(WHTM) — It’s likely most people would never have heard of velociraptors if it hadn’t been for the “Jurassic Park” movies. April 18 is National Velociraptor Awareness Day, a great time to appreciate these remarkable creatures and learn what they were really like, what the movies got right, what they got wrong, and what they got wrong that turned out to be right after all.
The first velociraptor fossils were discovered in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert in the 1920s. In 1924, Henry Fairfield Osbornin, president of the American Museum of Natural History, named the creature “velociraptor,” from the Latin “velox” (quick) and “raptor” (seizer). There are two species of velociraptors, the 1920s discovery V. mongoliensis, and V. osmolskae, identified in 2008. Paleontologists estimate velociraptors lived 85.8 million to 70.6 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous. (Keep in mind the Cretaceous period started about 144 million years ago.)
Velociraptors were members of a family of dinosaurs known as dromaeosaurs. They were about 6.5 feet long and about 2 feet tall at the hip — not exactly what you’d call a huge dinosaur, and certainly not as big as the raptors in the movies. They were actually covered in feathers, not scales. This fact, though, wasn’t confirmed until 2007, when a forearm with quill knobs and feathers was found in Mongolia, so we’ll just give the movie makers a pass on this one.
Velociraptors were hunters, though it’s likely they’d turn scavenger when times were tight. It’s uncertain whether they hunted in packs. There are arguments both ways, and not enough fossil information to settle the matter.
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There are also questions about the sickle-like claws on the velociraptors’ feet. The edges on the fossils are actually kind of dull, suggesting they were more for stabbing than slashing. On the other claw, we don’t know if they had any sort of sheath over them to make them nastier. Either way, I would not want to be at the pointy end.
Now, as for the thing the filmmakers got wrong that ended up being right; as mentioned earlier, real velociraptors aren’t all that big, so “Jurassic Park” director Steven Spielberg decided to size them up. In 1991, while the movie was in production, Utah State paleontologist Jim Kirkland and his crew discovered a velociraptor-like sickle claw while excavating a bonebed outside Moab, Utah. But this sickle claw was huge, dwarfing those of velociraptors; then they discovered more bones that matched in size with the claw. It was definitely a type of dromaeosaur, which they estimated to be 23 feet long, and weigh more than 600 pounds.
Utahraptor ostrommaysi, as it was named, was an almost perfect match for the “Jurassic Park” velociraptors. As one of the film designers said, “We designed it, we built it, and then they discovered it.”
And in case you haven’t seen it, the latest Jurassic Park movie, “Jurassic World Dominion”, has a really angry-looking feathered dinosaur in it. Looks like the filmmakers are catching up with the science.
Meanwhile, Utahraptor has become the state dinosaur of Utah and inspired the logo for the Toronto Raptors.
Information for this story came from Wikipedia and the Smithsonian Magazine.