“You just found Spielberg’s raptor!”
Paleontologist Robert Bakker’s exclamation to his colleague, Jim Kirkland, on the phone back in 1991 was quite literally about a big discovery.
Digging in Gaston Quarry in Grand County, Utah, Kirkland had uncovered fossils of giant newly discovered raptor. Snout to tail, the ferocious creature would’ve been about 20 feet long and six feet tall, with long, curved, razor-sharp talons on each foot measuring nearly a foot in length.
At the time, Bakker was consulting with some of the dinosaur artists on Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Jurassic Park, and he had a problem. He knew the now-iconic Velociraptors in the movie were going to be about three times larger than they actually were — or exactly the size of Kirkland’s soon-to-be-named Utahraptor (pronounced “Utah-raptor”).
Bakker tells this story in the preface of his book Raptor Red, a 1995 novel told from the perspective of a Utahraptor in the Cretaceous period. It was the perfect additional reading for dinosaur-obsessed ‘90s kids like me. In years afterward, I thought about the story of that phone call, where Bakker told Kirkland about “Spielberg’s raptor.”
This was an awesome toy.
Utahraptor quickly became one of my favorite dinosaurs. I got a toy of one and was quick to point out to people that the Velociraptors in Jurassic Park actually bore more resemblance to the Utahraptor. I did additional research and found its full, scientific name was almost Utahraptor spielbergi in honor of the director, though I never found out why that didn’t happen. Twenty-five years later, I finally found the answer.
It’s a story with as many twists as a Diplodocus tail. But much like the plot of Jurassic Park, the pursuit of producing an unrivaled spectacle — whether it be Dr. John Hammond’s dinosaur park or the real-life $47 million opening weekend — ultimately destroyed the idea for a Spielberg fossil.
“We uncovered it.”
Robert Bakker is a well-known figure in paleontology. He’s even mentioned by name in the first Jurassic Park film when Tim talks about a “book by a guy named Bakker.” (Despite this shoutout, Bakker tells Inverse: “We all hated Timmy, what an obnoxious character”). Bakker also appears in a 1994 Jurassic Park video game and was the basis for the character Robert Burke — the bearded paleontologist who was eaten by a Tyrannosaurus rex — in The Lost World: Jurassic Park.
Jim Kirkland, meanwhile, is a paleontology giant in his own right. Working in the field for over 40 years, he’s the state paleontologist for Utah and has taken part in discovering and naming a staggering 26 new dinosaurs. Despite being focused on armored dinosaurs like Gastonia, Kirkland’s biggest discovery is the Utahraptor, which went mainstream in ’93 when it provided support for Spielberg’s outsized vision.
The first bits of Utahraptor were uncovered in 1975 by paleontologist Jim Jensen, but they were too fragmented to identify. It wasn’t until 16 years later that Kirkland fully discovered Utahraptor, along with Robert Gaston and Donald Burge, on a dig sponsored by the Prehistoric Museum in 1991.
“Before we knew what we had, we just saw a jaw with teeth,” Kirkland recalls. “But then this guy Carl Limone calls over to me and says, ‘You’ve got a cervical rib over here.’”
Kirkland was in an uncomfortable position over the specimen’s head, so he didn’t think a rib was worth getting up over, but when Limone insisted, he came over and realized that “rib” was actually “the end of a good-size claw.”
“We uncovered it,” Kirkland continues, “and discovered it was about a foot long on its outside diameter. I told the guys with me, ‘We’ve got a dromaeosaur claw twice as big as Deinonychus,’ which, up until that time, was the biggest one known in the world.”
In rudimentary dinosaur taxonomy, dromaeosaurs are better known as “raptors.” Among them are Utahraptor, Velociraptor, and Deinonychus. Utahraptor is the biggest. While the movie called them Velociraptors, actual Velociraptors were only about six feet long and two feet tall.
The confusion began back in 1988 with a book named Predatory Dinosaurs of the World by illustrator Gregory S. Paul. While the New York Academy of Sciences endorsed it, Kirkland says it “made up categories and lumped together all kinds of dinosaurs it shouldn’t have, among them was Velociraptor and Deinonychus, despite the fact that they were found on different continents and separated by 30 million years.”
Unfortunately, Predatory Dinosaurs of the World is the book author Michael Chrichton used as his reference material for the 1990 novel Jurassic Park, which is why the Deinonychuses in the book are called Velociraptors. The misconception carried through into the movie and only became more confusing when Spielberg decided to make the onscreen Velociraptor almost twice the size of the Deinonychus on which it was based.
About a week after discovering the Utahraptor, Kirkland was in San Diego for a meeting of The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.
He’d brought a plaster cast of his new dromaeosaur claw with him.
“This was the real thing — a giant raptor!”
“Bob Bakker was holding court, and I showed the claw to him,” Kirkland recalls. “He tells me it’s a piece of junk, saying, ‘It’s just a crushed Torvosaurus claw.’” (The Torvosaurus looks similar to the fearsome T. rex.)
But Kirkland wasn’t discouraged. He took the claw to paleontologist John Ostrom — the man who discovered Deinonychus.
“I showed it to John,” Kirkland says. “He starts swinging it around and saying this was the real thing — a giant raptor!”
So what about the phone call where Bakker told Kirkland he found Spielberg’s raptor? Well, Kirkland says it’s “total fiction.” As for Bakker, he still recalls the phone call but adds, “Kirkland’s got a good memory, so who knows.”
Even if that phone call didn’t happen, Bakker’s story wasn’t complete fiction, as Kirkland credits Bakker with suggesting the name Utahraptor.
“I was almost thinking of calling it ‘dinoraptor’ — meaning terrible raptor — but Utahraptor was a good suggestion,” Kirkland says. He also notes that it was a good suggestion “politically” speaking, as Utahraptor later became the state dinosaur of Utah, thanks to the name.
“I thought the name was a natural,” Bakker says, “It was euphonious and appropriate.”
“We suggest names to each other all the time,” Kirkland says, distinguishing the act of suggesting a name with the rigorous, scientific process of naming and classifying a new species of dinosaur. “It usually takes us ten years from the discovery to have a dinosaur officially named because you have to prove that it’s a unique new species.”
“The Dinosaur Club”
Not long after the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology conference in San Diego, Kirkland attended a meeting of “The Dinosaur Club” in Burbank.
“It was a group that met once a month and talked dinosaurs,” Kirkland says, “It was made up of actors and artists and scientists — a real eclectic group.”
While he was there, he showed off his dromaeosaur claw. Then, someone at the meeting pulled out a claw of their own.
While Kirkland can’t recall the person’s name, he says the claw was from the Velociraptor in Steven Spielberg's upcoming dinosaur movie. It was a prop. “He told me, ‘Spielberg thought the ones in the book were too small, so we had to scale them up.’”
“...unless they stole it.”
“I didn’t really have any raptor paraphernalia,” says Trcic, who was on the Tyrannosaur team.
As for Rosengrant, who wore a Velociraptor suit for several scenes in Jurassic Park, he suspects foul play.
“I don’t know how someone could have ended up with a raptor claw around that time unless they stole it,” Rosengrant tells me. “It wasn’t like there was a pile of raptor claws for people to take home with them. They were always part of the puppet, so I don’t know how someone would have had it then, but you never know.”
Regardless, Kirkland says it was after that meeting of The Dinosaur Club that he had the idea to name his discovery after Spielberg. Specifically, it would be called “Utahraptor spielbergi,” with Utahraptor being the genus name and “spielbergi” being the species name. According to Kirkland, the reason for the name was good, old-fashioned publicity.
“Showmanship is not a bad thing,” he says. “I tell that to young scientists all the time. You’ve got to figure out how you’re going to bring money into your organization; just base it on good science.”
Since Jurassic Park was guaranteed to be a big movie, why not name the dinosaur after the director? After all, Spielberg — and special make-up effects legend Stan Winston — did accidentally predict the oversized raptor's existence.
“Stan and the rest of us take credit for the Utahraptor,” says Trcic, the prop veteran. “We just knew there was a big raptor out there.”
In reality, Trcic was arguing to keep Velociraptor the same size it was in the book (which, again, was actually the size of Deinonychus).
“Myself and Shannon Shea were the two known dinosaur nerds in Stan Winston’s shop,” he says. “So it was up to us a lot of the time to try to keep things as realistic as possible. I butted heads a lot with Stan Winston, whose sum-total knowledge about dinosaurs was that they used to fight giant gorillas.”
Trcic says realism probably won out about 60 percent of the time, but one of the times it didn’t was when it came to the Velociraptor’s size.
“It was probably a combination of Spielberg and Stan,” he says. “Stan could have said, ‘Yeah, we can do big raptors,’ and Spielberg probably thought that sounded great.”
“We never had one paleontologist in the studio.”
Even though Trcic was consulting with Bakker — and that paleontologist Jack Horner was the film’s credited consultant — Trcic reveals that “contrary to popular belief, we never had one paleontologist in the studio, not even Horner, until the dinosaurs were well under construction.”
The movie’s production was also going by the time Utahraptor started making headlines in the summer of ‘92. Newspapers across the country were running stories about how this new dinosaur justified Spielberg’s giant raptor, helping to build the hype for a movie that was still a year from release.
It wasn’t as though anyone was going to change the name of the raptors in the movie. It was too far along, and “Velociraptor just sounded better,” Rosengrant says, which is likely why Chrichton chose that name over Deinonychus to begin with. (He’s right, it does sound better.)
Because of its association with the upcoming movie, Utahraptor received a great deal of attention. Kirkland was sure that attention would increase once it was officially named after Spielberg.
But naming the new dino after the director ran into trouble weeks before Kirkland’s paper describing the dinosaur went to publication. At the time, Kirkland was working for Dinamation, a now-defunct company that made animatronic dinosaurs and also funded paleontological research.
Kirkland recalls that, with less than two weeks to go until publication, he was called into his boss’s office at Dinamation and told, “You’ve got to change the name.”
Stunned, Kirkland learned Universal Studios had begun threatening to sue museums that had exhibits with “Jurassic” in the title.
“They were calling their exhibits ‘Jurassic Jungle’ and things like that,” Kirkland says. “So my boss told me, because of these lawsuits, ‘corporate headquarters decided you can’t name this for Spielberg now.’”
After all, many of Dinamation’s clients were museums. It wouldn’t look good if they seemed to endorse Universal, the latest enemy of museums in the name of American-styled capitalism.
“I wasn’t happy about the decision, but I had no choice,” says Kirkland. “The Price museum even had hundreds of t-shirts already made up that said ‘Utahraptor spielbergi’ on it, but it didn’t matter.” It’s unclear what happened to those shirts printed up by the Utah State University Eastern Prehistoric Museum. (Get in touch if you have one.)
Instead, Kirkland named the dinosaur “Utahraptor ostrommaysi” for Deinonychus discoverer John Ostrom and Chris Mays, the president of Dinamation.
At the time, it was reported the name change was due to another reason. Utah’s DeseretNews claimed Spielberg was going to get the dinosaur named for him in exchange for funding dinosaur research in Utah, but when the funding didn’t materialize, Kirkland changed his mind. Kirkland says he was misquoted and, on the contrary, he credits Spielberg for helping his profession through the creation of The Jurassic Foundation, a major funder for paleontology.
“The Price museum even had hundreds of t-shirts already made up.”
As for Spielberg, a dinosaur was named in honor of Jurassic Park just a few months after Kirkland had to change Utahraptor’s name.
Tianchisaurus nedegoapeferima is a small ankylosaur discovered in China by paleontologist Dong Zhiming. “Nedegoapeferima” uses the first two letters of each of the principal actors in Jurassic Park — Sam Neill, Laura Dern, etc. — and it’s even been reported that Spielberg got to suggest the name thanks to his funding of Chinese paleontological digs.
While “Tianchisaurus nedegoapeferima” may not have quite the ring to it that “Utahraptor spielbergi,” it’s not a bad consolation prize for Spielberg, who has since generated evergreen interest in paleontology via his timeless movie.
As for Kirkland, he still would have preferred to name Utahraptor after Spielberg, but his raptor has become popular in its own right, and dinosaur lovers like myself know it well.
And as for me, while I finally found out why Utahraptor got its name changed, I’ve since developed a new fixation to occupy me for the next quarter-century: finding out if any of those “Utahraptor spielbergi” t-shirts may have survived.