July 25, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Any kid who watched Jurassic Park through their fingers will be pleased to hear those Raptors sometimes got what was coming to them!

The claw-like ‘toes’ on the Velociraptor contributed to it’s menacing demeanour, yet up until now their function was a mystery. After the discovery of a new species of Raptor in Utah, Scientists may have found their purpose, it seems they weren’t all for show.

The claw is distinctive of dromeosaurs, the group which includes Velociraptor. The new species was discovered 3 years ago in the 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, one of the last undamaged dinosaur graveyards in the US. The dinosaur was named Talos sampsoni after the winged god from Greek mythology which succumed to a wounded ankle. Weighing under 40kg (about the size of a 4yr old child), it hardly inflicts the terrorising image of the 7ft tall moviestar Raptors. But Lindsay Zanno, lead author of the study, believes they were still fearsome creatures and described little Talos as “a scrapper”.

There have been many things learnt from imperfect fossils over the years, about the lifestyle and habits of the animal, (there is a pretty cool Pleiseosaur at the Natural History Museum which is either pregnant, or ate lots of miniature versions of itself), and this new fossil is no different. It’s second toe, with the big claw, is deformed where Talos either took a fall and fractured it, or got in in a fight and had it bitten. Originally, the team put this deformation down to the differences in species, but the excitement grew as they realised it had a different story to tell.

Detailed CT scanning, like that used in hospitals, was used to see the full extent of the injury. It was deemed to have been made during a fight with another dinosaur for food, a theory which holds up against the fossils found in the 1980’s of two raptors caught in combat. The team discovered that the dinosaur had lived for months with the injury, meaning it must have been capable of catching prey/defending itself/ shaking hands with just the right foot and both talons weren’t necessary to survival.

Trackways found at other sites suggest the toe was raised when Talos walked and so the damage, which didn’t reach the rest of the foot, wouldn’t have affected it’s movement. “Our data support the idea that the talon of raptor dinosaurs was not used for purposes as mundane as walking,” Zanno commented. “It was an instrument meant for inflicting damage.”