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A Dying Breed: The Modern World of Paleontology

Michael Bowman

Issue published June 10th, 2010

Dr. Alan Grant is no stranger to dire circumstances, yet the ones he faces now are unlike anything he’s ever encountered.  This week TIME catches up with the world renowned paleontologist who has been recently been forced to adapt his studies and research of prehistoric life in response to a present day issue: Jurassic World.  “Funding, and public interest has always been an issue. But with the resurrection of prehistoric life, the science of paleontology is fading in the public interest,” he told us, when we sat down with him at his Montana State University office.

While Jurassic World itself, located on the island of Isla Nublar, is thriving (receiving nearly twenty thousand guests a day) it has proved problematic for many scientists in Grant’s field- something that he himself knew was coming when he first stepped foot on the island in 1993.

“Even if the animals on the islands aren’t real dinosaurs,” Grant continued, “the public doesn’t care. It’s the closest thing they’ll ever get and that’s good enough for them. I’m not trying to be cynical, really. I’m trying to be honest. And the truth is, people don’t care if they are seeing the real thing, otherwise they would be flooding our museums.  You can go over to ours right now and see that is simply not the case.”
Statistics reflect this. The Museum of the Rockies (MOR,) along with many others worldwide that showcase Mesozoic life, have been hurting since the opening of Jurassic World. From 2005 to 2007 museum attendance at MOR has declined nearly 20%.  In 2009, this attendance decreased to 44%, and is still steadily declining. Nearly twenty museums in the United States alone have closed their doors since 2005, with their collections being donated, sold, or split up. However, even with this severe decline, several museums are actually gaining support by the Masrani Corporation and have chosen to implement interactive learning exhibits.

“Some museums, now,” Grant stated, “are starting to team up with Masrani Global, and InGen.  They’ve created these interactive exhibits and displays that let guests compare what they see in the museums to the animals on the islands. They are… technologically pretty advanced, I guess, but not something I want coming here personally. Even though the final choice is more so up to the board I have my qualms with it. See, it’s the same problem we keep coming back to; the creatures InGen made aren’t real dinosaurs. I want people to be able to see the real discoveries, and not the genetically modified creatures that only somewhat mirror reality.”

Dr. Grant ventured to John Hammond’s original Jurassic Park on Nublar in 1993 as a paleontology consultant, and was present during the now infamous incident that happened there. Years later, in 2001, he was kidnapped and taken to Isla Sorna- another InGen island inhabited by the genetically engineered dinosaurs.  Details concerning the incident were kept out of the public eye by the Masrani Corporation and U.N., with the subsequent hearings also being held behind closed doors.

In late 1997, the Masrani Corporation bought out International Genetic Technologies (InGen) shortly after the death of John Hammond, founder and CEO of InGen. Construction began on Isla Nublar for Jurassic World in 2002, which was later opened to the public in 2005.

“If that’s what people want to see, so be it. It’s profitable, no doubt about it. But that’s not what I want to see. It’s not what many others in this profession want to see either. There are many of us still fighting to get funding and attention for the real research of prehistoric life. You can “bring” back these creatures, and try and recreate the past but it will never be the past. It’s the present. There are still so many unanswered questions about Earth’s history that we can try to answer through paleontology. But to do so you need funding, and right now that’s becoming very hard to come by. It was difficult before Jurassic World, and it’s even more so now. Especially for us ‘purists.’”
Grant is referring here to the fact that paleontology is split into two main fractions. Purists being those paleontologists, like Grant, who are driven by a scientific search for knowledge. They look for and study clues from the past to answer questions about our future and the evolution of life on Earth. In contrast, there are also paleontologists who are solely in the field for the business aspect. For as many purists, there are now nearly triple the amount of “business paleontologists,” individuals, or groups who excavate mainly for the purpose to resell, to profit. While the Bureau of Land Management controls state land, these wealth-driven paleontologists buy up private land or strike deals with landowners for permission to excavate. The fossils collected are rarely published on before being sold off.
“It’s sad. There are incredible specimens being excavated on private land, then resold to collectors or even to Masrani Corp. Selling of fossils has always been an issue in the field, but now it’s a booming business. I’ve heard word that Masrani and other companies may start financing their own teams soon, instead of just piggybacking and funding others. If that happens we’ll have them on top of those already out there who hope to sell to them or competing companies.  It’s sad and getting to the point where it’s scary. Poaching is at an all-time high, and god forbid these groups ever find a new species. Some are already making off with rare specimens as it is. If they found a new species, it’d be given to the highest bidder, and lost to the science”

Grant goes on to say that some digs are now having to amp up security at their sites. This is in retaliation to the poaching that has been skyrocketing in recent years. “But you have to have money,” Grant states, “in order to afford them. It all comes back to the almighty dollar. Security is nice, but it’s expensive.”

For those digs currently funded by Masrani, InGen’s security division automatically sends out guards for the sites. Another nice perk for those well off groups. But for the institutions that rely solely on private funding and government grants, money for security can be hard,  if not impossible, to find.

“Since the opening of the park, there have been many ups and downs in the field of paleontology. Funding for proper research may be harder to find now, but my classes are full,” Grant joked. “I guess that has to account for something. I’ve been a part of it for so long that I guess I’ve grown accustomed to the ebb and flow of it all. That’s what life’s all about anyway, right? Evolving. Adapt or perish. The question is will the science of true paleontology ever bounce back from this, or will it all go by the wayside? If that happens I guess it’ll be ‘my time’ as they say. My breed of paleontologists will be extinct.”

Dr. Grant had few other words to offer on the subject of Jurassic Park, a topic he has tended to shy away from. He mentioned that he had received a private invite to the new parks fifth year anniversary celebration this upcoming weekend, but declined the offer.

“One visit to that island was enough. Besides, we just started our dig season and we think we have some pretty exciting specimens to excavate.”

“Jurassic Park”, “The Lost World: Jurassic Park”, “Jurassic Park ///”, “Jurassic World” are Trademarks of Universal Studios, Legendary Pictures, and Amblin Entertainment.

Based off Characters Created by Michael Crichton

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