Mad About Science: Velociraptors!

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

Ever since I first watched “Jurassic Park” at the tender age of 6 or 7, I had an immediate love for the giant, shrieking dinosaurs that were tearing the puny humans to shreds with incredible evolutionary prowess that has since been lost to time. When I was a child, I didn’t really comprehend all of that. I just thought “Awesome giant lizards!”

Unfortunately, the real world and “Jurassic Park” are two vastly different things, and I soon found out that the velociraptor was really a scrawny bird-like creature. A bird! A dopey, feathered bird like the cross-eyed thing in the cage that can’t stop saying the word “Butter? Butter? Butter?” But the more I read about them, the more I realized how completely wrong I was.

That’s the funny thing about science: It’s not for the proud. It will prove us wrong again and again and again until we’re all dead; but I guarantee you, if you accept that you were wrong and learn from it, the results are so satisfying, because reality and the truth will always exceed your initial expectations.

So, the velociraptor? Yes, it was a feathered dinosaur. If you look at it, it kind of looks like a weird dodo bird. If you really study its skeleton, however, you’ll be blown away. Look at a modern chicken’s skeleton side-by-side with a velociraptor skeleton. You can see how nature slowly turned the 75-million-year-old creature’s long hunting claws into wings ripe for flight. Over several hundreds of thousands of years, females were beginning to pick males that could run faster, jump higher, use their mutations to their advantage and glide. That’s what got all of the raptor mommas hot and bothered, and it paid off, because eventually nature figured out how to give birds true wings and the ability to achieve flight from early on in life—something we wouldn’t discover for ourselves until well into 200,000 years of our own evolution. Even then, we need mechanical help.

So what did they eat? Obviously humans weren’t on the menu, as we wouldn’t evolve for another 75 million years. We believe they hunted in packs or flocks but were capable of solitary hunting if the need arose. Just like most ground-dwelling birds, they probably ate anything they could reach, though they had a unique hunting tool seen even today (albeit heavily modified): the slicing talon.

How did the talon work? Essentially, it was an elevated toe resting on a muscular spring, attached to the leg at a different point and angle than the rest of their toes. When the velociraptor was ready to strike, it would activate this muscle and deliver a shearing strike with an incredible amount of force for its size, cutting into flesh and organs like a hot knife through warm, wet butter. In more recent history, it seems this trigger-activated talon has evolved into shorter digits with smaller, sharper talons we see in eagles and osprey today. As prey changed, so too did the predator; once slashing talons became obsolete, predators sought mates with hooking ones instead.

The velociraptor is not the only type of raptor in prehistory, just the most famous. One of my personal favorites is the Utahraptor. Big Love probably isn’t the right thing to call him. More like Big Killing Machine of Awesome Pangaen Death, which would be an awesome Scandinavian Death Metal band name. (“I love BKMAPD, bro!”).

But seriously, if you stood the Utahraptor next to your average gentleman, the top of the raptor’s head was about two feet above the man, and that was if the raptor was slouching.

The largest ones were supposed to be at least 23 feet long and weighed around 1,000 pounds. That’s like a small female cow. A small female cow that could probably jump its full body distance and then some, and move as quickly as 45 mph or more at full sprint.

Let’s not forget the patented shearing claw, which could reach lengths of up to 10 inches.

Grab a ruler. Set your arm down. Measure out how big 10 inches is in comparison to your arm. Now imagine several hundreds of pounds of force behind a blade that large swinging at your arm in one tenth of a second.

Utahraptors were awesome, I rest my case.

Though my love for dinosaurs may have waxed and waned over the years, my admiration for the sheer ingenuity and raw power of nature has only increased. When you begin to look at how all of these things formed and came together so organically over the course of several millions of years, everything just begins to make sense. Where we are, why we’re here now, what we as a species have achieved, why certain animals are the way they are. It certainly was no accident. As the landscape changed, as the weapons became obsolete, nature figured out ways of staying relevant. What didn’t work died and lineages morphed as females sought mates with unique skills and tools. These traits emerged in their offspring and their offspring’s offspring. Subtle, tenth-of-an-inch mutations like an unusual curve of a talon recorded themselves in strands of DNA like an architect’s blueprint, then were replicated and modified by new additions and ideas. We are seeing it to this day as our climate changes more quickly than we’ve ever seen: What will be obsolete in a changing world is dying. What can adapt and change is doing so now, staying ahead of the curve and beating out the competition.

The only question that poses for us is: Are we as humans going to change and adapt to a changing world, or in our quest for achieving greatness in bygone standards will we become obsolete and disappear like the raptors of the ancient world?

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