But here’s the Hitch: Who really discovered that dinosaurs had feathers?

I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s reading books about the dinosaur “orthodoxy.” According to this traditional view, the dinos died out at the end of the Cretaceous because their beloved swamps dried up and the air became too cool. But the new conditions were perfect for us quick-thinking Mammalia, so we took over, along with the other hot-blooded class, feathered birds. That was the Official Scientific View until the 1970s.

Whew! It’s hard to believe that four decades ago paleontology could be so very, very wrong.

Us versus Them. The smart hot-blooded mammal Didelphodon defies a rex. The furball is saying “Just wait till yer swamps freeze....”

Us versus Them. The smart hot-blooded mammal Didelphodon defies a
rex. The furball is saying “Just wait till yer swamps freeze…”

Today we know that Tyrannosaurus rex was not a big lizard. It was the 10,000-pound roadrunner from hell, clothed in fine feathers. Tyrannosaurs and other dino-clans ranged far north and far south and survived icy winters just fine. We mammals were kept small all through Mesozoic times because the dinos, on average, were faster on their feet, quicker in their jaws, and had better hearts and lungs. Dinos won the roles of top predator and top herbivore fair and square. The humiliating truth is that we mammals are the class that won by default, taking over only because some external event removed our dinosaurian overlords.

Face the facts friends: we are furry carpet-baggers.

Question: Who first discovered that dinosaurs were part of the hot-blooded bird family tree?

Was it Dr. Bob Bakker, your faithful curator? Aww, nice of you to ask, but the original hot-blooded-dino guy was long before my time.

How ‘bout Yale’s John Ostrom, who dug up the raptor Deinonychus in 1964 and linked raptor-dinos to the early bird Archaeopteryx?

No, he wasn’t the first. (Oddly, John fought the idea that Deinonychus had feathers.)

Was the first dino-bird chap Thomas Henry Huxley, the pugnacious defender of Darwin in the late 1860s and 1870s? Huxley, who coined the term “agnostic,” was a favorite of my advisor at Harvard, Stephen J. Gould. Huxley did point out that hips and shoulders of dinos were very bird-like, and so were feet. Therefore, Huxley argued, some sort of dinosaur-oid was the ultimate ancestor of the bird class.

But no again. Huxley was not the first to see bird-ness in the dinosaurs.

T. H. Huxley, as portrayed in Punch. Among his many jobs, Huxley served on the Board of Fisheries.

T. H. Huxley, as portrayed in Punch. Among his many jobs, Huxley
served on the Board of Fisheries.

Got your notebook ready? Here comes the answer, and it makes most museum-goers raise an eyebrow.

The true discoverer of feathered dinos was… the Reverend Edward Hitchcock, State Geologist of Massachusetts, Professor at Amherst College, philosopher and Congregationalist pastor. Hitchcock figured out that dinos were a subclass of birds as early as 1838 — four years before the term “dinosauria” was invented!

First Director, Massachusetts Geological Society, Edward Hitchcock. His wry sense of humor and boundless joy in science is evident.

First Director of the Massachusetts Geological Society, Edward Hitchcock. His
wry sense of humor and boundless joy in science is evident.

How many skeletons did Hitchcock dig up? None. Not a one. But surely his lab got many well-preserved parts of dinos, right? Nope. Only after he retired did a partial skeleton show up, blown to bits by gunpowder used to excavate a well. Hitchcock came to the fundamental truth about dinosaurs entirely from fossil trackways.

Across the pond at Oxford, Hitchcock’s colleague, the Reverend William Buckland did dig hundreds of Jurassic and Cretaceous bones and some pretty good skeletons. The Oxford fossils inspired Buckland’s student, Richard Owen, to come up with the name “dinosaur” in 1842.

Sad to say, neither Buckland nor Owen realized that their restorations of dino skeletons were, in today’s parlance, “bass ackwards” — they put a huge bone in the shoulder, giving the critters a clumsy muscle-bound look in the forequarters. They didn’t realize that their “shoulder” was really part of the hips. Hitch*, on the other hand, without a single well-preserved osseous specimen, scrutinized the footprints and got dinos correct, fore and aft.

What a guy.

“Bass Ackward” dinosaur in the 1820‘s--1860’s. The restoration done under Richard Owen, with gigantically distorted forelimbs and flat feet. Painting by Luis Ray from our “Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs”.

“Bass ackward” dinosaur in the 1820s-1860s. The restoration done
under Richard Owen, with gigantically distorted forelimbs and flat feet.
Painting by Luis Rey from our Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs.

Hitchcock and Buckland were members of the “Pious Paleontologists,” thoughtful scholars of the early 1800s who took the record of the rocks and the record of Scripture seriously. Hitch was persuaded that earth history, written in pages of shale and sandstone, would make everybody better, more intelligent citizens. He wrote a delightful book for his Congregationalist flock,The Religion of Geology probably the finest rumination of how rocks and fossils can be integrated with piety.

Hitch won the reputation as an inspiring lecturer at Amherst. Emily Dickinson, among many others, was enraptured by the stories of prehistoric New England and how the past had shaped the woodlands and gardens of the present day.

When Hitch took over the Geological Survey, the Connecticut Valley was already famous for red Jurassic rocks. Quarries were dug for paving stones, excellent for walkways, and massive sandstone blocks, ideal for constructing “brownstone” homes, college dorms and courthouses. (Alas, as coal-fired furnaces became common, acid rain ate into the Triassic-Jurassic sandstones and many brownstone monuments began crumbling in the mid-20th Century.)

Hitch and his crew found petrified remains in these beds: some fern-like fronds, stems of horsetail reeds, bits of fish and a magnificent bug, the larva of some ferocious water insect. The red rocks had petrified weather, too: some surfaces had the delicate pattern of raindrops. Others showed deep cracks produced by prolonged drying.

But the most abundant remains were tracks, thousands of them. Some of the littlest footprints were made by flat-footed, lizard-oid critters with long, supple toes in fore and hind paws. Much more common, and often of giant size, were tracks made by somebody very different — mystery animals who grew as big as elephants and shared a common body plan that kept Hitchcock’s powers of deduction busy for his entire career. It was a great quest — he was on the trail of the creatures who ruled the Jurassic world on land.

Giant mystery tracks exposed along a county road in Massachusetts, with the local farmers using the one-horsepower field vehicle to visit the site.

Giant mystery tracks exposed along a county road in Massachusetts, with
the local farmers using the one-horsepower field vehicle to visit the site.

Hitch pondered the prints made by the mystery toes. Almost two centuries before Microsoft and Apple, Hitchcock began a digital revolution, inventing new methods of deciphering the details of paws. He and his son scoured libraries for anatomical details of the class Amphibia, the class Reptilia, and the hot-blooded classes, the Mammalia and Aves. Then they ran digital experiments, chasing all manner of animals across muddy fields — including barefoot boys with cheeks of tan — so they could draw the arrangement of toes.

All this research gave the Reverend Hitchcock more insight into the animal sole than anyone had obtained before. Step by step, Hitch filled a dossier of clues that would lead him to a final identification.

Bakker - Hitch Bird Dino pt1 6

Barefoot boy track as drawn in Hitchcock’s great monograph. Little dots are raindrop impressions. Hitch found drop marks on rock slabs with the mystery monster tracks. There was no evidence, pro or con, that the boy or the monsters carried slingshots, a la Bart Simpson.

First Clue: Bipeds. Nearly all the mystery tracks, even the biggest, were made by animals walking on their hind legs alone. That was unlike the locomotion of most lizards and mammals. And unlike the way dinosaurs were restored — with huge shoulders.

Second Clue: Toe-walkers, not flat-foots. Usually there was not a trace of the heel so it must have been held high off the ground. That eliminated dinosaurs because the dinos were flat-footed — so said the brightest and best of Europe’s bone-sleuths.

Bakker - Hitch Bird Dino pt1 7

Third Clue: Long Achilles tendons. This clue was the biggie. Over 99 percent of the tracks showed nothing of the ankle and nothing of the front paw, because the mystery beasts were strict toe-walkers. But in a precious few fossils, the tracks captured the mystery animal as it squatted down on all fours to drink or sniff the earth. Marvelous. The entire backside of the ankle was pressed into the mud — the Achilles tendon wasn’t wide and flat like a lizard’s. It was gracefully elongated and slender. The front paws were tiny, five-fingered and carried short, sharp claws. Maybe there was a mark left by a stumpy tail — the track wasn’t clear on this point.

Hitchcock’s mind raced. What prehistoric monsters had ankles and front feet built that way? Not mammoths or rhinos. Those giant hairy beasts always had front feet wider than the hind, and the ankle was always short. Well then, what about frog-oids? The hopping amphibians did have long, powerful hind limbs, strong calf muscles and small hands. The thought of multi-ton froggies stomping over the Jurassic meadows was … well, weird. And exciting.

If not frogg-oids, mebbe … bandicoot-oids? Australia was famous for “low-class” mammals, the marsupials, which on average were smaller in the brain than antelope, deer and other “normal” mammalians. Kangaroos and bandicoots had enlarged rear legs with super-strong calf tendons — plus little hands. Therefore, Hitchcock had to take seriously the idea of Massachusetts being overrun by Jurassic bandicoots bouncing about, as big as bull African elephants.

The Usual Suspects: Giant prehistoric beasts who might have made the tracks.

The Usual Suspects: Giant prehistoric beasts who might have made the
tracks.

And then there was the original suggestion made about 1800 by farmers who dug tracks on their land: Maybe it was Noah’s raven. The Flood Story in Genesis says Noah released a raven from the ark to test the depth of the water. The raven didn’t come back, so Noah concluded that some bare land had appeared. The Noah reference was a joke, an i.d. offered with a chuckle. But, indeed, to the un-trained eye, the Jurassic mystery tracks did have an avian gestalt …

… and Hitchcock could feel that he was getting close to the final answer. He needed just one more new type of CSI analysis, a quantitative sole-searching that would finger the culprit and reveal, once and for all, the identity of the Jurassic rulers.

Hitchcock’s Digital Data Base -- one page of the great monograph of 1858. Paleo-podiatry would enable the Reverend to solve the mystery of the Jurassic tracks.

Hitchcock’s Digital Data Base: one page of the great monograph of
1858. Paleo-podiatry would enable the Reverend to solve the mystery of the Jurassic tracks.

Which raptor turned into the first bird?

We get so many great questions through our blog, and every now and then we can turn those responses into a blog post. One our readers favorite posts is “What would YOU ask a paleontologist?”

Last week we got this question from kght2:

“Do all birds come from a specific raptor, or do they come from different species of raptor that are cousins and not ancestors. I wonder this because while all birds are similar, they don’t seem to be any more similar than different raptors I have seen, and while this isn’t great information, I have heard of many raptors likely having some from for feathers. Primarily i wonder if the consensus is that all birds came from a single species, or that they came from a family of species instead, and this answer would also have implications that people should know for any species or family of species?”

Dr. Bakker, curator of paleontology here at the museum wrote this in response:

Another darn good question.

Archaeopteryx was the first bird, back in the Late Jurassic. It’s got the complicated arrangement of feathers on its arm to fly like a pheasant today does. All other birds evolved from Archaeopteryx or something very like it

Deinonychus (read my blog about Deinonychus) is a famous raptor-dinosaurs who look very close in their bones to Archaeopteryx. The tiny Microraptor from China is closer still.  Thanks to the dinosaur specimens from Laoning, China, we know that all the raptor-type dinosaurs had feathers. (T. rex had feathers too – the tyrannosaur clan were clothed in a full pelt of fine kiwi-style plumage.) But Deinonychus and all the Laoning feathered dinosaurs are from the Early Cretaceous – that’s too late to be an Archaeopteryx ancestor.

We need a Jurassic raptor to be our Archaeopteryx ancestor.

We now have a few specimens from the end of the Jurassic. These are advanced raptor-like dinosaurs with long arms built like Archaeopteryx.

So….we’re getting close to discovering the one, single raptor-dinosaur who evolved into the first bird. It had to be in the Mid or Late Jurassic.

If you have any questions you would like to ask any of our bloggers or curators, send us an email at blogadmin@hmns.org.

Interested in learning more about dino-birds? Make sure to check out our next exhibition, Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution, opening April 23, 2010.

Raptors – Group Hunters or Cannibals?

The question to answer is did dino-raptors live and hunt and feed in packs, like wolves?

I’m biased. I worked on the movie “Jurassic Park,” consulting with the special effects artists. And the book “Jurassic Park” has references to my research.

And…my first dig was excavating raptors near Bridger, Montana, in 1964. I was a freshman. Grant Meyer was the Field Boss – a fine fellow with delicacy of touch that was surprising in such a hulking physique.

Grant is the guy who really started “Jurassic Park.”

It was Grant Meyer who found the raptor Deinonychus, four of them, their bones intermingled in a thin layer of dark gray clay-stone. He directed us kids in extracting the bones. Back at Yale, another undergrad, Peter Parks, cleaned the rock off the bones. Professor John Ostrom named the beast “Terrible Claw” – Deinonychus.

I prepared the first restoration and the temporary exhibit.

Model of a Dromaeosaurus raptor claw

Raptor Kick-Boxer of the Cretaceous
Deinonychus became a dino celebrity.  It was fast, smart, maneuverable – we imagined it as a Kick-boxer of the Cretaceous. It would leap up and slash its victims with the huge, curved hind-claw, shaped like a box-cutter.

We wondered whether the four Deinonychus were a social unit in real life. Maybe the hunted together. Since Deinonychus was close kin to Velociraptor, dug in the 1920’s in Mongolia, we started calling all the similar critters “raptors.”

Michael Crichton read about the Yale raptors and he got thinking: “hmmmmm…wouldn’t it be cool to use genetic engineering to bring back to life…a pack of Dino-Raptors…”  His best-seller “Jurassic Park” was the result. In his book, he called Deinoncyhus a species of Velociraptor (they are close).

CSI of Multiple Victims.
But how can we be sure that the four raptors lived and hunted together? Perhaps these four raptors lived separately, died separately, and then their bodies got washed in together. How can we be certain that the way fossils are buried truthfully preserves the way they lived?

We can’t.

Here’s a Fundamental Rule of paleontology: all species tend to leave their dead bodies in clumps. Whether or not they hunted together, extinct animals get buried together.

Example of Non-Pack Mass Burial

Dimetrodon
Creative Commons License photo credit: kaurjmeb

We’re digging in north Texas now, excavating the first specialized top predator that ever evolved – the Finback Dimetrodon. It’s 170 million years before Deinonychus. Dimetrodons had very small brains, slow legs, and certainly were not  nearly as quick witted or quick legged as a Komodo Dragon Lizard of today.

Lizards don’t make wolf-packs. We wouldn’t expect Dimetrodon to make well organized social units.

But we find them buried in clumps. In one quarry there are fossils from at least 500 Dimetrodons. Maybe 5000…we find hundreds of bones from scores of Dimetrodons all mixed together at dozens of spots within the quarry that is about 200 yards long.

There are babies, adolescents, young adults, and old Dimetrodons all piled on top of each other – in fifteen separate layers.

And…..DIMETRODONS WERE CANNIBALS!!!!!!

Here’s the proof:

What we look for is ballistic evidence. First, we search for clues that victims were dismembered and gnawed – we want to find marks on bones left by carnivore teeth.

Second, we want fossil bullets. Bullets are the tooth crowns shed by meat-eaters as they fed. Like crocs and sharks today, dinosaurs and primitive reptiles like  Dimetrodon shed old tooth crowns as they fed. New crowns would grow in to replace the old. So…when we find many shed teeth mixed with chewed bones that’s excellent CSI evidence about who ate whom.

Do our Dimetrodon bones have tooth marks? Yes!  And do we find shed teeth from  the perpetrators? Yes again.  Who’s the perp? 98% of the shed teeth at our big Dimetrodon quarry are from……

….Dimetrodon!!

Dimetrodon cannibalism surprised us at first, but it shouldn’t have. It’s Standard Operating Procedure today. Meat is hard to come by and most carnivore species won’t turn up their noses at a meal of their own kind.  Lions eat lions. Wolves eat wolves. Hyenas will eat everybody.

Our mega-Dimetrodon quarry was different from the Four Raptor Site. The Dimetrodons included babies, adolescents and adults. And a dozen other species were buried with the Dimetrodons, including big and small herbivores, insect-eaters, fresh-water sharks, and bottom-living aquatic amphibians shaped like salamanders.

We don’t know yet what killed our Dimetrodons. We don’t know why so many carnivores came to one spot – maybe they were attracted to amphibians who were trapped in a pond that was drying up. But it’s perfectly natural that the Dimetrodon survivors would gobble up the Dimetrodon victims. Cannibalism is just common sense.

Back to the Four Raptors……
Did dinosaur predators feed together?

X-ray of an allosaur upper jaw showing the
new tooth crowns growing inside
the tooth sockets

I’ve dug several Jurassic spots with shed teeth from carnivorous allosaurs. These Jurassic sites show that the allosaurs were cannibals but still may have been good parents. We dug a spot with heaps of giant, multi-ton prey.  Herbivore bones were tooth-marked and chewed. There were shed teeth only from one species – an allosaur. Both baby shed teeth and adult shed teeth were mixed with the giant bones.

So here it looked like parents and babies did eat together – and the parents may have brought food to the young.

Five of the victims chewed by adult and baby allosaurs were….adult allosaurs. Perfectly natural – cannibalism is nature’s way.

Did Deinonychus eat its own dead?
They’d be foolish if they didn’t. At the Four Raptor Site there are some tooth marks on some bones and a few shed teeth. We just dug another Montana site where someone had chewed on a Deinonychus hip and left some shed teeth. The chewer was…..another Deinonychus.

Ok – no surprise to find chewed & clumped raptors. Cannibalism is Ubiquitous.  But we’re not through with our Dino-CSI.  We need to analyze why the four raptors died and were buried so close together.

The Three D’s of Death:
There are three big mass killers in Nature, the three big D’s:

Disease. Drought. Drowning.
A long-lasting drought can kill thousands, both herbivores and carnivores. A sudden flood can drown thousands of all species. Epidemics wipe out multitudes of plant-eaters and meat-eaters.

The D’s work together: A drought can kill and dry up many victims. Then, a flood can wash the desiccated carcasses into a sandbar. After disease kills many, the bodies may dry up, then get washed in together.

Did a flood drown the raptors and wash them into one spot?
No evidence for that. The water that carried in the mud was moving very slowly – it wasn’t a killer flood.

And…this is important…there weren’t other victims bunched up with the raptors. A major flood would wash in turtles and crocs, fish and dino-herbivores. The four raptors were alone in their burial – no other species.

There are flood sites with dinosaurs – huge river sand bar deposits with hundreds of skeletons. Usually there are many species – plant-eaters and meat-eaters. Bone Cabin Quarryin Wyoming was such a sandbar and had stegosaurs, apatosaurs, Diplodocus, camarasaurs, camptosaurs – all herbivores, adults and youngsters. And there were allosaurs and Ornitholestes, both predators.

The Four-Deinonychus quarry wasn’t like that.

Did Drought Kill the Four Raptors?
No evidence here either – the habitat seemed peaceful and normal. Drought should concentrate water-loving critters – we should see crocs and turtles huddled together in the last ponds and lakes. That’s not our Four Raptor site.

What Could Clump Raptors in Life?
The four raptors were all adults, one a bit older than the others. No babies. In many Jurassic and Cretaceous digs, we get adolescent predators – one of my Como digs had a half dozen young allosaurs. But not at the Deinonychus site dug by Grant Meyer.

What would concentrate four adults of one raptor species and no one else? Why didn’t the young die and get buried?

Did Disease Kill the Raptors?
Disease today hits social predators hard. Since they live together, all the predators in a pack can come down with a virus or bacterial ailment together.

Age Segregation and Adult-Only Death

Model of a Dromaeosaurus
from the same family as the Deinonychus

Plus – social predators do separate the young from the adults during hunting. Group hunting is common among mammals, birds and some advanced reptiles. Crocs are the most social reptiles alive today. Nile Crocodiles do some adult-group hunting when wildebeest herds cross rivers. Several big crocs (probably brothers) gang up on the wildebeest.

Hunting groups - wolves, hyenas, lions, crocs - usually contain only adults, babies and adolescents are well advised to stay away so they won’t get hurt. Therefore, social hunting is one way adults clump together and may die together.

Working Hypothesis:

Therefore….at this stage in our investigation…when we look at all the clues from the mud, current velocity, lack of babies, lack of other species…

…group hunting by adult Deinonychus Raptors is a viable hypothesis.

It’s not the ONLY hypothesis but still, I think, the strongest one.