Everything You Know About Velociraptors Is A Lie

VelociraptorToday I found out everything you probably think you know about Velociraptors is a lie.

Now to be fair, everything I “knew” about Velociraptors came from the Jurassic Park movies and so I shouldn’t really be surprised it was all wrong.  So if, like me, you thought that Velociraptors were slightly bigger than a human; reptilian looking;  hunted in packs; were found in what is now the United States; and were ridiculously intelligent.  Well, literally none of that is true.

Velociraptors were actually only about the size of a domesticated Turkey, being only about 3 feet tall and 6 feet long, with most of the length coming from the tail and weighing in at around 20-30 pounds full grown.  More than that, they also looked somewhat like a Turkey as well, but with a long tail obviously.  It turns out, Velociraptors were very similar to birds in a lot of ways.  They had hollow bones, feathers, built nests for their eggs, and are thought to have behaved very similar to birds.

As Mark Norell, curator of fossil reptiles, amphibians, and birds at the American Museum of Natural History, stated, “The more that we learn about these animals the more we find that there is basically no difference between birds and their closely related dinosaur ancestors like Velociraptor. Both have wishbones; brooded their nests; possess hollow bones; and were covered in feathers. If animals like Velociraptor were alive today, our first impression would be that they were just very unusual looking birds.”

More than that, there has never been one bit of evidence that suggested that Velociraptors hunted in packs.  In fact, every fossil found of Velociraptors has seemed to indicate they were solitary creatures.  There was even one fossil where the Velociraptor was in the act of trying to kill a Protoceratops, which was a pig sized dinosaur, when a sandstorm came up and buried them both while they were still fighting one another.  If they hunted in packs, there should have been more Velociraptors at that find, particularly given the size of the Protoceratops relative to the Velociraptor.

Next up, the Velociraptors were not found in the United States, as the films suggested: where the paleontologists in the film dug up the Velociraptor skeleton in Montana.  In fact, they have only been found in Central Asia around Mongolia.

Were they intelligent?  Well, for a dinosaur, it is thought they were somewhat intelligent due to their brain size relative to body size.  But it turns out, that’s basically just saying they were slightly more intelligent than a board with a nail in it.  For reference, the dinosaur that is thought to have been the smartest of all dinosaurs was the Troodon; it is thought to have been around as smart as a primitive opossum.   So there goes the whole Philosraptor thing out the window.  The deepest thoughts a Velociraptor ever thought were probably on the level of the Seagulls in Finding Nemo. “Mine?”   Hardly the “smarter than dolphins, whales, and some primates” that Dr. Alan Grant in Jurassic Park III suggests.

Actually, if you’ve ever raised domestic Turkey’s, which I have and don’t recommend, the “just slightly more intelligent than a board with a nail in it”, is about the domestic Turkey’s level of intelligence too.  I’m beginning to think Velociraptors were nothing but domestic Turkeys with slightly different bone structure. ;-)

So what were they thinking in Jurassic Park?  Well basically, they modeled what they called the “Velociraptor” in the movie after the Deinonychus.  The Deinonychus were also raptors, but were significantly bigger than the Velociraptors, coming in at about 12 feet long, about 6 feet tall, and weighing about 150 pounds full grown.   Pretty much picture the “Velociraptor” in Jurassic Park and you get a pretty good idea of what the Deinonychus were thought to have looked like (although there still is some debate over whether they too had feathers, with many researchers leaning that way; so really, picture the “Velociraptor” in Jurassic Park and add feathers and you get the Deinonychus).

The Deinonychus also were thought to have occasionally hunted in packs to bring down larger prey and were thought to have been very fast.  Their habitat was in the forests of North America.  Now on the intelligence bit, they too weren’t really thought to have been very intelligent.  Although, clearly they were at least smart enough to work together to bring down larger prey when the need arose.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Despite the feathers and the fact that certain of the Velociraptors’ closely related ancestors could fly, the Velociraptors are thought to have not had the ability to fly due to their weight proportional to their short forelimbs.  A full grown Velociraptor weighed in at about 20-30 pounds.  Once again, very similar to a Turkey.  Though of course, wild Turkeys are typically a bit lighter than that and can fly in short bursts and are great gliders over short distances.  But domesticated turkeys weigh in closer to the Velociraptors projected weight and cannot fly.
  • Much like Chickens and Turkeys, Velociraptors also had similar looking claws, but in the Velociraptors’ case with the middle claw being retractable.  It could extend out to about 3 inches for stabbing and slashing and was the Velociraptors’ primary weapon.  This is similar to the spurs on a rooster or male turkey.
  • Velociraptors were also probably warm-blooded.  They are thought to have had about the same metabolism as the Kiwi, which is similar in anatomy, feather type, bone structure, and nasal passages; the latter of which is usually a good indicator of metabolism in animals.  Also, cold blooded animals typically won’t pursue prey; they prefer to lie in wait until the prey comes to them.  Velociraptors clearly were built for pursuing prey.
  • The name “Velociraptor” comes from the Latin “velox”, meaning “swift”, and “raptor”, meaning “robber” or “plunderer”.  The name was chosen by paleontologist Henry F. Osborn in 1924, after he discovered the fossil in Mongolia that same year.
  • It has long been suspected that Velociraptors had feathers, but the evidence proving this has only come very recently.  That evidence came from a discovery in September of 2007 of a forelimb fossil of a Velociraptor that had quill knobs, similar to those found on birds.
  • Only about a dozen Velociraptor fossils have been found to date.
  • If you ever want to raise domestic turkeys, one pro-tip is that you need to make their food and water dishes shiny.  If you don’t, they aren’t typically smart enough to eat and drink, particularly when they are young.  They are pretty obsessed with shiny objects though.  So much so that if the sun glints of a neighboring turkey’s eyes, the other turkey will very likely try to peck their neighbors eye out to get the shiny object.  This can be used to your advantage though as they mature.  If you go in their cage when the males are mature, they will likely try to attack you.  If there was only one, this isn’t a big deal, though they do have very long and sharp spurs they can rip into you with and can weigh upwards of 45 pounds.  However, when there is a bunch of them coming at you like they are going to attack, this can be a slightly more dangerous proposition.  Their spurs are quite capable of ripping open your insides.  But never fear, just bring a very shiny object in with you.  They will instantly get distracted and forget all about attacking you.  This works pretty much every time.  My object of choice was a knock-off samurai sword.  That way, if the shiny sword didn’t distract them and make them forget about attacking me, I was well protected. :-)
  • Another pro-tip: don’t raise turkeys or really any type of poultry.  Seriously, just don’t.
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  • Paleontologists announced, shortly after the first Jurassic Park movie, that they “have found Spielberg’s raptor.” It’s called the Utahraptor. It’s wiki article is here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utahraptor). It fits the size (kinda… it is a little big) and other features (but believed to be feathered like other Dromaeosauridaes) of the raptor in the movies. Plus it was found in , you guessed it, Utah (which is right around the corner to Montana, geographically speaking). I apologize for the broken sentences but I wanted to have it written like I was thinking it… if that makes sense.

  • Which raises the question: why didn’t the Jurassic Park creators name them Deinonychus? Is it because “velociraptors” sounds cooler?

  • Just been thinking of this… If they had wings that allowed them to “fly” like chickens, it means that it would boost them off from the ground. That would help them to strike at a prey’s vital areas that are put up high as a defense mechanism (eyes, throat, brain, on top of their back, etc). That would allow them to take down larger prey due to being able to precisely strike at vitals…

  • It seems like one problem with saying Deinonychus is just like Velociraptor in JP is that while Deinonychus was 6 ft tall he still only weighed about 150 lbs. Basically he’s got the exact same height and weight I’ve got, but the movie made the Velociraptors look muscular and like they weighed about 300-400 lbs. So even then the movie is exaggerating its size. I don’t know I think an emu is still way scarier than that dumb thing.

  • Actually, Jurassic Park isn’t as bad about these critters as you think (Especially the book). Crichton wrote Jurassic Park in 1990, shortly after the 1988 publication of Gregory Paul’s influential book Predatory Dinosaurs of the World. Paul was a major proponent of consolidating genera: he felt, for example, that rather than having Tyrannosaurus rex, Tarbosaurus bataar, and Daspletosaurus torosus the species rex, bataar, and torosus should all have been in the genus Tyrannosaurus. With me so far?

    Another proposed realignment was the species antirrhopus from the genus Deinonychus into the genus Velociraptor. Crichton bought into this when writing his books; IIRC the dinosaurs constantly referred to as “raptors” in the books were identified as “Velociraptor antirrhopus”, meaning they are actually what is currently known scientifically as Deinonychus. Deinonychus antirrhopus WAS found in North America (Montana), was much larger than a turkey (11 feet, there’s a graphical comparison on the genus’ Wikipedia page), and does have meaningful evidence of pack hunting behavior (much of which you noted above). So, Crichton (and subsequently the movies that took their cues from him) wasn’t getting two dinosaurs confused; he was disagreeing with mainstream terminology.

    The feathers mistake is quite excusable; it wasn’t known when the books were written. The intelligence, on the other hand, was a very speculative invention of fiction done to increase suspense and drive the plots.

    Hope this also answers your question as well, hillie.

  • No, terrible sorry, Philosoraptor is not ‘out the window’. It doesn’t exist because velociraptors are perceived as highly intelligent, it exists because it is an amazing pun. The intelligence thing might have been gravy to you, but it’s the same as how the fact that their curved claws make for a good chin-touching pose.

  • um for teh record the deinonychus was still smaller than a human and the utahraptor is in fact much closer to those that appeared in JP

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