Updated: Aug 27, 2022
Were raptors really the blood-thirsty dinosaurs Jurassic Park made famous?
Nobody can deny just how popular raptors are and it's clear to see why – raptors are frickin' cool! Hell, there's even cars named after them.
But...what actually is a raptor? What is the proper definition of the word? Well, the definition may actually surprise you, as it encompasses many more animals than you might think. The term 'raptor' is Latin for 'thief' and is actually a formal term originally used for referring to a bird of prey. In fact, the official definition of the word remains that to this day, so magnificent birds like eagle, hawks, owls and many more are all raptors!
Jurassic Park Velociraptors vs reality
But we all know what group people are normally referring to when they say 'raptor'. They're thinking of the scary, snarling, sharp-clawed killing machines we all loved in the Jurassic Park and more recently, the Jurassic World franchises, along with their relatives. Here's where we hear another definition of the word, this time much more informal. The reason that Velociraptor and all of its immediate relatives is all thanks to the Jurassic Park movies, so since then a dinosaur with 'raptor' in its name is normally reserved for that specific group.
BUT, the informal term used before raptor became so synonymous with Velociraptor that it was actually used to refer to any predatory dinosaur (both avian and non-avian). Yes, even T.rex was referred to as a raptor (though not very often). In fact, there are quite a few dinosaurs with 'raptor' in their name who have about as much relation to Velociraptor as T.rex does. Just take Megaraptor as an awesomely named example:
Ok, sure it was named when a giant hand claw was mistaken for a foot claw (hence paleontologists at the time thought it was a close relative of Velociraptor), but still.
Another example would be Oviraptor which was...uh...less scary:
So raptor refers to A LOT.
"Come on Ryan, you know what we mean," I hear you say, "what about the fearsome yet trainable Velociraptors from Jurassic World?"
And to that I say: "What Velociraptors? I didn't see any," before being met with either confusion or boredom that I'm dragging out this conversation so much.
Well, let's start by looking at what everyone normally thinks of when they hear 'raptors'. The group that contains Velociraptor and all other small-to-medium-sized carnivorous dinosaurs with sickle-shaped killing toe claws are called Dromaeosaurs. This group is what we all think of when referring to a raptor. Dromaeosaurs were all fairly small (for dinosaurs at least), but extraordinarily quick and deadly hunters, putting those sickle claws to good use and giving some inspiration to modern raptors with their talons. There are many members of this group, varying in size and appearance.
So why did no one actually see any Velociraptors in Jurassic Park or Jurassic World? Because THIS is a Velociraptor:
Don't worry little fella, I still think you're cool...
Why are real raptors so underwhelming?
Well, when Michael Crichton first wrote Jurassic Park, he wanted fast and quick dinosaurs that might have hunted in packs but was still big enough to take down humans. Deinonychus antirrhopus fit the bill, but he decided the name wasn't scary enough, settling on Velociraptor hoping it would be more iconic...and it was!
But even Deinonychus didn't look quite like what we saw in Jurassic Park/World. The raptors we saw there were slightly bigger and...well...bald. We have evidence that all Dromaeosaurs were covered nearly head to toe in feathers, looking more like big ground hawks rather than two-legged komodo dragons.
Don't let the fluff fool you, though. These animals were as much dangerous killing machines as the velociraptors in Jurassic Park or Jurassic World. If you're also somewhat disappointed by the size, I've got you covered there, too. There were actually some Dromaeosaurs much bigger than the raptors in the films, with Utahraptor ostrommaysi being the heaviest at around 1,500 pounds.
Some Dromaeosaurs even had much cooler names, like Pyroraptor! There was even a fairly recently discovered dromaeosaur that would have shared its habitat with the infamous T.rex, who looks pretty hefty and is named Dakotaraptor:
So, are raptors exactly what people think they are? Well, no... but I don't think it makes them any less cool... do you?