It’s the 1960’s and the world of palaeontology is locked into the idea that dinosaurs were dull, stupid laggards that had come to the end of their time. Then everything changed when a dinosaur called Deinonychus was found by John Ostrom. Now, if you were a palaeontologist and found a dinosaur like Deinonychus, you would be forced to change your views on how dinosaurs walked, behaved, hunted and interacted with the world.
Forced to change your views
Deinonychus’s light build, fused tail and long slashing claws forced Ostrom to revise his thinking on dinosaurs. Which then forced everybody else to change their thinking too based on the overwhelming evidence. So he led the way in what is known as the Dinosaur Renaissance, assisted by his capable student Robert T Bakker. Ostrom proposed that dinosaurs were closer to big, non-flying birds than they were to lizards, an idea first put forward a hundred years earlier by Thomas Henry Huxley.
Of course there was a great deal or resistance to Ostrom’s ideas about feathered dinosaurs until everyone had to eat their words when they found feathered dinosaurs in China
Ostrom was born on New York and studied at Union College. He first thought that he would become a doctor but that plan changed when he read a book on evolution. He signed up at Columbia University and studied under Edwin H Colbert. He then taught for a year at Brooklyn College and then spent five years at Beloit College before moving on to Yale where he became a professor and Curator Emeritus of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the Peabody Museum of Natural History. The Peabody was where Othniel Charles Marsh began his career and which houses Marsh’s collection of fossils, mostly collected during the Bone Wars. So this was holy ground for Ostrom.
He discovered warm-blooded Deinonychus, which is arguably one of the most imprortant fossil discoveries ever. He also studied the Haarlem Archaeopteryx in Holland which had been lost and misnamed. He revised its classification to that of an Archaeopteryx – all evidence that supported the theory that birds evolved from dinosaurs. Then he studied Hadrosaur trackways, coming to the conclusion that they were sociable beasts, travelling in herds across the Mesozoic landscape.
Here’s a lovely snippet. The Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, Connecticut was established in 1966 because the governor of the state was swamped by letters from school children who were mad about dinosaurs because of John Ostrom’s influences and ideas.
It is all seen as self evident today but back in the sixties and seventies this was all palaeontological heresy. But when he died in 2005 his theories had been vindicated. So hats off to John Ostrom and his great science, his revolutionary thinking and his courage to believe in his convictions.
A fossil, Rahonavis ostromi (meaning “Ostrom’s menace from the clouds”) was named in his honour by Catherine Forster in 1998. The fossil is that of a winged creature with a 60 cm wingspan, feathers and a sickle-shaped claw on its second toe designed for slashing prey. A flying Deinonychus! An honour indeed.