, and you may easily satisfy yourself as to the accuracy of my statement by throwing a Turkey, a Common Fowl, or any other bird into the water.”

5. TURKEY POOP CAN TELL YOU A LOT.

A handler picking up turkey poop at the White House Turkey Pardon in 2013.

The next time you happen across turkey poop—which happens all the time, we know—take a closer look at it. If the droppings are shaped like a “J,” they were left there by a male turkey. Spiral-shaped poo? The culprit is female.

The citizens of Pilot Rock, Oregon, probably don’t much care about the shape of the stuff, but more about the quantity of it. Earlier this year, Pilot Rock turned to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) for help combating a flock of 50 to 70 wild turkeys that would periodically invade the town, destroy gardens, perch in trees, and poop on pickup trucks. The ODFW offered several solutions, but as far as we know the turkeys still rule the roost at Pilot Rock.

6. TURKEY PROBABLY WASN'T ON THE PILGRIMS' MENU.

A recreation of the Pilgrims' first settlement
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Thanks to historical records, we know for sure that the Wampanoag brought deer, and the English brought fowl—likely ducks and geese.

7. BEN FRANKLIN DIDN'T REALLY WANT THE TURKEY TO BE OUR NATIONAL BIRD.

A drawing of Ben Franklin.
Getty / Hulton Archive / Handout

You may have heard that at least one of our Founding Fathers lobbied hard to make the turkey our national symbol instead of the noble bald eagle. That’s not quite true, but in a letter to his daughter, he did expound on the character of each, which may be where the rumor got started:

“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

“With all this injustice, he is never in good case but like those among men who live by sharping & robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our country…

“I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

8. ANOTHER TURKEY FAN: ALEXANDER HAMILTON.

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Yep, A. Ham liked turkey. In fact, he thought eating turkey was practically a god-given right, and once remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day."

9. TEDDY ROOSEVELT BELIEVED THE BIRDS WERE CUNNING PREY.

Teddy Roosevelt on a hunting trip in Africa.
Getty / Hulton Archive / Stringer

Ol’ TR may have been accustomed to hunting big game, but wild turkeys held a special place in his heart. He believed they were every bit as challenging to hunt as deer. In his 1893 book Hunting Trips of a Ranchman and the Wilderness Hunter, he wrote, “The wild turkey really deserves a place beside the deer; to kill a wary old gobbler with the small-bore rifle, by fair still-hunting, is a triumph for the best sportsman.”

10. WILD TURKEYS HAVE BETTER VISION THAN YOU DO.

Close up of wild turkey's head
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Their fantastic vision is probably one reason Teddy Roosevelt found turkeys such a challenge to hunt. They can detect motion from many yards away, have vision three times greater than 20/20, and have peripheral vision of about 270 degrees. Ours, comparatively, is only 180. And although turkeys can’t see in 3D, they can see UVA light, which helps them better identify predators, prey, mates, and food.

11. THE TOP TURKEY-PRODUCING STATE MAY SURPRISE YOU.

Domesticated turkeys on a farm
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You may know Minnesota for producing Prince, the Mall of America, and Target. But we also have the Land of 10,000 Lakes to thank for our Thanksgiving turkeys. According to the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, approximately 46-48 million turkeys are produced in Minnesota every year. In fact, it’s where the turkey that receives a presidential pardon hails from every year. Speaking of which ...

12. THE PRESIDENTIAL TURKEY PARDON MAY DATE BACK TO ABE LINCOLN.

President Barack Obama pardons a turkey in 2011.
Getty / Mark Wilson / Staff

Officially, the tradition of the sitting president of the United States pardoning his Thanksgiving turkey dates back to John F. Kennedy, who decided to let his gift from the National Turkey Federation off the hook. But he wasn't the first president to let a turkey go free: When Abraham Lincoln’s son Tad befriended one of the birds intended for Christmas dinner in 1863, kind-hearted Abe granted it a stay of execution.

13. THE FIRST TV DINNER MEAL: THANKSGIVING LEFTOVERS

Thanksgiving TV dinner
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In 1953, Swanson ended up with 10 train cars full of frozen turkeys—260 tons of them—when an overzealous buyer ordered too many turkeys for the holidays. Salesman Gerry Thomas solved the problem by ordering 5,000 aluminum trays and setting up an assembly line of workers to scoop dressing, peas, and sweet potatoes into the compartments. Slices of turkey rounded out the meal, which Swanson sold for 98 cents. The idea was a hit: The following year, 10 million turkey TV dinners were sold.

14. NATIONAL TURKEY LOVERS’ MONTH ISN’T WHEN YOU THINK.

Grilled meats on a silver tray
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Everyone eats turkey in November and December, so there’s not a lot of need for extra poultry promotion during those months. If you want to celebrate National Turkey Lovers’ Month, you’ll have to do it in June with some turkey brats and burgers on the grill.

15. THE TURKEY YOU’LL BE EATING IS PROBABLY ABOUT 18 WEEKS OLD.

Roasted turkey on a platter
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That’s how long it typically takes the birds to grow to maturity, which is when they’re usually slaughtered.

16. THERE WAS ALMOST A TURKEY SIDEKICK IN POCAHONTAS.

Loren Javier via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

At one point, Disney thought Pocahontas needed a little comic relief, so they hired John Candy to voice a wisecracking woodland fowl named Red Feather. Sadly, Candy passed away while the logistics were being worked out, so animators dropped the turkey entirely and opted for a clever raccoon named Meeko.

17. NOT ALL TURKEYS GOBBLE.

Close up shot of a wild turkey
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If you hear a turkey making the distinctive noise we all associate with them, then you’re hearing a male communicating with his lady friends up to a mile away. Females make a clicking sound instead of a gobble.

18. IF YOU DON’T EAT TURKEY AT THANKSGIVING, YOU’RE IN THE MINORITY.

A black and white photo of a family gathering around the table as the mother brings in a turkey.
Getty / Evans / Stringer

According to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans eat turkey at Thanksgiving.

19. TURKEY CRAVINGS CAUSED A SPIKE IN KFC SALES IN JAPAN.

A large Kentucky Fried Chicken sign
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When KFC opened its first stores in Japan in the 1970s, the company was surprised to find that sales soared during the holidays. The phenomenon stymied executives since most of Japan celebrates neither Thanksgiving nor Christmas. It was later discovered that foreigners craving holiday turkey had decided that KFC’s chicken was the next best thing. After the company figured this out, they played up the association with their “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” campaign—“Kentucky for Christmas.” It worked on tourists and locals alike, and today, Christmas Eve is still the highest-selling day for KFC Japan.

20. THERE IS PROPER TURKEY TERMINOLOGY.

A flock of turkeys on a farm with one staring directly into the camera.
Getty / Cate Gillon / Staff

You probably know that a group of turkeys is a flock, but they can also properly be called a “rafter.” And should you want to call baby turkeys something a little more precise, you can call them “poults.”

21. THE MAYA USED TURKEYS AS SACRIFICIAL OFFERINGS.

A Maya tripod plate featuring a bird
Los Angeles County Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Archaeologists have found vases dating from 250-800 CE that have turkeys depicted on them. According to University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee art historian Andrea Stone, "turkeys were quintessential animals for feasting and for sacrificial offerings." The Maya even crafted tamales shaped like the birds.

22. DURING THE ‘70S, YOU COULD CALL JULIA CHILD FOR TURKEY ADVICE ON THANKSGIVING.

Julia Child in her kitchen in 1978
Lynn Gilbert via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Even when she was at peak popularity, the famous chef refused to remove her phone number from public listings. According to friends, complete strangers would call Child on Thanksgiving to ask for advice on cooking the perfect turkey. Julia always answered the phone, and typically told callers whatever they needed to hear to get them to relax and enjoy the holiday. She even told some amateur cooks that turkey was best served cold anyway.

23. BIG BIRD IS A TURKEY.

Big Bird and Elmo at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Getty / Matthew Peyton / Stringer

Well, according to Sesame Street, he’s actually a canary—but his plumage makes him a turkey. The good people at American Plume & Fancy Feather provide Sesame Street with several thousand turkey feathers per costume to make sure Big Bird looks soft and fluffy.

24. THE BIRD IS NAMED AFTER THE COUNTRY.

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey
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But the whole thing was a mistake. Centuries ago, the English began to import a rather tasty bird, now known as a helmeted guinea fowl, from Madagascar. But they didn’t know it was from Africa. Because it was imported to Europe from merchants in Turkey, the English believed the birds were also Turkish.

Later, when the Spanish arrived in the New World, they discovered Meleagris gallopavo—the wild turkey. It was delicious, so they started importing it back to Europe. Europeans thought it tasted like the “turkey” guinea fowl they had been enjoying, so they called it the same thing.

25. WHAT, EXACTLY, IS DARK MEAT?

Roasted turkey legs on a piece of butcher paper
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It’s just a different type of muscle than white meat. White meat is the result of glycogen, which doesn't need much oxygen from the blood because the muscles it fuels only require short bursts of energy. Dark meat, however, is found on wings, thighs, and drumsticks—muscles that are used for long periods of time and require more sustainable energy. It’s made dark by the proteins that convert fat into energy.

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