Ellis L. Yochelson, 77; Paleontologist, Author

Ellis Yochelson, center, spent 40 years on a book about Charles D. Walcott, named director of the U.S. Geological Survey in 1894.
Ellis Yochelson, center, spent 40 years on a book about Charles D. Walcott, named director of the U.S. Geological Survey in 1894. (Family Photo)
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 8, 2006

Ellis L. Yochelson, 77, a Museum of Natural History paleontologist who helped resolve the decades-old mystery of the fossilized "motorcycle tracks," died Aug. 30 of heart disease at his apartment in the District. He had previously lived for many years in Bowie.

Dr. Yochelson was the founder of the North American Paleontological Convention and author of a two-volume biography of renowned paleontologist Charles Doolittle Walcott. Dr. Yochelson specialized in fossil mollusks, particularly snails and their relatives. He devoted the latter half of his career to climactichnites, soft-bodied animals half a billion years old whose fossil imprints resembled dual motorcycle tracks laid out across soft sand.

The creature's chevron-shaped were discovered in 1860 in a quarry in Ontario, but no one knew what had made them. More than a century later, Dr. Yochelson and a Russian colleague traveled across eastern North America to examine every known climactichnite fossil -- more than 100 in all -- and in 1993 constructed a detailed sketch of the animal. They deduced that it was about the size of a human foot and perhaps represented a very early form of movement on land.

"It's like no other animal we know," Dr. Yochelson told the Independent, a British newspaper. "This was certainly one of the earliest attempts to get on to land, if not the first attempt."

He explained that since the climactichnite had no bones or hard parts, it crawled about by gripping the sand with two muscular flaps on each side of its body and heaving itself along with flaps at the front. The animal created the double row of chevron furrows when it raised up and flopped back down.

"It was an experiment that worked remarkably well for a short time," Dr. Yochelson told the Independent, noting that by "short time" he meant 5 to 10 million years before the creature became extinct.

The research, writing and publication of Dr. Yochelson's book, "Charles Doolittle Walcott, Paleontologist" (1998), took a "short time" in the same sense. It was a 40-year labor of love about a man who joined the U.S. Geological Survey in 1879 and rose to become its director in 1894. Walcott also was secretary of the Smithsonian Institution for 20 years.

Cornell historian Michele L. Aldrich, in presenting Dr. Yochelson with the History of Geology Award for 2003, noted in good nature that because of his consuming interest, "we have had Walcott sliced, diced, curried, chicken-fried, sauteed, sweet and sour, mole, marsala, Florentine, hash, stew and Walcott Wellington. A history of geology session was incomplete without a Yochelson paper on some aspect of Walcott."

Douglas H. Erwin, a senior scientist at the National Museum of Natural History, said that his friend and former colleague made significant contributions in a number of paleontological areas.

"Ellis was idiosyncratic -- or maybe a better word is 'quixotic,' " he said. "He took great pleasure in putting a lot of research into projects that other people couldn't understand why he considered them so important."

Ellis Leon Yochelson was born in Washington and graduated from Surrattsville High School in Clinton. He received a bachelor's degree in 1949 and a master's degree in 1950, both in geology and both from the University of Kansas. He received a doctorate in geology from Columbia University in 1955.

From 1952 to 1985, he was affiliated with the Paleontology and Stratigraphy Branch of the U.S. Geological Survey and worked as a senior scientist emeritus and volunteer for many years after his retirement. He was based at the National Museum of Natural History, where he became a research associate in 1967. He also taught at American University, George Washington University, the University of Maryland and the University of Delaware.

An ardent environmentalist, Dr. Yochelson was at the forefront of a national effort to establish mandatory deposits on bottles and cans.

He also was an inveterate writer of letters to the editor of his hometown newspaper, the Bowie Blade-News. The letters often were on environmental topics, including one that prompted a response from a perturbed reader who characterized him as "a wild-eyed, bird-watching anti-everything crowd."

"I've been called a lot of things," his daughter recalled him saying, "but never a crowd."

His wife, Sally Witt Yochelson, died in 2005.

Survivors include three children, Jeff Yochelson of Woodstock, Abby Yochelson of Washington and Charles Yochelson of Sheridan, Ore.; and five grandchildren.

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