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Press release

Disarming dangerous dinosaurs

Research sheds new light on dinosaur hunting techniques

First, palaeontologists dared to suggest that T. rex wasn't the fearsome predator portrayed by the media. Now, new research suggests that the smaller carnivorous dinosaurs weren't as vicious as previously thought either.

Scientists at the University of Manchester and the Natural History Museum carried out a study into the workings of the enormous foot claw found on the small meat-eating dinosaurs Velociraptor (of Jurassic Park infamy) and Deinonychus, both belonging to a group called dromaeosaurs. 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.

'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.'

The results of this experiment were first shown on The Truth about Killer Dinosaurs, a BBC television production. 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, to test the disembowelling theory. Information on the shape and composition of the claw was gleaned from a study of living birds and reptiles.

The robotic limb was used to mimic a strong kicking motion and its damaging effect was tested (at high and low speed) by impacting it into the flesh of pig and crocodile carcasses. Instead of producing the expected large slashing wound, only small, rounded puncture holes where produced. Moreover, the curvature of the claw was found to cause flesh around the wound to bunch together, preventing the claw from falling out. Scientists also discovered that the depth of the wound was not substantial enough to pose a danger to a large herbivorous dinosaur (such as the contemporary Tenontosaurus), but would have been fatal to smaller prey.

This new research suggests that instead of using their claws for slashing, these dinosaurs may have used them for climbing. Research into the curvature of the claw has shown that it could have been used for gripping onto the flanks of live prey. The dromaeosaur's sharp serrated teeth would then tear into the flesh of its prey whilst clinging tightly to its victim. There are some similarities between this and 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.

"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", said Dr Paul Barrett of the Natural History Museum.
Ends

Notes for editors
This research is published in Biology Letters, online at: http://www.journals.royalsoc.ac.uk/

  • The University of Manchester was formed in 2004 from the merger of UMIST and the Victoria University of Manchester. It is Britain's first chartered university of the 21st century and the largest single-site higher education institution in the country.
  • The School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences brings together 40 academic staff involved in all aspects of the study of our Earth and the planets. The School comprises Earth and environmental Scientists; geologists and mineralogists of all types; atmospheric physicists and chemists; cosmochemists and isotope geochemists; and palaeontologists and environmental biologists.
  • The Manchester Museum is one of the city's top class cultural attractions and provides access to about six million items from every continent of the globe, including butterflies and carvings from India; birds and bark-cloth from the Pacific; live frogs and ancient pottery from America; and fossils and native art from Australia. The Museum plays an important role in assisting research and promoting the public engagement of science. (www.manchester.ac.uk/museum).
  • Winner of the 2004 Large Visitor Attraction of the Year award, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in 68 countries. The Museum is committed to encouraging public engagement with science. This has been greatly enhanced by the Darwin Centre, a major new initiative, which offers visitors unique access behind the scenes of the Museum. Phase One of the project opened to the public in 2002 and Phase Two is scheduled to open in 2008.
  • The Manchester Museum can offer an excellent photo opportunity with a full-size T. rex skeleton, Velociraptor reconstruction, fossil and 'bionic' claws used in the study.