Part Two: Julieraptor — The raptor rescued from rustlers.
Small and mid-sized raptors swarmed over the landscape in the Late Cretaceous. Velociraptor, as heavy as a coyote, haunted the sand-dunes of Mongolia. The Rocky Mountain states hosted Bambiraptor, a predator no bigger than a rotisserie chicken. Here is our cast of “Julieraptor,” a close relative dug from near Malta, Mont.
These mini-raptors were big-brained by dinosaur standards — as smart as a wild turkey (not the dumbed-down domestic version). Their eyes were huge — an adaptation for chasing nimble prey, like furry mammals and tree-climbing lizards. The extra-long arms and fingers gave the raptors three-dimensional abilities — they could scramble up trees quadrupedally, grabbing branches with claws on front and back paws. Long feathers on the arms and legs let the raptors glide from branch to branch like dino-flying squirrels.
Even little raptors could be dangerous to larger dinosaurs — these carnivores were armed with the standard raptor-fighting claw on the hind leg, a weapon that could inflict ghastly wounds.
“Julieraptor” played a central role in a modern-day case of dino-rustling. The original specimen was found in 2002 by a crew of talented amateurs working with the local non-profit museum in Malta, Mont. Mark Thompson, a leader of the group, nicknamed the animal after his sister, Julie. Mark picked up some finger bones and claws and bits of the skull. These fossils were lying on the surface where the rock had been washed away by rain and wind. He suspected that most of the skeleton was still buried in the ground, but he didn’t dig down. Since the spot was on a private ranch, the fossils actually belonged to the land owner, so the crew would have to wait until the museum and the land owner could negotiate a full excavation. The original box of fingers and bits stayed in a museum drawer.
A few years later, another individual working with the Malta museum claimed to have found a second raptor from a totally different spot in another Montana county. He planned to make money for himself by selling replicas of the skeleton, which he nicknamed “Sid Vicious.”
But the folks from the Malta museum became suspicious. This “new” specimen was exactly the same size as Julieraptor. And the anatomy was exactly the same, too. Even the color of the bones matched perfectly. The two specimens seemed to be from identical twins. Finally, the museum crew compared the finger bones of both specimens side-by-side. The broken ends of the bones of Julieraptor fit precisely onto the hand of “Sid Vicious.”
Then museum investigators went out to where the original Julieraptor bones had been picked up from the surface. There was a huge hole. Clearly, someone had snuck in and excavated the rest of the skeleton.
Case closed! There was no second Sid raptor. All the raptor bones came from one and the same specimen. The fellow who claimed to have found “Sid Vicious” was a raptor-rustler! He admitted his crime and spent several months in jail. The skeleton was returned to the land owner, who arranged to sell the specimen to the Royal Ontario Museum, a non-profit institution which specializes in Late Cretaceous dinosaurs.
Our cast of Julieraptor was made by the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, who worked closely with the land-owners.