In the 1993 film Jurassic Park, a nefarious character meets his demise during an encounter with a Dilophosaurus. No taller than a human, the curious dinosaur morphs into a true menace when it extends a large neck frill, hisses, and spits venom in the man’s eyes. The scene cemented Dilophosaurus as a pop culture icon—except it turns out the real Jurassic predator was nothing like the one in the movie.
“I call Dilophosaurus the best worst-known dinosaur,” says Adam Marsh, a paleontologist at the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona who led a comprehensive re-description of the species, published today in the Journal of Paleontology.
Despite being discovered 80 years ago, the species has remained poorly understood.
Now, the new analysis includes two previously unstudied fossil specimens from Arizona, providing the first clear picture of what Dilophosaurus was like in life. Rather than a small dinosaur that relied on gimmicks such as venom and a neck frill to subdue its prey, Dilophosaurus was a powerful predator and one of the largest land animals in North America when it lived during the early Jurassic period, which lasted from about 201 to 174 million years ago.
“It’s a lot bigger than people would think from watching Jurassic Park,” Marsh says.
A Navajo man named Jesse Williams found the first Dilophosaurus specimens in 1940 on Navajo Nation land near Tuba City, Arizona. In 1942, Williams showed the fossils to paleontologists at the University of California, Berkeley, including Samuel Welles,...