Great Moments in Pedantry: How "Jurassic Park" got Velociraptors wrong


The dinosaur called "Velociraptor" in the 1993 Jurassic Park movie was not actually a Velociraptor at all. They are much smaller, probably half the height of what you see in the film. If anything, that's a Deinonychus terrorizing everybody.

Depending on your particular sphere of geekery, this is either shocking news, or something you heard years ago and are sick of people complaining about. I'm closer to the latter, and I'd always assumed that the error was a simple case of Hollywood wanting a more impressive-looking monster. Not so, according to a 2008 article by dino-blogger extraordinaire Brian Switek. I saw this piece in a discussion on Twitter this morning, and was genuinely surprised to learn that the great Velociraptor/Deinonychus switcheroo had its origins in taxonomic confusion—similar, in some ways, to the debate currently going on with Triceratops and Torosaurus.

Discovered and described by Yale paleontologist John Ostrom in the 1960s, Deinonychus had a large sickle-claw on each foot, long arms with grasping hands, and a stiffened tail that would have helped the animal keep its balance as it ran after prey. The genus changed how people thought about dinosaurs, suggesting that they were much more active and dynamic than had been supposed previously.

This new view of dinosaurs, in part, inspired the 1988 book Predatory Dinosaurs of the World by paleo-artist Gregory S. Paul. Not only was the volume chock-full of illustrations of feathered dinosaurs, but it also attempted to revise some dinosaur taxonomy. Paul noted the similarities between the skeletons of the Velociraptor from Mongolia and the Deinonychus skeletons from North America. They were so similar, in fact, that he decided to group the Deinonychus fossils under the name Velociraptor, as the older name took precedence according to the rules by which organisms are named.

Paleontologists did not agree with this change--Velociraptor was kept distinct from Deinonychus--but Paul's book was a hit with the general public. And one of the people who read the book was author Michael Crichton.

Finally, given that this is a Great Moments in Pedantry post, it would be remiss for me not to point out that, whether you're talking about Velociraptor or Deinonychus, a proper illustration should probably include feathers.

Smithsonian Dinosaur Tracking blog: You say "Velociraptor", I say "Deinonychus"

Pictured: A mistake.


  1. Also, “Velociraptor” sounds completely badass. Even if the real velociraptor had been some kind of proto-chicken, I could still see using it as the name for your vicious human-killing death lizard.

    1. Yes, but Deinonychus sounded more completely badass at the time. Velociraptor has only won out because we associate it with the events in the books and movie.

      1. That may be true, but I think words come with connotations based purely on their sounds.
        “Velociraptor” has it’s root in birds of prey, and speed. It’s a kick-ass name. Deinonychus (if there are root words in that, they’re not apparent to me) reminds me of Dionysus, which is hardly an intimidating mental image (dinosaur frolicking about and getting drunk).

        1. The root of Deinonychus is “Deino” (pronounced “dino”), that is, terrible, wonderous — the connotation should be with dinosaurs (obviously) and the bacterium Deinococcus radiodurans, which can live in nuclear reactors! It doesn’t *get* any more kickass than that!

      2. For instance, before Jurassic Park, Deinonychus were the dinosaurs when you would always pick for things like this (posted courtesy of Marcello, and of course by Bill Watterson).

    1. That struck me as pretty reasonable. We have no reason to think dinosaurs could do stuff like that, and in this case you might be able to make an argument they didn’t. But Crichton put it in as an example of the surprises we’d undoubtedly find if we did resurrect dinosaurs. I have a lot of respect for the reconstructions palaeontologists make, but nature is full of strange things that wouldn’t be easy to recognize from bones.

  2. I thought Crichton wrote the V-raptors as small and that they were only biggie-sized for the films.

  3. This is from the jurassic park imdb, under the trivia section:

    “Steven Spielberg wanted the velociraptors to be about 10 feet tall, which was taller than they were known to be. During filming, paleontologists uncovered 10-foot-tall specimens of raptors called Utahraptors.”

    I dont know what to believe, but I want to believe.

  4. The movie’s raptors were based on Utahraptor, a much bigger raptor. At least that’s what I read back in the day.

    1. Utahraptor was actually discovered after the book and movie. It was more a “oh, here’s what they should have been” connection.

  5. There’s a scene where Dr. Ellie Sattler (played by Laura Dern) tends to an ailing Triceratops(?). She _looks_ at the boo boo on the dinosaur’s tongue and confidently announces that it must have been something the dinosaur ate and wanders off to go look at the grasses.

    My GF at the time, a research veterinarian, leaned over and whispered in my ear: “She’s a paleo-BOTANIST! Even when you’re looking at modern-day species you’re familiar with, you can’t tell what’s causing a cyst without a biopsy.”

    After seeing Jurassic Park, it took a week to get the bad taste out of my mouth. I had to go see Brazil and then Koyaanisqatsi.

    Every once in a while, I still get flashbacks, man.

  6. And of course, we must remember from the movie that most of the dinosaurs were being spliced with frog DNA, which as everyone knows will double their size and make their feathers fall out. I mean, that’s just science.

    1. Ha!

      Thank FSM that Velociraptors were, at least, a bit bigger than that.

      I can still be scared of vicious predators the size of a collie. Especially if they travel in packs.

  7. In the book ‘remarkable creatures’ ostrom is quoted as having spoken to crichton, and crichton simply saying that deinonychus was the right creature but the name velociraptor was simply far cooler….

  8. Anytime anyone mentions feathers on dinosaurs, I always think of the characters in Jurassic Park being chased around by giant chickens. The image always cracks me up, and I think it would make a great Bill Cosby story.

    I grew up in the mid-70s, and my dinosaurs were cold-blooded and covered with leathery skin. Someone once told me scientists decided Brontosauraus didn’t actually exist, the bones were a different dinosaur, and I was very upset. Still can’t find a scientific article that says so. I would appreciate a link if anyone has one.

    1. I’m with you G144. Deinonychus was one of my favorites as a kid because it was so freaking badass. Finding out that it probably looked like a toothy, flamboyant turkey really disappoints my inner 8 year old.

      1. Can someone explain this reconstruction? Sure, it had feathers, but why would it have giant plumes in the way of its claws when it couldn’t fly?

        1. Dromaeosaurids in general are known to have had wing feathers on all four limbs, as observed in actual fossils of older, smaller examples. Raptors et al. are the most birdy of all non-bird dinosaurs. Too bad we didn’t know that when they made the movies.

          Also, BTW, in the book it wasn’t just frog DNA, it was everything-into-the-soup-pot, scramble any DNA you could find and see if the tissue works. The resulting Frankenstein monsters had numerous strange diseases and were assumed to bear only a family resemblance to the original creatures. Ending up the wrong size and bald would be par for the course.

          1. But wouldn’t you expect the wing feathers to be reduced if the limbs stop acting as wings? In this reconstruction, it’s hard to imagine the claws tearing at something without the plumes getting in the way. Is there any direct reason to think they were so large in these types?

  9. Here you go. “Brontosaurus” was officially recognized as the same species as the previously described “Apatosaurus” back in 1903, but somehow the second name stuck around anyway.

    1. The reason people talked about “Brontosaurus” for a long time was that scientists thought it was a different genus than Apatosaurus (and reconstructed Brontosaurus with a very different-looking skull, although that wasn’t the original reason they thought the genus was different), see the history here.

      1. Yes, but that was only for a 24-year period from 1879 to 1903. What Is interesting is that we’ve clung to the obsolete name so tightly over the ensuing 107 years since the mistake was corrected.

        1. I think having Brontosaurus featured on the cartoon The Flintstones (bronto burger) really cemented its place in culture, just like the ‘raptor and Jurassic Park.

        2. Well, this page gives an account of why the Brontosaurus name stuck around:

          So why does the world still talk about “Brontosaurus” all the time? The paper in which Riggs established the synonymy was published in the Geological Series of the Field Columbian Museum – a relatively obscure journal, so the findings were not as widely known as they should have been. Also, the sexier invalid name received a lot of public exposure from non-scientific sources: for example, the Sinclair oil company used a “Brontosaurus” as its logo for many years. (Rather inappropriately, as it turns out, since oil is formed from plant matter, not animals. Never mind.)

          They also note that there are some paleontologists who feel Brontosaurus should be a separate genus:

          I said that Riggs established that Apatosaurus and “Brontosaurus” were from the same genus. But the two Marsh specimens are still considered to represent separate species: the older specimen is Apatosaurus ajax and the newer Apatosaurus (nee “Brontosaurus”) excelsus. However, since it’s always a judgement call whether any species belong in the same genus (see “When is a new dinosaur erected as a new species or genus?” ), there are palaeontologists – notably Robert Bakker – who feel that the two species are sufficiently distinct that excelsus merits a separate genus. Under this scheme, the old genus name is still perfectly good, so Bakker still uses the formal name Brontosaurus excelsus (but never Brontosaurus ajax.)

  10. Feathers or no, ol’ scythe-toe has always been one of my faves. . .

    In fact, I remember I wanted to be a Deinonychus when I grew up: running across the savanna and jumping on the unwary.

    Alas, it was not to be.

  11. The Canadian children’s show “Dino Dan” shows ‘raptors as turkey-sized and partially covered in feathers. Good on them.

  12. I think at this point, the classic dinosaurs we know and love (brontosaurus, velociraptor, triceratops, t-rex, etc.) are cultural icons in the same sense of Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, etc. Perhaps we should put them in the category of mythical beast instead, like unicorns and dragons.

    The characteristics and appearance we give them in our minds are a product of almost as much fiction of our famous monsters, and we like it that way. There’s really little point in trying to change anyone’s mind now – all the actual species are getting different names and different characteristics than what we thought, so we should stick with what we know as e.g. velociraptors in our minds and let the reality (Utahraptors, Deinonychus, whatever) evolve separately.

    Dinosaurs as we thought we knew them can continue to be used as monsters in fiction. Paleontologists can continue to evolve our understanding of what they were really like separately. Perhaps another film like Jurassic Park will come along using the more realistic versions of the animals, and it will be fresh and new (the UK TV show Primeval was pretty good and was along those lines).

    I’m a geologist, but not a paleontologist. Still, I’ve had more education and experience with dinosaurs than most. I’m all for getting things right so that the public understands things better (e.g. *not* the movie 2012), but in this case the movie monster version of dinosaurs is so ingrained (and awesome) that as I said, there’s really little point.

  13. The characteristics and appearance we give them in our minds are a product of almost as much fiction of our famous monsters, and we like it that way.

    Not all of us. I’d rather have to revise my ideas from time to time than cling to ones that are wrong. Jurassic Park was neat because they went with palaeontology instead of the classic movie dinosaurs; what a shame it would be to cling to the versions they used now.

  14. Also: “THE movie Jurassic Park propelled velociraptor to fame, but in real life the dinosaur was an altogether different kind of killer. Far from using its sickle claws to slash and disembowel, the velociraptor was a diminutive beast that used its claws to cling onto prey animals while working over them with its teeth.

    Phil Manning at the University of Manchester, UK, and colleagues built a robotic claw based on fossils of velociraptor and deinonychus, a 3-metre-long, 80-kilogram relative, to test its slashing power. They used hydraulics to drive it into a side of pork at different velocities, mimicking a kick, but rather than slashing, the claw only punctured the flesh.

    Manning now thinks that velociraptor gripped its herbivorous prey much like a lion grips a buffalo (Biology Letters, DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2005.0395). “Velociraptor wouldn’t be shaken off by the powerful movements of larger prey animals, because the toe claws provided such a …” I feel so disillusioned!

  15. Michael Crichton put out a sci fi book with poorly researched science? Absurd. Next you are going to tell me his State of Fear was based on bad science, too.

  16. That’s right: blame the movie. If you can’t blame the movie, blame the book it’s derived from. But whatever you do, don’t blame the dead author of the book that was made into the movie.

  17. About the time JP came out, Utahraptor was discovered, the largest known member of the theropod dinosaurs. The Utahraptor was just about the size of the JP Velociraptors. I can grant a movie artistic license without losing my mind. We haven’t even discovered all contemporary living species we probably won’t discover all long extinct species.

    1. The Utahraptors were NOT the size of the raptors in the movie. In the movie, the raptors are about 4 feet tall. Utahraptors are about twice that.

    2. Sorry, but Utahraptor is *not* the largest theropod. Tyrannosaurus, Giganotosaurus, and Spinosaurus were all larger.

      Utahraptor *is* the largest of the Dromaeosauridae, a family under the theropod suborder consisting of bird-like dinos.

      1. Or maybe even birds! As mentioned above, there’s a lot to show they had flying ancestors, which is often where the line is drawn now that so many theropods have feathers.

  18. Umm how can you say they got velociraptors wrong? Maybe it was a cloning mistake? I mean all the dinosaurs in that movie were cloned with amphibian DNA to fill in the blanks.

  19. I was a big dinosaur geek as a kid, and I remember seeing Jurassic Park as an excited 23-year-old, and thinking “Velociraptors? Aren’t those Deinonychi?”

    Actually, I probably didn’t use the plural-with-an-i in my mind, since to this day I don’t really know how to even pronounce Deinonychus. But I did wonder why the movie didn’t use that name. And until this very moment, I never breathed a word of this to anyone.

    So now I feel kinda validated!

  20. The real problem with the movie wasn’t that the velociraptors were actually deinonychi, but that they were routinely (a lot) more intelligent than the humans.

    A longer term issue with calling them velociraptors is that the word “raptor” suddenly stopped describing a bird of prey, and, more egregiously, Toronto’s NBA franchise got called the Raptors*. However, they’d still suck if they’d been called the Deinonychi, but at least I’d be able to give them some respect.

    * – my choice was Toronto Swine, but apparently I was a chorus of one on that point.

    1. In the first movie they were mostly smarter in ways that animals are – in a jungle, lions would outwit me any time.

      1. I agree with you to a point. However, in keeping with a post titled “Great Moments in Pedantry . . .”, I thought the velociraptors’ intelligence and behaviour to be too mammalian (perhaps too anthropomorphised). If they had been more bird-like in their actions that would have been truly scary.

        The fun about dinosaurs is that they are something which walked the earth but are totally out of our experience.

  21. I know this isn’t really related to the issue of pedantry and the film… But it is related to the cultural perception of dinosaurs!

    I just want to speak up for feathered dinosaurs. I think that a smart, fast bird of prey is much more bad-ass and fearsome than a dim, slow lizard that gets sleepy when it’s cold outside.

    That’s my two cents.

  22. Wow. So glad to finally see this. When I was just a wee lad fascinated by dinosaurs I actually wrote a letter to Mr. Spielberg showing him in painstakingly free hand drawn illustrations the differences between a Velociraptor and a Deinonychus. My dad swore he mailed the thing but I was never quite sure. Being the nerdier of two brothers, I heard no end of this from my bonehead doofus of an older sibling for many a year about how I was wrong and a gigantic studio could never in a million years goof up the name of a dinosaur. The older brother is now a full fledged doctor (a surgeon no less, so I’d seriously avoid any activitis that might result in having to go under the knife if i were you guys) with an ego the size of a small moon. This should shut him up for a while.
    Keep ’em coming Boing Boing

  23. the interesting bit is that while crichton obviously read paul’s book, the people who made the movie did not. “predatory dinosaurs of the world” is filled with excellent illustrations, and velociraptor is ALWAYS depicted with feathers.

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