Wednesday, July 20, 2016

O.C. Marsh Odontornithes Monograph Still Relevant Today

It was the year 1999 and I was traveling to the coast of Connecticut to do some late February birdwatching. Loons, grebes and scoters were the target birds of the day, a day which promised lots of sun and temperatures surprisingly above the freezing point. A perfect winters outing.

It was also a day I had planned to visit the Yale Peabody Museum in New Haven, Connecticut, a place that holds many childhood memories for me. But my long overdue visit to the museum was much more than just a rekindling of childhood memories.  

An once-in-a-lifetime exhibition was on display featuring rare fossil specimens of 120-million-year-old feathered animals from the Liaoning Province of China. Considered by the late paleontologist John H. Ostrom as “the biggest event in evolutionary science since Charles Darwin put forth his theory,” it provided compelling evidence that birds evolved from dinosaurs (source: It was a must-see exhibit for anyone interested in the origin of birds.

1999 Yale Peabody Museum Program for China's Feathered Dinosaurs
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione

In its only appearance in eastern North America, the exhibit introduced the world to the exquisitely preserved, and now famous skeletons of Sinosauropteryx, Protarchaeopteryx, Caudipteryx and Confuciusornis.

This display, as amazing as it was, not only changed the way that I look at birds, it re-introduced me to a Natural History Museum that I have always loved.

Stunned at what I had just witnessed, I wandered into The Great Hall of Dinosaurs and took a seat on a bench in front of mounted skeletons of Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus and Camarasaurus. Rudolph F. Zallinger’s 110 foot mural, The Age of Reptiles, provided an out-of-body experience back to the Cretaceous Period. Since nothing has changed (and I mean that!) at the Great Hall since my youth in the early 1970’s, I thought to myself, this must be one of the few places left that I can actually take my family to and show them exactly what I saw as a child!

But as I strolled the hall reacquainting myself with the dinosaurs, my eyes became fixated on one particular fossil, Hesperornis regalis.

Hesperornis mount at Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione

Loon-like in many ways, Hesperornis featured a submarine shaped body (up to 1.5 meters in length) with powerful hind legs attached far at the back and sideways. It also had a large head and long neck, very much like the Common Loon I just spotted a few hours before.

However, like so many other Mesozoic birds, Hesperornis had teeth, a trait all birds lack today. Unlike our loons along the Connecticut coast, this bird had virtually no wings, and was without question flightless.

Hesperornis mount at Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione

Fossils of Hesperornis have been found in an area called the Western Interior Seaway, a large inland sea that separated the continent of North America into two landmasses 100 million years ago.

Photo Property of
Hooper Museum

The first Hesperornis specimen was discovered in western Kansas in 1871 by none other than Othniel Charles Marsh. O.C. Marsh, as he is best known, was Professor of Paleontology at Yale, the first such appointment in the United States.

(Source: Oceans of Kansas,

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Beginning in 1870, Marsh led a series of four student expeditions to the West, securing a number of fossil bird bones, including a nearly complete skeleton of Hesperornis. (Source: Oceans of Kansas).

The success of these expeditions culminated in the publication of O.C. Marsh’s; Odontornithes: A monograph on the extinct toothed birds of North America, published in 1880. In addition to Hesperornis, the monograph also included descriptions of Icthyornis dispars, another toothed bird that was discovered in Kansas in 1875 by Professor B.F. Mudge, who was then in charge of one of Marsh’s search parties, and Apatornis celer, a bird known from a single fossil bone.  

My own personal search for the monograph led me to a number of dead-ends, based solely on the poor condition of the books offered. Then, about ten years ago, I finally secured a copy worthy of a high asking price. Once received, there was no question, its cost was worth the time and money. 

Measuring 12 inches tall by 9 inches wide, the rather large Odontornithes features dark green cloth boards with gilt lettering along its entire spine. The book is 201 pages long and illustrated with 34 plates and 40 woodcuts.  

Odontornithes Monograph
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione

O.C. Marsh’s thorough examination of both Hesperornis and Icthyornis skeleton’s is very impressive. Each and every bone, even the entire cervical vertebrate, is discussed and described here. An impressive feat for its time. Several of the plates are fold outs, with cloth protected seams. One of the fold outs is quite large, plate XX, restoration of Hesperornis regalis is depicted in one-half natural size. However, in all the other plates, the bones are portrayed in life-size, another impressive feature of the book.

Odontornithes Monograph Plate X
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione

So who would be interested in owning a 136-year old book about toothed birds? An avian paleontologist would be the obvious choice. A collector of old science books? An admirer of O.C. Marsh? For me, it was a combination of many reasons. As a fossil bird bone collector, the illustrations provide a nice comparative analysis with convergently similar loons and grebes. Since their discovery, both Hesperornis and Icthyornis, along with Archaeopteryx, was our only knowledge about how birds looked and acted during the days of dinosaurs. Until recently, everything else about ancient birds was just speculation. So yes, historically, this monograph is incredibly important. And then there was the local connection. Quite possibly the greatest paleontologist of all time, Professor Marsh lived and worked in New Haven, Connecticut, my home state. His vision to build the Peabody Museum of Natural History in 1866 is a lasting reminder of his brilliance and tenacity as a field collector. This was confirmed in a letter by Charles Darwin below; (Source: Yale Peabody Website).    

Research by O.C. Marsh also provided some of the fossil evidence supporting Darwin’s theory of evolution. In this letter, dated August 31, 1880, Charles Darwin thanks Marsh for a copy of his monograph, remarking:

“I received some time ago your very kind note of July 28th, & yesterday the magnificent volume. I have looked with renewed admiration at the plates, & will soon read the text. Your work on these old birds & on the many fossil animals of N. America has afforded the best support to the theory of evolution, which has appeared within the last 20 years. The general appearance of the copy which you have sent me is worthy of its contents, and I can say nothing stronger than this.

With cordial thanks, believe me yours very sincerely,

Charles Darwin.”

There it sat on my library shelf for the next couple years, gathering dust and an occasional look from time to time. But when I acquired a purported fossil bone from Hesperornis, life suddenly changed for my copy of O.C. Marsh’s Odontornithes. Not only did the monograph provide me with a rare textual reference for this acquisition, but it also provided me with the only way to actually compare the fossil to another life-sized bone of Hesperornis.

The fossil bone, part of the pelvic arch, more specifically the ilium, is very distinctive. The ilium, the largest pelvic bone, forms most of the anterior and lateral surface of the pelvis. The anti-trochanter and fused spinal column (synsacrum) confidently placed the fossil on the skeleton itself.   

Hesperornis Pelvic Bone Fossil
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione
Hesperornis Pelvic Bone Fossil
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione
Hesperornis Pelvic Bone Fossil
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione

Finally, here is O.C. Marsh’s thoughts and description of the pelvic arch from his 1880 monograph that is still relevant today; 

     The pelvic arch of Hesperornis exhibits many features of interest, and characters more distinctly reptilian than that of any recent bird. In its general form, the pelvis of Hesperornis regalis resembles that of Podiceps. It is very long and narrow, as in that genus, and in other diving birds. The acetabulum differs from that in all known birds, in being closed internally by bone, except a foramen that perforates the inner wall, as in the Crocodiles. The ilium, ischium and pubis, moreover, have their posterior extremities free and distinct. This reptilian character is seen, likewise, in the Emeu, as well as in Tinamus, which in other respects also shows affinities with the Ostriches.

     The post-acetabular part of the ilium is very elongate, and its lower border somewhat curved downward. The free extremity, behind the last coossified vertebrae, is thin, and turned slightly upward and outward. On the lower portion of the outer surface, there is a strong ridge, which arises behind the upper part of the anti-trochanter, and sweeps gently downward until it reaches the lower margin of the ilium; whence it rises gradually, and continues backward to nearly opposite the last sacral vertebrate.

     The ischium forms part of the acetabulum, and anti-trochanter, and then, contracting rapidly, is continued backward as a long slender bone, which is entirely free at its distal end.