Jurassic Park may be one of the greatest movies ever, but is it actually possible to create a wildlife preserve populated with clones of extinct creatures? Rumors have been building that an Australian billionaire named Clive Palmer is planning to do just that. This paleontological gossip was sparked when Palmer announced plans to reinvent his Coolum Resort, an enormous recreation destination north of Brisbane. He has already confirmed that the resort will feature a beachside amusement park, an international airport, and a hovercraft station
You know, the essentials.
But it was the addition of a massive and mysterious wildlife park that got the media's attention, especially after Palmer's consultation with the scientists responsible for cloning Dolly the sheep. Palmer denied the rumors on Friday, asking the public to please focus on his other utterly insane plan to build a replica of the Titanic for pleasure cruises. Of Titanic II, Palmer commented, "This is just for me to go for a little sail around the world in." Who the heck is this dude, Caligula?!
Keep in mind, however, that Palmer's fictional predecessor John Hammond utilized all kinds of misdirection to keep the public guessing in Michael Crichton's original novel, including denying what was actually going on in the park. We're not saying Palmer is planning a dinosaur park, but come on: he's building a Titanic for himself right now so let's not be cavalier about putting crazy things past him.
The bigger question here, however, is whether a real dinosaur zoo is actually feasible. The answer is annoyingly, "yes and no."
Let's start with "no." It is extremely unlikely that we will ever sequence a dinosaur's genome using the methods in the movie. DNA degrades over the years, especially when there are 65 million of them in a row. Even if we found a fossilized mosquito packed with dino-DNA, we'd probably get a lot of mosquito DNA in the extracting syringe too. And the only thing worse than a loose T-Rex would be a loose T-Rex that can also fly and suck blood, am I right?
The next obstacle would be filling in any genetic holes, which Jurassic Park scientists accomplished using frog genes. Much though Mr. DNA made this process look as easy as braiding friendship bracelets together, it is not. Genetics is complicated enough with living beings, let alone forging the chromosomes of animals long extinct with the animals of today. The chances of humans successfully re-creating the blueprints of even one dinosaur species are magnificently low. And birthing it? Do you know of any dinosaur eggs we could borrow?
Now for the "yes" answer. Paleontology legend Dr. John Horner—who inspired Sam Neill's character, Dr. Alan Grant—has been working on it for years. Horner's approach is the opposite of Hammond's: instead of using dead dinosaurs, he's using living ones. That's birds, yo!
Our avian friends are the only living heirs to the dinosaurs. Even modern reptiles are not direct descendants, just brothers from another mother. Bird DNA contains not only the information necessary to keep them alive, but their entire genetic history. This is, by the way, the same reason we know early humans interbred with Neanderthals—because there's totally Neanderthal gene sequences hanging out in our double helixes!
These older blueprints in our cells—called "atavisms"—are turned off over the eons to accommodate newer ones. Horner's idea is simply to turn bird atavisms back on. This would theoretically create a Franken-bird, a vessel for dinosaur behavior and features delivered through a modern animal. Anyone order dino-nuggets?
Another option is to trade in the idea of a Jurassic Park for a Pleistocene Park. We have a much higher chance of cloning recently extinct animals like Dodo birds, Irish Elk, and Tasmanian tigers. Indeed, scientists are already hard at work cloning the Woolly Mammoth, with a newborn expected within the next 20 years. One wonders if we might go so far as to bring back our Neanderthal pals, who were rudely pushed into extinction by our ancestors about 30,000 years ago. Wouldn't that be an awkward family reunion!
Whether or not Palmer is building a dinosaur park, it's great that modern science has enabled a serious conversation about reviving long extinct creatures. After all, if life finds a way, why can't we?
What extinct animal would you want to see resurrected?