How to Train Your Velociraptor

The scariest part of Jurassic Park’s Velociraptor isn’t the dinosaur’s speed, teeth, or claws. It’s the saurian’s brain. Smarts are what made this agile carnivore so terrifying. Tyrannosaurus is a force of nature—brute strength driven by the need to feed—but it’s not nearly as creepy as a dinosaur that can set a trap for you.

Jurassic World takes raptor intelligence to the next level. The sequel’s star dinosaurs are smart enough that they can follow commands from keeper Owen Grady (Chris Pratt). Would this actually be possible? Would a revived Velociraptor be smart enough to learn to be a pal instead of a predator?

The frustrating part of studying dinosaurs is that we can’t observe extinct species like Velociraptor in the flesh. We have to approach these dinosaurs indirectly by studying the behavior of today’s avian dinosaurs—birds!—and evidence such as trackways and endocasts of prehistoric brains.

Let’s start with pack hunting. This is the most visceral expression of raptor intelligence, and was based on an actual fossil find. In 1969 paleontologist John Ostrom described Deinonychus—the prototype on which Jurassic Park’s Velociraptor is actually based. (The real Velociraptor was turkey-sized and not nearly as imposing.) The bones Ostrom drew from were found in a quarry containing parts of several individuals and the remains of an herbivorous dinosaur called Tenontosaurus. Perhaps, Ostrom proposed, the Deinonychus were trying to work together to bring down the burly plant-eater.

A recent reanalysis cast doubt on this hypothesis. Just because multiple dinosaurs of the same species are found buried together doesn’t mean that they lived together or were cooperating. Perhaps the Deinonychus were all mobbing the Tenontosaurus out of self-interest, the way modern crocodiles and Komodo dragons sometimes swarm a carcass, and some of the carnivores killed each other in the process. The evidence is too ambiguous to tell for sure.

But a different line of evidence offers clues that “raptor” dinosaurs sometimes hung out together. Trackways found in places such as China and Niger record the two-toed steps of multiple deinonychosaurs that walked together. One particular trackway even shows a bit of interaction, with one dinosaur correcting its course as another came up alongside. Exactly what these dinosaurs were doing is impossible to say, but, thanks to behavior set in stone, we know that they at least occasionally walked together.

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Raw intelligence is trickier to get at. It’s difficult enough to get a handle on how smart a living animal is, much less a creature that’s been extinct for more than 66 million years. Endocasts of dinosaur brains are the closest we can get to even approaching this question, and can give a rough idea of a dinosaur’s intellectual acumen. For example, the proportions of different lobes of the brain can be used to tell whether a particular dinosaur had sharp vision, a keen sense of smell, or a brain with more space devoted to the kind of computing power that would have allowed for complex behavior.

And while size isn’t everything, how big a dinosaur’s brain is in proportion to its body has often been taken as a very rough way to identify the smartest saurians. It all comes down to the encephalization quotient—the relative size of the brain compared to body mass. In short, if an animal’s brain is larger than expected for an organism of its size, the more likely it is to be smart.

Despite often being made fun of, dinosaurs didn’t really have ridiculously small brains for their size. The large sauropods, stegosaurs, and other dinosaurs thought of as “dumb” had brains comparable in relative size to what would be expected for reptiles of their mass. Other dinosaur lineages—such as hadrosaurs and theropod dinosaurs—had even larger brains than expected for their size, but the relatives of Deinonychus were the brainiest of all. The brains of some raptor dinosaurs even overlap the range for modern birds, and the anatomy of their brains seems consistent with the idea that these dinosaurs were capable of complex behavior.

Think of all the behavior complexities we see in birds. The way they display and communicate with each other, and the ability of some—such as ravens and crows—to make tools and even have what looks like fun. We can’t project those exact behaviors on the past with confidence, but they raise some tantalizing possibilities. For Jurassic World, perhaps it means Grady was on the mark when he says that his connection with the raptors is a relationship. A raptor motorbike pack is a bit much, but, if any dinosaur were going to learn to take commands from a human, it’d be one like Velociraptor. How you’d survive training a ten-foot-long carnivore with grasping hands and switchblade claws on each foot, though, is another matter.

Brian Switek is the author of My Beloved Brontosaurus (out in paperback from Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and Written in Stone. He also writes the National Geographic blog Laelaps.

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