Kenneth Lacovara discovered one of the big stars in the new Jurassic World Dominion movie, but he’s no talent scout.
He is a paleontologist, and his discovery was the dinosaur Dreadnoughtus — at an earthshaking 65 tons, about as big as movie stars come.
Lacovara was at Drexel University in 2005 when he and colleagues started digging up the bones of the big beast, in the Patagonia region of Argentina. He named it after the dreadnought — the early 20th-century battleship that dreaded nothing — reasoning that a 65-ton creature also would have no fear.
So when he learned that “Dread” would play a role in Jurassic World, Lacovara made sure to attend an opening night screening.
“I loved it,” he said. “It was special for me to see my big baby up there on the silver screen, animated by the world’s best animators.”
Lacovara did not advise the moviemakers, but his big discovery has earned him plenty of attention before now.
It took him and colleagues years to dig up the fossils, wrap them in plaster, and ship them back to Philadelphia, and years more to figure out what they had. In 2014, the team finally announced it had discovered a new species, and that the specimen was the heaviest dinosaur known to science. (Others are taller, but not as massive.)
Lacovara was invited to give a TED talk in 2016, which led to a meeting with environmentalist and former vice president Al Gore, who was struck by the parallels between the demise of dinosaurs eons ago and the climate change of today.
The exposure prompted Lacovara to write a book, titled Why Dinosaurs Matter. He is now at Rowan University and overseeing the construction of a natural history museum, alongside a vast former mining pit where visitors will be able to dig up the remnants of ancient life, just as he does.
Called the Edelman Fossil Park and Museum, the site in the Sewell section of Mantua Township, Gloucester County, is slated to open sometime in 2023.
The pit is unlikely to yield many dinosaur bones, as that part of New Jersey was beneath the ocean during the Cretaceous period. But over the years, scientists have dug up fossils there from all sorts of marine creatures, including turtles, crocodiles, sharks, and a voracious reptile called Mosasaurus. That meat-eater was depicted in the 2015 installment of Jurassic World, and also appears in the new film along with Dreadnoughtus.
A plant-eating heavyweight
“Dread” was a plant-eater, but other creatures still would have been wise to steer clear. The dinosaur was a sauropod, like the one in the old Fred Flintstone cartoon, but much larger, with a muscular, 29-foot tail that it could use as a weapon.
Lacovara and his colleagues eventually unearthed bones from two Dreadnoughtus specimens in Argentina, and estimated the weight of the larger one at 65 tons. The calculation was based on measurements of two of the animal’s leg bones, the femur and humerus — a standard approach that is drawn from land animals of today.
Since 2014, one or two other large dinosaurs have been discovered with estimated weights in the same ballpark. But Dreadnoughtus certainly remains one of the biggest, if not the all-time champ, said Steve Brusatte, a University of Edinburgh paleontologist who advised the makers of the new Jurassic World.
“It all has to do with needing thicker bones to hold up heavier bodies against gravity,” he said in an email. “So if you have a humerus and femur, then you can make a pretty good estimate of body mass.”
And the bones of the 65-ton creature suggest it was still growing, said Lacovara, the dean of Rowan’s School of Earth and Environment.
“It’s the most massive dinosaur for which we can confidently calculate a weight,” he said. “Who knows if it’s anything close to the largest of that species?”
Lacovara’s find was not pure luck.
He knew that other large dinosaur fossils had been found in northern Patagonia, so he used geological maps to identify sedimentary deposits from the same era in a largely unexplored region of southern Patagonia.
It took hours to reach the site, traveling by dirt road through a rugged, craggy landscape within view of the snowcapped Andes.
“It’s almost impossible to travel in a straight line anywhere,” he said. “Every day the Andean condors were circling above us. It was amazing.”
The first hint of something big was an exposed piece of bone the size of a salad plate. That turned out to be the top of a femur.
Later came rib bones taller than a grown man, and vertebrae as thick as tree trunks. All told, the team would recover more than two-thirds of the larger animal’s bones, an unusual degree of preservation.
And now, the big creature is on the big screen. No spoilers, but in one scene, the dinosaur is shown chilling in a lake.
As for the film’s scientific accuracy, Lacovara and Brusatte have no big complaints. They know it’s Hollywood, not a scientific textbook.
When director Colin Trevorrow first emailed Brusatte to ask for help, he jokingly identified himself as “a director of scientifically inaccurate dinosaur films,” the scientist recalled in a University of Edinburgh story.
Brusatte was delighted to see Trevorrow include certain realistic details in the film, such as feathers on some dinosaurs.
And as for a critical review, Lacovara admits that he has has a soft spot for the film because it features his big baby. But he thinks others will like it, too.
“It’s very in keeping with the other Jurassic franchise movies,” he said. “If you liked the previous ones, you’ll probably like this.”