In this piece, our focus will be on the remarkable finding that propelled Velociraptor to become the most renowned dinosaur globally. Out of all the dinosaur discoveries made over the past two centuries, Velociraptor stands out as one of the most captivating and ancient discoveries that paleontologists have ever yearned for. The fascination lies in the challenging and treacherous terrain that paleontologists had to brave during their quest to uncover these remarkable relics. Interestingly, contrary to its portrayal in movies, this dinosaur was not as clever or aggressive as popularly depicted.
Velociraptor, scientifically known as Velociraptor mongoliensis, is a dinosaur that can be biologically classified as follows:
- Kingdom: Animalia (Animals)
- Phylum: Chordata (Chordates)
- Class: Sauropsida (Reptiles and birds)
- Superorder: Dinosauria (Dinosaurs)
- Order: Saurischia (Lizard-hipped dinosaurs)
- Suborder: Theropoda (Theropod dinosaurs)
- Family: Dromaeosauridae (Dromaeosaurs)
- Genus: Velociraptor
How Velociraptor Was Discovered
The portrayal of Velociraptors in Jurassic Park, where they hunt in packs, exhibit high intelligence, and even manipulate doorknobs, is far from accurate and deviates from reality. In truth, the creatures depicted in the movie as Velociraptors are actually based on Deinonychus, another species of dinosaur.
The tale begins with the relentless efforts of paleontologists who embarked on expeditions to uncover the remains of Velociraptors. These dedicated researchers braved challenging and remote locations, navigating through rugged terrains in search of elusive fossils.
The Gobi Desert and its Velociraptors
During the early 1920s, Mongolia, situated in Central Asia, stood as one of the most remote and inhospitable regions on Earth, devoid of any modern transportation like trains or planes. Only sturdy horses and camel caravans could navigate through its vastness. Despite these challenging circumstances, an expedition under the direction of renowned paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews from the American Museum of Natural History in New York successfully ventured into Mongolia, which is outside of western China.
Roy Chapman Andrews, a well-known paleontologist associated with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, was responsible for discovering and christening numerous Mongolian dinosaurs in the early 1920s. Notably, he credited himself with the discovery of Oviraptor, Protoceratops, and others. However, it was Peter Kaisen who had the privilege of unearthing a Velociraptor for the very first time. This fortuitous event occurred when Kaisen stumbled upon a skull and foot claw during an excavation expedition in the Gobi Desert. The official naming of Velociraptor, however, fell to Henry Fairfield Osborn, the president of the American Museum of Natural History. Initially, Osborn referred to this dinosaur as “Ovoraptor” in a popular magazine article, but due to its proximity to Oviraptor, it was eventually designated Velociraptor mongoliensis, signifying “the swift thief from Mongolia.” The name stems from the Latin words “Velox“, denoting speed, and “Raptor“, meaning thief.
Velociraptor Discovered With Difficulties
During the early 1920s, arranging a significant expedition from the United States to the Gobi Desert proved extremely challenging due to the region’s complex political situation. The Communist revolution had recently taken control of the Mongolian government, and the Soviet Union held considerable influence over Mongolian science. It’s worth noting that the People’s Republic of China had not yet emerged, which allowed the USSR to conduct significant work in Mongolia—a region now under China’s dominance rather than Russia’s.
As a consequence of these circumstances, the American Museum of Natural History faced more than five decades of obstacles in initiating a fresh Velociraptor discovery. Only after World War II, Mongolian scientists, in collaboration with colleagues from the USSR and Poland, made multiple visits to the Flaming Cliffs fossil site—where the original Velociraptor specimens were initially unearthed. Finally, in 1971, the thrilling discovery of an almost fully preserved Velociraptor skeleton was officially announced. Intriguingly, the specimen was found alongside an equally well-preserved Protoceratops, providing invaluable insights into the prehistoric ecosystem.
Feathered Theropods of Central Asia
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its satellite states, Western scientists were once again able to venture into Mongolia in the late 1980s. During this time, remarkable discoveries took place through international collaborations. A joint Chinese and Canadian team made a significant find of Velociraptor specimens in northern China, while a joint Mongolian and American team uncovered another Velociraptor at the renowned Flaming Cliffs site. Interestingly, one of the specimens from the latter discovery was named ‘Ichabodcraniosaurus’ (Shri devi), as it was missing its skull, reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s character, The Headless Horseman.
In 2007, paleontologists stumbled upon a Velociraptor forearm, which captured their attention due to the presence of spiny feathers. This discovery provided the first concrete evidence supporting the theory that Velociraptors and similar dinosaurs were actually feathered creatures, challenging the previous perception of them being reptile-like and scaly.
Notably, Velociraptors were not the sole feathered, carnivorous dinosaurs inhabiting Cretaceous Central Asia. The region boasted a diverse array of dinosaur birds closely related to North America’s Troodon. Among these fascinating finds were Saurornithoides, Linhevenator, Byronosaurus, and the wonderfully named Zanabazar. The Zanabazar dinosaurs, relatives of Oviraptor, included species like Heyuannia, Citipati, Conchoraptor, and the beautifully named Khaan. Many of these remarkable discoveries were the result of the skilled efforts of Chinese paleontologists during the late 20th century.
Mongolia’s Importance in Dinosaur Discoveries
Mongolia holds immense significance in the field of dinosaur discoveries, and its contributions have been pivotal in expanding our understanding of prehistoric life. Several factors have made Mongolia a treasure trove for paleontologists and a key region in unraveling the mysteries of the dinosaur era.
- Rich Fossil Deposits: Mongolia’s vast and remote landscapes have preserved numerous fossil deposits dating back to the Mesozoic era, especially the Cretaceous period. The Gobi Desert, in particular, has proven to be a paleontological goldmine, offering well-preserved remains of dinosaurs and other ancient creatures.
- Diversity of Dinosaur Species: Mongolia’s fossil record boasts an impressive diversity of dinosaur species, including some of the most iconic and well-known dinosaurs. Notably, the Flaming Cliffs (Bayanzag) in the Gobi Desert have yielded fossils of Velociraptor, Protoceratops, Oviraptor, and other remarkable finds.
- Feathered Dinosaur Discoveries: Mongolia has been instrumental in providing evidence supporting the theory of feathered dinosaurs. The famous discovery of Velociraptor specimens with preserved feathers has been pivotal in shaping our understanding of how some dinosaurs were more bird-like than reptilian.
- International Collaborations: After Mongolia’s political landscape opened up following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western scientists were able to collaborate with Mongolian researchers. These joint expeditions and partnerships have led to groundbreaking discoveries and enriched the global knowledge of dinosaurs.
- Paleontological Pioneers: Mongolia has produced its own generation of talented and dedicated paleontologists. Their expertise, coupled with international collaborations, has resulted in the unearthing of numerous fossils and significantly contributed to the field of paleontology.
- Fossils of Early Mammals: In addition to dinosaurs, Mongolia has also yielded fossils of early mammals, providing valuable insights into the evolution of mammalian life during the Mesozoic era.
- Educational and Touristic Value: Mongolia’s rich dinosaur heritage has not only advanced scientific knowledge but also educational and touristic value. Museums, exhibits, and guided tours in Mongolia allow people from around the world to learn about these ancient creatures and the region’s unique paleontological history.
Overall, Mongolia’s importance in dinosaur discoveries lies in its remarkable fossil deposits, diverse dinosaur species, contributions to the understanding of feathered dinosaurs, collaborative research efforts, skilled paleontologists, and the educational and touristic opportunities it offers. As new expeditions continue and technology improves, there is no doubt that Mongolia will continue to play a vital role in furthering our knowledge of the prehistoric world.