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Behind the scenes of the Teylers Museum

652 - An important discovery in the Teyler Museum

John Ostrom with Deinonychus

John Harold Ostrom (February 18, 1928 – July 16, 2005) was an American paleontologist who revolutionized modern understanding of dinosaurs in the 1960s.

Ostrom showed that dinosaurs were more like big non-flying birds than they were like lizards (or "saurians")

Ostrom's interest in the dinosaur-bird connection started with his study of what is now known as the Haarlem Archaeopteryx. Discovered in 1855, it was actually the first specimen recovered but, incorrectly labeled as Pterodactylus crassipes, it languished in the Teyler Museum in the Netherlands until  Ostrom's 1970 paper (and 1972 description) correctly identified it as one of only eight "first birds" (counting the solitary feather).(tekst Wikipedia)

John Ostrom in 1962

This is what happened in the Teyler Museum, Haarlem in 1970:

Ostrom picked up one of the slabs, carried it over to the window, and held it up at an angle in the light. First one way, then the other. The late afternoon sun caught on some faint ridges. Ostrom was seeing, unmistakably, the clear impression of feathers. This fossil wasn’t Pterodactylus after all. It was another Archaeopteryx. In fact, it would have been the scientific world’s first Archaeopteryx, if von Meyer had gotten his taxonomy right.

In 1970, only three other specimens of Archaeopteryx were known to exist. But this was by no means the only thing that excited Ostrom at that moment. His mind was already ticking over about the resemblance to Deinonychus—and the unsettling idea that the wrist and shoulder bones of a primitive bird should be identical to those of a small meat-eating dinosaur.

To write a proper technical description, Ostrom needed to take the specimen home to the Peabody Museum at Yale for closer study. A crisis of conscience ensued: should he mislead the Teylers curator, telling him it was merely a pterosaur, only to make the great discovery back home? Or should he come out with the truth and risk that the museum would lock up these suddenly precious slabs of rock? Being a “squeaking honest” man, in the words of a former student, Ostrom confessed his belief that it was Archaeopteryx.

The curator (C.O.van Regteren Altena) immediately took the fossil back and hurried out of the room. Ostrom slumped in his seat, despairing. A few minutes later, the curator returned with a shoebox tied up with string. He handed it to Ostrom, with the specimen inside, and, beaming, declared, “You have made our museum famous.” It was the beginning of something far bigger than either man could have guessed.

There is one more piece of this story that’s never been told in print: heading back to his hotel with the Teylers specimen that day in 1970, having discovered the first new Archaeopteryx in 24 years, Ostrom had to stop at a public restroom. Afterward, he continued on his route, perhaps caught up in contemplating the struggle and the triumphs ahead.

Suddenly, to his horror, he realized that he was empty-handed. He had left the shoebox containing not just the fossil, but also his destiny, the fame of the Teylers Museum, the course of paleontology for decades to come, and the not-yet-imagined dinosaur dreams of untold armies of dinosaur enthusiasts, perched, abandoned, on a wash basin in a public restroom. Ostrom frantically retraced his footsteps—and found the shoebox untouched. He snatched it up and clutched it to his breast all the way back to the hotel, and to New Haven. And  thus John H. Ostrom saved  the future for dinosaurs.

In a reaction on this article Jim  Kirkland wrote a personal memory which illustrates the importance of Ostroms discovery in the Teyler Museum:

At the 1996 meeting at the American Museum of Natural History, where I co-moderated the dinosaur session, so as a young scientist I was already on a cloud. However, my greatest memory was standing alone in the hall talking with John about my research, when Phil Currie walked up to us with Prof. Yen and showed John the first feathered dinosaur found in China. Remembering,the tears welling up in Prof. Ostrom's eyes always brings tears to me own. Certainly, witnessing John's conformation of his prediction that feathered dinosaurs probably existed was my personal professional high point. This moment, I treasure more than all my dinosaur discoveries, as for the first time I felt as if I was truly a part of paleontology's history. Thank you John!


Tekst: Yale Alumni Magazine july/august 2014 read the complete article here.



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