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.

Digging in the dirt: Getting to know the Dimetrodon of the Texas Permian Red Beds

I love my job. Not everyone can say that. My avocation and vocation are as two eyes with one sight (paraphrasing Robert Frost). Part of that job was taking a group of 15 patrons up to the Museum’s dig site outside Seymour, Texas. There, under the tutelage of Dr. Robert Bakker and David Temple, the group learned how to properly excavate bones of ancient animals —  in this case, Permian synapsids, amphibians, and fish.   

I got to go through a spoil pile (the pile of debris and castoff that others have thrown aside), and found several bits of our very early ancestors, the synapsid Dimetrodon.  I also worked on removing the overburden (the rock and dirt that is over a site we want to excavate), and found bits from a dorsal spine of a Xenacanthus, an ancient shark. It was the fulfillment of a childhood dream (as I child I played paleontologist rather than fireman and my first Deinonychus is still buried out back at my childhood home).

But I’m not the only one who dreamed of finding fossils in Texas.

Noted Swiss naturalist Jacob Boll came to Texas in 1869 to join La Reunion commune that is located in the current Reunion District of Dallas. (The Reunion Tower is named in honor of that small settlement.) La Reunion commune was responsible for the first brewery and butcher shop in the Dallas area. It also helped Dallas become the center for carriage and harness making.

Jacob Boll came over to set up high schools based in scientific inquiry. Through the late 1870s, he searched for fossils for Edward Drinker Cope, the noted “Bone Wars” paleontologist. Boll found over 30 new vertebrate species from the Permian period, which can be seen in the collections of the American Museum of Natural History.  Unfortunately, on his last trip, he was bitten by a rattlesnake, wrote some final letters to his family, composed a short poem in German, and died.  

In the Permian period, Texas was very different from today. Near Seymour, there were rivers and seasonal flood plains. However, even with this picture, there are still unexplained factors about the life of Dimetrodon — one being that there was not enough prey to sustain the population that we have found in the fossil record. While the Dimetrodon were making sushi out of Xenacanthus and chewing on some Trimerorhachis legs (like frog legs, only much shorter), there was not enough food to go around.

Now add to this case the curious fact that almost no Dimetrodon skeleton found has an intact tail. Anyone who has been to a good Cajun restaurant will know that the best meat on an alligator is the tail. And Dimetrodon would agree — hence the lack of tails.

But even this does not account for all the food necessary to keep all the predators alive.  Where is the missing food?

Dr. Bakker gave us a couple of hints as to what he thinks is the answer. 

 A few miles away from the site, there is an old Permian river basin where we find Edaphosaurus, a large Dimetrodon-like herbivore. Was it possible for Dimetrodon to walk a few miles, ambush an animal about its size, then walk back for a rest? This would provide food for the population.          

If you are interested in learning more about the Texas Red Beds, join us for our Fossil Recovery Class on May 20. You can go through some of our collection from the trip and learn about fossil collecting and identification techniques.

Click here for more information.  

We can dig it: Celebrate National Fossil Day and learn what to do with what you find

There’s a day for just about everything these days, but National Fossil Day is one we can really dig.

Organized by the National Park Service, National Fossil Day isn’t just about appreciating past millennia frozen in time by the likes of these little guys:

A teensy TrilobiteA stunning pair of Trilobites, currently residing in the Morian Hall of Paleontology.

It’s also about public awareness and promoting stewardship of fossils. Says the National Park Service:

Fossils discovered on the nation’s public lands preserve ancient life from all major eras of Earth’s history, and from every major group of animal or plant. In the national parks, for example, fossils range from primitive algae found high in the mountains of Glacier National Park, Montana, to the remains of ice-age animals found in caves at Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Public lands provide visitors with opportunities to interpret a fossil’s ecological context by observing fossils in the same place those animals and plants lived millions of years ago.

Do you know the rules when it comes to fossils found on public lands? If not, educate yoself! Happy finding!

Wash, rinse and repeat: See pics from Paleo Wash Day at HMNS Sugar Land

I would like to thank the approximately 175 citizen scientists that came out Saturday at HMNS Sugar Land. They helped us process approximately 1,000 pounds of soil and rock from the specimens we’ve collected from our Permian-aged (182-187 million years ago) site near Seymour,Texas.

washday 010I was impressed with your cooperativeness, curiosity, and, most importantly, the care you all exhibited in processing these samples. Also, this experience absolutely would not have been possible without the facilitation of our experienced museum and field crew volunteers.

washday 011The Process:

In excavating fossils, many times we will work to retain the matrix that is removed from around the specimen. This matrix is soaked in water and allowed to disaggregate. Then the mud is placed and screens and gently rinsed, leaving behind hard pieces — including fossils.

UntitledAfter rinsing, the specimens are dried and then searched. This process will typically reduce the bulk sample size by 80 percent.  People processing the sample typically are left very wet and muddy, as you can see here:

washday 048From all of us here at HMNS, thank you!