The scary truth about Velociraptors
Behind the movie star persona, there's a dinosaur more fascinating than anything Hollywood dreamt up.
On screen, it's portrayed as a smirking, stealthy pack hunter with a brain as sharp as its claws, but the Velociraptor we all know and fear is rather different to the animal that bobbed about the Late Cretaceous some 70 million years ago. Its appearance in Jurassic Park and the film's sequels means the Velociraptor is, at once, one of the best known yet little understood dinosaurs that ever lived.
Palaeontologists have found Velociraptor fossils in central Asia and China, although related species have appeared in North and South America. It was a small, fast, carnivorous therapod that walked on three-toed feet with a distinctive sickle-shaped claw.
Not only was it smaller than the raptors in Jurassic Park, it also looked very different. A light, feathery coating that would have made it look more like an aggressive turkey than the scaly creatures we know from the movies.
Around 2m in length, half a metre in height and 7kg in weight, the Velociraptor was half the size of the creatures portrayed in Jurassic Park. (Although related species such as the Deinonychus and Utahraptor were actually bigger than the creatures onscreen.) It was a mid-sized Dromaeosaurid, a family of feathered therapods. As well as a turkey, the actual velociraptor is also commonly described as a 'land eagle'.
"Pound-for-pound, Velociraptor was the champion predator among the dinosaurs," says Prof Steve Brusatte, a palaeontologist at the University of Edinburgh. "It was small, much smaller than usually shown in films and documentaries, just about the size of a poodle, and not one of those big poodles, but a miniature poodle. But it was feisty, and fast, and brainy. There's nothing quite like Velociraptor alive today, but I imagine it as a hybrid of a wolf and a cassowary."
The first Velociraptor fossil was discovered in the Gobi Desert in Outer Mongolia in 1923. It consisted of a crushed skull and the raptor's sharp, terrifying, sickle-shaped claw. Specimens discovered later pieced the whole picture together: a bipedal, bird-like creature with several distinctive features.
The Velociraptor's skull was long with an upturned snout and a long jaw with serrated teeth. Like other Dromaeosaurids, it had a long tail and large feet with three strongly curved claws similar to the wing bones of modern birds. It also had long, wing-like arms and a wishbone similar to those of modern birds, but they were not big enough to support flight.
One of the most famous Velociraptor discoveries is known as "fighting dinosaurs" because it was found preserved, apparently in mid-combat with a Protoceratops. Palaeontologists believe both animals were buried very quickly, perhaps by a collapsing sand dune or sandstorm, because they were found in incredibly lifelike poses. The Velociraptor's sickle claw seems to be embedded in the throat of the Protoceratops.
That distinctive sickle claw, found on a Velociraptor's second digits, was used to great effect in Jurassic Park. In the movies, raptors tapped them menacingly on the ground and slashed at victims with them. Some palaeontologists, however, believe that rather than disembowelling their prey, the claws – which could be more than 6cm on its outer edge – clutched or pinned prey down, using them like a bird of prey uses its talons today.
"There is a lot of debate about this," says Brusatte. "[The claws] do seem to be a bit too thin and curved to be used as disembowellers, as some experiments based on model claws have shown. It seems like they were particularly good at latching onto prey, kind of like crampons. But I'm sure something that sharp would have been used in killing and eating, too. So I suspect those big foot claws were multipurpose tools, like a bunch of Swiss army knife functions combined into one."
Did Velociraptors have feathers?
Yes, lots of them. Contrary to the common lizard-like portrayal, all Dromaeosaurid species had feathers. Some palaeontologists even wonder whether all kinds of dinosaurs had feathers. In raptors, it's actually confirmed in the fossil record. A 2007 Velociraptor discovery had 'quill knobs' on its arm bones where long feathers would have been attached.
"The real Velociraptor had feathers all over its body, and even wings on its arms, made up of quill pen feathers lined up along the arm and hand," explains Brusatte. "It would not have looked like a green, scaly overgrown crocodile or lizard, but more like a ferocious bird, one with a long tail and a murderous toothy grin.
"Velociraptor almost certainly couldn't fly, so its feathers and wings were used for other purposes – to keep its body warm, and as display structures to intimidate rivals or attract mates. We don't know their colours yet – but based on close relatives, they probably were pretty colourful, and maybe with even iridescent feathers or camouflage patterns."
In Jurassic Park III, it's suggested that Velociraptor vocals were not just terrifying, they were actually a sophisticated mode of communication. This, sadly, is another case of how science is basically extinct in Hollywood. Velociraptors were smart, but only by dinosaur standards and the sounds they made were more likely to be rumbling hums, murmurs and squawks. Listen to what a cassowary sounds like for scientists' current best guess.
Velociraptors in Jurassic Park
As will be obvious by now, the so-called "clever girls" of the Jurassic Park series were not scientifically accurate. They were twice the size of real Velociraptors, and covered in scales instead of feathers. However, like the onscreen version, raptors were smart, fast and vicious – although it's disputed whether they hunted in packs or not.
It's also worth noting that the Velociraptors in Jurassic Park were actually based on another species of Dromaeosaurid, the Deinonychus. "Velociraptor and Deinonychus are very similar," says Brusatte. "The main difference is size: Velociraptor was the size of a small dog, while Deinonychus was more like a pony. I believe the Jurassic Park Velociraptor was also based in part on Utahraptor, which is even bigger – horse-sized."
Species related to the Velociraptor
The real inspiration for Jurassic Park's raptors, this species was first discovered in the 1930s and was one of the species that led palaeontologists to suspect that birds may have evolved from dinosaurs. Deinonychus is Greek for "terrible claw". Fitting, because it has the same sickle-shaped slasher as the Velociraptor, only bigger.
More terrifying than anything in the movies, this feathered nightmare shared a lot of Velociraptor characteristics but could be taller than a man and was built like a polar bear. The earliest Utahraptor specimens were found in the 1970s but the species was only formally described in 1993, the same year that the first Jurassic Park movie was released.
Judge no raptor by its size, even this relative minnow. The Microraptor was about the size of a chicken but it had sharp teeth and sharp claws. Some specimens suggest this weird dinosaur may even have been capable of glided flight, making surprise aerial attacks possible. We'd pay to see that in the next Jurassic World movie.
About our expert, Prof Steve Brusatte
A vertebrate palaeontologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Edinburgh, Prof Brusatte has hunted for dinosaur fossils all over the world and written over 110 scientific papers, as well as several books. He was a scientific consultant for the BBC's Walking With Dinosaurs team.
Learn more about dinosaurs:
A former deputy editor at Science Focus, Ian once undertook a scientific ranking of the UK's best rollercoasters on behalf of the magazine. He is now a freelance writer, which is frankly a lot less fun.
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