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Thursday, 25 June 2015

On Jurassic World and real 'raptors': Velociraptor, Deinonychus and Achillobator

The online palaeontological community has no shortage of words on the recently released Jurassic World movie – most of them concerning the deplorable disregard for the last two decades of dinosaur science. What of the movie itself? The critical response seems to divided, most reviewing it as a great popcorn movie, and the rest as a predictable, sexist and cynical summer film. My own take is the latter: Jurassic World was just another forgettable, contrived entry in the Jurassic Park franchise, best noted for having the worst effects, silliest plot, and most outmoded characters of the entire series. Never quite sure if it’s making fun of modern franchise culture or revelling in it, the convoluted story revolves around (SPOILER ALERT) hokey family values, dinosaur-dinosaur team ups, dinosaur-human team ups and weaponised artificial species to form a plot akin to a particularly dumb, low-grade B-movie. There are some good ideas in there that could, in isolation, make for interesting science fiction, but there’s so much going on that nothing has a chance to develop: plot threads are introduced, contradicted and abandoned with rapidity. Most of the story is churned along by really contrived, forehead-slappingly stupid decisions made by the characters, and the pandering to the ‘awesomebro’ crowd is, at times, shameless. Was I the only person cringing when two characters told us, in weirdly meta-fashion, how ‘awesome’ and ‘badass’ they thought the (already shark-jumping) motorcycle/Velociraptor scenario was? In all, while I can’t say I strongly disliked Jurassic World, its few redeeming features are undermined by the contrivances, tropes and fan-servicing, over-stuffed plot, and flat characters. After two other disappointing sequels, Jurassic World is yet another demonstration that the Jurassic franchise really needs to evolve away from the original film to remain interesting. Predictably, it’s made a truckload of money already.

Anyway, this isn’t a review of Jurassic World: we’re here to talk about dromaeosaurs (yeah, not ‘raptors’: sorry, Jurassic fans, but another set of dinosaurs have held priority to ‘raptor’ since 1873). The velociraptors are back in force in Jurassic World, in all their leathery-skinned, broken-wristed, overtoothed glory. Of all the Jurassic World dinosaurs, the velociraptors have moved furthest from being relatively ‘believable’ animals in the first movie to the realm of true sci-fi monster. By Jurassic World, the behavioural and physical attributes they’ve gained in each sequel has finally made them totally unstoppable killing machines, demonstrably invulnerable to all damage except when the script calls for it (and thus largely removing their potential for being thrilling characters or antagonists. Oh, wait, we're not reviewing the film!). Inspired by their movie cousins, I thought I’d share some recently completed dromaeosaurid palaeoart here. Without appreciating it, presenting these three images together acts as a foil to the Jurassic depiction of dromaeosaurs, showing these animals as exploitative and flawed creatures, and as products of natural evolution, rather than reptilian versions of Geiger’s Alien. As usual, prints of all these images are available to purchase from my print store.

Velociraptor: picking on the little guy

Famous dromaeosaurid Velociraptor mongoliensis chases a juvenile oviraptorosaur, Citipati osmolskae. The oviraptorosaur parent doesn't approve.

First up is Velociraptor mongoliensis, the dog-sized namesake of the Jurassic dromaeosaurs. In this revised image (the first version of which topped another Jurassic World inspired piece) Velociraptor is shown predating a much smaller theropod, a juvenile oviraptorosaur Citipati osmolskae. The idea emphasised here is that, like most predators, Velociraptor probably hunted easily dispatched and overpowered prey, like juvenile animals, rather than larger, more dangerous individuals. A distressed oviraptorosaur parent is shown in the background as attempting to scare the predator off, arms extended, jaws agape, probably making a lot of noise. It strikes me this is the ‘classic’ palaeoart pose so often depicted as leaping from canvases to our faces – I think it works a lot better in the context of a full scene rather than in isolation. The Velociraptor is adorned with two small feather fans on its snout, structures for which we have no direct evidence, but which don’t seem too audacious in light of some cranial display features of modern predators.

Deinonychus: superklutz

Deinonychus antirrhopus: Deadly. Savage. Clumsy.

Next is another famous dromaeosaur, the North American species Deinonychus antirrhopus. This image was commissioned by ReBecca Hunt-Foster for the Utah Bureau of Land Management, as part of a public display on the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite. This Cedar Mountain Formation locality, once a scummy, slimy shallow body of water, preserves a multitude of sauropod, ornithopod and theropod tracks, including several belonging to dromaeosaurs. We call these tracks Dromaeosauripus, and at Mill Canyon their most likely trackmaker is Deinoynchus, it being a Cedar Mountain Formation species of correct stratigraphic provenance and appropriate size to make these specific Dromaeosauripus traces. Some of the Mill Canyon Dromaeosauripus tracks record running animals, which is pretty neat: it’s hard not to wonder what impetus made these animals charge over the Mill Canyon microbial mat 100 million years ago.

Alongside some of these tracks are long gouges in the ancient mud seemingly made by two-toed animals losing their grip on the substate, wobbling about before regaining their balance – are these the tracks of noble Deinonychus almost falling over? Quite possibly, although it’s not definite that they record the same individuals as those leaving the charging Dromaeosauripus prints.

ReBecca thought it would be fun to demonstrate that some Mill Canyon dinosaurs weren’t the most sure-footed of creatures, and requested my services to do so. I was happy to do this. In any sustained bout of animal observation it becomes apparent that all species routinely trip, slip and blunder about in the way that we do, and recreating this seemed a wonderful alternative to our regular diet of epic and ‘awesome’ palaeoart. The fact this image features Deinonychus is even better: even outside of Jurassic Park, dromaeosaurs are regularly depicted as particularly ferocious, cunning predators, earning them the nickname of ‘lions of the Cretaceous’. Well, awesomebros, here's our noble, cunning Cretaceous lion picking a whole bunch of oopsie-daisies, while a couple of normal Deinonychus prey items – Tenontosaurus – look out from the far distance and laugh.

Achillobator: giant dromaeosaur, silly hat

Giant Mongolian dromaeosaurid Achillobator giganticus ominously excavating the burrow of a small dinosaur. Azhdarchid pterosaurs gather to collect the dislodged bugs.

The Late Cretaceous, Mongolian species Achillobator giganticus is not a household name, but that may well change over time. This species is large bodied (only second to Utahraptor in the dromaeosaurid size game) and robust, bearing a deep snout, stout limbs and a large set of hips. It probably wasn’t a fast runner, but all indications are that it was a powerful predator suited to wrestling and grappling, perhaps ideally suited to ambushing larger prey. In this illustration, I’ve speculated that the powerful limb girdles and appendages of Achillobator are for a specific purpose: digging out and killing burrowing reptiles. Lots of tetrapods, including lineages around in the Mesozoic, were burrowers: fossorial activities are known in extinct and modern dinosaurs, as well as crocodylomorphs, certain lepidosaurs, and stem-mammals. The Mesozoic was thus likely full of burrowing species, and it’s not crazy to think that powerful predators could trap and excavate these animals from their own homes with the right equipment. In the scenario depicted above, the robust feet and enlarged hips of Achillobator make for powerful digging tools, while the short but powerful arms are ready to catch and grapple with escaping animals. If their prey doesn’t emerge voluntarily, those feather crowns will block burrow entrances once the head and jaws are inserted to extract the animals directly – this is a nod to the cranial form of Tibetan foxes, which have wide heads for the same purpose.

Of course, this image and concept is little more than an All Yesterdays-style speculation – to be honest, we don’t really have enough of the Achillobator skeleton to know exactly what it did for a living. Nevertheless, following another run with the Jurassic movies, I find it refreshing, grounding and intriguing to think of large dromaeosaurs as real products of evolution, as creatures adapted to the environment they lived in, and the species they coexisted with. As is often the case, reality ends up being far more interesting than fiction.

OK, that’s all for now. If you’d like to know more about the diversity of ‘real’ dromaeosaurs and other feathered dinosaurs, I heartily recommend Matthew Martyniuk’s excellent Field Guide to Mesozoic Birds and other Winged Dinosaurs.

17 comments:

  1. I always feel as though I am beating a dead horse here, or that perhaps I am the only person that remembers the book, but I do not think enough people realize that Velociraptor mongoliensis was never the basis of the raptors in Jurassic Park (and therefore subsequent productions). Crichton used the very briefly acceptable (via Paul's Preadtory Dinosaurs of the World, 1988) Velociraptor antirrhopus nomenclature in his novel which was rather quickly reassigned back to Deinonychus antirrhopus. Spielberg really just enlarged Deinonychus, not supersized Velociraptor. It's a minor point, but I get the sense that almost no one has ever looked into it, they've just accepted the popular belief that Crichton and Spielberg both just "made up" dinosaurs for a scare factor.

    Anywho, nice illustrations and discussion of three highly debated animals. Always so much debate...

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Ian. I think the origin of the JP Velociraptor name is pretty well known by now, as well as the fact that there is a real animal behind the JP rendition. Does this post suggest otherwise? It wasn't my intention to.

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    2. No, you're fine. I think everyone takes the "namesake of the Jurassic dromaeosaurs" bit seriously though, as though author and director never even bothered with the science. I've been nerd-ranting in the corner most of the week about the latest movie's reviews calling the pterosaurs dinosaurs and birds also.

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  2. That Velociraptor picture looks awfully familiar. I'm sure there was a prior version involving an Avimimus juvenile rather than a Citipati juvenile, but when I went back to the feathers resistant article, it seems to have been replaced by this new one. (A shame - I liked that Velociraptor's design!).

    I love the idea behind the clumsy Deinonychus one - it would be nice to see more "fallible" imagery of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures, and I remember liking that picture of the Abelisaurus falling over from way back - but the Deinonychus doesn't seem all that clumsy to me. It looks like it's merely making the landing or the launching of a twisty jump, and it reminds me of the idea that the wings were used as counterbalance when making sharp turns. Still a great pseudo-realistic picture, though.

    The square feather frill of the Achillobator is interesting. It gives them a strangely Ceratopsian look. I think the Unenlagiine Austroraptor surpasses it in size, though, making it third largest. Also, are those Azhdarchids a particular known or recently discovered species, or are they speculation? I don''t know of any Azhdarchid genera smaller than about 8 feet or so across the wings, and that one's Montanazhdarcho from the USA.

    Lastly, for a not-review of Jurassic World, I think this is the one I agree with most! Even ignoring the Jurassic Park legacy, it's a mediocre film at best.

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    1. Yeah, I replaced the older version with the newer one. The older image is full of goofs, so it was time to tidy it up.

      Mike's comments below are spot on concerning juvenile azhdarchids: we know at least these animals gave us small Late Cretaceous pterosaurs. There are also tiny remains of azhdarchids from Canada - little neck verts and things - which may indicate small bodied species. They really need to be looked at to determine their osteological maturity.

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  3. Miller Donaldson25 June 2015 at 13:19

    Even though I respectfully disagree with your opinion on Jurassic World (I went to see it with low expectations and happened to enjoy it as a summer popcorn flick, though I'll agree that it doesn't really feel like a Jurassic Park film), I still think this excellent blog post exploring real dromaeosaurs was quite needed in the wake of the film. Though as bad as JW's raptors were, I think it's the film's pterosaurs that really deserve a beatdown. I'm honestly not sure I've ever seen worse in a big-screen production (though their aerial rampage through the park was still great fun to watch).

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    1. "I think it's the film's pterosaurs that really deserve a beatdown."

      I had a bit of a go at that, for Dimorphodon at least, here:

      http://markwitton-com.blogspot.co.uk/2015/06/why-dimorphodon-macronyx-is-one-of.html

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    2. Miller Donaldson30 June 2015 at 18:15

      Thank you. Read it earlier, excellent as always. BTW saw the film a third time today, and does the Dimorphodon make anyone else recall Primeval's depiction of Anurognathus? Wonder if they drew any inspiration from that portrayal or if it's just a coincidence.

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  4. Miller: no argument that the pterosaurs were dire (why upscale them when there were real pterosaurs at the appropriate sizes? Doesn't seem like the film had ANY palaeontological consult). Not sure about the *absolute* worst though, at least the Toothless Wing didn't have teeth.

    On topic though, great post Mark, and it seems like your art just keeps getting better - some of the best on the web at this point, in my opinion. I particularly like the speculative traits for Achillobator, and the thought that went into them.

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  5. Mike from Ottawa25 June 2015 at 17:58

    The worst thing about JW's featherless theropods is that it was over 50 years ago that feathered theropods were definitively shown to be capable of terrifying in Hitchcock's 'The Birds'.

    And Hitchcock didn't have to supersize anything.

    Excellent article, Mark. And I've ordered Matt Martyniuk's book on your recommendation.

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  6. Mike from Ottawa25 June 2015 at 18:07

    Oh, and while I'm not Mark, my suspicion is that the small pterosaurs are azhdarchids. As big as they could get as adults, they weren't large adults their whole lives. Flaplings and smaller juveniles would have come in all sorts of sizes.

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  7. What gave you the idea to give the Velociraptor the feather fan?

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    1. We see all sorts of tail fans, 'frond' tails and the likes in fossil theropods. I don't know that there's something exactly like the one shown here, but it's not much of a deviation from what we see in fossils.

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  8. Just a quick movie aside: I think the trope of mad scientists and conspiring military men 'weaponising' inherently unpredictable and uncontrollable sci-fi monsters (xenomorphs, hulks, rap... er... dromaeosaurs/Indominus [the clue's in the name!]) is subject to more and more fridge logic and possibly needs to die off for a while. Reminded of a panel in the original League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic...
    SPOILER
    The team asks about Professor Moreau's animal-men, assuming they're a clandestine government weapon. Campion Bond, their handler, replies with "Really? Why would we need subhuman brutes who've barely mastered English when we already have soldiers?"

    ...

    Aaanyway...

    "... recreating this seemed a wonderful alternative to our regular diet of epic and ‘awesome’ palaeoart."

    Couldn't agree more. Little preschool me was drawn to dinosaurs as real-life 'dragons' and 'monsters'; but these days I find it much more interesting to imagine them as the real animals they were, going about their lives like any other organism, reading about what we find about how they did so, and filling in the gaps with thoughtful extrapolation and speculation. Naked-lizard slasher poses got old long ago.

    These pieces are excellent for that. Assertions that dromaeosaurs might've been slower (in two senses) than the superpowered movie monster image might debadassify, but it's fascinating to think about just what they did, if not sprinting by in a blur. To that end I think I'm taken with the Achillobator piece the most.(but by a slim margin) Great to see them go about what might have been their daily, 'mundane' business, but still terifying to whatever they're digging up! I agree with John that the feather fans look vaguely ceratopsian - bold, but I think it works. And the idea of giant, wrestling dromaeosaurs sparks the imagination too.

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  9. Ah, someone who has as many nitpicks as I do! Personally, as a Jurassic Park fan I didn't mind the scaly, featherless raptors. But the movie - yikes! Little substance, hardly any sensible plot, tons of product placement, over-reliance on nostalgia without making its own story, and a third act so ridiculously over-the-top it was hilarious. Michael Bay might as well have directed it.

    Nice illustrations, by the way! About time we started seeing less of dino depictions as superpowered monsters that did nothing but kill each other, and more of them being animals, as real and naturalistic as lions and wolves of today. I mean, every dinosaur book I had ever seen shows Deinonychus in its stereotypical act of attacking some poor hadrosaur, rather than the slightly amusing thought of it clumsily tripping around (hee hee).
    Everyone's like "feathered, realistic dinosaurs are NOT scary!" But really, does everything in nature have to be pure nightmare fuel? Had paleontologists found the bones of a fox in the future and had no idea what one looked like, I'd bet they'd take one look at its pointed canines and proceed to reconstruct it as a gaunt, bald, fanged horror because a fluffy predator with a bushy tail isn't "scary enough."

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  10. Such a great movie since 1993 in the name of Jurassic Park first movie. I am thankful to you for sharing such a good kind of post. Jurassic World Owen Vest

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  11. Although I do really like your work Mark, I think a lot of people are wrong about the whole featherless Dino thing. I really enjoyed Jurassic World, it's not the best film I've ever seen but I did enjoy it. The dromeasaurs you drew here are very cool but I don't think they would make good science fiction villains or characters. They would be great in a discovery channel documentary, but not in a JP/JW film. The dinosaur designs in these films are as iconic as The X-wings and tie fighters from Star Wars. You can't just change them. That would confuse and anger a lot of people. Anyway, the point I'm trying to get out here is that films have to take scientific leniencies in order for them to work. Hell, they even gave an explanation for why some of the dinosaurs don't have feathers, which I don't think they really even needed to do. So I don't think it is deplorable to have featherless Dino's at all. To sum it all up, this is my opinion and Its fine if you disagree.

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