How to Weigh a Dinosaur

According to one new study, Stegosaurus youngsters were rather full-figured . 

The most complete skeleton known from this distinctive dino belongs to “Sophie,” a juvenile at London’s Natural History Museum. Despite her adolescence, she was an enormous animal, measuring 5.6 meters (18.3 feet) long from end to end.

So how much did Sophie weigh? No less than a whopping 3530 pounds, PhD researcher Charlotte Brassey said in a recent press release. If spot-on, her measurement would put the Stegosaurus on par with white rhinos and certain BMWs.

By the way, this is no off-the-cuff guesstimate. Brassey and two colleagues meticulously scanned all 360 of Sophie’s beautiful bones to create a digital model of her skeleton. As Brassey explains, “very simple shapes” were then digitally wrapped “around her body outline, and … that whole body volume [was used] to predict body mass.”

We’ve never had a sure-fire means of figuring out just how heavy long-extinct animals were. And unless someone invents a time machine that doubles as an extra-large bathroom scale, we never will. But even taking educated guesses has proven difficult, thanks largely to anatomical x-factors (how beefy, for example, was T. rex’s tail?).

When zoologist Robert McNeill Alexander attacked this problem during the 1980s, he wielded an unlikely tool: plastic dinosaur models. Donning his best Archimedes impression, Alexander submerged reasonably up-to-date miniatures in water and measured the displacement. Afterwards, he more or less scaled up these results based on each species’ real-life dimensions. This simple approach provided rough tonnage estimates for a variety of dinos. But hindsight hasn’t been kind to Alexander’s models, which—among other things—featured several inaccuracies (neck length, limb girth, etc.) that seriously skewed his data.

A far more popular technique involves femurs, or “thighbones.” In the animal kingdom, there’s a general correlation between femur circumference and total body mass—though the fact that, like birds, many dinosaurs had hollow limb bones does complicate matters.

Still, the challenge is worth grappling with. As Brassey points out, only by doing so can paleontologists answer basic questions about dinosaurian lifestyle and behavior. “If [you] want to estimate how fast an animal runs, you need body mass,” she said. “If you want to say something about … metabolism, you need to know the body mass.”

This brings us back to digital Sophie, who won’t be sitting idly by as Brassey pursues her next project. Instead, she’ll have her virtual beastie hitting the treadmill. “[Now] what I’m looking to do is begin to strap muscles on to our computer models so that we can get her walking to say something about locomotion,” she said.

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18 Things to Look for the Next Time You Watch Jurassic Park
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Universal Pictures

Twenty-five years ago, director Steven Spielberg created a movie that was 65 million years in the making. With cutting-edge CG effects and a rousing adventure story only the filmmaker behind Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark could conjure, Jurassic Park, based on the novel by author Michael Crichton, went on to become the highest-grossing film of all time at the time (today, it maintains the 17th position). Now, in celebration of the original film’s 25th anniversary and with the fifth installment of the dino franchise about to hit theaters, it’s time to look back to where it all began in case you missed a few things.

Here are 18 details to look out for next time you take a trip to Jurassic Park.

1. A CAMERAMAN PROTECTED JOPHERY ... AND HIS CAMERA.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

The film’s opening scene features the park game warden, Robert Muldoon, and a group of handlers attempting to transport velociraptors from a cage into their paddock, but it goes terribly wrong. Jophery, the “gatekeeper,” is thrown off the top of the cage as the alpha raptor attempts to escape.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

In the shot when Jophery falls toward the camera before being pulled into the cage and devoured by a pack of hungry dinos, the camera operator’s hand can be seen in the bottom right of the frame making sure the stuntperson doesn’t fall into the camera.

2. LIFE FINDS A WAY ... IN ALAN GRANT’S SEAT BELT.

The scene when the helicopter carrying Alan Grant (Sam Neill), Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), and John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) descends into Jurassic Park features a clever and unorthodox bit of foreshadowing.

When the copter hits a bit of turbulence—with Hammond giving the group a spirited "Yahoo!”—the occupants scramble to click their seat belts. Grant tries to buckle up, but finds two “female” ends, making it impossible to snap in for safety. After getting some verbal help from Hammond, Grant grabs both straps and ties them together as they come in for the rough landing.

Using a bit of resourcefulness, Grant goes against the odds to find a way to make it work—just like the dinosaurs in the park are able to reproduce despite being bred as females.

3. CGI MADE THE MOVIE’S DINOSAUR SUPERVISOR “EXTINCT.”

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

A bit of cheeky dialogue between Grant and Malcolm as the group makes their way into the park perfectly showcases their dueling personalities. When mulling over the implications of a park filled with living dinosaurs, the paleontologist opines, "I think we're out of a job," to which the chaotician responds, "Don't you mean extinct?"

The line is a deliberate reference to something effects pioneer Phil Tippett, who developed “go-motion” animation for the film, said to Spielberg before the director settled on primarily using groundbreaking CGI for the movie (“I think I’m extinct”). Instead of leaving the production, Tippett stayed on to serve as a consultant by helping the CG animators create realistic movements for the digital dinos.

4. JOHN HAMMOND’S JEEP GETS GREAT MILEAGE.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

Keep an eye out for the Jeeps that Hammond uses to buzz around and show off the park to his first guests. JP29 is the same truck used by the characters Gray and Zach to escape from the old section of the park in 2015’s Jurassic World.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

Grant and Ellie’s JP18 truck can also be seen in the garage in Jurassic World when Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard’s characters, Owen and Claire, try to escape from the Indominus rex.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures


Universal Pictures

5. THE NEXT JURASSIC PARK WAS SUPPOSED TO BE IN EUROPE.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

When Hammond pitches the grand ideas of the park to the group in the dining room—during the bragged-about meal of Chilean sea bass—corporate-focused slides can be seen in the background that suggest Hammond anticipated Jurassic Park becoming more popular than both “sports” and "zoos."

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

They also hint at Hammond’s “Future Attractions.” He was also planning to expand internationally to Jurassic Park Europe.

6. MR. DNA’S VOICE SHOULD SOUND FAMILIAR.

The animated Mr. DNA sequence impresses Grant and the gang because the little cartoon DNA strand explains exactly how dinosaurs were brought back from extinction, but animation fans should be impressed for a different reason.

The voice behind Mr. DNA is voiceover artist Greg Burson, who also provided the voices at various points for famous Looney Tunes characters like Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Pepe Le Pew. Burson was also one of the voiceover artists to voice Hanna-Barbera characters like Huckleberry Hound, QuickDraw McGraw, Snagglepuss and Yogi Bear.

7. THE VOICE YOU HEARD WAS, IN FACT, RICHARD KILEY.

Hammond gets to utter the famous phrase, “Welcome to Jurassic Park” after showing off the newly non-extinct creatures to Grant and Sattler, but we get to hear it again during the tour from the car’s virtual tour guide. “The voice you’re now hearing is Richard Kiley,” Hammond tells the group. “We spared no expense.”

Hammond spared no expense because Kiley, with his distinct baritone, was an esteemed actor of stage and screen who won Tony Awards for Best Actor in a Musical for Redhead in 1959 and Man of La Mancha in 1966, as well as three Emmys and two Golden Globes for his TV work.

Kiley was also mentioned as the tour guide in author Michael Crichton’s source novel, and, appropriately enough, voices the Jurassic Park Jungle River Cruise at Universal Studios in Orlando.

8. NEDRY IS A JAWS FAN.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

While Hammond berates Nedry (Wayne Knight) in the command center for the park’s problems, keep an eye on the computer programmer’s computer screen past all the garbage, Jolt Cola cans, and candy wrappers: He’s watching Spielberg’s seminal shark attack hit, Jaws.

9. NEDRY DRESSES LIKE THE GOONIES.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Reddit

It turns out that Jaws isn’t Nedry’s only Spielberg fandom, and that concealed dinosaur embryos in a fake shaving cream can aren’t the only thing Nedry is hiding.

The programmer’s wardrobe—with his Hawaiian shirt, Members Only jacket, and yellow rain slicker—is almost exactly the same as the clothes that Chunk, Mouth, and Mikey wear in the Spielberg-produced adventure classic The Goonies.

10. NEDRY’S DESK GIVES A NOD TO THE FATHER OF THE ATOMIC BOMB.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

The photo on Nedry’s computer isn’t some stern, pipe-smoking father figure; the little mushroom cloud doodle above the photo should let you know that it’s none other than J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb during the Manhattan Project.

The nod carries a symbolic, cautionary tale significance: Much like Hammond, Oppenheimer also used fundamental science for his own gain. Or, as Malcolm said, "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should."

11. THE PARK’S CUTTING-EDGE SECURITY CAMERA FOOTAGE IS JUST A QUICKTIME VIDEO.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

When Nedry calls the dock worker while watching live security footage to coordinate his escape with the dinosaur embryos, the webcam seen on the screen is actually a Quicktime video instead of a live feed. The progress bar at the bottom of the desktop window, and the mouse cursor over the “Play” button, are dead giveaways.

12. JURASSIC PARK’S SCIENTISTS ARE GREAT AT GENETICS, BUT BAD AT SPELLING.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

When Nedry breaks into the embryo chamber to steal the individual dinosaur types, two of them are spelled incorrectly. “Stegasaurus” should be Stegosaurus and “Tyranosaurus” should be Tyrannosaurus.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

They’re not so great with numbers either: The faux shaving cream canister Nedry uses to steal the dinos off the island only holds 10 embryos even though during their meeting in San Jose, Dodson told Nedry to take 15 different species.

13. TIM MAKES SOME REAL-LIFE AND FAKE BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS.

While fanboying out about getting to hang out with Dr. Alan Grant, Tim (Joseph Mazzello) presents alternate theories to Grant’s assertion that dinosaurs evolved into birds by citing a book by “a guy named Bakker.” This line refers to Robert T. Bakker, the real-life American paleontologist who helped shape the modern theory that some dinosaurs were endothermic (warm-blooded) and who served as an advisor on the film.

Tim can also be seen carrying Grant’s book, Dinosaur Detectives, a prop created for the film that supposedly features a foreword by Sir Richard Attenborough (the actor who plays Hammond), and co-written by Michael Backes, a real-life software developer who helped Crichton fact check the original novel and the guy who created the the animated computer graphics used in the movie's control room sequences.

14. OBJECTS IN THE MIRROR ARE ON THE OPPOSITE SIDE FROM WHERE THEY’RE SUPPOSED TO APPEAR.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

During Sattler and Muldoon’s daring escape with an injured Malcolm from a rampaging T. rex, the dinosaur comes so close to chomping on the driver’s side of their Jeep that the side mirror’s “objects in the mirror are closer than they appear” message can be seen. In reality, such a safety warning is only required on the opposite side because passenger mirrors are convex as a way to limit blind spots.

15. THE MERCHANDISE IN THE GIFT SHOP IS REAL.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

During the scene where Sattler and Hammond eat ice cream and debate the failure of the park, The Making of Jurassic Park book seen in the park’s fictional gift shop is a real book about the making of the movie, written by authors Don Shay and Jody Duncan.

16. THE RAPTOR IN THE KITCHEN NEEDED SOME HELP STANDING UP.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

The raptors in the movie may be smart enough to open doors, but they can’t stand on their own two feet. If you look to the back left of the raptor that opens the door to the kitchen while hunting for Lex and Tim, you can see a hand steady the raptor puppet so it doesn’t fall over. Once the scene cuts to two raptors in the kitchen those shots are largely CGI.

17. LOOK CLOSELY FOR THE DINO DNA ALL SPELLED OUT.

As Grant, Sattler, and the kids hide in the vents in the climactic velociraptor finale in the Visitor’s Center, the letters GATC can be seen reflected on the skin of one of the raptors searching for her prey. These letters represent the nucleobases that form the base pairs of DNA—a nod to the building blocks of life that created the raptors in the first place.

18. THERE’S AN INCREDIBLE DISAPPEARING RAPTOR.

Just in the nick of time in the movie’s finale, the T. rex snatches a pouncing raptor out of thin air and saves Grant and the gang. But if you look closely, a visual effects mistake causes the CGI raptor to disappear for a single frame and then reappear before the rex chomps down for the kill.

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Dinosaurs Had Dandruff Problems, Too
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One of the most compelling aspects of paleontology is its ability to surprise even the most well-versed dinosaur scholars. Every fossil holds the potential to shed new light on how these prehistoric creatures lived, ate, and thrived.

Now, scientists have learned some dinos would have benefited from a medicated shampoo.

A study published in Nature Communications examining 125-million-year-old fossils discovered in China demonstrates that dinos expressed a condition common to humans: Their skin would flake off, creating tiny dandruff specks. The paper helps provide an explanation for how dinosaurs managed to molt, or shed skin in an effort to create tougher exterior tissue.

The specimens consisted of skin and feathers from three different non-avian dinosaurs—the crow-sized Microraptor and the larger Beipiaosaurus and Sinornithosaurus—and one bird, Confuciusornis, all from the Early Cretaceous period. The feathers were dotted with white, 1-2 millimeter blobs that initially puzzled scientists, who eventually visualized them with an ion beam microscope. Researchers confirmed them to be flakes of skin composed of corneocytes, tough cells containing keratin. The flecks suggested that these dinosaurs molted by shedding skin like modern birds instead of casting off chunks of skin like other reptiles.

The corneocytes of today's birds contain fats and loosely packed keratin, which allows birds to stay cool during heat-intensive activity like flying. The dino corneocytes were densely packed with keratin, and they probably wouldn't have provided much of a cooling effect. That tells scientists that the bird-like dinosaurs didn't spend too much time in the air.

If they didn't fly, why the feathers? It probably had to do with keeping warm and providing camouflage from both predators and prey. Researchers hope to continue their studies on the plumage to see what else they can learn.

[h/t Popular Science]

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