We're now in the final countdown to the release of Jurassic World, which will be rampaging into theaters on June 12. Many of the franchise's most charismatic dinosaurs will be reprising their roles in the film, including the Cretaceous period's clever girls—the inimitable raptors (or "dromaeosaurids," in scientific parlance).
But as it turns out, dinophiles don't even need to wait for the movie to come out to get their next raptor fix. Today, paleontologists based out of the University of Pennsylvania announced the discovery of a new species of raptor named Saurornitholestes sullivani, which is closely related to the velociraptors depicted in the franchise (though it must be noted, the fiction version of the dinosaur resembles the hulking Utahraptor much more closely than the puny Velociraptor).
This discovery was made by Steven Jasinski, a doctoral student at Penn and the acting curator of paleontology and geology at the State Museum of Pennsylvania. The fossil itself was first excavated in 1999 by paleontologist Robert Sullivan, after whom the species is now named, but it was miscategorized as an existing raptor species until Jasinski took a closer look at the 75-million-year-old specimen. His findings are featured in the latest issue of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin.
"While the animal's skull is not fully intact, we have portions of the top of the skull," Jasinski told me over email. "The key point is that the portions we do have of the top of the animal's skull possess important and distinct features, or characteristics, that distinguish it from other known dinosaurs, particularly other known dinosaurs that belong to the family Dromaeosauridae, or the raptors."
Perhaps the most significant difference between Saurornitholestes sullivani and other raptors is its enlarged olfactory bulb, which suggests that it had a much sharper sense of smell than its dromaeosaurid brethren. Though the animal only stood about about three feet tall at the hip, this enhanced olfactory ability indicates that it was quite the savvy hunter. As Jasinski points out in Penn's statement, 'this was not a dinosaur you would want to mess with."
"A keen sense of smell can help make an animal a better predator and scavenger," he told me. "It seems this dinosaur could have used its sense of smell for scavenging or predation, but since if it was also a pack hunter, which is believed to be characteristic of this group of dinosaurs, its senses would have probably been used to track and hunt prey, making it an excellent and deadly predator."
Along those lines, Jasinski thinks that Saurornitholestes sullivani would have primarily subsisted on small reptiles and mammals, but that didn't necessarily mean big kills were off the menu. "Being a pack hunter would have allowed it to take down larger prey, things like young hadrosaurs or ceratopsids, animals that could have been tens of times its own size and weight," Jasinski said.
"Regardless, most predators take part in at least some scavenger," he added. "Why pass up a free meal if one can find it? So, it probably would have done some of both."
The new dinosaur's keen nose is an intriguing adaptation, but it isn't the only thing that sets the animal apart from its close relatives. Jasinski noted that the bones on the top of its skull are sized and shaped differently from other raptors, suggesting that the brain cavity itself had a distinct structure.
"While we don't have the brain preserved," he said, "one can get an idea of the shape and size of the brain by the cavity present on the inside of the skull, and we have the bones that help us determine some of that."
These morphological differences might be explained by the fact that Saurornitholestes sullivani was found in New Mexico, which is unusually far south for a dromaeosaurid.
"While these dinosaurs have been known to be further south, material has been scarce and not diagnostic," Jasinski told me. "That means we can identify it to the family of dinosaurs called dromaeosaurids, but not beyond that. Basically the equivalent of knowing something is a dog, but not knowing if it is a wolf, coyote, fox, or domestic dog."
"This find helps show us what these dinosaurs are doing further south," he continued. "It also shows that these dinosaurs to the south are different from those up north. They look differently and act differently. It helps us know that many areas that have been skimmed over in the past are more unique than we have thought, and that there are many other new and interesting discoveries still out there left to make."
While it's exciting to look forward to Chris Pratt's domesticated dromaeosaurids in Jurassic World, Jasinski's new find is a great reminder that real raptors will always have way more street cred than their fictional counterparts. So, in the immortal words of Sam Neill as Dr. Alan Grant, "try to show a little respect."