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How to train your dinosaur

The science of complex behaviour in Jurassic World

“These people, they never learn”.

This line, spoken by an exasperated minor character as a genetically engineered super-dinosaur breaks out of its enclosure and all hell breaks loose, fairly well sums up the plot of Jurassic World.

Add “these dinosaurs, they do learn,” and you have it in a nutshell.

However, after earning $US1.6 billion at the box office, it is pretty obvious that Steven Spielberg and his team, including director Colin Trevorrow and screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Derek Connolly learnt from the underwhelming Jurassic Park III and used the franchise’s 14-year hiatus to give the public exactly what they want – a massively entertaining, if slightly silly movie with some incredible dinosaur action.

It’s 22 years after the failure of the first Jurassic Park and 18 years after the failure of Jurassic Park San Diego, both due to unfortunate mishaps involving people being eaten. Isla Nubar, the site of the original Jurassic Park, is now home to a thriving dinosaur theme park.

Visitors to the park can enjoy a variety of attractions, like taking a ride on a baby triceratops in the dinosaur petting zoo, visiting the pteranodon aviary, or driving a gyrosphere (a cross between a Segway and a zorb) among herds of apatasauruses and parasaurolophuses (and other words my three-year-old can enunciate better than I can).

Good times at Jurassic World

But after ten years’ operation, and, as far as we know, no visitor deaths from rampaging carnivores, attendance is down. Dinosaurs have become passé. So to spice things up, the research team creates a genetically modified super-dinosaur called Indominus rex.

When I. rex pulls off the most elaborately conceived escape plan since Ferris Bueler’s Day Off, people die. Lots of people die. And it’s up to the head of the park, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), hunky raptor trainer Owen (Chris Pratt) and Claire’s two young nephews – with a little help from some dino buddies – to bring down I. rex and save the day.

In a nod to the pedants, factual inaccuracies – like that velociraptors had feathers (and probably tyrannosauruses too) and only stood 50 cm high – are brushed away with an off-the-cuff remark by the scientist, Dr Wu: “If any of these dinosaurs had pure DNA, they’d look a lot different,” he says.

A theme that runs through the Jurassic Park movies is that the dinosaurs, and particularly the raptors, are smart. They are really smart. They scheme; they double cross; they can talk to each other. And I. rex is even smarter (although not smart enough to realise that rampaging across the island killing every living thing it comes across is not a recipe for long-term survival).

And in a new twist, the raptors are being trained.

Is it possible that a creature that last lived 71 million years ago can learn, and be trained?

Not so good times at Jurassic World

“I think it perfectly likely that at least some dinosaurs would have been capable of learning,” animal behaviouralist Professor Mark Elgar tells me.

“It is absolutely extraordinary what animals of all descriptions are capable of doing.”

Prof. Elgar says that nature provides many examples of complex animal behaviours, from tool use by Caledonian Crows to the remarkable webs built by spiders, to the ability of certain octopuses to mimic other sea creatures, to the ruthless planning and execution of group kills by prides of lions.

Another example is the cuckoo, which lays its eggs in the nests of other birds that then rear the young as their own. Prof. Elgar says nest choice is not random, and the cuckoo will carefully survey a large area to find the best surrogate parents.

When the young cuckoo is fledged, it flies 2000 km to spend the winter in Africa.

“No one tells it to go there,” says Prof. Elgar. “Natural selection favours a series of behaviours.”

However, Prof. Elgar says the filmmakers have given the dinosaurs, and in particular, the I. rex, a uniquely human attribute – our ability to anticipate and predict the consequences of our actions.

“The notion of being prescient … I don’t think non-humans have the ability to do that,” he says.

“The other question is whether they can be easily trained. We can train domesticated animals remarkably well (think of sheep trialling in border collies), but this is, in part, due to the fact that these animals have been domesticated. Imagine trying to milk the ancestors of modern milking cows. I think most of our ancestors at that time would have regarded the idea as completely crazy.

Chris Pratt in ‘How to train your raptor’.

“Training ‘wild’ animals might be rather harder. However, it might also be the case that the dinosaur’s genome was selected, in part, for domesticated attributes.

“On the other hand, we saw the amazing consequences of positive reinforcement processes in the movie ‘How to Train Your Dragon’. So if we admit learning in dragons (and I do), then I think we can admit learning in dinosaurs!

“After all, if we, as scientists, can’t accept a certain amount of artistic licence, then we’re a bit boring.”

So while Jurassic World is formulaic, the plot doesn’t make sense and is scientifically implausible, it’s also a lot of fun. It’s big and loud and it has dinosaurs. The last hour is non-stop action with dinosaurs, with twists and turns that keep you wondering what the dinosaurs will do next.

As the movie fades to black, and our heroes are presumably sent to jail for the negligent homicide of dozens of people, we are left to ponder: What next for this fraught relationship between humans and dinosaurs?

Whatever that is – a secret plan to weaponise dinosaurs for the battlefield gets my vote – there is one thing that is a certainty.

These people, they will never learn.

All images copyright Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment

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