Monday, May 8, 2017

Edward Hitchcock: The founder of ichnology

Since I started working at Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, CT, I've learned a lot about the history of paleontology in Connecticut. A lot of milestones in the study of ancient life happened right here in the Nutmeg state, not the least of which is the founding of the Yale Peabody Museum which houses many of the spectacular finds of Othniel Charles Marsh.

But another great contributor to the study of ancient life was Edward Hitchock, a professor at Amherst College who did the first scientific study of the dinosaur footprints that are abundant in the Connecticut Valley.

For the Winter issue of Dino State Park's newsletter, Tracks and Trails, I wrote a brief biography of Hitchcock in the hopes of exposing this paleontological pioneer to a wider audience.

Here's the article in its entirety (I should add that this article was written to accompany another series of articles talking about a lecture series by Dr. Robert Bakker, who came to Dinosaur State Park as part of our celebration of the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the tracks):

A bust of Edward Hitchcock at the Bekinski Museum at Amherst College in Massachusetts


by John Meszaros

In his guest lecture to the Geological Society of Connecticut, Dr. Robert Bakker talked about the achievements of renowned geologist Edward Hitchcock. But just who was Hitchcock, exactly?

Born to a farming family on May 24th, 1793 in Deerfield, Massachusetts, Edward Hitchcock was fascinated by the natural world from a young age. He spent his free time during the day engaged in scientific pursuits, and his nights outside lost amid the stars.  This nascent naturalist was, however, stricken from the beginning with poor health, often suffering from “dyspepsia”- acute problems with indigestion coupled with feelings of anxiety and depression. In 1814 he was even temporarily blinded by a severe case of mumps. Nature brought the young Edward solace from his maladies. He would often take long hikes in the mountains surrounding Deerfield, a habit that would instill in him a deep fascination with the natural history of the Central Connecticut Valley.  This fascination would continue into adulthood and eventually lead to his position as one of the foremost geologists in New England.

Young Hitchcock wrote multiple papers on his observations and submitted them to the American Journal of Science, one of the first publications in America exclusively devoted to science. Thanks to these papers, Hitchcock gained a reputation among scientific circles that would eventually lead to the Trustees of Amherst College inviting him to take the position of Professor of Natural History and Chemistry. In this position he continued to make geological discoveries, including the realization that the basaltic ridges so prominent in the Connecticut Valley were formed from magma pressing up through fissures in the crust rather than exploding out of volcanoes. His most well-known discovery came around 1835 when he saw the first of the dinosaur tracks that would become his life’s work.

The trackway discovered by Pliny Moody in 1802. It was nicknamed "Noah's Raven" in reference to the raven that was initially released by Noah to find land after the Deluge in the Bible. The tracks are taxonomically identified as Anomoepus, and were probably made by a small ornithiscian dinosaur similar to Scutellosaurus. Currently on display in the Bekinski Museum.

Some weird dork posing with the tracks.

People living in the Connecticut Valley had long been aware of the strange footprints embedded in the red sandstone all around them. The first recorded evidence dates from 1802, when a teenager named Pliny Moody made a doorstep out of a large track-covered slab that he dug out of his father’s field.  Hitchcock, however, was the first person to make a formal scientific investigation of the tracks. He learned of the prints via a physician named James Deane, who had heard of them himself from a man who, much like Moody, had used a slab of trackway as a paving stone in front of his house. Once Hitchcock got a look at the tracks himself, he began a search up and down the Valley, hunting for more of the mysterious fossils and finding them everywhere- in quarries and eroded hillsides, in manmade walls and laid flat inside walkways.  After collecting dozens of track-bearing sandstone slabs, Hitchcock began a long, comprehensive study of the prints, eventually developing a new science, Ichnology, which is the study of animal behavior through traces such as footprints, burrows, droppings and so on.

The term “dinosaur” did not exist at the time that Hitchcock was studying the Connecticut tracks. It would be several years before anatomist Sir Richard Owen would formally introduce the term. Hitchcock, therefore, hypothesized that the prints had been made by gigantic moa-like birds- and to a lesser extent by strange prehistoric frog- and marsupial-like creatures. Even when dinosaurs became widely known, he clung until the day he died to the idea that the mystery print-makers were great birds rather than Terrible Lizards.  The exact reasons for his stubborn attachment to enormous avians as the culprits is unclear.  But it is an amusing irony that within the past few decades the old model of dinosaurs as lumbering, rotund reptiles has been discarded in favor of images of swift, active, feathery creatures much more closely related to birds than lizards.

A spectacular example of the ichnogenus Grallator from the Bekinski Museum. These may have been made by Podokesaurus, a Jurassic relative of Coelophysis whose fossils have been found in the Connecticut Valley.

To fully understand Hitchcock, it’s important to know that he was as much a man of faith as of science. He was a devout Christian and considered himself a scholar of Natural Theology- the study of Nature in an attempt to better understand God. He scorned the works of Lamarck and Darwin which advocated for evolution and natural selection, preferring instead the idea that God had created and then destroyed several sequences of animals perfectly adapted to their environment. Like many of his fellow natural theologians, though, Hitchcock did not take the word of the Bible literally. He viewed many passages as metaphor or interpretation and worked diligently throughout his life to bridge the words of Scripture with his scientific observation.

Hitchcock's "Stone Book", made from several layers of sandstone slabs held together with iron staples. Designed to illustrate how a dinosaur stepping into soft mud could leave footprint impressions on several layers. From the Bekinski Museum.

Though Hitchcock was in many ways a man of his time, there was at least one area where he was socially ahead of his contemporaries. At a time when higher education was considered unfit for women, Hitchcock tutored many of them in his classes. Among his students were the poet Emily Dickinson- who often included scientific terms in her works- and Mary Lyon, the founder of Mount Holyoke College (which was known at the time as a Women’s Seminary). Lyon, especially, was a close friend of Hitchcock and his family and would often live with them for several months at a time. Upon Lyon’s death Hitchcock wrote “A Chapter in the Book of Providence”, a tribute to her life that he later expanded into a full biography, The Life and Labours of Mary Lyon.

Another remarkable woman in Edward Hitchcock’s life was his beloved wife Orra White who was, for a time, an assistant teacher at Deerfield Academy. She was also an accomplished watercolor artist and created hundreds of illustrations for her husband’s writings and lectures. In the dedication to his book The Religion of Geology, he wrote that “your (Orra’s) artistic skill has done more than my voice to render that science attractive to the young men whom I have instructed.”

Edward Hitchcock’s work on the Connecticut Valley trackways has left an indelible mark on paleontology and New England geology. At Dinosaur State Park you can view two of his classic footprint studies alongside a replica of “The Bones From the Well”, one of the few dinosaur skeletons found in Connecticut. You can also see Hitchcock’s complete collection of fossil footprints in a special dedicated gallery at the Beneski Museum of Natural History in Amherst, Massachusetts.

You can learn more about Hitchcock from the book Curious Footprints: Professor Hitchcock's Dinosaur Tracks & Other Natural History Treasures at Amherst College by Nany Pick and Frank Ward 

Brendan Hanrahan also gives a good summary of the life of Hitchcock and other significant Connecticut Valley paleontologists in his book Great Day Trips in the Connecticut Valley of the Dinosaurs

A view of the Edward Hictchcock Trackway Room at the Bekinski Museum. Seriously, if you ever get the chance, go see this place.

Another view of the track room.

A really cool fossil of the Anomoepus trackmaker sitting down. You can see the elongated ankle stretching out behind the prints, and even the impression of the pubis bone at the bottom.

No comments:

Post a Comment