The Problem With Velociraptors

Image by TarValanion on Flickr
Image by TarValanion on Flickr

Now, I love the Jurassic Park films as much as the next person. Like most nerds, I think dinosaurs are super cool, and pretty exciting, kind of like dragons, only I’m much more certain that dinosaurs actually existed (I’m still crossing my fingers that dragons are real). But like most sci-fi franchises, the Jurassic Park films, and the recent Jurassic World have made a few mistakes, and one of those is the velociraptors.

While they’re often depicted as green, scaled and fearsome meat-eaters, experts know that actually velociraptors looked more like birds: feathered and winged. We don’t know much about the wings of velociraptors, because we haven’t found them in the right conditions for soft tissue, like feathers, to be preserved. Instead, what we can see in velociraptor fossils are rows of bumps which strongly resemble the anchoring points for the big feathers on birds that usually form wings. However, we now know a little more about how velociraptors might have looked, thanks to the recent discovery of one of their close relatives, which has been named Zhenyuanlong suni, meaning “Zhenyuan Sun’s dragon” after the man who secured the fossilised specimen for study. This new dinosaur was found amazingly preserved in 125 million year old rocks in a lake buried by volcanic ash, providing almost perfect conditions for some soft tissue, such as feathers, to be preserved before they decay.

By Junchang Lü & Stephen L. Brusatte [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The newly discovered Zhenyuanlong fossil. Image by Junchang Lü & Stephen L. Brusatte [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
This new discovery gives us a clearer idea of how velociraptors might have looked. Zhenyuanlong suni looks very similar to a bird, and this too is how a velociraptor might have looked, since they are so closely related. Another reason this discovery is so interesting is because this tells us a little more about the evolution of scaly dinosaurs to winged birds.

However, because of its short arms and large body, experts doubt that Zhenyuanlong suni would have been capable of flight, leading to questions about the “purpose” of its wings. Of course, the current thinking about evolution is that body parts did not evolve solely for a specific purpose, “knowing” that they would be useful. Body parts would have arisen in some individuals, often by mistake, and if these parts were found useful and helped survival, then creatures with these parts could survive to reproduce and therefore these parts would become more common. This is how wings probably evolved. They occured by accident, but because they aided survival, creatures with wings didn’t die out. However, since Zhenyuanlong suni probably didn’t use its wings to fly, this raises the question of how the wings helped it to survive, with one theory suggesting that it could relate to the warmth provided by feathers.

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