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Ostrom, John H. & Bruno Frost | A Child's Book of Prehistoric Animals


    A very nice copy of this children’s book by palaeontologist John H. Ostrom (1928-2005), who was a graduate student at the time it was written and would go on to become “the most influential palaeontologist of the second half of the 20th century” (Dodson & Gingerich, “John H. Ostrom”, American Journal of Science, volume 306, number 1, January 2006). During the 1960s and 70s Ostrom revolutionised the scientific understanding of dinosaurs, proving that they had fast metabolisms and the agility of mammals and birds. Their depiction here, as slow and lumbering, would be decisively put to rest by the author himself only a few decades later.

    Between completing his bachelor’s degree at Union College in New York in 1951 and his PhD at Columbia in 1960, Ostrom was a research assistant at the American Museum of Natural History under the distinguished palaeontologist Edwin H. Colbert at the American Museum of Natural History. Colbert was well-known as a science populariser and served as a technical consultant for this book, which is lavishly illustrated by Bruno Frost. After a short introduction to fossils, most of the text comprises short descriptions of extinct species in roughly chronological order, including the well-known Diplodocus, Archaeopteryx, Pteranodon, Triceratops and T. rex, as well as more obscure species like the early amphibian Diplovertebron and the early bird Hesperornis, and concludes with the early mammals.

    Ostrom made two great, linked, discoveries. The first was during fieldwork in Montana in 1964, when he and his assistant Grant E. Meyer discovered an “astonishing foot. Two of three toes had ordinary claws. But from the innermost toe, a sharp sickle-shaped claw curved murderously up and out. It had a slashing arc, Ostrom later calculated, of 180 degrees. Hence the eventual name Deinonychus, or ‘terrible claw.’ Ostrom and his crew spent two full field seasons digging at the site and three years in study and reconstruction at the Peabody, working with more than a thousand bones from at least four individuals of the same species. Then in 1969, Ostrom announced what he called a ‘grandiose’ conclusion: that foot was ‘perhaps the most revealing bit of anatomical evidence’ in decades about how dinosaurs really behaved. In place of the plodding, cold-blooded dinosaur stereotype, Deinonychus ‘must have been a fleet-footed, highly predaceous, extremely agile, and very active animal, sensitive to many stimuli and quick in its responses,’ Ostrom wrote” (Conniff, “The Man Who Saved the Dinosaurs”, Yale Alumni Magazine, July/August 2014).

    Only a year later, in 1970, Ostrom discovered that a specimen in a museum in the Netherlands had been misidentified as a pterodactyl when it was in fact an archaeopteryx; only the fourth individual known. And its resemblance to the skeleton of Dienonychus led Ostrom to his second major revelation – that dinosaurs were indeed the ancestors of modern birds. The concept wasn’t new; Victorian scientists had suggested as much, but the idea was shut down by palaeontologists of the early 20th century who saw dinosaurs as “symbols of obsolescence and hulking inefficiency” that “did not appear to merit much serious study because they did not seem to go anywhere: no modern vertebrate groups were descended from them” (Conniff).

    The scientific community was initially dismissive of Ostrom’s ideas, but over the following decades his meticulous work, its promotion by the outspoken Robert Bakker, and remarkable discoveries of feathered dinosaurs in China convinced both the scientific community and the public to see dinosaurs in a new way, resulting in what has been repeatedly described as a “renaissance” in dinosaur studies.

  • ...Text by John H. Ostrom, Reviewed for Technical Accuracy by Edwin H. Colbert. New York: Maxton Publishers, Inc., 1956.

    Quarto. Original illustrated, laminate boards. Each page, including the endpapers and title, is illustrated with colour and greyscale offset lithography. A little wear at the corners and ends of spine, laminate lifting around the spine and bottom edge of the lower board. Contents clean and fresh. A very good copy.