Answer Monday!

Last week, I told you that you’d all recognize this specimen once I told you what it was, and I stand by that. Meet Deinonychus.

You don’t recognize the name? Or the skull? Well, do you recognize this foot?

Or this movie star? But wait! That’s Velociraptor, you say? In the movie (and book) Jurassic Park, that’s how it was billed, but it turns out the velociraptors were really deinonychuses. Why? Well, we can yet again blame the confusing world of taxonomy. According to a 2008 article by Brian Switek:

While it did differ in important ways, Deinonychus can basically be thought of as a scaled-up version of Velociraptor, being almost twice as long and twice as tall as its Mongolian cousin… 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. We know this because in the acknowledgements for his novel Jurassic Park, Crichton listed Paul as one of the people who inspired his vision for dinosaurs portrayed in the book, and he used the name Velociraptor to describe the large, sickle-clawed predators that disembowel so many humans in the fictional yarn. The same taxonomy was carried over into the film series, which ultimately made what would otherwise seem to be an abstruse scientific term a household name.

So, basically, Crichton was describing and envisioning Deinonychus while writing Jurassic Park, but he was under the impression that Deinonychus had been swallowed up by Velociraptor. (The names, that is, not the dinosaurs.) Are you following?

(And yes, we all know that no matter what they were called in the books and films, they should have had feathers. Hollywood owes us paleonerds a lot of feathers. But that’s a rant for another day.)

But wait, you cry! Stephanie, you said that there was a connection to last week’s fossil! Deinonychus is a dinosaur and last week you told us unequivocally that ichthyosaurs are not dinosaurs! So where’s the connection?

Well, golly. I didn’t say that the two fossils were closely related, did I? I just said that there was a connection. And here it’s a thematic connection, not a phylogenetic one. Look again at the original photo I shared on Friday.

What the heck are we looking at? It’s Deinonychus’s tail! If you look between the horizontal bands running down its length, you’ll spy the caudal (tail) vertebrae. That’s the link, you see, another animal with another cool backbone. And as you know, I love a good backbone. So what exactly are those horizontal bands running the length of Deinonychus’s tail? Well, we’re not 100% sure, but the best hypothesis is that they’re ossified tendons that would have stiffened the tail and provided balance while running and pivoting and scaring the bejeezus out of potential prey. The vertebrae themselves have really long processes on the top and bottom that run laterally down the tail, too, adding additional stiffness.

Congratulations to ... no one. So many of you got pieces and came close, but no one got it. I stumped you! WOO! I'm so proud of me. (: (Sidenote: someone did guess right on Facebook, but the unofficially official rule is that correct answers don’t count unless they're here on the blog. Sorry about that...but be sure to comment here!)

A final story before I go. I’ve told you before, I think, that I studied paleontology under the amazing Farish Jenkins. Farish studied under John Ostrom, who discovered Deinonychus in the 1960s when Farish was his student at Yale. In 1974, Farish was leading his own expedition in Montana, accompanied by his wife and some other paleontologists. He told my vertebrate paleontology class one day that his wife was taking her turn using a jackhammer to clear overburden (a fancy name for the rock that’s in the way of the rock you want) and bits of rock were flying. Farish was standing close by and picked up a piece of flyaway rock…only it wasn’t rock. He waved his arms furiously to try and get his wife’s attention. Finally, she saw him and shut off the jackhammer. What had Farish picked up? A piece of fossilized bone, of course. But not just any piece of fossilized bone. It was a piece of fossilized bone that turned out to belong to a Deinonychus—the very Deinonychus that is on display at Harvard to this day. Thank goodness Farish was such a keen observer—he didn’t miss a trick…or a fossil.

Are you a teacher and want to tell us about an amazing free resource? Do you have an idea for a Misconception Monday or other type of post? Have a fossil to share? See some good or bad examples of science communication lately? Drop me an email or shoot me a tweet @keeps3.

Stephanie Keep
Short Bio

Stephanie Keep is the former Editor of Reports of the National Center for Science Education

We can't afford to lose any time when it comes to the future of science education.

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