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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 October 2005, 23:18 GMT 00:18 UK
Dino reputation 'is exaggerated'
The dimensions of the hydraulic limb reflected what is known from the fossil record

The Velociraptor dinosaur made famous by the Hollywood movie Jurassic Park may not have been quite the super-efficient killer we all thought.

Like other dinos in its family, it had a distinctive sickle-shaped claw on the second toe which many have assumed was employed to disembowel victims.

But tests on a mechanical arm suggest this fearsome-looking appendage was probably used just to hang on to prey.

UK scientists report their experiments in the journal Biology Letters.

"This dispels the myth in place for some 40 years that this was a disembowelling claw - this is not the case," says Dr Phil Manning, from the Manchester Museum, University of Manchester.

"I'm saying that the primary function of this claw was to hold on to the prey, effectively like a climber's crampon," the curator of palaeontology told the BBC News website.

Dino kick

The Steven Spielberg movie took some liberties with its portrayal of Velociraptor.

The real creature belonged to the Dromaeosauridae, a family of small to medium-sized, lightly built and fast-running dinosaurs from the Cretaceous Period (146 million to 65 million years ago) who appear from the fossil record to have been very effective predators.

There is even evidence some, such as Deinonychus, hunted in packs.

Mechanical claw (University of Manchester/Manning)
It's effectively like a fatal embrace
Dr Phil Manning
They all possessed a large, curved claw on their big toes that could rotate through an arc in excess of 200 degrees.

By kicking and slashing, it has been widely thought these creatures could quickly open up their unfortunate victims, either killing them outright or making them bleed so profusely death followed very quickly.

Dr Manning and his team tested the reputation on a robotic arm fitted with a life-like dromaeosaur claw. The set-up was based on detailed fossil measurements.

The mechanical limb mimicked the sort of kick that might have come from a 2m-long, 40kg Velociraptor. The Kevlar and carbon-fibre-coated aluminium claw was thrust into the flesh from pig and crocodile carcasses.

Skin impact

Instead of producing the expected slashing wounds, the robotic impacts created only small, rounded punctures.

Dromaeosaurs were fast and agile carnivores

What is more, the way the skin tissue bunched under the impacts prevented the claw from withdrawing easily.

The punctures had a depth of about 30-40mm.

"It seems highly unlikely that wounds of this depth would have posed a danger to the vital organs of a large herbivorous dinosaur, though they would obviously be fatal to small prey," the team writes in Biology Letters.

Dr Manning does not want people to think less of Velociraptor or Deinonychus because of the research.

Its killing efficiency may not have matched their Hollywood image but the creatures would still have presented a terrifying prospect.

Deadly pack

"It's effectively like a fatal embrace," he told the BBC News website.

"These claws were used to hook into the flanks of prey larger than them so the jaws could do the despatching.

Mechanical claw (University of Manchester/Manning)
A Kevlar and carbon-fibre coating gave the claw realistic properties
"Imagine the scene: it's the Lower Cretaceous, and tenontosaurs (large, plant-eating dinosaurs) are grazing on ferns or cycads, going about their everyday business," he added.

"Unbeknown to them, you've got a pack of predators stalking them.

"First, [the dromaeosaurs] try to separate the animal they wish to kill by running into the pack.

"The lead attacker then jumps on to the flanks of the animal, followed by maybe two or three others, hooking the huge claws in their feet into the animal and holding on with the re-curved claws on their hands.

"And once they're hooked into their prey, the razor sharp teeth of their jaws go to work causing as much blood loss as possible to weaken the animal.

"Eventually, the other animals come over for the kill, probably ripping open the throat and stomach with their teeth - not their claws."

The results of research were first shown on The Truth about Killer Dinosaurs, a BBC television production.


SEE ALSO:
Experts tell Mr from Mrs dinosaur
02 Jun 05 |  Science/Nature
Eggs found inside dinosaur fossil
15 Apr 05 |  Science/Nature
T. rex fossil has 'soft tissues'
24 Mar 05 |  Science/Nature
Killer dino 'turned vegetarian'
04 May 05 |  Science/Nature
South American dino's wider roam
24 Feb 05 |  Science/Nature


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