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How Raptors Really Used Their Claws

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.


Dinosaur fans out there, I know that your pantheon of favorites won’t be complete without those fast two-legged killers. You know, the dromaeosaurids, though most people knew them by another name. The raptors. The fascination with these sleek “plunderers” was probably induced by Jurassic Park movies, when we first saw them chasing those kids around the room. In later films, they were slowly portrayed in a more positive light, until it joined the tyrant lizard king as a hero. Among the many raptor species, the Velociraptor received the honor of being featured in a film series, though the portrayal wasn’t exactly accurate.

But long before they were animated for theatrics, the raptors were already intriguing people as soon as they were unearthed. This was especially true among the scientific community, as the body plan of the raptors helped rekindle the idea that dinosaurs were not slow creatures, but hot blooded, active, and bird-like. This so called “dinosaur renaissance” started through the study of John Ostrom of the Deinonychus in the late 1960s.

But above all, raptors were known for that thing on their feet. Their large and frightening claw that earned the raptors their fame. These monsters have built in slashing weapons for disemboweling prey.

But believe it or not, there are disagreements on what that enormous claws are for, and not all paleontologists think that it was a slashing tool. Some reckoned that the usage is different, which leads to varying theories and some retelling on how these guys hunted.

General Theory

A Jurassic Park scene, where an unfortunate Velociraptor attempted to claw a T-rex.

A Jurassic Park scene, where an unfortunate Velociraptor attempted to claw a T-rex.

Depending on the size of the creature, the claws on the second toe could reach the length of 9.5 inches. To give you an idea on how large that is, the usual blade size of an EDC pocketknife is 3 inches. A large working pocketknife has a blade length of 3.5 inches. A Ka-Bar USMC fighting knife is even larger, with a frightening seven-inch blade. But even the imposing military blade came two inches shorter when compared to a Utahraptor claw of 9.5 inches. And when you got extra-large blades, it means you can slash with it. And that’s how American paleontologist John Ostrom described the usage of the Deinonychus claw in 1969. When used with powerful kicks, it could slash open large ceratopsian dinosaurs.

And come to think of it, those enormous claws were comparable with the ones found in modern day dinosaurs, the birds. The large flightless runners like ostriches and cassowaries have nasty kicks, and large claws on their second toes (though not the recurved ones like the raptors). They also have a history of killing unfortunate humans, as what the 241 cases of cassowary attacks showed.

The prospect of a clawed monster slicing a prey to death of is impressive and frightening, but other paleontologists were doubtful about this

For Climbing and Stabbing

A Deinonychus climbing a tree.

A Deinonychus climbing a tree.

Philip Manning’s interpretation on the claw usage is different though, and he based it on its shape. That large second claw is more as a stabbing weapon rather than a slasher, and a good climbing aid as well. Through biomechanical analysis and X-ray imaging, they found out that the stress distribution along the claw made it ideal for climbing. Like Ostrom, he also made a comparison to modern birds, but this time to modern day raptors, the birds of prey. The sharpened tip of the raptorial dinosaurs’ claws is a good puncturing and gripping instrument, with the curvature helping to evenly transfer the stress.

So, the creature might have used its claws for scaling elevated places and stabbed with it as well.

The Raptor Prey Restraint (RPR)

Raptors kill in a more gruesome manner.

Raptors kill in a more gruesome manner.

The term Raptor Prey Restraint, or RPR might sound like an exotic Brazilian Jiujitsu submission move, but this applies to raptorial dinosaurs instead. And it suggested that raptors killed their prey in the same manner as modern birds of prey. Now going back to likening raptorial dinosaur’s killing move to cassowaries, people pointed out that although cassowaries could kill people, they never really disembowel them with their claws. What’s more is the fact that cassowary claws are different than raptor claws, and raptorial dinosaurs’ feet rather resembled that of the birds of prey.

Hence, paleontologist Denver Fowler of Montana State University felt that they might be used in the same way.

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He described his “ripper” model like this. A raptor like a Deinonychus would leap unto its target and pinned it down. The sickle claws of its foot won’t do slashing moves, but instead it dug into its victim to restrain it. Thus, its claw acted like anchors to prevent its prey from wriggling away.

And now comes the gory part.

Unlike tyrannosaurids, with a powerful bone crushing jaws, raptorial dinosaurs have relatively weaker jaws. Hence to dispose of its victim, raptors tore its victims alive as it held it in its claws.

This hunting and killing model are comparable to how modern birds of prey kill a rabbit or any prey item, with them swooping down and using their talons. And it might help explain the origin of flight. To maintain its balance, Fowler thinks that large raptors flapped its feathery arm. And the grasping adaptation of its feet gave its descendants the right shape for perching.

But one might wonder how close the raptorial dinosaurs’ feet is to the modern raptors.

They have close resemblance.

Modern birds of prey have larger claw on their second toe. The Deinonychus metatarsus was short and stocky, like an owl, which indicated a grasping adaptation. And the feet of large accipitrids, like hawks and eagles are the closest thing we could get to a Deinonychus foot.

But for some people, a raptorial dinosaur pinning a smaller prey with their feet lacked the spectacle of a slashing monster of pop culture. But then again, bear in mind that golden eagles use the same method to kill large preys. Reindeers, dogs, and goats were the big games of golden eagles. If the eagles could do it to larger animals, then a Deinonychus can. And the famous fossil of a Velociraptor fighting a Protoceratops confirmed that dromaeosaurids seek larger prey.

The Fighting Dinosaurs Fossil

Velociraptor and Protoceratops locked in a fossilized battle.

Velociraptor and Protoceratops locked in a fossilized battle.

And now that we spoke of the Velociraptor fossil, the fossilized remains of the fighting dinosaurs also gave clues on the usage of the sickle claws. Two creatures, the Protoceratops andrewsi and Velociraptor mongoliensis were buried in sand, possibly during a sandstorm or by a collapsing dune. The sickle claw is embedded on the throat of its prey, as the protoceratops clamped on its arm. This suggested that it never slashed with its claw but used it to target vital organs of the throat.


Ideas about dinosaur changes over time, and what we thought as sleek lizard-like creatures were feathery bird-like creatures instead. And even the way they hunted changed, and although only theories could be offered, at least one thing is certain now.

It never slashed with its claws.


1. Connif, Richard (July 2014). "The man who saved the dinosaurs." Yale Alumni Magazine.

2. Dino claes for 'climbing, not killing' (February 24, 2015). Retrived from

3. Yong, Ed (December 14, 2011). "Deinonychus and Velociraptors used their killing claws to pin prey, like eagles and hawks." National Geographic.

4. Pantuso, Philip (July 17, 2019) "Perhaps the best dinosaur fossil ever discovered. So why has hardly anyone seen it?" The Guardian.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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