Velociraptor Wasn't the Big, Scary Monster From the Movies

By: Mark Mancini  | 

Velociraptor
Velociraptor had a big sickle claw on the second toe of each foot that was likely used to pierce the skin and grip the flesh of prey. Daniel Eskridge/Stocktrek Images

Velociraptor is linked to two of the most intriguing figures in paleontology: Roy Chapman Andrews and Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska.

Often compared to Indiana Jones, Andrews was an American explorer known for his vivid field stories. The man's writings describe "narrow escapes from death" at the hands of wild dogs, injured whales and typhoons. (To say nothing of his cliff-related mishaps.)

Andrews became a bit of a celebrity in the 1920s and 1930s, when he led a series of fossil-hunting expeditions through the Mongolian Gobi Desert.

Helped by a combination of motor vehicles and camel caravans, his teams found the remains of many prehistoric beasts unknown to science at the time.

One was a small dinosaur with a long snout and grasping claws. In 1924, paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn named it Velociraptor mongoliensis.

But while Andrews' crews discovered Velociraptor, and Osborn named it, we have Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska to thank for the most amazing specimen ever unearthed. A renowned paleobiologist, she oversaw the once-in-a-lifetime discovery of a Velociraptor who may have literally died in combat.

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Dinosaurs Then and Now

Birdwatchers might as well be called "theropod-watchers." Dinosaurs are split into five major subgroups, with the most successful being the theropoda, or the "theropods."

You can already name at least one species: the late, great Tyrannosaurus rex. Other iconic theropods include carnivores like Spinosaurus, Giganotosaurus and Archaeopteryx.

While these aforementioned beasts were all meat-eaters, a few theropods — such as the pot-bellied Therizinosaurus — fed on plants. Unlike the rest of the dinosaurs, the theropoda lineage didn't completely die out. Because you see, birds are theropods, too. And if that doesn't give you an incentive to grab some binoculars and go birding sometime, nothing will.

Velociraptor had a big old sickle claw on the second toe of each foot. Also, there was a series of bony rods running down the creature's tail vertebrae. These and (many) other traits flag Velociraptor as a dromaeosaur.

A theropod group that lasted from about 167 to 66 million years ago, the dromaeosaurs are kind of famous thanks to Hollywood. Velociraptor is one of the few dinosaurs that's appeared in all five "Jurassic Park" movies, and it played a major role in the Michael Crichton novels they're based on.

Unfortunately, from the very beginning, this franchise has misrepresented poor Velociraptor.

Velociraptor
While movies like "Jurassic Park" have portrayed Velociraptor as large and scary, in reality they weren't much bigger than today's wild turkey.
Matt Martyniuk/(CC BY 2.5)

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Sizing It Up

The Velociraptors in "Jurassic Park" are roughly human-sized. That's way too big. While researching his novel, Crichton may have read the 1988 book "Predatory Dinosaurs of the World: A Complete Illustrated Guide" by Gregory S. Paul.

Paul's text refers to Deinonychus antirrhopus, a larger dromaeosaur, as "Velociraptor antirrhopus." This decision was criticized because the two animals clearly didn't belong to the same genus. (A fact acknowledged in Paul's later books.)

When push came to shove, it was obviously Deinonychus — and not Velociraptor — that inspired the so-called "raptors" of "Jurassic Park," "Jurassic World" and their spinoffs.

You'd have no trouble telling one theropod from the other. The 11-foot (3.3-meter) Deinonychus was almost twice the length of Velociraptor, which measured 6 to 8.7 feet (1.85 to 2.65 meters) long. Besides, at 84 pounds (38 kilograms) or so, Velociraptor was a relative featherweight.

And it was short. Velociraptor had a hip height of just 28 inches (72 centimeters) at the most. To put that in perspective, paleontologist Mark Witton recently posed a replica Velociraptor skeleton next to his greyhound, Beau. The dog had a definite height advantage — in Witton's photo, she towers over the theropod.

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Cretaceous Killers

Size wasn't the only thing that set Deinonychus and Velociraptor apart. They lived in opposite hemispheres; the former was a North American predator, but skeletons of the Velociraptor are only found in Chinese and Mongolian fossil deposits.

Time separated the two dromaeosaurs as well. Deinonychus evolved around 115 million years ago, placing it in the early Cretaceous Period of Earth's history. Yet Velociraptor was a late Cretaceous dinosaur that lived between 74 and 70 million years ago.

Keen senses helped Velociraptor navigate prehistoric Asia, according to new research.

A 2020 study published in The Journal of Anatomy examined Velociraptor's ears and cranium with X-ray technology. The layout of its inner skull indicates this dinosaur had a good sense of balance. Beyond that, it appears Velociraptor was sensitive to a wide range of sounds.

Also, the theropod's vestibulo-ocular reflex — which stabilizes an animal's gaze as the creature moves its head — may have been quite acute.

"It is likely," wrote the study's co-authors, "that [Velociraptor mongoliensis] was an active predator that would readily rely on carrion in the event that a ready source of prey items was not available."

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Tails, Toes and Feathers

Other regions of the body can tell us more about the dinosaur's lifestyle.

Velociraptor was clearly flightless. Yet in 2007, a set of tiny bumps was discovered on the forearm of one specimen from Mongolia. Turkey vultures have these bony knobs as well; they're feather attachment points.

So that all but confirms Velociraptor had some arm plumage. Maybe the feathers helped it attract mates.

No one knows what those distinctive dromaeosaur tail rods were for. The bony extensions could've been more flexible than we once assumed; a 1999 report for the American Museum of Natural History describes a Velociraptor skeleton with a gently curving tail.

Our outlook on their talons is also evolving. Go re-watch the famous kitchen scene from the original "Jurassic Park" movie. Notice how Spielberg's raptors can pull their big toe claws backward while walking or standing.

Anatomists have a word for that talent: hyperextensibility. Real dromaeosaurs could hold each foot's second toe — the one with the extra-large talon — at an upright angle. And by the same token, they could swing the claws downward.

But to what end? Experiments involving computer models and robotic raptor legs (yes, really) tell us said claws were great at piercing skin and gripping flesh. Dromaeosaurs like Velociraptor probably used these notorious weapons to help pin and subdue their prey.

"Fighting Dinosaurs" specimen
The 1971 discovery of the "Fighting Dinosaurs" specimen, which is a Velociraptor and Protoceratops locked in mortal combat, provided the idea that Velociraptor was predatory.
Raul Martin/(CC BY 2.5)

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A Fight to the Death

When hunger struck, Velociraptor wasn't picky. One individual was found with the bones from a late Cretaceous flying reptile (a pterosaur, to be exact) lodged inside its skeleton. This might be evidence of scavenging behavior on Velociraptor's part.

During the Cold War, however, Kielan-Jaworowska found evidence of something rather more dramatic.

A native of east-central Poland, she was born in 1925. As World War II unfolded, she became a medic for the Polish Resistance movement. Kielan-Jaworowska went on to direct the Institute of Paleobiology at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

In 1962, she co-organized the first of several joint Polish-Mongolian expeditions into the Gobi.

During one of these campaigns, in the year 1971, Kielan-Jaworowska and her colleagues unearthed two intertwined dinosaur skeletons. One belonged to a Velociraptor. The other represents a frilled plant-eater called Protoceratops.

The dromaeosaur was found with its left hand grasping the Protoceratops' skull — and its (broken) right arm trapped between the creature's jaws. Also, this Velociraptor had a foot pressed against the herbivore's neck.

Most paleontologists think the animals somehow died while fighting each other. Experts also suspect the pair was abruptly buried under a collapsing sand dune.

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Originally Published: Mar 20, 2008

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