Five Things You Didn't Know About Velociraptors

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Before the movie "Jurassic Park" hit theaters back in 1993, the word "raptor" was generally understood to mean hawks, eagles and other sharp-clawed predatory birds. The word still retains that meaning, of course, but "Jurassic Park" introduced the non-dinosaur-studying world to the velociraptor (literally "fast seizer" or "swift thief" -- "raptor" for short), a cunning, bipedal lizard that hunted in packs, could open doorknobs and immediately became one of the best-known prehistoric monsters ever. And now, if you tell someone you're studying raptors, few will picture hawks and eagles.

It makes sense, then, that a TV series such as "Primeval" would eventually have a raptor episode. In fact, this episode kicks off the show's second series. The thing about pop culture is that it doesn't always get the facts exactly right, especially when you're talking about an animal that humans have never actually seen, unless you count Rupert Murdoch's private zoo for rich people, which I don't. So what surprising things does science say about velociraptors that "Primeval" and "Jurassic Park" don't?

1. They had feathers.

Yes, the scaly-bodied killers we've come to expect were actually more on the fluffy side. You have to wonder if that would have made death by raptors more or less terrifying.

Artist rendering of a feathered velociraptor drawn by Matt Martyniuk, via Wikipedia under Creative Commons license

2. Velociraptors, generally speaking, were smaller than you'd think.

Snout-to-tail, this creature could be as long as 7 feet, but it only stood around 1.5 feet tall. That's considerably shorter than Jeff Goldblum or "Primeval" lead Doug Henshall. The more ostrich-sized raptors that we see in "Primeval" are most likely inspired by a different dinosaur in the Velociraptorinae family, Deinonychus ("terrible claw").

3. Its tail most likely stood up stiff.

No sinister, serpentine movement for these guys, according to some scientific estimates. As Wikipedia puts it, this bones in these taut little tails acted like "a single, rod-like unit" for "balance and stability while turning, especially at high speeds."

4. It was almost called called ovoraptor.

Which is way less intimidating. It means "egg thief." Thank the tyrannosaurus that Henry Fairfield Osborn used velociraptor in a scientific context first, because it's the one that stuck and it's kind of an unbeatably cool-sounding name.

5. Scientists once found a fossilized velociraptor locked in combat with an equally fossilized protoceratops.

And this is nuts. Apparently a velociraptor was tussling with the protoceratops -- a sheep-sized dinosaur similar to a triceratops -- when the two were buried in sand so quickly that they died frozen in the primal tableau you see here:

The "fighting dinosaurs," via Wikipedia under Creative Commons license

Aside from the innate coolness of giving us the closest we can get to a front-row seat at an actual dinosaur fight, the famous "fighting dinosaurs" prompted scientists to rethink how the velociraptor used its giant claws in combat. According to Wikipedia, it was once thought that the raptor used its claws to slash and disembowel. But because the preserved raptor had its claw in the protoceratops' throat, the raptors may have actually used their claws to gouge and pierce.

Got a dinosaur fan at home? Or just eager to for an excuse to buy a box of markers? The velociraptor drawing at the top of this page is available in a high-quality, printable, crayon-ready PDF version. Click here to open it and then just print?