A favorite dinosaur for many children, velociraptors are one of the most recognizable of the terrible lizards. However, the image many people have of velociraptors of a scaled and cold-blooded predator is not totally accurate. With advancements in paleontology and further discoveries of fossils, scientists now have a better understanding of velociraptors than they did when Jurassic Park was filmed.
While they were meat-eaters, the velociraptor has been shown in films as an intelligent apex predator, capable of outsmarting humans. Yet modern discoveries allow us to understand this dinosaur better than these fictional representations.
Called Dinosaurs by the early Victorian era scientists who found the fossilized bones, people once thought they were lizards. Dinosaur means “terrible lizard” but while they are related to modern reptiles they were not lizards. There were many different sorts of dinosaurs, from those the size of a chicken to giants the size of a house.
Dinosaurs were on earth for 179 million years, in comparison humans evolved in Africa only 2 million years ago. So dinosaurs had time to evolve and spread across the world. Velociraptors were around in the later Cretaceous period from 75 to 71 million years ago. They had died out long before the rest of the dinosaurs were killed off by the meteor impact 65 million years ago.
Looking at the teeth, paleontologists who study fossils are confident that the velociraptor was a meat eater. It is important to understand that without a time machine, everything scientists say about dinosaurs like the velociraptors is a theory. We have not found a fossil of a velociraptor eating another animal, so instead, we have to look at the evidence available.
The teeth of velociraptors were long, sharp and had jagged edges like a serrated knife. Modern animals like lions have similar teeth, so scientists are confident that the velociraptor was a carnivore.
Meat eating animals can be scavengers or hunters or a combination of both. Paleontologists think that velociraptors were hunters because of the specialized claws they evolved.
Scavengers do not need to have large claws to bring down prey which is escaping from them. But velociraptors had a distinctive claw on their back feet, thought to be used as a slashing weapon to attack prey. Marks have been found on fossil bones from large dinosaurs, which are thought to be marks from the teeth of velociraptors. As the large dinosaurs were too big for velociraptors to bring down, they must have been scavenging from the remains. Many scientists conclude that velociraptors were hunters, but would also scavenge when they had the chance of an easy meal.
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Velociraptors were part of a group called the dromaeosaurid. These were all feathered carnivores which walked on two legs. There have been several fossil discoveries of other dromaeosaurid dinosaurs similar to velociraptors, which suggested they hunted in packs, In one fossil, there is a trackway with several footprints of different dromaeosaurids. In another fossil, several dromaeosaurids were preserved along with the prey they were eating. Although this evidence is not conclusive, some scientists use these fossils as evidence that the velociraptors were pack animals.
All the dinosaurs became extinct at the end of the Cretacious period. A large asteroid impact changed the Earth's climate into a cold winter which lasted for years. While no dinosaurs survived this huge extinction event, some species such as the velociraptor were already extinct before this event.
It is usual in nature for species to change, and sometimes evolve into other species. The velociraptor was part of a group that evolved into birds which survived the asteroid impact.
Because people have developed their mental image of the velociraptor from movies, it may come as a surprise to many that they were a feathered dinosaur. With the discovery of excellently preserved fossils in China and Mongolia, paleontologists have found the preserved remains of feathers on velociraptors and other dinosaurs. Why feathers evolved before the ability to fly developed is not fully understood. But scientists now know that some dinosaur groups evolved into birds, including the velociraptor.
The study of how animals may have moved and behaved when they were alive is called biomechanics. The understanding of bone strength, likely muscle size and the distance between footfalls on fossil tracks mean that scientists can make confident predictions on the biomechanics of the velociraptor.
Velociraptors were thought to be fast runners, topping out at about 64 km per hour. The literal translation of its name means "speedy thief" which describes the velociraptors behavior well.
Birds evolved from a group of small meat-eating dinosaurs called maniraptoran theropods which includes velociraptors. There is a wealth of evidence that these dinosaurs were the source of birds, including fossil feathers. If you study the skeleton of modern birds and compare them to dinosaurs like the velociraptor, there are clear similarities. For example, the bones are both slender and hollow and both leg similar-looking eggs.
Velociraptors were small dinosaurs, much smaller than they have been portrayed in most movies. They were the smallest of the dromaeosaurid dinosaurs group and weighed between 7 and 15kg. Examples have been found that were about 2 meters long and about half a meter high. This is comparable to a modern turkey in size and weight.
The public perception of velociraptors as ferocious predators is not a fair representation of this dinosaur. While they were meat eaters and might have hunted in packs to bring down larger prey, they are much smaller dinosaurs than most movies have shown them to be. If they still existed today, velociraptors might be a threat to small animals. But if you compare them to the other dinosaurs they shared the Earth with millions of years ago like the T-Rex, they were not the most threatening predator around.
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