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.

Family time & me time: Have the best of both at HMNS this holiday season

It’s the holiday season – full of food, festivities and family. Sure, you look forward to this month year-round, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get sick of it. Conversations start to get stale, your mother (or worse – mother-in-law) won’t let you stop stuffing your face, and you begin to worry that none of your pants will fit anymore.

This is enough to make some shout, “Bah humbug!” at every passerby, but it needn’t be so! All you need is some way to divert your family’s attention away from your new piercing, lack of promotion, the boyfriend or girlfriend that they loathe, or whatever childhood embarrassment they still insist on using to regale holiday guests (or worse yet, reenact).

What better way than an outing to the Houston Museum of Natural Science! Not only is this the perfect excuse to get out of the house, but with all of our exhibition halls, there are plenty of places to ditch your family — if only for a short while.

THE MORIAN HALL OF PALEONTOLOGY

The stunning views of fossilized dinosaurs, giant sloths, woolly mammoths and more will buy you just enough time to slip over to the John P. and Katherine McGovern Jurassic Bark Gallery (in a separate room towards the back, on the left). Here you will find sanctuary amongst the remains of a petrified forest – clearly terrified of your family too.

You might also head up to the Morian Overlook. Just as your family’s entering the hall, slip back out, and take the elevator up to the second floor. Be careful they don’t see you, because from here, you can take in the whole hall from above.

THE HALL OF ANCIENT EGYPT

There’s a lot to see in this hall. Rush to the back as you enter while the fam plods along. Here you’ll find the mummies and sarcophagi. And we have great, dim mood lighting – which means you could totally lay out on one of the benches, and people will just think you’re another exhibit! Chill here for a while until your family catches up.

THE COCKRELL BUTTERFLY CENTER

A Rainforest, butterflies, an iguana – let your clan to take it all in while you scope out your next spot.

As you enter the Rain Forest Conservatory, head all the way to the bottom level – into the cave. You can remain unseen from above and chill with all the cool butterflies that are trying to be as exclusive as you.

If you enter the Hall of Entmology from here you’ll be right by the “Land of BEEyond.” Please understand that this area is meant for children, so let them play in peace if they get there first – but after all, you’re a kid at heart, right? Why not chill here? You might even get to meet the queen bee.
THE MINERAL HALL AND SMITH GEM VAULT

This hall is lit perfectly to enhance the natural beauty of the minerals and gems on display — and also perfect lighting for a quick escape from your tribe. Walk briskly, and stick close to the wall on the left. As you round the corner, you’ll come up on the Smith Gem Vault, which, if you’re wearing dark colors, makes you nearly invisible. The only light in this room is focused on the perfectly carved diamonds and other jewels on display. It seriously looks like they’re emitting light themselves.

Hang out here for a while, and if you do it right, you can slip back into the mineral hall as the fam goes in the gem vault. You just bought yourself another 20 minutes of freedom!

Other options for some solace in the Museum:

Wortham Giant Screen Theatre: They won’t be able talk to you in here!
Burke Baker Planetarium: With the added feature of looking up, idle chit-chat is discouraged
The Museum Store: Nothing takes the edge off quite like a bit of retail therapy

The Bakker is back! Join renowned paleontologist Dr. Bob Bakker at Jurassic Jam this Saturday and Sunday

World-renowned paleontologist, curator of the new Morian Hall of Paleontology, consultant and character inspiration for the cult classic Jurassic Park: Dr. Bob Bakker is back in Houston and lighting up the halls of HMNS this weekend at Jurassic Jam.

Image here http://paleo-studies.tumblr.com/post/23628762217/featured-paleontologist-robert-bakker

The two-day event includes an adoption party at at the Museum Store, arts and crafts in the Herzstein Hall and a meet-and-greet with Dr. Bakker from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday for new and veteran dino parents.

Admittance to meet Dr. Bakker requires a general admission ticket and a prehistoric pet (either adopted that day or previously taken in).

Then on Sunday, we’ll be screening Jurassic Park 3D with a special introduction by Dr. Bakker, who consulted on the film and is even name-dropped by young Joseph Mazzello (Timmy Murphy). A Q&A session will immediately follow.

To book your tickets in advance, click here!

Today in the Department of Mysteries: 12-year-old Robby uncovers “culturally modified” bone in Jersey Village

Occasionally we receive artifacts at the Museum uncovered by curious residents who are looking to have their discoveries identified. The latest comes from 12-year-old Jersey Village resident Robby, who took it upon himself to write Associate Curator David Temple the following (quite impressive) letter:

Dear Sir or Madam,

My name is Robby, I am 12 years old, and I was walking along in my backyard, playing by myself, when I felt something painful and sharp stick into my foot, so naturally I stopped to investigate. I felt around for the article that wounded me, and I concluded that it was a bone. I unearthed it and further found that it was a bone that looked like it was a washer joint (the kind that the spinal cord travels through), and I washed it off carefully to see if there were any further marks that could tell me if it was a dinosaur bone, but there was nothing. I was hoping that you could either radiometric date it, or DNA test it to see if it was. I have enclosed the bone in an envelope. Please let me know as soon as you find out.

Sincerely,

Robby
P.S.
2 days later, I found another bone that looked almost identical to the bone I found previously. It is a little bigger, and dirtier. Please respond!

"Culturally Modified Cow Bone" - the latest from The Department of Mystery

Temple looked over the bones and, upon concluding his research and determining their true origins, issued the following response on official Museum letterhead:

Dear Robby,

Thank you for your inquiry regarding the bones. When researching these things, particularly to which ancient animal a fossil bone may have belonged, a great place to begin would be a geologic map of the relevant area.

Geologic maps are peculiar; they are less about telling you how to get some place and more about telling where you are in time. The sediments that Jersey Village sits on are from the Quaternary within the Cenozoic; your backyard is outcropping the Beaumont Formation at the oldest, which gets you somewhere between 10,000 and 2 million years ago (give or take).

Pleistocene-aged animals lived on the sediments in your yard, and their remains could be buried in these sediments. No dinosaurs; however mammoths, mastodons and giant sloths all are animals that lived in the area during that time. I am enclosing a copy of the geologic map of Texas for your perusal. Find Houston and match the color on the key; where ever you find yourself, that’s where you are.

From careful analysis, we know your samples to come from an ungulate from the genus Bos. These pieces are not vertebra, but pieces from the legs of the animal. Though not old enough to be a paleontological sample, these do qualify for archaeological/anthropological analysis.

One thing I determined was that this animal was probably eaten by a sometime predatory species, likely Homo sapiens. I will say this conceding that the teeth and jaws of Homo sapiens are not adapted for chewing hard bones. You yourself noted the absence of marks on your sample bones, and I agree with your estimation and believe it significant.

Also, your samples do not bear any markings that would indicate primary feeding or secondary scavenging by Canis lupus familiaris, or Canis latrans. These animals are or were recently common in Jersey Village. Their teeth and jaws are well-adapted for crunching bone and leaving diagnostic traces of this feeding behavior.

Another bit of evidence pointing to primary consumption by a member of the genus Homo is that species’ nearly unique adaptation for making and using tools. Your sample bones show cultural modification, specifically butchering.

As mentioned above, the flat sides of the bones show them to have been modified with a saw, probably with the muscles attached. The smooth, even sides point to a mechanical, fine-toothed saw rather than a hand saw.  Considering practices in local culture, this bone and attached muscle were likely placed over a fire, for a short period of time, as the bones do not appear to be charred.

In archaeology, the three things to remember are context, context, and context. Were these bones by themselves or were there other objects with them? Bits of metal or glass maybe? If those objects are associated with the bones that would strongly support the “BGM” hypothesis below. Also the age of your home is a potential clue.

Before trash pick-up was available, garbage was frequently burned in the backyard and buried. While more charring over all surfaces on your bone samples would help support this, the absence of charring does not rule out the “Buried Garbage Model.” It is possible that there was a burn ban, or the responsible party for trash disposal just did a really bad job. Sadly there are questions science cannot answer, at least not without more fieldwork. Your sample could still have been buried, which would have kept it from being chewed by dogs or coyotes.

To summarize, you do not have a dinosaur, sadly. You did find the remains of a barbeque, shank steaks were served, they were likely served rare, medium rare, medium well at most. The bones were then thrown outside and the people either had no dog, and/or buried their trash. Your samples are not good candidates for radiometric dating; what is associated with the bones would be your best way of dating your site, but I would guess near the Late Recent.

I encourage you to keep looking down; you never know what you’ll find. If there is old glass or metal where you found the bones, be careful not to cut yourself when examining these fragments.

If you would like to go fossil hunting, get your parents to look up the Houston Gem and Mineral Society. They take regular trips to outcrops to collect fossils. If you want to know where dinosaur fossils in Texas might be found, the enclosed map has the answer. Dinosaur fossils can also be found locally at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

I am returning your samples as I am contemplating becoming a vegetarian, and they make me hungry.

Sincerely,
David Temple
Associate Curator of
Paleontology

Robby’s samples were returned to him this week along with the Museum’s encouragement to keep curious. Tune in to the Beyond Bones for future installments from The Department of Mysteries.