Hello again from Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Section of Vertebrate Paleontology. With Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker—and, not coincidentally, CMNH’s own Star Wars After Dark event—on the horizon, I figured it was finally time to call attention to something that, as a dinosaur scientist and ginormous Star Wars nerd, I think is pretty cool. I’ll cut right to the chase: I’m about 95% sure that our museum’s beloved ‘Dippy’ (formally known as the type, or name-bearing, fossilized skeleton of the dinosaur Diplodocus carnegii) makes an appearance of sorts in the original 1977 Star Wars (now known as Episode IV: A New Hope).
Why, you ask, do I feel comfortable making this pretty random claim? Well, a couple summers ago, the title image on this Kickstarter page (shown immediately below) led me down one of the internet’s countless rabbit holes.
David West Reynolds with some original ‘bones’ of the krayt dragon in the Sahara Desert of Tunisia.
The photo shows archaeologist and filmmaker David West Reynolds in the Tunisian desert in 1995, at one of the sites where the scenes on the planet Tatooine were shot for the 1977 film. The big white objects are the actual ‘bones’ of the gigantic replica skeleton (that of a huge Star Wars Universe beastie known as a krayt dragon) that appears behind C-3PO on Tatooine early in the film. Here’s a shot on the off chance your memory needs refreshing:
C-3PO may be fluent in six million languages, but I bet he has no idea what he’s really looking at here. Photo from this site.
Yes, the krayt dragon’s fake bones were actually just left in the Tunisian desert after George Lucas and company were done with them. They’ve since been ‘rediscovered’ by David Reynolds, my good friend and fellow paleontologist Michael Ryan, and many others.
After encountering Reynolds’ pic, and therefore seeing some of the krayt dragon’s bones up close for the first time, I realized that they had clearly been modeled after those of a sauropod (a giant long-necked plant-eating dinosaur, what most people think of when they hear the word “brontosaurus”). In particular, the bones seemed to strongly resemble those of Diplodocus carnegii. Being the resident dinosaur researcher here in ‘the house that Dippy built,’ this piqued my interest. Could the krayt dragon have somehow been inspired by D. carnegii?
Three views of the type specimen of Diplodocus carnegii here at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. If its vertebrae (backbones) don’t look familiar, they should.
This led to some Googling, which yielded this decade-old blog post from my colleague and sauropod specialist Matt Wedel of the Western University of Health Sciences. Therein, Matt convincingly argues that the backbone of the krayt dragon is based on Diplodocus, though he can’t be sure which particular species or specimen of this dinosaur would have served as the inspiration. (The dragon’s skull, however, bears no close resemblance to that of any actual dinosaur, so it was clearly just invented.) Moreover, a few of the commenters on Matt’s post claim that the dragon skeleton is one and the same as the replica ‘sauropod skeleton’ used in the obscure (and apparently quite terrible, though I’ve never seen it) 1975 Disney film One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, which is set in and around the Natural History Museum in London. Even more Googling supports this hypothesis, as do images of the fake skeleton itself:
Two views of the hideous ‘sauropod skeleton’ from One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing. It should look familiar too. Images from IMDB.
Assuming this was indeed the case (i.e., that the krayt dragon skeleton is the same sauropod prop that was used in One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing), and that (as Matt Wedel had already demonstrated), that sauropod was almost certainly based on Diplodocus, I then tried to determine where the Disney Diplodocus could have come from; in other words, what real Diplodocus specimen(s) it might have been cast or sculpted from. Sadly, I was unable to do so. But the only Diplodocus skeleton (or the only substantial portion of one, anyway) at London’s Natural History Museum during the 1970s was the cast of CMNH’s very own Diplodocus carnegii that was presented to England by Andrew Carnegie himself in 1905.
The London Dippy—a copy of ours—in the Natural History Museum in 2008. How sick are you of seeing these vertebrae? From Wikipedia.
So, in a nutshell, although I can’t absolutely, definitively prove it (yet?), I think there’s an excellent chance that the krayt dragon in Episode IV was ultimately based on Diplodocus carnegii. Specifically, the evidence suggests that it was inspired by the cast of D. carnegii in London, either a sculpted replica of that cast or even potentially a second-generation cast of that cast. And by the way, I’m not the only paleontologist who thinks so: as Darren Naish recently said in reference to the skeleton in One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, “… it’s funny to think that it’s meant to be one and the same as Dippy of NHM London fame, and that it ended its life a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”
In other words, the freakin’ krayt dragon is Dippy – which means Dippy is in Star Wars!
ps… Shameless plug: come see Dippy the real krayt dragon at Star Wars After Dark tonight (December 6)!
Matt Lamanna is the Mary R. Dawson Associate Curator and Head of Vertebrate Paleontology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.