Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Uncovering Velociraptor

Jurassic Park thrust velociraptor into the public imagination. Vicious, intelligent, pack hunters which were smart and sneaky terrified the movie-going audience. But how accurate was this picture? Scientists say that Jurassic Park's velociraptor actually bears more resemblance to its distant cousin Deinonychus.
Velociraptor lived during the late Cretaceous period, from about 80-73 million years ago. This makes it one of the last dinosaurs to enter the Mesozoic stage, and in fact, not Jurassic at all. Recent studies which were widely publicized by National Geographic suggest it didn't look anything like the movie version suggests, and in fact, may have been covered in feathers.

Would the real Velociraptor please stand up?

This small, muscled predator lived in modern Mongolia and China. The first fossilized remains were discovered in the 1920s, by the American Museum of Natural History's fossil hunting expedition in the Gobi Desert.

Its long, narrow skull was pushed forward and downward from the body, and was lined with 80 sharp teeth curved backward to hold prey firmly in its jaws. Velociraptor was a fast moving animal which hunted in packs, well organized, allowing them to bring down much larger animals. The combined strength of the pack, along with their great speed and agility, made them very effecient predators.

The most important feature was the sharply curved claw on the second toe. It was retracted while the animal walked, so it didn't become dull from walking across the ground, but could be flicked out when the animal kicked, much like a switchblade. It could cut a long wound in the prey, which would then bleed to death.
Velociraptor probably grabbed its prey with its powerfully clawed hands, then kicked with its rear feet and slashed the victim open. Packs would probably begin to feed while the prey was still alive, dying in agony.

One especially amazing fossil was discovered in 1971 in the deserts of Mongolia. About 80 million years ago, a Velociraptor was attacking a Protoceratops and both were killed by a collapsing sand dune or sandstorm. 
The two creatures were preserved perfectly, still in the positions they had at the time of death. Velociraptor appears to be biting its opponent's snout and kicking its throat with its deadly toe claw.

The word raptor means "bird of prey", and is usually applied to eagles, hawks, and other predatory birds with talons. It may look a little silly, but this famous dinosaur may have resembled the drawing to the right. Bumps on Velociraptor's bones have convinced many scientists that this creature was in fact covered with feathers, and may have been related to Archaeopteryx. A covering of feathers would help keep the animal insulated, crucial for an active, warm-blooded lifestyle.

For my previous posts on dinosaurs, click here.

Two outstanding books for the dinosaur enthusiast are National Geographic Dinosaurs, by Paul Barrett and The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs, by Dougal Dixon.

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