Back to Seymour, Back in time: Part One

Far up in north Texas, past Ft. Worth and Wichita Falls, past the point where the flora turns from trees to shrubs, past a town with a funny name, Megargel, pop. 203, past a massive wind farm with tall white blades lording over thousands of acres of land, and then another, and another, lies the humble community of Seymour. Nestled in the Red River Valley near the southeastern corner of Oklahoma, the little city contains a high school (Go Panthers!), a couple of small hotels, a handful of fast food restaurants and steakhouses, several churches, and a tiny collection of historic prairie-style homes tucked behind Main Street. It’s the kind of town you live in not for the amenities, but for the rich soil and the open sky that stretches to the horizon, and the friendly rural folk, farmers and ranchers, who with their own hands have built it up from nothing.

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Wind turbines stand over fields of wheat on one of several wind farms outside Wichita Falls. Kelly Russo

On a weekend, you can enjoy a movie under the stars, take the family to the park, or hop in your SUV and explore the landscape. Nights open above like a planetarium, studded with a billion stars that would delight any gazer, and if you’re up for some night adventure, it’s a great time to search the dirt roads for nocturnal wildlife. But for all this, a trip to Seymour is incomplete without a visit to the pride of the city: the Whiteside Museum of Natural History.

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Seymour storefronts and cobblestone streets are a testament to this city’s history. Jason Schaefer

A recent addition to the rural landscape and a welcome diversion from daily life on the ranch in burning heat, the museum has blossomed into a local treasure in a single year. Under the direction of geologist and paleontologist Chris Flis, the once-dusty abandoned building that used to house a car dealership now contains excellent specimens of Permian-era fossils discovered less than 10 miles away in the Craddock bone bed, including the iconic Dimetrodon.

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Murals on the Whiteside Museum of Natural History provide a fascinating departure from the rural look of historical storefronts. Kelly Russo

With the help of paleo curators Dave Temple and Dr. Robert Bakker, The Houston Museum of Natural Science has obtained its Permian fossils from this site for the past 11 years. Flis began building the Whiteside collection from the Craddock and other local dig sites, and in the past year, to use Temple’s words, “He’s been busy.”

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A model Tyrannosaurus rex head at the Whiteside Museum of Natural History displays the contemporary conception of the dinosaur’s appearance. T. rex had pinfeathers on its head and jaw. We joked he looked a little like John Travolta. Kelly Russo

Racks of specimens jacketed in element-proof plaster-and-burlap casts line the back wall of the Whiteside, and in the fossil prep lab, the skeletons of Edaphosaurus, Diplocaulus, and Eryops line a long table as Flis categorizes the fragments to piece together whole prehistoric animals. These bones, about 280 million years old, represent a time in the fossil record when amphibians first exited the water and dragged themselves across land, eventually developing into early reptiles. And the Craddock bone bed is one of the richest cross-sections of this time period in the world.

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At the Whiteside Museum of Natural History, an open jacket of an Eryops skull, a Permian-era amphibian, displays the methods paleontologists use to prepare fossils. Jason Schaefer

Kelly and I visited Seymour, the Craddock and Whiteside the weekend of June 6 to gather information about our site and assist in the celebration of the Whiteside’s first anniversary. While the trip didn’t require any miles-long hike-ins through the backcountry, nor a tent and a sleeping bag since we “camped” in the Sagamar Hotel for four nights, the trip was nothing short of an adventure. We met the locals, played in the dirt, prospected for new fossils, and helped our paleontologists work on our active Dimetrodon digs. The work was sweltering and filthy, but the excitement of discovery, of putting hands on bone that hadn’t seen sunlight in hundreds of millions of years, holding history in the palm of your hand, was enough to keep us out in the heat, fueled by the magic of wonder.

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The spinal column and fin spines of an Edaphosaurus, a Permian-era land herbivore, line a long table in the fossil prep lab at the Whiteside Museum of Natural History. Kelly Russo

The first day, we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. To beat the heat, Temple prefers to rise early to eat breakfast around 6:45 a.m. at the local Maverick diner, where Seymour’s agriculturalists congregate for any combination of bacon, eggs, sausage, potatoes, and biscuits. Kelly doesn’t drink coffee, but I required about a half-gallon just to get the day started. I’m a late riser.

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Kelly (right), and educator and HMNS volunteer Shana Steinhardt, photograph a Texas horned lizard on the Craddock ranch near Seymour. Jason Schaefer

After the rich meal, plenty of calories to burn, our group caravaned off to the Craddock, a 4,400-acre ranch down a lonely county road. A dirt truck path carved through the mesquite and cedar brush was our only access to the dig site. Normally, we were told, the land is dry and brown, more a desert than a semi-arid valley, but following heavy rainfall two weeks prior from the same storm system that flooded Houston in May, the land was the greenest it had been in a decade. The rain caused an explosion of life, giving us five sightings of the Texas horned lizard, our state reptile, now listed as a threatened species due to its rapid decline in recent years.

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This Texas horned lizard, listed as threatened by the State of Texas, was one of five sightings that we had during the course of our trip. Jason Schaefer

But what’s good for the land ain’t so hot for digging fossils. On the way out to the site, Temple worried the mud would be too sticky for our company vehicles to push through, and even if we did, that the soil at the site might be too wet. Paleontologists depend on dry conditions to fleck away sedimentary rock with delicate tools. Wet ground means a difficult dig and sometimes the loss of specimens.

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Paleontologists and volunteers from the Houston Museum of Natural Science and Seymour locals gather at our dig site in the Craddock Bone Bed. Kelly Russo

Conditions weren’t as bad as we thought, however. The site was about as good as it could get in spite of the rain. We cleaned up some litter, tarpaulin fragments and other jacketing materials that had aged in the weather, and set to work removing a pile of scree that had fallen in the rains and partially covered our biggest jacket. You can dig with anything you can prod the ground with, breaking up the clay into dust like a toothpick cleaning teeth, but Temple prefers a bayonet with a modified pommel to stab the soil and unlock it with a quarter turn. Others used screwdrivers, dental picks, or awls. Dr. Bakker hadn’t yet joined us; he would come a day later.

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A regular sight on the Craddock, Donald Gayle Coltharpe, lease-holder for the Craddock ranch, carries his dog Sissy perched on his shoulder. Kelly Russo

We dug slowly, handful by handful, making sure no bone fragments were lost in the soil we collected in buckets and discarded over the side of a nearby ravine. That first day, with the help of volunteers Dr. Mitch Fruitstone and Shana Steinhardt, Kelly and I learned about the process of extracting bone from the dirt. Using whatever digging tool you choose, you enter the soil at a shallow angle, digging into the side of a hill rather than down until your pick hits solid rock. It’s easier than you’d think to notice the difference. Though the sediment has hardened with time, it crumbles away easily. Bone fragments and rock will not break apart unless struck with an implement, hence the ginger digging. The idea is to remove the dirt from the rock, not the rock from the dirt. Each significant sample that is discovered must have its depth in the soil and location relative to other fossils recorded to place it in the geological record.

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The plaster jacket we hoped to flip over the weekend and transport back to the museum was buried under a layer of sediment after heavy spring rains. Jason Schaefer

The goal of the day was to “flip the jacket,” that is, carve the dirt out from under a fossil-rich lump of sediment until it stands on a pedestal, then turn it upside-down to plaster the underside. When the specimen is completely jacketed, it’s ready for transportation. Contrary to what the movies may suggest, paleontologists do the painstaking final prep work for fossils not in the field, but in a controlled environment, a laboratory with fine, electric-powered implements.

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Using a replica bayonet as a digging tool, HMNS Paleontologist Dave Temple teaches me how to uncover the plaster jacket without harming it. Kelly Russo

The plaster field jacket is made of layers like papier mache. Diggers begin with a separation layer, usually aluminum foil, so the plaster doesn’t stick to the specimens, and then dip fragments of material like burlap or cotton into plaster of Paris that hardens in minutes. Once the specimen is completely covered and dry, it is marked for cataloging so paleontologists know what it contains and its upright orientation when they return to it days, weeks, months, or sometimes years later.

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A jacketed Dimetrodon rib specimen from a neighboring dig site illustrates both the layering and soil removal techniques paleontologists use to preserve the integrity of fossilized bones. Kelly Russo

By one in the afternoon, we broke for lunch and to tour a nearby longhorn ranch. We had dug no more than a foot into the soil around the jacket, and Temple was nearly bitten by a four-inch centipede, a common sight for this part of Texas, but it was a good start to the weekend, with much more adventure to come.

Author’s note: This is the first part in a series detailing the HMNS excursion to the Craddock Bone Bed.

Among fossils: How very old things remind us of our youth

The earth is 4.54 billion years old. That’s a big number to wrap your head around. Spending time among very old things helps, but even then it’s easy to forget that not only the fossils themselves are ancient; so is the rock they came out of, the planet circling a sun that has been around a long time.

Since my childhood, dinosaurs have arrested my imagination like nothing else in science, and what better place to witness the majesty of these ancient animals than the Houston Museum of Natural Science, displaying some of the oldest things on Earth? When I walk through the Morian Hall of Paleontology, I see the bones of creatures that lived millions of years ago, preserved naturally by the processes of geology, like mummies, but embalmed by mud, pressure, and minerals. These aren’t bones, really. They’re rocks, no different from petrified wood or the crystals in the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals. They were once creatures of flesh and bone, but the organic molecules and chemicals that made up their bodies, if they didn’t decay, were replaced atom by atom while the rest of life on Earth developed.

Triceratops

Lane, the most complete fossil specimen of Triceratops in the world. 65 million years old.

Mine is a problem of scope, I think. It’s a strange feeling to understand that Lane the Triceratops, the most complete specimen of this dinosaur, was under our feet during the fall of the Roman Empire, was still buried in the time of King Tutanhkamen, and remained undiscovered while Shakespeare wrote his sonnets. This animal died, and life went on as it always does. Its life among presumably millions of others like it was common. Undistinguished. But that specimen is no longer a Triceratops; it’s a skeleton made of rock. Not even a skeleton, but an impression of it. A three-dimensional photograph dug out of the album that is the many-layered dirt of our planet. This animal has become a symbol of history. Now that is rare.

Icthyosaur

Icthyosaurus mother. At least 146 million years old.

It’s remarkable, this action of preservation that the Earth is capable of. And it’s remarkable that we have developed the science to identify and understand these stones. We had to consider both the life cycle of rock and the taxonomy of life before we could begin to speculate what these samples could mean. But really, so what? They’re just rocks.

It’s the feeling of humility they deliver that makes them fascinating. It’s like walking through modern Rome after living in developing Houston, surrounded by buildings a thousand years old that stood before the United States was even imagined. We’ve been walking around these seven continents for millenia, in the dark about what was under our feet until the birth of paleontology in 1666, when Nicholas Steno identified “tongue stones,” known then only as triangular rocks, as fossilized shark teeth. Dinosaurs were around whether we knew they existed or not. They are as old as the rock we walk on.

Icthyosaur Baby

Impressions of Icthyosaurus pups in the rib cage of this rare specimen suggest this animal died in childbirth.

Now consider this. In 2011, biologists identified 20,000 new species, a large number of them beetles, and most of them invertabrates. That was in a single year. Now take that diversity and multiply it by the age of the Earth. I’m not going to do the math, but that’s the number of species paleontologists have yet to discover. That’s the amount of life we potentially have yet to search for in the rock.

After early hominids, fossils of the first humans date back 1.8 million years, along with mammoths, mastodons, and saber-toothed cats that appear in the rock alongside them. Triceratops lived in the late Cretaceous, discovered in rock at least 65 million years old. Icthyosaurus swam the oceans and gave birth to her young between 245 and 146 million years ago, in the Jurassic and the Triassic. (Their era lasted 100 million years. Again, we’ve been around for 1.8.) Trilobites in our collection have been preserved for between 540 and 360 million years, and the stromatolites, layered rocks formed by ancient bacteria, date back to 3.4 billion years. Not million. Billion. They appeared in the Archaeozoic Eon, about a billion years after Earth solidified out of molten space-rock.

Trilobite

One of the best preserved and most intricate trilobites in the world. At least 360 million years old.

What will the occupants of this planet find after the next million years? We’ve been around for a while, but not nearly as long as these fossils. What will paleontologists of the future, if they still exist, find in another 65 million years? 146? 540? 3.4 billion? The Earth will still be here by then; humanity is another story. Will we still cling to the crags in a different form, the maps unrecognizeable to the once-dominant species of 2015 CE, if they could see them? Will we have preserved our history as well as the rocks have preserved the dinosaurs?

Stromatolites

Stromatolite formed by layers of ancient bacteria preserved in rock. At least 3.4 billion years old.

In another 3.4 billion years, the sun will be nearing the end of its life, having expanded into a red giant and swallowed Mercury and Venus. According to many estimations, by the time the sun is 7.59 billion years old, it will engulf the Earth. We are living in our planet’s middle age. It took half the Earth’s life for humanity to arise and build its cities. For the United States to claim its sovereignty.

Lucy

Lucy, Australopithecus afarensis, the most complete skeleton of this hominid in the world. 3.18 million years old.

The Earth is old, dude! We never pay this age any mind until we identify something to date it against. Here we have Triceratops, say, a creature that lived in the time when this rock was young, just a pile of sediment on the floor of the ocean or a river. Paleontologists owe a lot to the power of speculation and theory. We may never know for sure what life was like in the era of these ancient creatures. But if we have anything in common with the dinosaurs, ancient mollusks and archaebacteria, it’s that we all grew on this same rock.

In a way, we’re just as old as they are. Our bodies are made up of the same elements that have always been here in some form or another, buried under the crust in a molten mantle, or exposed to the light of the sun that has fueled life on Earth for as far back as the imagination will stretch. As Carl Sagan said, “We are all made of star stuff.”

Girl Scouts earn badges for science at HMNS

by James Talmage, Scout Programs

After more than a year of hard work, Girl Scouts Heidi Tamm, Zoe Kass, Meredith Lytle and her sister Angela Lytle completed the entire Scouts@HMNS Careers in Science instructional series, earning each scout a total of seven badges.

Careers in Science is the Scouts@HMNS series of classes for Girl Scouts that aims to introduce girls to different scientific fields, lets them meet women working in those fields, and shows them what it’s like to work at the museum. There are seven different classes: Archeology, Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Fossil Dig, Geology, and Paleontology. As the Fossil Dig class finished up March 7, those four girls added their seventh and final Careers in Science patch to their vests.

Girl Scouts accept badges for completing the Careers in Science series of classes at HMNS. Pictured from left to right are Angela Lyle, Meredith Lyle, James Talmage, Heidi Tamm, and Zoe Kass.

Girl Scouts accept badges for completing the Careers in Science series of classes at HMNS. Pictured from left to right are Angela Lyle, Meredith Lyle, James Talmage, Heidi Tamm, and Zoe Kass.

Heidi Tamm and Zoe Kass have been taking the classes together since the summer of 2013.

“They were really into earning all the patches and completing the whole series of classes.” said Julia Tamm, Heidi’s mother.

Heidi, whose favorite class was Archeology, said, “I liked science before the classes, but now I understand about the careers and what people actually do.”

Zoe kept taking the classes because of the fun activities and being able to see the museum in more detail. Her favorite class was Paleontology, which focuses on the Museum’s Morian Hall of Paleontology. 

Meredith and Angela, Girl Scout Cadette and Senior, respectively, have also taken all the classes together. Angela explained that she learned “there are lots of careers in science available and there are lots of women that work in science, especially at the Museum.”

Meredith encouraged other girls to try out the classes, even if they aren’t interested in science.

“You may decide you like it, or you’ll just learn something new,” she said.

The sisters agree that the Girl Scouts organization is moving more toward STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) careers, and that it’s not a boy thing to go into science. Anyone can do it, especially Girl Scouts.

For more information on the Careers in Science series, visit http://www.hmns.org/girlscouts/ and start collecting your patches today!

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)

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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.

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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.”

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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).

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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* 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.