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Hitchcock’s Primeval Birds

Paleontologist Edward Hitchcock was one of the first dinosaur track experts, but why did he insist that birds left the footprints?

A large stone slab containing mudcracks and many footprints left by small theropod dinosaurs, as illustrated in Hitchcock's "Ichnology of New England."

Edward Hitchcock was one of America’s first dedicated dinosaur paleontologists. He just didn’t know it. In fact, during the latter part of his career, he explicitly denied the fact. To Hitchcock, the tracks skittering over red sandstone in the Connecticut Valley were the marks of prehistoric birds from when the Creation was new. Hitchcock could not be dissuaded. As new visions of dinosaurs and the notion of evolution threatened to topple his life’s work, the Amherst natural theologian remained as immutable as the fossil footprints he studied.

Hitchcock was not the first to wonder about the prehistoric imprints. Members of the Lenape, a Native American group in Canada and the northeastern United States, had seen the bizarre, three-toed tracks and ascribed them to monsters and other beings. These were the footsteps of creatures that ruled the world before humans came to dominance. European settlers and their descendants had to stretch their mythology a little more to accommodate the tracks. Some thought such tracks might have been left by Noah’s raven after the biblical deluge, although many simply called them “turkey tracks” and apparently were little concerned with where they had come from.

It wasn’t until 1835 that James Deane, a doctor with a curiosity for natural history, found out about a sample of the peculiar tracks near Greenfield, Massachusetts. He knew that they represented prehistoric organisms, but he wasn’t sure which ones. He wrote to Hitchcock, then a geology professor at Amherst, to inquire about what could have left such markings in stone. At first Hitchcock didn’t believe Deane. There might be some quirk of geological formation that could have created track-like marks. But Deane was persistent. Not only did he change Hitchcock’s mind, but the geologist became so enthusiastic that he quickly became the most prominent expert on the tracks—a fact that frustrated Deane and led to tussles in academic journals over who really was the rightful discoverer of the Connecticut Valley’s lost world.

Hitchcock began publishing about the peculiar trace fossils in 1836. He was confident from the very start that they must have been created by prehistoric birds. (He was so enthused by the idea he even wrote poetry about the “sandstone birds.”) No variety of creature matched them better. The word “dinosaur” had not even been invented yet; the British anatomist Richard Owen would establish the term in 1842. The few dinosaurs that had been found, such as Iguanodon, Megalosaurus and Hylaeosaurus, were known only from paltry remains and all were believed to have been enormous variations of lizards and crocodiles. Dinosaurs were a poor fit for the tracks, and became even worse candidates when Owen gave them an anatomical overhaul. Owen not only named dinosaurs, he re-branded them as reptiles with mammal-like postures and proportions. The huge sculptures of the Crystal Palace exhibition, created with the help of artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, are a testament to Owen’s view of dinosaurs as reptiles that had taken on the anatomical attitudes of rhinoceros and elephants.

But Owen and other paleontologists did not agree with Hitchcock’s interpretation. They argued that the tracks could have been made by some unknown variety of amphibian or reptile. This was not so much because of the anatomy of the tracks—anyone could see that they were made by creatures with bird-like feet—but because no one thought that birds could have lived at so ancient a time or grown large enough to make the biggest, 18-inch tracks Hitchcock described. Even though early 19th century paleontologists recognized that life changed through the ages, they believed there was a comprehensible progression in which so-called “higher” types of creatures appeared later than others. (Mammals, for example, were thought to have only evolved after the “Secondary Era” when reptiles ruled since mammals were thought to be superior to mosasaurs, ichthyosaurs, and other creatures of that middle time.)

Hitchcock remained steadfast, and his persistence was eventually rewarded with the discovery of the moa. These huge, flightless birds recently lived on New Zealand—they were wiped out more than 500 years ago by humans—and in 1839 Richard Owen rediscovered the birds through a moa thigh bone. He hypothesized that the bone must have belonged to a large, ostrich-like bird, and this idea was soon confirmed by additional skeletal bits and pieces. Some of these ratites stood over nine feet tall. When the news reached Hitchcock in 1843, he was thrilled. If recent birds could grow to such sizes, then prehistoric ones could have been just as large. (And, though Hitchcock died before their discovery, preserved moa tracks have a general resemblance to some of the largest footprints from the Connecticut Valley.) Opinion about the New England tracks quickly changed. There was no longer any reason to doubt Hitchcock’s hypothesis, and paleontologists hoped that moa-like bones might eventually be found to conclusively identify the trackmakers.

Lacking any better hypotheses, Hitchcock prominently featured his avian interpretation of the three-toed tracks in his 1858 book The Ichnology of New England. It was a gorgeous fossil catalog, but it also came at almost precisely the wrong time. Gideon Mantell, the British doctor and paleontologist who discovered Iguanodon, was beginning to wonder if some dinosaurs primarily walked on their hind limbs in a bird-like fashion, and the Philadelphia polymath Joseph Leidy described Hadrosaurus, a dinosaur certainly capable of bipedal locomotion on account of having shorter forelimbs than hindlimbs, the same year that Hitchcock’s monograph came out. Dinosaurs were undergoing another major overhaul, and the few that were known at the time were being recast as relatively bird-like creatures. Even worse for Hitchcock, the following year another student of the Connecticut Valley tracks, Roswell Field, reinterpreted many of the footprints and associated traces as being made by prehistoric reptiles. Especially damning was the fact that deep tracks, left when the creatures sunk into the mud, were sometimes associated with drag marks created by a tail. Hitchcock’s tableau of ancient Massachusetts moas was becoming increasingly unrealistic.

If Hitchcock ever doubted his interpretation, he never let on. He reaffirmed his conclusions and modified his arguments in an attempt to quell dissent. In his last book, A Supplement of the Ichnology of New England, published in 1865, a year after his death, Hitchcock used the recently discovered Jurassic bird Archaeopteryx as a way to save his interpretation. Tail drags were no obstacle to the bird hypothesis, Hitchcock argued, because Archaeopteryx was generally regarded as being the primordial bird despite having a long, reptile-like tail. Perhaps such a bird could have been responsible for the trace fossils Hitchcock called Anomoepus, but the tail drags left by the animals that dwelled in Jurassic New England were also associated with tracks indicating that their maker walked on all fours. In response, Hitchcock cast Archaeopteryx as a quadrupedal bird—a representative of a new category different from the classic, bipedal bird tracks he had promoted for so long.

Other paleontologists took a different view. If Archaeopteryx looked so primitive and lived after the time when the red Connecticut sandstone was formed, then it was unreasonable to think that more specialized, moa-like birds created Hitchcock’s tracks. Furthermore, a few bones found in a Massachusetts quarry of roughly the same age in 1855 turned out to belong to a dinosaur—a sauropodomorph that Othniel Charles Marsh would later name Anchisaurus. The bird bones never turned up, and all the while dinosaur fossils were becoming more and more avian in nature. By the 1870s the general paleontological opinion had changed. New England’s early Jurassic was not filled with archaic birds, but was instead home to dinosaurs which were the forerunners of the bird archetype.

Our recent realization that birds are the direct descendants of one group of coelurosaurian dinosaurs has led some of Hitchcock’s modern day fans to suggest that he was really right all along. In an essay for the Feathered Dragons volume, paleontologist Robert Bakker extolled Hitchcock’s scientific virtues and cast the geologist’s avian vision for the tracks as essentially correct. Writer Nancy Pick, in her 2006 biography of the paleontologist, wondered, “What if Hitchcock clung to his bird theory because he was right?” But I think such connections are tenuous—it is a mistake to judge Hitchcock’s work by what we have come to understand a century and a half later.

While Bakker is right that Hitchcock stuck to his bird hypothesis early on because dinosaurs were not known in the 1830s to 1850s to be suitably avian, this does not explain why Hitchcock refused to entertain a dinosaurian origin for some of the tracks when evidence for such a connection began to accumulate. By sticking to the same point, Hitchcock went from being right to being so wrong that he tried to fit creatures like Archaeopteryx into the footprints to preserve his point. More importantly, though, Hitchcock promoted a variety of creationism that we would probably label as intelligent design today—he detested the idea of evolution by means of natural selection that Charles Darwin articulated in 1859. Hitchcock would not have accepted the idea that birds are the evolutionary descendants of dinosaurs. He likely would have rejected the idea of avian dinosaurs that some writers wish to attribute to him.

Hitchcock himself acknowledged that he was a stubborn man. Perhaps his obstinacy prevented him from accepting new ideas during a critical period of change within geology, paleontology and natural history. We may never know. Unless a letter or journal entry articulating his thoughts on the subject appear, his anti-dinosaur interpretation will remain a mystery. All we know for sure is that, regardless of whether he agreed with the label or not, Hitchcock was one of the first interpreters and promoters of North American dinosaurs.

References:

Bakker, R. 2004. “Dinosaurs Acting Like Birds, and Vice Versa – An Homage to the Reverend Edward Hitchcock, First Director of the Massachusetts Geological Survey” in Feathered Dragons. Currie, P.; Koppelhus, E.; Shugar, M.; Wright J. eds. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 1-11

Pick, N. and Ward, F. 2006. Curious Footprints: Professor Hitchcock’s Dinosaur Tracks & Other Natural History Treasures at Amherst College. Amherst: Amherst College Press.

Switek, B. 2010. Written in Stone. New York: Bellevue Literary Press. pp. 91-104

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About Brian Switek
Brian Switek

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history. He writes regularly for National Geographic's Phenomena blog as Laelaps.

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