Fifteen years ago, the blockbuster film Jurassic Park introduced audiences to a brand new kind of killer dinosaur. (Michael Crichton, the author of the source novel and screenwriter of the film, passed away on Wednesday)
Giant meat-eaters like Allosaurus and Tyrannosaurus were familiar to everyone, but few people knew about the fleet-footed terrors called “raptors” by the film’s protagonists. Armed with a lethal killing claw on each foot, large grasping hands, and a startling degree of intelligence, the pack of Velociraptor in Jurassic Park were every bit as terrifying as the gargantuan Tyrannosaurus.
In paleontology, just like any other biological science, scientific names are often in a state of flux. Sometimes the same dinosaur species receives several different names from different scientists, at which point the first name to appear gets priority. Other times dinosaur species may get names that have already been used for other animals and they need to receive a new name as to avoid confusion. Many of these changes are known only to specialists, but there are a few dinosaurs that have become media darlings, and the public knows them by a different name than paleontologists do.
There was something very wrong about the group of Velociraptor in the movie, and paleontologists quickly picked up on it. First discovered in Mongolia in the 1920’s, Velociraptor was a small predator that would not have been more than waist-high standing next to a full-grown human. Indeed, when the big-screen adaptation of Jurassic Park was released in 1993, there was only one type of “raptor” big enough to be the dinosaurs that stalked the humans inside the park’s command center. That dinosaur was Deinonychus.
While it did differ in important ways, Deinonychus can basically be thought of as a scaled-up version of Velociraptor, being almost twice as long and twice as tall as its Mongolian cousin. Discovered and described by Yale paleontologist John Ostrom in the 1960s, Deinonychus had a large sickle-claw on each foot, long arms with grasping hands, and a stiffened tail that would have helped the animal keep its balance as it ran after prey. The genus changed how people thought about dinosaurs, suggesting that they were much more active and dynamic than had been supposed previously.
This new view of dinosaurs, in part, inspired the 1988 book Predatory Dinosaurs of the World by paleo-artist Gregory S. Paul. Not only was the volume chock-full of illustrations of feathered dinosaurs, but it also attempted to revise some dinosaur taxonomy. Paul noted the similarities between the skeletons of the Velociraptor from Mongolia and the Deinonychus skeletons from North America. They were so similar, in fact, that he decided to group the Deinonychus fossils under the name Velociraptor, as the older name took precedence according to the rules by which organisms are named.
Paleontologists did not agree with this change—Velociraptor was kept distinct from Deinonychus—but Paul’s book was a hit with the general public. And one of the people who read the book was author Michael Crichton. We know this because in the acknowledgements for his novel Jurassic Park, Crichton listed Paul as one of the people who inspired his vision for dinosaurs portrayed in the book, and he used the name Velociraptor to describe the large, sickle-clawed predators that disembowel so many humans in the fictional yarn. The same taxonomy was carried over into the film series, which ultimately made what would otherwise seem to be an abstruse scientific term a household name.
Could it be that Crichton used some artistic license to beef up the true Velociraptors, little predators from the Cretaceous of Mongolia? It is possible, but I doubt it, particularly given the statements of one of the film’s scientific advisors. DVDs are packed full of special features, including “making of” films, and in one of these documentaries accompanying the Jurassic Park III feature, paleontologist Jack Horner states that it has only been recently that any good skulls of Velociraptor have come to light.
This is incorrect, as one of the fossils to which the name Velociraptor was first assigned was a beautiful skull. In fact, it is reconstructions of the skull of Deinonychus that have changed because of recently discovered material. Perhaps the more popular name was kept so not to confuse viewers.
Given this exercise in paleontological pedantry, I have to wonder what would have happened if Paul did not lump the Deinonychus fossils under Velociraptor, or even if Crichton hadn’t read Predatory Dinosaurs of the World. Would the name Deinonychus have reached the same status? I do not know, nor is it a point worth laboring over for too long. If there is anything “wrong” about the raptors of the Jurassic Park series, it is that they lack a generous covering of feathers, but that is only one of the many points in the franchise paleontologists could take issue with.