Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from Edward Hitchcock

Today, May 24th, we celebrate the 218th anniversary of the birth of minister, geologist, and dinosaur hunter Edward Hitchcock.

Hitchcock himself would have frowned at that last description, of course. He would not have recognized the concept of a dinosaur. He lived in an age when the very word had yet to be invented. The footprints he hunted down, collected, and described in such detail were mysteries to him. Yet that is exactly what modern science has shown him to be. Hunting down the fossilized dinosaur footprints of New England became his passion.

It all started quite by accident. Hitchcock was a respected geologist when someone came to him with an unusual rock. It had a strange three-toed track running across it, as if a turkey had run through mud and left its footprints behind. Hitchcock was hooked. He spent the rest of his life studying the strange trackways that the New England soil coughed up so frequently. He amassed the world’s largest collection of dinosaur footprints—some 10,000 individual specimens. He devised a system of classifying the fossil footprints that is used to this day, hunting for clues to the animals that made them. He called these animals “lithichnozoa,” stony track animals. Out of all that passion and many late nights studying rocks by candle light came a new science, the science of ichnology, the study of trace fossils.

Sadly, the one find that would have shed light on the identity of the track makers eluded him. The New England soil was not conducive to the preservation of fossilized bones. Hitchcock had only the footprints, and as it turns out it’s difficult to identify an animal from “the bottom up.” His best guess was that the tracks were left by an extinct species of giant bird. Not a bad guess actually. Edward Hitchcock, dinosaur hunter, worked his whole life and established a new science without ever having met a dinosaur.

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