Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Dakotaraptor: Terror of the Hell Creek Forest

Can you believe it? We've only got just over a week till Christmas! I've been busying myself with trying to get all the Christmas movies on my “watch-list” watched and decorating around the house. Have you guys started decorating yet? Or do you prefer to start decorating later in the two nights before Christmas? Let me know in the comments below.

As you might have noticed (if you're a dinosaur nut-case like me, anyway), that 2015 has been a great year for dinosaur-lovers! We've had more fascinating discoveries than you can shake a stick at, lots of dinosaur documentaries were aired, The Good Dinosaur is in theaters now AND last but not least, Jurassic World finally came out in theaters this past summer! I'll cover all the details of our dinosaur-filled 2015 in an upcoming article, but for now, I'd like to highlight one recent discovery that was released to us this past November. But first...

Days Till:
It is: 9 days till Christmas
It is: 16 days till New Year's
It is: 20 days till My Birthday
It is: 33 days till Martin Luther King Jr. Day

In the Spotlight:
As I'm sure many of you know, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is coming out this Friday. Unlike Jurassic World, we haven't had to wait 13 years for a sequel, but it should still be a pretty cool movie. I look forward to watching. When you see it, be sure to leave a comment down below and express how you liked the movie. In the meantime, here's the trailer:

Topic of the Week by Christian Ryan
The newly discovered Dakotaraptor (seen here as a skeleton) is truly an impressive find! (Wikimedia Commons)

The Hell Creek Formation, located in the badlands of Montana, North and South Dakota and Wyoming, represents a once-thriving ecosystem of the world before the Genesis Flood around 4,350 years ago, when the entire environment was inundated by floodwaters that swept away and buried countless animals and plants and preserved them. Today, the Hell Creek Formation yields a number of the more popular dinosaurs that lived in this environment, such as Triceratops, Ornithomimus and Edmontosaurus. And of course, these dinosaurs were hunted by the most famous dinosaur of all, Tyrannosaurus rex! For almost a century, T. rex was the sole apex predator that dominated the Hell Creek ecosystem, but this soon changed upon the discovery of an all-new dinosaur: a raptor, called Dakotaraptor steini.
The Hell Creek ecosystem would have been a lush, floodplain-like environment. (Wikimedia Commons)

Uncovered in northwestern South Dakota in 2005, Dakotaraptor's discovery is a unique one. Before, the 40-foot long, 7-9 ton T. rex was the only other apex predator found in the region. This seemed strange to paleontologists, because in both modern ecosystems and ecosystems of the pre-Flood world, there are always large, medium and small-sized predators. While T. rex fossils have been found in Hell Creek since the late 1800's (though the dinosaur wasn't officially named until 1905) in relatively great abundance, all scientists knew of other Hell Creek predators came from scattered and broken teeth. No bones, claws or skulls. Just the teeth. It was only in 2013 that these teeth were found to belong to a turkey-sized, recently discovered dromaeosaur called Acheroraptor. Why were there no medium-sized predators in this ecosystem? This all changed in 2015 when paleontologist Robert Depalma, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Palm Beach Museum of Natural History, and his research team, and several other paleontologists including Dr. Peter Larson, Dr. Larry Dean Martin, and Dr. Robert Bakker, finished and published their study on October 30th on the raptor leg and arm bones, tail vertebrae, teeth and wishbone unearthed in 2005. They realized they had found a new species of raptor.

Dakotaraptor steini was 16-18 feet long, stood up to nine feet tall and weighed about 500 pounds. (Wikimedia Commons)
 They named the new species of raptor Dakotaraptor steini; the genus name means “Dakotan Plunderer”, in reference to South Dakota, while the species name is a reference to paleontologist Walter W. Stein.

Dakotaraptor was about the size of the raptors in Jurassic World. ("Dakota raptor scale mmartyniuk" by Matthew Martyniuk - Own work)
The word “raptor” is properly used to refer to all members of the dromaeosauridae family. Dromaeosaurs were a family of relatively small predatory dinosaurs found throughout Cretaceous Flood deposits. They come in a wide range of sizes and lived in a vast array of habitats. While most raptors are smaller than a domestic turkey, Utahraptor is by far the largest, weighing up to 1,100 lbs and reaching 23 feet long; however the most famous is undoubtedly the turkey-sized Velociraptor, the intelligent pack-hunting assassin from the Jurassic Park franchise. Dakotaraptor measures in at about six to nine feet tall (depending on body posture) and 16-17 feet from nose to tail, making it about the size of the genetically-engineered, man-sized versions of Velociraptor seen in Jurassic World. This means it was almost the size of its cousin Utahraptor, making it the second-largest raptor we have discovered so far. According to Dr. Thomas Hotlz, “That is what is important about this find. In fact, it was rather bigger than most of us expected, almost the size of the largest known dromaeosaurid, the...Utahraptor.” Like other members of the dromaeosaur family, Dakotaraptor would have possessed dozens of needle-sharp teeth, forward-facing eyes, a long, stiff tail for balance and sharp claws on its hand and feet, things that were essential for an agile predator. Like modern birds, Dakotaraptor (as did other raptors, like Velociraptor) had a wishbone that gave extra strength to its arms. Raptors are famous for having large, sickle-shaped claws on the second toe of each foot, and Dakotaraptor was certainly no exception! Its claw was 9 ½-inches long and unusually large, even for a dromaeosaur. Dr. DePalma described Dakotaraptor as “the most lethal thing you can possibly throw into the Hell Creek ecosystem.”

Dakotaraptor had a huge, sickle-shaped claw on each foot for making devastating wounds in its prey. (Wikimedia Commons)

Evolutionary scientists are especially excited by the discovery of Dakotaraptor because they found tiny bumps that they interpreted to be quill knobs on one of the creature's forearms. In birds, quill knobs are the attachment points for flight feathers. A similar claim was made in 2007 when scientists allegedly identified quill knobs on a Velociraptor forearm. Evolutionists are eager to use evidence like this to try and prove the theory that dinosaurs evolved into bird. There are several problems with this idea, however, many of which we have covered before. In addition to these problems, these bumps are not necessarily quill knobs and may in fact be attachment points, not for feathers, but connective tissues, as evolutionary paleontologist Darren Naish pointed out in his 2010 blog post regarding another theropod called Concavenator. In his blog article, he also brought up the fact that quill knob-like bumps have been found on the bones of mammals too, and mammals clearly do not sprout feathers. This of course doe not mean Dakotaraptor and other dinosaurs like it weren't feathered; the concept of feathered dinosaurs is not unbiblical, though it is unscientific until actual dinosaurs, with actual feathers are discovered. They would merely be dinosaurs that God created with feathers, like He created all the other land animals on Day 6 as described in Genesis chapter 1.

Was Dakotaraptor a feathered dinosaur? While feathered dinosaurs aren't unbiblical, there is not enough evidence to support this claim. (Wikimedia Commons)
As I mentioned earlier, ecosystems, both modern and extinct, generally have predators that come in small, medium and large sizes. Dakotaraptor helps paleontologists fill in the ecological gap between smaller predators from Hell Creek (e.g. recall Acheroraptor, known only from isolated teeth and pieces of the skull) and the monstrous Tyrannosaurus. Did Dakotaraptor fight with T. rex for food? Perhaps on occasion, but they probably more often gave each other their space and specialized in eating certain species of herbivorous dinosaurs. This is the case in modern ecosystems. What would have been on the menu? Well, Dakotaraptor had many species to choose from, such as the duck-billed Edmontosaurus and the three-horned Triceratops. They could have also hunted down faster dinosaurs, such as Ornithomimus and Struthiomimus, creatures adult T. rex were too slow to catch.

Perhaps Dakotaraptor fought with juvenile T. rex for food. (Wikimedia Commons)
Even though Dakotaraptor looked an awful lot like its cousin Utahraptor, there were plenty of differences between the two which would have affected how the dinosaurs hunted prey. At around 1,000 pounds, Utahraptor was more heavily-built; it probably had a top speed of about 20-30 mph. While no doubt quick and agile, it didn't need to be especially fast because it was more specialized for taking down larger animals. It would probably lie in ambush until it was close enough to the prey to strike and take down the prey relatively quickly. Dakotaraptor was different; it was a much more lightly-built animal, weighing about 500 pounds, akin to its smaller relatives like Deinonychus and Dromaeosaurus. It was likely an attack-and-dash kind of hunter and was probably capable of running after prey at 30-40 mph, making it more of a long-distance runner; this would come in handy if it chose to chase down an ornithomimid. Many paleontologists believe that Dakotaraptor would have hunted in packs, enabling them to bring down animals far larger than themselves. Evidence for this idea comes from fossil sites holding several individual dromaeosaur skeletons near an herbivorous ornithopod that bears the bite marks and broken teeth in and around the herbivore's bones, and fossil trackways that were made all at the same time by a small group of dromaeosaurs. Then, when Dakotaraptor reached its prey, it would attack with its claws and teeth. That nine-inch sickle-claw on each foot could slice deadly lacerations into the sides of Dakotaraptor's prey. “It had one of the strongest killing strokes in that slashing claw of any raptor known,” DePalma boasted. I don't know if I'd like to be present when a pack of these raptors attacked and mercilessly brought down a hapless hadrosaur!

Dakotaraptor was a lethal predator! (Wikimedia Commons)
Fast. Agile. Aggressive. Relatively intelligent. Lethal. Pack-hunting. Dakotaraptor – the new kid in T. rex's neighborhood – was one of the most deadly predators to roam the Hell Creek forests and floodplains more than 4,350 years ago.

Dakotaraptor was one of the most deadly predators ever to roam the Hell Creek ecosystem. (Wikimedia Commons)

Disclaimer: The images above are not my own unless otherwise indicated. If you own one of the above images and want it removed, please notify me via my email.

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