Saturday, 15 August 2015

Dino Tales

Your quiz question for today: Identify this (sadly extinct) creature.


1. It used to live in China and Mongolia.
2. It was about the size of a large turkey.
3. It had about the brain power, at best, of a chicken.
4. It was a predator of small to medium sized animals – up to the size of a small pig and
5. It was a solitary hunter which couldn't run particularly fast so probably waited in ambush for prey to come by.

No, it isn't a chicken from a mad scientist's lab, cool as it might be.

I’ll give you an additional hint: its name is extremely well known, but most people will completely fail to recognise it when they think of that name.

No, that name is not Maozedongasaurus, either.


Perhaps you’ll recognise it if I show you the Hollywood version?


[Source] you know it, don’t you? Velociraptor. Owing to the Jurassic Park franchise, the second-most recognisable dinosaur in the world, allegedly, right after Tyrannosaurus rex.

Of course, like everything else in Hollywood, Velociraptor looked nothing like that and nor did Tyrannosaurus, which in reality had a longer, narrower face, much less pronounced brow ridges, smaller arms, and in all probability a coat of feathers.

Did I say feathers? Yes, I said feathers. I said Tyrannosaurus rex had feathers. The only questions are whether it had them lifelong or only when a, baby...and whether said feathers were downy and hairlike or a full plumage like the Velociraptor.

Somehow, this looks much more impressive than the "conventional" image [Source]

So, yes, let’s get back to that Velociraptor, shall we? By now, you’ll have understood that Jurassic Park got one hell of a lot of things wrong, but, you know, you haven’t even begun to understand just how wrong.

Let’s see where they began; in the first film, they wanted a relatively small, highly agile dinosaur as an antagonist. In the book on which the film was – very loosely – based, the animal antagonist was based on a much earlier – it lived a full 30 million years before the Velociraptor – dinosaur, Deinonychus. This was about shoulder high to a human, but still looked a lot like the Velociraptor, with feathers, an elongated toothy snout, and a stiff, rigid tail. That's because they belonged to the same group - dromaeosaurs.

Michael Crichton, who wrote the book, chose to call the dinosaur he based his story on Velociraptor for one reason only – the name was “cooler” and easier to pronounce. Crichton even said so.

Sounds like the kind of thing Amerikastani administrations hire marketing agencies to come up with when trying to find ways to invade yet another country.

But that wasn’t quite enough. Crichton didn’t just want a Deinonychus. He wanted an enlarged, scarier Deinonychus. So, for reasons best known to himself, not only did he make it even larger, he decided to give it intelligence on the order of chimpanzees. This from an animal, you need to understand, with a brain to body ratio that would make it much, much stupider than a sparrow. And, of course, he decided to make it a pack hunter capable of fast running, because a solitary ambush predator just wasn’t scary enough.

At this moment, whether Deinonychus was a pack hunter or not isn't even established either way.

So in the film based on the book, the turkey-sized, solitary, Mongolian Velociraptor became an oversized Deinonychus with a behaviour pattern no actual Deinonychus could ever have managed – moreover, a Deinonychus that didn’t even look like a real Deinonychus – even without the feathers.

As for the feathers, that can at least be excused partly – at the time the original film was made, there was not yet evidence (though there was certainly lots of suspicion) that Velociraptor and Deinonychus had plumage. Now we know that not only did they have plumage, they were basically toothed, clawed birds.

But that was not the end of the confusion. Not yet.

You see, while the original Jurassic Park was being made, a much, much larger animal was discovered – another dromaeosaur – known as Utahraptor (go ahead and guess where it was found). I remember reading back then (1993) about how though the film “velociraptors” were admittedly bigger than the real ones (they didn’t say how much bigger), this was validated post facto by the discovery of the Utahraptor. Unfortunately, the real life Utahraptor was another feathered stiff-tailed quasi-bird beast, and as much bigger than a Deinonychus as that was than the real Velociraptor.

And then, because things weren’t complicated enough, the subsequent films in the franchise resolutely refused to correct the initial mistake, thereby fixing the fiction in the public eye.

So I don’t know if you’ve been keeping score, but here’s what:

1. Velociraptor was a small, solitary, feathered ambush predator from China and Mongolia with a stiff, rigid tail.
2. Its name, because it sounded sexy, was given to a larger, but otherwise similar, predator from an earlier predator from North America.
3. Said larger predator was then scaled up in size and given abilities far beyond its capabilities, and this was “validated” by the discovery of a larger member of the group, still.
4.Then this totally fictional creature that was thereby created was fixed in public consciousness as the original Velociraptor.

Click to enlarge enough to read the names [Source]
That gives you an idea of the dromaeosaurs, but if you want scale, here is one:


Really, this is sounding more and more like the propaganda campaigns that created myths like Russia’s “invasion of Ukraine” and “Assad’s gas attacks”, isn’t it?

The people responsible how to make a tangle so intricate most people won't even try taking the threads apart again.

So here's a Velociraptor racing with a, trying to kill and eat it.

He might prefer to eat the makers of Jurassic Park instead.

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