No Jurassic Park franchise film would be complete without an appearance by T. rex, but in both the original films and the new Jurassic World, the real terror over the course of the film is carried on much smaller forelimbs: the bloodthirsty, agile, intelligent velociraptors.
Of course, much of the attention on the new film has been devoted to the Indominus Rex, a terrifying fictional dino genetically engineered to be bigger and scarier than T. rex.
But once again, the makers of Jurassic World rely on velociraptors for the low-level guerilla warfare in the depths of the island – this time with a twist. The velociraptors are on the good guys’ side.
We’re not giving anything away that’s not in the previews to say that leading man Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) has an unusual talent: he is a velociraptor trainer. Using a clicker-and-treat method evocative of trainers at Sea World, Owen has trained his four velociraptors to come, stay, and crucially, to not do what would come naturally when a human enters their cage: pounce and kill with their razor-sharp teeth and horrifying sickle claws.
But would it really be possible, based on what we know about velociraptors, for them to be tamed by humans? This sounds highly implausible, but there are many things about Jurassic World that are – according to Jack Horner, the paleontologist that advises these films – more “scientifically plausible” than the original. So what would it take?
Velociraptors were pack animals, that much is clear. Pack behavior evolves in an entirely different way to solitary hunting or scavenging techniques; it requires intelligence for those animals to maintain a social hierarchy. Due to this social structure, it is plausible that raptors would have had the basic level of intelligence training requires.
And as paleontologist Jack Horner told Discover, “Birds are dinosaurs, and falconry is the training of birds of prey. In falconry reward of food and protection are the positive reinforcements that are advantageous for the birds. Because of the relationship of avian dinosaurs to non-avian dinosaurs, there is no reason to think that dinosaurs couldn’t have been trained using the same methods as falconry.”
The film itself hints at two possible methods for achieving this level of obedience.
One is the alpha male arrangement. Owen at one point says he is the raptors’ “alpha,” later saying, “It’s not about control. It’s a relationship based on respect.”
Among modern species alpha animals occur most widely among mammals. For example, alpha males lead troops of chimpanzees in hunting and social activities, and mountain gorillas use intimidation and aggressive behavior to establish themselves as the offspring-bearing alphas. Birds too show dominance-based hierarchies, with many having distinct alpha males.
Since modern-day birds are the descendants of the group of theropod dinosaurs that velociraptor belonged to (brought to light by the famous Archaeopteryx, a small, raven-like dinosaur with feathers and flight-ready features) it could be that this dominance arrangement was inherited from their dinosaurian ancestors, including the velociraptor.
So, in theory, Owen has used displays of aggression and dominance to elevate himself to become the velociraptors’ alpha male. But there’s a secondary approach that the movie hints at, one based less on dominance and more on nurturing: imprinting.
Owen tells another park employee, as an explanation for his bond with the raptors, “I imprint on them.” In other words, it appears that Owen has overseen the hatchings of these animals, imprinting his image as a caring figure from birth.
Imprinting takes many forms, but this method, called filial imprinting, is especially common among modern-day birds. In the 1930s by Konrad Lorenz, an animal behavioral scientist, showed that the common greylag geese exhibited this behavior. A large clutch of goose eggs was segregated into two groups: one was allowed to hatch normally amongst their mother, whereas the other hatched in the presence of Lorenz. So long as they saw him during a critical, time-sensitive window after hatching, they followed him around as if he was their own mother.
This is seen in many species of bird, including in modern day raptors, or birds of prey. Angelo d’Arrigo, an Italian hang-glider pilot, noted that gliders and migratory birds use similar flying techniques; he therefore thought that he could train captive birds to follow him. On his first attempt, he successfully guided ten cranes on a 3,400-mile journey.
Life Finds a Way
So there are two domestication scenarios, both hinted at in the movie. Keeping the detail intentionally vague on how the domestication of the velociraptors was achieved was a wise decision. Though we know that birds are the modern day descendants of dinosaurs, it also appears that dinosaurs shared some features of modern-day mammals in the way they grew and metabolized.
So whether a pack of raptors would be best trained by alpha dominance, by nurturing imprinting, or both, is an open question. And who could blame Owen for trying to cover all his bases as the first-ever raptor wrangler?
There is another alternative to these two approaches, one that’s not explored in the movie.
As we’ve said, there’s lots of genetic tinkering going on at Jurassic World, and so it doesn’t seem beyond the pale that researchers could have tweaked these raptors to be more docile. The genes contributing to aggression are far from currently worked out, but in the near-future setting of the film, it’s possible that those studies have been done. And at present scientists have shown that certain hormones in birds’ brains determine whether they’re aggressive or nice, and that genetic tweaks can make mean birds friendly. If it worked the same way in raptors, the mad scientists of Jurassic World could just shut down the hormone production and create cuddlier dinosaurs.
Whichever taming method was applied, Steve Brusatte, a University of Edinburgh paleontologist, seems confident of one thing. “It seems a bit risky to me: a bad type of animal to have as a pet. But hey, if it makes a good monster movie, then I’m all for it.”