There are giants among us in my town of Amherst, Massachusetts. Some are the size of a two-story building.
And they once walked down our tree-lined streets, though they never had a chance to enjoy a latte at Amherst Coffee.
The largest dinosaur footprint collection in the world began as a “curiosity”–a 19th century term for “hobby”–and unlike collecting Beanie babies or Webkinz or beer cans or NASCAR patches, when Edward Hitchcock began his collection in 1836, dinosaur tracks weren’t exactly a popular collectable item in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Hitchcock was a professor at Amherst College from 1825 through 1864, and he founded “ichnology,” or the study of tracks and traces of animals. From 1836 through 1864 he amassed what was then–and remains–the largest collection of dinosaur footprints and fossils in the world. Edward Hitchcock not only pioneered this new branch of study while teaching at Amherst College, he was also an avid geologist, became Massachusetts’ first state geologist, and was the third president of Amherst College, serving from 1845-1854.
The collection, called the Hitchcock Ichnological Cabinet, is permanently housed at the Pratt Museum of Natural History at Amherst College. It is completely free to the public, and is open from 11am through 4pm, Tuesday through Saturday; it’s Amherst’s best kept secret. So why study dinosaur tracks?
Ichnology involves two subtypes: paleoichnology, which is the study of fossilized tracks and traces, and neoichnology, which is the study of modern tracks and traces. A specialist compares the two–comparing how and where animals moved and behaved in the past with how and where they move and behave now–to identify behavior patterns across time.
Edward Hitchcock’s collection of dinosaur tracks and fossils not only perserved fossils that might otherwise have been destroyed through economic development and growth, but also gave scientists in the 19th century, and now, the opportunity to examine the past in great detail to make comparisons with animal behavior in the present. Visitors to the Pratt Museum can view portions of the Hitchcock Ichnological Cabinet; the same fossils and tracks preserved in 1836 can be viewed by your 4 year old who loves dinosaurs and begged for a Robosapien for Christmas last year.
In addition, while we tend to associate dinosaurs with the western part of the United States, virtually all of the dinosaur tracks collected and held at Amherst College came from the Connecticut River Valley. Driving down I-91 toward Northampton, Springfield, or Brattleboro, one can imagine the “great lizards” ambling along the Connecticut River. Dinosaur State Park, in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, is yet another reminder of the dinosaur activity in and around Amherst, Massachusetts. Hitchcock’s collection holds more than 21,000 specimens, while Dinosaur State park holds more than 500 samples in a 55,000 square foot geodesic dome for visitors.
Amherst’s best kept secret isn’t, really, a secret. And yet if you ask twenty random people on the street in Amherst whether they know about Edward Hitchcock’s largest dinosaur track collection in the world, most will be unaware that just blocks away, housed in a small, nondescript building on the Amherst College campus, there sits a national treasure that unlocked the key to the past, present, and future 170 years ago. Edward Hitchcock’s “curiosities” and his work as a professor helped to launch paleontology and ichnology, and further our understanding of science. All in this sleepy little college town in the Pioneer Valley. Shhhhh!