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.”

Back to Seymour, Back in Time: Part Two — Bringing back a city

The visit to our active digs at the Craddock Ranch red beds exhausted Kelly and I, but it was fascinating to learn how the Houston Museum of Natural Science discovers, jackets and moves its Permian fossils to our lab. The second day, we lent a hand at the Whiteside Museum of Natural History in Seymour for their one-year anniversary celebration. I conducted interviews with Museum Director Chris Flis, our associate paleo curator David Temple, and a handful of Seymour residents, while Kelly shot photos, posted Tweets and produced Periscope videos.


The Whiteside Museum of Natural History in Seymour, Texas has the potential to breathe new life in to the city through historic ecotourism. Jason Schaefer.

The Whiteside has the potential to bolster Seymour’s dwindling economy through historic ecotourism. Locals want to keep Baylor County fossils at home, housed in a single facility, in hopes that visitors will spend a weekend and their money in the shops, restaurants and hotels of the dusty Texas town. Dimetrodon has the potential to attract paleo-fans and academics alike from far and wide and give Seymour a new brand as the home of the richest Permian fossil accumulations in the world. It has been known as such unofficially for nearly 100 years.

Flis, Temple, and paleo curator Dr. Robert Bakker, who arrived in Seymour the previous night, regard the Craddock bone bed as crucial in the understanding of some of the most important enigmas of modern paleontology. In the past century, the information unearthed from the caked deposits of these ancient rivers has answered many questions about Permian ecosystems. However, with each layer removed, new riddles emerge. How many species of Dimetrodon were there? Why did they live so far away from the swamp, where the herbivorous Edaphosaurus lived? Shouldn’t Dimetrodon have preyed on Edaphosaurus? Should Dimetrodon be considered a mammal ancestor? And, perhaps the most fascinating, why are there more carnivores than herbivores buried here? Paleontologists are certain the story is in the bones, and for this era, there’s no better place to find them.


At the Whiteside Museum of Natural History, Dr. Robert Bakker puzzles over the broken shin bone of a Diadectes, a rare Permian herbivore. Kelly Russo.

The exposed Permian landscape from north Texas into southern Oklahoma dates back about 290 million years. To the southeast of Seymour, the rocks get a little older, providing samples from the Pennsylvanian era, about 310 million years ago. The landscape grows younger as you travel west out of Baylor County, then ages again in eastern New Mexico about 100 miles away. Here, paleontologists have found other Permian-era sites that extend as far as Arizona, Flis explained.

“Those sites are well-known for trackways, but they’re not well-known for bones,” Flis said. “For bones, Texas is the best.”


Jacketed lumps of earth lining the wall of the Whiteside Museum of Natural History contain not only fossil specimens, but valuable information about Permian ecosystems. Jason Schaefer.

The soil is rich with exposed Permian fossils. Visitors can walk across the landscape and happen upon excellent specimens of vertebrae, joints, and bits of Dimetrodon’s famous fin spines right at their feet. The bones are preserved so well in the clay soil, they still carry their indigo luminescence when turned in the sunlight. These aren’t mineralized bones, but the real thing. They are the actual mummified parts of animals that human hands have never moved, that haven’t been exposed to light or air since their deaths.


The Craddock red beds are rich with outstanding bone fossils, nearly half of them crushed, broken or bearing tooth marks from Permian-era violence. This fragment of Dimetrodon rib could tell paleontologists more about how the reptile lived than a complete skeleton. Kelly Russo.

It’s not just the bones or their ubiquity in the red beds that makes the Craddock so valuable. It’s the story the bones tell in pieces. A perfect skeleton is great for anatomy, but for information about ancient ecosystems, the pulverized fragments are pay dirt. Paleontologists learn much more about the interaction between extinct species from bones damaged by chewing or some other trauma than from bones unscathed. There’s no story in a complete skeleton.

“You don’t know how it died. You don’t know who chewed it,” Bakker said. “It tells you nothing.”

When Bakker and HMNS teams first began digging at the Craddock about 11 years ago, he was looking for shed Dimetrodon teeth, he said, knowing that losing teeth was common for the reptile. He didn’t expect as many as he found.

“There were shed teeth everywhere,” Bakker said. “It was like a Civil War battlefield that souvenir hunters hadn’t gone over.”


The Whiteside Museum of Natural History is outfitted to prepare its own fossils with its own lab. Volunteer Dr. Mitch Fruitstone removes sedimentary rock from a fossilized jaw specimen. Jason Schaefer.

The team estimated less than five percent of the specimens would be chewed and have tooth marks. After all, T. rex swallowed his prey in chunks, tearing flesh from their bodies without much mastication. From what he’d learned from his predecessors, Bakker expected the same of Dimetrodon. However, the bones were marked in high frequency, about 45 percent, and some were chewed to pieces.

“This means Dimetrodon wasn’t chewing like a dinosaur. It was chewing like a wolf or a hyena,” Bakker said. “That’s the most surprising thing. That’s a way primitive guy, but it’s chewing like an advanced mammal predator. … Our group is the first to document that.”

Through observations made at the Craddock, these discoveries broke open new possibilities for the life of Dimetrodon and the Permian world in which it lived. It could be an ancient relative of mammals instead of reptiles. As a cross-section of the development of life on Earth, the Permian represents the dawn of land-dwellers, when amphibians first began to crawl out of the water. The link between amphibians and reptiles was discovered in the Craddock in 1904, putting Seymour on the paleontological map. Named Seymouria baylorensis to pay homage to its home town, it contended with gravity better than its amphibious predecessors 20 million years earlier, and had other adaptations that allowed the species to succeed in the dry Permian landscape.


Volunteer Dr. Mitch Fruitstone demonstrates precision fossil preparation as a child looks on during the Whiteside Museum of Natural History’s first anniversary celebration. Jason Schaefer.

Now, a model of the animal occupies a hallowed space in the Whiteside, a shining example of the value of this area to the study of the Permian. As Baylor County digs continue, paleontologists layer details about the past with each layer of soil removed: microfossils, traces of flesh-eating arthropods and fossilized pollen grains, and what appears to be different species of Dimetrodon or perhaps just male and female aspects. Bite marks and stab wounds from Xenocanth suggest the ancient shark preyed on Dimetrodon from the water while it hunted the shark from land. With each shovel of soil and swing of the pickaxe, more comes to light about Eryops, Diplocaulus, Trimerorachus and Edaphosaurus.

For the agricultural residents of Seymour, the science could spell success for a struggling community. A contract with the landowners ensures the fossils excavated from the Craddock will remain in Texas, and most of them at the Whiteside. According to Bakker, having a municipal museum is “a huge game-changer” for Seymour, for HMNS and for the state.



Dr. Robert Bakker uses his sketching skills to teach children about Dimetrodon. “Science should make you giggle,” he told the kids. Jason Schaefer.

“Our hope would be that the Whiteside would be a locus not for just digging local fossils but for teaching short courses, especially for teachers so they have hands-on experience digging fossils,” Bakker said. “We’ll take them out and they’ll go back to their classroom and show how fossils are dug.”

The building itself is not without its own history. A renovated Chevrolet dealership, it was handed down from former owner Gene Porter Robinson, who had sold cars out of the building since the 1950s. As Chevy went corporate, Robinson kept the business open, remaining active until 2001 as one of the last remaining independently-owned dealerships in the franchise.


Judge Clyde Whiteside of Baylor County, and the namesake of the Whiteside Museum of Natural History, sits beside models of Edaphosaurus and Dimetrodon during the museum’s first anniversary celebration. Jason Schaefer.

When Robinson died, Judge Clyde Whiteside recognized the value of the lot, and cherishing his friendship with Robinson, decided to purchase the half-block with the clear intent of turning it into a museum to re-invigorate the community.

“I bought my first car right here,” Whiteside said, seated in his wheelchair beside the first Dimetrodon model display. “Hopefully this will bring people back. … Now that we’ve got this interest in [the Craddock], we’ve got five active digs going, and we’re finding stuff you wouldn’t believe! I’m not a scientist, I’m a lawyer and a farmer. But it’s working, and I’m thrilled to death by it. It makes my life worth living.”

Author’s note: This is the second part in a series detailing the HMNS excursion to the Craddock Bone Bed.

On the Discovery Channel’s megalodon bungle: In defense of cryptozoology and critical thinking

For us, as for many science lovers, it’s currently our favorite season. Some might even call it the most wonderful time of the year: Shark Week.

The Discovery Channel’s annual full-channel takeover, devoted to all things predatory and sleek, is one of the single-most anticipated science events of the year. So we were a little disappointed — as, apparently, were many Discovery Channel viewers — when the network aired a film that implied that the extinct monstershark megalodon might not really be extinct.

We consider ourselves something of experts on the subject, because, well, this:

Megalodon Jaws
(That’s our Associate Curator of Paleontology, David Temple, with our Adult Education Director, Amy Potts, NOT being swallowed alive by an EXTINCT shark.)

We sat down with Associate Curator of Paleontology David Temple to dish over the epic bungle and set the record straight. Here’s his point-by-point breakdown of how wrong — WRONG WE TELL YOU! — it all is:

Point 1 (less a point than a fun fact):

The largest recorded (and verified) Great White Shark was caught off Prince Edward Island in 1988. It measured 20 feet long, meaning the 25-foot “Great White” featured in Jaws would have actually been more believable as a megalodon. The movie is, of course, fictional. Temple says there is a truism in diving that Discovery might have missed during its excitement over giant sharks: “Everything underwater looks a third bigger and a third closer than it really is, except for sharks. Then you can multiply that times 10.”

Point 2

For a threatened “living fossil” species to exist, they must retreat into the margins of their ecosystems. See: the Coelacanth. Megalodons required tropical, warm water to survive, and so for them, retreating into the depths of the ocean simply wouldn’t be a viable option.

Point 3

Megalodons were, as the Discovery Channel portrayed, extremely aggressive and proficient predators. As a result, their impact on their native ecosystems was great. If a population of megalodons yet existed, it’s impossible that we wouldn’t have noticed.

Point 4

If megalodons still existed, even in the cool depths where they couldn’t possibly survive, we would have seen a carcass by now. Even the Giant Squid, seen for the first time just last year, periodically washed up on shore to confirm its existence.

So in conclusion, while it’s fun to imagine a world in which megalodons still swam the seas (“Imagine Jaws on steroids,” says Temple); and while cryptozoologists chasing hidden and mythical creatures like the Loch Ness monster and Big Foot are occasionally right (see: the Okapi); you’d be far more likely to discover a small new species of frog than a 70-foot shark that could eat a fishing boat.

Point? Science.

Ecoteen Myria Perez earns Girl Scouts’ highest honor — and a congrats from the Mayor — for collaboration with HMNS

Editor’s note: Museum volunteer and Ecoteen Myria Perez was recognized by Mayor Annise Parker on Friday after earning the Girl Scouts’ highest honor for her work with HMNS. Perez collaborated with the HMNS paleontology department to construct a Permian-period touch cart using specimens that she helped uncover at our dig site in Seymour, Texas. We caught up with Myria to talk a bit about her project and what it means to get the mayoral stamp of approval.

An Ecoteen meets the Mayor
Myria with the Mayor

HMNS: You were an Ecoteen and have logged some 1,000 volunteer hours at the Museum. When did you start volunteering at HMNS and what’s been your favorite project or memory?

Myria Perez: I started volunteering at HMNS in the fall of 2008 when I was 12 years old. During that time, the Leonardo Dinosaur Mummy CSI exhibit was up on display. During my visit to the Museum for Leonardo’s exhibit, I found out about Dino Days and Breakfast with Dr. Bakker and immediately saved the date. When November came around I was able to meet paleontologist Dr. Robert Bakker. There I was, wearing my over-sized Leonardo Dinosaur Mummy shirt with a pen and drawing in my hand for him to sign.

Volunteering was brought up during our conversation. “The minimum age is 14; how old are you?” And of course, I responded, “12.” Dr. Bakker looked at me and repeated the question. “12,” I chirped once more, until I realized I had repeated my mistake. The third time, “The minimum age is 14; how old are you?” I was 14 now! The first thing I learned from paleontologist Dr. Bakker was to lie about my age; I was good to go!

My favorite memory was helping my mentor [associate curator of paleontology] David Temple with the new hall of paleontology during the summer of 2011 by preparing, painting, and packing up specimens such as the Megalodon jaw, Triceratops skull, and Edmontosaurus bones. An unforgettable memory was a trip to Seymour, Texas for a paleo excavation in the Permian red beds. The drive is around eight hours, so my mom and I arrived in the town of Seymour around midnight. My mom decided to stop and stay at the Sagamar Inn, the one and only inn in Seymour. The rest of the crew was staying at their normal place.

My mom and I checked in and got ready for bed. About an hour passed since I had drifted to sleep when I woke up to foul words from my mother’s mouth. She was half-awake, jumping up and down, throwing her hands around with a disgusted look on her face. Her bed sheets were stripped away and little black and red bugs scurried, fearful of the lamp light.

This was the horrific bed bug encounter. From nymphs to adults, each part of life cycle stages were present. They were in my sheets, as well. At 1 a.m. we notified the people in charge; they denied the bed bugs and offered us another room — the room next door. Of course, we called poor David Temple and relocated under the darkness of the premature morning to the old tractor factory to join the rest of the crew.

An Ecoteen meets the Mayor
Myria in the field

HMNS: What got you interested in paleontology? Is it something you’d pursue as a career path?

Myria Perez: I caught fossil fever back when I was 2 years old, and still to this day have yet to find a cure for it. I never played with Barbie dolls. Instead, I spent my time analyzing dinosaur bones (garden rocks in my backyard) and conducting prehistoric battles with plastic dinosaurs. Every year, my mom would take me to the Houston Museum of Natural Science to see ancient life. I could say I just grew up with a passion for paleontology.

My ultimate goal is to achieve my doctorate of vertebrate paleontology. I want to study the paleobiology of ancient life.

HMNS: How many hours did you spend on the touch cart? Can you tell us a bit about the process?

Myria Perez: I spent a total of 129.5 hours on the Permian touch cart. This included the planning, presentation of the cart to the museum guild, the Seymour trip to collect fossils with the paleo crew, specimen molding and casting (as well as painting), creation of the manual, docent/volunteer training on the cart, and touch cart presentations to museum visitors.

An Ecoteen meets the Mayor
Myria poses with her touch cart in the new Morian Hall of Paleontology

The Permian touch cart was a great opportunity to combine Girl Scouts, paleontology, and earth science education. The timing could not have been better with the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s new hall of paleontology that opened the summer of 2012. The Permian time period (around 287 million years ago) and the critters that inhabited the earth at that time were and are still being excavated and studied by the paleontology crew at HMNS. This was the perfect opportunity to show museum visitors the entire process of fossil display. In the touch cart, I was able to include items such as excavation site pictures, tools used in the field, and a “fossil hunt” for visitors to spot the fossils as if they were looking for them in the field, ultimately achieving the goal of “bringing the field to you.”

HMNS: What does it mean to you to be receiving the Girl Scout Gold Award, and to receive personal commendation from Mayor Parker?

Myria Perez: The Girl Scout Gold Award is the highest award to be earned in Girl Scouts (it is the equivalent of the Boy Scout’s Eagle Award). The project must be sustainable and address a community issue. I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of this project because I was always learning about not only myself, but also about how to work with all kinds of people, how to write a manual, and important paleo skills such as molding and casting specimens. This project has been a wonderful experience and opportunity for me to meet and work with new people and promote earth science education.

To be able to share the HMNS paleo crew’s discoveries in Seymour with Mayor Parker was an honor! It made it very exciting to share a few fossils with her, as she also exhibited great interest in ancient relics. She enjoyed a coprolite (fossilized poop) from a Permian shark called a Xenacanth as well a skull from the boomerang headed amphibian, Diplocaulus.

An Ecoteen meets the Mayor
Mayor Parker examines a coprolite