Monday, December 12, 2011

Waiting in the Wings for a Long Time

The block of rock sits on a table in the lab that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has positioned in the public exhibit area.  This lab (the so-called FossiLab), with its glass windows on two sides, offers visitors a view of trained volunteers preparing some of the museum’s fossils for study and display.  From the block of rock in the lab, two converging rows of broad, glistening grey teeth have partially emerged, exposed by the rapid, targeted blows of an air scribe (think little jackhammer capable of being controlled with precision).

According to the small sign that has been propped up against it, this is the upper jaw of a Brontotherium, a rhinoceros-like herbivore related to horses that lived some 40 million years ago.  On display elsewhere in the museum is the full skeleton of a Brontotherium hatcheri, showing the massive jaws of the animal and the distinctive horn ornamentation on its snout.  The fossil in the lab seems to be missing its horns.

A small drawing accompanying the display shows how the head might have appeared in life.

But that information on the sign isn’t what really registered with me; rather, what caught my attention was the name of the collector – John Bell Hatcher, a man who occupies a special place in my clutch of paleontological heroes.  This ungainly block of matrix seems to connect more vividly to the man himself than do any of his other finds on display in the museum.  (The image below appeared in the American Geologist (March 1905), accompanying Hatcher's obituary.)

Hatcher was a risk-taking adventurer in the classic mode, and, above all, a consummate fossil hunter.  He was one of the country’s greatest fossil hunters during the last two decades of the 19th century, and was coming into his own as a professional paleontologist in the academic science world when his life was cut short by typhoid fever in 1904 at age 42.  Perhaps it is surprising that he lived so long given how often he seemed to take his life into his own hands out in the field.

While a student at Yale University’s Sheffield Scientific School, Hatcher fell under the sway of Yale paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh and immediately upon graduation in 1884 began collecting at a torrid pace.  (At this juncture, it appeared Marsh had vanquished Edward Drinker Cope in the so-called dinosaur wars, a subject covered in a previous posting.)  During the summer of 1884, Hatcher apprenticed with commercial fossil collector Charles H. Sternberg in Kansas, but whether his preternatural skill at finding fossils was so obvious or he grew frustrated with what he considered Sternberg’s carelessness, after a month Hatcher was collecting on his own.

Over the next decade, he collected for Marsh throughout the west.  Spectacular find followed spectacular find, and trains carried boxcars filled with his fossils east to New Haven.  Hatcher’s success only fueled Marsh’s insistence that he stay in the field.  Particularly noteworthy were the Brontotherium fossils that Hatcher sent Marsh in 1886 and 1887 from the Western Nebraska Badlands, and the Ceratopsidae (“horned dinosaurs”) he subsequently found in Wyoming.  In fact, Hatcher’s name may be most often associated with the latter, particularly the Triceratops.  He found the first of these dinosaurs in 1889, and many more followed over the course of the next four years.  A brief foray, at Marsh’s instigation, in the winter of 1887 – 1888 to the Cretaceous formations in Maryland set the foundation for all future work on dinosaurs in this area.  (This was touched on in a recent posting on dinosaurs in Maryland.)

In 1893, Hatcher severed his ties with Yale, frustrated by Marsh’s unwillingness to let his assistants publish in their own names and aware that Marsh’s financial resources were drying up after Cope’s counterattack deprived Marsh of the position of chief paleontologist of the U.S. Geological Survey.  (As part of the fallout, many of the fossils collected by Hatcher for Marsh were claimed by the U.S. Government for the Smithsonian.  Presumably the Brontotherium jaw being prepped in the FossiLab was one of those fossils that worked their way from New Haven to Washington, D.C.)

Hatcher became curator of vertebrate paleontology at Princeton University.  While at Princeton, between 1896 and 1899, he undertook three fossil collecting expeditions to Patagonia (southern Chile and Argentina).  At the turn of the century, Hatcher assumed the position of curator of paleontology and osteology in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh.

To capture the full flavor of the man, one need only read Hatcher’s account of his three Patagonian expeditions.  His Narrative of the Expeditions often reads as a Victorian era adventure novel, one still waiting to be made into a movie.  I can hear and see him laugh when told what he proposes to do is foolhardy.  He mounts his horse and rides out, right into disaster, perhaps the one about which he was forewarned or something else.  He comes through it, often much the worse for wear, but alive and eager to do it all again.  (John Bell Hatcher, Narrative of the Expeditions, Geography of Southern Patagonia, Volume I of the Reports of the Princeton University Expeditions to Patagonia, 1896 – 1899 (1903))

On the first expedition, Hatcher arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in March, the start of the winter in the southern hemisphere.  Advised to put off his quest for fossils until spring, with some counseling him that no man could survive being out in the field during the winter, he shrugged it all off.
[W]e had tented it for many years on the wind-swept plains of Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas, often with the thermometer far below zero, and had no uneasiness as to our ability to survive successfully whatever blizzard Patagonia might have in store for us.
Apparently not until the second expedition, which began at the end of 1897 and lasted until the middle of September, 1898, did Hatcher feel the full force of a Patagonian winter, but then it unleashed its full fury.  His misery was compounded by a sustained attack of “rheumatism” which laid him up in the field for some six weeks.  (It’s not clear to me what he was actually suffering from, but often over the years his joints would swell and become extremely painful.)  At the end of June, when he was finally able to stand again, he and his sole companion began the 500 mile ride to Gallegos.  For over a month, “we dragged slowly through fields of snow and ice, shovelling away the snow each night over an area sufficient to accommodate our beds.  We were frequently hard pressed to find grass sufficient for our horses, . . . .”

Some 125 miles from Gallegos, Argentina, Hatcher struck out alone with five horses, the other member of this expedition having decided that he’d had enough.  The heavy rain that marked the early part of the day of his departure changed to driving snow as the temperature fell.  By ten o’clock that night when he finally reached a ranch, the area was in the grip of a full-throated blizzard.  For two days he waited it out.  Then, despite pleas that he stay put, Hatcher went on.  Though his rheumatism caused him great agony mounting and dismounting, the only way to traverse some of the sheer ice sheets he came upon was to lead the horses himself on foot.  At the end of five days he finally reached a ranch in North Gallegos with but a single horse, the other four fatigued animals having been abandoned in the ice and snow.

The single event that reveals to me the courage of the man occurred during his first expedition.  Hatcher could be counted on to find prodigious quantities of fossils and this expedition was no exception.  In October, 1896, he and his sole assistant arranged for the shipment of over four tons of fossils to Punta Arenas, Chile.  (This was the second shipment to go out and would be dwarfed by the third shipment that came a bit later.)  From Punta Arenas, this shipment would be transferred to a ship heading to New York; Hatcher decided that he needed to oversee the transfer in person, so he began the 225 mile ride to Punta Arenas on horseback alone.

The family at the ranch he reached his first night out in Killik Aike (part of the Welsh community in this part of Patagonia) pleaded with him to take more than a single horse for the rest of his trip.  He dismissed this advice, observing that he often made trips of 500 to 1,000 miles in the U.S. on just one horse.  Though the family was right to be worried and Hatcher ultimately did have to purchase a new horse to complete the trip, the lack of a second horse was not what nearly cost him his life.

During the afternoon of the third day on the trail, Hatcher dismounted to stretch his legs and allow his horse to eat and drink.  When he came to saddle up again, he saw that the horse had looped one hoof through the reins.  Hatcher stooped and released the hoof, but as he did so, something startled the animal who jerked his head down just as Hatcher started to rise.  A broken shank on the bit sliced into his scalp “in such a manner as to loosen the latter over a considerable area, at the same time rupturing some of the blood vessels and causing the wound to bleed very profusely.”  Hatcher’s efforts failed to stem the bleeding and so he continued on his way, blood pouring down his chest and saturating his clothes.  He traveled  for awhile in that condition but feeling faint (finally . . . I felt faint just reading the account) he dismounted, unsaddled and picketed his horse, and lay down, but not before wrapping the wound with two handkerchiefs and ramming his hat down over his head to hold the cloth in place.  Only late that night did the bleeding stop.  The next day he started out again, arriving at a ranch by mid morning, only to be told to move on by a cook, the only man not out working the ranch.  Hatcher tried to reason with him but, failing that, simply pushed his way past and commandeered food and coffee, and washed his wound and dressed it.  He then mounted up and was back on his way.

Still on the trail, his head wound became infected and he came down with a heavy, lingering cold.  On reaching Punta Arenas, he consulted with one of the two doctors in town who recommended that he be “bled.”  “I was not long in deciding that I would be my own physician and surgeon, well knowing that since the first night on the pampa after my accident I had been in no way suffering form an excess of blood.”

Hatcher engaged fully in the hunt for fossils whatever the physical cost, a reflection of his attitude about the best way to study and understand natural history.  In his account of the Patagonian expeditions, he spelled this out in a single, nearly stream of consciousness, run-on sentence:
The study of nature is always instructive and interesting, even inspiring and impressive, if the student be a real lover of nature seeking for truth at first hand and for truth’s sake, and not merely a fireside naturalist, who seldom, goes beyond his private study or dooryard, and either contents himself, like other parasites, with what is brought to him, like a bird of prey forcibly seizes upon the choicest morsels of his confreres, with little or no consideration for the rights of wishes of those who have brought together the material at so great expense of time and labor.
Like other parasites!!  What a caustic comment.  Though I read this passage as a bitter thrust at O.C. Marsh (who died in 1899), that reflects only part of Hatcher's complicated relationship with Marsh.  Regardless of how his relationship with Marsh ended, Hatcher acknowledged the pivotal role his late mentor had played in his life.  He dedicated the Narrative of the Expeditions to “The Memory of Othniel Charles Marsh:  Student and Lover of Nature.”

Beyond the fact that J.B. Hatcher was the collector of the Brontotherium jaw being prepped at the National Museum of Natural History, something else struck me about this fossil.  Assuming it was found and sent to Marsh in 1886 or 1887 from the Nebraska Badlands, only now, some 125 years later is this specimen being prepared for study and perhaps display.

This century and a quarter is insignificant in terms of the millions of years that span the time from the death of the animal to its discovery by Hatcher, but its significance cannot be gainsaid on the human scale of time.  Perhaps it’s not a great tragedy that Hatcher never saw this particular fossil cleared of its matrix; clearly, there are tons of fossils he never saw prepped.  Indeed, of the material Hatcher shipped to Marsh from the Brontotherium Beds, Yale paleontologist Charles Schuchert commented in 1905 on the sheer volume collected, writing, “It will be many years before all these collections are worked out.”  ([Obituary of] John Bell Hatcher, The American Geologist, March, 1905.)

Waiting in the wings.  That’s the image I have of myriad unprepped and unidentified fossils sitting in storage in museums around the world.  This is no criticism of the museums because I know this work takes money, time, and skilled people, and I can only imagine how short museums must be on all three.

While working on Hatcher’s background for this posting this past week, I happened to come across a fascinating posting  (December 6, 2011) in Science 2.0 on the identification of a new Ceratopsidae dinosaur species.  Given the long wait I’d discovered for Hatcher’s Brontotherium fossil, the title of the Science 2.0 article was an effective hook:  Spinops Sternbergorum - Horned Dinosaur Discovery 100 Years in the Making.  The scientific article formally identifying the new species appears in the current issue (Volume 56, Issue 4, 2011) of Acta Palaeontologica Polonica and is titled A New Centrosaurine from the Late Cretaceous of Alberta, Canada, and the Evolution of Parietal Ornamentation in Horned Dinosaurs (Andrew A. Farke, et al.).

This is another story of a long wait in the wings, in this case of nearly a century.  These fossils upon which the new species identification is based were found in 1916 by two collectors working in Alberta, Canada, on behalf of the British Museum (the Natural History Museum, London).  Though the collectors believed this to be important material, the Keeper of Geology at the Museum thought otherwise, using the word “rubbish” in one description of it.  “Consequently, most of the material remained overlooked and unprepared for over 90 years.”  (Farke, p. 693)  Though I’m not sure what prompted a shifting of the spotlight to this material, it apparently was worth it.  S. sternbergorum, a not too distant relative of Triceratops, potentially offers new insight into the evolution of the spikes on animal’s neck frill.

The collectors of these fossils?  The new species name tells the story – a couple of members of the so-called Sternberg dynasty of collectors.  In this case, Charles H. Sternberg and one of his sons, Levi.  Yes, the same Charles H. Sternberg who briefly oversaw the field work in Kansas of the young John Bell Hatcher.

Additional Sources

Other materials on Hatcher that were useful in the preparation of this posting include:

George F. Eaton, Obituary [of John Bell Hatcher], The American Journal of Science (August 1904).

Tom Rea, Bone Wars:  The Excavation and Celebrity of Andrew Carnegie’s Dinosaur  (2001).

O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope:  A Rivalry, American Experience.

Two generations of the Sternberg family commercially collected fossils, establishing a most productive fossil hunting dynasty.  Interesting material on Charles H. Sternberg and others in his family appear in:

John Acorn, Deep Alberta:  Fossil Facts and Dinosaur Digs (2007).

Detailed profiles appear on Mike Everhart’s website Oceans of Kansas, including one of Charles H. Sternberg.

Mike Everhart, Sea Monsters:  Prehistorical Creatures of the Deep (2007).

Charles H. Sternberg, The Life of a Fossil Hunter (1909).


  1. Awesome post! Hatcher is one of my paleontological heroes (especially for his ceratopsian work - there is at least one mostly unprepared skull of Triceratops at Yale, too).

    As an aside, the spotlight got shifted to the Spinops material because we were able to finally re-recognize it as something quite important (the Sternbergs had rightfully seen it as a new taxon). . .Paul Barrett and Mark Graham then got the wheels turning at NHM, to bring the new animal into the light of day.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Thank you and the rest of those involved for your great work on Spinops sternbergorum. Very impressive and, from reading your article, clearly not easy to prep.

  3. You're welcome! Mark Graham gets all of the credit for preparation; he spent several months getting all of the Spinops material into shape, and did a fine job.


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