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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

Keith Thomson

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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