The Scenario: My late Victorian Era mad scientist wants to domesticate the dinosaurs and mammalian megafauna of his "Lost World" island getaway, for use as companions, guardians, draft animals, and even mounts for his many henchmen. The problem is that he doesn't have thousands of years to do it. In fact, for the timeline of the story to work, he needs to succeed in under a decade.

That makes true domestication, via selective breeding, impossible. The solution will probably have to be a bit slapdash. The best I can think of is psychosurgery, primitive deep brain stimulation, or some kind of behavioral training; but I'm open to all ideas. Being a mad visionary genius, I don't mind if he jumps a bit ahead of the real world technological timeline, or stumbles onto something not yet supported by scientific theory.

That said, I don't want whatever method he settles upon to be easily reverse engineered into a wider variety of setting-breaking technologies. Internal consistency is important to me. Finally, while I'm fine pushing the limits of the possible, and exploiting the unknowns of brain anatomy and behavior, I'd like to keep things as close to real world science as I reasonably can while still getting the effect. That way I'll have a much clearer idea of what my characters can and can't do, and hopefully be able to add texture to the world by referencing actual scientific developments.

The Question: Given the above, what is the all around most effective way for my mad scientist to go about domesticating his new menagerie?

  • $\begingroup$ So our Mad Scientist here already has a bunch of dino's and is starting the domestication process? First nit pick is our atmosphere won't support giant Dino's. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth May 30 '17 at 21:22
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    $\begingroup$ It's a fair question, but I should clarify that by "best consensus" I meant from surveying an odd dozen popular science forums and articles, in that the pro arguments appeared to consistently have good answers to the con -- I definitely don't have a body of actual journal literature to draw on. $\endgroup$ – Random May 30 '17 at 22:28
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    $\begingroup$ natureworldnews.com/articles/4963/20131119/… natureworldnews? Not sure if I trust these tech.firstpost.com/news-analysis/… Firstpost suggesting levels of 10%-15%. Some confusion on the topic...Cretaceous period had very high oxygen levels, but by Jurassic they had receded to far less than today (Study in 2013 looking at amber concluded this). Some of these sites are proposing no asteroid for extinction, but this oxygen drop instead $\endgroup$ – Twelfth May 30 '17 at 23:12
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    $\begingroup$ K, last comment...this time denying Oxygen would have any impact as all. Actually appears Dino lungs are superior to ours and could handle a wider range of conditions. Link and quote: sauropod-dinosaurs.uni-bonn.de/gigantismus-en ... Such environmental factors would be atmospheric composition and global temperature. While global temperature was higher than today, oxygen content was lower, but, more importantly, these parameters shifted throughout the Mesozoic without maximum dinosaur body size shifting with them. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth May 30 '17 at 23:29
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    $\begingroup$ @era don't worry about the oxygen levels, dinosaur breathing is not as sensitive as mammalian breathing. Just like birds they can tolerate changes better than mammals, and the oxygen levels are not that different, you can gen bigger ranges by changing altitude on earth. Go back past the permian and it starts to matter more. $\endgroup$ – John May 30 '17 at 23:29

Selective Breeding

Don't rule out selective breeding too quickly. If any of the megafauna reach sexual maturity within one or two years, a decade is plenty of time for a selective breeding program.

Beginning in 1959, the Soviet scientist Dmitry Belyayev bred successive generations of wild silver foxes to produce tame ones. He produced human-friendly foxes by the fourth generation; his foxes were very friendly (eager for human contact) after only six generations.

As explained in Scientific American:

Starting at one month of age, and continuing every month throughout infancy, the foxes were tested for their reactions to an experimenter. The experimenter would attempt to pet and handle the fox while offering it food. In addition, the experimenters noted whether the foxes preferred to hang out with other foxes, or with humans.

Then, upon reaching sexual maturity (seven to eight months), they had their final test and assigned an overall tameness score. They rated each fox's tendency to approach an experimenter standing at the front of its home pen, as well as each fox's tendency to bite the experimenters when they tried to touch it. Only those foxes that were least fearful and least aggressive were chosen for breeding. In each successive generation, less than 20 percent of individuals were allowed to breed.

A notable downside is that such a targeted breeding program (seeking only to make the animals tame) might negatively impact their suitability for other tasks. For example, if their fear response to new people and situations is reduced, their utility as guard animals similarly decreases.

Of course, generally the bigger the animal, the longer it will take to reach sexual maturity. A fox may reach sexual maturity in seven months, but a bear could take three years, and an elephant takes at least 15. But if you decide your dinos are more like birds, ostriches can sexually mature between 2 and 4.


Of course, animals don't necessarily need to be domesticated to be trained.

Wild-caught raptors were historically used in falconry, although in most modern countries this is now illegal, so only captive-bred birds or birds taken from wild nests as eggs or nestlings are used in modern falconry. If your scientist can somehow acquire a juvenile and imprint on it, that could facilitate training.

Human history is replete with examples of dancing bears and circuses that feature tamed lions and tigers; Isaac A. Van Amburgh trained large wild cats for public exposition in the 1830s. His methods were reportedly quite brutal, involving both starvation and beating the animals with a crowbar.

Carnivores may be easier to train than prey animals as they would arguably be less afraid of new experiences (hence the early domestication of dogs in human history). In addition, their natural hunting instincts can be integrated into the training process, as with falconry.

A well-read Victorian-era scientist could conceivably be familiar with the basics of falconry; the Old Hawking Club was founded in Great Britain in 1864.

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    $\begingroup$ And today, less than 60 years from the start of the experiment, Dmitry Belyayev's and Lyudmila Trut's foxes are almost completely domesticated; they are available for sale in a range of colors for use as pets or as breeding stock for a fur farm. $\endgroup$ – AlexP May 30 '17 at 22:29
  • $\begingroup$ This raises the question of how long does a gigantic sized Dino take to reach full sexual maturity. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth May 30 '17 at 22:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Twelfth 15-20 years for most ton or more sized, 30years for the largest, based on growth modeling from growth rings. Smaller dinosaurs will of course be much faster. pnas.org/content/105/2/582/F2.expansion.html $\endgroup$ – John May 30 '17 at 22:56
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    $\begingroup$ You wouldn't want to domesticate the largest ones anyway. You'd want to go after the raptors: deinonychus most probably, though you might want velociraptors and utahraptors too, depending on the task. $\endgroup$ – Draco18s no longer trusts SE May 31 '17 at 17:05

It all depends on the dino

Selective breeding only takes a few generations, animals can be domesticated after a single generation under the right conditions, but if you want untrained people handling them more is better.

The big wrench in the works is whether the animal is suitable for domestication, if it's not, it will never be domesticated without genetic engineering no matter how much you want it. There is a reason we domesticated horses but never zebra, zebra are just to aggressive.

Generally animals that are solitary, strongly aggressive, require unusual breeding conditions (like Leks), or require specialized diets are unsuitable for domestication.

So for dinosaurs the only two you can determine with any reliability is the first and last. So you want pack or herd living dino that does not have a highly specialized diet.

Diet just rules out things like therizinosaurus and Spinosaurus. We can guess a bit about aggression by defenses, Stegosaurus has a very active defense meaning it will probably be very aggressive. But for most dinosaurs we don't know so you only have about aggression. So mostly you only have to worry about how social the dino is. We know of social behavior in Hadrosaurids, Ceratopsians, Sauropods, Tyrannosaurids, Dromaeosaurs and Allosauridae. so you are fine with any of them. But you can always "find" a few social species in the other groups.

If you want it to feel realistic there should be a lot of trial and error in finding suitable species.

Taming animals is easier but you need new wild ones to get more, and it is time consuming and very costly yo break and train them. And it is important to remember a tamed animal is always dangerous, there is always a risk its anger at the monkey poking it will outweigh its fear and it will kill someone.

For non-dinosaurs you need to be a bit more specific, keep in mind if you go back past the triassic the oxygen problem starts popping up.

Just FYI Keep in mind triassic and jurassic grazing dinosaurs would not be able to eat grass, it had not evolved yet and has some unique defenses.

  • $\begingroup$ Good points all. Here's a question for you I hadn't yet thought of, considering their evolutionary history how possible is dinosaur filial imprinting in the social breeds? $\endgroup$ – Random May 31 '17 at 19:20
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    $\begingroup$ complete guesswork, we know some protected and raised their young so it definately possible. $\endgroup$ – John May 31 '17 at 19:30
  • $\begingroup$ That's about what I figured, thanks. $\endgroup$ – Random May 31 '17 at 20:30

Your animal trainer can probably harness them. Of course, you failed to specify which megafauna your island had.

I think it would even be possible to pacify them, at least to some extent. By "pacify" I mean something like a frontal lobotomy, so that much of their aggressive normal behavior was removed. The problem with this is that then they'll be wimps. The real question is: why on Earth do you think this would be an efficient use of food?

People don't use goats (not counting Thor) to pull wagons. Why? Because oxen and horses, mules, etc. are better at it. What are elephants used for? Plowing fields? Not so much. Lifting heavy loads? Somewhat. War? Yup.

So, what use would a dinosaur actually be compared to the most effective animal used today? I doubt they'd be able to compete, but that's just speculation. We don't know anywhere near enough about their behavior and metabolism to justify a firm opinion.

Maybe working in swamps? I really don't think they'd be very useful. Sure, one could lift loads you'd need a team of horses (oxen are generally more favored), but who is going to ride a dino to the saloon for the nightly hee-haw? (Incidentally, I think they'd be pretty much like elephants, mostly a status symbol.)

  • $\begingroup$ oxen and horses are better becasue they are bigger and stronger than goats. If it is domesticable bigger is better for a labor animal. Elephants are not used becasue they are not domesticable without modern technology and worse they breed incredibly slow making even attempting artificial selection a multi-generational (for the humans) thing. $\endgroup$ – John May 31 '17 at 19:36

I'd go with mad-scientist chemistry, better living through better drugs. You train them the same way we train other animals; with sticks and carrots. But instead of getting physical (electric shocks or mere food), let's use some awesome drugs.

First, a knockout dart: He can fire it into a Brontosaur and within an hour or so, it gets sleepy, lays down and falls asleep for a few hours.

Doctor Crazy then attaches a collar to the dinosaur with surgical ports, the collar contains a fair amount of drugs to cause three things: Pain, Intense pleasure, or another Knockout (so he can refill when needed). These are triggered "remotely" by whistles (the mechanical kind) of one particular resonant frequency (different for each drug) that makes the membrane holding the drug in its vial permeable, so a dose leaks into the bloodstream of the animal (that's we we needed those surgical ports).

Make sure Doctor Crazy invents chemicals that work in tiny doses. Then let the Pavlovian training begin! It works on animals as dumb as flies; it can work on dinosaurs.


With that short a time frame you are looking into the dark side of domestication. Electric pokers, drugs, lobotomies. Basically anything PETA would have nightmares over and that will work on a short term but probably shorten the lifespan of the creature.
On the other hand victorians where master breeders (phrasing!), and maybe they could work out something like crossing one big strong dinosaur with a smaller tamer one in order to produce a mule like dino. It would depend on the scientist to have a way to discern what dinos can be compatible in that way.


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