In Defense of Raptors

Is it time to stop calling sickle-clawed dinosaurs “raptors”?

A high-kicking Utahraptor outside the College of Eastern Utah's Prehistoric Museum in Price
A high-kicking Utahraptor outside the College of Eastern Utah's Prehistoric Museum in Price Photo by the author

Prior to the summer of 1993, “raptor” was synonymous with “bird of prey.” If you said “raptor,” whoever you were talking to knew you were talking about some kind of hawk, owl, eagle or other sharp-taloned aerial predator. Then Jurassic Park came along. Thanks to some taxonomic muddling and abbreviation, the cunning, sickle-clawed villains of the film’s third act immediately came to be known as “raptors.” Velociraptor, Deinonychus and kin had stolen the term for themselves.

Among non-avian dinosaurs, raptor might refer to the entire group of feathery coelurosaurs with grasping hands and hyperextendable toe claws—the deinonychosaurs—or to a specific subset of that group, called dromaeosaurids. It depends on where you care to draw the line. Just like its use among avian dinosaurs, the word “raptor” is informal and is a quick way to draw a conceptual outline of any dinosaur similar to Velociraptor.

But not everyone is happy with how “raptor” has been co-opted. A few months ago, paleontologist and Tetrapod Zoology author Darren Naish wrote:

Oh, and can everybody please stop using the word ‘raptor’ as a popular term for deinonychosaur, or dromaeosaurid? Admittedly, this rarely causes confusion, but it looks dumb and naive given that THE WORD RAPTOR IS ALREADY IN USE FOR ANOTHER GROUP OF ANIMALS. It would be like deciding to call sauropods ‘elephants’ or something.

And earlier this week, a reader sent me an email questioning the Los Angeles Times‘ use of the word raptor to describe a new genus of dromaeosaurid found in the Early Cretaceous rock of Utah. If birds of prey had claim to “raptor” first, and the term is just a bit of pop culture fluff, should we drop the word and push for deinonychosaur instead?

I don’t think so. Even though some informal dinosaur terms make me cringe—such as “parasaur” for Parasaurlophus and “Trike” for Triceratops—I think “raptor” provides a useful hook. To borrow a bit from another Steven Spielberg monster flick, you say “deinonychosaur,” and people say “Huh? What?” You say “raptor,” and your audience immediately has a general image of what sort of dinosaur you’re talking about. Rather than lament the reapplication of the word raptor as misappropriation or dumbing down, we might as well take advantage of the instant recognition the word triggers when trying to communicate with people who are not up on the latest theropod phylogeny. Almost twenty years after Jurassic Park debuted, it’s a little late to put “raptor” back in the cage.

More than that, I think “raptor” is a perfectly wonderful term for dromaeosaurids, if not deinonychosaurs as a whole. Not only has the “raptor” suffix been used in numerous dromaeosaurid names—Velociraptor, Utahraptor, Bambiraptor, Pyroraptor, Microraptor and so on—but these feathery dinosaurs were close cousins of the lineage which spawned the first birds. Some dromaeosaurids may have even hunted like avian raptors, using their huge tow claws to pin down prey rather than slash at it. Since “raptor” was always an informal term that applied to various lineages of avian dinosaurs anyway, I think it’s perfectly legit to use the word for the more ancient, non-avian precursors of today’s formidable falcons and eagles. Avian and non-avian raptors were dinosaurs of a feather.

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