In the early summer of 2018, Steve Brusatte received an email which changed his life – no small feat for a man who, as one of the world’s leading paleontologists, has had his fair share of Wow! moments in the field as complete dinosaur skeletons have emerged from the earth in front of his eyes.

Over a Zoom link from his Edinburgh home the genial American takes up the story. Picture the scene: a click of the mouse and the message opens.

“It was very brief. It said: ‘Hi Steve, my name’s Colin. I make scientifically inaccurate dinosaur films. I’ve just read your book and I’d like to talk more’.”

The book, The Rise And Fall Of The Dinosaurs, had been published just a few weeks earlier. It tells the story of the dinosaurs’ reign and eventual extinction, lays out some of Brusatte’s own findings – the 38-year-old Illinois native is currently Reader in Vertebrate Palaeontology at the University of Edinburgh – and sets them in the context of a discipline in which old theories are constantly revised as new ones are aired, based on an ever-growing number of discoveries. It’s what makes fossil hunting so exciting: you never know what you will find and what that will mean for the science.

The correspondent purported to be one Colin Trevorrow. Brusatte knew the name, of course. What dinosaur expert wouldn’t? Trevorrow is the American director and co-writer of the first two titles in a new instalment of the Jurassic Park franchise which began in 2015 with Jurassic World. A sequel, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, followed in 2018. To date, the movies have taken over £2.3 billion at the box office.

Unsurprisingly, Brusatte thought the email was a joke. “It wasn’t from some official studio address or anything so I thought it was my students playing a trick on me or some colleague thinking: ‘Steve’s got a book out, let’s keep his ego in check’.”

Wrong. It was the Colin Trevorrow. Brusatte eventually replied and a phone call was arranged. “We chatted and he said: ‘I’m coming up to Edinburgh for the Fringe. Let’s meet up and talk dinosaurs’. I said: ‘Colin do you like whisky?’”

And so the pair met in the august surrounds of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society on Queen Street. It was too early in the day for uisge beatha so they drank coffee instead. But they talked for hours. About dinosaurs, obviously, but specifically about Jurassic World Dominion, the third film in the Jurassic World franchise and the one Trevorrow was about to start writing.

“Colin said: ‘I want to introduce a bunch of new dinosaurs and I want to put feathers on some of them and I’d love you to help me do it’. So he put his cards on the table right away. I said absolutely. At that point I was still just a fan of the franchise. But he showed just through the conversation how much he knew about dinosaurs, how much research he had done, the ideas he had. He earned my scientific respect right away. This was a guy who really did care about the science behind the dinosaurs. He wanted to know what we knew and he was putting time into it. So I said: ‘I’m on board, what do you need?’”

HeraldScotland:

A scene from Jurassic World Dominion

What Trevorrow needed was an official Paleontology Consultant, someone on speed-dial to answer those tricky questions that come up mid-scene when dinosaurs are involved. Like is the G in Giganotosaurus pronounced hard or like a J? Brusatte’s answer to the film’s star, Chris Pratt, was that you can basically say either, though when we speak he doesn’t know which the actor opted for.

“I was always standing by to answer their questions. I kind of felt like a solicitor on retainer, something like that. I was there, they had me, for whatever they needed.” But even Brusatte didn’t have every answer. “There’s lot of unknowns. We don’t exactly what colour they were or what they ate, so there’s a lot of leeway. I saw myself as somebody who would always be there to speak up for the science and make sure the filmmakers knew exactly what the real fossils and the real evidence have to show.”

Other questions came from the design team during the pre-production process. They would show him draft ideas of what the movie creatures would look like and he would tell them how close to the science they were, whether the colour patterns were reasonable, even down to the specifics of what the dinosaurs’ soft tissue might have looked like.

And of course there are those feathers. “We now know that a lot of dinosaurs had them,” Brusatte explains. “This wasn’t known in 1993 when Jurassic Park came out. The first fossils of dinosaurs with feathers were found in 1996 so if Steven Spielberg had tried to put feathers on those dinosaurs in 1993 he would have been laughed out of Hollywood. But then a few years later it turns out that they had feathers so they wouldn’t have looked like how they do in the original film. We’re starting to rectify that now – we have feathered dinosaurs in the new film for the first time, including this new character the Pyroraptor, a close cousin of Velociraptor. This thing had feathers all over its body, big wings on its arm, and flamboyant red colours on it.”

That said, he’s aware the Jurassic World dinosaurs are just characters in a big budget action movie. “We don’t want them to be completely made up alien creatures but at the same time they are movie characters, a lot of them are movie monsters … We wanted to use the science to structure those characters, but ultimately it’s not a nature documentary. It’s not a BBC wildlife programme. So we have just a little bit of a different mindset. We don’t have to stick so close to every tiny little details from the fossils – and let’s face it, a lot of fossils, including fossils of the dinosaurs in the film, we only have a few bones.”

With the production filming mostly at Pinewood Studios near London, Brusatte was able to visit the set. “It was a lot of fun to go to Pinewood to see one of the scenes, meet some of the actors and take in the ambience of the set. Most of the time I’m in my office writing research grants and scientific papers, or in the lab with my undergraduate students – all great fun but for a scientist like me to have an opportunity to see Hollywood for a day was pretty awesome.” Especially when Hollywood is making a dinosaur movie.

HeraldScotland:

Bryce Dallas Howard as Claire Dearing in Jurasssic World Dominion

For Brusatte – in fact for any paleontologist – it’s hard to over-state the importance of the original Jurassic Park films and the ongoing Jurassic World franchise.

“I think Jurassic Park is the single most important thing which has happened to paleontology in the last 50 years,” he says. “This was a blockbuster film, and now a series of films, that have brought dinosaurs to a huge international audience. It has introduced a new concept of what dinosaurs look like, how they behave. It made dinosaurs big, mega, blockbuster celebrity stars. They were already in the public eye but the film just kicked it into overdrive and it was seen all over the world.”

He was nine and living in rural Illinois when Jurassic Park was released in 1993 but, though he loved the film, there was no Eureka! moment. Instead it was his younger brother who became obsessed with dinosaurs, turning his bedroom into a shrine to all things Jurassic. But by the time Brusatte entered high school something had “clicked”, as he puts it. He decided to pursue a career in paleontology, enrolling initially at the University of Chicago. Post-graduate stints followed at Bristol University and Columbia University in New York. Then, in 2013, he arrived in Edinburgh.

For Brusatte, Scotland offers a “new frontier” in dinosaur research. The Isle of Skye is a particularly rich hunting ground. Not for nothing does he refer to it as “Scotland’s Jurassic Park”. Eigg is now throwing up treasures as well.

“The first dinosaur ever found in Scotland was a single footprint which fell off a block of rock on the Isle of Skye in the early 1980s. That was not that long ago. The first dinosaurs found in England and identified, studied and put on display, were in the 1820s.”

He has been leading expeditions to Skye for nearly a decade now and has turned up “a lot of cool stuff”. In 2017, he and his team found a complete Pterodactyl, “this gorgeous skeleton of a flying reptile with an eight-foot wide wingspan, wider than a king size bed. Nobody had ever found anything like this in the UK since the early 1800s.”

It was spotted by a student, its head peeking out from a rock on a tidal platform. So what does he feel when something like that happens?

“It’s really kind of indescribable,” he says.

Go on, try.

“It’s just such a magical experience it’s hard to put into words. The thing is when you find a fossil these things are really old. This Pterodactyl is about 170 million years old. It’s a number that’s so big our human brains really can’t conceive of it. So when you find a fossils like this, you’re the first person who has ever seen it. This is a thing that was alive so long ago when the world was so different. I always feel a great privilege to be the first set of human eyes seeing this thing and understanding what it is. That feeling never gets old.”

To prove the point, Brusatte is taking the opportunity to squeeze in a week of field work in New Mexico after he attends Monday’s Los Angeles premiere of Jurassic World Dominion. “I cannot wait to be out there,” he says. “This is desert Badlands. This is what you think of when you think of finding fossils.”

By the time he published The Rise And Fall Of The Dinosaurs in 2018, Brusatte was already becoming well known among the wider public. In the same year he arrived in Edinburgh he acted as a consultant on Walking With Dinosaurs, a BBC Earth production which put computer animated dinosaurs into live action settings. Two years later he participated in T. Rex Autopsy for the National Geographic channel in which he and three fellow paleontologists carved up a silicon replica of the fearsome apex predator.

Now comes another book, The Rise And Reign Of The Mammals. A sequel of sorts to the earlier work, it promises a re-appraisal of the history and evolution of mammals, beginning in the period when they – by which Brusatte sort of means we – co-existed with the dinosaurs. Not homo sapiens, of course, but creatures with hair, warm blood and relatively large brains, which were fast-growing and whose keen senses of hearing and smell were honed during an evolutionary period when living alongside dinosaurs made nocturnal hunting safer and more productive.

HeraldScotland:

Edinburgh University paleontologist Steve Brusatte

The asteroid hit which wiped out the dinosaurs also made 90% of these mammals extinct but some – including our distant ancestors – made it through. “They were the most humble animals you can imagine but they survived the apocalypse. Now, all of a sudden, the world is empty of dinosaurs and these animals responded by getting really big, really fast. Within a few hundred thousand years you have mammals the size of pigs. Within a million years they’re the size of cows and within 10 million years you get whales, which are the biggest mammals which have ever lived on earth, period.”

Among the roster of curious creatures Brusatte describes in the new book are Chalicotheres, a sort of horse-gorilla hybrid, armadillos the size of cars, and whales which could also walk on land – as evidenced by the many skeletons found in Wadi al-Hitan, the Valley of the Whales, near the pyramids of Giza in the Egyptian desert.

All weird and wonderful, of course. But for sheer primeval terror there’s still nothing quite like a dinosaur.

Jurassic World Dominion is released on Friday; The Rise And Reign Of The Mammals by Steve Brusatte is published on the same day (Picador, £20)

Beware the ancestors … they bite

Jurassic World Dominion’s cast of marauding dinosaurs brings a few old favourites back to the screen and introduces a few new ones. Here’s our list of 10 to watch.

Tyrannosaurus rex

A theropod dinosaur – translation: it walked on two legs and is a sub-genus of the Saurischian dinosaurs – T-rex is the greatest carnivore of all time, a rock star among dinosaurs and one of the favourites of the franchise. In the new film, however, she has competition in the form of two new foes who are almost as deadly.

Giganotosaurus

The largest known terrestrial carnivore, this theropod was 43 feet in length, weighed 13 tonnes and could move at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour. An unstoppable killer that flattens everything in its path and more than a match for T-rex. “It’s the size of an Edinburgh bus,” says paleontologist Steve Busatte. “It’s one of the biggest, baddest meat eaters of all time.”

Dilophosaurus

Returning for the first time since the original Jurassic Park movie, this brilliantly-coloured theropod is a small but deadly carnivore made even scarier by the neck frill it opens when in attack mode. Party trick? Its ability to spit deadly black venom at its victims.

Quetzalcoatlus

One of the biggest known flying animals, this toothless pterosaur was the size of a light aircraft, has a wingspan of 36 feet and is named for a feathered Aztec serpent God. Dates from the Late Cretaceous period 100 million years ago when the world was relatively temperate and ice free, with forest extending to the poles.

Atrociraptor

The name means ‘savage robber’ and this fearsome bunch hunt in packs and are even bigger than our old friends the Velociraptors. In Jurassic World Dominion they have been modified for speed and are trained to hunt by scent. Absolutely deadly.

Pyroraptor 

A fire-red feathered dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous period, these bird-like theropods have curved claws on the second toe of each foot and are relatively small by Jurassic Park standards – just eight feet long. That doesn’t stop Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady and new character Kayla Watts (DeWanda Wise) being chased by one in Jurassic World Dominion.

HeraldScotland:

DeWanda Wise as Kayla Watts and Chris Pratt as Owen Grady take on a Pyroraptor in Jurassic World Dominion

Dreadnoughtus

Making its debut in the franchise is this massive, long-necked, pot-bellied dinosaur. Closely related to the Brachiosaurus it would have weighed as much as a Boeing 373 airliner. The name means ‘fears nothing’ and is also intended as a nod to the heavily-armed Dreadnought battleships used by the Royal Navy in the early 20th century. A formidable opponent, in other words, and one bristling with armour.

Therizinosaurus

The name means ‘scythe lizard’ and though this theropod is a herbivore, her name is well-earned: each of her front limbs contains three razor-sharp claws the length of a baseball bat. Covered in grey and black feathers she’s 33 feet long and makes a distinctive noise, part hiss, part screech. Lived in the Cretaceous period.

Oviraptor

Another new addition to the cast, this raptor was toothless and beaked and its name means ‘egg thief’. It was small too, just over five feet in length, and had four toes, three fingers and a short, feathered tail.

Moros intrepidus

A member of the tyrannosauroid theropod genus, this pacey, two-legged creature would have come up to the shoulders of an average human and lived during the Late Cretaceous period. Interestingly it was only discovered in 2013 when bones were discovered poking out of a hillside in Utah during an excavation, and it wasn’t until 2019 that it received its name: in Greek mythology Moros was the spirit of impending doom. Another franchise debutante.