Get dirty doing real paleontology during Fossil Wash Day in Sugar Land

If you want to be a paleontologist, you’ve got to get your hands dirty… and sometimes wet.

Now you can learn just what it takes to get down to the nitty-gritty of separating fossils from soil and get a little messy yourself! Just come to the Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land for Fossil Wash Day this Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon. You’ll be able to help our staff and other volunteers spray down samples dug from our very own exclusive fossil site near Seymour, Texas, the home of the famous fin-backed prehistoric reptile Dimetrodon. While you’re washing, you can chat with our experts about your favorite dinosaurs. Who knows? You may be the first to lay hands on a bone that hasn’t seen the sunlight in hundreds of millions of years.


Fossil Wash Day is a community gathering perfect for dinosaur fans and families interested in real science.

Fossil Wash Day is a four-year tradition at HMNS Sugar Land, the perfect location for splashing around and playing with mud. The “big back yard” has a nearby water source and is perfect for the process. Large clumps of Baylor County clay will be placed in five-gallon buckets of water with a bit of hydrogen peroxide to help deflocculate, or break up, the sample. Then the clay will be taken from the buckets of water and plopped onto a screen which will catch small fossil fragments.


Searching for fossils is a job for both children and adults, and is a big help to our museum paleontologists.

“We’re looking for the things we missed. The things we didn’t know were there,” said David Temple, Associate Curator of Paleontology, who usually hosts the event. A scheduled visit to a fossil site in Germany will prevent him from joining the fun.


HMNS Associate Curator of Paleontology David Temple teaches two children how to bag fossils at Fossil Wash Day. While Temple usually appears at the event, he will be out of the country this year.

“Once we run the samples through the screens, we empty the screens out and find bits of bone and things, and we catalog the bits,” Temple said. “It’s citizen science. A way for the public to get involved. It’s a chance to do real science and you’ll never know what you’ll find. And you do find things.”


At Fossil Wash Day, small bones such as this phalange discovered by a volunteer help the Houston Museum of Natural Science collect data about Permian-era reptiles and amphibians.

Most finds from these samples contain fossilized teeth from prehistoric sharks, Dimetrodon and others. Fossils discovered at the event go into our collection, where they are valued for the information they share about the distant past. From teeth, depending on the details on the fossil, paleontologists can tell how Permian-era creatures fed and fought with one another. Broken Dimetrodon teeth, for example, show that the animal chewed its food instead of swallowing it whole.

“If you’ve got shed teeth, you can tell something fed there, even if you don’t find bones there,” Temple said. “As opposed to finding a socketed tooth where the carcass has rotted. Sometimes we find crushed bone. From these fossils, we learn what they’re chewing on and how the teeth wear.”


The clay matrix from Seymour, Texas is transported in clumps back to Houston. In the clumps, you never know what you’ll find.

If you’ve got fossils at home, bring those along, too, and have them identified. With the paleontologists and volunteers working alongside the public, it’s a great opportunity to spark up a one-on-one Q&A. There will be more volunteers inside the museum preparing Eocene-era fossils from another dig site near Bryan-College Station. Plus, you’ll get a look at other specimens in our fossil touch carts.


Rinsing red mud from a screen.

“Fossil Wash Day is a super hands-on kind of thing. You get filthy,” Temple said. “Wear something you don’t mind getting wet.”

Draw Dinos Right!

Someone asked me: What are you?  Science Guy or Artist?


Leonardo da Vinci said: “I don’t understand a thing ‘till I draw it.” When you draw, your finger tips teach your brain what’s important.

Cleaning Bones & Feeling Dinosaur Muscles

Most fossil-cleaners are good artists.  As they chip away the rock, their finger tips record each bump and hole, every place that’s smooth, every place that’s rough. Expert fossil-cleaners dream about the fossil – they see it rotating, turning every which way.

Let’s say we have an ankylosaur skeleton, fresh from the field. We clean off the rock slowly. Every time we have a square inch clean, we paint thin glue on it (so it doesn’t crack and fall apart). As we do, we make sketches of the bone. That helps plan the complete cleaning. It’s X-ray vision, sort of.  As we sketch the bone we can draw in the parts of the specimen that are still buried in the rock.

For instance: let’s say we have the upper left arm (humerus). And we have the elbow end cleaned, but the shoulder end is still in the rock. A sketch will help us imagine where the bone is and how to chip the rock off so we don’t break anything accidentally.

Putting Muscles and Ligaments Back On

Fossils from a Dimetrodon hip bone.

Texture of fossil bone is important:

Rough spots full of squiggly ridges are where tough ligaments and tendons attached to the bone.

Smooth spots are where soft muscle attached.

Bones with big pits are armor plate – in life the pits were filled with a thick layer of finger-nail like skin.

At the Zoo with Brachylophosaurus

Now let’s shift to Leonardo, the Brachylophosaurus,  the dino-mummy now visiting the Houston Museum of Natural Science. I wanted some drawings of the critter, and to prepare I spent a lot of time watching live animals.

I sketch live critters in the zoo all the time.  And I make diagrams of the heads, bodies and legs of skeletons from species that are still alive today. I can’t imagine a live Brachylophosaurus  or any other dinosaur without studying rhinos and elephants,  ostriches and cassowaries, giant tortoises and water buffalo.

Tweensy Gator Hands

Most plant-eating dinos have hands like the one in the little vegetarian dinosaur Hypsilophodon.  There were five fingers in this animal and most other herbivores. Carnivores sometimes have  three, as in Velociraptor,  or two as in T. rex  and all members of the rex family.  In all dinos, meat-eater and plant-eater,  only the inner three fingers had claws. In herbivores the claws are blunt and hoof-like. Carnivores tend to have sharp-tipped claws. In all dinos, the outer two fingers had no claws at all.

The five fingers/three claws is standard equipment for most ancestors of dinos too.

Creative Commons License photo credit: James Jordan

Who has this  five/three  hand in a zoo today?  Only in one clan – gators and crocs. Lizards and turtles have claws on all five fingers.  Crocs & gators have three claws, five fingers, no claw on outer two. Watch out when you draw dino hands – a lot of books make the mistake of giving a dino  four or five claws. Even the movie “Jurassic Park” makes that error with the Triceratops. Don’t YOU do it! Remember: five fingers but only three claws in most plant-eating dinosaurs.

No Bowling for Duck-Bills

Duck-bill dinos have a puzzling variation on the basic veggie-saur hand. The outer two fingers are fine – no claw or hoof. But there are only four fingers in total. Which is missing? The thumb. Duck-bills are the only dinos without any thumb. That’s strange because the thumb is usually one of the strongest fingers in all other dinosaurs. Even T. rex  has a thumb. There’s a predatory dino with just one finger – Mononychus – and that single finger is, you guessed it, the thumb.

One result of being thumb-less is that when you’re choosing a bowling team, you don’t want a duck-bill. They can’t hold the ball. Continue reading