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Diggin’ Up Bones

John H. Ostrom

Daniel Krall
John H. Ostrom

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 12/28/2005

The first time you saw a pack of prehistoric velociraptors tear a man apart in the 1993 film Jurassic Park, you might have been thinking, Great special effects. Or maybe, Hail Spielberg, or That Michael Crichton is some writer. Or you might have been too startled to think of anyone in particular. But you should have thought of John Ostrom, the paleontologist and discoverer of the velociraptor, which he unearthed in 1964 from the Lower Cretaceous Cloverly Formation of Wyoming and named Deinonychus—“terrible claw.”

Ostrom’s discovery—made a year after he published a paper speculating that dinosaurs were more like birds than modern reptiles—revolutionized our understanding of dinosaurs. A few years later, he compared Deinonychus to the oldest bird fossil and demonstrated that the two dinosaurs were built alike—and like modern birds—and so would have moved quickly, hunting in packs, instead of lumbering about solo. Though at first harshly criticized, Ostrom’s work eventually overthrew 100 years of paleontology and ushered in a renaissance in dinosaur study that continues to this day.

The idea that birds were descended from dinosaurs was first broached in the 1860s by Thomas Henry Huxley, but the theory was generally discounted until long after Ostrom revived it. Throughout the 20th century, hundreds of careers, thousands of books, and even an extraordinary mural painted over 100 feet inside Yale University’s Peabody Museum—where Ostrom, a professor of paleontology at the school, also served as curator—were based on the erroneous supposition that dinosaurs were cold-blooded. The Pulitzer Prize-winning “Age of Reptiles” mural, painted between 1943 and 1947 by Rudolph Zallinger, is now used as the starting point to educate visitors about the evolution of life—and about the evolution of scientific research in the decades since it was completed.

Friend and feather expert Alan Brush of the University of Connecticut described Ostrom as a low-key, patient man who listened carefully and worked rigorously. After his breakthrough discoveries and theories, the New York native spent 30 years working to win over doubters; his vindication came in 1997, five years after his retirement from Yale. A Chinese farmer discovered fossils of an actual feathered dinosaur, and photos of the find sent Ostrom into a “state of shock,” as he later wrote. Ostrom referred to the discovery as “the biggest event in evolutionary science since Darwin put forth his theory.” He was one of a few people chosen to examine and verify the find.

In his later years, Ostrom suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. He died at the age of 77 on July 16.

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