Where the Dinosaurs Are


Dinosaurs provide tremendous stimulation for the imagination.  While we used to imagine the Mesozoic world as a landscape of sluggish swampdwellers, we now envision a world populated by a panoply of colorful, noisy, fast and cunning hot-blooded monsters.  This is great for the Dinobiz, but does it make scientific sense?  Did Dinosaurs operate under rules of physiology and evolutionary pressure substantially different from those of today?  Did they develop markedly better solutions for dealing with their world than those that have evolved since?  Let's look at the currently hot group, Dromaeosaurs, popularly known today as the Raptors.  In movies, books and magazines these smallish theropods comprised the fastest and nastiest,  and possibly smartest Dinosaurs ever.  They were dressed to the nines in spikes and knives; cold-blooded homeothermic killers.  While all members of this class had an impressive set of saw-edged teeth and formidably clawed forelimbs, it is the hypertrophied claws on the second toes of their hindlimbs that have transfixed our imagination.  We are repeatedly told that these agile carnivores hunted in packs, slashing their large but lumbering prey to death in a series of back-foot blitzkriegs.  Wait...does this really make sense?  Did they really hunt in organized packs?  Did they really use those curvaceous claws for slicing and dicing formidable foes into hors-d'ouvres sized snacks?   I suspect it was more likely they rarely ate anything that couldn't have been nailed in a one-bite solo effort unless it was already dead.  Heresy!!?  Stop and consider this from an evolutionary standpoint.  As Raptors were lightly built, they probably did rely on speed and agility.  As they were bipedal, their back legs would have been essential to their survival.  Almost any injury to such important structures would have been rapidly fatal to a creature relying on pursuit speed and kicking power.  Want to hurt a back leg?  Try to kick a large and angry herbivore that basically consists of thick skin over huge muscles.  Ribs, pelvic bones, scutes, shields and flailing limbs would have made vital organs difficult targets.  Aside from the likely humiliation of breaking a nail, they would have been at high risk for shattering a leg trying such tactics.  Crippled dinosaurs didn't have a high likelihood of reproducing, leaving them losers in Darwin's evolutionary derby.  Perhaps that is why they vanished by the mid-Cretaceous, giving way to the smash-mouth hunting tactics of the Tyrannosaurs.  It is more likely that Raptors mostly used their razor-like teeth on smaller prey.  If they did use claws, it was probably the impressive armament on their forelimbs which would have been much easier to control and less risky to survival if injured.   So, what were those carpet cutters for?  If there had to be a feeding function, consider other possibilities.  They would have been useful for cutting through thick skin after their meal had been immobilized by other means.  They could have been used to rip aprt termite nests and beehives, or to dig up whatever resembled prairie dog towns of their era.  If they had a taste for escargot, the claws were perfectly shaped for extracting the delicate morsels from their spiral shells.

I'm certain that every reader who has put up with me this far is thinking about the famous Velociraptor versus Protoceratops fossil where both died locked in mortal combat, proving the function of the slashing claw.  Yes, the poor Raptor was using its foot, but probably as a defensive weapon!  After all, it was probably trying to raid a nest for a meal of one-bite babies when it was attacked by one of those angry herbivores alluded to above.  The large slashing claw on the cassowary is a good example of such a weapon evolving purely for defensive purposes.  These birds are incredibly dangerous when trapped in close quarters although they are more likely to run away than take chances with their valuable legs in a battle.  It makes sense to risk an incapacitating injury only if the alternative is being eaten.

If you are uncomfortable with these magnificent structures solely serving a protective function, what could be a more likely use?  Why, sex of course.  Many of the most extravagant and bizarre structures in nature are primarily used to attract a mate or to intimidate rivals.  A set of  large claws could be very useful for displaying  to a potential mate or for ritualized combat.  Look at the modern rooster, possessing impressive and dangerous spurs, but hardly famed as a fierce hunter.

While difficult to prove either way, it is easier to imagine Raptors having the coordination required for mating displays than the control needed for accurately kicking an opponent in a life or death battle.  Despite their reputation for having relatively large brains, it is unlikely that such complex coordination would have been possible.  No other animal has developed that style of hunting since, even if birds grab smaller prey with their feet and many animals do use their feet for defensive functions.

While on the subject of brain function, I have to add that the concept of Raptors hunting in organized packs inspires incredulity.  No reptile, or bird for that matter possesses the social structure to accomplish that and it is doubtful that Dinosaurs with relatively small brain-to-body mass ratios could have pulled it off.  Now I have been told that Harris Hawks do cooperate in flushing and capturing prey, so I guess that anything is possible, but the level of strategizing and communication during a hunt depicted in modern media is not seen in any sort of animal not human or at least as closely related as a chimpanzee.   Swarming on common prey is observed with many animals including crocodilians, large lizards and vultures, although it isn't truly cooperative social behavior.  Finding fossils showing a group of Deinonychus with one large herbivore certainly doesn't prove or even imply social structure any more than finding a collection of flies around a dead rat.

One of the great joys of science is interpreting the evidence available.  The Raptors are a fascinating group that truly deserves tremendous attention.  All too often it seems that one view of fragmentary data becomes accepted as gospel and is repeated over and over as fact.  The most obvious or exciting interpretation is not always the correct one.  It is always fun to keep questioning, even if you get branded a heretic.

      The raptors depicted in this article, probably Deinonychus, were built from  Lindberg Jurassic Park kits.




This is the "Tiny Perfect Dinosaur" Velociraptor that comes as a kit in an egg.  The plastic is a bit too

flexible to allow much modification in pose, but a coat of paint elevates its status to more than a toy.
More about this and many other model skeletons can be seen at the new pages of this website,



This is a 1:3 scale kit  from Wiccart's Steve Harvey.  He modified the Deinonychus skull that was sculpted by Lasha Tschkondia for Ants.  Steve also produced kits of an upper and lower limb for this beast, based on Ostrum's Monograph.  The original plan was to make a complete skeleton and someday he may even finish that project.  Unfortunately, it won't be any time soon.  I do have both of those kits and will post pictures when I get around to building them.

More pictures and information on this and other kits can be seen at THE OLD BONE ODORI


This is Wiccart's 1:2 scale skull with the 1:35 scale in-the-flesh Oviraptor from the Tamiya "Mesozoic Creatures" kit.



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