Like millions of people this summer, I reveled in the blockbuster spectacle of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. But I fought the urge to scream when leaving the cinema:
It’s the lament of many paleontologists like me, who study real dinosaurs for a living. So many of the dinosaurs in this installment of Jurassic Park—like the T. rex-raptor hybrid—fall squarely in the realm of science fiction.
There is, however, one particular plot point that struck me as worthy of some serious scientific reflection: The pack of Velociraptors trained by Chris Pratt.
Let’s presume that, somehow, scientists discovered dinosaur fossil DNA, which has never happened. Then they successfully resurrected a bunch of dinosaurs—which, even with DNA, would be highly improbable. At that point, could the feisty, flesh-eating raptors be domesticated?
Don’t laugh, but I think the answer is yes.
Let’s first consider the Velociraptor that lived about 75 million years ago in what is now Mongolia. The Hollywood version is scaly and much too large. As I explain in my new book The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, the real Velociraptor was about the size of a golden retriever, with a long snout full of sharp teeth and an arsenal of killer claws. It was completely coated in feathers, and boasted a small wing of colorful quills on its arms that it probably used for display, or maybe even to awkwardly fly for short distances.
If you saw a Velociraptor in real life, you would probably just think it was some sort of big, weird bird that spends most of its time on the ground and uses its gaudy feathers to attract mates. Something kind of like a turkey—a bird native to North America. While turkeys are still found in the wild, they were domesticated by humans over a millennium ago, and are now a common sight in farmyards around the world.
Sure, a Velociraptor would probably be far feistier rendition than a turkey. But then again, as anyone who has ever been one-on-one on a farm with male turkey in heat would attest—including me—those goofy Thanksgiving birds can be vicious. The internet is also abuzz with stories, and surprisingly terrifying videos, of wild turkeys attacking people and pets.
So if humans could domesticate turkeys, why not Velociraptor?
Then there’s the matter of the Velociraptor’s intelligence. Velociraptor is one of many dinosaur species classified in the group Dromaeosauridae, the fancy name for the raptors. These iconic predators originated sometime in the Middle Jurassic period some 170 million years ago. From there they spread around the globe, diversifying into a variety of creatures that ranged from pigeon-sized to larger than a human. They were supremely adaptable creatures, adept at surviving in the lower rungs of the food chain dominated by bus-sized beasts like T. rex.
One key to the success of the Dromaeosauridae was their high intelligence and keen senses. They had the largest brains, relative to their body sizes, of any dinosaurs, and were surely as intelligent as many modern mammals and birds. Some provocative new evidence suggests they were even as brainy as some primates. An animal this smart could surely be trained—maybe even to do tricks, like the raptors in the film.
Another reason it might be possible to create a raptor squad of your very own: They were pack animals. Studying dinosaur behavior can be very difficult, but some remarkable fossils give insight into the social life of Velociraptor. One prehistoric crime scene in Montana includes the remains of four raptors alongside the skeleton of their dinner, a much larger plant-eater. Another site, in China, preserves several parallel and closely spaced raptor trackways, signs that many of them were traveling together. This means that the movies do get one thing right: Raptors hunted together as a group.
If you saw a gang of Velociraptors in action—an alpha leading his or her troops on the hunt—it would probably evoke a pack of wolves. Wolves, of course, are the wild ancestors of our favorite domesticated animals of all, the dogs that today keep us company as pets, act as service animals, pull snow sleds, herd sheep, and perform countless other duties under the watchful eye of humans. The highly social pack lifestyle of wolves is thought to be a major reason why they were such trainable animals for ancient humans. The same logic could well apply to velociraptors.
As somebody who has studied raptor fossils, I have no doubt that we humans are much better off not having to coexist with dinosaurs. But if that scifi fantasy came true, perhaps it’s comforting to imagine your very own loyal, fluffy, serviceable pet Velociraptor.
Steve Brusatte is on the faculty of the University of Edinburgh and author of the new book The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs.