Velociraptor (meaning 'swift thief', 'swift plunderer' or 'swift bird of prey') is a genus of dromaeosaurid theropod dinosaur that existed approximately 75 to 71 Ma (million years ago) during the later part of the Cretaceous Period. Only two species are currently recognized, although others have been assigned in the past. The type species is V. mongoliensis; fossils of this species have been discovered in both Inner and Outer Mongolia in central Asia. A second species, V. osmolskae, was named in 2008 for skull material from Inner Mongolia.
Smaller than other dromaeosaurids like Deinonychus and Achillobator, the turkey-sized Velociraptor nevertheless shared many of the same anatomical features. It was a bipedal, feathered carnivore with a long, stiffened tail and an enlarged sickle-shaped claw on each hindfoot, which is thought to have been used to kill its prey. Velociraptor can be distinguished from other dromaeosaurids by its long and low skull, with an upturned snout.
Velociraptor (commonly shortened to 'raptor') is one of the dinosaur genera most familiar to the general public due to its prominent role in the Jurassic Park motion picture series, although in the films it was shown much larger than it was in reality and without feathers as well as having other anatomical inaccuracies. It is also well-known to paleontologists, with over a dozen recovered fossil skeletons — the most of any dromaeosaurid. One particularly famous specimen preserves a Velociraptor locked in combat with a Protoceratops.
Velociraptor was a mid-sized dromaeosaurid, with adults measuring up to long, high at the hip, and weighing up to . The skull, which grew up to long, was uniquely up-curved, concave on the upper surface and convex on the lower. The jaws were lined with 26–28 widely-spaced teeth on each side, each more strongly serrated on the back edge than the front — possibly an adaptation that improved its ability to catch and hold fast-moving prey.
Velociraptor, like other dromaeosaurids, had a large manus ('hand') with three strongly-curved claws, which were similar in construction and flexibility to the wing bones of modern birds. The second digit was the longest of the three digits present, while the first was shortest. The structure of the carpal (wrist) bones prevented pronation of the wrist and forced the 'hands' to be held with the palmar surface facing inwards (medially), not downwards. The first digit of the foot, as in other theropods, was a small dewclaw. However, whereas most theropods had feet with three digits contacting the ground, dromaeosaurids like Velociraptor walked on only their third and fourth digits. The second digit, for which Velociraptor is most famous, was highly modified and held retracted off of the ground. It bore a relatively large, sickle-shaped claw, typical of dromaeosaurid and troodontid dinosaurs. This enlarged claw, which could be over long around its outer edge, was most likely a predatory device used to tear into prey, possibly delivering a fatal blow.
Long bony projections (prezygapophyses) on the upper surfaces of the vertebrae, as well as ossified tendons underneath, stiffened the tail of Velociraptor. The prezygapophyses began on the tenth tail (caudal) vertebra and extended forward to brace four to ten additional vertebrae, depending on position in the tail. The stiffening forced the entire tail to act as a single rod-like unit, preventing vertical motion between vertebrae. However, at least one specimen preserves a series of intact tail vertebrae curved sideways into an S-shape, suggesting that there was considerably more horizontal flexibility. These adaptations of the tail probably provided balance and stability while turning, especially at high speeds.
In 2007, paleontologists Alan Turner, Peter Makovicky, Mark Norell and colleagues reported the discovery of quill knobs on a well-preserved Velociraptor mongoliensis forearm from Mongolia, confirming the presence of feathers in this species.
An American Museum of Natural History expedition to the Outer Mongolian Gobi Desert in 1922 recovered the first Velociraptor fossil known to science: a crushed but complete skull, associated with one of the raptorial second toe claws (AMNH 6515). In 1924, museum president Henry Fairfield Osborn designated the skull and claw (which he assumed to come from the hand) as the type specimen of his new genus, Velociraptor. This name is derived from the Latin words velox ('swift') and raptor ('robber' or 'plunderer') and refers to the animal's cursorial nature and carnivorous diet. Osborn named the type species V. mongoliensis after its country of origin. Earlier that year, Osborn had mentioned the animal in a popular press article, under the name "Ovoraptor djadochtari" (not to be confused with the similarly named Oviraptor). However, because the name "Ovoraptor" was not published in a scientific journal or accompanied by a formal description, it is considered a nomen nudum ('naked name'), and the name Velociraptor retains priority.
While North American teams were shut out of communist Mongolia during the Cold War, expeditions by Soviet and Polish scientists, in collaboration with Mongolian colleagues, recovered several more specimens of Velociraptor. The most famous is part of the legendary "Fighting Dinosaurs" specimen (GIN 100/25), discovered by a Polish-Mongolian team in 1971. This fossil preserves a single Velociraptor in the midst of battle against a lone Protoceratops. This specimen is considered a national treasure of Mongolia, although in 2000 it was loaned to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City for a temporary exhibition.
Between 1988 and 1990, a joint Chinese-Canadian team discovered Velociraptor remains in northern China. American scientists returned to Mongolia in 1990, and a joint Mongolian-American expedition to the Gobi, led by the American Museum of Natural History and the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, turned up several well-preserved skeletons. One such specimen, IGM 100/980, was nicknamed "Ichabodcraniosaurus" by Norell's team because the fairly complete specimen was found without its skull (an allusion to the Washington Irving character Ichabod Crane). This specimen may belong to Velociraptor mongoliensis, but Norell and Makovicky concluded that it was not complete enough to say for sure, and it awaits a formal description.
Maxillae and a lacrimal (the main tooth-bearing bones of the upper jaw, and the bone that forms the anterior margin of the eye socket, respectively) recovered in 1999 by the Sino-Belgian Dinosaur Expeditions were found to pertain to Velociraptor, but not to the type species V. mongoliensis. Pascal Godefroit and colleagues named these bones V. osmolskae (for Polish paleontologist Halszka Osmólska) in 2008.
All known specimens of Velociraptor mongoliensis were discovered in the Djadochta Formation (also spelled Djadokhta), in both the Mongolian province of Ömnögovi and Chinese Inner Mongolia. A species of Velociraptor, possibly V. mongoliensis, is also preserved in the slightly younger Barun Goyot Formation of Mongolia. These geologic formations are estimated to date back to the Campanian stage (about 83 to 70 million years ago) of the Late Cretaceous Epoch.
V. mongoliensis has been found at many of the most famous and prolific Djadochta localities. The type specimen was discovered at the Flaming Cliffs site (also known as Bayn Dzak and Shabarakh Usu), while the "Fighting Dinosaurs" were found at the Tugrig locality (also known as Tugrugeen Shireh). More recently, fossils of V. mongoliensis were recovered from Bayan Mandahu, a prolific site from the Djadochta of Inner Mongolia in China. The well-known Barun Goyot localities of Khulsan and Khermeen Tsav have also produced remains which may belong to the genus Velociraptor.
All of these sites preserve an arid environment with fields of sand dunes and only intermittent streams, although the younger Barun Goyot environment seems to have been slightly wetter than the older Djadochta. Aside from Protoceratops, upon which it preyed, Velociraptor shared its environment with other basal ceratopsians like Udanoceratops and ankylosaurids like Pinacosaurus, along with several species of oviraptorid, troodontid, other dromaeosaurids (such as Adasaurus), and alvarezsaurid theropods.
V. osmolskae was found in the Bayan Mandahu Formation, contemporaneous with the Djadochta Formation. As in the Djadochta, Pinacosaurus, Protoceratops, oviraptorid, and troodontid theropods were present.
In the past, other dromaeosaurid species, including Deinonychus antirrhopus and Saurornitholestes langstoni, have sometimes been classified in the genus Velociraptor. Since Velociraptor was the first to be named, these species were renamed Velociraptor antirrhopus and V. langstoni. However, the only currently recognized species of Velociraptor are V. mongoliensis and V. osmolskae.
When first described in 1924, Velociraptor was placed in the family Megalosauridae, as was the case with most carnivorous dinosaurs at the time (Megalosauridae, like Megalosaurus, functioned as a sort of 'wastebin' taxon, where many unrelated species were grouped together). As dinosaur discoveries multiplied, Velociraptor was later recognized as a dromaeosaurid. All dromaeosaurids have also been referred to the family Archaeopterygidae by at least one author (which would, in effect, make Velociraptor a flightless bird).
The "Fighting Dinosaurs" specimen, found in 1971, preserves a Velociraptor mongoliensis and Protoceratops andrewsi in combat and provides direct evidence of predatory behavior. When originally reported, it was hypothesized that the two animals drowned. However, as the animals were preserved in ancient sand dune deposits, it is now thought that the animals were buried in sand, either from a collapsing dune or in a sandstorm. Burial must have been extremely fast, judging from the lifelike poses in which the animals were preserved. Both forelimbs and one hindlimb of the Protoceratops are missing, which has been seen as evidence of scavenging by other animals. The distinctive claw, on the second digit of dromaeosaurids, has traditionally been depicted as a slashing weapon; its assumed use being to cut and disembowel prey. In the "Fighting Dinosaurs" specimen, the Velociraptor lies underneath, with one of its sickle claws apparently embedded in the throat of its prey, while the beak of Protoceratops is clamped down upon the right forelimb of its attacker. This suggests Velociraptor may have used its sickle claw to pierce vital organs of the throat, such as the jugular vein, carotid artery, or trachea (windpipe), rather than slashing the abdomen. The inside edge of the claw was rounded and not unusually sharp, which may have precluded any sort of cutting or slashing action, although only the bony core of the claw is known. The thick abdominal wall of skin and muscle of large prey species would have been difficult to slash without a specialized cutting surface. The slashing hypothesis was tested during a 2005 BBC documentary, The Truth About Killer Dinosaurs. The producers of the program created an artificial Velociraptor leg with a sickle claw and used a pork belly to simulate the dinosaur's prey. Though the sickle claw did penetrate the abdominal wall, it was unable to tear it open, indicating that the claw was not used to disembowel prey. However, this experiment has not been published or repeated by other scientists, so its results cannot be confirmed.
Remains of Deinonychus, a closely related dromaeosaurid, have commonly been found in aggregations of several individuals. Deinonychus has also been found in association with a large herbivore, Tenontosaurus, which has been seen as evidence of cooperative hunting. The only solid evidence for social behavior among dromaeosaurids comes from a Chinese trackway of fossil footprints, which shows six individuals of a large species moving as a group, though no evidence of cooperative hunting was found. Although many isolated fossils of Velociraptor have been found in Mongolia, none were closely associated with any other individuals. Therefore, while Velociraptor is commonly depicted as a pack hunter, as in Jurassic Park, there is only limited fossil evidence to support this theory for dromaeosaurids in general, and none specific to Velociraptor itself.
Fossils of dromaeosaurids more primitive than Velociraptor are known to have had feathers covering their bodies, and fully-developed, feathered wings. The fact that the ancestors of Velociraptor were feathered and possibly capable of flight long suggested to paleontologists that Velociraptor bore feathers as well, since even flightless birds today retain most of their feathers.
In September 2007, researchers found quill knobs on the forearm of a Velociraptor found in Mongolia. These bumps on bird wing bones show where feathers anchor, and their presence on Velociraptor indicate it too had feathers. According to paleontologist Alan Turner,
A lack of quill knobs does not necessarily mean that a dinosaur did not have feathers. Finding quill knobs on Velociraptor, though, means that it definitely had feathers. This is something we'd long suspected, but no one had been able to prove.
Co-author Mark Norell, Curator-in-Charge of fossil reptiles, amphibians and birds at the American Museum of Natural History, also weighed in on the discovery, saying:
The more that we learn about these animals the more we find that there is basically no difference between birds and their closely related dinosaur ancestors like velociraptor. Both have wishbones, brooded their nests, possess hollow bones, and were covered in feathers. If animals like velociraptor were alive today our first impression would be that they were just very unusual looking birds.
According to Turner and co-authors Norell and Peter Makovicky, quill knobs are not found in all prehistoric birds, and their absence does not mean that an animal was not feathered – flamingos for example have no quill knobs. However, their presence confirms that Velociraptor bore modern-style wing feathers, with a rachis and vane formed by barbs. The forearm specimen on which the quill knobs were found (specimen number IGM 100/981) represents an animal 1.5 meters in length (5 ft) and 15 kilograms (33 lbs) in weight. Based on the spacing of the six preserved knobs in this specimen, the authors suggested that Velociraptor bore 14 secondaries (wing feathers stemming from the forearm), compared with 12 or more in Archaeopteryx, 18 in Microraptor, and 10 in Rahonavis. This type of variation in the number of wing feathers between closely related species, the authors asserted, is to be expected, given similar variation among modern birds.
Turner and colleagues interpreted the presence of feathers on Velociraptor as evidence against the idea that the larger, flightless maniraptorans lost their feathers secondarily due to larger body size. Furthermore, they noted that quill knobs are almost never found in flightless bird species today, and that their presence in Velociraptor (presumed to have been flightless due to its relatively large size and short forelimbs) is evidence that the ancestors of dromaeosaurids could fly, making Velociraptor and other large members of this family secondarily flightless, though it is possible the large wing feathers inferred in the ancestors of Velociraptor had a purpose other than flight. The feathers of the flightless Velociraptor may have been used for display, for covering their nests while brooding, or for added speed and thrust when running up inclined slopes.
Due to the success of most Jurassic Park-related products, Velociraptor has become a ubiquitous representation of dinosaurs in popular culture. It has been featured in numerous toy lines, animated films, video games and television series for children, along with several recent television documentaries. In 1995, the city of Toronto was awarded a National Basketball Association expansion team, which was named the Toronto Raptors.