Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Did Velociraptor Hunt In Packs?

Ever since the movie Jurassic Park came out in 1993, people from all over the world added the name Velociraptor to their often-short list of dinosaurs they had heard of, joining more famous dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Triceratops. While the dinosaurs portrayed in the movie have often been hailed as “ahead of the times,” Steven Spielberg of course had to make some assumptions about dinosaur behavior.

Michael Crichton, the author of the original Jurassic Park book, did too, which can be clearly seen when reading both of his Jurassic Park books. In the first one, a theory was circulating that Tyrannosaurus had eyes like a frog, that would be unable to see something so long as it didn’t move. This is reflected in the way Dr. Alan Grant, one of the protagonists in the novel (as well as the subsequent movie) tells his comrades to react when they are spotted by a Tyrannosaurus: just don’t move. (Don’t blink. Don’t even blink. Blink and you’re dead.)  

However, this theory was debunked by the time that it came for Crichton to write his next dinosaur-themed book, The Lost World, a sequel to Jurassic Park.  In the sequel, Ian Malcolm, who was also a protagonist in the first novel, moves to the forefront. He explains that the Tyrannosaurus from the first novel was probably just not hungry enough to attack them, and that it was just toying with them. A clever way of seamlessly working that scientific transition into the books without disrupting the canon of the story!*

Spielberg also played a lot of things up throughout the movies to make it more cinematic and exciting: and, to be honest, I can’t really blame him, at least not as critically as some paleontologists do. (That, however, is a story for another time). Today, however, we are going to be talking about one cinematic Spielbergian leap, and the resounding effect it has had on paleo-enthusiasts the world over: the idea of raptors hunting in packs.

In the books and movie, the Jurassic Park raptors are portrayed as clever, cool, and calculating killing machines with the intelligence of a dolphin or an ape. Scientists know, however, that while animals such as Velociraptor and Troƶdon may have been smarter than their mammalian counterparts of the time, their intelligence nowhere near reaches that of some modern day cetaceans and primates. Most people don’t want to accept that, though: they want their dinos really smart!

Here’s my stab at psychology for the day. In my semester long psychology course that I took last year, we discussed something in a relationship and everyday life called a fiction. Essentially, when human beings have feelings for someone, they develop what we call “fictions” in their mind. Fictions  about physical appearance, fictions about intelligence, and fictions about other redeeming qualities as well. If two people are projecting these fictions onto each other, then a relationship can develop. On the other hand, sometimes these people are confronted with these fictions, and they realize that they are not all that they are cracked up to be. When these people fall short of their fictions, some emotional turmoil can result. In my opinion, the reality of the Velociraptor, as well as the reality of the rest of the dromaeosaurs, falls short of people’s expectations. I think a similar thing is occurring right now with dinosaurs and feathers: people want their T-rex scaly, not feathery! That might be why many people seem so opposed to the idea.

“All right,” people say. “So Velociraptor wasn’t a genius. It still hunted in packs, though, right?” It seems like a fairly obvious answer: “Of course they did! ….Right? I mean….if you think about it….” It’s when you start to really think about the evidence that this idea really falls apart. First, let’s look at a related animal called Deinonychus. Deinonychus is a mid-sized dromaeosaur, about thirteen feet long, and weighing about as much as a wolf. Living during the Early Cretaceous Period, between about 118 – 110 MYA, remains of Deinonychus have been found in the western United States. Deinonychus remains aren’t always found solo, however: in some cases, it looks like Deinonychus might have dined and died! At several different sites, Deinonychus remains have been found buried in close proximity to a large herbivorous ornithopod called Tenontosaurus.  Shed teeth from multiple animals seems to indicate that these animals might have been feeding together. Some paleontologists take this a step further, and propose that, not only did these animals feed together, but they lived and hunted together, too!

In this post, I am going to be using several modern-day analogues to point out flaws in some theories. (We’ve already done it with the deer!)  This time, we’re flying over to Indonesia to visit the Komodo dragon. The Komodo dragon is a very interesting animal that, like many other animals, will resort to cannibalism. The young Komodos take to the trees, hiding up in branches to light to support the weight of the adults.  The Komodos lead a generally solitary existence: that is, until it comes time to feed. At feeding time, the dragons will swarm all over the carcass, each fighting for a stake of the meal. To an outsider, unaware of how the animal had been killed, it might be interpreted that perhaps this was a family group that worked together to bring down a much larger prey.

Another comparison I like to make is a theoretical one. Imagine that a pride of lions has subdued a zebra on the plains of Africa. After they have eaten their fill, they move off into the shade to sleep off their recently acquired weight. Immediately afterwards, the vultures swoop in on the kill. Suddenly, somehow a flash flood overtakes the carcass and the vultures, leaving them buried in mud, sand, and silt. Over the next few thousand years, their remains fossilize. One million years later, paleontologists come across this find. To their eyes, it would appear, for all intents and purposes, like the vultures ganged up in a pack to subdue this one-toed creature. Maybe not the best comparison, but one that I always like to think about.

So does the evidence seem to allow us the conclusion that multiple Deinonychus fed together? I would say yes, the evidence does support that conclusion. Does the evidence support the conclusion that multiple Deinonychus lived together, and worked together to bring down the Tenontosaurus? In my opinion, I don’t think that that is enough evidence. Other paleontologists disagree, however, leaving the matter open for debate. Right now, what we need is a good fossil trackway.
Pyg learns about several baby Apatosaurus tracks at the Morrison Natural History Museum.  Together, these tracks create a trackway, which has revealed some very interesting behavior about these young sauropods!  To learn more, make sure to check out the museum's Facebook page HERE!
We’ve talked about trackways on the blog before. Fossil trackways are also often good evidence for group moving. We have many trackways that show groups of dinosaurs, such as sauropods, moving together in multi-age herds. We’ve talked before about the exciting conclusions that paleontologists are drawing by studying blocks of fossil footprints at the Morrison Natural History Museum. While fossil footprints aren’t always necessarily the final say, they are simply one more piece of the puzzle. And when it comes to dromaeosaur footprints, footprints that many different paleontologists agree belong to a dromaeosaur, we have none. Zilch. Zero. Nada. No dromaeosaur footprints. Not yet, anyways. So there’s one possible line of evidence down the drain.
Pyg compares her foot to the smallest baby Stegosaurus footprints in the world, also at the Morrison Natural History Museum!  These footprints us gain insights into social behavior, animal size, and locomotion.
Thus far, it doesn't seem like we have any evidence in FAVOR of Velociraptor hunting in packs. But evidence can work both ways: what about evidence AGAINST Velociraptor as a pack hunter? As a matter of fact, there is one main line of evidence that I find to be, if not conclusive, highly indicative of the truth being the pack hunting. This line of evidence comes from the environment that Velociraptor would have lived in. Velociraptor inhabited what is now the Gobi Desert of Mongolia between around 70 and 75 million years ago, during the Late Cretaceous. Back then, the Gobi looked a lot like it does today: deserty. Now, this is very important. Think about desert animals today, specifically the carnivores, but the herbivores as well. Although the desert is certainly not a lifeless place, it is by no means a party like the African Serengeti, or the great plains of North America (before the railroads came through and people killed almost all of the bison). There simply isn't enough food for large animals to get by, especially not large groups of them.

Now think about a standard predator/prey ratio seen in environments today. Let's talk about my home-state of Colorado. There are lots of places to hike in Colorado, and in almost any part of the state you can see some sort of deer, be it mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, or moose: you name it, you can probably see at least one of these cervids at almost any place in Colorado. Now, consider this: how often do you see bears in Colorado? Or mountain lions? Not terribly often, and especially not very often when you consider how often one sees deer. That's because of the predator/prey ratio. Essentially, if the balance between predator and prey is not kept in check, then populations will crash. Therefore, it is imperative that the prey species outnumber the predator species by what is usually a significant margin, otherwise the predators will overhunt, and they will starve to death. (For a more complete discussion of the predator/prey ration, this time in the context of the lynx/hare cycle of Canada, click HERE).

Some predators can get away with hunting in groups or packs because the prey species are relatively abundant. For example, the African Serengeti. The prey density is just so incredibly high that many different types of predators, such as lions, hyenas, and African wild dogs, can all hunt in packs. It works for them, because there are just so many prey species there!

Now let us bring our attentions back to the deserts. You can walk for miles, you can drive for even more, and see hardly a sign of any vertebrate life. Most likely, all you will see is a vulture or a hawk soaring the thermals high above you, watching for its next meal. If you're lucky, you might see a deer, or possibly even a javelina (a pig-like creature native to the south western United States, as well as Central and South America). You aren't going to see a lot of them, though. And if the prey isn't plentiful, then the predators sure aren't going to be, either!

Although dinosaurian-dominated ecosystems were undoubtedly different in some aspects from the mammalian-dominated ones of today, the fundamentals of the predator/prey ration would still stand true. There just wouldn't have been enough food to go around for these animals to have been pack hunters!

So, the final question: did Velociraptor hunt in packs? Or didn't it? If I had to hazard an answer, I would say no, no they did not. Due to the extreme lack of evidence in favor of this social behavior, as well as some evidence that seems to indicate that they wouldn't have, I would say that they did not hunt in packs. Obviously, with future discoveries, my ideas may change, which is one of the great things about science: we are always learning new things! And who knows: maybe one day, it will be one of YOU who discovers that crucial bit of evidence that shows that Velociraptor did, indeed hunt in packs!

OK, that was WAY too cheesy to leave like that. I felt uncomfortable even writing it. Let's end on a joke, instead. Why couldn't T-rex clap its hands? Huh? Give up? Because he was dead. Thank you ladies and gentlemen, I will be here all week.

A special thanks to Matthew Mossbrucker and Robert Bakker for their helpful information in making this post!

*To be honest, the whole concept of the theory doesn’t make a lot of sense: think about modern-day deer as an analogue for extinct prey species. If they see a predator, they are going to freeze, as it is much more difficult to pick out a still animal from the surrounding landscape than it would be a moving animal.  So predators would have to be able to pick out the prey, otherwise it would never capture one.  This freezing behavior on the part of deer when they are startled also explains why deer often freeze in front of car headlights: deer in the headlights!
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