A Blunder with a Huge Impact

An illustration of Yangchuanosaurus attacking Mamenchisaurus, illustrated by Gregory S. Paul, from his book, Predatory Dinosaurs of the World.

In my last post, I mentioned Gregory S. Paul’s book, Predatory Dinosaurs of the World.[1] Published in 1988, this book became a classic. It helped bring paleontology, especially paleontology relating to the theropod dinosaurs, to the general public. It certainly helped that it has terrific illustrations. The truth is, Gregory Paul is a paleoartist rather than a paleontologist, and a terrific one at that. A paleoartist is an artist who specializes in illustrating extinct creatures. Paul’s illustrations are beautiful and dynamic. Plus, he popularized a form of skeletal restoration where the skeleton of a dinosaur is shown in a running pose superimposed on a silhouette of the animal’s body.

A skeletal restoration of Allosaurus, typical of Gregory S. Paul. From his book, Predatory Dinosaurs of the World.

The point is, Gregory Paul was very influential, principally as a paleoartist but his books also made an impact, both on paleontologists and on the public in general. I want to talk about the latter, for there is something that Gregory Paul did in Predatory Dinosaurs of the World that has had an impact on the public’s perception of dinosaurs that has had a lasting impact to this very day. Unfortunately, this particular impact contains an error.

Let us go way, way back to begin putting things in perspective. When Sir Richard Owens coined the name “Dinosauria” in 1842, there were only a handful of dinosaurs that were known. Prominent among these were Megalosaurus and Iguanodon, the very first two dinosaurs to be named. I think we all know how the earliest reconstructions of these dinosaurs portrayed them as quadrupedal, lizard-like animals. However, look very carefully at the following archaic reconstructions of Megalosaurus and Iguanodon.

A very outdated reconstruction of Iguanodon.
A very outdated reconstruction of Megalosaurus.

Notice anything? Even though both animals are quadrupedal, they are actually portrayed with upright limbs. That is, the limbs are positioned directly under the body. Considering that all extant reptiles have sprawling limbs, that is, the limbs stick out to the sides, this is a major departure from typical reptiles. In fact, Richard Own recognized this particular trait about dinosaurs and described it as unique among reptiles.[2] He specifically noticed how the upright limbs were much more like those of mammals than they are a typical reptile.

It should be pointed out that Richard Owen’s insight that dinosaurs had upright limbs was spot on. The structure of dinosaur hips and hind limbs, especially with regard to an upright posture, is still used to identify and define dinosaurs today. Sure, Owen and his contemporaries had fragmentary fossils to work with so their reconstructions were terribly inaccurate, but that one central detail was known to be important from the beginning. In fact, their upright limbs led Owen to use dinosaurs as an argument against Darwinism. Owen noted that dinosaurs are extinct, yet they had a notable, superior structure, upright limbs, compared to modern reptiles. Yet, Darwin argued that as life evolved, new, superior creatures replaced the older, inferior types. Why then were dinosaurs extinct? Then the expected order of evolution is backwards.[3] I want to strongly caution against using Owen’s argument today: it would not hold water anymore because that idea superior life always replaces inferior life is no longer held by evolutionists. To modern day evolutionists, extinction is not a sign of inferiority: it could simply be an unfortunate turn of events. They acknowledge that dinosaurs were superior to modern reptiles, but the dinosaurs’ extinction was due to a meteor that killed them, regardless of how superior they may have been.

However, the point I want to make is that, even from the time Owen coined the name Dinosauria, it was known that dinosaurs were unique and special. Reconstructions of dinosaurs got better over time, but the essential idea that dinosaurs were large, upright reptiles remained.

However, as time wore on, dinosaurs began to get a bum rap. Apparently, the “reptilian” nature of dinosaurs began to be over-emphasized, and reptiles are slow, sluggish, inferior animals, compared to mammals, so dinosaurs, too, must have been slow, sluggish, inferior animals. I don’t know exactly when this idea became prominent, but by the 1960s, it was common to portray dinosaurs as tail dragging, awkward, swamp-bound monsters. The classification of dinosaurs also left a lot to be desired. The theropods, for instance, were put into two groups: the coelurosaurs and the carnosaurs. While these groups are still used to classify theropods today, in the 1960s, those were the only two groups. Any theropod was either small, and therefore a coelurosaur, or was large, and therefore a carnosaur. It was an overly simplistic classification, reflecting the lack of attention and curiosity afforded dinosaurs.

Then, in 1969, two papers were published by John Ostrom. These papers described a new dinosaur, Deinonychus. Today, we know Deinonychus as a “raptor” type dinosaur. Ostrom first described Deinonychus in February of 1969,[4] but he provided a much more complete description in July of 1969.[5] I want to focus on this latter paper. In it, Ostrom notes that Deinonychus does not follow the usual depiction of a dinosaur. It held its back horizontally, keeping its tail off of the ground. Its limbs suggested a fast, quick predator, rather than a sluggish predator. Finally, it did not easily fit as either a coelurosaur or a carnosaur, challenging the classic classification of theropods.[6] The description of Deinonychus made it clear that something was wrong with the modern classification and portrayal of dinosaurs, and paleontologists began to take notice.

A reconstruction of Deinonychus by Robert Bakker. This illustration appeared in Ostrom’s second paper on Deinonychus, and it portrayed the animal as quick and lively, a notable departure from most dinosaur reconstructions at the time.

Ostrom’s description of Deinonychus kicked off what has been called the Dinosaur Renaissance. Over the next decade, paleontologists began to re-evaluate dinosaurs, and dinosaur reconstructions began changing accordingly. No longer were dinosaurs thought of as sluggish and swamp-bound. They were now intelligent and quick. No longer did they drag their tails. They carried their tails aloft. Basically, the Dinosaur Renaissance began creating the dinosaurs that we know today. As you may have guessed, Gregory Paul’s book Predatory Dinosaurs of the World portrays dinosaurs in light of the Dinosaur Renaissance.

Even though the dinosaur Renaissance was in full swing in the 1980’s, the public didn’t get a good glimpse of this new view of dinosaurs for several more years. For example, the movie Planet of Dinosaurs came out in 1977. Below is an image of the Tyrannosaurus from that movie. Notice anything? It still had a sloping back, and while its tail may not be dragging on the ground in this image, the Stegosaurus’s tail is. In other words, the dinosaurs in Planet of Dinosaurs were still in pre-Renaissance form, despite the fact that Deinonychus began changing the landscape of dinosaur paleontology nine years prior.

Tyrannosaurus and Stegosaurus from Planet of Dinosaurs. Old school reconstructions, despite the fact that the Dinosaurs Renaissance was well underway.

It wasn’t until 1990 that the public began to see dinosaurs in their new Renaissance form. Even then, it wasn’t until 1993 that the Renaissance dinosaurs made a lasting impact on the public. I am referring to the publication of the novel (1990) and the release of the movie (1993) Jurassic Park.

While the Jurassic movie series gets a lot of flack today for having inaccurate dinosaurs, I must stress that the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park were a huge leap forward for their time. I would go so far as to say that in the 1993 movie, the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park were very accurate. They have become outdated over the last 29 years since the first movie came out, but back then, it was a huge leap forward. Part of the accuracy of these dinosaurs can be attributed to Michael Crichton, the author of the novel. Crichton did his homework, reading the latest information about dinosaurs and contacting paleontologists. When the movie was made, a notable paleontologist, Jack Horner, was hired as a consultant. The end result: the Renaissance dinosaurs were finally brought into full view of the public.

Of course, there is another thing Jurassic Park is famous for, and that is Velociraptor. Sure, Tyrannosaurus may have still been a prominent figure in the novel and movie, but most people came out of theaters wowed by this new, frightening dinosaur, Velociraptor. The truth is, Velociraptor was not new at all: it was described all the way back in 1924. Ostrom had recognized his Deinonychus as a relative of Velociraptor,[7] but until its new relative was described, Velociraptor was basically overlooked as just another coelurosaur. Jurassic Park simply gave Velociraptor its chance in the limelight.

The Velociraptors at they appear in the most suspenseful scene of Jurassic park. Scenes like this made audiences remember Velociraptor.

Except….

The Velociraptors in Jurassic Park aren’t Velociraptors at all. They are Deinonychus.

For one thing, Velociraptor from the novel and movie are too large. The real Velociraptor is actually pretty small. With a total length of around 6 feet, most of which is tail, the body of Velociraptor would have been a lot closer to a turkey than to a human. Moreover, in the novel, Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler dug up fossils in Snakewater, Montana. One of the fossils that they find there is a juvenile Velociraptor.[8] In the movie, the first scene with Grant and Sattler shows them digging up a Velociraptor skeleton near Snakewater, Montana. While the city of Snakewater is fictitious, the state of Montana is very real, and Velociraptor is not found in Montana. It isn’t found anywhere in North America. It is only found in Mongolia and China. Do you know what dinosaur is found in Montana and is larger than a Velociraptor? Deinonychus. Sure, it may not have been quite as big as the Velociraptor in the novel and movie, but Deinonychus is a much closer fit with the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.

A scene from Jurassic Park where Grant and Sattler dig up a Velociraptor in Montana.

Apparently, one of the sources that influenced Crichton and his novel was Predator Dinosaurs of the World. Now we finally get to the big blunder. When Gregory Paul wrote his book, he reclassified most of the theropod dinosaurs. He basically lumped many dinosaurs together into a few genera. For example, in his book, he reclassified Daspletosaurus and Tarbosaurus both as Tyrannosaurus. Thus, what used to be Daspletosaurus torosus and Tarbosaurus bataar became Tyrannosaurus torosus and Tyrannosaurus bataar, respectively.[9] He did a similar thing with most of the theropods in his book.

The problem with such reclassification is that Predatory Dinosaurs of the World is not an academic publication. It was not peer reviewed, so paleontologists did not have a chance to scrutinize Paul’s ideas. He was able to publish his book with no scientific support. Thus, Paul’s reclassification bore no weight in paleontological circles.

However, Paul’s book did influence Crichton, as already noted. In Paul’s book, he reclassified Dienonychus as a species of Velociraptor.[10] Then, when Crichton began writing his novel, he used the name Velociraptor for the animal that was really Deinonychus. Ever since, the name “Velociraptor” has stuck. It is ironic that the same animal kicked off both the Dinosaur Renaissance and the public’s perception of the Dinosaur Renaissance. Unfortunately, it was mislabeled in the latter, so rather than the name “Deinonychus” being on everyone’s lips, we instead talk about Velociraptor and its shortened version, “raptor.”

Gregory Paul has had a positive influence on paleontology and the public. He deserves a lot of credit for bringing a vision of dinosaurs to the public and gracing many a book or paper about dinosaurs with his illustrations. However, one of his most enduring influences may actually be an unadvised reclassification.

Thoughts from Steven


[1]Paul, Gregory S. (1988) Predatory Dinosaurs of the World Touchstone, New York, New York

[2]McGowen, Christopher (2001) The Dragon Seekers: How an Extraordinary Circle of Fossilists Discoverd the Dinosaurs and Paved the Way for Darwin, Perseus Publishing, Cambridge, Massachusetts, pg. 176-177

[3]Ibid. pg. 180

[4]Ostrom, John (1969) “A New Theropod Dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Montana” Postilla 128:1-17

[5]Ostro, John (1969) “Osteology of Deinonychus antirrhopus, an Unusual Theropod from the Lower Cretaceous of Montana” Peabody Museum of Natural History Museum Bulletin 30:1-165

[6]Ibid.

[7]Ostrom, John (1969) “A New Theropod Dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Montana” Postilla 128:1-17

[8]Crichton, Michael (1990) Jurassic Park, Alfred K. Knopf, New York, New York, pg. 38-44

[9]Paul, Gregory S. (1988) Predatory Dinosaurs of the World Touchstone, New York, New York pg. 337-346

[10]Ibid. pg. 362-370

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