Scientists have suspected for several years that velociraptors were feathered beasts, but only now have they been able to identify what they believe is conclusive proof. Close analysis of a velociraptor forelimb unearthed in Mongolia in 1998 reveals that quill knobs were present on the fossilised bone. Quill knobs, which are found on many modern bird species, are where the flight or wing feathers are anchored to the bone by ligaments.
Velociraptors had short forelimbs compared with modern birds’ wings, which has led researchers to conclude that they were flight-less but had probably descended from an extinct creature that had been able to fly. That the velociraptors had retained at least some feathers suggests that they continued to have a role, even if not for flight.
The researchers said that one of the most likely functions of the feathers was to display to other velociraptors, perhaps in courtship rituals or as a show of strength against aggressors. Other functions could have included use as a shield to protect eggs, a temperature control to prevent the dinosaurs from getting too hot or cold, or to help them to manoeuvre while running.
Mark Norell, one of the researchers from the American Museum of Natural History, said: “The more that we learn about these animals the more we find that there is basically no difference between birds and their closely related dinosaur ancestors like velociraptor. Both have wishbones, brooded their nests, possess hollow bones and were covered in feathers. If animals like velociraptor were alive today our first impression would be that they were just very unusual looking birds.”
The fossil analysed for the study came from a velociraptor that was estimated to have been 5ft (1.5m) long, 3ft tall and weighing 33lb (15kg) when it died.