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In light of young William Tracy's request for information about "raptor"
dinosaurs and Judy Molnar's recommendation of Lessem's RAPTORS! THE
NASTIEST DINOSAURS (as well as the continuing debate over the
commercialization of dinosaurs), I offer the following, an (unpublished)
editorial that I submitted to my local paper last year as one of a series
of dinosaur-related articles I was trying to get them interested in:



Written by Brian Franczak

In his best-selling 1990 novel JURASSIC PARK, author Michael Crichton used
a small predatory dinosaur named _Velociraptor_ as one of the villians of
the piece. In the book, Crichton nicknamed these dinosaurs "raptors". A few
years later, when adapting the novel to film, Steven Spielberg used the
same nickname, a perfectly natural progression of events. The trouble is
that the nickname "raptor" has now passed into common usage in reference to
an entire family of dinosaurs, despite the fact that it is not a legitimate
term for those animals and already has a prior meaning in science. Now
obviously, the novel and the film are works of fiction, and purveyors of
fiction cannot really be taken to task for playing fast and loose with
fact. But since then, renowned paleontologist Robert Bakker has adopted the
use of that name as well (most prominently in his novel RAPTOR RED), as has
Dinosaur Society founder/popular writer Don Lessem in his 1996 children's

As an illustrator, I find it ironic to be cast in the role of conservative
regarding this issue, but the simple truth is that the use of the term
"raptors" to describe the family of sickle-clawed dinosaurs properly known
as *dromaeosaurs* is both inappropriate and indefensible. Additionally, the
blurring of the line between *real* science and science *fiction*
demonstrated by this act sets a dangerous precedent.

In *real* science, the name *raptor* is a general term for living birds of
prey such as hawks and eagles. Until Crichton's use of the word as a
nickname in his novel, that was the only definition of the word. The Latin
term *raptor* *is* used as a suffix in certain dinosaur names but has
*never* been a proper term for any specific type of dinosaur. Why, then,
this misappropriation of the name "raptor"? The origin of the nickname is
obvious: *raptor* from _Velociraptor_. Granted, it's catchy, but to go from
a catchy nickname for *one animal* in a piece of fiction to ascribing this
nickname to an *entire family* of real world dinosaurs (based on the
presence of the suffix -_raptor_ in two of the family members' names) is
misleading. As it stands right now, more dinosaurs have the suffix
-_raptor_ in their name that *aren't* even *vaguely* related to each other,
than do those that *are* related. To wit: the family of dinosaurs being
incorrectly refered to as "raptors" includes the aforementioned
_Velociraptor_, the giant dromaeosaur _Utahraptor_, and others with names
like _Deinonychus_, _Dromaeosaurus_, _Saurornitholestes_, _Adasaurus_, and
_Hulsanpes_. The "raptors" in this "family" are outnumbered five to two by
their own relatives! This issue is further confused by dinosaurs such as
_Eoraptor_, a small South American predator that lived in the early
Triassic; _Sinraptor_, an allosaur- like big meat-eater from the late
Jurassic of Asia; and _Conchoraptor_ and _Oviraptor_, very bird-like beaked
predatory dinosaurs from mid-Cretaceous Mongolia. Except for _Conchoraptor_
and _Oviraptor_, these dinosaurs are not related to each other at all, nor
are they related in any way to the dromaeosaurs. Using the logic that a
family of "raptor" dinosaurs is scientifically acceptable because of the
presence of the suffix -_raptor_ in their names, a case can be made that
the Oviraptoridae is a better choice for this appellation since that family
has *three* members that fit that description: _Conchoraptor_, and two
distinct species of _Oviraptor_ (_O. philoceratops_ and _O. mongoliensis_).

In his book RAPTORS!, Lessem states, "...Not every raptor is a raptor
dinosaur. Confused? The word *raptor* (is) a name scientists usually use to
describe birds of prey... Paleontologists don't use the name *raptor* to
describe the group to which these... dinosaurs belong. They call them the
Dromaeosauridae..." In the very next paragraph, however, he goes on to say,
"...So what makes a dinosaur a true raptor, a member of the
Dromaeosauridae?..." and proceeds to describe the qualifications for
belonging to the "raptor" family of dinosaurs. "...Confused?..." he asks.
Of course it's confusing! It's contradictory! The source of all this
confusion becomes readily apparent upon reading the introduction to
Lessem's book. It is a paean to Steven Spielberg, who is, in Lessem's own
words, a man who "...knows something about dinosaurs..." He very well may
know something, but he is hardly an authority. Spielberg is a filmmaker,
not a paleontologist. His use of the term "raptor" in his film is perfectly
acceptable, but it does not convey legitimacy, any more than did Crichton's
use of it in his novel.

Lessem, I suppose, can be forgiven for buying into Hollywood hype (although
I find this lack of regard for the rules of science distasteful,
particularly in a children's book purporting to be factual in content); he
is, after all, just a writer, and not a scientist either. Robert Bakker, on
the other hand, *is* a paleontologist, and in light of his immense
popularity, his use of the term "raptor" is even more disheartening, since
people (particularly impressionable children) tend to hang on his every
word as gospel. Of course, considering the source, it should be expected.
Bakker's specialty has always been sensationalism; he loves playing the
iconoclast. He, too, sings Spielberg's praises in a 1993 article in EARTH
magazine, where he lauds the director's decision to turn the _Velociraptor_
of Crichton's novel (in reality, the dinosaur was 6 feet long) into a beast
three times its natural size. Bakker makes Spielberg's decision,
coincidental with the discovery of the 20-foot-long _Utahraptor_, seem more
than it was: "...Nature rewards wise artistic choices," he writes, "choices
that come from an intuitive understanding of what is plausible in the
natural world, what sort of transformations could take place. Spielberg's
decision to create a super-sized raptor was a case in point... Just a bit
of luck? No, I don't think so..."

"...wise artistic choices..."? "...intuitive understanding of what is
plausible in the natural world..."? Hardly. It seems highly doubtful that
Spielberg's "decision to invent a super-sized raptor" was either prescient
or based on some deep-rooted understanding of evolutionary trends; more
likely it was motivated by his purely commercial director's sense that
"bigger is better" on film, his perception that giant dinosaurs are scarier
-- and therefore more marketable -- that little ones.

This trend, exemplified by Lessem and Bakker (and unfortunately, now
others) to exalt novelists and Hollywood filmmakers, to elevate them to the
status of authority, is disturbing. Lending scientific validity to "cool"
nicknames and the specious scientific practices of fictionmongers only
serves to confuse and misinform the public at large, whose grasp of
scientific principles and processes is often tenuous to begin with.
Unfortunately, dinosaurs are popular right now, and the sensationalistic
pap purveyed by Crichton, Spielberg, Bakker, and Lessem will not soon
abate. Also unfortunately, the public seems only too eager these days to
swallow this "scientific" junk-food, to endlessly regurgitate nonsense
rather than partake of something of real substance.

It's too bad. Dinosaurs -- and science in general -- are more than
interesting enough without the "cool" nicknames and Hollywood-style hype.
We'd all be a lot better off if the fad for trendy science was the next
thing to go extinct...


Bakker, Bob
"Cretaceous Park"
EARTH, September 1993

Lessem, Don
Little, Brown and Company 1996

Brian Franczak (franczak@ntplx.net)