Ostrom, John H. (earth scientist)

(1928- ) American Paleontologist

The excitement about dinosaurs reemerged several years ago with the release of the motion picture Jurassic Park. Although several documentaries produced by the Public Broadcasting System had heralded a new view of dinosaurs, the idea was brought into the public spotlight by this film. No longer were dinosaurs viewed as heavy lumbering monsters but as quick and agile animals that were potent predators and powerful protectors that were similar to mammals in many ways. Later films and documentaries like Walking with Dinosaurs furthered this impression. But how did our state of knowledge advance to the point to make this distinction? The answer is that the idea of functional morphology was applied to their study and John Ostrom is perhaps the world’s foremost expert. Instead of just adding skin to bones and pushing around models as if they were plastic toys, functional morphology looks at the individual parts of an animal and how they were used. His most famous breakthrough in this application was with the dinosaur Deinonychus (terrible claw). He found that the tendon scars in the long tail made it more of a stiff rudder that would counterbalance the animal in a running position rather than a winding tail like that of a cat as was previously interpreted. With this development, the whole posture of Deinonychus changed to one of an agile, fast-running, fearsome predator with a long slashing vertical talon on each of its hind feet. As a result, the posture of all other bipedal dinosaurs was reexamined and duly changed. Not only did the new movies reflect this change but museums worldwide changed their dinosaur bone displays as well.

The other truly famous work of John Ostrom was on the dinosaur Archaeopteryx, the feathered birdlike dinosaur. Again, he studied the functional morphology of the various features and proposed that it was an active, climbing, running, and gliding dinosaur that acted similar to a bird. Using this intermediate-type dinosaur, he compared features with modern birds as well as with the small upright dinosaurs like Deinonychus. These similarities and changes were used to propose a complete lineage and evolution from dinosaurs to birds as summarized in his paper “Archaeopteryx and the Origin of Birds.” This tremendous piece of macroevolutionary work now appears in virtually every textbook on historical geology worldwide.

These breakthroughs may be the most famous of Ostrom’s work, but many others are just as important. He studied trackways of small carnivorous dinosaurs to show their social interactions. He studied the eating habits of various dinosaurs to show their diets using both functional morphology of their skulls as in the case of Triceratops and Hadrosaur to contents of their stomachs as in the case of Comsognathus. Papers on several of these topics include, “A Functional Analysis of the Jaw Mechanism of Dinosaurs” and “Functional Morphology and Evolution of Ceratopsian Dinosaurs.” He carefully investigated the reasoning that at least the bipedal dinosaurs were likely warm-blooded. He looked at the function of the cranial crests on Parasaurolophus. He even trained the outspoken dinosaur enthusiast and researcher, Robert Bakker, who appears in nearly every television documentary on dinosaurs, even more than Ostrom. With these achievements, it may be said that John Ostrom has almost single-handedly pioneered the reevaluation and reemer-gence of interest in dinosaurs. He is a true giant of paleontology.

John Ostrom was born on February 18, 1928, in New York, New York. He attended Union College, New York, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in geology in 1951. He completed his graduate studies at Columbia University, New York, where he earned a Ph.D. in paleontology in 1960. While still a graduate student, he worked as a research assistant vertebrate paleontologist from 1951-1956. John Ostrom married Janet Hartman in 1952; they have two children. He accepted a position as lecturer at Brooklyn College, New York, in 1955, and joined the faculty at Beloit College, Wisconsin, the next year. In 1961, Ostrom returned to the East Coast to accept a faculty position at Yale University, Connecticut, where he spent the rest of his career, which continues today. At the time he began at Yale University, he was also named the assistant curator for vertebrate paleontology at the Peabody Museum, but he soon became curator in 1971.

John Ostrom is an author of numerous publications in all kinds of international journals from biological to geological as well as museum reports and monographs. Several of these are among the best-known papers on the modern views of dinosaurs and the evolution of dinosaurs to birds. In recognition of his contributions to vertebrate paleontology, John Ostrom has received numerous honors and awards. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was awarded an honorary doctoral degree from Union College. Other awards include the Romer-Simp- son Medal from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, the F.V. Hayden Memorial Geological Medal from the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, a U.S. Senior Scientist Award from the Von Humboldt Stiftung, Germany, and a J.S. Guggenheim Fellowship.

Ostrom has performed a great amount of services to the profession. Among these, he served as president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (1969-1970) as well as president of Sigma Xi honor society. He also performed several editorial roles including chief editor of American Journal of Science and of the Bulletin of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

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