10 Swift Facts About Velociraptor

For more than 60 years, Velociraptor wallowed in relative obscurity. But after Jurassic Park hit theaters, this central Asian predator had a sudden and dazzling rise to superstardom. The public couldn’t get enough of it.

Unfortunately, Spielberg’s sleek, human-sized predators are Velociraptor in name only. When all’s said and done, they were—as we pointed out last weekend—based on a completely different animal called Deinonychus. Most of what people think they know about Velociraptor is wrong. So, before you check out Jurassic World, get acquainted with the real deal.

1. Velociraptor Wasn’t Much Bigger Than the Main Dish on Thanksgiving.  

Turns out, the snotty kid in the first Jurassic Park who called Velociraptora six-foot turkey” was spot-on. Its body was about the same size (including a meter-long tail) and full-grown adults probably weighed 30 to 40 pounds. Pass the gravy!

2. Those Infamous Toe Claws Weren’t Built for Slashing.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As Spielberg made quite clear, dromaeosaurs (a.k.a. raptors) came with some terrifying weaponry. On each foot, there was a specialized toe with a huge, hooked claw. Both digits could be pulled backwards to an almost freakish degree. While walking around, Velociraptor and company held them high up off the ground in order to keep the claw tips sharp.

At first glance, the trademark tools look nicely designed for ripping into hapless victims. However, one 2005 experiment involving pig skins and a mechanical raptor leg debunked this idea. (Isn't science great?) British paleontologist Phillip Manning oversaw the creation of a robotic dromaeosaur foot meticulously based on the animal's proportions. He wanted to test how raptors might have wielded those dreadful claws. The results were pretty surprising. While the robo-toe sliced right through chamois leather, pig and crocodile hide proved much more challenging: it could barely puncture the swine’s skin and lamely bounced off the croc’s. “Using the claw to slash would have been like me trying to disembowel you with a plastic spoon,” Manning said.

Thanks to his research, scientists now think that dromaeosaurs instead turned their toe claws into gripping gear. After a raptor leapt onto some poor creature’s back, these things could have helped it hang on like an ancient rodeo champ long enough to bite open its prey's throat.

3. So Far, We’ve Discovered Two Species.

Velociraptor mongoliensis was named in 1924 and Velociraptor osmolskae in 2008. Both are known from China, though V. mongoliensis also roamed Mongolia.

4. There’s a Good Chance That Velociraptor Occasionally Climbed Trees.

Eighty million years ago, you might have been just as likely to get pooped on by a tree-bound dromaeosaur as maimed by one on the ground. A few paleontologists claim that Velociraptor’s toe claws could help it scale barky trunks—and bigger dinos—with relative ease. Just imagine a few of them perched on some Mesozoic branches.

5. Two Velociraptor-Like Skulls Were Found in a Different Dinosaur’s Nest.

The oviraptorids were a weird group of beaked and toothless critters that scientists often puzzle over. In the early '90s, one oviraptorid nest turned up in Mongolia, complete with a well-preserved egg. Curiously, it also included a pair of severed heads that strongly resemble baby Velociraptor—probable leftovers from the mama oviraptorid’s last meal.

6. Velociraptor Would Eat the Occasional Flying Reptile.

Long before birds came along, winged creatures called pterosaurs already soared through the skies. Airborne relatives of the dinosaurs, these beasts could reach tremendous sizes, with some species rivaling present-day giraffes in height. In 2012, scientists discovered a banged-up pterosaur bone lodged inside one Velociraptor’s ribcage. With an estimated 6- to 9-foot wingspan, this flyer was no pushover. According to paleontologist David Hone, a small dino like Velociraptor would have found attacking that kind of target “difficult and probably even dangerous.” Instead, the bone was “most likely scavenged from a carcass rather than the result of a predatory kill.”

7. Some of the Raptor Noises Used in Jurassic Park Were Tortoise Love Grunts.

While gathering animal calls at Marine World one day, the staff asked sound designer Gary Rydstrom if he wanted to record two tortoises mating. Ryndstrom seized the opportunity. “It’s somewhat embarrassing,” Rydstrom told Vulture in 2013, “but when the raptors bark at each other to communicate, it’s a tortoise having sex.” Other raptor vocalizations came from horses, geese, and a very horny dolphin.

8. Velociraptor Might Have Picked Apart Live Prey.

Perhaps dromaeosaurs also used those notorious toe claws to help pin down smaller victims and eat them alive. What a horrible way to go. As researcher Denver Fowler points out, hawks use the same brutal technique today and, just like Velociraptor, they have an especially large, curved claw on the second digit of each foot.

9. It Had Wings (But Couldn’t Fly).

Paleo-purists criticized Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow for refusing to put feathers on his Velociraptor. Scientifically, there’s no excuse anymore. For almost two full decades, the list of fluffy dinosaurs has been steadily growing. And in 2009, Velociraptor officially joined the club. That year, some tell-tale bumps called “quill knobs” were found on the forearm of one Mongolian specimen. In many 21st-century birds, these act as anchors for strong flight feathers. We can safely assume that a dino with Velociraptor’s proportions didn’t fly—but, as this finding proved, evolution gave it wings anyway.

10. One Died in Combat With a Sheep-Sized Herbivore.

In 1971, a Polish-Mongolian fossil-hunting team stumbled upon a prehistoric brawl between a lone Velociraptor and a frilled herbivore known as Protoceratops. Fatally entangled, our raptor had managed to sink a toe claw into the plant-eater’s neck. Meanwhile, the Protoceratops got some revenge by crushing this predator’s right arm between its muscular jaws. We’ll never know who would have won; most likely, a sand dune buried these two without warning before they could finish. 

Prehistoric Ticks Once Drank Dinosaur Blood, Fossil Evidence Shows

Ticks plagued the dinosaurs, too, as evidenced by a 99-million-year old parasite preserved inside a hunk of ancient amber. Entomologists who examined the Cretaceous period fossil noticed that the tiny arachnid was latched to a dinosaur feather—the first evidence that the bloodsuckers dined on dinos, according to The New York Times. These findings were recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

Ticks are one of the most common blood-feeding parasites. But experts didn’t know what they ate in prehistoric times, as parasites and their hosts are rarely found together in the fossil record. Scientists assumed they chowed down on early amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, according to NPR. They didn’t have hard evidence until study co-author David Grimaldi, an entomologist at the American Museum of History, and his colleagues spotted the tick while perusing a private collection of Myanmar amber.

A 99-million-year-old tick encased in amber, grasping a dinosaur feather.
Cornupalpatum burmanicum hard tick entangled in a feather. a Photograph of the Burmese amber piece (Bu JZC-F18) showing a semicomplete pennaceous feather. Scale bar, 5 mm. b Detail of the nymphal tick in dorsal view and barbs (inset in a). Scale bar, 1 mm. c Detail of the tick’s capitulum (mouthparts), showing palpi and hypostome with teeth (arrow). Scale bar, 0.1 mm. d Detail of a barb. Scale bar, 0.2 mm. e Drawing of the tick in dorsal view indicating the point of entanglement. Scale bar, 0.2 mm. f Detached barbule pennulum showing hooklets on one of its sides (arrow in a indicates its location but in the opposite side of the amber piece). Scale bar, 0.2 mm
Peñalver et al., Nature Communications

The tick is a nymph, meaning it was in the second stage of its short three-stage life cycle when it died. The dinosaur it fed on was a “nanoraptor,” or a tiny dino that was roughly the size of a hummingbird, Grimaldi told The Times. These creatures lived in tree nests, and sometimes met a sticky end after tumbling from their perches into hunks of gooey resin. But just because the nanoraptor lived in a nest didn’t mean it was a bird: Molecular dating pinpointed the specimen as being at least 25 million years older than modern-day avians.

In addition to ticks, dinosaurs likely also had to deal with another nest pest: skin beetles. Grimaldi’s team located several additional preserved ticks, and two were covered in the insect’s fine hairs. Skin beetles—which are still around today—are scavengers that live in aerial bird homes and consume molted feathers.

“These findings shed light on early tick evolution and ecology, and provide insights into the parasitic relationship between ticks and ancient relatives of birds, which persists today for modern birds,” researchers concluded in a news release.

[h/t The New York Times]

The Clever Adaptations That Helped Some Animals Become Gigantic

Imagine a world in which eagle-sized dragonflies buzzed through the air and millipedes as long as kayaks scuttled across Earth. "Ick"-factor aside for bug haters, these creatures aren't the product of a Michael Crichton fever dream. In fact, they actually existed around 300 million years ago, as MinuteEarth host Kate Yoshida explains.

How did the prehistoric ancestors of today’s itty-bitty insects get so huge? Oxygen, and lots of it. Bugs "breathe by sponging up air through their exoskeletons, and the available oxygen can only diffuse so far before getting used up," Yoshida explains. And when an atmospheric spike in the colorless gas occurred, this allowed the critters' bodies to expand to unprecedented dimensions and weights.

But that's just one of the clever adaptations that allowed some creatures to grow enormous. Learn more about these adaptations—including the ingenious evolutionary development that helped the biggest dinosaurs to haul their cumbersome bodies around, and the pair of features that boosted blue whales to triple their size, becoming the largest animals ever on Earth—by watching MinuteEarth's video below.


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