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February 26, 2024

Velociraptors: facts vs. fiction

By MELANIE HSU | October 18, 2012

This week’s animal spotlight goes to Tyrannosaurus rex’s feathery cousin and Jurassic Park costar: the equally infamous Velociraptor.

Velociraptors, also known simply as “raptors,” had their heyday during the Cretaceous Period, around 75 million to 71 million years ago. They were named in 1924 by Henry Fairfield Osborn, who derived the name from the Latin words “velox” for swift, and “raptor” for robber — hence the nickname “speedy thief.”

Unlike T. rex, who has the luxury of being the only species in its genus, the genus Velociraptor includes two species: Velociraptor mongoliensis and the more recently discovered Velociraptor osmolskae. Most of the raptor fossils discovered so far were found in the Gobi Desert, which covers southern Mongolia and parts of northern China.

You should be thankful that you don’t have to coexist with these predators. Velociraptors can attain speeds of roughly 40 miles per hour, which translates to roughly 60 kilometers per hour. That’s about as fast as a hyena, and a little more than 10 miles per hour faster than the average human. Although raptors can only sustain this speed for very short bursts, it’s more than what they need to outrun you. You better hope that your friends run slower than you do — or that you don’t run into a pack of these hunters.

Surprisingly, Velociraptors are more similar to birds than any other dinosaur, at least out of the ones discovered so far. Raptors had a special bone in their wrists that allowed them to swivel their wrist sideways in a flapping motion, and to fold their arms against their bodies like a bird. This motion, which allowed the raptor to snap its arms forwards to capture fleeing prey, resembles the flight stroke in modern birds.

Jurassic Park may have gotten it wrong, but it’s not entirely their fault (I mean, they did over-exaggerate some of Velociraptor’s features, as if these dinosaurs could be any more menacing). While the films depicted Velociraptors as featherless, in 2007, paleontologists discovered quill knobs on a well-preserved raptor forearm in Mongolia.

Scientists believe that the Velociraptor’s feathers were just for show, and that its most probable functions included mate attraction, body temperature regulation and egg protection. At least Hollywood got the flightless part correct.

Actually, the raptors in Jurassic Park were modeled after a close relative, Deinonychus (also known as “terrible claw”). Like raptors, Deinonychus had large, sickle-shaped claws on their second toes, which they most likely used for offensive purposes (read: inflicting deep wounds on their dinners).

Although raptors are grounded, their closely-related ancestors were able to fly. According to some scientists, the short forelimbs of the raptors may have been the evolutionary remnants of wings. Which is unfortunate for the raptors, but very fortunate for the characters in Jurassic Park: could you imagine them surviving a horde of these flying terrors?

Obviously, there weren’t any humans back then for the raptors to eat, so a diet of Homo sapiens was out of the question. Instead, Velociraptors mainly preyed on small animals, such as reptiles and amphibians, and other smaller, slower dinosaurs. According to paleontologists, Protoceratops, a horned herbivore, was one of their favorite dishes.

Ah, the dentition. Need I even mention that raptors have extremely sharp teeth? More specifically, they had around 26 to 28 widely spaced teeth on each side of their jaws — must have been a dentist’s nightmare, if any existed back then.

The back edges of these teeth were more strongly serrated compared to the front, making them ideal for capturing and securing fast-moving prey. Once the prey was in their hands, raptors most likely used a retractable, sickle-shaped claw on their hindfoot to pierce the victim’s throat.

Dinosaurs may be long gone, but their legacies live to this day. The cassowary, a ratite native to Australia and Papua New Guinea, is often described as a modern-day Velociraptor. According to the “Guinness Book of Records,” cassowaries are the world’s most dangerous birds (and one of the most beautiful, in my opinion), and for a good reason: like Velociraptors, cassowaries sport dagger-like claws on the second toe of each foot.

Long story short, don’t mess with these birds. Nine out of ten times, it’s probably your fault if you get attacked. For the most part, these birds only take the offense if you attempt to feed them, attack them or harm their chicks and eggs. If you’re unlucky, you might end up with a ruptured jugular vein.

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