Catch Dr. Bob Bakker and David Temple in a new History Channel documentary this Thursday night

Mark your calendars and fluff your cushions — the paleontology team at HMNS is set to get some major coverage on the History Channel this Thursday, Oct. 11 thanks to a premiere documentary: How the Earth Made Man.

Wet Willi! New Dimetrodon Discovered by HMNS teamFrom the History Channel:

“It is mystery 4.5 billion years in the making: how has our planet transformed, and why? New clues are being discovered not in volcanoes or canyons, but inside each of us. From a case of hiccups to the sensation of deja vu to how we throw a football, quirks of the human body and mind all trace back to enormous transformations on Earth, millions and even billions of years in the past. Inside us are the keys to asteroid impacts, global mass extinctions, and shifting continents…ultimately revealing the epic story of Earth’s past — and our own.”

So how does HMNS factor into this immense and complex story? The crew followed paleontologists Dr. Bob Bakker and David Temple as they dug up a rare Dimetrodon specimen in the north Texas town of Seymour — and with it, clues to our shared past.

You can meet the Dimetrodon featured (called Willi) in person at our new Morian Hall of Paleontology in 2013.

What: How the Earth Made Man
When: Thursday, Oct. 11 at 9/8 p.m. Central
Where: The History Channel
Why: Because we’re on TV!

On Happy Puppies, “Bugs” and Honorary Dinos: A statement by Dr. Robert T. Bakker

When I was a lowly freshman hanging around the Yale Peabody Museum, one mind-opening surprise was the unrestrained joy of paleontological language. I’d been a dino-geek since the fourth grade. I knew a dozen duck-billed dinosaurs by name — their technical names.  I’d met Corythosaurus casuararius and Saurolophus osborni face-to-face in the exhibit halls of the New York museum.

But real-life paleontologists in the Yale lab addressed their favorite fossils as if they were family pets. The great Tyrannosaurus rex had been known as “that big bug” since 1909. The Montana canyon where the finest rex had been dug was “Bug Creek.”  And the whole slice of geological time recorded by the rocks there had become the “Bug Creekian Age.”

buggy blogOur esteemed Curator of Paleontology, Dr. Robert T. Bakker

The term “bug” was a term of paleontological endearment. Tiny, microscopic fossils were “bugs.” The paleo folks squinting down their microscopes searching for single-celled fossils said they were searching for “my beloved Early Paleocene bugs.” Field expeditions looking for tiny Jurassic mammals spoke of “furry bug jaws,” a.k.a. the dentigerous rami from Paurodon, Docodon, and Ctenacodon.

Gigantic species, too, were encompassed by the affectionate buggy label.

Trilobite specialists — and I have met many — always smiled when they showed us students an especially ornate Devonian phacopidan: ”Check out this elegant bug,” they’d say. Trilobites with smooth, streamlined shells — adaptations for burrowing through the sediment — invariably were “mud-bugs.”

buggy blogA trilobite or “dino-bug,” as they are affectionately called in the paleontological community.

“Puppy” was popular for Mammalia of gargantuan sizes. The immense, multi-ton Eobasileus cornutus, an herbivore with six horns and giant saber-teeth, was “that bumpy-headed puppy.”  Even cold-blooded Amphibia could enter that category.  When we moved a cast replica of the Triassic Mastodonsaurus, with its yard-long skull, we were cautioned to be especially careful with that “monstrous puppy.”

The term “Dinosaur” was an honorific as well as a narrowly defined taxonomic category. Any fossil that evoked the mystery of the Deep Past could be an “honorary dinosaur.” Mastodons and mammoths, saber-toothed cats and fin-backed Dimetrodons were all included in the “dinosaur exhibit.” Trilobites, because they were so captivating, were honorary “dinosaur-bugs.”

The labels in our new HMNS fossil hall follow the paleontological tradition of using both technical and affectionate terms. The free app, which be available soon, will give even more scientific data, plus stories from the scientists. Our superb skeleton of an Early Permian lake amphibian is labeled as an Early Permian archegosaurid. But it also goes by the nickname bestowed by the collection-management crew when the crate was opened — “Happy Puppy.”

The breathtaking sea reptile with seven unborn embryos is described in the signage as “Stenopterygius from the Toarcian Age of the Early Jurassic.”  And also as “Jurassic Mom.”

Our HMNS trilobite display is among the very best in the world. All our many trilobites are identified by genus and species, family and geological age. There’s a compact but precise scientific family tree of all trilobites, showing their Darwinian booms and the puzzling busts of extinction. But, since we are very fond of every single trilobite specimen, we are are quite happy to call them “bugs,” too.

The only way to experience the joy of paleo-nomenclature in all its multi-levels is to visit our hall, stroll past the petrified bugs, puppies and mini-monsters, and thereby absorb the wonder of the Deep Past.

Wyrex’s fancy footwork and tender hands: Get to know this tyrannosaur’s softer side

As we all know, Tyrannosaurus rex is the world’s No. 1 favorite dinosaur, so we at the Houston Museum of Natural Science are as pleased as punch over our specimen Wyrex, a truly splendid fossil that will help fill out the Cretaceous zone of the new Hall of Paleontology.

Wyrex will join our casts of Stan, an adult rex, and Bucky, a teenage Tyrannosaurus, in the new hall next week.

Bakker Wyrex Blog
Here’s our Wyrex sniffing at the trail of our duck-billed dinosaurs

Our Wyrex gets its name for Montana rancher Don Wyrick, who spotted bones eroding out of river sediments that were deposited about 66 million years ago during the Lancian Age — the last slice of dinosaur history before the great die-off.

Of course, T. rexes are famous for their bone-crushing bite and the old question of whether they were cowardly scavengers or fearless predators. But equally fascinating is the century-old puzzle of tyrannosaur digits. (Fingers, not phone numbers).

And that’s precisely why our Wyrex is a scientific groundbreaker. He has the best-preserved hands and feet of any T. rex ever uncovered, and he has something to say about three tyrannosaurian problems:

Theory No. 1: Some scientists say: T. rex was a waddling stumblebum, so slow that you could easily escape it at an amble.

Let’s look at the hard (fossilized) data.  Our database includes all the maxi-fauna today —  land creatures who grow to a ton or more. We find that slow walkers, like elephants, have short shins and very short ankles compared to their thigh length.  A charging African elephant, for example, hits 22 miles per hour. Faster large animals, such as rhinos (who get almost as heavy as elephants) are equipped with more length in shin and ankle. An angry white rhino easily surpasses 30 miles per hour.

Wyrex, in contrast, seems elegantly leggy — his shin and ankle are way, way longer compared to his thigh than the ratios we see in an elephant. Wyrex confirms what a dozen other T. rex skeletons have already told us: These giant dinos were built for speed. (Whether they were built for comfort, I’d guess no one was brave enough to find out.)

Bakker Wyrex Blog
A rhino, a fast big critter, next to a T. rex. Notice how long the shin and ankle are in the rex.

Here’s another way to test the slow-rex theory. Fast animals today — small, medium and large — have compact ankles. The long ankle bones, called “metapodials,” are tightly bound to each other so they make one strong unit. Slow walkers like elephants have loosely constructed metapodials that let the entire ankle spread out.  Check out our Wyrex’s ankle. Tight or loose?

TIGHT! There are three long ankle bones, and the inner and outer bones hug the middle bone so tightly that the whole ankle works as one bony unit. That is not an elephant-style spreading foot.

Our three rexes, Stan, Bucky and Wyrex, tell us most emphatically that their species were not slowpokes.

Theory No. 2:  Some scientists say that T. rex fingers were powerful meat hooks.

Wyrex’s hand is worth pondering. In the new hall you’ll be able to stand very close to the bones, so you can compare your arm and fingers to his. At first glance, the rex mitt does seem as strong as a grizzly bear’s. But wait … in nature, what matters is how strong your hand is compared to the rest of your body. Wyrex was 10 times as heavy as the average grizzly bear. That means the Wyrex arm is 10 times weaker relative to his body weight than the bear’s.

When we diagram a grizzly bear with the the proportions of Wyrex, the poor bear seems to have a ridiculously wussy arm:

Bakker Wyrex Blog
Check out the measly arms on this Grizzly bear proportioned like our Wyrex.

Now analyze the Wyrex claws. Are they as big and hooked as hand claws from earlier meat-eating dinos? Nope. Our Acro (Acrocanthosaurus) is a bit smaller in body weight than Wyrex but has much heavier, sharper and more hooked claws.  T. rex evolved from an ancestor shaped like Acrocanthosaurus, who evolved from something like the Jurassic megalosaurs. If claw strength really was important, why did evolution make the rex claws weaker?

Then there’s the famous two-fingered salute. Most dino carnivores had three strong fingers — thumb, index finger and middle finger. Allosaurs from the Jurassic are built that way, and so are the acrocanthosaurs from the Early Cretaceous. So are all the raptors. One example? Our cast of Deinonychus, the raptor who inspired Jurassic Park.

Wyrex has a near-perfect hand. But how many fingers does he have? Two — thumb and index. And the finger bones are far skinnier than what you see in an allosaur or an acro. All T. rexes and their close cousins, the gorgosaurs, were weakly two-fingered.

Bakker Wyrex Blog
A rex arm next to a Jurassic meat-eating megalosaur.

How and why did evolution clip off that third finger? Wyrex shows us. Stare at the outer side of the hand. You’ll see an ultra-thin bone crowded against the index finger. That’s a remnant of the third digit. It was retained because some major muscles attach to the base of the third finger, muscles that are needed to rotate the whole hand sideways.  Other rex specimens probably also had that remnant of the third finger, but lost the bone after death when scavengers nibbled away the muscles.

third finger
The thin remnant of Wyrex’s third finger

The muscle-attachment on the finger remnant tells us that some sideways movement was still important in Wyrex, but it was a delicate movement — not the brute action of a meat-hook.

Theory No. 3: In 1905 one famous scientist theorized that rex fingers were for gentle…tickling!?

It sounds weird at first. However, that scientist was none other than Professor Henry Fairfield Osborn, the New York paleontologist who found the first T. rex and gave the species its name. Osborn had great insights into extinct animals. He had museum-smarts AND zoo-smarts.  He was on the board of the Bronx Zoo, and he observed live animals. He knew that a giant predator needed more than powerful jaws for killing prey and long limbs for chasing it; predators needed a way to attract desirable mates so they could make healthy, desirable offspring.

The problem: If you are a 10,000-pound rex who can bite another dinosaur in half in one chomp, how do you express tender, romantic feelings?

The answer: Tickling. Many animals today use a small finger or toe to stroke their loved ones. Critters with fur or feathers spend much time grooming their friends and mates with delicate strokes of claw-tips. Grooming renews the bond between male and female, between parent and youngster, and between pack-mates in a hunting group.

It is a fun fantasy. Think of it: a young mated couple of rexes relaxing after a meal of duck-bill meat, stroking each other’s necks and muzzles, then petting their newly hatched chicks.

The fantasy becomes more believable if rexes had fur or feathers. Feathers have been found with many small and medium-sized meat-eating dinos, but up until 2012 no one had excavated a big tyrannosaur with feathery pelage.

But in the spring of that year, our Chinese colleagues announced an Early Cretaceous tyrannosaur fossilized with big sections of skin.  In the skin were tightly packed feathers — thin, kiwi-like feathers — up to a foot and a half long. The Chinese species was very similar to what the direct ancestor of later tyrannosaurs must have looked like.  The conclusion, then, is that Wyrex, too, probably had feathers.

So recent discoveries back up what Professor Osborn said over a century ago: T. rexes had a softer side — literally!

An aside — Osborn was not only a superb research scientist, but also a brilliant designer of public exhibits. He was the first to mix skeletons with beautiful murals and sculptures of the extinct beasts in their natural habitat. And he envisioned a fossil exhibition as a series of safaris back into deep time.

In other words, Osborn would have loved our new HMNS Hall of Paleontology — and you will, too.

Black Hills Institute

Today’s post is by Sami Mesarwi, a member of the Museum’s marketing staff who recently traveled to South Dakota to visit the Black Hills Institute. 

If the company you work for had to send you on a business trip anywhere you wanted to go, where would it be?  Paris?  London?  Shanghai?  How about Hill City, South Dakota?  Probably wouldn’t be a first choice for too many out there… And while I would have said the same before my trip to the Black Hills Institute of Geologic Research (and I probably still wouldn’t be able to pass on Paris), this paleontological-Mecca should definitely be in the running for you dino-die-hards out there.

Black Hills Institute Outside Facade
The Black Hills Institute of Geological Research

I’ve always loved dinosaurs. 

In fact, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park is still one of my all-time favorite books (I may have grown up thinking that Crichton’s logic used in the novel to try and resurrect dinosaurs using the DNA found in preserved mosquitoes, as well as amphibians to fill in the holes, was flawless, but I’ve come a long way since then).  So, going on this trip seemed like it was going to be quite enjoyable from the start.  Our mission was simple enough: to go up and get some photos of the fossils that will eventually be on display in the museum’s upcoming new paleontology hall, opening summer 2012.

A coworker and I took the trip up to South Dakota in April, a time when Houston weather had consistently already warmed up to 90+ degrees outside.  However, surprising to all of us on the trip, we were greeted by snow in South Dakota!  Even though it was April, it was a Winter Wonderland—the color of the snow that covered the ground literally blended in with the sky’s horizon. Needless to say, it was pretty cold.  But I was able to get some pretty nice still shots out of it.

Winter Wonderland
Winter Wonderland!

Day one of our trip to South Dakota was a whirlwind of sights and sounds from within the Black Hills Institute. 

Everyone met up inside the Institute with the famed Peter Larson, the Yoda (though not quite as old) of casting fossils and of T. rex.  He gave us a brief history of his background and of the Institute while in the main lobby area, a who’s who of dinosaurs from several different eras.  In addition to the infamous SUE the T. rex, there were examples of Triceratops, Struthiomimus, Acrocanthosaurus, what seemed like an infinite amount of ammonites, and so much more, all filling an area about the size of an average backyard in the suburbs.  It was amazing—I’ve never seen so many dinosaurs in a compact area before.

Pete Larson
Pete Larson in the zone.
Dino Showroom
The Black Hills Institute Showroom

Onwards we continued to the prepping areas (a separate building from the museum itself), showcasing a few dinosaurs in the development and mounting stages. Pete told us about several of the specimens we’d be getting here at HMNS, before all of the paleontologists on hand broke into a discussion about the immaculate condition some of the fossils were in (I can’t give away too much about what in particular we’re getting—you’ll just have to wait and see!).  Before this trip, I thought I could hold my ground pretty decently well in matters of dino-speak.  But boy was I wrong.  Being surrounded by so many accomplished and literally world-renowned paleontologists (including Pete Larson, Dr. Robert Bakker, and so many others) was really very exciting.  But also quite humbling.

Pete then took us to the casting/molding area, where several Black Hills employees were diligently working to create some very impressive casts of fossils that they had.  They poured the liquid silicone rubber into the two mold halves, and, with some of the smaller ones, fastened them together with—interestingly enough—Legos! Turns out those colorful, little building blocks aren’t just fun to play with, but are also way more practical than you would think…

Pete Larson Bob Bakker
Pete Larson and Dr. Bob Bakker examining a recent find.

Our second (and final) day of the trip allowed for us to talk up close with Pete himself. 

Pete told us all about the Black Hills Institute itself and how it came to be—in 1974, as an earth science supply house, providing teaching specimens for colleges and universities, before branching out into doing museum exhibits.  In fact, as Pete points out, the products coming out of the Black Hills Institute can be found on every continent in the world (though he was mindful to exclude Antarctica from the list—hardly as impressive now, if you ask me).  After he answered our countless questions, Pete allowed for us to roam around the Black Hills Institute at our leisure, getting some shots of whatever it is that we wanted.  We took still shots of some of the specimens that will be making an appearance in the new paleontology hall, as well as some of the stars of the show.

After that, we grabbed a quick lunch at the corner bistro before heading back home to Houston.  Though we did make a quick stop on the way back… As we were only about 15 miles away from Mount Rushmore, we went ahead and visited the famed monument on our way to the airport. Quite breathtaking, I must say!  To me, the tranquility of the park where the monument is located, coupled with the remarkable stature of the presidents whose faces are forever immortalized in the mountain’s façade, were equally as impressive to me as the mountain goat we saw.

Mt. Rushmore
Mount Rushmore.

All in all, the trip to Hill City, South Dakota was so much cooler (both, literally and figuratively) than I originally anticipated.  While the city itself isn’t exactly the largest out there (population: 948), or the most exotic of your travel destinations, it should absolutely be a front-runner for all of you dino-enthusiasts out there.