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This week on Nature League, Brit and Adrian discuss the feasibility of training velociraptors in Jurassic World. Get your Nature League pin here!


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Nature League is a weekly edutainment channel that explores life on Earth and asks questions that inspire us to marvel at all things wild. Join host Brit Garner each week to learn about, connect to, and love the amazing living systems on Earth and the mechanics that drive them.
Welcome back to Nature League!

Some of my favorite stories ever told involve life on Earth within the realm of science fiction. Add genetics to that picture and you've got Jurassic Park, one of my favorite books and movies of all time. [SOUND OF T.

REX WALKING IN THE DISTANCE] When the trailer for the sequel Jurassic world came out a few years ago, everyone was talking about one scene in particular: Chris Pratt and what appeared to be trained velociraptors. Well, the movie did not disappoint, and the world got to experience a new kind of fantasy, one involving clicker trained domesticated-ish raptors with a unique bond to a human. While I happened to be a very big fan of this particular plot point, others were quick to claim that this was pushing the fiction part of science fiction away too hard.

My friend Adrian is one such person, so we decided to chat about the potential for trained raptors in a segment we call from A to B. [CHEERY INTRO MUSIC]. People have mentioned that you look like Chris Pratt, and they've asked you a lot about how you enjoyed training velociraptors and riding them through forests. First and foremost, I am NOT Chris Pratt.

I'm actually the love child of Chris Pratt and Seth Rogen. [ADRIAN LAUGHS LIKE SETH ROGEN] I think I know who both of those people are. [

ADRIAN:] Everyone knows who they are. [

BRIT:] Yeah, I'm on my way. [

ADRIAN:] Anyways... Can someone really train velociraptors? That doesn't seem like a thing. That doesn't seem like it would be possible in any way, shape, or form.

The whole training velociraptors thing? That's just a bunch of movie magic. Because you can't actually train velociraptors because they're big, dumb death chickens. [

BRIT:] That happened to be one of the reasons I loved Jurassic World. This is a point of contention, controversy. I love that. If you want to ask me about why I love that, I'm happy to talk at length about why I loved the movie Jurassic World. [

ADRIAN:] She doesn't like movies for the reasons movies are made. She likes movies for other weird reasons. [

BRIT:] Yeah, and I happened to have the idea of this training and this human/non-human species relationship that we get with Chris Pratt and the velociraptors in Jurassic World is one of the reasons I really loved that movie and exploring that. So, I think there's a couple bits that you might be missing. First of all: big. Keep in mind, the actual, the actual species like in the fossil record that velociraptors in.

Jurassic Park, that entire set, right? These are different species. They're kind of like a souped up movie version, right?

But dromaeosaurids, which are the group of dinosaurs that raptors belonged to, are much smaller. And so when we actually think about like a velociraptor or types of raptors, we're thinking smaller, almost kind of like turkey. And guess what, Adrian?

We domesticated turkeys. Humans have domesticated turkeys. [

ADRIAN:] Turkeys didn't have teeth! Turkeys weren't carnivores. [

BRIT:] Okay, so... [LAUGHS] [

BRIT:] I'm thinking back to lineage. So, so there's two answers to this, right? There's realistically, and we're talking about raptors that actually existed on Earth within the fossil record. And then there's within the Jurassic Park universe of the raptors that as they have had.

I just want to briefly touch on the reality a bit, which is that they would be smaller... [

ADRIAN:] Sure, but that brings up another problem. So real raptors have even smaller brains. So real raptors are gonna be even harder to train. [

BRIT:] Hang on, though... Guess what? [

ADRIAN:] Mmm... What? [

BRIT:] Those dinosaurs actually had the largest brain-to-body ratio, though, of all the dinosaurs that we know so far within the fossil record. So relatively we're talking about the, you know, smartest- [

ADRIAN:] Smartest for its size. [

BRIT:] Yeah, but that, that matters to say that over evolutionary time, that the brain case and the actual, like, tissue wound up being larger and and and being home to a more sophisticated network, larger per body area, right? That it's going to that instead of muscles or legs. [

ADRIAN:] Okay. [

BRIT:] So we're not just talking about, "Here's a dumb bird." We're talking about here is, of the dinosaurs, possibly the most intelligent ones, just looking at ratio. Of course, ratio of head to body size doesn't necessarily mean intellect, but we should also think about real-life birds that we have on Earth right now, right? [

ADRIAN:] Yes we should. In the real life version, fossil record, the things that are raptors in these species... Probably pretty intelligent. And even so, if you look at the kind of birds that humans have domesticated in human history, in real life, things like turkey and chickens,.

I mean, that's a thing. That is absolutely a thing, and it didn't take that much time. [

ADRIAN:] Okay, you're not implying, you're not implying though, are you, that domestication and training for specific tasks are interchangeable? Because all we did to domesticate chickens was make their body parts bigger so that we could eat them. You don't see chicken obstacle courses? You don't see that. [

BRIT:] Not with that attitude! [

ADRIAN:] I'm just saying. [

BRIT:] Actually though, so you're talking about differences and like physicality versus differences in behavior, right? [

ADRIAN:] Yeah, I'm saying like training something is something that can only be done on an individual basis. "I am training this bird." Domestication is a behavioral switch and sometimes physical change over time, over a broad... over a lot of animals. [

BRIT:] So all of these things are acting upon genes. Behavior does get changed though in the process of domestication. So we talked about those foxes one time? About about how over the course of time they actually were breeding and choosing individuals that were more docile and more like tame? [

ADRIAN:] And it changed the way they look. [

BRIT:] And changed the ways they look as well, but the ability to train and and training as like requires a relationship, requires some form of at least like bonding or listening or like food guarantee and some kind of like lower aggression. Because if it's a very high aggression species or individual, it's gonna be much harder. [

ADRIAN:] Okay. [

BRIT:] There have actually been... This was really funny because of Angry Birds which was a thing? [

ADRIAN:] Like a decade ago. [

BRIT:] But here's what's more interesting is that researchers actually found certain genes and and and hormones that are secreted within bird brains that create aggression. It's like this like, like VI... VIF or VIP. Scientists have found that when you change and edit just a single gene or gene complex that affects this one hormone, you drastically change aggression in birds, so you literally create angry birds or non angry Birds just by a single change.

So my point is that changes to genes can actually result in enough behavioral changes to allow something like training. Training is not the same as domestication, but both rely on there being a certain base level of like coming to the table and being like, "Alright, I can do this!" Right? "We can meet in the middle maybe because of something like being more tame, being less aggressive, being small or whatever that is." [

ADRIAN:] Okay, so you're saying that in this science fiction world, they had to change the genes and... which would affect the behavior, and also these are like twice the size of a real dinosaur, and so they basically just made up a convenient plot point? [

BRIT:] No, no. My point is that if in real life in the last five years, we have genetically edited birds to be less or more aggressive with a single gene... Henry Wu was messing with way more than single genes, so why wouldn't they have gone in and adjusted one of these for aggression, right? That's just, that is perfectly plausible within the Jurassic Park universe. [

ADRIAN:] Okay, sure. So in the sci-fi universe where they've cloned dinosaurs and have had multiple parks just fall apart and thousands of people die, sure, the velociraptors can be trained. Yay. But in the real world where there's real velociraptors...

They're that big! They're death chickens. [

BRIT:] Way more, they're way more trainable. Here's another thing about birds and training, though. So I'm arguing this from the genetics perspective. Henry Wu?

Dude, single... single gene? That's so doable! If he could go in and do a lysine contingency...! [

ADRIAN:] Sure, okay, alright! [

BRIT:] ... You think he can't change that one...? [

ADRIAN:] What does that mean?? I'm ashamed. Every time I show one of my personal books to a camera, it looks demolished and it's, I just... [

ADRIAN:] Because it is. [

BRIT:] Well yeah. Jurassic Park, just trust me, that is the title that's here, that's ripped off. [

ADRIAN:] You know, I don't know... [BRIT LAUGHS] I just don't quite recognize that logo there. [

BRIT:] I mean, you know... I found a section that I really like of Henry Wu talking about these. This is Henry Wu saying, "We should go to version 4.4." And so Hammond's like, "What you want to like replace them? What's wrong with them?" "Nothing," Wu said, "Except that they're real dinosaurs.

You see... right now as we stand here, almost no one in the world has ever seen an actual dinosaur. Nobody knows what they're really like. The dinosaurs we have now are real," Wu said, pointing to the screens around the room, "but in certain ways they're unsatisfactory.

Unconvincing. I could make them better." "Better in what way?" "For one thing, they move too fast. People aren't accustomed to seeing large animals that are so quick.

I'm afraid visitors will think the dinosaurs look speeded up, like film running too fast." "But Henry, these are real dinosaurs. You said so yourself." "I know," Wu said, "but we could easily breed slower, more domesticated dinosaurs." The point is, if we want to talk about this within the canonical like Jurassic Park universe, Henry Wu and John Hammond had multiple discussions about the fact that dinosaurs... like, we're not making dinosaurs. We are recreating an idea so we can change it, we can modify it.

Why would you not include wanting to train velociraptors in that? It's so cool. Why would you not include that in the plans?

So I've given you both a real-world and Jurassic Park universe reasons why this isn't too far-fetched, but I'd also like you to consider the kinds of relationships that humans and non-human animals have in terms of training that we see all the time... and how smart birds are! Birds are incredibly smart. The density of neurons in bird brains are more than any other creature on Earth.

Think about corvids! Incredibly smart. And training really is just a series of reinforcements that then shape or modify an existing behavior.

And so, if you have velociraptors with an already existing behavior of, "I eat something or I move or I run," right, and like shaping these behaviors... Now, I will say the clicker training that Owen does during Jurassic World is abysmal, atrocious, and is a complete joke. So he's making the little clicks? [

ADRIAN:] Oh. [

BRIT:] That is part of animal behavioral science and training. Not quite done in the way - [

ADRIAN:] Yeah, I don't think that would work. I think the clicker training is mostly designed for animals who rely very heavily on what they can hear, and I highly doubt that a velociraptor had super great ears. [

BRIT:] I would disagree because think of how many vocalizations they have. Anything that makes that many vocalizations - [ADRIAN MAKES RAPTOR SOUNDS] [

BRIT:] - probably needs to be able to hear them. That is what they probably sounded like. [

ADRIAN:] That was actually pretty good. [

BRIT:] That was great! [

ADRIAN:] I have never made, I've never even tried to make a velociraptor sound, but I did my best to recreate the one from Jurassic Park 3. [

BRIT:] You're perfect, don't change a thing. [ADRIAN MAKES RAPTOR SOUND] [BOTH LAUGH] [

BRIT:] So the thing is, we've seen some amazing behaviors shaped through something like clicker training but also that comes from a relationship. One of the things I think the movie did really well is showing that this isn't just, "Here's some domesticated velociraptors that do anything for humans." They have a relationship with a single individual: it is Owen, it is Chris Pratt's character, and these individual non-human animals that have like established something together. And I think that's really special and lovely and like kind of a big piece of it. [

ADRIAN:] Do you think that training velociraptors would be like training cats? I like to think so because birds aren't carnivorous but cats are. [

BRIT:] Well, velociraptors are, yeah. [

ADRIAN:] Yeah. [

BRIT:] I'll also leave you with this. Some of the earliest imprinting studies like in psychology were with ducklings, were with birds. So the, you know, baby birds lining up and following around, the imprinting on a human that they hatch with instead? These are some of the most like classic experiments in psychology, and it was with birds.

So for me, I'm down. I mean yes, we're suspending some disbelief. But with a combination of being able to edit genes that could affect aggression and domestication, the ability to have a relationship between Owen and those individual raptors, and the fact that birds are incredible and have shown in, you know, present day, to do really miraculous things, I say yes.

I'm a hard yes. [

ADRIAN:] So the movie version? Fine, I'm convinced you could train them. Jury's still out for me on how much you could actually train real... real-life velociraptors as they were. [

BRIT:] And that's why we're going to start Monday. [ADRIAN AND BRIT SING THE JURASSIC PARK THEME SONG] [

BRIT:] I jumped a third. [

ADRIAN:] It was weird, yeah. [BRIT LAUGHS] [

ADRIAN:] Made it weird. [

BRIT:] Heads up! We are filming a question-and-answer episode of Nature League coming out soon, and that means that I need your questions about life on Earth or anything we do here at Nature League. So instead of a "From A to B," I'd like it to be a "From You to B." You can even act like Adrian and see something weird on the internet and ask me all about it. I... [

ADRIAN:] So you're replacing me? [

BRIT:] There can be more than one person asking - [

ADRIAN:] No. No, it's cool. [

BRIT:] - questions at any - [

ADRIAN:] I get it. No, it's just fine. [

BRIT:] Really? [

ADRIAN:] That's cool, I didn't even like this gig this... [MIC RUSTLES IN BRIT'S HANDS] [

BRIT:] He's always been sensitive. [

ADRIAN:] The exit's this way. [

BRIT:] So, if you have a question, make sure to leave it in the comments below. Or if you see a meme or something else online, you can definitely tweet it at us @Nature_League. Adrian might not be looking forward to it, but I am.