Dead Things That Might Be Under Your House!

The line between hallowed ground and home is a thin one in Houston. Our city isn’t exactly known for the preservationist spirit of its citizens, and looking out your window at skyscrapers or suburban expanses, you may not see any visible evidence of the city’s history, but that’s exactly the problem: You don’t see it because it’s under your feet!

Are you dubious of the of this assertion? Well, after we’re done I guarantee you will never rest assured that you are the only resident of your happy home. We will begin long ago, past the stretch of collective human memory. In this time, herds of Mammoths roamed over a cold savannah that stretched across North America. In this unfamiliar landscape, Giant Sloths thundered here and there using their huge, retractable claws to literally scratch an existence out of the land, and Glyptodons fought off saber-tooth cats.

When you think of Paleontology, you don’t think Houston, but the remnants of that epic world are here. In the Paleontology Hall of HMNS Sugarland there is displayed the skeleton of a giant armadillo, HolmesinaIn North America during the Pleistocene, armadillos the size of Volkswagen Beetles roamed Texas; Holmesina is a smaller species of armadillo cousin from that era. When I say “smaller”, I mean that instead of being 7 to 10 feet long and up to 5 feet tall, they were closer to 6 or so feet long and a couple feet tall. Still quite large… Our specimen was discovered in 1955 by Florence Dawdy, along with her son and a friend on Brays Bayou, not far from HMNS!

 

armadillo-4x6

Holmesina specimen at HMNS Sugarland

A giant sloth was discovered not long ago in the Galveston area. Many don’t know this, but there was a time when the coast was a hundred miles further out from Houston than it is today, but as the glaciers melted at the end of the last ice age and ocean levels rose the graves of countless Pleistocene prey and several Human habitation sites were swallowed by the Gulf of Mexico. Occasionally spear points or fossilized camel bones will wash up on certain beaches in the area, like High Island. 

ground-sloth

Megatherium, a type of ground sloth. Note the giant claws, which were retractable,like a cat’s claws!

A Columbian Mammoth was discovered in a sand pit in the town of Clute near the Lake Jackson area in 2003. Columbian mammoths are the less hairy cousins of the famous Wooly Mammoths. Both species thrived in the vast grasslands that stretched from Minnesota to Mexico 10,000 years ago. The Wooly’s tended to stay further north, while the Columbians roamed in the warmer Southern regions. 

 

columbian-mammoth

Columbian Mammoths

The Columbian Mammoth was named after Christopher Columbus, the most famous explorer of the New World, because this species of mammoth is unique to the Western Hemisphere. The one found in Clute was the first mammoth to be discovered in the Texas Gulf Coast area. The mammoth is nicknamed Asiel, and if you’re ever in the area, you can stop by “Asiel’s Restaurant”, which boasts a replica of the skull, and an exhibit including some real fossils of deer, camel, and giant sloth that were also discovered in the area.

So there are indeed a few paleontological discoveries that have unexpectedly popped up in the Houston area. And who knows, maybe the next find is under you right now! Next week we will turn the dial of geological history forward to the era of human occupation to discuss some more intriguing specimens found lurking beneath the surface of our city.

Incidentally, we happen to have an entire Hall of Paleontology devoted to prehistoric North America here at HMNS, so next time you’re visiting, be sure to check that out. We have examples of all three animals discussed in the article.

Glimpses of Eden: the Pongos Basin of Peru

Well, I’ve had some ‘feedback’ from some of my professional peers regarding my blogs: ‘Gee Dan, so good of you to sell out on your research in favor of war stories from the trenches!?’  OK – well, I guess the blogs were just a lot of fun to write so far (and hopefully just as much fun to read?)  So here is one a little bit different from my prior blogs, that highlights a recent manuscript that was published by my colleagues and I.

Photo by N. Dauphine

Photo by N. Dauphine

Imagine a pristine and lush rainforest that has been virtually un-infiltrated by post-Colombian civilization.  Does such a place exist? And if so, how has it maintained its unexploited state after all this time?  Such a region in fact does exist.  In the Department (state) of Amazonas, Peru, the territory north of the vast Marañon River is perhaps one of the few, if not only, final frontiers remaining on our planet.  A true ‘Garden of Eden’ where people and wildlife live in harmony and the pristine habitat remains relatively unmolested.

The indigenous Aguaruna are perhaps one of the last indigenous communities to be ‘transitioned’ by Missionaries, despite years of attempt.  Indeed, the Aguaruna are one of the groups that tend to be more reactionary to transition, resorting to rituals such as making Tsantas (shrunken heads) of their conquered adversaries.  Remarkably, these ‘noble savages’ are at total peace with nature.  While many indigenous cultures manage their natural resources in a highly sustainable fashion, the Aguaruna go one step further, revering the wildlife with which they share the region, with much of their folklore and culture revolving around birds.  In fact, the Aguaruna even practice the art of taxidermy with birds, using kapok (Ceiba pentandra) fiber instead of cotton.  

blue-eyed beauty
Creative Commons License photo credit:
chdwckvnstrsslhm

My colleagues and I have recently published a timely monograph on the incredible diversity of birds inhabiting the land of the Aguaruna: the Pongos Basin.  We found an overwhelming number of more than 450 species representing over 50 different avian Families.  It is highly probable that the incredible avian richness in the 66 plus sites sampled north of the Marañon River is in part due to the ‘noble savagery’ displayed by the Aguaruna, preventing development from encroaching upon their lands.

Care to check out the manuscript?  Click here.

– DB, 5/14/08


100 Years – 100 Objects: Element III

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 Dirk, the museum’s curator of anthropology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent human cultures throughout time and around the world, that we’ll be sharing here – and on hmns.org – throughout the year.

This modern piece of art was made by Tammy Garcia (Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico). It represents a step-fret motif which we can find in Pre-Columbian cultures dating back more than a millennium. It shows up in Pre-Columbian architecture in Mesoamerica as well as pottery and textiles from South America. This Tammy Garcia piece embodies a link between the past and the present, with the former continuing to be an inspiration for today.

Explore thousands of years of Native American history in the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the
photo gallery on hmns.org.