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Disarming dangerous dinosaurs

13 October 2005

New research suggests carnivorous dinosaurs such as Velociraptor weren't as vicious as previously thought.

Dr Phil Manning with the robotic dinosaur claw © Manchester Museum

Dr Phil Manning with the robotic dinosaur claw © Manchester Museum

Scientists at the University of Manchester and the Natural History Museum have been studying the large foot claw found on small meat-eating dinosaurs such as Velociraptor and Deinonychus . These dinosaurs both belong to a group called dromaeosaurs.

Claw used as a tool

The study has found that instead of slicing through flesh and disembowelling prey, as previously thought, the dinosaur primarily used its foot claw as a tool to hold on to and perhaps clamber over its victims.

Hunting techniques

The dromaeosaur's sharp serrated teeth would then tear into the flesh of its prey whilst clinging tightly to its victim. This is similar to the hunting techniques of modern day big cats, which use their protracted claws to cling onto their prey as their powerful jaws deliver the killer blow.

'The alleged disembowelling claws of Velociraptor and its close relatives have long captured the imagination of both science and the media,' said Dr Phil Manning of the University of Manchester (The Manchester Museum).

'Disarming such a legendary dinosaur is in many ways a great pity, but hopefully it will help us understand more about this enigmatic group's hunting technique and predatory abilities'.

Robotic limb

A team from Pennicott Payne Models and Special Effects produced a scientifically accurate robotic limb, based on detailed measurements from dromaeosaur fossil remains and information on limb function in living animals.

Mimicking a kick

The robotic limb was then used to mimic a strong kicking motion. Its damaging effect was tested by impacting it into the flesh of pig and crocodile carcasses. Instead of producing the expected large slashing wound, only small, rounded puncture holes were made.

Scientists discovered that the wound was not deep enough to pose a danger to a large herbivorous dinosaur (such as the contemporary Tenontosaurus ), but would have been fatal to smaller prey. The results of this experiment were first shown on The Truth about Killer Dinosaurs, a BBC television production.

Dr Paul Barrett, Natural History Museum dinosaur expert said, 'This work disproves a long-standing idea about Velociraptor and its relatives and sheds light on an entirely novel way of life in these animals'.