Catching Dino Fever with Andrews, Cope, Marsh, Hatcher, and Calvo
During his first day there, Fred Heeren stops for a photo op overlooking Jorge Calvo's year-round, prime fossil-hunting locale, Lake Barreales.
By Fred Heeren
Stopping my rental car at a crossroads in the scrubland of central Argentina, I stepped out into the sunshine—as if that would help me decide which road to take. Well, maybe it would. If I’d correctly figured about turning everything upside down and opposite in the southern hemisphere, the position of the mid-morning sun should tell me how to stay pointed toward my northwestern destination. I had to wonder, though, what the chances were that I’d made the right decision at each intersection for the past several hours to get me to the right road at the end.
What could Argentine country folk have against road signs? I mulled over the growing list of things I lacked: GPS, a compass, road signs, a coin to flip. And I could add a good night’s sleep, having arrived at the hotel in Neuquén at two that morning via São Paulo and Buenos Aires, and having risen early to compose interview questions for dinosaur hunter Jorge Calvo. I decided I also lacked a warm coat, suddenly noting the lack of palm trees and the wind’s end-of-winter bite (it being end of summer back home). I got back in the car, adding to the list my lack of assurance that Professor Calvo would even be at his Lake Barreales site, should I find my way there. But all the unknowns were compensated for by one great known: I knew, beyond the shadow of a skeptic’s doubt, that this was exactly where I wanted to be, and I was almost as sure that this was where God wanted me to be. Nothing gratifies like the occasional concurrence of those two wants. Finding and following fossil hunters had always marked high points in my life—I had as much fun finding them as they did finding fossils.
Deciding to take the left fork, which looked to have a better chance of taking me northwest, I let out the clutch and shot off into the bright desert, confident that there was nothing I’d rather be doing with my life.
In this regard, I was joining the end of a long line of dinosaur fossil prospectors who had bumped across the badlands by faith before me. I was like a Mongolian porter driving the last camel in a caravan of adventurers stretching across the landscape, raising dust as far as the eye can see.
Roy Chapman Andrews had organized just such a caravan in the early 1920s to map and collect in one of the last unexplored regions on earth: the Gobi desert of Outer Mongolia. His five-year expedition included a fleet of Dodge motor cars (with a machine gun mounted on one), to cover desert ground faster than camels could. Each year, he also sent ahead a virtually endless line of camels—125 of them in his 1925 field season—laden with gasoline, extra car parts, food, rifles, ammunition, and digging equipment.
“I was born to be an explorer,” Andrews later wrote. “There was never any decision to make. I couldn’t do anything else and be happy.”
Andrews lived out his dream. Knowing that the Central Asian Plateau had been rising for 150 million years while Europe and America had successively risen and sunk below sea level, he convinced John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan that Central Asia offered an unbroken record of animal life available nowhere else on earth. With their support seeding his funding campaign, Andrews spent the years 1920-1925 leading the largest paleontological venture up to that time.
Action and ambition had defined the greatest dinosaur discoveries from the beginning—that is, from the start of the truly bountiful discoveries in the 1870s and 80s, after railroad companies exposed enormous bones while blasting passes through the mountains of the American West.
Jorge Calvo allows Fred to help him excavate a newly discovered sauropod dinosaur
In spite of scoffing scientists who said he was likelier to find fossils in the Pacific Ocean than in the shifting sands of Outer Mongolia, Andrews’ team found the first dinosaurs in Asia north of the Himalayas. Among their discoveries: a small, horned dinosaur fitting early into the evolutionary tree of the ceratopsians, which his crew named Protoceratops andrewsi; a new theropod they named Oviraptor; the first dinosaur eggs ever seen; and the largest known land mammal, a hornless rhinoceros that stood 17 feet tall at the shoulders.
Dealing with danger was part of the job description. During the first crossing of the Gobi desert, five bandits opened fire from a cliff above as Andrews and his fellow scout Charlie Coltman drove along a trail. The shots woke up then-sleeping Coltman, who grabbed their rifles out of their cases while Andrews drove in zigzags, slowing briefly only to take careful aim. Final score: two bandits down, two fossil hunters got away clean.
Another time when Andrews was out scouting ahead in his Dodge, he ran into a group of four armed brigands on horseback and didn’t have room to turn his car around. He gunned it and drove straight at them, spooking their horses, who had never seen a motor car, resulting in their bucking and galloping away. Their riders had all they could do to stay mounted, let alone fire their rifles.
Andrews’ years in China were also filled with narrow escapes from revolutionaries, packs of attacking Mongol dogs, skin-shredding sand storms, and poisonous pit vipers. He went nowhere without his broad-brimmed ranger hat and his .38 Colt holstered at his side—and if he sounds a little familiar, it’s because he became a key inspiration for the action movie serials of the 1940s and 50s, which in turn inspired George Lucas to create Indiana Jones.
Action and ambition had defined the greatest dinosaur discoveries from the beginning—that is, from the start of the truly bountiful discoveries in the 1870s and 80s, after railroad companies exposed enormous bones while blasting passes through the mountains of the American West. In those two decades, the crews of Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh made the greatest number of dinosaur finds ever, including the famed Brontosaurus (as Apatosaurus was then called), Triceratops, Stegosaurus, and Camarasaurus. Their finds far overshadowed those of their famous mentor: Joseph Leidy, known as the father of American vertebrate paleontology. Cope’s teams alone brought in 13,000 specimens. Together, the two men sent several hundred tons of fossils back east by rail, representing over 140 new species.
But almost from the beginning, their mutually exclusive dream, each to become the world’s premier paleontologist, turned into a nightmare of unchecked rivalry. If Andrews’ dedicated lifework could be described by the word joy, Cope’s and Marsh’s equally dedicated lifework could be described by the word bitterness. The race to publish new taxa degenerated into a story of competing crews stooping to theft, espionage, sabotage, rock-throwing, and dynamiting dinosaur bones to keep the other from working their abandoned quarries. Marsh was first to use underhanded tactics, and he continued to prove the more dastardly of the two.
Both collected far more fossils than they could possibly describe in the journals. And in their race to find and describe more genera than the other, they wrote quick-and-dirty papers, making such a mess of dinosaur classification that it took over a full generation after they were gone for researchers to clean up the field.
The real heroes of that story were the underpaid, under-recognized cowboys and roughnecks who did most of the collecting work. So let’s recognize one of them: John Bell Hatcher, a Yale educated coal-miner-turned-paleontologist. Working for Marsh, Hatcher developed major advances in fieldwork, dividing each site into five-foot squares, sending Marsh back full descriptions of where each bone was found within each square, increasing both the accuracy and efficiency of his collections per cubic foot. He developed the technique of sieving to capture the smallest bones, and the practice of plaster jacketing to protect the specimens.
In an effort to outdo Cope’s descriptions of the largest mammal found in North America and Asia—the giant rhino-like-brontotheres—Marsh decided to write a monograph on the animal—so he sent Hatcher to Nebraska to see if he could find more samples. Hatcher sent him back twelve tons of brontotheres fossils.
When Hatcher stopped by Wyoming, he followed ranchers’ rumors and a huge fossil horn to a locale where he excavated the new horned dinosaur genus Triceratops. Over the next three years, he found the remains of 50 ceratopsian (“horn faced”) dinosaurs. Within this trove he sent back east 33 nearly complete skulls, one weighing over three tons. Marsh gave Hatcher no acknowledgement in the description he wrote of Triceratops.
When Marsh repeatedly failed to pay him, even after the last of his supplies had been stolen in Texas, Hatcher managed to stay on the field, raising money by giving townsfolk poker lessons in the daytime and playing poker in the hotels at night. On at least one occasion, he had to back out of a saloon while holding a loaded revolver on infuriated players.
Years later, Hatcher described his passion for fossil hunting as something that “must be experienced to be understood; it cannot be explained.” When pressed, he could only describe it as an “intense and absorbing interest,” requiring an “indomitable spirit and forlorn hope which impels the prospector to take his meager grub-stake and spend months in the mountain solitudes in search of hidden treasures.”
During the 1890s, Hatcher organized three successful fossil-collecting expeditions to Patagonia, to continue the work that Darwin began there. He was among the first to find creatures in South America matching those from Australia, showing evidence for the one-time unity of those two continents. Which brings us back where we started … to the scrublands of Patagonia, in central Argentina—where I was getting warmer in my search for Jorge Calvo, one of today’s premier discoverers of new dinosaur genera.
After retracing my route to try another direction at another crossroads, I finally came across a human being, a man walking in the opposite direction along the road. I stopped my car and asked: “Es eso cincuenta y uno?”
What a wonderful little word. Everything seemed to be shrunken relative to the desert-and-sky expanse around me: my subcompact car, the people, their words. Sure enough, forty-five minutes later the unmarked Route 51 took me to my final crossroads that day. There, in contrast to every other man-made object, a huge black sign competed with the view to announce that I was now officially “DEL FIN DEL MUNDO”—AT THE END OF THE WORLD—and beside it a smaller, less formal sign said Los Barreales 30 km, with an arrow pointing straight ahead. The pavement turned to stones for the last 25 kilometers.
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