Monday, September 12, 2011

Dinosaurs: Review: "Raptor Red", Robert T. Bakker

Raptor Red”, Robert T. Bakker, Bantam: New York, 1995 

Raptor Red” is the story of an eventful year in the life of a female Utahraptor.  The novel opens with Raptor Red, the Utahraptor of the title, losing her mate.  Trying to cope with living alone, she meets up with her sister and her sister’s chicks.  In their travels, the Utahraptors encounter various dinosaurs and other animals of the late Jurassic-early Cretaceous periods.  Eventually Raptor Red finds a new mate, loses her sister, but forms a new park of Utahraptors with her sister’s two chicks.

The well-known paleontologist, Robert Bakker wrote this novel as a fictional companion to his ground breaking non-fiction book, “Dinosaur Heresies” (1986).  In that book, Dr. Bakker posited that not only were dinosaurs warm-blooded but also the ancient ancestors of birds.  Raptor Red” was his exploration into the social lives of Utahraptors.  He shows these predatory dinosaurs living in a female dominated pack and coping with complex social connections.

Told from a predator’s point of view, “Raptor Red” has the reader enter the world of the Utahraptor.  Instead of vicious predators with a sickle for a toe claw, the reader empathizes with Raptor Red and her family and their struggles.  Seeing these predators in a positive light, the reader wants to know more about them.

In “Raptor Red”, Dr. Bakker interjects his theories of dinosaurs, evolution, and extinction.  For example, Raptor Red’s name comes from how she sees herself – a raptor with a red snout.  Her sister is “one half of me”, and her chicks are “one half of one half of me.”  She identifies them all in relation to herself.

The Utahraptors came from Mongolia to North America.  Because they were newcomers, these raptors “hit the new territory like a Darwinian blitzkrieg.”  The hunting strategies of these predatory dinosaurs confused the resident herbivores that lacked a basic defense strategy against them.  The Utahraptors succeeded in becoming the top predators in North America.

Dr. Bakker further introduces his theory that the resident dinosaurs went extinct because of the immigrant diseases brought over by the newcomers.  The “whiptails” (sauropods) were ravaged by the plague along with the Acrocanthosaurus, the native predator.  Moreover, insects brought diseases that infected many species.  Meanwhile, Raptor Red had to contend with new ticks and infections found in her new home.  Both the immigrant and resident groups had to contend with animals and diseases that neither had no resistance to.

Raptor Red is depicted as having a complex social life.  Since her species is female-centric, Raptor Red and her sister care for the sister’s chicks.  Males have to leave their families to find mates.  Meanwhile, the females choose the best males for their mates after the males do their mating dances.  In the novel, Raptor Red’s consort presents a potential conflict between her and her sister.  Raptor Red’s sister believes that he will kill the chicks since they are not his.  This provides the tension of the book – who would Raptor Red be loyal to – her consort or sister.

This tension gives insight into raptor family politics.  The conflict between Raptor Red’s sister and her consort ends when the sister dies in a “whip tail” attack.  However, Raptor Red finishes raising the chicks.  Meanwhile, her consort, Raptor Red, and the grown chicks form a new pack of Utahraptors.

As a novel, the plot of “Raptor Red” is predictable.  The title character endures various trials before finally finding true love and happiness.  Where the book shines is in the vignettes of prehistoric life.  Beside the Utahraptors, Dr. Bakker introduces the reader to the lives of an elderly Ornithocheirus (dactyl), a mother crocodile (Bernissartia), a baby Gastonia (armored herbivore), and others.  Moreover, the dactyl as the stand-in for the author takes the reader further into the mists of time to become a participant in the world of the Utahraptors.

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