Perhaps you are a dinosaur lover who read the Los Angeles Times (“‘Jurassic World’ paleontologist Wants to Turn a Chicken into a Dinosaur“) or the Popular Science article (“Real ‘Jurassic World’ about Scientist Says We Could Bring Back Dinosaurs as Pets”). The article in LiveScience.com sets a date: 10 years (“Real-Life ‘Jurassic World’ Dinos May Be 10 Years Off, Scientist Says”).
In a recent telephone interview, Mike Habib discussed the real possibility of pet dinosaurs, making a genetic stew to create an Indominus Rex and herbivore stereotyping that resulted in a Victorian swoon for sauropods.
On Twitter, Habib had tried to convince me of the beauty of the beauty of cockroaches, but on the telephone, he did a better job of convincing me about the future of pet dinos, the reality of making genetics stews across species and animal classes and the problem with Hollywood and herbivores.
Habib was one of the panelists on the Natural History Museum’s fantastic “Jurassic World” event last week which included a visit by Hunter (a life-sized juvenile T-rex puppet), the movie and a panel discussion. In 2014, he was named one of Popular Science’s Brilliant Ten. He is an assistant professor at the USC Keck School of Medicine teaching human gross anatomy and has a joint appointment with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.
Habib contends that “Jack Horner and I are very much in agreement” on the matter of the chicken or, as the LA Times called it, chickensaurus. Habib explained, “Dinosaur descendants should and do hold a lot of genes for traits that are very dinosaurian…A lot of the genes we code for those traits are in chickens and are in other birds but they are silent, not active.” By activating those traits–for tooth, claws and long tails, we can “de-extinct” these original traits.
If you de-extinct enough of them, you might get something that for functional purposes remind you of a dinosaur, but “I wouldn’t say that’s really de-extinction of a species because you’re not going to bring back velociraptors…You are not going to turn a chicken into a padosaurus…You are custom designing individual traits, picking the things that are visually apparent–tails, claws and teeth, but the internal details, the physiological details you can’t know about.”
The other question is transgenetics. Wait! Don’t worry. This isn’t as messy as the current discussions going on about transgender Caitlyn Jenner or transracism via Rachel Dolezal, this is about things like glowing fish. Yes, we know we can make glowing fish and glowing mice. That might give you nightmares of glowing things invading your house, but the GloFish for now is kind of cool and a reality.
In “Jurassic World,” Indominus Rex gets a little genetic help from a cuttlefish and a tree frog. Transgenetics means, according to Habib, “Taking genes from one organism and intercepting them into other organisms” and a lot of the organisms are plants instead of animals.
We know that we can got dog breeds from natural selection so transgenetics has to offer us something more than a larger or smaller dog, something more than getting from the ancient wolf to the modern Chihuahua. Habib notes that “the trick of transgenetics is what you’re ultimately moving is protein coding.” To make it work the trait must be “simply linked to a small number of protein.”
The problem is that genes often regulate other genes to get a visible trait. “Some traits have a fairly simple background” (e.g. eye color), but there is no single gene for height, intelligence, weight or speed. Those things are the result of a combination of lots and lots of traits that set up a structural capacity and metabolism.
While the color changing aspect of Jurassic World’s Indominus Rex is a “cool idea” it would be impossible to do transgenetically via cuttlefish, Habib explained. In “Jurassic World,” the scientists added a bit of cuttlefish genetic material and Habib noted that cuttlefish, octopus and squids can cloak quite impressively, “but they do this with a ver complicated structure, a chromatic block which is in their skin.” The problem is moving a lot of genes without disrupting other genes and the “structures that work in the outer covering of a mollusk, a cuttlefish is a marine mollusk, wouldn’t work without having the other structural systems around them.”
These color changing cells are called chromatophores and are just below the surface of the skin. You can read more about this here (“How Octopuses and Squids Change Color”) and note that squids, octopuses and cuttlefishes are cephalopods, a particular group of mollusks.
Habib noted that the biggest problems for chromatophores is they can’t dry out. A dried cuttlefish is a dead one. Moreover, the color change is “a combination of other smaller traits” and while you “could probably move those into another mollusk that doesn’t normally change color” the greater problem would be getting “all the genes in the right place would be a tall order.”
Taking the traits of a mollusk which is an invertebrate to a type of vertebrate would be implausible. Conversely, the likelihood of making a feathered octopus would be just as implausible because an “octopus doesn’t have the underlying structures to make feathers.”
You can try what Habib calls the shotgun approach and get surprises. This was tried in an experiment between mice and bats. Mice have short lives. Bats live relatively longer. Scientists attempted to make their lab mice live longer using a shotgun approach and while most didn’t survive, some did and lived longer than a normal mouse. Yet this is working with related animals. Mice and bats are both from the same animal class: Mammals.
For a quick review: there are five known classes of vertebrates: mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians. They are part of the phylum chordata. Mollusca is the phylum and Cephalopoda is the class for cuttlefish.
Mice and bats both belong to Phylum Chordata in the class of Mammalia and the both give live birth (subclass Theria) and are not marsupials (Infraclass Metatheria) but belong to the Infraclass Eutheria (placentals). Mice belong to the order Rodentia. Bats belong to the order Chiroptera.
Habib explained that you “can’t just throw in the genes for formation of fingers, throw them into a roach” because “you’re not going to get cockroaches with opposable thumbs.” Wouldn’t that be a nightmare and I know some of you are thinking of the science fiction classic, “The Fly,” right now.
“You need a whole series of genes for constructing a limb” and then genes that give instructions for fingers. Genes also have some weird evolutionary tracts. For instance, the evolution of venom in snakes comes from two mutated genes. One if a protein that is “normally express in their testicles” and yet now turns into something that kills.
There are some things that are easy such as in a reptile, adding a neck vertebra. In a mammal, you always have seven cervical vertebra–from giraffe to mouse. To make a longer neck in a giraffe the genetic signal is to make the cervical vertebra bigger and longer. Birds and reptiles do not have a set number. Owls have 14. That’s the genetic difference between a giraffe and an ostrich. Genetically making a long neck in an ostrich is different from making a long neck in a giraffe.
So that cuttlefish to Indominus Rex camouflage is implausible although chameleon to dinosaur might not be such a big jump. Dinosaurs are from the phylum Chordata in the Clade Dinosauriformes. They have skin somewhat like lizards and thus similar support systems.
Beside the improbably pathway to camouflage, a problem Habib sees in the Jurassic series is “the common trope that herbivores are gentle and peaceful.”
In “Jurassic World” juvenile triceratops are so peaceful that they are used for “pony” rides despite those impressive horns. In another segment, our intrepid Velociraptor trainer Owen Grady (Christ Pratt) comforts one of the few surviving apatosaur. The Indominus Rex has begun killing for sport, slashing the flanks of a herd of Apatosaurs who all lay dead on the great plains. Herbivores are so peaceful that guests (in the movie brothers Zach and Gray as played by Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins) to the Jurassic World can take a clear gyrosphere (an oversized hamster ball) and drive it amongst the Sauropods and Triceratops.
(I do not recommend taking one of those balloon balls and taking it through a herd of stampeding herbivores.)
Habib laughed and noted that “other than other humans in Africa, the animal that kills more humans in Africa are hippos.” Yes, those friendly smiling hippos are fast and can be aggressive. “They have weaponry to do damage.”
“Predators,” Habib noted, “are not just strangely aggressive.” They are aggressive when they are hungry, but “if they have food, if they are full, they are not dangerous killing machines.” But for herbivores, their job is protecting their offspring from predators because “predators mostly eat juveniles” and if herbivores find an off guard predator, they might just kill it on principle. If it doesn’t kill the predator today, the predator may kill one of its offspring tomorrow.
In “Jurassic World” and other movies, Habib said “Writers get most of their training on how to write human-like characters.” So they write about heroes, villains and neutral secondary characters.
Having spent sometime as a zoo keeper in the bird and herpetology department, Habib said, “We consider them valuable, awesome creatures that have personalities whose intelligence is underestimated by humans,” although he cautioned, “They don’t think like humans do.”
One of the topics brought up in the panel discussion was that for the dinosaur role component, fluffy seems too friendly. “If we had discovered that the dinosaurs with feathers were triceratops or the ‘gentle animals,’ then we’d probably see fluffy dinosaurs. Yet the feathered dinosaurs are the top dinosaur film predators: T-rex and the Velociraptor.
In the movie, because of this dino stereotyping the Padosaur is “super mellow” and becomes a redshirt. “Sauropods are depicted as being defenseless against big predators” but, Habib contends, they would have “totally kicked ass.”
Think of it. “A mother sauropod would be hideously dangerous.” Imagine a 30-ton animal taking on a big T-rex who is only six-tons. That adult Sauropod could do some damage with its neck or tail. Instead, in “Jurassic World,” the Padosaurs get scratched and “swoon” like out of some Victorian novel.
When asked about the Pterodons escaping the aviary, Habib commented that he doesn’t think that would be “vengeful” and “swarm the visitor center.” He feels, “The first thing they would do is fly away.”
“They could fly like a bird and could swoop, but they wouldn’t be able to pick up a person with their feet. A person would be far too heavy and they don’t have talons. They would also not be able to hover.”
The Pterodons would have “no way of dismembering a person” although if they wee angry, they would poke a person to death.
Real Jurassic World problems would be preventing adults from killing themselves by flying into glass like birds. Other real problems would be feeding dinosaurs because what they originally fed on no longer exists and they would likely not have a resistance to diseased like West Nile Virus.
I told him I thought the herbivores might learn to play soccer with the human “hamster balls,” after all, horses do, but also express concern that herbivores are presented as gentle and just not very dangerous.
At the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, Habib noted that from its collection of dinosaur fossils, the most dangerous was the big and powerful adult triceratops. From its fossil remains, Habib explained, it must have had bad back problems. So imagine, a horned animal with in a permanent bad mood. Yet another reason not to be riding a triceratops.
Want more dinosaurs? Here are Habib’s recommendations:
- “The Dinosauria, Second Edition” by Weishampel et al. (For those that want a big, technical book)
- “Dinosaurs” by Tom Holtz, “All Yesterdays” (multi-authored by Naish et al.)
- “The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi” (for those looking for the latest artistic renderings).
- “Pterosaurs” by Mark Witton (not dinosaurs, but immensely popular with the same folks that like dinosaurs)
Toys: The Carnegie series of toys are generally quite good (with both dinosaurs and other animals from the Mesozoic)
Plants: Want to grow a Mesozoic garden? Ginkgo trees, cycads, and ferns are all nice examples of plants that were around for most of the Age of Dinosaurs
More toys: The LEGO 2110 Set includes a paleontologist: http://www.amazon.com/LEGO-Cuusoo-21110-Research-Institute/dp/B00L2DL6N4. (It is also one of the few toy sets to feature all female scientists, which is pretty rad).
Misc: Our shop at the Natural History Museum in LA has some fun dinosaur items, as does the Natural History Museum (i.e. the original, in London). Many other museums do, as well: