the real velociraptor -- 1/27/21

Today's selection -- from The Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries by Donald R. Prothero. Jurassic Park’s famed Velociraptor was actually a dinosaur paleontologists refer to as Deinonychus:

"Deinonychus was not only an amazing creature, but its anatomy completely forced a rethinking of the 'slow sluggish' dinosaur image. Its tail was long, straight, and pointed, and was held rigid by a truss of crisscrossing struts of bone from the vertebrate (now turned to stone). With such a rigid structure, the tail could not have dragged on the ground, instead serving like a tightrope walker's balancing pole. Deinonychus was completely bipedal, yet to use the huge slashing claws on its feet it would have to leap up and strike with its entire foot. This simply was impossible for a sluggish reptile that was slow and inactive.

"This is the animal that thrilled movie audiences watching the Jurassic Park movies -- except instead of calling it by the proper name, Deinonychus, author Michael Crichton and director Steven Spielberg opted to call the dinosaur Velociraptor. According to some accounts, Crichton was misled by a 1988 book by dinosaur artist Greg Paul, who falsely argued that Velociraptor and Deinonychus were the same dinosaur, making Velociraptor the first valid name. Other accounts suggest that Crichton just thought Velociraptor was easier to read, spell, and pronounce or that it sounded cooler than the correct name.

Reconstruction of dromaeosaur dinosaur Deinonychus antirrhopus.

"Unfortunately, the movies got the science completely wrong. First of all, the actual Velociraptor was the size of a large turkey. In addi­tion, Velociraptor is only known from Mongolia, yet the expedition finds it in 'Snakewater, Montana' (which was actually filmed in Red Rock Canyon State Park, California, where the beds yield Miocene mammals, not dino­saurs). Third, Velociraptor and most small predatory dinosaurs had feathers. There are even specimens of Velociraptor from Mongolia with quill knobs on their arm bones showing where their largest feathers attached. Thanks to Crichton and the movies, the general public now has a slightly more accu­rate image of what dinosaurs (especially the 'raptors') looked and acted like, but everyone attaches the wrong name to the animal that has become so famous. For example, the Toronto NBA team is called the 'Raptors' but shows images of the large dromaeosaurs like Deinonychus -- even though the name they use is that of the turkey-sized Velociraptor.

"This small but bad choice by Crichton and the moviemakers still drives paleontologists crazy! The other annoying mistake is the fact that Veloci­raptor/Deinonychus had feathers, something we've known since 1996. The moviemakers refuse to put feathers on their dino­saurs, so the science is not up to date in the last three Jurassic Park movies. Only the first movie was relatively accurate for its time."



Donald R. Prothero


The Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries: Amazing Fossils and the People Who Found Them


Columbia University Press


Copyright 2019 Donald R. Prothero


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