Dinosaurs roaming around amusement parks is still entirely a silver-screen phenomenon, but renowned paleontologist Philip Currie has a bone to pick with those who dismiss the possibility of a real-life Jurassic Park.
“We’re in a new golden age of science where we know so much more than just four years ago due to new discoveries and technology,” Currie told a packed theatre at the Royal Alberta Museum last week. “Jurassic Park has inspired us to look for soft tissue, and there is good evidence that exists. The idea is not preposterous at all.”
To celebrate its 35th anniversary, the Friends of the Royal Alberta Museum Society (FRAMS) invited Currie to guide the crowd through his adventurous career chasing dinosaur fossils. Currie reminisced about the early 1980s when he was hired as the earth sciences curator at the Provincial Museum of Alberta when there were a half-dozen paleontologists in the world.
“My initial budget was so bad, it wouldn’t even cover the plaster to make my first dinosaur,” said Currie. “Now there are around 120 paleontologists and we’re doing some pretty incredible things. Even still, I doubt we know more than one per cent of one per cent (0.001 per cent) about all the dinosaurs species that have lived.”
Currie estimated that paleontologists have so far discovered between 1,000 and 1,500 species of dinosaurs that lived during the 180-million year span of the Mesozoic Era.
“It sounds like a lot, but consider that we have 4,000 living species of mammals, 10,000 species of birds, 6,000 species of reptiles and amphibians and thousands upon thousands of insects,” Currie said. “We still have an incredible amount of work to do, and Dinosaur Park in Alberta is the richest place in the world to dig.”
Within a decade of starting work at the museum, Currie’s work and vast collection of fossils helped found Drumheller’s Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in 1985. In 2015, a museum named in Currie’s honour opened near Grande Prairie next to another rich site for fossils and bone beds.
Currie told the crowd that his optimism for future development in the field comes from his own experiences. In 1996, he was involved in the discovery of feathered dinosaurs by a Chinese team, which garnered worldwide press.
“We didn’t think we would find feathered dinosaurs, but we knew the feathers on birds had to come from somewhere,” Currie said. “I imagined we would eventually find it, but I couldn’t imagine I would be lucky enough to see it first.”
After the existence of feathered dinosaurs was confirmed two decades ago, local paleontologists began noticing traces of feather-marks on Alberta fossils.
“We would have made the discovery here if we had clued in,” Currie said. “If you don’t look for certain things, you won’t find them. That’s why we’re looking for signs of DNA now, and why I believe our best discoveries are still ahead of us.”
Jurassic Park has ‘inspired’ scientists to hunt for dinosaur DNA — expert