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Connecticut's Dinosaurs

Dinosaur discoveries in the region are numerous and fascinating...and the men behind the beasts are no less intriguing.

By Ellen S. Littleford and Christopher J. Reich

Connecticut’s John Ostrom, in describing his unusual dinosaur find in a paper delivered in 1969, concluded that “it must have been a fleet-footed, extremely agile, very active animal.” The statement sounded innocent enough. But very few people had ever heard of an “active” dinosaur before, and to suggest that it was “agile” and “fleet-footed” fired the imagination. And so, with the introduction of Ostrom’s new dinosaur, the Deinonychus, scientific interest in dinosaurs rekindled and initiated the biggest dinosaur boom the country has known since Connecticut’s Othniel Marsh filled the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University in the 1870s with some of the world’s first great dinosaur discoveries.

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Connecticut has always contributed in a big way when it comes to the dinosaur. Connecticut dinosaur hunters, more properly referred to as vertebrate paleontologists, have discovered the remains of some of the largest and smallest dinosaurs that walked the earth, many of which were brought back and deposited in the state’s museums and universities. And as if that were not enough, the dinosaurs themselves left Connecticut their footprints.

It was in 1800 that the first evidence of the dinosaurs that once roamed the mudflats of the Connecticut Valley was literally uncovered when Pliny Moody, a student at Williams College, unearthed a slab of rock while plowing a field near South Hadley, Massachusetts. Imbedded in the rock was the giant three-toed footprint of what appeared to Moody to be a very large bird. Consistent with the times, Moody consulted his local pastor, who concluded that “without question” his discovery was “the imprint of Noah’s Raven. It rested on that ledge and probably slept there before resuming the dangerous journey back to the Ark.”

As numerous other huge footprints were discovered in the area over the next thirty to forty years, they were not connected to their true identity. Though Professor Edward Hitchcock, president of Amherst College (1845-1855), spent decades studying the prints, he never thought they were anything other than “stony bird” tracks. "The giants,” he reported, “were obviously wading birds four or five times the size of ostriches.”

In 1861, the first fossil imprint of a bird feather was discovered in Bavaria, and eventually dated at 150 million years. Paleontologists began questioning why no similar feather imprints were discovered along with the “ancient bird tracks” dating back 200 million years in the Connecticut Valley. Today we know that these impressions are actually the fossilized footprints of dinosaurs who walked the Valley on two very bird-like feet. Could birds be the direct descendents of dinosaurs? John Ostrom was to provide support for that theory in 1973.

But footprints are only impressions from the past and cannot provide the precise kind of knowledge that can be obtained from the actual fossilized remains of ancient animals. It was in East Windsor, Connecticut, that the first dinosaur bones to be discovered in North America were unearthed by workmen during blasting operations for a well in 1818. The clergymen and natural philosophers of the time thought they were the “remains of giant humans,” but eventually, in 1855, the bones were correctly identified as those of a reptile on the basis of a long tail. Subsequently three fairly complete dinosaur skeletons were discovered in a quarry south of Manchester in the 1800s, and descriptions of these specimens by Marsh contributed to the recognition of the Connecticut Valley region as fertile

grounds for fossil bones.

The red sediments of Connecticut, however, accumulated under conditions which were not ideal for the preservation of bones, and though partial skeletons of dinosaurs have been discovered over the years, they number far fewer than the footprints. Five hundred such footprints—one of the largest displays of tracks on one bedding surface in the world—are exhibited at Dinosaur Slate Park in Rocky Hill, a spectacular collection discovered in 1966 during excavations for a slate Highway Department building.

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While the stories of dinosaur discoveries in the region are numerous and fascinating, the men behind the beasts are no less intriguing. Perhaps the most legendary figure of the early years was Othniel Charles Marsh, the first American professor of paleontology. A nephew of George Peabody, Marsh organized and led countless expeditions throughout the western states during the “dinosaur rush days" of the late nineteenth century. Indeed, the race to find and name dinosaur species became an obsession with Marsh and rival paleontologist, Edward Cope of Philadelphia. Despite the brawls and secrecy surrounding much of the excavations of this era, some of the world's richest dinosaur finds came to light. Marsh’s accomplishments alone were awesome: he discovered 496 new species of prehistoric animals and described nineteen genera of dinosaurs. The first remains of Triceratops, unearthed in Denver in 1887, were described by Marsh and the first specimen of the Brontosaurus was uncovered in Wyoming in 1877 by a team of collectors under his leadership. As a co-founder of Yale’s Peabody Museum in New Haven, the bulk of Marsh’s finds are in the Peabody collections today.

Marsh’s restorations became prototypes for dinosaur skeletons all over the world. He was the only man of his day to even attempt to reconstruct a dinosaur as huge as the Brontosaurus, in 1883. And because he did, the Connecticut man in the news today is John S. McIntosh of Wesleyan University. McIntosh is largely responsible for the special “Brontosaurus Beheading” ceremony which took place at the Peabody Museum in October. Surprisingly, John McIntosh is a physicist by profession, not a paleontologist. He explains his involvement in paleontology: “Like all boys, I liked dinosaurs a lot when I was about five or six; the other boys got over it...I never did!”

Dinosaurs are more than an avocation for McIntosh. Years of study had led him to suspect that Marsh’s Brontosaurus was topped with the wrong head. Together with David Berman of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum, McIntosh was able to prove that the Peabody’s Brontosaurus and several others throughout the world had been displayed with skulls from other dinosaurs. Due to this finding, other museums have staged events similar to Peabody’s “beheading” over the past year.

Along with new interpretations of past dinosaur finds, new discoveries continue to play a role in the formation of new theories about “the terrible lizards.” John Ostrom, curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at Yale’s Peabody Museum, made a spectacular discovery on a Montana hillside in 1964. His trained eyes focused on fragments of fossilized dinosaur bones which had gone unrecognized for centuries. Remnants of three skeletons were unearthed over successive excavations and over athree year period they were painstakingly studied and analyzed in Ostrom’s Connecticut laboratory at Yale. The creature was introduced to the public in 1969—a wholly new kind of dinosaur, unlike any previously described. This beast had two feet, each bearing a large retractable claw that was obviously not meant for walking. The dinosaur had been a predator and the talon its formidable weapon. Ostrom named his animal Deinonychus, or “terrible claw.” It had a metabolism high enough to run down prey, then jump on one foot while the other foot clawed to death; this meant frantic, sustained activity. Dr. Ostrom had provided the world with documented evidence for the first unreptile-like dinosaurs—possibly warm-blooded and more like mammals and birds.

But John Ostrom, one of the most respected paleontologists in the world and already well-known for a long string of contributions, didn’t stop with the discovery of Deinonychus. Once again his trained eyes made a startling discovery, not at an excavation site, but in a museum in the Netherlands. While examining the skeleton of what was thought to be a prehistoric flying reptile, he realized that he was instead looking at the skeleton of an Archaeopteryx—the first bird. Here was a museum specimen which had been mislabeled for a century! In fact, Ostrom went on to prove that if feathers and wishbone weren’t apparent in the fossil specimens, the Archaeopteryx was easily mistaken for—and looked just like-—a small dinosaur. Somewhere in ancient history, a small dinosaur began to evolve and sprouted feathers. By 1973, John Ostrom was the first to provide solid support for the theory that birds are the lineal descendants of dinosaurs.

Dr. Ostrom's theories have been supported rather strongly by many of his students at Yale, notably Robert Bakker, now a professor at Johns Hopkins University. Bakker has gone a step further, proposing that dinosaurs and birds are virtually one and the same and should be classified together by scientists in the Class Dinosauria. The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs by Adrian J. Desmond, which explores the mounting evidence for the new image of dinosaurs, extensively quotes John Ostrom and Robert Bakker as well as Peter M. Galton, another Connecticut scientist. Galton, of the University of Bridgeport, is one of the most active paleontologists in the state and is an expert on Connecticut dinosaurs. He has shown that additional dinosaurs like the duck-billed Anatosaurus and the gazellelike Hypsilophodon, which were thought of as slow, were actually runners like Ostrom’s Deinonychus.

A visit to Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill can make many of these startling new concepts seem all the more believable. The 500 tracks on public view clearly resemble the imprints of giant birds. Covered by an aluminum, geodesic dome (the largest in New England), the tracks are exposed in an eerie light suggesting a trip back in time.

Beyond the trackway stands a newly-installed model of Dilophofaurus. Although the only skeletal remains of this creature come from Arizona, Peter Galton says that “Dilophofaurus is the only known dinosaur in the world that could have made most of the park’s tracks.” More importantly, the model represents the first attempt to recreate a warm-blooded dinosaur. In the words of Richard Krueger, geologist at the park, this is “the world’s first lifesize model of a warm-blooded dinosaur...a mean, lean, aggressive animal, not at all sleepy or sluggish.” After consultation with Ostrom, Galton and other paleontologists, the model was designed by Gregory Paul, a student of Robert Bakker.

But these ideas about dinosaurs are not just new—they’re revolutionary. Revolutionary ideas are not comfortable; they contradict tradition and take guts to proclaim even when the facts are on your side. Connecticut scientists like John Ostrom, John McIntosh and Peter Galton have had the courage to challenge our old ideas about the seemingly familiar dinosaurs and point the way towards a more accurate understanding of our world, both past and present. Just as the work of paleontology is painstaking and slow, so is the process of changing the perceptions of the public at large. But “the revolution” is underway and dinosaurs will never be the same again.

Ms. Littleford writes science and nature radio spots for the Bruce Museum in Greenwich; Mr. Reich is curator of Natural Science at the Bruce Museum.

This article originally appeared in the January 1982 issue of Connecticut Magazine. Read more stories from past issues at connecticutmag.com/archives