Vintage Dinosaur Art: Utahraptor: The Deadliest Dinosaur

Vintage Dinosaur Art

As Don and Donna Month draws to a close, what better way to end this series of reviews than with the meanest, baddest, freshest dinosaur of the mid-to-late-nineties? It’s easy to take for granted these days, but back then, the newly-described Utahraptor was a pretty big deal. It was a case of life imitating art. Here we had what was, seemingly, a dead ringer for those oversized movie raptors, except released into the world only months after that movie came out! Of course, this wasn’t the last twist in the Utahraptor story, so this book is as much a time capsule as any other.

The Carolrhoda book on Utahraptor came out in 1996, along with the rest of this series. Once again, the great Donna Braginetz provides the artwork. For the front cover, she takes her time before she reveals her complete Utahraptor design, focusing instead on just the ferocious claws on the hands and feet. The lovingy detailed scalation all over the skin once again carries over from Greg Paul. What I particularly love is the detail on the claws themselves; how the raised sickle claw looks razor-sharp, while the other two – the one the animal walks on – look significantly more blunted. Brilliantly observed. The maniraptoran hand-calws, meanwhile, are pure raptorian nastiness, recalling owl feet most of all. It’s a fantastic book cover, showing all while revealing nothing, and really driving home the idea that this is, indeed, the deadliest dinosaur.

Before we gaze upon the full Utahraptor, Donna teases us further with this lovely silhouette of bloody murder in action. Don Lessem narrates the scene with his trademark theatrical relish, likening Utahraptor to a serial killer in a horror movie. The menacing beast “rips the unfortunate plant-eater to shreds” in a bloody flash. And then Lessem goes straight for the throat: “Utahraptor has killed again”. You have to laugh. What a ham.

Depicting an animal mid-pounce is not an easy task, especially an animal that has no obvious modern analogue in terms of how it’s built. How do you convey that it’s using its legs to leap, but simultaneously attacking feet-first? And without making it look awkward? Unwittingly, simply by virtue of paying so much attention to the animal’s anatomy, Donna exposes some problems with these hypotheses on how dromaeosaurs hunted and ate. It was too early for RPR, so this somewhat awkward leaping raptor is our lot. Still a pretty badass piece.

It’s not entirely clear which animal is being attacked. The text simply discribes it as a “sail-back”, which would imply something like Ouranosaurus, which this clearly isn’t (also the geography doesn’t line up). Donna has elected to simply put a generic iguanodont in the victim role (hopefully not poor Tenontosaurus again?). Given the neighborhood Utahraptor was found in, I choose to interpret the ornithopod as a subadult Iguanacolossus, making this the first appearance of this genus on this blog.

Here’s our size chart, and the obligatory T. rex cameo. Of all of Donna’s rexes, this may be the best one we’ve seen yet; this one really looks big and heavy, dwarfing even Allosaurus. What I’m missing here is a little variation in the colour schemes, with all the theropods a similar shade of beige. There’s one exception: the choice to give Dilophosaurus blue crests, along with a single blue stripe, is a particularly intriguing one. Often artists will make these display structures red, but I love this look. Utahraptor itself is still absent.

What follows is a long, detailed, photographic account of the palaeontological exploits of Jim Kirkland, Utahraptor‘s describer. I’ve somewhat neglected to mention how much these books get into the nitty-gritty of palaeontology, field work and the history of science, which places these things a grade above the other fish in the vast sea of nineties dino books. Kirkland himself seems to have had considerable input into the book.

It is only midway through the book when Donna reveals her Utahraptor in its full glory, and it doesn’t half look like a vicious beast. Yet, as always, it remains a completely believable one. There’s again lots of attention to detail, such as the subtle spotted pattern on its back and the little coushions under its feet. The evil, snarling, snake-like faces from the movie raptors have been swapped for a more naturalistic, but no less fearsome, visage. And it has round pupils, always a plus!

That said, after all that’s been teased, I’m not sure this design completely comes together for me. What sticks out – literally, in this case – is the prominently protruding pubis. This is where Donna’s Paulian, rigorous but conservative approach to reconstruction begins to date the book. What we’d do these days, in addition to giving Utahraptor a healthy coat of feathers (though rumor has it that Kirkland may soon have some news on this front), is connect the hipbones to the tail with some hefty, powerful muscles to give those running legs some leverage. The tail on this raptor looks oddly thin and flimsy, standing out that much more in a reconstruction that otherwise strives for anatomical correctness.

The book also shows pictures of some other attempts at reconstructing Utahraptor and other dromaeosaurs, and it remains worth repeating that Donna’s work is leaps and bounds ahead of all of them. A little research, a little attention to the actual fossils really goes a remarkably long way.

Here’s a second size chart, and this is an odd one. Though I think this is still illustrated by Donna, the style is very different; much simplified, but in a completely different way from something like Dinosaurium. In fact, the animals here are almost exactly like Graham Rosewarne’s Deinonychus and Velociraptor, as they appeared in Dinosaurs! Magazine. Donna simply traded the tiger stripes for jaguar spots. I don’t know if Donna was influenced by Rosewarne, a fellow disciple of Gregory S. Paul ™, or if they simply took the same influence and approach. I’m actually surprised I didn’t mention Rosewarne’s name before, as his and Donna’s work share many similarities, even if the style isn’t quite the same.

There’s an editing goof here: the names of Deinonychus and Velociraptor are switched around! Of course, if it was up to Greg Paul, they’d be the same genus anyway.

In the final illustration, a pack of Utahraptor stand victorious over a sauropod carcass. Presumably not their own kill – even in 1996, when Utahraptor was the ultimate Killingyoubeeste, a bunch of dromaeosaurs bringing down a sauropod would stretch believability, no matter how vicious they are made out to be. Unlike Don Lessem’s overhyped narration, Donna Braginetz resists the urge to make these animals look too ridiculously monstrous. They are always animals first, even tough they still look like things you’d give wide berth. The landscape is typical Braginetz: nothing too fancy or elaborate, but subtle, realistic and functional and with some blurring effects to keep the focus where it should be.

And these are the four books in the Carolrhoda Special Dinosaurs series by Don and Donna! Don Lessem worked with more illustrators in comparable books (including some illustrators we give wide berth now) but it’s hard to imagine better 90s dinosaurs than these. I hope we can find more Donnasaurs to cover in the future.

What’s next from me? I suppose, it being December, we could do something nostalgic?

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  • Reply
    Jason R. Abdale
    December 13, 2022 at 8:06 am

    Regarding the “sail back” dinosaur, there is some truth to this. During the 1990s, an iguanodontid measuring approximately 8 meters long was discovered within the Cedar Mountain Formation – the same formation that Utahraptor belongs to – with a prominent ridge running down its back similar to Ouranosaurus. According to a report published in 2009, four partial skeletons (2 adults, 1 sub-adult, and 1 juvenile) have been uncovered.

  • Reply
    December 13, 2022 at 9:44 pm

    “even in 1996, when Utahraptor was the ultimate Killingyoubeeste, a bunch of dromaeosaurs bringing down a sauropod would stretch believability”

    It didn’t stop Raptor Red!

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