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The Dead Zoo: Dilophosaurus

The celebrity dinosaur wasn't as poorly-mannered as 'Jurassic Park' depicted.

A cast of Dilophosaurus at the Museum of Northern Arizona. Credit: Brian Switek

The way some hipsters talk about bands, hardcore paleo fans talk about fossils. “Oh, you only heard of mosasaurs because of Jurassic World? I was into those aquatic lizards back when they were eating sailors in The Land That Time Forgot.” It’s not necessarily charming behavior, but it happens. And I admit that when the cinematic version of Jurassic Park debuted in 1993, I felt a little swell of pride at already being a big fan of the movie's noxious double-crested dinosaur.

In case you don’t remember which Isla Nublar saurian Dilophosaurus was, it was the one that ate Newman. The cute little carnivore headtilts this way and that, sizing up its potential prey before hopping in the passenger seat with Dennis Nedry for a particularly vicious interpretation of necking. But what made Dilophosaurus a real fan favorite was its special power. The film’s puppet rendition of the dinosaur opened up a wide, twitching neck frill as a prelude to a gooey venom spray.

So here’s the part where I get to push up my nerd glasses and say “Well, actually…”

Dilophosaurus didn’t have a shimmery neck frill. Nothing like the prongs of bone that support the umbrella-like neck ornament of today’s frilled lizard have been found for any dinosaur, much less Dilophosaurus. More importantly, Michael Crichton himself acknowledged that the scaly ruffles were just a bit of artistic license on his part. The same goes for the venom. To date, only one dinosaur – Sinornithosaurus – has been suggested to be venomous, but that hypothesis is a misinterpretation of anatomical evidence. So far as we know, dinosaurs weren’t venomous, and there’s no indication that any of them hacked up lung butter to launch at the eyes of their victims and rivals.

Of course, I can already hear the chorus of “It’s just a movie” rising. It’s a familiar one, and more than a little myopic. I get that Jurassic Park is a movie. The science of that film – from genetics to paleontology – is so wrong that we could spend more time picking out all the errors than the runtime of the movie itself. But it’s the “just” part of the common refrain that bugs me like a Cretaceous mosquito.

Movies don’t exist in isolation from the rest of culture, or even science. That goes double for Jurassic Park, to date the most culturally potent depiction of what dinosaurs were and how they behaved. As far as Dilophosaurus goes, it’s the reason why there was a proliferation of spitting animatronic dinosaurs in zoos, theme parks, and museums after 1993, and why so many people are familiar with the name Dilophosaurus at all.

Even though the rate of dinosaur discovery is trotting along at an unprecedented pace, most of our favorite dinosaurs are the same ones that would have wowed museum crowds a century ago. Tyrannosaurus, Stegosaurus, Triceratops, Brontosaurus. These dinosaurs stood out because nothing like them had ever been seen before, they carved out space in museum halls early, and they gained a cultural inertia that can’t be stopped. The newer additions to the household name list have the Jurassic Park franchise to thank. Velociraptor was named in 1924, for example, but the dinosaur was essentially unknown outside hardcore fossil fans until Jurassic Park selected the raptors as villains. Dilophosaurus was a newer addition, named in 1970, but didn’t pop in the public consciousness until after it started sputtering goo at Wayne Knight.

Without Jurassic Park, I wouldn’t have much reason at all to talk about Dilophosaurus. The Early Jurassic theropod would be just one of many crested carnivores known to kids, dinosaur devotees, and paleontologists but totally off the pop culture radar. Crichton’s ludicrous rendition put a spotlight on the animal, and, even though I maintain my wish that a Hollywood blockbuster would put in a renewed effort to get dinosaurs right, the fictional version gives us a reason to pay tribute to the real, twenty-foot-long creature that gobbled up fish from the shallows of Mesozoic lakes. Aside from simply being charismatic, this snaggletoothed, flashy carnivore marked the true beginning of the dinosaurian reign, when our favorite archosaurs transitioned from being marginal pipsqueaks to the rulers of the Earth we celebrate them as. I wish I could go back to the Jurassic to tell Dilophosaurus of its enduring popularity, that is if the dinosaur let me within spitting distance.

More profiles in this series:

Tyrannosaurus| Stegosaurus|Uintatherium| Edmontosaurus|Smilodon| Triceratops

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Brian Switek
Brian Switek

Brian is the author of My Beloved Brontosaurus, Written in Stone, and other books. He also writes the Laelaps blog for Scientific American and publishes on fossil discoveries in outlets from Smithsonian to the Wall Street Journal.

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The Dead Zoo: Dilophosaurus
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