The giganotosaurus: What was the new ‘Jurassic Park’ villain like in real life?
EL PAÍS spoke with the man who discovered the first and only complete skeleton of the dinosaur, and with researchers about how the portrayal of the species measures up to reality
Few things are known for certain about the largest predator of the Late Cretaceous period. Its teeth were large, sharp and curved like swords. It was 13 meters long and weighed seven tons. And it moved confidently – at no more than 40 kilometers per hour – through South America more than 97 million years ago. It is none other than Giganotosaurus carolinii, the largest carnivore known to date and the new villain of Jurassic World Dominion, the latest film in the Jurassic Park saga.
History and legend are intertwined in the story of Giganotosaurus carolinii. The fossils of the dinosaur species were found in the Patagonian province of Neuquén in Argentina in 1993, the same year that Steven Spielberg’s hit movie Jurassic Park was released. The fossils were discovered by Rubén Carolini, a mechanic who was fond of paleontology, for whom the species was named after. Today, the 78-year-old is delighted that his discovery has made it to the big screen, although he regrets the movie was not made by an Argentine producer. “It is something that cannot be explained. I feel happy, it is very important at a scientific level and unique in the world,” he says from Neuquén. As a film buff, he hopes to have an active role in a similar project. “There’s still time,” he says.
The discovery of the Giganotosaurus carolinii changed the fate of Villa El Chocón, the village where it was discovered. At that time, many villagers were leaving due to the privatization of the state hydroelectric plant, which was the main source of work for the inhabitants. The discovery of the fossils brought archaeologists and tourists to the village, stopping the exodus in its track. The Giganotosaurus may be the villain in Jurassic World Dominion, but he is a hero to the people of Neuquén.
“Bigger! Why do they always have to go bigger?” exclaims Doctor Ian Malcolm in Jurassic World Dominion, upon seeing the Giganotosaurus carolinii for the first time. In truth, the dinosaur wasn’t much bigger than Tyrannosaurus rex, the previous villain of the Jurassic Park movies. The femur of the Giganotosaurus carolinii is barely two centimeters longer than that of T Rex. The big difference is in the teeth. Leonardo Salgado, one of the paleontologists who described the species in a 1995 article in Nature, remembers his shock at comparing the two species. “In 1994, we took the find [of Giganotosaurus] to an international congress in the United States and when we saw the original skull of the Tyrannosaurus rex we were impressed by the teeth, by their robustness. They looked like bananas. Very different from those of Giganotosaurus carolinii which are very long, slightly curved and quite flat.” Salgado is a researcher at the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (Conicet) in Argentina and works at the University of Río Negro.
When asked about how realistic was the portrayal of Giganotosaurus carolinii in Jurassic World Dominion, Salgado had mixed opinions. In the prologue for the new film, the giganotosaurus is seen fighting a T Rex, something which is scientifically impossible, says Salgado. The two species were not located in the same area, nor did they coexist at the same moment of time. One lived 70 million years ago in North America and the other, 100 million years ago in the south of the continent. “They are 30 million years apart. They never would have crossed paths,” says Salgado. In the prologue, a mosquito bites T Rex after he dies in the fight with the giganotosaurus and the DNA from the blood is used to clone the predator. This is also unfeasible, says Rodolfo Coria, the lead author of the Nature article. He explains that it is rare for mosquitoes to bite cold-blooded animals, such as dinosaurs. “The blood that the mosquito sucks when it bites is not to feed itself, but to warm up and incubate its eggs. That’s why it is the female who bites. This blood undergoes modifications in the body of the mosquito that would prevent the chromosome needed for cloning from being preserved. So the idea that you can make a clone from blood sucked by a mosquito doesn’t hold up. It’s a biological mistake.” Coria suggests a more plausible narrative. “It would have been easier to use current projects based on non-fossilized organic matter, such as those in Montana, United States, where there are preserved collagen cells in tyrannosaurs.”
Almost everything that is known about Giganotosaurus carolinii is known from its holotype, the first specimen found, on which basis the species is determined. With the exception of a fragment of the lower jaw found in the same area, there are no other fossils of the gigantosaurus. As a result, many of the conclusions about the dinosaur are supported by studies of other species of the same Carcharodontosauridae family. Conicet paleontologist Juan Canale is an expert in this group of dinosaurs and works in the Ernesto Bachmann museum, in Villa El Chocón, where the holotype of the Giganotosaurus carolinii is exhibited. For him, the Jurassic World Dominion has done a reasonably good job at recreating the physical appearance of the Giganotosaurus carolinii. “The eyebrows, the bumps above the eyes correlate with the bones. In general, all Carcharodontosauridae have facial bones that are quite ornate with ridges, grooves and bumps. This suggests that the skin would have been quite attached to the bones in that area. However, the [fossils] do not have a crown. Some artistic license was taken.”
The movie portrays T Rex and Gigantosaurus carolinii with different physical features so it is easy to differentiate the two. But it does not show how the two had very different teeth, even though this is the biggest difference between them. “The teeth of the giganotosaurus are similar to knives, while those of the tyrannosaurus are similar to bananas,” says Coria. “They are adapted to cut meat and eventually kill, but not to break bones,” adds Salgado. “While T.rex could have broken a bone with a bite.”
The researchers also question the fight between the gigantosaurus and T.rex, and not just because it was geographically and historically impossible. In the prologue to the movie, one of the scientists says: “Put two predators together and after a while, there will be only one.” But there is no scientific evidence of territorial disputes between dinosaurs, says Salgado. “What the film doesn’t convince me of is that two carnivores would fight each other, for no apparent reason.” Particularly since they would not have had anyone to fight against. “In its era, T.Rex outpowered everyone,” says Salgado, who adds that the image of the blood-thirsty predator is also wrong. “No animal kills all the time. Predators hunt when they have to hunt. If an animal comes across them at a time when they don’t need to hunt, they won’t hunt it,” he explains. For Salgado, it’s important that this be addressed when teaching students about animals. “In childhood, there is still this idea that those who eat meat are bad and those who eat plants are good. They are all equally good and bad. We can’t attribute these qualities to them. Territorial disputes between animals – unlike human ones – do not usually end in death,” he says. “If this wasn’t the case, no one would survive.” Salgado says that a predator may attack if it felt threatened, but not in order to kill. “We understand very well that it is a movie and that the dinosaur has to be scary, but that does not mean that it was like that,” he says.
Another thing Jurassic World Dominion gets wrong is the habitat. A dense jungle would have been very uncomfortable for the big carnivores. The giganotosaurus, in real life, lived in a kind of savannah. Given its huge size, it would have been difficult for it to pass unnoticed in the thick vegetation and capture smaller, faster prey. The researchers believe that neither species were exclusively hunters, but instead alternated with carrion, according to the availability of food.
The Giganotosaurus carolinii is still a mystery: researchers only have 70% of a complete skeleton and just a fraction of another. Salgado is hopeful that the new Jurassic Park movie will inspire more people to investigate the dinosaur. “It’s great for us that they have included our dinosaur,” he says. “It shows the interest that was generated with the findings in this area. But more people have to come, more researchers and more complete remains and more preserved parts need to appear if we are to find out more.”
The inclusion of Giganotosaurus carolinii in one of Hollywood’s biggest movie sagas could prompt new interest in the species in the same way that the 1993 film ushered in a golden age of dinosaurs.