10 Facts About Velociraptor

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How Much Do You Really Know About Velociraptor?

Velociraptor was the Cretaceous equivalent of a giant, feathered chicken. Salvatore Alcon

Thanks to the first three Jurassic Park movies--not to mention the blockbuster Jurassic World--Velociraptor is one of the world's most well-known dinosaurs. However, there's a huge difference between the Hollywood version of Velociraptor and the less imposing one familiar to paleontologists. On the following slides, you'll discover 10 facts that you may or may not have known about this surprisingly small, but surprisingly vicious, predator.  

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Those Aren't Really Velociraptors in the Jurassic Park Movies

Deinonychus, from which Jurassic Park's Velociraptor stole its thunder. AStrangerintheAlps via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]

The sad fact is that Velociraptor's claim to pop-culture fame is based on a lie: Jurassic Park's special-effects wizards have long since confessed that they modeled their Velociraptor after the much bigger (and much more dangerous-looking) raptor Deinonychus, whose name isn't quite as catchy or as easy to pronounce, and which lived about 30 million years before its more famous relative. Jurassic World had the chance to set the record straight, but it stuck with the big Velociraptor fib. If life were fair, Deinonychus would be a much better-known dinosaur than Velociraptor, but that's the way the Jurassic cookie crumbles. 

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Velociraptor Had Feathers, not Scaly, Reptilian Skin

Jurassic Park's non-feathered Velociraptors. Universal Studios

Extrapolating from the smaller, more primitive, feathered raptors that predated it by millions of years, paleontologists believe Velociraptor sported feathers, too, though the direct evidence for this is lacking. Artists have depicted this dinosaur as possessing everything from pale, colorless, chicken-like tufts to green plumage worthy of a South American parrot--but whatever the case, Velociraptor almost certainly wasn't lizard-skinned, as it's portrayed in the Jurassic Park movies. (Assuming Velociraptor needed to sneak up on its prey, we're on safer ground assuming that it wasn't too brightly feathered.)

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Velociraptor Was About the Size of a Big Chicken

Are you scared of this Jungle Fowl? Then you shouldn't be scared of Velociraptor. Jason Thompson via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0]

For a dinosaur that's often mentioned in the same breath as Tyrannosaurus Rex, Velociraptor was remarkably puny: this meat-eater weighed only about 30 pounds soaking wet (about the same as a good-sized human toddler) and achieved an awe-inspiring height of three feet, max. In fact, it would take six or seven adult Velociraptors to equal one average-sized Deinonychus, 500 to match a full-grown Tyrannosaurus Rex, and 5,000 or so to equal the weight of one good-sized titanosaur, but who's counting? (Certainly not the people who script Hollywood movies!)

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There's No Evidence that Velociraptors Hunted in Packs

Wyoming Dinosaur Center

To date, all of the dozen or so identified Velociraptor specimens have been of solitary individuals. The idea that Velociraptor ganged up on its prey in cooperative packs probably stems from the discovery of associated Deinonychus remains in North America; this larger raptor may have hunted in packs in order to bring larger duck-billed dinosaurs like Tenontosaurus, but there's no particular reason to extrapolate those findings to Velociraptor (but then again, there's no particular reason not to).

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Velociraptor's IQ Has Been Wildly Exaggerated

The skull and brain cavity of Velociraptor. Smokeybjb via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Remember that scene in Jurassic Park where a Velociraptor figures out how to turn a doorknob? Pure fantasy. Even the putatively smartest dinosaur of the Mesozoic Era, Troodon, was probably dumber than a newborn kitten, and it's a safe bet that no reptiles (extinct or extant) have ever learned how to use tools, with the possible exception of the American Alligator. A real-life Velociraptor would likely have butted its head against that closed kitchen door until it knocked itself out, and then its hungry pal would have feasted on its remains.

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Velociraptor Lived in Central Asia, not North America

Mongolia, from whence Velociraptor hails. Library of Congress

Given its red-carpet treatment in Hollywood, you might expect Velociraptor to have been as American as apple pie, but the fact is that this dinosaur lived in what is now modern-day Mongolia about 70 million years ago (the most famous species is named Velociraptor mongoliensis). America Firsters in need of a native raptor will have to settle for Velociraptor's much bigger, and much deadlier, cousins Deinonychus and Utahraptor, the latter of which weighed as much as 1,500 pounds fully grown and was the largest raptor that ever lived.

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Velociraptor's Main Weapons Were its Single, Curved Hind Claws

velociraptor claw
The curved hind claw of Velociraptor. Ballista via Wikimedia Commons [CC-BY-SA-3.0]

Although its sharp teeth and clutching hands were certainly unpleasant, the go-to weapons in Velociraptor's arsenal were the single, curved, three-inch-long claws on each of its hind feet, which it used to slash, jab, and disembowel prey. Paleontologists surmise that Velociraptor stabbed its prey in the gut in sudden, surprise attacks, either singly or in packs, then withdrew to a safe distance, perhaps chatting with friends, as its victim bled to death (a strategy emulated millions of years later by the Saber-Tooth Tiger, which leaped on its prey from the low branches of trees).

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Velociraptor Wasn't as Speedy as its Name Implies

Alain Beneteau

Not to beat up on poor little Velociraptor, but this "speedy thief" (that's how its name translates from the Greek) wasn't nearly as fast as contemporary ornithomimids, or "bird mimic," dinosaurs, some of which could attain speeds of up to 40 or 50 miles per hour. Even the fastest Velociraptors would have been severely hampered by their short, turkey-sized legs, and could easily have been outrun by an athletic human child; it's possible, though, that these predators could have attained more "lift" in mid-stride with the aid of their presumably feathered arms.

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Velociraptor Enjoyed Lunching on Protoceratops

velociraptor and protoceratops
A lone Velociraptor encounters two Protoceratops. Andrey Atuchin

So Velociraptor didn't hunt in packs, and it wasn't particularly big, smart or speedy. How did it survive the unforgiving ecosystem of late Cretaceous central Asia? Well, by attacking comparably small dinosaurs like the pig-sized Protoceratops: one famous fossil specimen preserves a Velociraptor and Protoceratops locked in life-and-death combat as they were both buried alive by a sudden sandstorm (and to judge by the evidence, it's far from obvious that Velociraptor had the upper hand when they perished; it looks like Protoceratops got some good licks in and may even have been on the brink of breaking free).

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Velociraptor May Have Been Warm-Blooded, Like Modern Mammals

Alain Beneteau

Cold-blooded reptiles don't excel at actively pursuing and savagely attacking their prey (think of crocodiles, which are content hover patiently under water until a terrestrial animal ventures too close to the river's edge). That fact, combined with Velociraptor's probable coat of feathers, leads paleontologists to conclude that this raptor (and many other meat-eating dinosaurs, including tyrannosaurs and "dino-birds") possessed a warm-blooded metabolism comparable to those of modern birds and mammals, and was able to generate its own internal energy rather than relying entirely on the sun.