Thanks to Jurassic Park, Velociraptor is one of the world's most famous dinosaurs--but there's a big difference between the Hollywood version of Velociraptor and the one familiar to paleontologists. Here are 10 facts you may or may not have known about this small, vicious predator. (See also a gallery of Velociraptor pictures and a fossil history of Velociraptor.)
1. That wasn't really a Velociraptor in Jurassic Park.
The sad fact is, Velociraptor's claim to pop-culture fame is based on a lie: the movie's special-effects wizards have long since confessed that they modeled their Velociraptor after the much bigger (and much more dangerous-looking) raptor Deinonychus, whose name isn't quite as catchy or easy to pronounce. If life were fair, Deinonychus would be much more famous than Velociraptor, but that's the way the Jurassic cookie crumbles.
2. Velociraptor was about the size of a big chicken...
For a dinosaur that's often mentioned in the same breath as Tyrannosaurus Rex, Velociraptor was remarkably puny: this meat-eater weighed only about 30 pounds soaking wet (about the same as a good-sized human toddler) and achieved an awe-inspiring height of three feet, max. In fact, it would take six or seven adult Velociraptors to equal one average-sized Deinonychus, but who's counting?
3. ...and it looked like a big chicken, too.
Judging by the smaller, more primitive, feathered raptors that predated it by millions of years, paleontologists believe Velociraptor sported feathers, too, though the direct evidence for this is slim. Artists have pictured this dinosaur as sporting everything from wan, chicken-like tufts to bright green plumage worthy of a South American parrot--and it almost certainly wasn't scaly-skinned, as portrayed in Jurassic Park.
4. Velociraptor lived in central Asia, not North America.
Given its red-carpet treatment in Hollywood, you might expect Velociraptor to have been as American as apple pie, but the fact is that this dinosaur was native to modern-day Mongolia (the most famous species is Velociraptor mongoliensis). America Firsters in need of a native raptor will have to settle for Velociraptor's much bigger, and much more deadly, cousins Deinonychus and Utahraptor.
5. There's no evidence that Velociraptor hunted in packs.
To date, all of the dozen or so Velociraptor skeletons discovered in Mongolia have been of solitary individuals. The idea that Velociraptor ganged up on its prey in cooperative packs probably stems from the discovery of associated Deinonychus remains in North America; this larger raptor may have hunted in packs in order to bring down large hadrosaurs like Tenontosaurus.
6. Velociraptor wasn't the smartest dinosaur of the Cretaceous period...
While we're on the subject: that scene in Jurassic Park where a Velociraptor figures out how to turn a doorknob? Pure fantasy. Even the putatively smartest dinosaur of the Mesozoic Era, Troodon, was dumber than a newborn kitten, and it's a safe bet that no reptiles (ancient or modern) have ever learned how to use tools. A real-life Velociraptor would likely have butted its head against the closed door until it knocked itself out.
7. ...and it wasn't the fastest, either.
Not to beat up on poor little Velociraptor, but this "speedy thief" (that's what its name means in Greek) wasn't nearly as fast as contemporary ornithomimids, or "bird mimic," dinosaurs, some of which could attain speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. Even the fastest Velociraptors would have been severely hampered by their short, turkey-sized legs, and could probably have been outrun by a human child.
8. A Velociraptor was fossilized in the act of attacking a Protoceratops.
So Velociraptor didn't hunt in packs, and it wasn't particularly big, smart or speedy. How did it survive? Well, by attacking comparably small dinosaurs like the pig-sized Protoceratops: one famous fossil displays a Velociraptor and Protoceratops locked in combat as they were both buried alive by a sudden sandstorm (and by the evidence, it's far from obvious that Velociraptor had the upper hand.)
9. Velociraptor's main weapons were its single, oversized hind claws.
Although its sharp teeth were certainly unpleasant, the primary weapons in Velociraptor's arsenal were the curved, three-inch-long claws on its hind feet, which it used to slash and jab at prey. Paleontologists surmise that this dinosaur stabbed its prey in the gut in sudden, surprise attacks, then withdrew to a safe distance as its victim bled to death.
10. Velociraptor was probably warm-blooded.
Cold-blooded reptiles don't excel at pursuing and savagely attacking their prey (think of crocodiles, which are content to lay patiently in wait until an animal ventures too close). That fact, combined with its probable coat of feathers, leads paleontologists to believe that Velociraptor (and other theropods, including tyrannosaurs and "dino-birds") had a warm-blooded metabolism comparable to that of modern birds and mammals.