Twenty-five years since Jurassic Park – A look at the digital (r)evolution in palaeontology

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“So, the question is, "Have palaeontologists actually come any closer to reviving dinosaurs today?" The answer is a clear "No" and also a clear "Yes".”  

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This month sees the return of the dinosaurs to the big screen in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. The latest instalment of the Jurassic Park franchise is bigger, louder, more explosive and features even more dinosaurs than its predecessors. In the film, the resurrected dinosaurs on the island of Isla Nublar are threatened to become extinct again. An impending volcanic eruption is about to destroy the island and all its inhabitants, and the film's protagonists are frantically trying to rescue the cloned dinosaurs from lava-spewing volcanoes, evil geneticists and scrupulous arms-dealers.

This is now the fifth film in the series after Jurassic Park first introduced us to computer-generated dinosaurs twenty-five years ago. When the original film (based on Michael Crichton's best-selling novel) was released, the idea of cloning dinosaurs using the blood extracted from mosquitos preserved in amber was pure science-fiction - compelling as it might be. While computer technology has progressed substantially in that time to make dinosaurs (and other non-fictional and fictional creatures) appear more realistically in movies and documentaries, so has scientific research in the fields of palaeontology, biology and genetics. So, the question is, "Have palaeontologists actually come any closer to reviving dinosaurs today?" The answer is a clear "No" and also a clear "Yes".

Taken literally, the answer is, "no, we are not able to clone dinosaurs and won't be for the foreseeable future". A number of research teams have focussed their attention on finding fossilised dinosaur DNA over the years but have yet to be successful. While hard parts of skeletons, such as bones and teeth, stand a fair chance to be preserved for millions of years, soft-tissues (including skin, muscles, inner organs) quickly undergo decay and decomposition. Although fragments of collagen (connective protein tissue found in bone and muscles for example) and red blood cells from Cretaceous dinosaurs have been reported, these findings are not undisputed and far from being complete enough to extract DNA. Nevertheless, they can still provide valuable insights into dinosaur anatomy and physiology.

However, palaeontologists have come a lot closer to reconstructing fossil organisms in the last twenty-five years. And they have been using the same or very similar technologies that made the original Jurassic Park such a ground-breaking success in terms of using computer-based visualisation and modelling. The last two decades have witnessed a revolution in the use of digital technologies in palaeontological research. Chief among them is the use of computed tomography (CT) scanning to study fossils. This is the same technology used in many hospitals to get an inside-view of patients based on low-radiation x-rays. In palaeontological research, this approach is now used routinely to investigate the internal morphology of fossils and to visualise microscopic features in unprecedented detail. Even better, information from CT data further allows the digital reconstruction of inner organs such as the brain, inner ear, nerves and blood vessels providing new information about sensory capabilities and behaviour.

But digital modelling techniques can also be used to repair and restore fossils. Most of them are broken, incomplete or deformed when they are found after often several hundred million years of fossilisation. Virtual reality can be used to put these Jurassic jigsaw puzzles back together and to remove breaks and cracks.

Once a fossil has been restored to its original form in such a way, the digital model can be subjected to a variety of computer simulations. Many of these simulations have been borrowed from engineering sciences, where they are usually used to evaluate the stability of cars in simulated crash tests or the hydrodynamic behaviour of planes, ships or other vehicles. Applied to fossil organisms, these computer simulations can help to better understand how hard a dinosaur could bite (and consequently which prey or food it might have been able to consume) or how fast extinct fish-like reptiles could swim.   

Just like computer-generated images and special effects in movies have become more refined in the last twenty-five years, so have digital technologies in palaeontological research. We might not be able to clone a dinosaur in the next twenty-five years, but further technological advances will certainly bring us a lot closer to reconstructing the past - even if it is only digitally.

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