Velociraptors' Killer Claws Helped Them Eat Prey Alive

Friday, December 16, 2011

The giant killer claws of dinosaurs such as Velociraptor might have been employed much as birds of prey use similar talons — as hooks to keep victims from escaping, researchers say.

The discovery could also shed light on the origin of flight in birds, investigators added.

dinosaur fossils

The raptor dinosaurs, made famous by the book and film "Jurassic Park" all possessed unusually large, curved talons on the second toes of each foot, which they held off the ground like folded switchblades. Known more formally as dromaeosaurids, they included the famous Velociraptor and its larger relative Deinonychus, and were closely related to birds.

Past studies had proposed that the sickle claws of these raptors were used to slash at prey or to help climb onto victims. Now research into modern-day birds of prey suggests a new possible killing technique — as hooks to lock onto targets.

The second toe

Scientists noted that modern hawks and eagles possess similar enlarged claws on their second toes — the "digit twos" or "D-2s." These claws "are used as anchors, latching into the prey, preventing their escape," said researcher Denver Fowler, a paleobiologist at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont. "We interpret the sickle claw of dromaeosaurids as having evolved to do the same thing — latching in and holding on." [In Photos: Birds of Prey]

"This strategy is only really needed for prey that are about the same size as the predator — large enough that they might struggle and escape from the feet," Fowler said. "Smaller prey are just squeezed to death, but with large prey all the predator can do is hold on and stop it from escaping, then basically just eat it alive."

"Dromaeosaurs lack any obvious adaptations for dispatching their victims, so just like hawks and eagles, they probably ate their prey alive too," Fowler said.

Other features of the feet of these dinosaurs suggest they followed what Fowler and his colleagues call "Raptor Prey Restraint" — RPR, or "ripper." For instance, the toe proportions of raptors seem more suited for grasping than running, and the metatarsus — which includes the bones between the ankles and the toes — is more adapted for strength than speed.

"Unlike humans, most dinosaurs and birds only walk on their toes, so the metatarsus forms part of the leg itself," Fowler said. "A long metatarsus lets you take bigger strides to run faster, but in dromaeosaurids, the metatarsus is very short."

All in all, Velociraptor and its kin do not seem adapted to simply running after prey.

"When we look at modern birds of prey, a relatively short metatarsus is one feature that gives the bird additional strength in its feet," Fowler said. "Velociraptor and Deinonychus also have a very short, stout metatarsus, suggesting that they had great strength but wouldn't have been very fast runners."

Such behavior intriguingly contrasts with that of their closest known relatives, a very similar group of small carnivorous dinosaurs called troodontids.

"Troodontids and dromaeosaurids started out looking very similar, but over about 60 million years, they evolved in opposite directions, adapting to different niches," said Fowler. "Dromaeosaurids evolved towards stronger, slower feet, suggesting a stealthy ambush predatory strategy, adapted for relatively large prey. By contrast, troodontids evolved a longer metatarsus for speed and a more precise, but weaker grip, suggesting they were swift but probably took relatively smaller prey."

For more information related to dinosaurs, visit


Post a Comment