These lizards mean business! Vivid film captures slice of dinosaur life, Hopkins scholar says

June 10, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Like so many millions, Dave Weishampel has avidly awaite the arrival of Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park," but not just because he had a boyhood thing for dinosaurs.

It's because his boyhood thing grew into a manhood profession. David P. Weishampel, 40, is a vertebrate paleobiologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

It could be said that he chronicles the lifestyles of the dead and famous; he's the Robin Leach of parasaurolophus, better known as the duck-billed dinosaur, that amiable, broad-billed grazer that moseyed along the edge of the great midcontinental seaway lake for about 40 times longer than man has walked erect. Dr. Weishampel can tell you how it lived and raised its children, how it walked, and he even has a pretty good idea of how it sounded -- he analyzed its hollow crest as a resonator and mathematically modeled the noise it was capable of generating.

So, with a book behind him ("The Dinosauria"), a book ahead (with Luther Young, "Dinosaurs of the East Coast"), a set of subspecialties that would make your head ache ("computer modeling of jaw mechanism"; "dentition of self-organizing structures") and a national reputation, he's a true dinosaur professional.

So, what does he think of the movie -- which he saw at an advance screening -- from a dinosaur point of view?

"I felt quite comfortable with the dinosaurs," says Dr. Weishampel in his tiny, cluttered and dinosaur-haunted office in a far corner of the medical school, where he teaches anatomy to first-year med students when not prowling for bones in far-off places like Mongolia.

A friendly jokester who has inflated dinosaurs hanging from his ceiling and a bulletin board full of dinosaur cartoons, Dr. Weishampel added, "Of course we don't know, for example, if sauropods sneezed, as the movie had it, but if they did, they probably sneezed like that."

With his national reputation for research on dinosaur sounds, he was even called by the special effects people for director Steven Spielberg late in the production.

"They wanted to know if a brachiosaurus could hum. Well, I suppose it could; there's no reason it couldn't. That made them very happy. They sent me a free T-shirt."

Generally, Dr. Weishampel gives the movie high marks.

"They had clearly done their homework, and they were saying to the dinosaur community, "Yes, we have paid attention to your most recent research.' "

The beasts in the film are very much New Dinosaurs, arising out of the revolutionary revision in dinosaur theory begun in the mid-'60s by John Ostrom and Bob Bakker at Yale. It postulates them as erect walkers of great energy and speed with complex social lives suggesting complicated brains or as pack hunters of great cunning. Their tails are carried off the ground; they are athletes and warriors. Gone forever are the ponderous and slimy thunder-lizards of yore.

But the movie does take rigid positions on issues still in debate.

On one occasion, a brachiosaurus, a 90-ton herbivore that looks like a mountain with thighs, climbs up on his back legs as frisky as a pup and begins to munch on the high leaves of a tree, rather than, as conventionally imagined for so many years, supporting himself in the wet muck of a swamp. But whether such a beast could manage such a trick is controversial.

It takes the position that Tyrannosaurus rex was a predator, not a scavenger, as some have postulated based on the theory that the "tyrant king" was too heavy and cumbersome and had such small front limbs it was incapable of ripping living prey into bites. But Dr. Weishampel does point out that Spielberg's tyrannosaur is a bit swift for its body type.

"It could probably move quickly over a short distance," he says, "but I doubt it could pursue a jeep traveling at 40 miles an hour."

His one disappointment, from the technical point of view, revolved around another issue of dinosaur theory: color.

"In the movie, the animals are all pretty drab," he says. "But they had uses for color, and it's not beyond speculation to imagine them as blue, orange or bright green, something radical. We strongly suspect, for example, that they had color vision, and it seems unlikely they'd have had that without being brightly colored themselves. And the living creatures of today they most resemble, birds, are colorful. So I was a bit disappointed they were so dull."

He was especially pleased that the movie credited the animals with the intelligence that has so long been absent from their image.

"It was really nice they put the velociraptors in the concept of pack hunting, because that indicates social organization."

The least realistic thing in the movie, he says, was an early vision of a dinosaur dig in Montana, particularly a scene where Sam Neill, playing a version of Dr. Weishampel's friend and colleague Jack Horner of the Museum of the Rockies, is seen bending over a butte with a whisk broom brushing away some loose dirt to unveil a nearly archetype-pure skeleton of a velociraptor.

"That was awfully goofy. It was just too easy. I wish it were that easy, but you've got to use a lot more than just a whisk broom. There were entirely too many whisk brooms in the camp. But it didn't bother me too much."

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