Paleontologists Discover Massive Dinosaur Tracks in China, Hinting at One of the Largest Known Raptors

The footprints, left behind by a 16-foot-long creature some 96 million years ago, represent the biggest raptor tracks ever found

an artist's illustration of a large raptor walking in a muddy area, its middle toes held aloft, with two other raptors behind it
The tracks were found at site that was once a muddy river plain. Lida Xing et al.

The 1993 blockbuster film Jurassic Park transformed the public’s perception of dinosaurs, propelling the velociraptor to the forefront of terror. But while the real-life velociraptor was indeed a cunning, fearsome predator, these creatures were much smaller than the movie portrayed—closer in size to a turkey.

Now, paleontologists in southeastern China have made a dinosaur discovery that exceeds even the larger-than-life version of the velociraptor from the silver screen. In a paper published Wednesday in the journal iScience, the team announced they uncovered the largest fossilized raptor footprints ever found, left behind by one of the biggest raptors on record.

The dinosaur—dubbed Fujianipus (meaning “foot of Fujian”) yingliangi—likely made the tracks while walking along the muddy edge of a prehistoric river some 96 million years ago. Paleontologists came across its footprints in winter 2020 at the Longxiang tracksite in China. The site, which spans approximately 17,000 square feet, contains more than 240 identifiable dinosaur tracks in total.

“You know a raptor track when you see it,” Lida Xing, a Chinese paleontologist who led the project, says in a statement, according to LiveNOW from FOX’s Stephanie Weaver. “But these tracks are different from any that have ever been found.”

The series of five prints, each measuring about 14 inches long, indicates the raptor grew to an approximate length of 16 feet and had a hip height of six feet. That makes Fujianipus much larger than most velociraptors, which were often no more than six feet in length and weighed less than 100 pounds.

a raptor footprint, featuring two toes
The palentologists found five large tracks, each measuring around 14 inches long. Lida Xing et al.

Despite their massive size, the tracks have one telltale trait of a raptor footprint: two toes.

“The typical carnivorous dinosaur track has three forward-pointing toes,” Scott Persons, a professor at the College of Charleston and a member of the discovery’s research team, tells WYFF’s Janice Limon. “Their tracks look like they could have been made by a giant turkey, emu or other ground bird. Two-toed tracks are the mark of deinonychosaurs, better known as raptors.”

Raptors had three toes, but they would hold the middle toe aloft, which had a “wicked, recurved weapon” claw that was larger than the other two claws, Smithsonian magazine’s Riley Black wrote in 2012. Holding up their middle claw prevented it from becoming dulled by scraping against the ground. This behavior led to tracks that appeared to have only two toes.

Based on its toe proportions, the paleontologists believe the newly discovered raptor may be a troodontid. Troodontids—close relatives of modern birds—were small, relatively intelligent and feathered theropods that inhabited Asia and North America during the Late Cretaceous period. The only other large troodontids lived in Alaska, as far as scientists know, making the new species unique.

The large size of Fujianipus implies an “increased predatory ability and a shift toward larger prey,” per the paper.

Though such a massive raptor was rare, Fujianipus wasn’t alone: Utahraptor—which means “Utah’s predator,” referring to the location of its 1991 discovery—was a large raptor from the Early Cretaceous period about 125 million years ago. Adults measured about 20 feet long and had hip heights of around five feet.

The newly discovered species likely competed with the largest dinosaurs of its day, aided by its size and speed. But when tyrannosaurs evolved—ultimately giving rise to the Tyrannosaurus rex—raptors like Fujianipus might have struggled.

“During this time, it seems like these two iconic groups of dinosaurs, the tyrannosaurs and the raptors, were both vying for that midsized predator crown,” Steve Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland who was not involved with the research, tells the New York Times’ Jack Tamisiea.

Both groups were growing and “invading niches further up the food chain,” per the paper.

Nevertheless, raptors primarily stayed small—Fujianipus and Utahraptor were exceptions, per the New York Times.

“Raptors were good at being small,” Persons tells WYFF. “When it comes to house cat- and coyote-sized predators, raptors were widespread and globally successful for tens of millions of years. But we find that, in multiple environments and at multiple times, different raptor lineages did evolve large sizes. There are many advantages to getting bigger. Still, for Fujianipus, the timing is interesting.”

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