Thursday 28 May 2020

What really are the Jurassic Park Raptors supposed to be?

Fig 1: Many people may be surprised to know that the genus Velociraptor has been known since 1924. It however never gained much popularity until 1993’s release of the movie Jurassic Park. As such, appearances of it in art, books or let alone movies before the 90s are quite rare. Here we see one of those rare pre-90s depictions of the animal, made in 1975 by none other than Zdeněk Burian. The lizard in the foreground is Macrocephalosaurus, now classified as Gilmoreteius. Take that as foreshadowing.
Being born in 1998, most of the shows and documentaries I grew up with as a child (such as Dinosaur Planet and When Dinosaurs Roamed America on Discovery Channel) already portrayed dromaeosaurs as small, feathered and very bird-like animals and this is naturally how I now prefer them being portrayed. Despite already knowing at about age 6 that these movies were outdated, I am nonetheless a big fan of the Jurassic Park franchise, especially the original trilogy (yes, even the third one) and its surrounding media, as they allow me to imagine what the 90s Dinomania must have been like. Naturally, I also love to speculate about the in-universe lore of the series. One of the most fascinating topics of discussion are the stars or “main villains” of the movies, the Velociraptors. At this point it is probably common knowledge that, unlike the movie-version, the real-life Velociraptor mongoliensis was a turkey-sized, fully feathered animal (and yes, we do know for a fact that it had feathers thanks to phylogenetic bracketing and obvious quill-knobs along its arms) that would have resembled a hawk with teeth more than a bipedal monitor lizard. Even the newest Animal Crossing game has made fun of this fact, just ask Blathers! This obvious discrepancy, especially the one in size, has led a lot of people to question if the JP raptors are really meant to be Velociraptor or are actually an entirely different genus of dromaeosaur, with suggestions like Deinonychus, Utahraptor, Achillobator and Dakotaraptor often being thrown around. This post here was in part inspired by a recent blogpost by Mark Witton where he commented that he thinks at this point the JP raptors are not meant to represent any specific species, but just a generalized image of an eudromaeosaur. Many other speculations abound and I am sure many people reading this already have heard of or made up their own theories on the matter. This is basically just my personal take based on the available evidence, though I also want to clear up some common misconceptions I have heard from time to time.

Before we start I just want to clarify that I will refer to dromaeosaurs as “raptors” here purely for convenience sake. Personally I am still of the opinion that the term should be reserved for birds of prey specifically in other discussions to avoid confusion.

The case for the novel

Before there were any movies, there was just a novel by Michael Crichton, released in 1990 and taking place in 1989. While there are some important differences, the novel and the movie roughly follow the same plot and one of the main threats is a dromaeosaur classified in-universe as Velociraptor. Nowadays it is however general consensus that the raptors featured in the novel are actually Deinonychus, but there exist two different claims as to why its name was changed. Either A) Crichton just found the name Velociraptor cooler and allowed himself some artistic license or B) Crichton was following a controversial classification scheme at the time. As I think we will see, both versions of the story are essentially correct without contradicting each other.
Fig. 2: Deinonychus, a wolf-sized dromaeosaur from North America, as originally reconstructed by Robert Bakker for John Ostrom in 1969. The image, as well as the dinosaur, kickstarted the Dinosaur Renaissance and became the prototype of what the general public thinks a “raptor” looks like. Apart from it obviously lacking feathers, much of our anatomical knowledge about this dinosaur has changed too, especially the head-shape and hand-posture. 

Since its first description in 1969 up to 1993, Deinonychus antirrhopus was THE dromaeosaur known to the general public and in the focus of paleontologists, as it was the largest of its kind known up to that point, kickstarted the Dinosaur Renaissance and revived the hypothesis that birds descend from dinosaurs. Its smaller cousin Velociraptor, despite being known since 1924, was never popular and barely featured in books until the release of the first Jurassic Park movie. The most important researcher of Deinonychus at the time was of course its discoverer, John Ostrom. As Ostrom once recounted in an interview, after Crichton finished writing The Andromeda Strain, the author actually contacted the paleontologist to specifically ask him about details concerning Deinonychus, such as its range of motion and behaviour. Crichton was doing some research for his next novel. Ostrom further recounts that after Jurassic Park released, Crichton admitted to him that he based the novel’s raptors in pretty much every detail on Deinonychus, but chose the name of its relative Velociraptor as he thought it would sound more dramatic to an audience which probably did not understand Greek.
Fig. 3: As attested in the novel’s acknowledgements, Greg Paul’s book here was a great influence on Michael Crichton while writing Jurassic Park. The dinosaur on the cover is Yangchuanosaurus shangyouensis, known from nearly complete remains from the Middle Jurassic of China, but Paul classified it as a species of the genus Metriacanthosaurus (Paul 1988, p. 290-292), otherwise known from only a few bones found in England. Likely as a reference to this book, we can see in the movie, when Dennis Nedry is stealing dinosaur embryos, a testtube with the name Metriacanthosaurus on it, implying that the animal was being cloned for the park. Lately Metriacanthosaurus even appeared in the videogame Jurassic World Evolution, once again stealing the fame from the much better known Yangchuanosaurus. I am starting to see a pattern here.
Another main inspiration for Crichton (and the movies) was however also the book Predatory Dinosaurs of the World, written by Gregory S. Paul and released in 1988 (just one year before the events of the novel are supposed to take place). The book was one of the most thorough and comprehensive guides to theropod dinosaurs at the time and included many, now iconic, illustrations by Paul. However, it also lives on in a bit of infamy, as Paul expressed some quite controversial opinions in it. The thing he is still a bit infamous for today are his classification schemes. Paul is what taxonomists would call a “lumper” as he is fond of lumping/synonymizing taxa together under the same genus. There is nothing necessarily wrong about that if there are good reasons to do so, and some of Paul’s reclassifications have nowadays become consensus, such as Syntarsus/Megapnosaurus actually being a species of Coelophysis. However, many of his other classifications, such as both Styracosaurus and Pachyrhinosaurus actually being species of Centrosaurus, are either highly controversial or outright rejected today. The suggestions that Jack Horner gets hated on nowadays are a joke compared to the stuff Paul has sometimes proposed. It should be mentioned for fairness that Paul defended most of his ideas by using the standards some taxonomists use on modern living animals, such as the fact that lions, tigers, jaguars and leopards are all classified under the genus Panthera or that nearly all monitor lizards, from the nile monitor to the Komodo dragon and even Megalania, are classified under the genus Varanus. There are however zoologists who argue that even these genera, especially Varanus, are overlumped and should be split up. Anyway, the most infamous suggestion from Predatory Dinosaurs of the World was Paul’s decision that Deinonychus, Velociraptor and Saurornitholestes (poor guy gets always left out in these discussions) are similar enough to all be classified under the same genus, which would be Velociraptor, as it was the first one described and its name therefore has priority. Deinonychus antirrhopus therefore became Velociraptor antirrhopus. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a nearly direct reference to this in the Jurassic Park novel:

“‘What do you know about Velociraptor?’ Grant asked Tim. He was just making conversation. ‘It was a small carnivore that hunted in packs, like Deinonychus’ Tim said. ‘That’s right’ Grant said ‘although Deinonychus is now considered one of the velociraptors. And the evidence for pack-hunting is all circumstantial.” (Crichton 1990, p. 129).

Earlier in the book Grant also digs up a fossil in Montana, where Deinonychus is found, and identifies it as Velociraptor antirrhopus (p. 46). It is interesting that he mentions the reclassification of Deinonychus like it has become a fact and I actually have seen some people nowadays who seem to think that this was an actual consensus in the 80s/90s and that Michael Crichton was therefore just adhering to the science of the time. Just to be very clear: He was not. Greg Paul was the only person who has suggested this reclassification and it seemed ludicrous to everyone else even back in the 80s, when people were cutting their hair into mullets. The two species not only lived on different continents and showed numerous anatomical differences, but also lived about 40 million years apart. Together with the evidence from above it seems very obvious to me that Crichton renamed his version of Deinonychus purely for dramatic effect and then tried to present Paul’s classification as a popular opinion to give his choice at least a semblance of validity. In-universe that means that Jurassic Park seems to takes place in an alternative universe where, against all odds, Paul’s classification won. Or Grant simply has very eccentric opinions. His character, together with his Maiasaura research, is based on Jack Horner after all…
Fig. 4: Deinonychus antirrhopus or what Gregory S. Paul, the illustrator, called Velociraptor antirrhopus. Yes, he illustrated dinosaurs, in fact all small theropods from Velociraptor to Coelophysis, with feathers as far back as the 80s when this idea was still highly speculative, something which I think he does not get enough credit for. This is unfortunately the one major aspect of his paleoart that neither made it into Michael Crichton’s novel nor the movie.
While I do think the most likely identification of the novel raptors is that they are Deinonychus, there are a few discrepancies which might open up a few other possibilities. First and foremost, Dr. Henry Wu, the park’s chief geneticist, identifies at least one of the raptors as Velociraptor mongoliensis (p. 127), not V. antirrhopus, which would be the “correct” name if they were meant to be Deinonychus. However, he was referring to a six week old, small juvenile animal specifically. If the large, adult raptors in the park, which cause a lot of chaos later in the novel, are also classified by the staff as V. mongoliensis is never stated clearly. It could well be possible that they are V. antirrhopus and the juvenile is a new species that has recently been added to the park. This could very well explain why the adult raptors later in the novel eat said juvenile instead of caring for it, as they recognize it is as not being the same species as theirs. A further hint towards this is that near the end of the story we see the raptors caring for their children (p. 434), which makes me doubt that they are meant to be presented as compulsive cannibals. However, what speaks against there being two raptor species in the park is that the juvenile and the adults are described as having essentially the same colouration of a yellow-brownish body with reddish tiger-stripes (p. 130). Later in the novel some raptors are described with dark-green bodies and brownish stripes (p. 433), though it is possible that they are just meant to be the male raptors. The adult raptors who eat the juvenile have also been isolated from the rest of the island’s raptor-population and are therefore more prone to erratic behaviour. Regardless, while it is not outright stated, there does seem to be an insinuation that the park’s geneticists, or at least Dr. Wu, have misclassified the animals. The only concrete reason he cites as to why the raptor is classified as V. mongoliensis is that the amber from which it was cloned came from China (p. 127). This is particularly odd, as V. mongoliensis has so far only been found in Mongolia (Velociraptor osmolskae was found in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China, but it has only been discovered in 2008, long after the book was written). A bit earlier Wu talks about how the park’s geneticists do not exactly know what they are cloning from the ambers until it hatches for the first time. This he does while talking about a batch of eggs which he presumes will be “coelurusaurus”, what he thinks is a small herbivore (p. 119). Firstly, while there is a vast dinosaur group called Coelurosauria and a genus named Coelurus, there is no one dinosaur genus actually called Coelurusaurus (there is Coelurusauravus, but that is a small gliding reptile from the Permian). Secondly, if he indeed meant Coelurus or a basal coelurosaur, that would have been a small carnivorous animal similar to Ornitholestes, not a herbivore. Interestingly the name Coelurusaurus is not written in italics, unlike all the other dinosaur names in the novel, so Crichton was perhaps aware of this and was trying to drop a hint at the reader that Wu was mainly a geneticist and not a paleontologist and therefore not very knowledgeable when it came to dinosaur classification. The character even outright states that he is overwhelmed with keeping track of dinosaur names (p. 119). It is therefore still possible that the raptors really are Deinonychus, but are misclassified out-of-universe by Crichton and in-universe by Wu.
Another possible point against the novel-raptors being Deinonychus (or Velociraptor for that matter) could be their size. Though the narration makes them seem about man-sized, as far as I could find their exact size is never mentioned. The head of one of the raptors is however described as being two feet long (p. 130), meaning 60.96 centimeters in non-barbaric units of measurement. At maximum, the skull-length of Deinonychus, the largest known dromaeosaur at the time of the novel, was 41 centimeters, with most specimens only having a length of about 31. Assuming that proportions on the rest of the body are similarly scaled up, the novel-raptors might therefore be nearly twice as large as an average Deinonychus (or were very funny-looking bobble-heads). It is possible that the in-universe explanation for this might have been genetic meddling, growth hormones or simply the benefits of living in captivity in the park. The out-of-universe explanation is, like the name-change, probably dramatic effect. However, if we consider that Crichton read Greg Paul’s Predatory Dinosaurs of the World thoroughly, he would have probably come across this passage:

“Teeth and some slender second-toe bones indicate that a new, small species of Velociraptor was present in the very latest Cretaceous of Western North America. Even more interesting is a tooth of the same age that Malcolm McKenna has at the AMNH: It indicates that a species as big or bigger than V. antirrhopus was alive then, although it seems much less common than the smaller form. Also at the AMNH is a hyper-extendable toe bone from the Late Cretaceous of Mongolia that looks like a Velociraptor far bigger than V. antirrhopus.” (Paul 1988, p. 366).

I unfortunately have never been able to find out much more about the specimens mentioned here by Paul. It seems possible that the large North American raptor tooth might be referring to the very first (and at the time still undescribed/unrecognized) remains of Utahraptor that Jim Jensen found in 1975, though these finds were largely left unnoticed at the time and were stored at the Brigham Young University, not the AMNH (American Museum of Natural History). Utahraptor also lived in the Early, not Late Cretaceous. The large claw, as believed by the blog Dinosaurs on the Silver Screen, could be AMNH 6572, a dromaeosaurid claw collected in 1933 by Edwin H. Colbert in the Iren Dabasu Formation that still remains unclassified. It could not have been Achillobator (a 4.5 to 5 meter long dromaeosaurid from Mongolia that would fit the dimensions of the JP raptors quite well) as many people like to believe, as its holotype was found in 1989 (one year after Paul’s book was published) by a Russian-Mongolian expedition in the Bayan Shireh Formation, stored in the Mongolian National University and was only officially described in 1999. Regardless of what these giant raptor claws were that Paul was referring to, he classified them as Velociraptor and their account may have given Michael Crichton the inspiration and justification to make his novel’s raptors larger than life while still calling them by that name. If Crichton really was basing his raptors on this passage, the JP raptors might therefore unintentionally be neither Velociraptor mongoliensis nor Deinonychus, but a species of dromaeosaur that remains unnamed to this day.
Fig. 5: Again Greg Paul’s “Velociraptor antirrhopus”, shown attacking the ornithopod Tenontosaurus. Nowadays it is seen as unlikely that dromaeosaurs like this hunted in packs, with the newest evidence against pack-hunting even coming from a study on tooth-enamel. In general the intelligence of dromaeosaurs has been highly exaggerated in the media thanks to Jurassic Park. In reality their brain-to-body mass-ratio was about on the same level as that of modern ratites, such as emus and ostriches, not parrots or corvids. In all fairness they would have still been among the smartest animals around in their time, though looking at their competition that is not saying much.
As mentioned earlier, Dr. Wu in the novel states that the InGen-geneticists do not exactly know what they are cloning until it hatches for the first time. This very much leaves the possibility open that the company might have cloned animals that (at the time) were unknown to paleontology and were thus unintentionally misclassified (which leaves enough head-canon open for the JP raptors to be a wide number of genera, though without much confirmation). This is something that is never really brought up again in the franchise. The closest thing was a scrapped backstory for the Indominus rex in Jurassic World, which originally did not see it be a hybrid created in a lab, but instead a fictional dinosaur species from China (looking like a mix between Spinosaurus and Carcharodontosaurus, definitely better than the rip-off of the Vastatosaurus from King Kong that we got) that was cloned for the park without any knowledge of what it really was or how it would behave, leading to havoc. It is unfortunate that this sort of risk has never been addressed again, as the large unpredictability of bringing an animal back to life that has never been witnessed by a human being was a major theme in the first novel. It could also explain some of the many inaccuracies that the franchise faces. For example, the movie’s Dilophosaurus (ignorning the anatomically impossible pronated wrists for the moment) is perhaps neither a genetic abomination nor a juvenile (a popular fan-theory even endorsed by Stan Winston), but instead a small dinosaur unknown to science that genuinely possessed a neck-frill and venom glands and, based on the two headcrests, was just misclassified by incompetent InGen-scientists as a mishappen Dilophosaurus. Call it Nublarsaurus, if you will.

The case for the movies

At first it seems that, much like the novel, the raptors in the Jurassic Park movie are actually Deinonychus. First, apart from the fact that they look like how Deinonychus would have been reconstructed in the early 90s, the production team of the movie requested John Ostrom to send them all of his papers and data on Deinonychus. Second, Dr. Grant digs up a “Velociraptor” in Monatana at the beginning of the movie, not in Mongolia. The biggest smoking gun however is that a version of the script from 1991 literally calls them Deinonychus, as does Mark McCreery’s concept art for the movie on which the final designs were based on. Why exactly the name was changed again later is not clear, though it was most likely to make the movie line up more with the novel. Or perhaps it was because Gregory S. Paul literally was one of the scientific advisors on the movie. Of course, we again have the problem that the animals in the movie are a lot larger than either Deinonychus or Velociraptor (in part because in some shots they had to be played by adult men in animatronic suits). Here a common misconception people have is that the large sizes of the movie’s raptors are based on the then new discovery of Utahraptor and that therefore the JP raptors could be interpreted as actually being that genus. Utahraptor was first officially described and named on the eighteenth of June in 1993, a bit over a week after the first release of the movie. But, like mentioned before, remains of it were known since 1975 (though then largely unrecognized) and the holotype was discovered in 1991 by James Kirkland and Robert Gaston. Nonetheless, it seems that by all accounts the staff working on Jurassic Park were not aware of the discovery until after the size-change was already made. As paleontologist Robert T. Bakker recounts in Raptor Red:

“‘The claw we’ve got- it’s huge!’ I could hear Jim jumping up and down at the other end of the line, and I started jumping up and down too, because I knew something he didn’t. ‘Jim, Jim-Jim!’ I yelled. ‘You just found Spielberg’s raptor.’


‘You just found the giant raptor Spielberg made up for his movie, you know – Jurassic Park.’

Jim thought I was daft. He didn’t know about the other phone call I had gotten about giant raptors that morning. It was from one of the special-effects artists working in the Jurassic Park skunk works, the studio where the movie monsters for Spielberg’s film were being fabricated in hush hush conditions. The artists were suffering secret anxiety about what was to become the star of the movie – a raptor species of a size that had never been documented by a real fossil. No one outside the studio besides me knew about the problem with Spielberg’s giant raptor. No professional dinosaurologist was aware of the supersize raptor being manufactured for the movie. […] The artists doing Jurassic Park wanted the latest info on all the species they were reconstructing. They wanted everything to be right. They’d been calling me once a week for months, checking on the teeth of T. rex and skin of Triceratops. I’d sent them dozens of pages on dino-details. The artists were up to date in their raptor knowledge. They knew that deinonychs were the largest, and that no raptor was bulkier than the average adult male human. Just before Jim called, I’d listened to one artist complain that Spielberg had invented a raptor that didn’t exist. Apparently Spielberg wasn’t happy with the small size of ‘real’ raptors – he wanted something bigger for his movie. He wanted a raptor twice as big as Deinonychus. I’d tried to calm the artist’s misgivings. ‘You know, evolution can change size real fast. It’s not impossible that a giant raptor could evolve in a geological instant. So maybe, theoretically, Spielberg’s oversize raptor could have happened.’ The artist wasn’t impressed with my learned argument. He wanted hard facts, fossil data. ‘Yeah, a giant raptor’s possible – theoretically. But you don’t have any bones.’ But now Jim’s Utahraptor gave him the bones. The fossil beast from Utah turned out to be almost exactly the same size as the biggest raptor in the movie, an animal referred to in the script as the ‘big female’.” (Bakker 1995, p. 3-4.)

We see here that the decision for the upscaling of the raptors’ sizes was made by Spielberg before anyone in the movie’s production had heard of Utahraptor, that the largest dromaeosaur known to them was Deinonychus and that the former’s discovery at best served as a confirmation/justification for the artistic license, not as an inspiration. This is further supported by a famous quote from Stan Winston: “We built it and they discovered it. That still boggles my mind.” While the discovery of Utahraptor was a fantastic coincidence that acted almost like a publicitiy-stunt for the movie (originally the holotype species was even going to be called Utahraptor spielbergi instead of ostrommaysum), the JP raptors are very likely not meant to be Utahraptor for the stated reasons. Not to mention the fact that we now know that Utahraptor was actually quite a bit larger than the JP raptors and a lot more robustly built, almost resembling a mini-‘carnosaur’.
Fig. 6: Deinonychus as it appears in the officially licensed tie-in-game Jurassic World Evolution. Compare with fig. 2. As you can see, in order to differentiate it as much as possible from the franchise’s Velociraptor (itself based on 90s reconstructions of Deinonychus), they made it look like the original Robert Bakker reconstruction from the late 60s and gave it the frills and crests of a basilisk lizard. In my opinion, the better option to make it different would have just been to give it feathers. But hey, I guess if you cannot go forward, you might as well just go even more backwards.
The idea that Jurassic Park takes place in an alternate universe where Deinonychus is classified as a species of Velociraptor and that thus the raptors we see in the movies are actually (artificially oversized) Deinonychus makes sense as long as we just look at the original movies. This has even been a common head-canon among the fanbase for a long time. 2015’s Jurassic World and its accompanying material have however thrown a wrench into that concept. In the movie we can glimpse for a moment at the selection-screen of the hologram display in the Innovation Center and see that it lists Deinonychus and Velociraptor as two different genera (with Velociraptor having its typical JP silhouette). Another image posted on the Dinosaur Protection Group website, created to promote the sequel Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, also shows a list of the animals cloned for the park and Deinonychus and Velociraptor are again listed as separate. We never see Deinonychus in the movies (in fact the DPG list implies that it has fallen back into extinction after the events of JW), but it does prominently appear in the accompanying zoo-simulation game Jurassic World Evolution. Here it looks radically different from the JP Velociraptor, not only being smaller but also resembling the original 1969 reconstruction by Robert Bakker, though bizarrely adorned with a crest and fin along the head and tail meant to make it resemble a basilisk lizard (which when you really think about it is a slap in the face of the dinosaur’s importance to paleontological history, as it was the animal that destroyed the idea of dinosaurs just being big lizards and it revived the bird-dinosaur link). From the same game we have a little titbit of information on the Velociraptor (fig. 7) which clearly states that the InGen geneticists have accidentally recreated the dinosaur much larger than its real-life counterpart. In the game you can find the dinosaur’s fossils in the Iren Dabasu and Flaming Cliffs Formation (the same by the way goes for the game’s predecessor Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis from 2001), again not the Bayan Shireh Formation where Achillobator is found. This implies that the classic JP raptors really are meant to be Velociraptor mongoliensis, the turkey-sized, feathered ground-hawk, but have been unintentionally genetically altered to the point where they do not resemble their originals anymore at all. This would actually fit with some lore pieces which state that Velociraptor was one of the first, if not the first dinosaur recreated by InGen, meaning it likely still had a lot of genetic kinks that needed to be worked out. Of course, this version of events may just pertain to the canon of the game (which does play in one or more continuities different from the main movies), though together with the information on the DPG website, the holoscape seen in the actual movie, and the fact that the developers closely worked with Universal and the production teams of the movies, this really does seem to be the explanation used behind the scenes and which we might regard as canon…
Fig. 7: You would think that after being the cause for so many deaths, the park’s geneticists would finally fix the genome and make the animal smaller. Does Joe Exotic happen to work for InGen?
…if it were not for one major problem: In the first movie Dr. Grant digs up a fossil, which looks exactly like the JP raptors and which he definitely classifies as Velociraptor, IN MONTANA. If the JP raptors are really meant to be overgrown Velociraptor mongoliensis and Deinonychus exists in this universe as its own separate genus, then this makes absolutely no sense. Perhaps Alan Grant really is just a Jack Horner/Greg Paul-type eccentric who personally classifies Deinonychus as a species of Velociraptor and goes against general consensus, but this idea quickly becomes unfeasible if we take into account that both the InGen staff and Tim Murphy independently from him also classify the raptors in the movie as Velociraptor, not Deinonychus. Assuming that, somewhen between Jurassic Park III and Jurassic WorldDeinonychus was recognized as a separate genus in the film’s universe also does not help, as the raptors we assume to be misclassified Deinonychus are still called Velociraptor by everyone in the newer movies. Retconning the classic JP raptors from being V. antirrhopus to actually being V. mongoliensis would create a continuity problem which could not simply be explained through frog-DNA. The same goes by the way for the novel. For my own brain’s wellbeing I will therefore still maintain that in the Jurassic Park universe Deinonychus is classified as Velociraptor antirrhopus and that the raptors we see in the movies are this species, albeit heavily modified through genetic engineering. Apart from a very quick and easy to miss detail in Jurassic World, any evidence that Deinonychus exists as its own genus in the JP universe comes from extended material like videogames and websites, which are regarded as soft-canon at best, and can therefore be easily dismissed if one wishes to do so.

[Update from July 2021: The marketing campaign for Jurassic World: Dominion is now in full swing. Apart from some pleasant surprises (feathered dinosaurs!) it was also announced that a pack of Deinonychus would make an appearance in the movie, probably because semi-tamed Blue is the only living Velociraptor left in the world but they realized they still needed some villainous raptor-pack to chase the protagonists. Not only are they presented as a distinct genus from Velociraptor but also differ from the game's pre-established design, looking far more generically like they are from the 90s. However, because they probably realized how many headaches this will cause for the reasons mentioned above, their name has been changed shortly after to Atrociraptor... which, yeah... it is at least friendly to the lore, but the real life Atrociraptor was only marginally larger than Velociraptor, about the size of an average dog. In other words, a movie-dino based off 90s-style reconstructions of Deinonychus is given the name of another, far smaller dromaeosaur because its name sounds cooler. Those who do not learn from their history are doomed to repeat it, I guess.]
Fig. 8: A promotional image from the Dinosaur Protection Group’s website. Deinonychus and Velociraptor are listed as separate genera, with the red marking implying that Deinonychus has fallen back into extinction. Metriacanthosaurus got the shaft too.

As a final discussion point, let us turn to the raptors which appear in Jurassic Park III. These are different from the raptors we see before and after the third movie in many details: Their coloration is different, their heads are more elongated and pointier, they have prominent crests in front of their eyes and the males possess feather-quills on top of their head. Their origin and relationship to the other raptors is never explained in the movie. Out-of-universe their design-change was simply meant to be a sort of retcon, as it had become undeniable by 2001 that dromaeosaurs had feathers (unfortunately this did not translate into the following sequels due to the movie’s unpopularity). The closest thing to an official explanation we got was an interview from John Rosengrant, in which he said that these are the same raptor species as the one we see in the previous films, but they have somehow evolved further in the isolation of Isla Sorna. This, however, seems very unlikely, as evolution does not work like that in a span of just four years. Given how this movie establishes that InGen has created dinosaur species which were not officially listed in their documents, such as Spinosaurus, and that it plays in the previously unseen Northern part of Isla Sorna, it becomes tempting to speculate that these raptors might be a different species than the ones we see in the other movies. Could this be Jurassic Park’s version of Utahraptor or Achillobator? While that would be a cool explanation, there are a couple of things going against it. Firstly, in the in-universe InGen leaks on the DPG website, no new dromaeosaur species is listed among the dinosaurs which Dr. Henry Wu illegally created on Isla Sorna between the second and fourth movie. It is just Spinosaurus, Ceratosaurus, Corythosaurus and Ankylosaurus. The best thing we have is this internal memo by Wu, which can be found on the Masrani backdoor website (again created to promote Jurassic World):




DATE: 02/20/2003 1410 CST



This is ambiguous enough to interpret that the raptors we see in Jurassic Park III are a failed experiment by Wu to faithfully recreate dinosaurs with feathers, explaining the sparse quills on their heads, but the wording strongly implies that his efforts to make feathered dinosaurs and his gene-splicing tests on Sorna are two different things. That makes it far more likely that what is meant with the “accident” on Sorna is in fact the Spinosaurus, which due to its numerous inaccuracies and ridiculous capabilities is now often regarded as an early experiment by Wu into dinosaur-hybridisation. While it is still possible that the quilled raptors were created by Wu during his illegal cloning adventures on Isla Sorna, there is no in-universe documentation of this. They could just as well have been made by InGen back in the early 90s when Jurassic Park and the facilities on Sorna were still operational. In either case, it seems the most likely that they were genetically altered/improved versions of the previous raptors, not a new species. If they were created when Jurassic Park was still operational it is possible that they were even meant to eventually replace the 93’ variant before Sorna was abandoned, as they not only seem a lot more intelligent, but are also at least somewhat cooperative and less hostile to humans, as we can see by the ending of JPIII. The idea to genetically alter the dinosaurs to be more docile and continually replace them with “updated” versions is something mentioned in the franchise as early as the first novel. The semblance of feather-like structures on their bodies could also imply that their DNA is somewhat more authentic to the real animal than in the previous variants. The idea that they are essentially the same species as the other raptors is also supported by the ending, in which Grant manages to communicate with the raptors by using a 3D-printed resonance-chamber, which he scanned from a “Velociraptor” he dug up again in North America. The quilled raptors are therefore most likely also meant to be Deinonychus/Velociraptor antirrhopus, just a genetically more (or less) altered variant than the other ones we see.
Fig. 9: May the real Deinonychus please stand up?
Long story short, while the real-life Velociraptor mongoliensis is a fascinating and cool animal in its own right (as is really any dinosaur to be honest), because of Jurassic Park it has been stealing the limelight from Deinonychus for nearly three decades now. This was not helped much by speculations that these movie raptors are actually Utahraptor or Achillobator, the confused mess of a lore that has been created by spin-off material and the movies’ own disabilities to properly explain what their raptors actually are. I somehow suspect that we will never get a real confirmation that the raptors are actually Velociraptor antirrhopus/Deinonychus in the movie canon, as most modern audiences, especially younger ones, will have no idea about the weird history of 1980s paleontology that led to this bizarre chimaera of a film-creature, so it is best left vague as to not open up too many questions. As we have seen, there have even been mild attempts at retconning their original identity, though these would create even bigger problems to explain. Without any real confirmation probably ever coming out, I just want to stress here at the end that this post is just my personal (though hopefully well-argued) theory and you are free to speculate about the identity of the JP raptors all you want. And hey, lately there have been rumours that the upcoming third film of the new trilogy, Jurassic World: Dominion, will feature not only new but also a lot more scientifically accurate dinosaurs, likely produced by rival genetics companies. Perhaps this will be the time to shine for Utahraptor and Achillobator, hopefully with feathers that will make them look like giant, toothed harpy eagles. 

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Related Posts:
Literary Sources:
  • Bakker, Robert: Raptor Red, New York 1995.
  • Crichton, Michael: Jurassic Park, New York 1990 (2015 reprint).
  • Paul, Gregory Scott: Predatory Dinosaurs of the World. A Complete Illustrated Guide, New York 1988.
  • Schalansky, Judith: Die Verlorenen Welten des Zdeněk Burian, Berlin 2013 (Naturkunden 8).
Online Sources/Further Reading:
Image Sources:
  • Fig. 1: Schalansky 2013, p. 53.
  • Fig. 2: Ostrom 1969.
  • Fig. 3: Paul 1988, cover.
  • Fig. 4: Paul 1988, p. 172.
  • Fig. 5: Paul 1988, p. 367.
  • Fig. 6-7, 9: Jurassic World Evolution, developed by Frontier, copyright Universal. Images taken by me using the Playstation 4's capture mode.
  • Fig. 8: The DPG website


  1. This is an absolutely superb piece of work! I agree that it has to be Deinonychus as per Ostrom's evidence, either implied 'V. antirrhopus' or (specified, albeit unreliably, per Wu) 'V. mongoliensis'. My only gripe is that contrary to "the narration makes them seem about man-sized, as far as I could find their exact size is never mentioned", the novel does provide a fair bit of info on this; "although relatively small, about 200 pounds" (p. 62); "the velociraptor was six feet tall" (p. 369 of the 2012 edition) "the velociraptor was man-size" (p. 371). Correct me if I'm wrong, but this actually supports the ID of Deinonychus, doesn't it? Perhaps a bit larger than we currently have evidence for (but not, as you note, big enough to be one of the other 'raptors' that Crichton didn't even know about).

    1. I think the jurassic park raptor is actually genetically engineered to be larger. I think that is the most accepted theory. just like how a pokemon called mewtwo was made by genetically engineering an animal calld mew

    2. that is the most possible theory

  2. the pyroraptors and atrociraptors from jurassic world dominion were also engineered to be larger