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Were real dinosaurs as bulletproof as the one in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom?

The franchise’s science advisor weighs in on dino armor, forked tongues, and Jurassic World hybrids with ‘superpowers’
By Alessandra Potenza@ale_potenza Jun 19, 2018, 4:03pm EDT
The “Indoraptor,” a new dinosaur hybrid in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.
 Photo: Universal Pictures

At one point in the new film Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Velociraptor trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) fires multiple rifle shots into the “Indoraptor,” a new dinosaur hybrid constructed from DNA taken from Tyrannosaurus rex samples, Velociraptors, and god knows what else. The dinosaur cowers for a couple seconds, then charges at its prey, seemingly undamaged. Like the Indominus rex in the first Jurassic World, the franchise’s latest human-made dino seems to be immune to gunfire.

Obviously, there’s a fair bit of scientific fudging going on in the Jurassic Park series, given that the entire series’ premise is based on an incorrect idea of how long DNA can be preserved. But that image of dinosaurs shrugging off gunfire for dramatic purposes pops up fairly often in action movies where dinosaurs and modern weaponry somehow co-exist. Is there any basis in fact there? Could dinosaurs actually have been bulletproof?

“I guess that depends on what kinds of bullets you’re shooting at them,” says Jordan Mallon, a paleobiologist and dinosaur expert at the Canadian Museum of Nature. “If you shoot a little .22 at a big moose, you’re probably just going to make it angry. But if you shoot it with a rifle round, then you’re going to kill it. I suspect the same would be true of dinosaurs.”

But just as the bullet size matters, so does the dinosaur. One particular dino could have withstood gunfire more effectively than others: a tank-like creature called the Ankylosaurus. These massive dinosaurs sported incredibly strong armor — bony plates that covered their backs, skulls, and even their eyes and cheeks. “Their skulls were just one solid mass of bone,” Mallon tells The Verge. “They would have been difficult to take out.” The bony plates, which were embedded in their skin, had collagen fibers that were crisscrossed like fibers in a Kevlar bulletproof vest. That allowed the armor to withstand the bites of a T. rex, which had fangs as long as bananas, if you include the roots.

However strong, that armor couldn’t have stopped bullets, says Philip Senter, a paleontologist at Fayetteville State University. “It’s still bone; it’s brittle,” he tells The Verge. “A bullet will shatter it.” But Mallon isn’t so sure. Though it’s an exaggeration to call the armor “bulletproof,” an Ankylosaurus could have likely survived a shot from a small pistol, he says. John “Jack” Horner, a paleontologist at Montana State University, agrees. “There’s no doubt that the armor of an Ankylosaurus would likely stop small gun fire,” Horner tells The Verge. A shot from a rifle or other big Hollywood weapons are another story, he says.

Horner, the science advisor on all the Jurassic Park and Jurassic World movies, says he actually pushed back against the idea of making dinosaurs bulletproof in the franchise. Initially, the makers of Jurassic World wanted to know if the Indominus rex could be bulletproof, according to NBC News. But Horner told them that even an engineered creature shouldn’t have fictional characteristics — it had to borrow attributes from existing animals whose DNA is embedded in the new dinosaur. And no animals alive today are bulletproof. “They wanted to give it superpowers,” Horner tells The Verge.

Photo: Universal Studios

If the Indominus rex had bulletproof armor, it’d be so heavy that it’d have problems moving. “It wouldn’t be running around through the woods like it does,” Horner says. The Ankylosaurus, for instance, weighed tons and was very slow. Its legs were short and stocky. It couldn’t have outrun even a human, and that’s why it had a spiny club at the tip of its tail, Horner says: it used it to defend itself against the more agile T. rex.

“If you shoot a bullet at any animal, the bullet is going to go into the animal, the animal is going to bleed, even if it’s a genetically engineered monster,” Senter says. “In Jurassic Parkand World, when they’re aiming at the dinosaur’s head and clearly hitting its skull multiple times, that’s an animal that’s gonna go down, because its brain is gonna be jelly. It makes it a scarier movie monster, sure, but it’s just unrealistic.” It’s also not consistent in smaller dinosaurs in Fallen Kingdom — at one point, a different dinosaur is severely injured by one gunshot.

Though it’s unclear how thick dinosaur skin was (flesh doesn’t fossilize), we now know that certain dinosaurs, like Velociraptors, had feathers. Feathers definitely wouldn’t make dinosaurs more resistant to bullets, but they did provide other forms of protection. They could have helped dinosaurs camouflage themselves, or scare predators away. Take the Gallimimus, for instance, a 400-pound beast depicted in the first Jurassic Park. We now know that the Gallimimus had feathered wings, Mallon says. The creatures couldn’t fly — they were way too big — but it’s possible they used their feathers and wings to appear bigger when attacked. “It would have been a threat display, as opposed to a physical armor-like protection,” Mallon says.

Photo: Universal Studios

Some paleontologists, like Thomas Williamson at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, find it disappointing that the latest Jurassic World movies haven’t updated their depictions of dinosaurs to align with current scientific thinking — say, by including colored feathers. “Instead, they’re pursuing this idea that they can genetically engineer anything they want, so they’re making these animals different than how they would have been in real life,” Williamson says. “And that bothers me.”

For Senter, the most annoying thing is the dinosaurs’ front limbs. In the movies, the Velociraptors and T. rex have claws with backward-facing digits. In real life, these dinosaurs actually had palms facing each other, as if ready to clap. Senter says that construction made it easier for dinosaurs to grab and clutch prey. “There’s no way they could get their hands into [the movie design’s] position without breaking their wrists,” he says.

Since working with Steven Spielberg on the first Jurassic Park, Horner says he has tried to fix or add small details to the movies, to make them more believable and accurate. For instance, Horner says that in the kitchen scene in Jurassic Park, the movie producers wanted the Velociraptors to flick forked tongues in the air, like snakes. But dinosaurs likely didn’t have forked tongues. (Mallon says scientists aren’t 100 percent sure about that, but base their belief on the fact that today’s closest dinosaur relatives — birds and crocodiles — don’t have forked tongues.) Instead, Jurassic Park featured the raptors fogging a kitchen window with their breath before opening the kitchen door — something only warm-blooded animals could do. There’s some scientific debate over whether all dinosaurs were cold-blooded or warm-blooded, but Horner prefers the warm-blooded theory.

Fallen Kingdom also includes a dinosaur that may not actually exist: a small, dome-headed dino called a Stygimoloch, which helps Owen and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) escape a cage. But it isn’t really known whether Stygimolochs existed: Horner believes the fossils found were just juveniles of another dinosaur called Pachycephalosaurus. “It was one of the things that I tried to fix” in the Fallen Kingdom script, he says. But the cute dino made the cut.

That choice, and the bulletproof dinos, don’t really bother Horner, though. When he’s watching Hollywood movies, his scientist’s brain doesn’t really interfere. “I enjoy a good movie, just like everyone else does,” he says. “I don’t need a documentary. If I need a documentary, I’ll go to the Discovery channel.”