Dromaeosauridae: Wolf-Chickens of Death

If you were just the right age in 1993 (about 8-10) seeing the original Jurassic Park on the big screen was a world-altering experience, because if you still hadn’t lost your interest in dinosaurs, Steven Spielberg’s film introduced you to your new favorite: VelociraptorVelociraptor was scary. You could hide from T. Rex, but Velociraptor could follow you wherever you went. It hunted with coordinated pack-tactics, smart enough to open doors and vicious enough to open chest cavities with its relentlessly clicking, sickle-shaped talons. Velociraptor killed Samuel L. Jackson; just think what it could do to you.

Velociraptor as depicted in Jurassic Park.

Jurassic Park is considered a classic today, but it doesn’t get enough credit for introducing the public at large to an idea that was, at the time, fairly new: the theory that not only did birds evolve from dinosaurs, but that many species of dinosaurs (like Velociraptor) were more birdlike—active, intelligent, and even warm-blooded. This flew in the face (pun intended) of years of received wisdom that dinosaurs were big, lumbering, primitive beasts, trapped in swamps and too stupid to live. This revolutionary theory gave many the false impression that Velociraptor represented a new discovery, a missing piece of the puzzle. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Velociraptor (“fast hunter”) was first recognized by scientists in 1924, when the famed paleontologist (and probable inspiration for Indiana Jones) Roy Chapman Andrews brought the first known fossil brought back from the Gobi Desert. Theoretically, it could have appeared in the original 1933 King Kong. So why did it have to wait sixty years for its shot at fame? We can only conclude that the public, wowed by monsters like Tyrannosaurus Rex (itself only recognized by science in 1906), simply wasn’t that interested in a small animal roughly twice the size of a chicken.

Velociraptor as it probably really looked. (Illustration by Fred Wierum).

Wait—that must have been a baby, you’re thinking. Steven Spielberg wouldn’t lie to me! No, you can still trust Spielberg, as we’ll see shortly. And yes, the specimen was an adult. Predatory and fierce, but only a little larger than a turkey. Its size and sickle-shaped claws indicated a relationship to the comparably sized Dromaeosaurus (“running lizard”), which was discovered in Alberta in 1914 and named in 1922. The family was christened the Dromaeosauridae, and largely ignored until 1964, when a new dromaeosaurid fossil changed our understanding of what dinosaurs were like forever.

Paleontologist John Ostrom named Deinonychus (“terrible claw”) after the sickle-shaped talon on the fossil he discovered near Bridger, Montana. Deinonychus fossils had been discovered as far back as the ‘20s but had been either too incomplete or too difficult to excavate to merit scientific naming. Examining the fossil, Ostrom began to consider a radical idea: what if this unusual dinosaur was a fast and intelligent pack-hunter, behaving more like a wolf than a lizard? The scientific dialogue that began over Deinonychus continues to this day, but with input from a new generation of paleontologists like Ostrom’s protégé, Bob Bakker, the questions became even more unorthodox: what if animals like Deinonychus were warm-blooded, like birds?

A size comparison of various raptor species. (Illustration by Fred Wierum).

Deinonychus would have been the size of Spielberg’s raptors in Jurassic Park. In fact, Spielberg’s only mistake was to accept a then-current hypothesis that Deinonychus might be a bigger subspecies of Velociraptor. While this was shown to be incorrect, a slightly larger dromaeosaurid discovered after Deinonychus was given the name Utahraptor spielbergi in the director’s honor. Utahraptor was nearly twenty feet long. The discovery of further dromaeosaurid fossils led paleontologists to even more startling conclusions: dromaeosaurids didn’t just act birdlike—they even had feathers. Increasingly, scientists realized that it wasn’t so much that dinosaurs became birds, but rather that birds were surviving “avian” dinosaurs, as opposed to “non-avian” dinosaurs that had gone extinct.

Classifications are all well and good, but what was the world of Deinonychus and its cousins like? Were they really as smart and vicious as the Jurassic Park movies portray them?

The habits of the various dromaeosaurid dinosaurs were as varied as any comparably sized family of animals. Velociraptor itself (as well as other smaller dromaeosaurs) was probably a solitary hunter. A famous Mongolian fossil discovered in 1971 preserves one in combat with Protoceratops, an ancestor to such larger horned dinosaurs as Triceratops. Since the Gobi was a desert during the Cretaceous as today, the two seem to have been buried alive by a sandstorm.

Larger dromaeosaurids do indeed seem to have taken big prey—and even hunted in packs. Several Deinonychus fossils were discovered around that of a Triceratops, suggesting a group attacking larger prey. Exactly what this looked like in action is hard to say. Deinonychus’s intelligence is hard to measure (though it is unlikely to have been as smart as the raptors in Jurassic Park), so whether this was a coordinated, wolf-like attack or something more like a chaotic flock of birds is undetermined. What cannot be denied is that at least some dromaeosaurids practiced cooperative hunting and used it to bring down much larger dinosaurs.

A cast of the fossil discovered by John Ostrom in the late 1960s. (Photo by Didier Descouens)

All this leads us to a speculative but inviting question: could we see them again? If some crazed billionaire with a god complex got his or her hands on some dromaeosaurid DNA, would recreating an animal like Deinonychus be possible? Highly unlikely, if only due to the impossibility of finding a DNA sample fresh enough to create a viable clone. But one intriguing possibility remains.

Birds still retain many recessive reptilian characteristics in their genomes, including teeth, tails, and claws. With some further advancement in genetic engineering, it’s hypothetically possible to create bird embryos with all these characteristics. None of us will ever cross paths with a Velociraptor or Deinonychus, but such an altered bird might give us a shadow of what encountering one would be like. A shadow is probably all we need.