Pyroraptor, "fire thief", is a "raptor" (technically a dromaeosaurid) from the Late Cretaceous of France, ~72 million years old. The name "Pyro" was chosen because it was discovered in an area cleared by a forest fire. The "raptor" comes from possessing a killing claw like its more famous cousin Velociraptor.
The known (handful) of bones suggest Pyroraptor would have been around 5' long and less than 20 lbs. Using phylogenetic bracketing it is believed it would have had feathers. However, there is zero indication it was aquatic, had webbed toes, or swam after prey as it is portrayed in Jurassic World Dominion.
Controversy has surrounded our fiery friend since it was named in 2000. Researchers have wondered if the bones are unique enough to justify it as being named its own genus, if it is actually a Variraptor, a French raptor named 2 years earlier, and is it even a traditional "raptor"? Let's dive in and discuss.
The authors stated all of the bones found at the dig site belong to a single individual. They named a single bone, a complete "killing claw" from a left foot, as the holotype. A left toe bone, and bones from the right side of the body including a killing claw, smaller toe claw, and ulna, plus two teeth make up the paratype. Referred material include 5 toe bones, 2 hand bones, a right radius, a caudal vertebra, and a dorsal vertebra (not figured or described in their paper).
None of these bones were articulated. The site produced at least 4 other kinds of dinosaurs, 4 kinds of turtles, and an alligatoroid. However, the bones appear to be the right size to belong to the same individual, there are no duplication of elements, and the bones do look like those of other "raptor" dinosaurs, suggesting they likely belong to the same individual animal.
Controversy 2 - Do these bones merit the naming of a new dinosaur?
For paleontologists to name a new dinosaur they need to identify a unique feature, or a suite of characters, that only appear on this type of dinosaur. The characters used to justify Pyroraptor's uniqueness are not unique as they appear in other "raptors". Though not ideal, if this is the first time a raptor from France was being named some paleontologists would be OK giving it a new name as it is quite probably a new kind of dinosaur. However...
Two years before Pyroraptor was named, the first French raptor, Variraptor ("Var thief") was named from rocks of a similar age. The holotype consists of a dorsal vertebra articulated with a sacrum possessing 5 sacral vertebrae. From a second locality a humerus, femur, sacral vertebra, and dorsal vertebra were referred to Variraptor. Nearly a decade later, an ilium that may belong to the holotype sacrum, an ulna, and teeth from the holotype location were described. Teeth, claws, another sacrum, and a femur from new localities were referred to Variraptor.
The authors of Pyroraptor argued the characters used to name Variraptor were not diagnostic and they considered the name invalid when naming Pyroraptor. With no overlapping material between the two animals it was impossible to compare them to one another. The referral of an ulna to Variraptor meant there was a bone that could be compared. However, though the ulnae did differ with Pyroraptor's having a depression on it, it isn't 100% certain the ulna actually belongs to Variraptor. In fact, because the Variraptor material comes from multiple localities it is possible we are looking at three French raptors. It should be noted that, because Variraptor was named first, should overlapping bones show they are the same animal, that animal would be called Variraptor.
It is also possible, if not probable, that neither of these specimens would have been named if found in a part of the world where raptors are common but, because these were among the first raptor bones found in France, they were named because raptors haven't been found in France before. This is similar to how the late 1800s paleontologists named nearly every bone found, regardless of how poor the material was, as it was something new from that area.
Controversy 3 - Is it even a "raptor"?
When people think of "raptors" they think of Velociraptor, Deinonychus, and Utahraptor, all which are dromaeosaurids (which take their name from Dromaeosaurus, the first "raptor" ever named), possessing large killing claws kept off of the ground so as to remain sharp. It was thought they evolved in North America and the radiated out around the world during the Cretaceous. However, finds in the last few decades have indicated things aren't so clear cut and that, in fact, there is an entire group of Velociraptor cousins that lived in South America, the unenlagiines. Named from the first of their kind discovered in 1997, Unenlagia ("bird half"), this group of Gondwanan raptors differ from North American dromaeosaurids in that their killing claws are smaller (proportionately), their foot grip strength is less, and their toe bones suggest they were faster. All of which indicate they hunted smaller prey than their Laurasian counterparts.
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