Mike Habib

When talk turns to dinosaurs, folks turn to USC’s resident dinosaur expert, Mike Habib.

The recently released Jurassic World may be setting box office records, but it also has people excited about dinosaurs — and that’s the best thing of all, says USC’s resident dinosaur expert, Mike Habib.

Habib, an assistant professor of research cell and neurobiology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and a research associate at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, screened the movie at a special event at the museum last week and has found himself talking about it every day since to the press and the public.

“The anatomical errors in the animals were greater than I anticipated, but I enjoyed the movie a lot more than I thought I would,” Habib said. Anatomically speaking, his greatest disappointment was the lack of feathers on some of the dinosaurs that are now known to have had them.

In fact, the plot point that was used to justify making the dinosaurs sexier for the movie — they’ve been genetically altered to be bigger and scarier for parkgoers — could have also given the movie coverage to give the appropriate dinosaurs feathers, even through they didn’t appear on the dinosaurs in 1993’s Jurassic Park. All they would have had to say is that the creators of Jurassic World went ahead and turned that gene on this time around.

Excitement about science
Feathers or no, Habib appreciates sci-fi movies’ ability to get people excited about science.

“It’s easier to channel enthusiasm than it is to generate enthusiasm,” he said, citing the example of the Jurassic World’s iconic mosasaur — the crocodile-like marine lizard that snacks on a shark in the movie’s poster.

Before this movie, not everyone knew what a mosasaur even was, he said. Now, they’re excited to learn more about it.

Though the movie mosasaur was far larger than the lizards ever grew in reality, Habib — an anatomist at the Keck School — praised the hard work that must have been put into animating their motions in the sea in a realistic manner.

“Swimming is hard to recreate accurately. Someone spent a lot of time watching aquatic creatures swim before animating that,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for that.”

Carrying a human?
Less accurate, however, was the flight of the pterosaurs that swarm out of the aviary and attack parkgoers. Habib said that there was no way the pterosaurs could have carried the weight of a human — even if they had the capacity to grip them. Rather than having talons, pterosaurs had feet more like a crocodile than a bird, he said.

Also, as someone who worked in zoos and aquariums for a large part of his life, Habib scoffed at the idea that pterosaurs — upon seeing a way out — would head straight for humans.

“If you leave the door open for animals, they’re going to leave — not go for your face,” he said.

However, Habib smiled at the crowds swarming through the Natural History Museum over the weekend — particularly the excited families enjoying the Dinosaur Hall exhibit and children squealing at the dueling T. rex and triceratops at the heart of the first floor.

“I can’t force people to come into the Natural History Museum, but I can talk to them once they’re here,” he said.

By Robert Perkins