Dinosaur Expert John Ostrom Dies

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 22, 2005

John H. Ostrom, a path-finding paleontologist who established an evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds and whose dramatic fossil discoveries provided the inspiration for the fictional creations of the film "Jurassic Park," died July 16 at an assisted living facility in Litchfield, Conn. He was 77 and had Alzheimer's disease.

Dr. Ostrom first suggested that birds are descended from dinosaurs in the 1970s, and his idea was met with skepticism or outright derision by other scientists. But with his own research, as well as later discoveries, his ideas have been vindicated and have gained wide acceptance among biologists, geologists and paleontologists.

"He is probably the most influential person in dinosaur paleontology in the last century," said John R. Horner, curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont., and a leading authority on dinosaurs.

"John is basically responsible for the way we view dinosaurs. We used to see dinosaurs as stupid, coldblooded reptiles. John showed us that they didn't drag their tails and that they gave rise to birds."

Throughout his career, which was spent mostly at Yale University, Dr. Ostrom proposed several provocative notions to show that dinosaurs were more advanced than thought. He believed that many dinosaurs were warmblooded, like modern birds and mammals, instead of sluggish reptiles. He also suggested that birds first developed the power of flight not by gliding through trees, but by running along the ground on their hind legs and eventually taking to the air.

He made his first major discovery on a Montana hillside on the final day of the summer field season in 1964. Noticing a bone protruding from the soil, he uncovered the remains of a two-legged creature with a curving four-inch claw on each forelimb. He dubbed the fossil deinonychus (Greek for "terrible claw") and suggested that, when alive, the animal ran upright at high speeds, extending its long tail behind its body.

In 1970, while visiting a museum in the Netherlands, he made his second notable discovery when he recognized that a fossil skeleton labeled a "pterosaur" was actually a prehistoric bird called an archaeopteryx.

"It took me 15 to 20 seconds to make the identification," he told The Washington Post in 1978.

Even though the archaeopteryx, which lived 145 million to 150 million years ago and was about the size of a chicken, had a primitive form of feathers, Dr. Ostrom noted that it had teeth and other skeletal features that resembled those of small dinosaurs. He saw similarities to his own discovery, deinonychus, and in 1973 proposed the theory that birds evolved from dinosaurs.

The idea was first suggested in 1868 by Thomas Henry Huxley, a friend and defender of Charles Darwin's, but had long been dismissed. Dr. Ostrom maintained that archaeopteryx was the obvious ancestor of modern birds, particularly the flightless ostrich and emu.

Some ornithologists continued to resist Dr. Ostrom's theory for decades, but Horner and other researchers found evidence of dinosaur nests and eggs in Montana to bolster the notion. In 1997, in one of his last scientific forays, Dr. Ostrom joined an expedition in China that unearthed new forms of dinosaurs with feathers, providing further credence to his ideas.

"If there are any people left who don't believe birds came from dinosaurs," Horner said, "I'd put them in the same group as the flat-earth society."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company