Time to talk dinosaurs – and what better dinosaur to talk about than the source of my blog’s web address, the Velociraptor?
The Jurassic Park franchise created an image of Velociraptor as a merciless supreme predator, which combined lightning speed, high intelligence and teamwork to hunt and take down its prey. This image was eagerly picked up by other sources: one video game from my childhood, 3D Dinosaur Adventure, stated, “A human being could have been torn apart in 30 seconds by a pack of Velociraptors.” But while the real Velociraptor was probably not to be trifled with, it was very different from its familiar cinematic representation.
Velociraptor – whose name comes from the Latin words velox, meaning “swift”, and raptor, meaning “thief” or “plunderer” – was first discovered in 1923, on an expedition in the Gobi Desert, Outer Mongolia, by the American Museum of Natural History. Multiple good-quality fossils have been found since, and two species are recognised: Velociraptor mongoliensis, the type species, and Velociraptor osmolskae, discovered in Inner Mongolia, China, and described in 2008. Like other members of its family, the Dromaeosauridae, Velociraptor was an agile, bird-like carnivore, with large three-fingered hands, a stiffened tail, and a sickle-shaped claw on the second toe of each foot. It lived around 75 million years ago, in the Late Cretaceous Period, roaming a sandy, arid habitat similar to how the Gobi Desert is today.
A clear difference between the Jurassic Park incarnation of Velociraptor, and the real animal, is that the latter was significantly smaller, growing up to two metres long and not quite reaching up to a grown man’s waist. But that’s not all: in 2007, it was announced that the real Velociraptor had feathers! A forearm bone was found to feature a line of raised quill knobs, indicating that Velociraptor had fourteen feathers extending from each arm, and almost certainly additional feathers covering the rest of its body. Since Velociraptor would certainly not have been able to fly, it may have used the feathers for display, or for assistance when running up inclines. So when, in Jurassic Park, the little boy at Alan Grant’s digsite described Velociraptor as a “six-foot turkey”, he really wasn’t far off the mark. Velociraptor‘s older relative Deinonychus is a better match for the fictional “raptors” in terms of size and American locality; the original novel by Michael Crichton appears to use “velociraptor” in the same way that palaeontologists technically say “velociraptorine” to group Velociraptor and its closest relatives (palaeontologists disagree as to whether Deinonychus belongs in this group.) But in fairness, Velociraptor rolls off the tongue a little better than Deinonychus.
Smaller animals, like the lizards and mammals sharing its habitat, would have been welcome snacks for Velociraptor – but did it ever go after anything larger? Three particular fossils have given us more knowledge about Velociraptor‘s eating habits than we possess for most other theropod dinosaurs. The first and most famous, the “Fighting Dinosaurs” fossil, was discovered in 1971; a Velociraptor that died while locked together with a similar-sized herbivore, Protoceratops. By all appearances, the two animals were in a furious struggle before they were possibly buried in sand without warning; the Protoceratops is grasping the Velociraptor‘s right arm in its beak, while the Velociraptor grapples its opponent’s head with its left hand, and raises one of its foot claws towards the throat.
Not everyone agrees that this was a predator-prey confrontation – but another fossil, described in 2010, provides proof that Velociraptor did eat Protoceratops: a jawbone, believed to belong to Protoceratops, with teethmarks matching Velociraptor‘s upon it. However, since the jaw would hardly have provided the best-quality flesh, it is speculated that the Velociraptor was feeding on a carcass which had already been mostly eaten. In addition, a 2012 paper describes a sub-adult Velociraptor that had ingested a pterosaur bone; the pterosaur in question would have been large enough to be a challenging prospect if it were alive, so this is also thought to have been a result of scavenging.
A 2005 BBC documentary, The Truth About Killer Dinosaurs, featured an experiment to see if Velociraptor‘s famous sickle claw could actually disembowel large prey, as popularly believed. A claw on a mechanical leg was used to slash a pork belly, but couldn’t fully penetrate the flesh. The documentary concluded that the claw was a precision instrument, used to kill prey by cutting its throat, as apparently demonstrated in the aforementioned “Fighting Dinosaurs” fossil. And did Velociraptor hunt in packs? We don’t know: fossils of Deinonychus have been found together in what might have been a pack, but in his encyclopedia Dinosaurs, palaeontologist Thomas R. Holtz Jr suggests that pack-hunting wouldn’t have been an optimal strategy for Velociraptor since it lived in the desert where there wouldn’t have been much prey to share. As for intelligence, that’s hard to judge from bones, but figuring out how to operate door handles – had there been any doors to open in the Late Cretaceous – was probably beyond a Velociraptor‘s brain.
So, if you did actually go on a time-travelling expedition to observe Velociraptors, you would be most likely to find a solitary, feathered creature, no bigger than a golden retriever. Would it still attack you? Probably best not to attract its attention unnecessarily, just in case.