200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 196: “Leaping Laelaps ”

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Fossil specimens of Dryptosaurus
Fossil specimens of Dryptosaurus in the Vertebrate Paleontology Collection. The claw is shown in the lower right.

Leaping Laelaps

Among the Academy’s dinosaur fossils is the type specimen of Dryptosaurus aquilunguis, the carnivorous theropod dinosaur that inspired artist Charles R. Knight (1874–1953) to paint “Leaping Laelaps” (1897). The painting is one of only a few of its time to depict the dinosaurs as aggressive, fast-moving animals, a progressive idea that did not gain much acceptance until decades later in the 1960s. The painting, which illustrates a violent fight between two dinosaurs, was so famous that Dryptosaurus became one of the best-known dinosaurs of the time despite its rarity!

First discovered in 1866 by quarry workers in New Jersey and described by Edward Drinker Cope, the Late Cretaceous dinosaur was originally given the genus name Laelaps after the dog in Greek mythology that always caught its prey. However, Cope’s fierce rival O.C. Marsh pointed out that the name Laelaps was already given to a mite and renamed the dinosaur Dryptosaurus in 1877. Dryptosaurus is one of the first predatory dinosaurs to be discovered and described. Recent studies suggest that it is a primitive tyrannosaur. Though not much is known about the dinosaur’s lifestyle given its limited fossil remains, it is estimated to have been 25 feet long and to have weighed 1.7 tons. The fossils that do exist reveal that Dryptosaurus sported large, 8-inch talon-like claws on each of its three fingers, big hands, and relatively short arms. Although its arms have been compared to those of its famous relative, Tyrannosaurus rex, it likely captured its prey in a different way. It is clear that Dryptosaurus was a fierce predator adept at running-down, catching and killing its prey.

Are you interested in the history of fossil collecting and the Academy’s dinosaur collection? Read more about Cope and Marsh’s infamous “Bone Wars,” and be sure to stop by the academy to visit Dinosaur Hall and buy a cast of the Dryptosaurus claw in the museum shop!

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