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Meet Your New Favorite Dinosaur: The Velociraptor’s Cousin

A keen sense of smell gave this dino an edge

Saurornitholestes sullivani attacks a subadult hadrosaur Parasaurolophus tubicen (Illustration by Mary P. Williams)
smithsonian.com

The fast-moving predatory family of dinosaurs that includes velociraptors was likely just as fearsome as the movie creators of Jurassic Park imagined. They could hunt in packs and see at night. Now that family has a new member, called Saurornitholestes langstoni.

For the Washington Post, Sarah Kaplan reports:

A relative of both the Velociraptor (the mistaken identity of the dinosaurs in the movie) and the Utahraptor (what the hulking “Jurassic Park” creatures really resembled), this newly discovered species combined a Velociraptor’s small but agile build with a powerful nose, hunting in packs and using its strong sense of smell to track down its next meal.

Steven Jasinski, of the University of Pennsylvania discovered the new species based on his analysis of a skull fragment found in a New Mexico rock formation dating to the Cretaceous, roughly 75 million years ago. He reported his findings in the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin

Originally paleontologists believed the fossil belonged to another related dinosaur that has been found in what is now Alberta, Canada. But with careful comparisons to other specimens, Jasinski noted small differences.

"While the animal's skull is not fully intact, we have portions of the top of the skull," Jasinski told Becky Ferreira at Vice. “The key point is that the portions we do have of the top of the animal's skull possess important and distinct features, or characteristics, that distinguish it from other known dinosaurs, particularly other known dinosaurs that belong to the family Dromaeosauridae, or the raptors.”

Those differences including a cavity in the skull that would have held an "unusually large olfactory bulb," indicated that the creature would have had a keen sense of smell — better than that of Velociraptor, the even more powerful Dromaeosaurus and other raptors. 

It was slightly smaller than the species found in Alberta, called Saurornitholestes langstoni. Jasinski estimates it would have been 6 feet from nose to tail and less than 3 feet wide at its hips. 

“Although it was not large, this was not a dinosaur you would want to mess with,” Jasinski says in a press release. Small though these raptors may have been, they would have been powerful, fast and able to attack at night. Ferreira reports for Vice:

Jasinski thinks that Saurornitholestes sullivani would have primarily subsisted on small reptiles and mammals, but that didn’t necessarily mean big kills were off the menu. "Being a pack hunter would have allowed it to take down larger prey, things like young hadrosaurs or ceratopsids, animals that could have been tens of times its own size and weight," Jasinski said.

If these fearsome dinosaurs did exist today — whether trainable as the raptor pack kept by actor Chris Pratt’s character appear to be in the upcoming Jurassic World, or not — they’d be something to fear on a dark night.

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