Where Fact and Fiction Meet: LA’s Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Cabinet of Curiosities

I have two lives. At the Houston Museum of Natural Science, I’m a science blogger, but in my art life, I’m an aspiring novelist. Occasionally, I have the privilege of embarking on a literary pilgrimage to a city I’ve never been to, in the most recent case, Los Angeles, where I attended the AWP writer’s conference and met up with other writing friends from all over the U.S. I never expected my divergent lives of fact and fiction would meet, but in LA, they certainly did. Imagine a place chock-full of mind-blowing artifacts, not unlike HMNS, except as you move through the exhibits, you’re unsure of what’s real and what’s fake. That place is The Museum of Jurassic Technology.


Four of my friends, all writers, lined up for a Wes Anderson-style photo outside The Museum of Jurassic Technology in downtown Los Angeles. I’m behind the camera. The museum prohibits cell phones and photographs inside. From left, H. Tucker Rosebrock, Stephanie Rizzo, Breana Steele and Ben Hahn.

From the title alone, you know something’s a little off about this place, tucked into a re-purposed building along Venice Boulevard in the Palms District (aka Culver City). The museum’s double-edged mission is straightforward — it is, by its own definition, “an educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic.” Okay, but the Jurassic was an age of toothy theropods and bus-sized reptiles, of Allosaurus pitted against Stegosaurus, so what possible technology are we talking about — time travel?

But even the idea of jumping back to a different era doesn’t do the collection justice. This place is a collection of artifacts straight out of folklore, there before your very eyes: a display of a hairy horn collected from a human woman, an exhibit about bats that emit X-rays and fly through walls, and a history of trailer homes in which the dioramas match nothing in recent memory. This isn’t a journey back in time; it’s a trip to a parallel universe.

As you walk through the spaces and corridors, dimly lit like HMNS, and read about the artifacts on their text-heavy plaques, you begin to believe and doubt all at once. The language is scientific, dry and authoritative, but some of the texts and displays are far too outlandish to be of this reality. Yet seeing is believing, and many objects are in fact authentic. Take for example, the taxidermied bust of an American grey fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), built into a display that includes a recording of its “voice.” It’s obvious when you hear the accompanying track that it’s simply a recording of a man barking and snarling in falsetto, and the exhibit hints at this unreality. When viewed at the right angle, a tiny three-dimensional hologram of a person, the kind you’ll find in the Wiess Energy Hall displays, appears “inside” the fox’s head. The fox is real, as is its taxonomy, but everything about its voice is faked!


This monograph on the MJT by Lawrence Weschler provides a look inside the mind of David Wilson, the MacArthur fellow who invented the museum.

As you continue moving through the museum, you notice snippets of reality, but the inventions begin to wear on you, as well. You’ll read something you can recall from a historical text you read at the library or that article you pulled up on the internet the other day, and recognize it as information, but as the explanation continues, you reach a point where the reality you knew doesn’t exist anymore, and you are beset with an assured feeling that, “Wait… This can’t be right.”

The accomplishment of this museum, the brainchild of MacArthur fellow David Hildebrand Wilson, is to offer an experience that examines the way museums work in the mind. The language on display cases, that authoritative tone coupled with heaps of factoids, seduces the viewer to trust what is written. Vetted institutions like HMNS have earned the trust of our guests by working with scientists who provide verifiable data to back up our information, but it wasn’t always so. At its most basic, any museum is a carefully-designed walk through a maze of scientific facts, a sort of science journal using objects. In many respects, touring the HMNS is the same as reading a book on natural science, but here you see the science with your own eyes. You come in a student and leave enlightened, as long as you trust what you see, hear and read.


The catalogue published by the MJTs Board of Trustees by a fictional press, “The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Information.”

From this perspective, the MJT is roughly the same as reading a book of a slightly different history from our own, an unconventional novel of objects that exists in the minds of the artists involved and the guests who experience the museum. You go in expecting to learn something new, and you do, but not about science. Instead, you learn about storytelling, the absorption of information and the power of the human imagination. You learn how much you trust what you read in a museum, and why shouldn’t you? Modern museums work to maintain a paragon of proven science. Yet it’s a haunting feeling to be “led always from familiar objects toward the unfamiliar; guided along, as it were, a chain of flowers into the mysteries of life,” one of the pet quotes of the MJT. Like reading a novel, you begin with a kernel of truth, but that truth is quickly muddied with layer upon layer of invention.

Excited to learn as much as I could about this strange place, I made contact with Wilson himself, who agreed to an interview to unpack the theories that make his museum possible. Inspired by the ethos of the German documentarian Werner Herzog, whose prolific filmmaking career began in the 1960s, Wilson built the MJT with a similar affect in mind, something Herzog calls “the ecstatic truth.”


Publicity photo of David H. Wilson, founder of the MJT.

“There is a truth that exists that is beyond a three-dimensional truth, a more complex truth that is verifiability,” Wilson said. ” … Ecstatic truth is the truth of the imagination. Making too hard a distinction between that kind of truth and what oftentimes passes for truth is maybe not the most productive effort for the (human) species. The merging of these things is enormously valuable.”

Wilson’s collaborators, the employees of the museum who contribute their own work to the collection (and incidentally don’t consider themselves artists), are disinterested in making the distinction between what is “true” and what is “false.” Instead, they are “drawn to kinds of knowledge that are essentially on the periphery of believability,” he said.

“The verifiability of the material presented in the exhibits, while it’s a perfectly legitimate approach (to understanding the work), is something that we at the museum literally never talk about,” Wilson said.

When the audience begins to loosen its grip on the importance of distinguishing fact from fiction, true imagination can take place, which is different for every individual. There’s an understanding reached that loosely involves history, but emphasizes creating an unsettling feeling of the kind of wonder you had back when you were a child.


Quote pulled from the MJT collection catalogue.

“The thing we find is that we’re only doing the first part of the work, and the observer, the patron of the museum, is really doing an enormous amount of work. They take things that we put into the world, and in their minds essentially ‘create’ them,” Wilson said. “Like a Rorschach test, almost all the work we do, not by intention or design, seems open to multiple interpretations or ways of approaching it.”

The museum owes its look and feel to the era of the cabinet of curiosities, a cultural phenomenon with origins in the Renaissance that developed into the modern museum. Instead of art or books, collectors would assemble a host of objects that bore scientific or historical merit, and share with guests their discoveries, some of which were faked. One can imagine a layer of doubt blanketing the crowd, depending on how involved the explanation of the object and how far from the truth the curator wandered.


A replica narwhal tusk was the inspiration of some silliness for me as HMNS Marketing toured the cabinet collection last month.

At HMNS, we’re opening our own Cabinet of Curiosities Friday, April 29 in an homage to this era. Guests will be allowed to touch and manipulate the objects featured in the collection to learn both about natural science and the origins of the contemporary museum, and to feel the surge of inspiration and wonder the experience offers.

Next time you wander the halls of HMNS, and when you visit the Cabinet of Curiosities exhibit, remember there was once a time when dubious information was readily accepted — a magical epoch in which the human imagination was the sole tool in understanding our world and place in the universe. Then ask yourself the question, is that time now?

This Dino Toy’s All Wrong! What’s Up With That!?

by “Jurassic” James Washington III

With the exception of our feathered friends, dinosaurs are all but gone today. So what are the ways to connect to these long lost creatures? Well as a child I had three options — museums, media and models. Going to the Houston Museum of Natural Science and standing in the shadows of the fossilized skeletons gave me a sense of their size and majesty. Dinosaurs in the media consisted of news stories, articles, documentaries and books. But the models (or toys) were the third part my mind needed to fully imagine these masters of the Mesozoic. For some reason holding a model of the animal in my hand gave my mind the final ingredient to fully imagine dinosaurs as they might have looked.


As an adult I have the honor of working at the museum as a Discovery Tour Guide specializing in the Morian Hall of Paleontology. I literally get to go to the museum five out of seven days a week! I have traded in my documentaries for scientific text books and published journals. And although I stopped playing with the toys, I still collect them, using them as models in contrast to the actual fossils upstairs. Which brings me to the point of this article. In the age of the Internet and easily accessible museums and colleges, how is it that certain tour companies can make inaccurate models? It may seem minor to an outside observer, but the number of fingers and toes or the lack of a crest are some important ways to make a species identifiable.


For the record I am not commenting on fictional dinosaur-like creatures such as Godzilla or the Indominus Rex from the movie Jurassic World (2015). Or the changes made through time, such as the orientation of the necks and tails of Sauropods (long necked dinosaurs) like Diplodocus. Or how Velociraptor toys have no feathers in the early 1990’s. Those toys were made with the accepted science of the time, though now we know they were wrong. I am also not considering how some dinosaur toys are made cute for preschool-age children. My remarks are on toy companies that claim to make scientifically accurate toys/models in the 2000’s without certain diagnostic features.


Diplodocus through time. Manufacturer and year produced from left to right: Collect A 2013, K&M 2004, TS 2001, British Museum (Natural History) 1974, Safari Ltd 2006, Safari and later Carnegie 1988.

As displayed by the image above, Diplodocus has seen a variety of modifications in the toy and model world. Yet each model maintains its long, whip-like tail, narrow horse-like face, hind legs longer than forelimbs and general slender form when compared with other Sauropods. No matter the incarnation, you know it is Diplodocus.

Another easy example is the genre Stegosaurus, which has three toes on its hind limbs. This feature (narrow pillar-like feet) indicates Stegosaurus lived in a dryer or at least more solid surface and not in swamps. So when I see a Stegosaur toy or model with the five standard toes of lizards, I can’t help but wonder why they didn’t take the time to consult someone, anyone, in the field of paleontology before they began production. It’s like making a modern rhinoceros toy with rodent feet or giving a giraffe zebra stripes. Just google “Stegosaurus skeleton” and the number of toes is consistent on pretty much all the images.


The many faces of Stegosaurus. Manufacturer and year from left to right: Toy Major Trading CO. LTD. 2008, Jasman 2001,Dur Mei 1986, Jurassic Park’s Kenner 1993, The Lost World’s Kenner 1997, Safari LTD, Dino Riders 1989, Papo 2005, Dinosaur Valley 2005, Safari 2007 and K&M 2004.

Of the eleven Stegosaur models/toys in the above only four have the correct number of toes! Dino Rider 1989 (surprisingly), Papo 2005, Safari 2007 and K&M 2004. The two on the far left of the picture have five and the rest have four. What I find most surprising is the fact that Safari put out two different figures with different numbers of toes?


Mosasaurs show me those pearly whites! Manufacturer and year from left to right: Safari 2010, Carnegie 2008, Papo 2012, Collect A 2009 and Mojo 2010.

Mosasaurs are the marine reptiles of the upper Cretaceous period that were made even more famous by Jurassic World. Although the movie made the animal too large, they did get one thing right. Mosasaurs, like pythons, possess a second row of teeth inside their jaws. Only one of five Mosasaur models have that iconic feature. The 2008 Carnegie model seen second to the left is the only one with the correct dentition. When I show this feature to museum guests on tours, they are shocked and amazed! I can see why now — 80 percent of Mosasaur toys in the mainstream market lack that feature. But know that the Jurassic World Mosasaur has the teeth, which can be seen when it eats the poor British woman who did nothing wrong. Unfortunately the Jurassic World Mosasaur toy (which I do not have yet) neglected to be consistent with their own movie. No second row of teeth!


Ceratosaurus family reunion.

Ceratosaurus lived in North America during the upper Jurassic. The name Ceratosaurus translates to “horned lizard” because it has a nose horn and two crests over its eyes. Ceratosaurus also has four fingers on its forelimbs. The tall yellow one in the back is from Remco Galaxy fighters from the 1980’s. It has the nose horn but only one crest between its eyes. But it does have all four fingers! The tall green one to the left has the nose horn, but is missing the eye crests altogether and only has three fingers. One step forward, two steps back. It also lacks its manufacturer’s logo, as if they didn’t want to take credit for their work…

The figure with a purple hide and pink nose horn is labeled Oviraptor. Which is almost a felony if you knew anything about Ceratosaurus or Oviraptor! The toy is manufactured by Boley, who is known for putting out mislabeled figures in the world of fast and furious dinosaur toy collecting. But it does have the nose horn and four fingers. If it had two eye crests it would be a good example (in toy form) of Ceratosaurus. Too bad it’s labeled Oviraptor. In front on the right is the Jurassic World Ceratosaurus. It has a nose horn, two crest-like projections over the eyes and four fingers. I know it’s not said very often, but good job Jurassic Park franchise on your scientific accuracy. The medium figure in the middle with a red hide and yellow underbelly is from 1998 (hard to read the stomach). The horn and crests are good enough, but it only has four fingers. Missed it by that much.

I saved the best for last. The three small figures on the lower left are, from left to right, Safari 1996, Safari 2012 and Terra 2015. All three figures have the correct horns, crests and finger counts! In short, buy the smaller more detailed models.

Dino7But there is a silver lining. As you might have noticed there is an attempt to correct these mistakes over time. And the Boley figure to the left tells it all. When this very same figure was produced in the early 2000’s it was labeled Metriacanthosaurus. Metriacanthosaurus was like a Ceratosaurs without horns and a small sail running down its back and tail. Later the name was changed to Edaphosurus. This was close but still wrong, but they at least classified it outside the dinosaur clade. The animal the toy represents is a relative of Edaphosaurus. Unfortunately, an Edaphosaurus has a smaller skull and a sail of a different shape, and the spines have small projections. But one day, one glorious day, I saw this figure label Dimetrodon. A victory, no matter how small. After two failed attempts, Boley finally got it right. The third time was actually a charm!

Now I know you may think of me as a grown man obsessed with dinosaur toys, and you are probably right. But my fiancé thinks it’s cute. She considers it better than collecting motorcycles or gambling. All I’m saying is many people go to college to earn degrees and/or commit countless hours to understanding the exact morphology of these long-extinct animals. And for a toy company to barely attempt to fact check an educational model that they sell to children? It’s just unacceptable. Imagine a store selling toy tigers with stripes and lion-like manes, whales with gill slits and blow holes or sea lions with long floppy rabbit ears. And that weirdness is what plagues comments. Thank you.

Editor’s Note: Watch for a special exhibit opening in the Morian Hall of Paleontology Feb. 19! Amber Secrets: Feathers from the Age of Dinosaurs offers a glimpse back in time to the forests of Burma in middle Cretaceous, when plants were just beginning to develop flowers. See extinct insects trapped inside fossilized tree resin, and an astounding surprise: feathers in the time of T. rex and Triceratops!

James is a Discovery Guide at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

T. rex vs. Prey: Imagining battles between ancient gladiators

When I was super young, say around five or so, I remember playing in the bath tub with my plastic toys. Some were super heroes like He-Man or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, others were monster trucks and die-cast matchbox cars by Mattel, but most were dinosaurs.

This might be TMI, this story about the kid in the bath tub with bubbles on his head, ramming plastic characters into one another and dreaming up their backstories, the bellows of challenge they traded, and the choreography of their battles, but I know there are other adult children out there with similar memories.

During this epoch in the evolution of me, I distinctly recall pitting Tyrannosaurus rex against Stegosaurus, which, as I’ve discovered in later life, was completely wrong, as was most of what I thought around five years old, but you know, who can blame a five-year-old for muddling up the fossil record?

T. rex is one of the most famous dinosaurs in history, easily identified by its massive, heavy skull, long steak-knife teeth, powerful back legs and tail, and ridiculous vestigial arms, but due to her status as dinosaur royalty, the length of her reign and her identity is as often confused by adults as it is by naive five-year-olds. The T. rex lived for two million years in the Late Cretaceous, never in the Jurassic, as her appearance in Jurassic Park might suggest, but we can forgive this fiction for its oversight. (After all, InGen, the engineering firm responsible for cloning extinct dinosaurs in the movie, infamously mismatched animals from different eras within the same park.) And she wasn’t the only two-legged carnivore.

stego allo

In a dramatic representation, Stegosaurus and Allosaurus duke it out in the Jurassic. Morian Hall.

In the time of Stegosaurus, between 155 and 150 million years ago (the real Jurassic), the apex predator was the Allosaurus. Smaller than the T. rex, but with more capable arms with three fingers ending in talons, this baddie no doubt picked battles with Stegosaurus, putting its life on the line for a meal. With its polygonal plates down its back, viciously spiked tail, flexible spine and toes that allowed it to rear up, Stegosaurus could give Allosaurus a true walloping.


Allosaurus remains feature prominent eyebrow ridges and three-fingered hands with sharp claws.

Forget about jaws and claws. One solid hit from the bone spikes could deeply puncture the neck or torso of any shady Allosaurus looking for a bite, and its plates would protect its spine from being severed by teeth until it could land a blow. It isn’t difficult to imagine eyes gouged and jugulars perforated, many Allosauruses bleeding out after botched predatory encounters with Stegosaurus. There were certainly easier things for Allosaurus to eat, but few battles with other species could match the gladiatorial epicness of this match-up, at least not in this era.


Even as an herbivore, Stegosaurus would have made a formidable opponent against Allosaurus in the Jurassic, using a spiked tail and bone plates along its spine as defenses.

Fast forward 90 million years to the Late Cretaceous, the reign of the “tyrant lizard.” Tyrannosaurs roamed North America and Asia, preying on a variety of other famous megafauna like Triceratops, Ankylosaurus, and duck-billed hadrosaurs including Edmontosaurus, Brachylophosaurus, and Parasaurolophus. There’s no way T. rex even knew Stegosaurus was a thing. More time passed between these two than between dinosaurs and Homo sapiens.


As the largest predator of the Late Cretaceous, the T. rex is one of the fossil record’s most iconic species.

Nor was the T. rex the only one of her kind; she was just the largest, hence the name, “king of tyrants.” Among her smaller contemporaries, Tarbosaurus, Albertosaurus, Daspletosaurus, and Gorgosaurus, she was the Queen B, big and bad, in spite of the competition. She had excellent vision, a sense of smell that could detect prey from miles away, and decent hearing, though high-pitched sounds would have been lost to her. Food wouldn’t have been difficult for the T. rex to find, but that food really, really didn’t want to be eaten.


T. rex couldn’t have fought Stegosaurus, but it preyed upon Triceratops, another iconic species that lived in the same time period.

There’s no more famous match-up than Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops. With two long horns and a bony frill like a samurai helmet to guard its neck, as long as the trike met the T. rex head-on, there was no contest. But if Triceratops charged and missed the mark, the tyrant’s big jaws could take out its backbone in a single bite, neutralizing the threat of horns. Recent discoveries of casts of Triceratops‘s hide reveals nodules that might have housed quills, making even a bite to its back a dangerous one if T. rex ever got around the impenetrable helmet. You can imagine this battle yourself in the Morian Hall of Paleontology, where Lane the Triceratops takes a defensive position under an aggressor T. rex.


T. rex preyed upon Denversaurus and its famous cousin, Ankylosaurus, but both would have made a difficult meal, protected by bony armor.

Against Ankylosaurus and its cousin Denversaurus, also on display in Morian Hall, tyrannosaurs likely had a more difficult time. Both Ankylosaurus and Denversaurus developed the adaptation of a wide, low body and armored plating, making access to its soft underbelly impossible for tyrannosaurs unless kicked onto its back, but Ankylosaurus had another advantage. The tip of its tail bore a mace-like club that, like Stegosaurus’s spiked tail, could maim the jaws of predators that didn’t pay enough heed. One swing from this heavy weapon could break open a T. rex‘s face, cripple its legs, or shatter its ribs, and with arms too small to defend itself, dodging seems the only tactic at her disposal against this tank of a creature. An encounter with an Ankylosaurus could mean either a meal or certain death, depending on the T. rex‘s experience hunting.


Armor plating on the back of Denversaurus would have protected against a bite from the T. rex and other tyrannosaurs of the Late Cretaceous, but if flipped over, its soft underbelly would be exposed.

A more easy meal for any tyrannosaur would have been Edmontosaurus and other duck-billed dinosaurs. These hadrosaurs had few defenses. No armor plating, no spikes, no claws, no wings, no sharp teeth. But it’s possible they had a different advantage, though it’s tough to deduce through fossils alone. Hollow chambers in the skulls of many hadrosaurs suggest these creatures, like geese and other water fowl, had the power of sound at their disposal. A deafening bellow might have stopped a tyrannosaur in its tracks or sent it running in the other direction. T. rex isn’t known for its sensitive hearing, but as we all know, if the sound is loud enough, it can be excruciating. And T. rex had no fingers to put into her ears, nor could she reach them.


Edmontosaurus, a duckbilled hadrosaur and cousin of Parasaurolophus, appears to have lacked natural defenses. However, the hollows in its skull suggest it could have protected itself with deafening bellows like giant geese.

Understanding these species as they once were, interacting with one another, is more than bath tub child’s play for paleontologists; it’s a career and a discipline. It’s in the Greek roots of the word “paleontology,” the study of being and beings in the ancient world. The study of what life on Earth might have looked like eons ago. The work of these scientists is more like philosophy than fiction, but building careful theories via the fossil record and considering every angle does require a measure of imagination.


An artist’s representation depicts Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex in an age-old feud set in the lush swamps of the Late Cretaceous, an imagined scene deduced from evidence in the fossil record. Morian Hall.

I suppose, apart from the spikes and teeth and horns and claws and body armor and all the other things that make these terrible lizards seem like something out of science fiction, or monsters invented by a puppeteer, it’s the daydreaming paleontology requires that holds my attention. To understand their world, you must build it in your mind.

The Greatest Dinosaur-ologist Ever! The Reverend Edward Hitchcock.

Congregationalist Minister, Director of the Massachusetts Geological Survey, and First to Prove that Dinosaurs Had Feathers.

Part Two: U-boats and the Knuckle Decipherment.
(Read Part One Here)


Ferocious Flat-foots frighten second grader. A cartoon from Punch 1855 shows three dinosaurs restored at the Crystal Palace as big-shouldered and flat-footed. Supposedly kids were dragged kicking and screaming through the rows of monstrous sculptures.


Last year we left our dear friend, the Reverend Hitchcock, footprint sleuth of the 1830’3-50‘s, close to solving the riddle of the track-makers who stomped all over his Jurassic landscape. It wasn’t just a local New England puzzle. Similar tracks were excavated in Europe, Asia, Africa, Brazil — everywhere sediments were dated to the Jurassic, Late Triassic and Cretaceous. Hitch knew these beasts were bipeds, striding swiftly across muddy flats and sand bars, holding their heels high off the ground. Could they have been dinosaurians?

Absolutely, positively NOT! All the wise men of paleontology said Hitch’s tracks were totally, completely, astoundingly different from the imprints that would be made by a real-life dinosaur. All the textbooks and monographs said that dinos were flat-footed quadrupeds, and that’s the way they were restored as life-sized sculptures in the Crystal Palace Exhibition in a park just outside of London in the 1850’s. The 3-D dinos proudly displayed all the latest discoveries from the very best minds in Europe. This exhibition was the first “Jurassic Park” style extravaganza anywhere. Record crowds came and gawked at the Jurassic and Cretaceous behemoths. Three separate dino species were shown in giant models, plus assorted extinct crocs, ‘dactyls and sea-reptiles. All three dinos were shown as pentadactylus flat-footed monsters. All had forefeet as big as their hind feet and monstrously muscled shoulders. All the officially sanctioned dino-models on sale at the gift shoppe were five-fingered and five-toed too.

You could buy posters of the dinosaurian flat-foots and tiny miniatures cast in lead to act as paperweights or kids’ toys. Textbooks and encyclopedias were swayed by the exhibit and carried the same anatomical message. The Dinosauria as a group had legs like bears, with forepaws designed to excavate holes and bring down prey with one swipe of the claws. Tracks made by such beasts would, of course, display five digits fore and aft. The footprints had to leave big flat-footed sole marks too. Therefore, Hitchcock’s track-makers couldn’t be dinos, everyone knew that. Hitch’s favorite Jurassic critters had three main toes in the hind paw, arranged so the middle toe was the longest. Hind feet were gigantic, dwarfing the front paws in the few species who came down on all fours. Nothing could be more different from what science had discovered about dino paws.


Don’t be misled by the cryptic title. Here’s the best book on the Enigma Machine during World War II. Read this book to get the true story of Alan Turing and the cracking of the Nazi U-Boat code, as portrayed in the hit movie “The Imitation Game”

Triumph of the Congregationalist Mind: The digital decipherment. 
There was a puzzling disconnect between what the bone-scientists said and what Hitch and his fellow track-analysts were thinking. The bone guys saw dinosaurs as the commonest big land animals of the Jurassic, and the dinos were four-legged flat-foots, so they thought. Oddly, no one could find fossil footprints that matched the dino reconstructions. There were no giant flat-footed tracks in the rocks that contained giant dino skeletons. Odd, very odd.

Hitchcock ignored dinosaurs as they were reconstructed in Europe. He focused on bringing back to life the bipeds who had left behind the spectacular tracks in New England. To realize his life’s goal he needed to “see” the foot skeletons of his track-makers. But he had no fossilized pedal petrifications. No ankle bones; no toe bones, no fingers. He needed a miracle. He needed time-traveling x-ray vision that would reveal exactly where each and every bone fit in each and every toe. Congregationalists didn’t believe in miracles, not in the normal course of scientific work. What Hitchcock believed in was the power of the analytic mind and the beautiful regularity in the design of Nature. Here all his sole-searching paid off big. He already possessed the best set of diagrams of feet from living species, thanks to all the time spent chasing critters across muddy fields. Now he needed to sit down and search for the key that would unlock the skeletal.

Hitch succeeded. He cracked the code of the tracks. This decipherment must stand as one of the most heroic triumphs in the history of de-encryption, right next to the cracking of the U-boat signals sent by World War Two’s Enigma Machine. That Enigma Code story is told in the movie “The Imitation Game” with Benedict Cumberbatch playing the math genius Alan Turing. During the early days of the war, England was being starved by the U-boat offensive.Cargo was being sunk so fast that food, ammo, and guns were running short. The key to the U-boat success was the system of commands coming from German naval headquarters, sent in a new code that was diabolically complex. Each message was encrypted by the “Enigma Machine” that scrambled and double scrambled and triple scrambled every word.

Turing and his crew were told “The Enigma Machine is impregnable — no one can figure it out.” The crew took that as a challenge. They triumphed! (Note: it was more of a team effort than shown in the movie). Soon the Brits were reading the Nazi messages before the sub commanders did. U-boats were intercepted. Depth charges were dropped with precision. Salvos of hedgehog rockets were fired (Google “hedgehog”). The undersea threat was neutralized.

uboatMs. Emily Dickinson and a World War II U-boat.  The U-boat is at the left. To learn more: “Dickinson, Selected Poems and Commentary” by Helen Vendler, 2010, Harvard University Press.

I imagine Cumberbatch or maybe Anthony Hopkins playing Hitch in the movie “Dino-Code Breaker”. I see Hitch hunched over his drawing board surrounded by pickled feet of local newts, frogs, toads and a bandicoot paw sent from Captain Cook’s explorations. Angelina Jolie, plays poet Emily Dickinson, a frequent visitor to the Hitchcockian lab. She brings him a cup of tea and a translation of a French monograph on mole feet. The candles burn down to their pewter holders. Light flickers.

“I’ve GOT IT!” Hitch leaps up, waking up Ms. Dickinson who was snoring in a rocking chair. “See…..it’s all in the knuckles! All in the pads under the joints.” Emily stares at the diagrams for a few seconds….

“Yes, I see it too. The Law of Knuckles!!!! There’s a single pad under each joint where two toe bones meet.”


Knuckle pads on the tracks of a squatting Anomoepus.

Hitch’s breakthrough came via one very special track-maker whom he had named Ano-moe-pus, meaning “Uneven Paws”. This is the species that occasionally squatted down and put its forepaws on the mud. There were three big hind toes pointing forward, the longest in the center, and a little one pointing inward. It’s knuckle-pads were exceptionally well defined so Hitch could see exactly where bones came together at each joint.

The little toe had just one pad — that meant it had just two separate toe bones meeting at the pad. There was a sharp claw protruding from the pad. We paleo-podiatrists use a formula, a digital short-hand, to express the toe-bone design. We number toes from the inside to the outside, so the human innermost toe (we call it our “big toe”) would be Toe I. The pinkie toe is Toe V. The middle toe, of course, is Toe III. Using the formula, we can say that Anomoepus Digit I had 2 toe bones, or to be technical, two phalanges (phalanx is techno-speak for toe bone; plural phalanges).

The next toe in Anomoepus, Digit II, had two pads = three phalanges. Digit III, the longest, had three pads = four phalanges. Digit IV had four pads = five phalanges.

I imagine beads of perspiration trickling down the Reverend’s forehead as he wrote down the toe formula for Anomoepus. He sensed that he’s close to the answer for all his mystery tracks. When done with Anomoepus, he had a digital formula of 2-3-4-5. What about the pinkie toe, Digit V? No pads, no claw. No toe bones. Score the pinkie toe as a big 0. Hitch’s mystery beasts had no pinkie toe!! 

Final formula: 2,3,4,5,0. That was a huge advance in eliminating suspects. Mammals were out. Basic mammal formula is 2,3,3,3,3. Never did mammals have more than 3 phalanges on any toe, so therefore Hitchcock could ignore any suspect that was furry. (Don’t take my word for it. Take off your socks and count your toes. Now do the same for a relaxed kitty or ‘possum).


Jurassic Enigma Machine. Each pad is where two bones met….so filling in the foot skeleton was easy. Anomoepus has a formula of 2-3-4-5-0

No way the track-makers could be five ton bandicoots and kangaroos. Frogs? Nope. They never had more than four phalanges in the hind toes.

Lizards? They did have more than 3 phalanges in their middle digits, but they usually had a pinkie toe and so carried the formula 2,3,4,5,3. Hitch’s memory ran through all the paws he’s examined. Who had 2,3,4,5,0 Interesting. Alligators! Crocodiles! Closer than lizards but these formidable reptiles had wide, flat feet. And their inner toe was too big and pointed forward. And and…..crocs and gators didn’t go about on their tippy-toes and didn’t run on hind legs alone.

Hitch was very, very careful, testing and re-testing any theory of the crime scenes in the Jurassic rocks. He didn’t make a rush to digital judgement. I see him pushing back back on his desk chair, smiling. He looks over to Emily Dickinson and nods. She nods back.

“….birds…” They say in unison, in still soft voices. “The mystery monsters are birds.”

BRILLIANT!!!!! Totally awesome — that was the very first time the foot of an extinct beast was correctly envisioned, without a single bone. Problem? The biggest track-makers were over ten times bulkier than the heaviest ostrich, judging from the track size. Hard to believe? Well, no; there was precedent. Richard Owen, most famous paleontologist of the time, had announced fossil birds from New Zealand – the “Moas” — that were so huge they must have reached a ton or so. And the complete hind feet looked exactly like thick, heavy duty versions of Hitch’s Anomoepus. Moas had survived almost to the present day before the Maori hunters wiped them out. It could be that the moas were remnants of a world-wide Jurassic ground-bird dynasty.


Big bird, recently extinct. Hitchcock’s diagram of a moa foot and a moa exhibit at Moscow’s paleontological museum.

In 1858 Hitchcock’s careful, exquisite scrutiny of all things digital and phalangeal won praise from colleagues all over the scholarly globe. “He’s done it! He’s proven that a great Subclass of Flightless birds ruled the Jurassic.” There were only two lingering problems for Hitch’s theory:

Where were the wings? In the specimens with front paw prints, there were five short fingers. Bird wings have three long fingers (check the bucket of buffalo wings next football game). Hitch had to conclude that his Jurassic avians were flightless and used their stubby-fingered hands for digging, not flying.

The second problem was the tail. There were imprints in some Anomoepus specimens that might be from a long, thick tail. Birds today never have much of a tail and never with long bones and massive muscle. But maybe the Jurassic birds did have a mighty caudal appendage?

Both problems got solved by a skeleton dug in 1862, from a Jurassic quarry in Germany. A delicate raven-sized skeleton was a near perfect match for Hitchcock’s prediction of a Mystery Track-maker: the hind legs were long, especially in the ankle; the hind foot had a 2-3-4-5-0 layout; and the front paw had claws on the fingers. The rear end was wonderful; there was a long, strong, bony tail. Skeleton-wise, the little fellow was a fine example of a small Anomoepus.

Judging just from the leg bones, Hitch would’ve called the German specimen a bird. Ah…and here’s the delicious part. The skeleton came with skin, preserved as clear imprints on the limestone. The skin had feathers. Big flight feathers on the arms, wide feathers all along the tail. Yes indeed, this Anomoepus-like animal was clothed in feathers. The critter received the name Archaeopteryx.

Even more emphatic validation of Hitchcock came in 1866-68 when T. H. Huxley visited his chum John Phillips at Oxford University to talk over megalosaurs. As they pondered megalosaur legs, the two men exposed a case of osteological malpractice. Remember that Megalosaurus was a Jurassic meat-eating dino of large size. The bones were jumbled up by scavengers before burial, causing confusion — it wasn’t totally clear what belonged to the front end and what belonged to the rear. The English paleontologists in the 1820‘s and ‘30’s decided that the big, flat bone was a shoulder blade and the long skinny bone was a collar bone. That’s why the reconstruction showed immense forequarters and arms as fat as a bear’s.

Though most anatomists agreed, the restoration had serious front-end alignment issues. Professor John Phillips and T. H. Huxley showed that the giant shoulder bone of the Jurassic Megalosaurus was, in fact, a giant upper hip. And that hip that was very bird-like. The real megalosaur shoulder blade was narrow and bird-like. The real megalosaur hind feet weren’t five-toed and flat. They were arranged according to the pattern worked out by Hitchcock for Anomoepus. Properly restored, the megalosaur was a giant version of Anomoepus, just as Archaeopteryx was a mini-version. Megalosaurs had the exact body build necessary to make the biggish tracks studied by the Reverend.


Putting the hips where they belonged — painting by Luis Rey.


A hypsilophodont dino — feet matched Hitch’s Anomoepus.

More complete skeletons were dug for other dino families. The hypsilophodonts, smallish plant–eating dinos, had front and back feet that matched Hitch’s beloved Anomoepus tracks perfectly. At last it was clear that Hitchcock had been studying dinosaurs all along, starting in the mid 1830’s. He was dead right about the mystery monsters being built like birds and moving swiftly in flocks over the ground. All the European savants had been dead wrong when they stuck flat-footed paws and muscle-bound bear shoulders on their dinos.

Sadly Hitch had gone to his reward before the textbooks were rewritten. He received surprisingly weak posthumous praise. When I took paleo courses at Yale in the 1960‘s, Hitch got hardly a mention. Most dino-books even accused him of making a mistake when he called his track-makers “birds” instead of “dinosaurs”. No he didn’t make a mistake! He was right!! The track-makers were part of the avian family tree. All dinos were.

And therefore we dinosauro-philes of the 21st century must make amends. We doff our hats and give the credit where it’s due.

Mebbe…….we should write letters to Universal Studios and ask that they give a percentage of the billions made by the “Jurassic Park” franchise to the Massachusetts Geological Survey and to the Congregationalist Church of America.


* No one called him “Hitch” in public when he was alive. Still, he was so humble and accessible to students that I think, were he with us now, the nickname would have been ok.

p.s. Emily Dickinson’s (ahem) U-Boat poem

There’s no Book like an Unter-Boot
To drop us deep at Sea
Nor any Poetry as Perilous
As the Torpedoes’ stealthy speed —
This Traverse may the greatest take
And oppress them with the Toll
How deadly is the Chariot
That hunts the Human Soul.