Raptors are among the most beloved and recognizable of all dinosaurs, thanks to their starring role as charismatic "clever girls" in the Jurassic Park franchise. But there is a huge gulf between the popular cinematic image of raptors—or dromaeosaurs, as they're known in paleontological parlance—and the actual animals that roamed our planet millions of years ago.
Contrary to the scaly, pony-sized movie monsters that were recently reprised in Jurassic World, real raptors rocked intricate feathered plumages that may have been used for eye-catching displays similar to their extremely close relatives: modern birds. Dromaeosaurs also evolved a spectacular diversity of shapes and sizes over the course of their 100 million year stretch on the planet, from the adorably tiny Mahakala omnogovae, measuring only about a foot high, to the hulking giant Utahraptor ostrommaysorum, which was even larger than the raptors depicted in the films.
While I'm on record as being perilously obsessed with Jurassic Park, it would be gratifying to see the popular conception of dinosaurs keep better pace with the scientific picture.
Fortunately, many dinosaur enthusiasts are working hard to bridge that gap in inventive new ways. Among them is David Silva, a veteran toy crafter who is in the midst of running a lively Kickstarter campaign for a hyperrealistic series of raptor models called "Beasts of the Mesozoic." Silva was inspired to launch the campaign by the growing chasm between the accuracy of dinosaur toys compared to other parts of the toy market, and the inaction of most companies in closing it.
"SinceI started working in the toy industry in 2003, I've been involved in some way with three different proposals for detailed, articulated dinosaur toys," he told me via email. "Each time the project was either canceled during development or flat out rejected."
"The second factor that inspired me was seeing how little dinosaur toys have improved over the past few decades," he continued. "Meanwhile, action figures for lines like superheros, classic movie characters, and transforming robots (all of which I love) are getting better and more innovative every year. Plus, with the huge popularity of Jurassic World last year, dinosaurs are very much 'in' again. So the gaping hole in the toy market for good dinosaur action figures has become larger than ever, and I feel an obligation to help correct this oversight."
Silva's series kicks off with three mid-sized raptor species: Velociraptor mongoliensis, Atrociraptor mashalli, and Tsaagan mangas.
Velociraptor mongoliensis is the species that gave Jurassic Park's raptors their snazzy name, though in reality this species was about the size of a turkey. It lived in arid conditions in what is now the Gobi Desert, so Silva characterized it in sandy shades of sepia and amber.
Likewise, Tsaagan mangas was a Mongolian desert dweller so similar to the Velociraptor genus that at first, it was mistaken for it. But further study revealed anatomical differences in the skull and vertebrae, and the coloration pattern Silva chose further distinguishes it from its more famous relative.
Atrociraptor mashalli, in contrast, was a wetlands creature that foraged in the forested swamps of Cretaceous era Alberta. Its snout was unusually short and deep, a feature that suggests it had a powerful bite.
Each toy measures about 12 inches in length, and five inches high, which is about one sixth the scale of the real animals. To capture some of the trademark agility of these predators, Silva developed the models with 26 points of articulation allowing for a variety of different postures.
"Despite my toy industry experience with making action figures, I still found it necessary to develop a few new articulation joints to get a natural range of movement for these new raptor figures," he told me. "For the coloring, I chose a modern bird as a color influence for each raptor, one that inhabits the same type of environment as its dinosaur counterpart."
The result is trio of raptors that look like they hacked-and-slashed their way out of the Cretaceous period with those notoriously lethal toe claws. The animals' birdlike features are on full display, rather than being muted as with those ubiquitous—and outdated—scaly versions running wild in popular culture.
This avian quality is particularly exciting to me because it validates one of my most time-honored soapbox rants, to which I've subjected many unwitting friends and readers. The gist of it is that accurate reconstructions of dinosaurs are as awesome on an aesthetic level as they are on an educational one. After all, paleontologists are continually finding that dinosaurs were far weirder and flashier than we could possibly have imagined. The science behind these long-dead beasts should not be regarded a buzzkill to popular depictions of dinosaurs, but as a compelling source of inspiration for them.
Recently, for instance, I attended a media preview of the American Museum of Natural History's new special exhibit "Dinosaurs Among Us" which explores the link between dinosaurs and birds. When I asked the panel of curators why they thought feathered dinosaurs have not caught on in popular media, paleontologist Mark Norell speculated that it might be because the scaly versions seem scarier. Paleontology researcher Ashley Heers then jumped in to point out that actually, "peacocks can be pretty scary with all their feathers up."
That point really resonates with me, especially as someone who was once stalked by a flock of ominous Canada geese. Have you ever seen the lengths swans will go to project their authority? Or seen a GoPro video from the POV of a bird of prey? Or seen that picture of a rabbit's tracks disappearing in a swarm of feathered death?
Point being: Birds can be straight-up terrifying, and the fact that dromaeosaurs shared so many features with them is an aesthetic asset, not a detriment. So why do movies, toys, and other media based on dinosaurs keep rehashing the same obsolete image each decade?
From Silva's perspective, it basically comes down to brand inertia. "In the case of Jurassic World and the Jurassic Park franchise in general, they'd established a deliberate, recognizable look for their dinosaurs and didn't want to lose that," he said. "For better or worse, the JP dinosaurs are movie monsters no different than a Xenomorph or a Predator for instance. You can make updates to the designs, but a complete overhaul would be considered too uncertain and with so much money involved, you can't risk abandoning your audience."
"The popularity of the Jurassic Park franchise has always been a double-edged sword for fans of real dinosaurs. We're happy that they've made dinosaurs so popular, they just aren't quite the right kind of 'dinosaurs.' And because Jurassic Park set this successful trend, the temptation of other companies to capitalize on this popular look is often too much to ignore."
But given the substantial interest in the "Beasts of the Mesozoic" Kickstarter so far, there is clearly a demand for portrayals of the right kind of dinosaurs, and one that extends far beyond raptors. Silva is already toying with the idea of putting together a similar series on ceratopsian dinosaurs, the group of horned herbivores that includes heavyweights like Triceratops, Styracosaurus, and Regaliceratops.
"The ceratopsian line will likely be next if the raptors get the go ahead," Silva said. "Past that, looking ahead to other possible series, tyrannosaurs and ankylosaurs would be very high on the list for me as well. Pterosaurs would also be amazing."