For more than 60 years, Velociraptor wallowed in relative obscurity. But after Jurassic Park hit theaters, this central Asian predator had a sudden and dazzling rise to superstardom. The public couldn’t get enough of it.
Unfortunately, Spielberg’s sleek, human-sized predators are Velociraptor in name only. When all’s said and done, they were—as we pointed out last weekend—based on a completely different animal called Deinonychus. Most of what people think they know about Velociraptor is wrong. So, before you check out Jurassic World, get acquainted with the real deal.
1. Velociraptor Wasn’t Much Bigger Than the Main Dish on Thanksgiving.
Turns out, the snotty kid in the first Jurassic Park who called Velociraptor “a six-foot turkey” was spot-on. Its body was about the same size (including a meter-long tail) and full-grown adults probably weighed 30 to 40 pounds. Pass the gravy!
2. Those Infamous Toe Claws Weren’t Built for Slashing.
As Spielberg made quite clear, dromaeosaurs (a.k.a. raptors) came with some terrifying weaponry. On each foot, there was a specialized toe with a huge, hooked claw. Both digits could be pulled backwards to an almost freakish degree. While walking around, Velociraptor and company held them high up off the ground in order to keep the claw tips sharp.
At first glance, the trademark tools look nicely designed for ripping into hapless victims. However, one 2005 experiment involving pig skins and a mechanical raptor leg debunked this idea. (Isn't science great?) British paleontologist Phillip Manning oversaw the creation of a robotic dromaeosaur foot meticulously based on the animal's proportions. He wanted to test how raptors might have wielded those dreadful claws. The results were pretty surprising. While the robo-toe sliced right through chamois leather, pig and crocodile hide proved much more challenging: it could barely puncture the swine’s skin and lamely bounced off the croc’s. “Using the claw to slash would have been like me trying to disembowel you with a plastic spoon,” Manning said.
Thanks to his research, scientists now think that dromaeosaurs instead turned their toe claws into gripping gear. After a raptor leapt onto some poor creature’s back, these things could have helped it hang on like an ancient rodeo champ long enough to bite open its prey's throat.
3. So Far, We’ve Discovered Two Species.
4. There’s a Good Chance That Velociraptor Occasionally Climbed Trees.
Eighty million years ago, you might have been just as likely to get pooped on by a tree-bound dromaeosaur as maimed by one on the ground. A few paleontologists claim that Velociraptor’s toe claws could help it scale barky trunks—and bigger dinos—with relative ease. Just imagine a few of them perched on some Mesozoic branches.
5. Two Velociraptor-Like Skulls Were Found in a Different Dinosaur’s Nest.
The oviraptorids were a weird group of beaked and toothless critters that scientists often puzzle over. In the early '90s, one oviraptorid nest turned up in Mongolia, complete with a well-preserved egg. Curiously, it also included a pair of severed heads that strongly resemble baby Velociraptor—probable leftovers from the mama oviraptorid’s last meal.
6. Velociraptor Would Eat the Occasional Flying Reptile.
Long before birds came along, winged creatures called pterosaurs already soared through the skies. Airborne relatives of the dinosaurs, these beasts could reach tremendous sizes, with some species rivaling present-day giraffes in height. In 2012, scientists discovered a banged-up pterosaur bone lodged inside one Velociraptor’s ribcage. With an estimated 6- to 9-foot wingspan, this flyer was no pushover. According to paleontologist David Hone, a small dino like Velociraptor would have found attacking that kind of target “difficult and probably even dangerous.” Instead, the bone was “most likely scavenged from a carcass rather than the result of a predatory kill.”
7. Some of the Raptor Noises Used in Jurassic Park Were Tortoise Love Grunts.
While gathering animal calls at Marine World one day, the staff asked sound designer Gary Rydstrom if he wanted to record two tortoises mating. Ryndstrom seized the opportunity. “It’s somewhat embarrassing,” Rydstrom told Vulture in 2013, “but when the raptors bark at each other to communicate, it’s a tortoise having sex.” Other raptor vocalizations came from horses, geese, and a very horny dolphin.
8. Velociraptor Might Have Picked Apart Live Prey.
Perhaps dromaeosaurs also used those notorious toe claws to help pin down smaller victims and eat them alive. What a horrible way to go. As researcher Denver Fowler points out, hawks use the same brutal technique today and, just like Velociraptor, they have an especially large, curved claw on the second digit of each foot.
9. It Had Wings (But Couldn’t Fly).
Paleo-purists criticized Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow for refusing to put feathers on his Velociraptor. Scientifically, there’s no excuse anymore. For almost two full decades, the list of fluffy dinosaurs has been steadily growing. And in 2009, Velociraptor officially joined the club. That year, some tell-tale bumps called “quill knobs” were found on the forearm of one Mongolian specimen. In many 21st-century birds, these act as anchors for strong flight feathers. We can safely assume that a dino with Velociraptor’s proportions didn’t fly—but, as this finding proved, evolution gave it wings anyway.
10. One Died in Combat With a Sheep-Sized Herbivore.
In 1971, a Polish-Mongolian fossil-hunting team stumbled upon a prehistoric brawl between a lone Velociraptor and a frilled herbivore known as Protoceratops. Fatally entangled, our raptor had managed to sink a toe claw into the plant-eater’s neck. Meanwhile, the Protoceratops got some revenge by crushing this predator’s right arm between its muscular jaws. We’ll never know who would have won; most likely, a sand dune buried these two without warning before they could finish.