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Walking through the fossilized impressions collected in Hitchcock's ichnology cabinet

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Thursday, December 03, 2009
Mark Roessler Photo
"The Jewel of the Cabinet" from Edward Hitchcock's collection of fossilized footprints at the Amherst College Museum of Natural History

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As a the Coordinator of Education at the Amherst College Natural History museum, Steve Sauter has made it his business to be a scholar of Edward Hitchcock and his collection of dinosaur footprints. Recently, he gave the Valley Advocate a tour of some of his and the Amherst geologist's favorite specimens, starting with the one discovered by Pliny Moody known as "Noah's Raven."

1. At first, Hitchcock didn't know anything about these tracks; they were discovered in 1802 down in South Hadley. That was the stuff of gossip and legend. ...Some doctor bought it from the Moodys, and Hitchcock got it from them when he understood its significance.

2. These are in some ways more mystical and spectacular. These are the actual sidewalk slabs that Hitchcock first saw. These were his first dinosaur footprints. In 1835 he got the letter from Dr. Deane saying he should come up and take a look, and these are what he sees that sends him on his way.

3. In his Ichnology of New England, he called this "the gem of the cabinet." It was his favorite piece in the collection. In the old Pratt Museum, down in the basement, it used to be behind his bust. It's from Middletown, Conn. It was also a sidewalk piece. He was alerted to it by a Dr. Barrett. Unfortunately, you can't see the back side of the piece anymore—in the old museum you could walk around it and see the other side. It had been a sidewalk for nearly 40 years, and the other side is not only smooth and flat, but deeply worn from footprints. This side, because it was laid down into the dirt, was pristine and unweathered.

These with the wooden frames are interesting: he would use them for displays when he carted them around in his oxen cart, charging admission to see them. He was raising money for the college, one of his biggest concerns.

4. Hitchcock called this his "one-gallon footprint," because he could put a gallon of water in here. This was our biggest dinosaur, Eubrontes giganteus, which was a predator, a raptor, standing over 12 feet tall.

5. This is a little quadruped. I like this very much. He's actually walking from the dry sand into the water. He looks a little lopsided, a little asymmetrical. The sandstone is like any from around here: I think that he got this one during his trip to England. There's a handful of pieces he bought there.

6. There are lots of examples of tail dragging in here. This is one of my favorites. This is one I like the kids to find. When I have young students in here, I have a list of five things I want them to find: the biggest footprint, the smallest footprints, a tail dragging through the mud, ripple marks, and rain drop prints—and this slab has three of the five things. It has these little footprints where the small guy marches around on his rear legs, and he's dragging this long tail behind him, leaving this long, sinuous trail, like I've seen mice leave behind them in the snow. And if you look into the footprints, you'll see there are raindrops falling into them: some of the prints are above the drops, and some underneath the footprints. So he's walking during this little rain shower. Exquisite.

He found this in Turners Falls in something like 1848. There are several other examples of tail drags in this collection, but the most interesting thing is, there are almost no tail drags. When I was a kid, dinosaurs were big lumbering things dragging their tails behind them, but you come in here and there's no tails.

7. In this slab here, you can see tens of dinosaurs moving across the mud, dragging their tails behind them. This isn't one guy pacing in a cage. This is a herd moving across the mud.

8. This slab was responsible for a lot of Emma Rainforth's work on the collection. [Rainforth did her doctoral dissertation on Hitchcock's cabinet and is currently a professor at Ramapo College in Connecticut.] Right back here is the impression of scales. She discovered the skin impression. The story goes, she was down in the old Pratt collection with her adviser, casting about for what she was going to do her dissertation on, when she spotted the scales. Her adviser, who had been in the room a million times, had never seen them. They looked and Hitchcock never mentions seeing them, either, which is extraordinary, because he poured over every inch of these rocks with his lanterns and candles. It looks to be the bottom of a tail. It so intrigued her, it started her passion for this collection.

9. As far as I know, this is the finest example of [fossilized] raindrop prints in the world. It's used as an illustration in paleontology tex books, and I've had to send high-resolution scans of it to scientists across the globe.

10. This used to be called "the coffin specimen," and this is a puddle that a dinosaur walks through. He starts down here at the bottom on the dry land, and then he steps into this shallow puddle. Suddenly water is covering this extremely fine and impressionable mud, and he leaves unbelievably perfect footprints. If you look in his toes there, you'll see skin impressions with exquisite details. Just wonderful.

11. This one is perhaps is the most controversial piece in the collection right now. So this is the one Hitchcock found up in Turners Falls... a bipedal dinosaur, this creature, about four feet tall, squats down in the mud. The soft, sticky mud. He leans more heavily on his right foot, so it's more impressed into the mud, and he folds his body down so his legs fold up. This long bones are the tarsus, the foot bone, and you'll see this when you see a chicken or a duck or a goose squat down into the mud. This is the tailbone of the creature, and here's the most important part: this is the keel-shaped impression of the chest, and right along here, these little wrinkles, some developmental biologists say that those are feathers. I've spoken to the guy who claims this, and asked, what about these funny little round marks, and he says that they're like water falling off your body when you step from the shower.

American biologists say that's all not true, though. They say there was a skin of algae on the surface of the mud—like the skin on the top of chocolate pudding, and when the dinosaur squatted down, he pushed the algae around, and that's what left those marks.

 

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