Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Eye of a Raptor

This is the eye of a living raptor. But before anyone starts wondering whether some enterprising scientist has succeeded in turning a fictional Jurassic Park into reality, we need to define our terms. Raptors, as the word is understood and used in dictionary terms, are birds of prey. These can include the hawk whose eye is pictured here, as well as such birds as falcons, owls and eagles.

But since the release of the film Jurassic Park (below), the word raptor has become synonymous with a specific kind of dinosaur: middling-sized, it's true, but - at least as far as raptors are portrayed in Spielberg's films - ruthlessly predatory, alarmingly intelligent, and given to teaming up with others of their kind to hone their social hunting skills to a shocking efficiency.

And these dinosaur raptors had the armaments necessary to do this. The most obvious characteristic which such raptors had in common was the specialized second digit on their hind legs, which had evolved into a large killing claw (below). Raptors therefore used their third and fourth digits for walking and running, with the killing claw held upwards; it was simply too big to be functional for locomotion.

The word raptor comes from the Latin, meaning a ravisher or plunderer, and several dinosaurs carry the term in their name - Velociraptor, Utahraptor and Bambiraptor, to name just three (see the comparative sizes of *five of them, below) - although the name of one of the most typical 'raptors' of them all - Deinonychus - does not refer to the term.

Exactly how much we currently know and understand about these raptorial dinosaurs - and the other dinosaurs and animals which shared their world - is the subject of this weblog. Did raptors really hunt in packs, as portrayed in Spielberg's films? How can we know one way or the other? Indeed, were the 'velociraptors' in Jurassic Park really velociraptors at all? I have drawn and painted many life reconstructions of dinosaurs and other Mesozoic fauna, both professionally and for my own pleasure, and will be using these and related material to illustrate this weblog. And if a little philosophy creeps in along the way, well; what could be more viscerally existential than the thought of a real raptor chomping at your heels?
*From left to right: Bambiraptor, Velociraptor, Deinonychus, Utahraptor, Megaraptor

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