John Ostrom: The man who saved dinosaurs

Saw this on Facebook recently
The following is from an online Yale Alumni Magazine article (link below) by award-winning author, Richard Conniff, July/August 2014.

“In his book The Riddle of the Dinosaur, science writer John Noble Wilford added that Bakker “was the young Turk whose views could be dismissed by established paleontologists. Ostrom, however, could not be ignored.” Late in 1969, Ostrom took the challenge directly to the North American Paleontological Convention in Chicago, declaring in a speech that there was “impressive, if not compelling” evidence “that many different kinds of ancient reptiles were characterized by mammalian or avian levels of metabolism.” Traditionalists in the audience responded, Bakker later recalled, with “shrieks of horror.” Their dusty museum pieces were threatening to come to life as real animals.”

Figure 1. John Ostrom, from young paleo stud to elderly professorial type.

Figure 1. John Ostrom, as a young paleo stud and as an elder statesman several decades later demonstrating a degree of isometry and allometry during ontogeny.

“Against this false negative, Ostrom laid out the positive evidence, listing more than 20 anatomical similarities between Archaeopteryx and various dinosaurs. It wasn’t just that Ostrom could not be ignored. He was far too thorough and meticulous, and for 30 years too persistent in the face of his critics, for anyone to refute.”

The LRT has been online for only 8 years, so only 22 to go!

“Though one or two holdouts still resist the idea, it is now widely accepted that birds evolved from the group of bipedal theropod dinosaurs”

“The idea that birds are in fact living dinosaurs is so commonplace that the debate has largely turned to the question of why they were the only dinosaurs to survive the mass extinction of 65 million years ago.”

“More significantly, Ostrom lived to see his ideas about the dinosaur origin of birds—and the feathered plumage of dinosaurs—vindicated by a series of remarkable fossils from northeastern China.”

Those should have been unnecessary as Ostrom explains below.

“On Ostrom’s death in 2005, age 77, the Los Angeles Times wrote that he had “almost single-handedly convinced the scientific community that birds are descended from dinosaurs.” “John Ostrom,” the Sunday Times (London) added, “did more than anyone else to make dinosaurs interesting, real, and visceral.”

“When NPR’s All Things Considered marked the occasion by interviewing Ostrom’s first research student, Bob Bakker, the paleontological world held its breath for a moment, recalling the troubled relationship between these two allies in the dinosaur renaissance. But when asked how important Ostrom had been to dinosaur paleontology, Bakker graciously commented: “Nobody was more important.”

In the comments section to the online article,
you can read from Paul Sereno’s epitaph of Ostrom, “He did more than simply point out the great number of similarities between this theropod and the early bird Archaeopteryx. He argued that these similarities were derived. That is, that they were synapomorphies—shared morphology from common ancestry.”

We looked at Ostrom’s frustration with
the slow pace of paleontology earlier. Here it is again.

According to the Hartford Courant (2000), “In 1973, Ostrom broke from the scientific mainstream by reviving a Victorian-era hypothesis (see above) that his colleagues considered far-fetched: Birds, he said, evolved from dinosaurs. And he spent the rest of his career trying to prove it.” With the announcement of the first dinosaurs with feathers from China, Ostrom (then age 73) was in no mood to celebrate. He is quoted as saying, ““I’ve been saying the same damn thing since 1973, `I said, `Look at Archaeopteryx!’” Ostrom was the first scientist to collect physical evidence for the theory. Ostrom provoked a debate that raged for decades. “At first they said, `Oh John, you’re crazy,”’ Ostrom said in 1999.”

On the night Ostrom was to be honored
at the annual convention of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, I noticed him walking alone to the proceedings. I took advantage of the coincidence to walk with him. He was gracious enough to allow that. I cannot remember the substance of our conversation. As soon as we got to the building, he was swept up into the celebration as everyone else wanted their own moment with the man who saved dinosaurs.


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