Discovery! Mass Burial of Ancient Red Beds Amphibians Uncovered

January 11, 2010

PhD scientists aren’t the only ones to make spectacular new fossil finds. Case in point: a skilled bulldozer operator digging a cattle tank in Baylor County caught a glimpse of fossils – hundreds of tree trunks, branches, leaves and…skulls! It’s the biggest discovery ever of flat-headed, bottom-living frog-relatives in the famous Clear Fork beds.

Background of Discovery – the “Age of Frog-oids”

The north Texas Red Beds from the Early Permian Period are most famous for the fin-back reptile Dimetrodon, a tiger-sized predator who was close to the direct ancestry of furry mammals, including us. But the Red Beds habitats swarmed with amphibians too, creatures who hatched from frog-like eggs and breathed with gills early in life the way salamanders do today. So common and diverse were Red Beds amphibians that this geological time-zone can be called: “The Age of Frog-oids.”

Some frog-oids were huge and armed with alligator-shaped skulls. Some were tiny and squirmed through the mud like squatty snakes. Others ruled the pond bottoms and stream beds, hugging the mud with low, wide bodies and wide, flat jaws – a design ideal for ambushing crustaceans and fish passing overhead. One of the dominant bottom-huggers was the “Panzer Mudpuppy,” a twenty-pound amphibian with powerful jaws, curved fangs, and big eyes that scanned the water above. Known technically as Trimerorhachis (“Three-Part-Spine”, in honor of the vertebrae, which were composed of three sections), this flat-bodied hunter was an extraordinary geological success. It survived for twenty or thirty million years, a constant companion to the big Dimetrodons who prowled on shore.

The “Panzer” part of the nickname comes from the armored skin. Amphibians today have mostly naked, frog-oid/toad-oid skin. Red Beds amphibians were different. Their bodies usually were completely covered with thin bone scales that worked like the scale-armor suits of medieval warriors. Darwinian theorists have suspected that “Panzer Mudpuppies” were key elements in the Dimetrodon diet. Few land herbivores were available, so the fin-back predators may well have waded into the water to snag amphibians. If the theory is true, then Trimerorohachis played a vital role in the survival of our reptilian ancestors.

Gaps in the geological record

Despite 130 years of intensive study, “Panzer-Mudpuppy” history still had gaps. This amphibian was very common in the earlier Red Beds, like those in Archer County. But then it became rare. In the later Red Beds, the Clear Fork Group, good skulls and bodies are few and far between. What happened? Were there local habitats where “Panzer Mudpuppies” enjoyed reproducing and growing in Clear Fork time? No one knew, until Jimmy Smajstrla and his bulldozer arrived at the Craddock Ranch. Thanks to the generosity of Mr. Bill Whitley, ranch owner, the Houston Museum has been surveying all the fossil sites in the Clear Fork sediments that outcrop in the ranch. Bits and pieces of “Panzer Mudpuppies” were recovered but no specimen had a complete skull or jaws.

The Discovery

Mr. Smajstrla had a ranch job to perform: excavate a new tank to trap water for the cattle. However, he also had a talent for paleontological discovery. When his twenty-year-old Caterpillar, named “YSOB,” was digging down to the ten foot depth, the blade overturned grey clay chock full of fossilized plant parts. Smajstrla salvaged many valuable chunks and led the HMNS party to the spot. Fossil wood is rare in the Clear Fork, so the discovery was exciting.

Then came what no digger had dared to hope for. Even deeper went the ‘dozer. Fossil parts were in the bed below the plants. Not botanical remains this time, but what thrills the heart of every paleontologist: skulls and jaws, dozens and dozens of them, many perfect. For the very first time, science had a beautiful sample of later “Panzer Mudpuppies.” Some of the heads were larger than any previous discoveries. The official name of the skull-bed is “The Judy Site,” in honor of Mrs. Judy Whitley. What will the “Judy Site” tell us? Lots. We’ll know much more about the habitat choice of the “Panzer Mudpuppies.” And we’ll be able to detect micro-evolutionary changes. Investigations have just begun.

We look forward to sharing updates on our investigations as well as new finds with you. Stay tuned!

Authored By Bob Bakker

The Museum’s Curator of Paleontology, world-renowned Dr. Robert T. Bakker (or, as some call him, Bob) is the leader of the handful of iconoclastic paleontologists who rewrote the book on dinosaurs three decades ago. Along with other noted paleontologists, Bakker has changed the image of dinosaurs from slow-moving, slow-witted, cold-blooded creatures to — at least in some cases — warm-blooded giants well-equipped to dominate the Earth for 200 million years. Dr. Bakker can be found all over the globe, notably leading the Museum’s paleontology field program.

6 responses to “Discovery! Mass Burial of Ancient Red Beds Amphibians Uncovered”

  1. Phillip Palmer says:

    Bob, No a comment about the amphbians but re T-Rex. Could T-Rex have hopped like a kangaroo? The leg structure of a roo looks similar to that of a T-Rex. Birds walk and hop so perhaps T-Rex did both. This could give the T-Rex speed and turning ability. Further the T-Rex teeth remind me of the croc. A croc grabs and rips and swallows whole. It tears limbs off by doing the roll. Maybe the T-Rex grabbed and ripped and even spun. Long arms would have got in the way of a spin so short arms would have been an asset for a spinner.

  2. Tommy Lee says:

    Houston, How does the Panzer Mudpuppy compare to the Frog-amander. How related are they? Is there a time frame difference?

  3. Bob says:

    Frogamander versus Panzer Mudpuppy

    These two famous Red Beds amphibs are cousins. Both are dug from the lower Clear Fork Group near Seymour, Texas. The Frogamander is close to the common ancestry of today’s salamanders and frogs. And the Frogamander evolved from a small version of the Armadillo Toads – the diverse clan known technically as “dissorophoids”.

    Most Armadillo Toads were small to mid-sized amphibs, from a half pound to twenty pounds. Cacops is well known from near the Craddock Ranch. Usually they have big heads, strong legs and armor plate along the backbone. Armadillo toads include some small, unarmored species – and that’s where the Frogamander came from.

    Trimerorhachis, our Panzer Mudpuppy, represents the water-loving branch of amphibians. They have flat bodies, weak limbs, flat heads, and a fine armor of thin bone scales all over.

    Plus – there were Gator-Manders (Eryops), snake-manders (Lysorophus), Boomer-heads(Diplocaulus), and even some fin-backed Armadillo Toads, all in the same Red Beds.

    If you like Amphibia, you’ll love the Clear Fork.

  4. Erin F says:

    Hi Phillip,

    Dr. Bakker asked me to point you to this post: – it should answer your question about dinosaurs hopping.

    Thanks for reading!

  5. Zak Davidson says:

    Hello Dr. Bakker,

    This is quite an amazing discovery. I love all prehistoric life, but I do not know much about prehistoric amphibians. This post is a great way for me to start. I thank you for sharing this information. I am also glad to have found out you blog. Iv’e been looking for a way to get in contact with you.

    Zak Davidson

  6. mike miller says:

    My family has owned the craddock place for nearly 6 generations now. I grew up kicking these bones around not knowing or caring what they were.

    Now I do.

    I would share with you all that the bones litter the ground. The minerals they have fossilized with (sic?) is a deep read. The bones shine like rubies on the dull red earth. And the dimetrodon teeth are serrated, you can pick one up that’s 280 Million years old and it’s sharp enough to cut meat today. TAKE THAT GINSU!

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