Art by John Conway
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Feathery Velociraptor don't have to look silly.
Art by John Conway

A Velociraptor Without Feathers Isn’t a Velociraptor

Jurassic Park is the greatest dinosaur movie of all time. Aside from being an exceptionally entertaining adventure, the film introduced audiences to dinosaurs that had never been seen before – hybrids of new science and bleeding-edge special effects techniques. The active, alert, and clever dinosaurs that paleontologists had recently pieced together were revived by way of exquisite puppetry and computer imagery, instantly replacing the old images of dinosaurs as swamp-dwelling dullards. Despite the various scientific nitpicks and some artistic license overreach – let’s not talk about the “Spitter” – Jurassic Park showed how science and cinema could collaborate to create something truly majestic. That’s why it’s so disappointing to hear the the next Jurassic Park sequel is going to turn its back on a critical aspect of dinosaur lives. In Jurassic Park 4, the film’s director has stated, there will be no feathery dinosaurs.

Three years after the first Jurassic Park debuted, paleontologists announced that the small theropod Sinosauropteryx was covered in a fine coat of fuzzy protofeathers. This was just the initial drop in a flood of feathery dinosaur discoveries which confirmed that a wide variety of dinosaurs bore archaic forms of plumage, from simple filaments to asymmetrical feathers that would have allowed them to fly. And not only did these discoveries confirm the fact that birds are one lineage of dinosaurs, but that many bird traits – such as feathers – evolved long before the first avians took to the air.

Velociraptor was definitely a feathery dinosaur, and Tyrannosaurus probably was, as well. In fact, other dinosaurs more distantly-related to birds – such as Triceratops – at least sometimes sported swaths of bristles, quills, or similar body coverings in addition to the pebbly tubercles of their skin. Dinosaurs were far stranger and flashier than anyone expected.

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Are fluffy tyrannosaurs – such as these Yutyrannus – any less scary than the leathery-skinned sort?

The Jurassic Park franchise quickly fell behind the times. There was not a feather to be seen in 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Granted, maybe the filmmakers didn’t have time to incorporate new designs that fluffy little Sinosauropteryx could have inspired. But 2001’s Jurassic Park III blundered by making the barest token effort to update their dinosaurs. The Velociraptor pack that harries fictional paleontologist Alan Grant and companions have little feathery wisps on their otherwise bald bodies. If you’re going to put feathers on dinosaurs, you really have to commit to the bit. The Jurassic Park franchise actually made their dinosaurs look sillier by holding back while science was giving dinosaurs a major makeover.

Now Jurassic Park 4 director Colin Trevorrow – who recently helmed the fun indie scifi confection Safety Not Guaranteed – is saying that the Jurassic Park franchise is going to continue to ignore some of the coolest science paleontology has to offer. Granted, Tevorrow’s statement on the matter was rather brief, but on Twitter he simply said “No feathers. #JP4.” How sorely disappointing.

I have no idea what dinosaurs are due to appear in Jurassic Park 4. I wish that I did. But if Velociraptor and Tyrannosaurus are reprising their roles, these dinosaurs should certainly have some kind of plumage. That comes right from fossil evidence and evolutionary logic. But this is about more than just visuals. A blockbuster summer film has the opportunity to introduce audiences to dinosaurs as have never been seen before on the big screen while simultaneously throwing some much-needed support to evolution by visualizing one of the critical traits that connects avian and non-avian dinosaurs. And speaking as an unabashed dinosaur fan myself, a dinosaur bearing fuzz, feathers, or quills is so much stranger and more wonderful than yet another olive green, scaly monstrosity. Hollywood, let paleontologists help you push the boundaries of fantastic dinosaurs.

Franchise purists might point out that Trevorrow’s plan is in the spirit of the original Jurassic Park. Nobody loves a retcon. But the franchise has already changed its dinosaurs several times with no explanation. The first sequel introduced new color palettes for the dinosaurs, as did the third film. (Not to mention the fact that Jurassic Park III raises the mystery of why Site B contains species that InGen didn’t clone, and never actually resolves this point.) If the dinosaurs are changing from film to film to start with, why not take a jump and show audiences something they have never witnessed before?

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The fuzzy dinosaur Sinocalliopteryx actually ate other forms of feathered dinosaurs.

We shouldn’t feel bound by what audiences are comfortable with. I’ve never seen a major feature create a truly well-done, scary feathered dinosaur, mostly because they have been afraid to commit to science that differs from our cherished childhood imagery of what dinosaurs were. But if the creators of the original Jurassic Park showed the same fealty to old dinosaurs – tail-dragging, lumbering idiots – then the film might not have had the major cultural impact that it did. It’s time to take a calculated risk and update Jurassic Park‘s dinosaurs.

Of course, I don’t have much any sympathy for complaints that feathery dinosaurs look lame. If feathered dinosaurs look silly, that’s because of a lack of care and attention from those that restore them. Paleoartists John Conway, Emily Willoughby, Julius Csotonyi, and others, by contrast, have aptly demonstrated that feathered dinosaurs can be just as awe-inspiring and fascinating as the naked-skinned monsters we used to know. The only trick is fostering those dinosaurs according to science and looking to living animals to bound our speculation. Dipping a digital Velociraptor in electronic glue and shaking some feathers over it just won’t do.

If you’re being chased by a tyrannosaur, a carefully-arranged coat of fuzzy feathers doesn’t make the dinosaur any less fierce or threatening, just as there is something undeniably unsettling and scary about envisioning a Velociraptor cleaning blood from its colorful plumage after a kill. Letting feathery dinosaurs run wild could inspire a whole new generation of young fossil fans, thrill audiences, and give evolutionary science a much needed boost. When we eventually return to Jurassic Park, I most certainly hope to see feathery dinosaurs strut their stuff.