David is the Museum’s associate curator of paleontology. In addition to running the Museum’s dig program in Seymour, TX and curating exhibits, he’s also unofficial head of The Department of Mysteries, a shadow wing of HMNS that deals with strange goo, unusual fossils, mysterious substances or any other unknown object you'd like to know what to do with.
The last three evenings have been spent doing a dinosaur cleaning. Three times a year staff and volunteers give up a few of their evenings to dust the mounts in the Hall of Paleontology. We clean the mounts using a variety of tools ranging from low tech dust clothes and soft brushes to pretty fancy vacuums and air guns. We give everything a thorough inspection.
It’s not all that different from dusting your home. Excepting that a fair amount of the work takes place high above the cement floor maneuvering a multi ton hydraulic lift in and around delicate bones. In some places the clearance between exhibits is just a few inches. Paleo volunteers regularly help with the task.
Our digging volunteer crew is adept at this and I completely trust them,the quarry skills involved in chipping rock away from bones and being able to account for your hands and feet naturally translate to dusting the mounts when they are out of the rock as well.
Another benefit is to see the exhibits and specimens from an entirely alien perspective.
I would like to thank the approximately 175 citizen scientists that came out Saturday at HMNS Sugar Land. They helped us process approximately 1,000 pounds of soil and rock from the specimens we’ve collected from our Permian-aged (182-187 million years ago) site near Seymour,Texas.
I was impressed with your cooperativeness, curiosity, and, most importantly, the care you all exhibited in processing these samples. Also, this experience absolutely would not have been possible without the facilitation of our experienced museum and field crew volunteers.
In excavating fossils, many times we will work to retain the matrix that is removed from around the specimen. This matrix is soaked in water and allowed to disaggregate. Then the mud is placed and screens and gently rinsed, leaving behind hard pieces — including fossils.
After rinsing, the specimens are dried and then searched. This process will typically reduce the bulk sample size by 80 percent. People processing the sample typically are left very wet and muddy, as you can see here:
Editor’s note: HMNS operates a dig site in Seymour, Texas with the help of some seriously dedicated volunteers who pay no heed to extreme weather, questionable sleeping arrangements and peculiar paleontologists.
First things first. I set off for the main quarry to find that the tarps I had placed back in December had not fared well in the harsh Seymour, Texas elements. Between extreme, cold, heat and wind, they had degraded and torn. Still, the quarry was partially covered and sections of the tarps could be salvaged. The main pit was full of foul, thick water and would have to be bailed out and allowed to dry (lucky me!).
I began the exciting task of removing stakes and dragging off tarps — which might be drudgery if it weren’t for the fact that the shelter we try to provide for our fossils also gets co-opted by much of the wild kingdom. It’s a crapshoot whether you yank and run or gently tease up the edges and check inside before proceeding. Previous memorable encounters have included a huge yellowjacket nest, a skunk to whom I conceded the western side of the quarry for the season (rent-free), and a piteously flopping rat that I thought we had crushed until we discovered that we were disrupting a rattlesnake’s meal.
This year we had dozens of field mice, a large rat and a non-venomous snake. Almost a let down, really.
I waded into the mud and began bailing. I drew off most of the water, left everything uncovered to dry with a partly cloudy sky and headed for lunch.
The Weather Channel didn’t predict the huge thunderstorm that rolled in. “Gully washers” like that can rearrange or wash away exposed fossils in minutes. We raced back to the site to shore up the already soggy bone. But with a just over a mile to go, our luck ran out; the roads became saturated and impassable. So volunteer Shana Steinhardt and I poncho-ed up and started the mile hike to the site through the mud.
Thankfully the damage wasn’t too bad, and we were able to secure the exposed fossils. But the storm had blocked our access to the main site and stranded the truck for almost two days. Each step was a slippery mess, and our boots were perpetually coated in a pound of mud.
After the rain, though, many animals emerged and we found this muddy Texas Horned Lizard, an endangered Texas species:
After the usual 6 a.m. breakfast at the New Maverick, we headed out to prospect on the southern, drier edges of the ranch. The heat was powerful (over 100 degrees) but the rain added to the humidity and made things worse for the crew.
We opted to prospect sandstones, which, from our experiences at the ranch, tend to favor the large-finned herbivore, Edaphosaurus. After four hours of prospecting, we’d found a few scraps and decided to head in for lunch.
The heat and the humidity took its toll, and most people opted to stay cool in the afternoon. The landowner stopped by and mentioned an area of the ranch that had “unusual rocks” that we had never been to, so some of the hardier guys set off to investigate. It turned out to be quite an interesting place. The site was covered with trace fossils, burrows, root casts, feeding trails, coprolites — of which a representative sample was collected. Two would prove very exciting and lead to a great find: check it out!
An unidentified invertebrate
Watch volunteer Leigh Cook talk about our other find — a serrated baby Dimetrodon tooth!
The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.
This description is from David Temple, the museum’s curator of paleontology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the most fascinating fossils in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org/ – throughout the year.
Early Insectivore, Pholidocercus hassiacus
We are fortunate to have a few fossils from the Messel Pit in the Museum’s collection. Located near Darmstadt, Germany, the quarry was originally a pit mine for oil shale. Abandoned when the mine no longer was profitable, plans were made to convert the pit to a landfill. The site was eventually saved and declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO because of the spectacular number and preservation of the fossils found there.
During the Eocene, the quarry was a deep lake. The lake bottom, an anoxic, silty ooze, was toxic to bottom-dwelling fauna. With nearly 50 million years of hindsight, the inhospitable waters created an environment that guaranteed dead animals which had drifted to the lake floor were not scavenged and their remains mixed by the daily activities of bottom dwelling animals. The lake accumulated the remains of algae, bacteria, insects, spiders, fishes, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals – potentially anything calling the lush tropical forest home. A dark side to the fossil accumulation was spurred by releases of Co2 and hydrogen sulfide from the lake that poisoned and suffocated large numbers of animals living near the lake. One of the most famous recent Messel fossils to come to light is Darwinius masillae or “Ida”, an early primate.
This early relative of a hedge hog was covered with bristle hairs similar to modern hedge hogs but had scales on its head and tail. Traces of the bristle hairs can be seen as a faint black silhouette around the fossil. The stomach contents are also preserved and visible. This perfect articulation of the skeleton and the tantalizingly preserved traces of soft tissue point to a quick burial, absent of scavenging and bioturbation – a hallmark of the unique preservation found at the Messel Pit.