Film may set dinosaur science afire 'Jurassic Park' shows that thrill is far from extinct

June 12, 1993|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

With two gold rings in his left ear, a baseball cap jammed backward on his head and a dog-eared copy of "Jurassic Park" in his hand, Ian Patterson, 17, bypassed school and went to Towson Commons yesterday morning to watch the movie he has waited weeks to see.

"I was a dinosaur fan when I was small, then I kind of forgot about them," he said. "But when I read the book a month ago, I got back into it." The spine on his paperback is deeply creased. He's scoured the press for stories about cloning dinosaurs from their DNA, like in the movie. "I spent all of my birthday money on dinosaur books," he said.

If "Jurassic Park" turns the summer of 1993 into the time when dinosaurs ruled the box office, it may generate a lot more than just Brachiosaurus-size profits for Hollywood.

It could inspire a lot of people -- especially young people -- to read and to care about science.

At least, that's what a lot of scientists hope.

"It's a grand opportunity to grab at something that kids really enjoy, to turn them on to the fundamentals of learning," said zoologist Steven Gittelman, president of the Long Island-based Dinosaur Society. "We haven't had kids excited about science since an American footprint was in lunar dust."

"Dinosaurs are a person's first introduction, to Latin, Greek, science, biology, the past, to lost worlds, to adventure," said Michael Brett-Surman, a dinosaur paleontologist with the Smithsonian Institution. "It's everything that everybody liked as a kid all rolled into one. And the ultimate bonus is that it's real. It's not fake. It's not a story. Dinosaurs were here longer than humans, and they ran the place."

Dr. Brett-Surman thinks the film is so effective, he is requiring a class he teaches at George Washington University to watch the film. "Or they fail," he said.

Vincent Santucci, park paleontologist at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, is afraid the movie may inspire as much larceny as learning.

By boosting the popularity of dinosaurs, he said, the film will likely increase the demand for dinosaur fossils. If demand soars, so could the black market in fossils that has sprung up in recent years. That black market is fed, in large part, by bones poached from federal lands.

"We're not talking about a small problem," he said. "We're talking about a tremendous problem. There are areas of the country that are so heavily raped that researchers don't want to bother to go there any more."

Dr. Brett-Surman fears the same thing. He noted that "the United States is the only developed country in the world that has no laws whatsoever against the export of fossils. It's like open season on the U.S."

Still, Mr. Santucci thinks the film can inspire good works as well.

He's using it to drum up advance support for federal legislation called the "Paleontological Resources Protection Act," being drafted by Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat. The act, he said, would tighten controls on the bone trade and crack down on fossil rustlers.

Few paleontologists

Despite all the interest in dinosaurs, fewer than 100 people around the world study the creatures, which vanished 65 million years ago. In any given year, fewer than 40 researchers are hunting for dinosaur bones. Less than $1 million is spent on this research.

L Some paleontologists hope "Jurassic Park" could change that.

"The amount of money spent on dinosaur research in the United States, using taxpayers' money, is less than the cost of a toilet on a B-1 bomber," Dr. Brett-Surman said. "Hopefully, the movie ++ will not onlymake more people look at dinosaur research as a valid donation, but local, state and federal governments will supply more money for research."

Others are less optimistic.

"In terms of influencing federal funding, I don't think it will have much impact," said David Weishampel, a dinosaur paleontologist who teaches at Johns Hopkins' school of medicine. He said it might trigger more money for research to find and study the DNA, or genetic material, from long-extinct creatures.

Dr. Weishampel said the film might also inspire a few children to become paleontologists -- that there might be a tiny jump in graduate school enrollments in a decade or so.

"Maybe they'll be the guys who come up with the next batch of information," he said.

Dinosaurs and donations

Don Lessem, a science writer specializing in dinosaurs and the founder of the Dinosaur Society, said the film has already done a little to raise funding for dinosaur research.

The director, Steven Spielberg, and Amblin Entertainment have let the Dinosaur Society use the mechanical dinosaurs from the movie to create an exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Ford Motor Co. also donated Explorers -- four-wheel drive vehiclesused in the film -- to the society for paleontologists to use in the field.

But Mr. Lessem said that people studying real dinosaurs will probably still struggle to finance their work.

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