American Dinosaurs: Who and What Was First
Who gets credit for the first dinosaur in North America depends on one's definition of a description and a fossil
1836: The Footprints of "Giant Birds"
The reason that one might hesitate to record Leidy's fossils as the
first American dinosaurs is that, 20 years previously, the Reverend
Edward Hitchchock, president of Amherst College, had described
dinosaur trackways from the sandstone of the Connecticut River
Valley. Such foot prints had first been noticed in 1802 by a boy
named Pliny Moody on his father's farm at South Hadley,
Massachusetts. In early 1836, two local men found more tracks at a
quarry near Montague, Massachusetts, and drew them to the attention
of a doctor James Dean and the Reverend Hitchcock; the two later
squabbled about who had "first scientifically investigated and
described the fossil footmarks of the Connecticut valley."
The trackways that Hitchcock described in a long article in the
American Journal of Science in 1836 were of 11 kinds,
all made, he concluded, by giant three-toed birds that he termed
Ornithichnites. By 1858 Hitchcock, having scoured the pits
where the Late Triassic red sandstone was quarried for building and
"flagging" stones, had raised the total to 70. These
putatively included traces from marsupials, lizards, frogs,
chelonians (turtles) and invertebrates, as well as
"birds." In so doing, he founded the new science of
ichnology—the study of footprints.
The principal argument against recognizing Hitchcock as the first to
record North American dinosaur fossils is not that he thought they
had been made by birds, but that they were only impressions made by
dinosaurs, not bony, bodily remnants of dinosaurs. If a fossil is
anything "dug up" (Latin: fossilis), then
Hitchcock gets the palm, but only for the first "trace
fossils." For real fossil remains, Leidy is the winner.
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