Monday, December 6, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Big birds on the Green River? The debate continues

Seattle Times staff reporter

Paleontologists call it the Cinderella syndrome: Like Prince Charming with his glass slipper, they often identify fossil tracks by simply figuring out which animal's foot best fits the print.

When John Patterson stumbled across what could be one of the biggest fossil finds in the Northwest, a fairy-tale ending seemed assured. The three-toed track he found near the Green River in 1992 was a near-perfect fit for Diatryma, a flightless bird that stood as tall as Shaquille O'Neal and weighed 350 pounds or more.

Then two experts examined the track and declared it a fake.

It was shelved away in a state storehouse and forgotten by almost everybody — except Patterson, a Maple Valley inventor, engineer and rockhound whose persistence paid off this fall when a world authority on prehistoric footprints said he's convinced the track is genuine.

"All my experience suggested to me that this was not a fake," said Martin Lockley, whose Dinosaur Trackers Research Group at the University of Colorado has collected and studied thousands of fossil footprints from around the globe. "This was a huge bird."

Lockley joined Patterson in arguing the fossil's authenticity in an article published recently in the paleontological journal Ichnos.

He estimates the footprint was made 45 million years ago, a time when Western Washington was a subtropical flood plain lush with tree-sized ferns and populated by dwarf hippos and horses the size of fox terriers.

The footlong track would be the first ever discovered from Diatryma (pronounced Di-uh-tri-mah), though Lockley says it may also have been made by an as-yet-unknown relative. It would also extend the known range for the big bird, which was previously thought to have lived only east of the Rocky Mountains.

And it would be an exciting discovery for a region that was under water during the reign of the dinosaurs and is today covered with dense vegetation and ancient layers of lava that make fossil hunting frustrating.

Real or not?

"This is a really cool animal," said Thor Hansen, a marine paleontologist at Western Washington University in Bellingham, where the track is currently on display. "I lean toward believing it's real."

Not everyone agrees, including John Rensberger, the recently retired curator of vertebrate paleontology for the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle.

He examined the track 12 years ago and found several things fishy about it, including what he thought were chisel marks and scratches, and little indication that the sediments in the siltstone were compressed by the weight of a giant bird.

"There just wasn't any way to verify it was a track," Rensberger said. "There was a good probability that whatever it was, it was modified by people."

Lockley heard about the controversy and was skeptical of the skeptics.

"I thought even then that the case it was a fake was just extremely, extremely slim," he said.

Such disagreements are common in science, but especially prevalent in paleontology. The field has long been marked by vicious feuds and rivalries.

Two of the earliest dinosaur hunters, Edward Cope and Charles Marsh, waged open war in the late 1800s, stealing fossils from each other's digs, sabotaging skeletons and ridiculing each other in print.

"You have to have a thick skin in this field," said George Mustoe, a research technician specializing in paleontology at Western. "What happened to John [Patterson] is that he got caught in the crossfire."

A controversial find

Patterson discovered the track while stalking steelhead at Flaming Geyser State Park near Auburn. "I got on top of a big chunk of rock to get a better view of the water and see if there were any fish, then I looked down and saw it," he said. "It was obvious to me that it was a pretty amazing track."

An avid fossil hunter, Patterson's first thought was that it might be a dinosaur footprint. But the rock layer it came from was formed millions of years after the giant beasts became extinct.

Patterson starting calling experts all over the country, finally connecting with Allison Andors, a researcher at the American Museum of Natural History in New York who had recently written his doctoral thesis on Diatryma.

Andors came to Washington to examine the track and site where it was found. He couldn't find any other tracks and concurred with Rensberger that it probably was bogus.

Though no one ever accused Patterson of fabricating the track himself, the unspoken suggestion was always there. He's an accomplished rock carver, and his home is decorated with his handiwork, including a nearly life-sized head in deep green jade.

He also had angered Washington State Parks by removing the fossil because he feared it might be lost if the river level rose. The agency reclaimed the track and refused to give it back.

"Everybody was unhappy with me," Patterson recalled.

A man of many interests, Patterson has been an actor and an aerospace engineer and has written seven unpublished novels and screenplays. More recently, he invented a tool for cleaning house gutters and a wraparound headset that allows people on airplanes to watch movies without a screen.

Used to solving problems and getting people with different interests to work together, he was frustrated to find the scientific door slammed in his face. He kept researching Diatryma and bugging experts to give his discovery another look.

He finally got Lockley's attention, and arranged for a cast of the track to be sent to Denver.

Seeing the track in person, Lockley said he was most impressed with the deeply incised toe marks.

The only other evidence of Diatryma are a few partial skeletons. Based on those bones and comparisons with other giant bird species, Andors had hypothesized that the creature was probably not a fierce predator, but a slow-moving herbivore with blunt claws and a strong bill for cracking nuts.

The notion of blunt claws was a sharp departure from the conventional wisdom — yet three broad "toenails" are clearly visible in the track Patterson found.

"In order for somebody to fake a track like that, they would have had to have as much or more knowledge than any specialist in the world today," Lockley said. They also would have had to make the track look as if it had weathered for decades or centuries.

"I just don't see how you could do it. It's got this organized feel to it, like that animal really stepped into that sediment and dug in its toes."

Lockley gave the track a scientific name that mirrors its history: Ornithoformipes controversus, which means "controversial bird track."

Now that the footprint has emerged into the light again and is available for scholarly examination at Western, Patterson hopes experts and amateurs alike will be inspired to search for more tracks.

"I kind of like that it's still controversial," he said, "but once you find the second one, you know for sure it's genuine."

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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