Edward Hitchcock

Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution is coming back, a week from tomorrow! Don’t miss the exhibit as it flies into the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Sugar Land, opening Oct. 22, 2010. Famed paleontologist Bob Bakker provides more insight into this unique fossil.

The Reverend Edward Hitchcock -
The Man Who Predicted Archaeopteryx – a Quarter Century before the Discovery.

Who discovered Archaeopteryx?  In 1861 Herman von Meyer recognized a Solnhofen fossil as a bird.

But another scientist had predicted that Archaeopteryx HAD to exist, back in 1836.

Edward Hitchcock was the State Geologist of Massachusetts, and a leading Biblical scholar of the time. He was a serial creationist who believed that Creation was accomplished through many events spread across geological ages. Hitchcock was a Jurassic specialist who dug hundreds of fossil footprints from the Connecticut Valley. From this evidence, he figured out that there must have been  birds in the Jurassic. Some of Hitchcock’s Jurassic birds were as tiny as sandpipers. Others were as large as rhinos.

Hitchcock didn’t have any good fossil skeletons from his Jurassic digs. But still he  reconstructed the toe bones from the imprints in the rock.  First he ran all sorts of living animals on muddy fields, from turkeys to frogs to raccoons to barefoot farm boys. He diagrammed where the toes fit in the footprint. Soon the Reverend Hitchcock knew more about the animal sole than any other scholar.

Here are the clues he gathered from scrutinizing feet:

  • The dominant beasts who left their tracks in Jurassic rocks walked on their hind-feet – like birds.
  • The Jurassic creatures walked with their ankles high off the ground in long strides – like birds.
  • These animals had three long hind toes spread out, with the longest toe in the middle – like birds.
  • There was a little toe on the inside of the foot, pointing inwards and backwards – like birds.

Then Hitchcock reconstructed the details of the foot skeleton of the Jurassic track-makers.  He discovered that joints where two toe bones came together usually were supported by a thick pad of skin. So, using the pad marks in fossil tracks, Hitchcock worked out the toe bone geometry. The first toe had two bones, the second had three, the third had four, and the fifth toe was absent. The toe-bone design was exactly like a bird’s!

Hitchcock never suspected that his track-makers were dinosaurs, because at the time all dinosaurs were reconstructed with lizard-like feet, five-toed and flat-footed.

One discovery bothered Hitchcock – occasionally he found imprints of the forefeet where his animals had rested. The fingers had sharp claws, things that normal birds didn’t carry.

By 1840, Hitchcock was sure that a special subclass of birds had ruled the Jurassic – birds with clawed hands.

But where were the fossil bones?

In 1861 the first skeleton of Archaeopteryx was discovered. The bones testified that Hitchcock had been right. Here was a bird with feathers and toes arranged perfectly to make Hitchcock’s tracks. Plus, the hands had sharp claws.

In 1868, Professors Thomas Henry Huxley and John Phillips added more proof that the Jurassic had been ruled by birds. They restudied bones of meat-eating dinosaurs and exposed the mistakes in previous reconstructions. Dinosaurs were NOT flat-footed at all. Instead, carnivorous dinosaurs had bird-style hind feet that fit Hitchcock’s tracks. Hitchcock’s Subclass of Jurassic birds turned out to be dinosaurs!

Archaeopteryx was both a bird and a dinosaur.

In the 1990’s, Chinese discoveries showed that many carnivorous dinosaurs had feathers.

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About Bob

The Museum’s Curator of Paleontology, world-renowned Dr. Robert T. Bakker (or, as some call him, Bob) is the leader of the handful of iconoclastic paleontologists who rewrote the book on dinosaurs three decades ago. Along with other noted paleontologists, Bakker has changed the image of dinosaurs from slow-moving, slow-witted, cold-blooded creatures to — at least in some cases — warm-blooded giants well-equipped to dominate the Earth for 200 million years. Dr. Bakker can be found all over the globe, notably leading the Museum’s paleontology field program.

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