I recently spent a week at Chicago’s Field Museum looking through historic photographs and fossils from the Captain Marshall Field Paleontological Expedition to Argentina and Bolivia, 1922-1927. Together with Sergio Vizcaino, an Argentine paleontologist who specializes in fossil mammals, and Bill Simpson, Collection Manager, I looked at every fossil collected by Elmer S. Riggs & his colleagues in the Santa Cruz beds of southern Patagonia. We found many gems, including field number 1001, the first fossil collected by Riggs and recorded in his field notes.
Sergio also took a picture of me with Elmer’s first fossil.
This is the third post in a series called “Cretaceous Cold Cases” in which the science of taphonomy, or prehistoric forensics, is explained by fascinating cases from the files of Terry “Bucky” Gates, a research scientist with a joint appointment at NC State and theNorth Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.
Once in Argentina with the CMFPE, Elmer S. Riggs was required to write and submit a fossil collecting permit application to the Minister of Justice and Public Instruction. He then waited more-or-less patiently as the application made its way slowly through bureaucratic channels over the next two weeks. Meanwhile, with his application pending and nothing more pressing to attend to, he enjoyed the sights of Buenos Aires and La Plata, including several “hotly-contested” horse races in Palermo, a “splendid boulevard,” parks “rivaling anything we had seen in the U.S.,” and “splendid monuments.” During this long interval he had “plenty of time to see the city and to become acquainted with the Museums.” Years later Riggs wrote that “there are many attractive places in the parks and plazas of the Argentine capital. The abundance of palms,” and other tropical vegetation added “beauty and luxuriance” to the landscape.
At some point Riggs met with zoologist and Patagonian explorer Clemente Onelli. Their meeting probably took place during a visit to the local zoo, where Onelli was director. Onelli shared a fantastic story with his Chicago visitor. In January 1922, he had received a letter from Martin Sheffield, a native Texan and adventurer then living in Patagonia. Sheffield claimed to have sighted a strange animal swimming in a lake near the remote town of Esquel: “I saw in the middle of the lake an animal with a huge neck like that of a swan, and the movement in the water made me suppose the beast to have a body like that of a crocodile,” he wrote. This, coupled with other, similar reports, brought plesiosaurs to the zoo director’s mind. Intrigued by the possibility of finding a living animal alleged to be extinct in the wilds of Patagonia, Onelli organized a well-publicized expedition aimed at capturing the beast. Armed with elephant guns and dynamite, the expedition set out from Buenos Aires on 23 March 1922. They reached the lake near Esquel, but finding no sign of the plesiosaur, they turned back empty-handed with the onset of winter.
An Associated Press story then circulated widely in North American newspapers linking Riggs to the hunt for Patagonian plesiosaurs. According to an article in the Chicago Post, for example, Riggs listened “with interest” to Onelli’s account of the unsuccessful search for the mysterious monster. Riggs could not be tempted away from his fossil expedition, though he toyed with the reporter gamely: “‘If I meet that Plesiosaurus,’ said Prof. Riggs to Prof. Onelli, ‘I’ll put a lariat around his neck and lead him direct to the Buenos Aires zoo.’” Riggs’ American Museum colleague William Diller Matthew read a similar article in New York. “I noted in the newspaper despatches an interview with Dr. Riggs,” Matthew wrote in a letter to George F. Sternberg, “in which he promised to lead the live plesiosaurus home by the tail, evidently refusing to take that story as seriously as the reporter wanted him to.”
Patagonia has given rise to more than its fair share of fantastic stories of monsters, giant men and lost cities. (For more information on this, see Patagonian Monsters.) And though Riggs never was distracted by the search for a live plesiosaur, he went on at least one wild goose chase with another Patagonian adventurer named Gerhard Wolf. More on the mysterious Dr. Wolf will appear in a future post.
This is part one of the second post in a series called “Cretaceous Cold Cases” in which the science of taphonomy, or prehistoric forensics, is explained using fascinating cases from the files of Terry “Bucky” Gates, a research scientist with a joint appointment at NC State and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Part 2 can be found here.
“This is the first post in a series called “Cretaceous Cold Cases” in which the science of taphonomy, or prehistoric forensics, is explained and exemplified by fascinating cases from the files of Terry “Bucky” Gates, a research scientist with a joint appointment at NC State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.”
Elmer Samuel Riggs was born the youngest of five children on a farm near Trafalgar, Indiana on 23 January 1869. His family moved that same year to a farm in rural Kansas, where Riggs spent most of his youth. His formal schooling was very erratic. Nevertheless, at the urging of his mother, he enrolled at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, in 1890. His older brother Henry was a student there, too, and together they worked as janitors in “Old Snow Hall” to pay their way through school. Daily contact with museum specimens there inspired Riggs to take courses in botany and zoology. Further inspiration came from an enthusiastic teacher and vertebrate paleontologist named Samuel Wendell Williston. He collected his first fossil mammals with Williston in the White River badlands of South Dakota in the summer of 1894. Fellow classmates and future paleontologists Ermine Cowles Case and Barnum Brown joined the expedition, too. Riggs then accompanied a dinosaur-hunting expedition to Wyoming the following year. Fossil mammals collected in South Dakota were the basis of Riggs’ earliest publication. Riggs described other White River specimens from the Kansas University collections for his thesis work, leading to bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the spring of 1896 (Kohl, et. al. 2004, especially pp. 27-35). He credited Williston with inspiring him to “follow the lure of palaeontology (Riggs 1926, p. 537).”
Riggs and Brown both joined an American Museum expedition in 1896. This was their first taste of professional fossil collecting and both were immediately hooked. For Brown, who quit his studies at Kansas to join the expedition, this experience eventually yielded a life-long career with the American Museum. Riggs, meanwhile, won a fellowship to continue his graduate studies in biology with Princeton paleontologist William Berryman Scott. Concerned that his funding might not be renewed for a second year and envious of Brown’s professional success, Riggs sent an unsolicited letter to the Field Columbian Museum, in January 1898, offering his services as an experienced fossil hunter (Brinkman 2000).
As luck would have it, the museum was just then seeking to inaugurate a vertebrate paleontology program. At the close of the world’s fair in 1893, the museum purchased the entire Ward’s Natural Science Establishment exhibit – this then formed the nucleus of its natural history collections. An assortment of miscellaneous fossils, models and casts formed a part of this purchase. Mineralogist Oliver Cummings Farrington, Curator of the Geology Department, was eager to enlarge the fossil collections through fieldwork, but he needed expert help to pull this off. The museum’s director, Frederick J. V. Skiff, agreed. Skiff offered Riggs a tryout – a modestly paid opportunity to accompany Farrington on a fossil hunting expedition. He sweetened the deal by hinting at the possibility of permanent employment later. Farrington then sent Riggs a follow-up letter explaining that if the expedition recovered a good quantity of fossil material and if Riggs’ work proved satisfactory, that there was little doubt that he would find a permanent position at the museum. Farrington’s encouragement did the trick. Riggs cancelled a previous (and less lucrative) arrangement at the American Museum and cast his lot with Chicago. Following a successful trial, he accepted the position of assistant curator of paleontology on 31 December 1898. He was the museum’s first dedicated paleontologist (see Brinkman 2000, pp. 94-95).
The early high-water mark of Riggs’ career followed closely on the heels of his appointment. He spent three very successful field seasons, 1899-1901, collecting Jurassic dinosaurs in the Morrison formation of Wyoming and Colorado, netting the type specimen of Brachiosaurus altithorax – the largest dinosaur then known – as well as an incomplete but exhibit-quality Apatosaurus skeleton. He published important papers on these and other dinosaurs during this period. His intention was to use these publications to satisfy the thesis requirement for a Ph.D. under his beloved mentor Williston, who had moved from Kansas to the University of Chicago in 1902. He also revolutionized the paleontology laboratory by adapting the pneumatic chisel to fossil preparation, thereby making the work faster, more accurate and easier on the lab technicians and the fossils they were preparing. He supervised the preparation and exhibition of Apatosaurus, which, although lacking the head, neck, forelimbs and the end of the tail, debuted with wild acclaim in 1908 (see Brinkman 2000; 2010). He spent one summer in the Late Cretaceous Lance formation of Wyoming and southeastern Montana in 1904, where he and his party managed to collect a poorly preserved skeleton and skull of Triceratops. He did fossil mammal fieldwork, also, in the White River badlands of South Dakota in 1905, in the Miocene of western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming in 1906 and 1908, and in the Uintah Basin in 1910.
Unfortunately, funding for paleontology fieldwork dried up completely after 1910, and Riggs’ career and personal life took a decided turn for the worse. Museum paleontology provided only a very meager living in the best of times. For Riggs, persistent financial shortfalls prevented him from completing his Ph.D., which he abandoned after 1905. He married Helen Mosher, a Chicago schoolteacher, in September 1901, and fathered two sons, Robert and Calvin. But his wife died tragically in 1906. Feeling unfit for raising two young children on his own, he sent his sons to live with his brother Robert’s family in eastern Washington. He saw them very infrequently until after he remarried in 1913. With no institutional support for paleontology, Riggs’ position at the museum became increasingly intolerable to him. “One grows thin fed on hope alone,” was how he put it in a letter to Henry Fairfield Osborn at the American Museum. Riggs began looking for work at other institutions: at the Los Angeles County Museum in 1914, at the University of Wisconsin in 1915, and probably elsewhere. He also solicited opportunities to do fieldwork on behalf of the American Museum, which had, under the patronage and leadership of Osborn, become the dominant program in vertebrate paleontology in America (see Rainger 1991). Osborn tempted Riggs with possible opportunities to work again in the Uintah Basin in 1913, and in the Morrison formation in 1917. There were also definite plans afoot to send Riggs to collect fossil mammals in South America in 1914. Nothing ever came of any of these extracurricular field plans, however. Riggs had been feeding on hope alone for a long and miserable decade when the pace of activity at the Field Museum ramped up dramatically in 1919-1920 in preparation for moving into a new building in Chicago’s Grant Park.
In 1921, a generous bequest from Captain Marshall Field III, grandson of the museum’s founder, reinvigorated scientific work at the museum. Riggs spent most of the next six years doing extensive fieldwork in Alberta, Canada (1922) and in Argentina and Bolivia (1922-1927). The former expedition was devoted to Late Cretaceous dinosaurs and yielded several exhibit-quality specimens. The objective of the latter expedition, on the other hand, was to make a representative collection of all the known fossil mammal localities of southern South America. Many unique specimens from the latter expedition are still on display at the Field Museum. Riggs was especially gratified with the discovery of a marsupial saber-toothed cat in the Pliocene of Argentina, which he dubbed Thylacosmilus atrox in 1933. His last expedition for the Field Museum was in 1931, when he brought future paleontologists Bryan Patterson and James H. Quinn to the field in order to train them as fossil collectors. He retired in September 1942, after more than forty years of service to the Field Museum.
He moved back to Lawrence, Kansas after his retirement, but remained active in his chosen field by volunteering at the university’s museum and joining its students for fossil hunting in western Kansas. He also continued to lecture, publish and revise old manuscripts. Very late in life he began assembling autobiographical materials, but he never published any of it.
Riggs died fifty years ago today, on 25 March 1963, in Sedan, Kansas, at the age of 94. He is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Lawrence.
Rest in peace, Elmer.
Brinkman, Paul D. 2000. “Establishing vertebrate paleontology at Chicago’s Field Columbian Museum, 1893-1898.” Archives of Natural History 27(1): 81-114.