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. 

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The T. Rex Fossil That Caused a Scientific Controversy
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In the early 2000s, a team of paleontologists inadvertently set the stage for a years-long scientific saga after they excavated a well-preserved partial Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton from Montana's Hell Creek formation. While transporting the bones, the scientists were forced to break a femur. Pieces from inside the thigh bone fell out, and these fragments were sent to Mary Schweitzer, a paleontologist at North Carolina State University, for dissection and analysis.

Under a microscope, Schweitzer thought she could make out what appeared to be cells and tiny blood vessels inside the pieces, similar to those commonly discovered inside fresh bone. Further analysis revealed what appeared to be animal proteins, which sent Schweitzer reeling. Could she have just discovered soft tissue inside dinosaur leg bone many millions of years old, found in ancient sediments laid down during the Cretaceous period? Or was the soft stuff simply a substance known as biofilm, which would have been formed by microbes after the bone had already fossilized?

Following a seemingly endless series of debates, studies, and papers, Schweitzer's hunch was proven correct. That said, this contentious conclusion wasn't made overnight. To hear the whole saga—and learn what it means for science—watch the recent episode of Stated Clearly below, which was first spotted by website Earth Archives.

[h/t Earth Archives]

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Courtesy the University of Colorado Boulder
Fossilized Poop Shows Some Herbivorous Dinosaurs Loved a Good Crab Dinner
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Lead author Karen Chin of the University of Colorado Boulder
Courtesy the University of Colorado Boulder

Scientists can learn a lot about the prehistoric world through very, very old poop. Just recently, researchers from the University of Colorado-Boulder and Kent State University studying fossilized dinosaur poop discovered that some herbivores weren't as picky about their diets as we thought. Though they mostly ate plants, large dinosaurs living in Utah 75 million years ago also seem to have eaten prehistoric crustaceans, as Nature News reports.

The new study, published in Scientific Reports, finds that large dinosaurs of the Late Cretaceous period seem to have eaten crabs, along with rotting wood, based on the content of their coprolites (the more scientific term for prehistoric No. 2). The fossilized remains of dinos' bathroom activities were found in the Kaiparowits rock formation in Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a known hotspot for pristine Late Cretaceous fossils.

"The large size and woody contents" of the poop suggest that they were created by dinosaurs that were well-equipped to process fiber in their diets, as the study puts it, leading the researchers to suggest that the poop came from big herbivores like hadrosaurs, whose remains have been found in the area before.

Close up scientific images of evidence of crustaceans in fossilized poop.
Chin et al., Scientific Reports (2017)

While scientists previously thought that plant-eating dinosaurs like hadrosaurs only ate vegetation, these findings suggest otherwise. "The diet represented by the Kaiparowits coprolites would have provided a woody stew of plant, fungal, and invertebrate tissues," the researchers write, including crabs (Yum). These crustaceans would have provided a big source of calcium for the dinosaurs, and the other invertebrates that no doubt lived in the rotting logs would have provided a good source of protein.

But they probably didn't eat the rotting wood all year, instead munching on dead trees seasonally or during times when other food sources weren’t available. Another hypothesis is that these "ancient fecal producers," as the researchers call them, might have eaten the rotting wood, with its calcium-rich crustaceans and protein-laden invertebrates, during egg production, similar to the feeding patterns of modern birds during breeding season.

Regardless of the reason, these findings could change how we think about what big dinosaurs ate.

[h/t Nature News]


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