One of the most deadly dinosaurs, the velociraptor was an adept predator and scavenger, but not quite the creature Hollywood would have us believe…
Velociraptors have been ingrained in public consciousness since the 1993 movie Jurassic Park showcased them as the most fearsome of apex predators. Smart, lethal and bloodthirsty, the velociraptors of the film arguably stole the show. However, the movie was famed for its indulgence of artistic licence, with palaeontologists bemoaning the lack of historical accuracy.
So what were these dinosaurs really like? Velociraptor, of which there are two verified species – V mongoliensis and V osmolskae, was a genus of dromaeosaurid (‘running lizard’) theropod dinosaur that lived in the Late Cretaceous period, about 75-71 million years ago.
They were two meters (6.6 feet) long, just under a meter (three feet) high, feathered and bipedal, running on two of their three toes per foot. They were native to modern-day central Asia (notably Mongolia), where they built large, ground-based nests to protect their young.
Velociraptors, though often living in close proximity to one another, were largely solitary and, while certain finds suggest they could have teamed up while chasing their quarry, they were not pack hunters, with evidence showing they would fight among themselves for feeding rights. In addition, their staple diet consisted of animals of equal size and weight to
themselves or those smaller than them, with very little evidence suggesting they would attempt to bring down larger dinosaurs, such as the Tyrannosaurus rex a la Jurassic Park.
Velociraptor hunting techniques revolved largely around their speed and agility. They could accelerate up to 64 kilometers (40 miles) per hour and pounce long distances, as well as grip prey firmly with their unique, sickle-shaped claws (notably their enlarged ‘killing claw’).
These traits were partnered with a tendency to ambush prey, rather than tackle their victims face on or from long range. Interestingly, however, while there’s no doubt that velociraptors hunted live prey, unearthed fossilised evidence suggests they were also incredibly active scavengers, with the species frequently feeding on carrion (pterosaur bones have been found in velociraptor guts, for instance) and carcasses left over by other predators.
Velociraptors died out along with the remaining species of dromaeosauridae in the run up to, and as a result of, the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass-extinction event that occurred approximately 65.5 million years ago. Despite this, elements of their anatomy and appearance can still be seen today – albeit in heavily evolved forms – in many species of bird.
Slash or subdue?
Did velociraptors use their sickle-shaped claws to disembowel prey or for some other purpose?
The majority of non-avian theropod dinosaurs are characterised by razor-sharp serrated teeth and talon-like recurved claws, the velociraptor being no exception. Armed with a bounty of claws on both its hands and feet, the velociraptor at first glance seems to be the perfect killing machine, capable of rapidly chasing down prey before shredding their flesh with one of their knife-like tools. Well, that was at least the commonly accepted theory among palaeontologists until late in 2011, before a new study by a team of international dinosaur experts suggested an entirely different use for them.
The study suggested that far from their claws -specifically the velociraptor’s much-touted “killing claws’ – being used to shred and slice prey in order to kill them prior to consumption, they were far more likely to be used in a similar way to the talons of modern-day hawks and eagles. This entails the birds using their talons as a gripping tool, snaring prey of a lesser body size, pinning them down with their own body weight and then often consuming them live with their beaks.
This theory is seemingly backed up by the velociraptor’s feet showing morphology consistent with a grasping function, supporting a prey immobilisation model rather than the originally assumed combative one.
Facts velociraptor myths
Size matters – Another falsehood perpetuated by Hollywood movies is the size of velociraptors. Far from being over three metres (9.9 feet) long, they were much closer to two metres (6.6 feet).
Pack hunters – Velociraptors didn’t tend to hunt in packs. Evidence suggests various individuals did chase prey at the same time, but would then squabble among each other for ‘first dibs’.
American citizens – Another myth perpetuated by the Jurassic Park franchise is that velociraptors lived in what is now the Americas. In fact, remains have only ever been discovered in central Asia.
‘Philosoraptor’ – Unlike the super-intelligent velociraptors depicted in Jurassic Park – eg opening closed doors with their claws -they were likely only as smart as a primitive opossum.