How Dilophosaurus Became a Rock Star

Jurassic Park‘s dinosaurs were among the greatest to ever roar across the silver screen. Never before had science and special effects generated such realistic visions of prehistoric favorites, and some, particularly the film’s unstoppable Tyrannosaurus, still hold up pretty well. The movie’s special effects artists delivered dinosaurs better than anything my imagination could have conjured.

For most dinosaurs, the stakes were high. If you’re going to make a T. rex, you’d better do it right. The same went for Brachiosaurus, Parasaurolophus, Triceratops, and other paleo personalities that had been found during the late 19th and early 20th century bone rushes. But, taking a cue from Michael Critchon’s novel, the movie also cast a dinosaur that was unknown in Hollywood circles. Compared to its high-profile costars, Dilophosaurus was a newcomer with a complicated backstory.

The tale of Dilophosaurus goes back to a time after “the second Jurassic dinosaur rush” but long before modern dinomania kicked in. At the close of the summer 1942 field season, Sam Welles of the University of California Museum of Paleontology was instructed to check out a possible dinosaur find near Tuba City, Arizona. As Welles later recalled:

I tried to find this and failed, and went to see Richard Curry, who was then the owner of the trading post at the foot of the Tuba City grave. He got hold of Jesse Williams, a Navajo who had discovered these bones in 1940, and they both took me out to this site, and with Bill Rush and Ed Kott, we set up camp and decided to go ahead and excavate.

Of three dinosaurs splayed out within twenty feet of each other at this Kayenta Formation site, only two were worth collecting. The pair included much of the vertebral column and limbs from the dinosaur, as well as a few pieces of skull. Welles and his team dug them out of the ground within ten days.

The following scientific work didn’t go so fast. A team of three preparators worked for two years to clean the bones and place them into a wall mount, but even then it wasn’t entirely clear what the dinosaur was or to what geologic period it belonged to. In 1954 Welles published a preliminary description dubbing the dinosaur Megalosaurus wetherilli, with Megalosaurus being a long-known genus of theropod that had become a messy wastebasket of puzzling specimens.

A reconstruction of Dilophosaurus at the Museum of Northern Arizona. Photo by Brian Switek.
A reconstruction of Dilophosaurus at the Museum of Northern Arizona. Photo by Brian Switek.

A decade later, Welles returned to his “Megalosaurus”. The geologic age of the dinosaur, and therefore where it fit in the early evolution of theropods, was still in question. Some researchers suggested that the sediment of the Kayenta Formation was deposited over 200 million years ago, during the Late Triassic, but Welles suspected it was less than 200 million years old and therefore Early Jurassic in age. He went back out into the field to check his hunch, and in the process discovered another skeleton that was ultimately key to unraveling the nature of the dinosaur. Included in this large skeleton was a skull bearing two thin, rounded crests jutting from the skull.

The double-crest meant that the dinosaur was not Megalosaurus, after all. The dinosaur, confirmed to be Early Jurassic in age, was something new. And the better material allowed Welles to see something he had missed before. Among the elements collected in 1942 was a piece of skull with what seemed to be a cheekbone pulled out of place. The better-preserved, new skull showed that the bone in the previously-collected specimen wasn’t part of the cheek, but the crushed crests. In 1970, three decades after Jesse Williams found the first three skeletons, Welles recognized the dinosaur as a new genus named in honor of the double crest – Dilophosaurus.


[How Jurassic Park‘s “Spitter” came to life.]

As a relatively recent discovery, though, Dilophosaurus didn’t have the cultural momentum of T. rex or other beloved dinosaurs. Jurassic Park helped give the theropod a leg up. Welles was pleased to see his dinosaur on screen, although the dinosaur’s Lina Blair impression didn’t come from fossil evidence. The rattling frill and stinging mucus were fictional inventions.

A sculpture of Dilophosaurus outside the Arizona Museum of Natural History. Photo by Brian Switek.
A sculpture of Dilophosaurus outside the Arizona Museum of Natural History. Photo by Brian Switek.

The real Dilophosaurus differed from the horror movie version in more subtle ways, as well. The largest specimen Welles found would have dwarfed Jurassic Park‘s relatively puny facsimile. Large Dilophosaurus would have reached about 23 feet in length. A bit too large to hide in the trees like the film version. And aside from crests that were a bit lower and longer, the skull of Dilophosaurus looked a bit nastier than what appeared on screen.

Among the first carnivorous dinosaurs to start reaching larger body sizes, Dilophosaurus had a long, low skull with a prominent indentation right at the front of the upper jaw that gave the dinosaur a snaggletoothed look. Venom or no, the actual Dilophosaurus probably looked quite a bit more menacing than the Hollywood creation.

Granted, Jurassic Park‘s Dilophosaurus could have been a juvenile. All dinosaurs started off relatively small, after all. At least it really did count as a Jurassic dinosaur. But regardless of Hollywood tweaks, Steven Spielberg’s film made Dilophosaurus a celebrity. In an instant, a dinosaur known to paleo geeks and scientific specialists became a household name. I can only hope that next year’s Jurassic World does the same for some lesser-known dinosaurs that are hungering for some time in the spotlight.

[To hear Welles tell you the story of Dilophosaurus himself, visit the UCMP website.]

Reference:

Naish, D. 2009. The Great Dinosaur Discoveries. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 94-95

5 thoughts on “How Dilophosaurus Became a Rock Star

  1. I felt like the book/film version of the Dilophosaur was supposed to represent a subspecies rather than the known-fossil-record version. I reconciled it by imagining that if we were able to clone from dino DNA in amber (or elsewhere), there’s a chance that the result wouldn’t match something we’ve found in the fossil record so far or ever. The Dilophosaur in the book was much larger – it lifted Nedry into the air as it bit into him.

  2. In the fourth grade (circa 1996), a project was assigned in my class to make a model of a dinosaur. Out of 25 students, there were at least 12 T-Rex, about half as many Triceratops, a few raptors and brachiosaurs and one lonely, felt-green Dilophosaurus. Stuffed with newspaper, and stapled together at the edges, making that model caused Diloph to become a personal favorite. Thanks for the info. Love the blog.

    Also, Typo: Lin(d)a* Blair

    -MM

  3. Love me some Dilophosaurus. Working on a couple papers dealing with it at the moment, hopefully more info out there this year…

  4. As an Arizonan who grew up dragging his parents to the track site near Tuba City, I was estatic to see one of the dinosaurs I “knew” personally in that movie, when I was a kid. Dilophosaurus still remains one of my favorites to this day.

    Has anyone found any more remains of this guy recently, though, I wonder? I know there’s been a few discoveries in the Navajo Formation (that prosauropod), but as far as I’m aware–is anyone doing any work in the Kayenta formation? It would surpise me if not, knowing that’s such a nebulous and interesting period of dinosaur evolution.

  5. The year before the movie came out, my parents took me to one of Bob Bakker’s talks at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Bob opened by doing some high-speed sketching for kids; the first kid to shout out the dinosaur’s name won the sketch. I got a [Dilophosaurus]. It’s still one of my most prized possessions.

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