By Robert M. Peck and Mike Cummings
If the blood-thirsty Velociraptors in Jurassic World look disturbingly familiar, it may be because you have seen two of their bigger-than-life bronze equivalents leaping toward the front door of the Academy ever since they were installed outside of the museum in 1987.
Created by sculptor Kent Ullberg to commemorate the Academy’s 175th birthday, the sculpture portrays the real-life dinosaur Deinonychus antirrhopus, a “terrible clawed” predator from the early Cretaceous Period that was discovered in Montana by Yale paleontologist John Ostrom in 1964.
Deinonychus was an aggressive raptor that slashed and disemboweled its prey with large sickle-like rear claws. Ostrom named the creature Deinonychus, which means “terrible claw” in Greek.
Its front claws were like grappling hooks for grasping prey, while the hind claws did their brutal work. Its long and unusually rigid tail provided stability and balance, like a tightrope walker’s pole, during chases and leaping attacks.
According to Ostrom, this aggressive behavior suggested that Deinonychus had a high-rate of metabolism and was warm-blooded. His work questioned the traditional view of dinosaurs as plodding, cold-blooded reptiles.
It helped revive a 19th-century theory that at least some species of dinosaurs were much more like non-flying birds than lizards. Ostrom would become a leading proponent of the link between dinosaurs and birds, a premise that is widely accepted today.
Ostrom’s discoveries, combined with the work of Robert Bakker (who studied under Ostrom at Yale) and Gregory Paul, sparked a “dinosaur renaissance” during the 1970s and 1980s, and earned Ostrom the Academy’s prestigious Ferdinand Hayden medal in 1986. His discovery also caught the attention of the bestselling science-fiction writer, Michael Crichton.
“I was in my office when the telephone rang one morning. ‘Professor Ostrom, this is Michael Crichton,’” Ostrom told The New York Times in a 1997 interview. “And we had a very interesting conversation [about Deinonychus and its physical capabilities].”
Increasing its size, and renaming the animal Velociraptor, Crichton featured the beady-eyed predator in his 1990 novel, and it became one of the signature dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and the series of films that have followed, including Jurassic World.
If you would like to see what Deinonychus (aka Velociraptor) really looked like, visit the Academy’s Dinosaur Hall, where a number of skeleton casts are on display attacking a family of plant-eating dinosaurs. On your way in, you will pass beneath the terrifying rush of two of the world’s most iconic predators, erected years before Velociraptor became a household name.
Robert M. Peck is the Academy’s Senior Fellow. Mike Cummings is a communications officer at Yale University.