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February 18, 1928|
New York City, New York
|Died||July 16, 2005
|Doctoral students||Robert T. Bakker|
|Known for||The "Dinosaur renaissance"|
|Notable awards||Romer-Simpson Medal (1994)|
The first of Ostrom's broad-based reviews of the osteology and phylogeny of the primitive bird Archaeopteryx appeared in 1976. His reaction to the eventual discovery of feathered dinosaurs in China, after years of acrimonious debate, was bittersweet.
He was born in New York and studied at Union College. He planned to be a physician like his father, but changed his mind after reading George Gaylord Simpson's book The Meaning of Evolution. He enrolled at Columbia University and studied with Edwin H. Colbert. The type species Utahraptor ostrommaysorum was named in his honour. In 1952 he married Nancy Grace Hartman (d. 2003) and he had two daughters: Karen and Alicia.
Ostrom taught for one year at Brooklyn College and then spent five years at Beloit College before going to Yale. Ostrom was a professor at Yale University where he was the Curator Emeritus of vertebrate paleontology at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, which has an impressive fossil collection originally started by Othniel Charles Marsh. He died from complications of Alzheimer's disease at the age of 77 in Litchfield, Connecticut.
In the field of paleontology, Ostrom is responsible for the following key discoveries:
His 1964 discovery of additional Deinonychus fossils is considered one of the most important fossil finds in history. Deinonychus was an active predator that clearly killed its prey by leaping and slashing or stabbing with its "terrible claw". Evidence of a truly active lifestyle included long strings of muscle running along the tail, making it a stiff counterbalance for jumping and running. The conclusion that at least some dinosaurs had a high metabolism, and were thus in some cases warm-blooded, was popularized by his student Robert T. Bakker. This helped to change the impression of dinosaurs as the sluggish, slow, cold-blooded lizards which had prevailed since the turn of the century.
This changed how dinosaurs are depicted by both professional dinosaur illustrators, and in the public eye. The find is also credited with triggering the "dinosaur renaissance", a term coined in a 1975 issue of Scientific American by Bakker to describe the renewed debates causing an influx of interest in paleontology, which has lasted from the 1970s to the present and has doubled recorded dinosaur diversity.
Ostrom's interest in the dinosaur-bird connection started with his study of what is now known as the Haarlem Archaeopteryx. Discovered in 1855, it was actually the first specimen recovered but, incorrectly labeled as Pterodactylus crassipes, it languished in the Teylers Museum in the Netherlands until Ostrom's 1970 paper (and 1972 description) correctly identified it as one of only eight "first birds" (counting the solitary feather).
John Ostrom's work on the functional morphology of dinosaurs found that the claws, and tendon scars in the tail would indicate a running position. And so the whole posture of bipedal dinosaurs changed to one of an agile, fast-running, fearsome predators. This inspired a new generation of dinosaur movies and also museums worldwide changed their dinosaur bone displays.
In 1966 John H. Ostrom was instrumental in the establishment of Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, Connecticut ("because the governor was besieged by letters from schoolchildren swayed into dino-mania by Ostrom").
John Ostrom set up a full-time dig site at the Big Horn Basin, Wyoming in the 1960s, as well he spent a lot of time digging at Rocky Hill.
In 1998 Catherine Forster named a fossil Rahonavis ostromi (meaning "Ostrom's menace from the clouds") in honour of John Ostrom. The fossil is that of a primitive winged creature with a two-foot wingspan, feathers and a sickle-shaped claw on its second toe designed for slashing prey, similar to Deinonychus and Archaeopteryx.