The World’s Oldest Vegetarian Poop?

Winding through the Paleozoic section of our Morian Hall of Paleontology, past the trilobotes, the placoderms, the Sea Scorpions and the other terrifying creatures that roamed the earth at that time, you will eventually come to what we affectionately call our “wall of poop“. It’s in the Permian section of the Hall, to the right of the big Dimetrodon model. The wall has some amphibian skulls, part of a Dimetrodon jaw, and a whole bunch of coprolites.

 

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Coprolites are fossilized feces. It may sound gross, but these coprolites are important to science! For example, we know for sure that T. rex’s ate Triceratops’ in part because we find triceratops bones in T. rex coprolites. In the same way, we have learned about the diets and lifestyles of Permian-era creatures (who lived millions of year before T. rex) in our hall by studying these coprolites.

One very interesting piece is a coprolite that was most likely produced by a herbivorous animal. This is a big deal because as far as we know, land-dwelling, herbivorous reptiles were just evolving in the Permian. They show up later in the fossil record because herbivores have more complex digestive systems than carnivores do. You know how cows have eight stomachs, have to regurgitate their food and chew it a few times so they can digest it? Well, that’s because most plants are really hard to digest. So the idea is that the first land-dwelling animals were carnivores and some of them later evolved more complex digestive systems to eat plants.

 

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The coprolite we’re discussing is believed to be herbivorous because of its shape and consistency. Compare it (above) to the pictures of those of a carnivore (top of article) and you will notice that the meat-eaters generally produce straight, smooth coprolites, while our vegetarian coprolite is coiled and lumpy. It is believed that the herbivore who produced this particular coprolite was Diadectes, a model of which is pictured below.

 

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Do you like coprolites? Are you interested in learning more about vegetarian evolution? Do you have a hilarious or, better yet, informative comment about this blog? Feel free to leave a comment by clicking the little bubble at the top of this post. We want to hear from you! 

 

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A Study in Patience

Written by Jack Alger, HMNS Paleontology Intern

Jack Alger, HMNS Paleontology Intern

Jack Alger, HMNS Paleontology Intern

This summer I bring dimetrodons back to life.

No, life has not found a way, I’m not extracting DNA from inclusions found in amber; I work in the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Sugar Land. It’s a small brick building with a splendid collection of history both recent and prehistoric whose residents stand 30 feet tall and have razor sharp teeth.

Every weekday from 9 in the morning to 1 in the afternoon I sit behind a large table, stare through a lit magnifying glass, and with implements of dentistry I carefully extract the bones of Diego, a 280 million year old dimetrodon, from the hard north Texas rock.

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I am an exhibit.

Visitors of the museum who meander all the way back to the Paleozoic section have the opportunity to watch me work and to ask me questions about anything they please, thankfully usually pertaining to my work. One of the most common questions and comments I get deal with patience. “Wow, that seems really tedious” or “How do you have the patience for that? I certainly couldn’t do it” to which I grin and laugh politely with a “yes it is detailed work for sure”.

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After a few weeks of these comments I would like to make a few comments on the work myself and let you in on some of my secrets on being patient.

My first task upon arriving as the new Paleontology intern for the summer was to sift through the context dirt that once surrounded Diego and now filled a half dozen catering trays stored in a small closet in the museum. I would pick out a pile of dirt half the size of a golf ball and search for the microscopic bones hidden among the dirt often spending hours without finding anything. Now you may be saying “How could you keep your focus and stay patient when you had so much work to do?” To which I answer now “one rock at a time”.

I never thought about the amount of dirt in the tray nor in the closet, I just focused on my little pile, combing through it as if I might find a diamond or some other jewel (being an unpaid intern, this seemed like the greatest outcome) and after just a couple weeks I had finished looking through every single tray in the closet. This early lesson in discipline set me up perfectly for my real job, fossil prep. Now when I attack a bone I don’t think about trying to get all the rock off and reveal the entire bone. No, that would drive me insane. Instead I focus on pushing back the rock a micrometer at a time. Under intense magnification I watch flakes the size of a grain of sand that appear to me to be the size of paving stones come off in bunches. In rare cases large flakes of rock that covered half the bone come flying off in a single touch of my tools and I am filled with such elation that may surpass ever seeing the Texans win a Super Bowl from the sideline. My first lesson in patience is to focus on the little things, take small victories, microscopic even, so that when something big happens you are surprised and filled with joy.

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Now I would be a liar if I said my neck never ached and I never got frustrated with lack of progress, so this is my second lesson. When I begin to feel weary from hunching over the desk or when I become irate at the stubborn rock encrusting my precious Diego, I change my pace. I get up and stretch; I walk around the room and study the fossils on display. I get a drink of water, or I simply rotate the bone and take a different perspective on the situation, attacking at a different and hopefully more prosperous angle. I chuckle to myself every time I change the angle of the rock and where it was once impossible to cut through, large chips start to fly off the bone. Lesson two is when the impatience starts to creep in just take a deep breath, stretch, then change your perspective and you’ll be amazed at the result.

Four hours a day, that’s how long I work. It’s not a long time in the grand scheme of things, but those 360 minutes can feel like 3,000 if you get impatient and watch the clock. During my workday I try not to look at the time more than 4 times because nothing will drive you more insane than watching time slowly crawl onward. They say a watched pot never boils, well a watched clock never ticks. I have come to believe that a minute spent staring at the clock feels slower than an hour spent doing something. So next time it’s 4:30 on a Friday and you’re caught up with all your work don’t just sit at your desk and watch the little clock in the corner of your monitor, don’t even sit around, go clean the break room, go talk to someone in your office who is also done with their work, do something productive and engaging that you normally don’t do and next thing you know it’ll be 5 o’clock and your weekend has started.

Anyone can be patient and everyone can be impatient, patience isn’t something you’re born with its just something you do, like a sport you have to practice to get better. So next time you start to feel impatient just focus on the little things, change your perspective, and don’t look at the clock and you’ll start to notice life get just a little easier.

This Dino Toy’s All Wrong! What’s Up With That!?

by “Jurassic” James Washington III

With the exception of our feathered friends, dinosaurs are all but gone today. So what are the ways to connect to these long lost creatures? Well as a child I had three options — museums, media and models. Going to the Houston Museum of Natural Science and standing in the shadows of the fossilized skeletons gave me a sense of their size and majesty. Dinosaurs in the media consisted of news stories, articles, documentaries and books. But the models (or toys) were the third part my mind needed to fully imagine these masters of the Mesozoic. For some reason holding a model of the animal in my hand gave my mind the final ingredient to fully imagine dinosaurs as they might have looked.

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As an adult I have the honor of working at the museum as a Discovery Tour Guide specializing in the Morian Hall of Paleontology. I literally get to go to the museum five out of seven days a week! I have traded in my documentaries for scientific text books and published journals. And although I stopped playing with the toys, I still collect them, using them as models in contrast to the actual fossils upstairs. Which brings me to the point of this article. In the age of the Internet and easily accessible museums and colleges, how is it that certain tour companies can make inaccurate models? It may seem minor to an outside observer, but the number of fingers and toes or the lack of a crest are some important ways to make a species identifiable.

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For the record I am not commenting on fictional dinosaur-like creatures such as Godzilla or the Indominus Rex from the movie Jurassic World (2015). Or the changes made through time, such as the orientation of the necks and tails of Sauropods (long necked dinosaurs) like Diplodocus. Or how Velociraptor toys have no feathers in the early 1990’s. Those toys were made with the accepted science of the time, though now we know they were wrong. I am also not considering how some dinosaur toys are made cute for preschool-age children. My remarks are on toy companies that claim to make scientifically accurate toys/models in the 2000’s without certain diagnostic features.

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Diplodocus through time. Manufacturer and year produced from left to right: Collect A 2013, K&M 2004, TS 2001, British Museum (Natural History) 1974, Safari Ltd 2006, Safari and later Carnegie 1988.

As displayed by the image above, Diplodocus has seen a variety of modifications in the toy and model world. Yet each model maintains its long, whip-like tail, narrow horse-like face, hind legs longer than forelimbs and general slender form when compared with other Sauropods. No matter the incarnation, you know it is Diplodocus.

Another easy example is the genre Stegosaurus, which has three toes on its hind limbs. This feature (narrow pillar-like feet) indicates Stegosaurus lived in a dryer or at least more solid surface and not in swamps. So when I see a Stegosaur toy or model with the five standard toes of lizards, I can’t help but wonder why they didn’t take the time to consult someone, anyone, in the field of paleontology before they began production. It’s like making a modern rhinoceros toy with rodent feet or giving a giraffe zebra stripes. Just google “Stegosaurus skeleton” and the number of toes is consistent on pretty much all the images.

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The many faces of Stegosaurus. Manufacturer and year from left to right: Toy Major Trading CO. LTD. 2008, Jasman 2001,Dur Mei 1986, Jurassic Park’s Kenner 1993, The Lost World’s Kenner 1997, Safari LTD, Dino Riders 1989, Papo 2005, Dinosaur Valley 2005, Safari 2007 and K&M 2004.

Of the eleven Stegosaur models/toys in the above only four have the correct number of toes! Dino Rider 1989 (surprisingly), Papo 2005, Safari 2007 and K&M 2004. The two on the far left of the picture have five and the rest have four. What I find most surprising is the fact that Safari put out two different figures with different numbers of toes?

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Mosasaurs show me those pearly whites! Manufacturer and year from left to right: Safari 2010, Carnegie 2008, Papo 2012, Collect A 2009 and Mojo 2010.

Mosasaurs are the marine reptiles of the upper Cretaceous period that were made even more famous by Jurassic World. Although the movie made the animal too large, they did get one thing right. Mosasaurs, like pythons, possess a second row of teeth inside their jaws. Only one of five Mosasaur models have that iconic feature. The 2008 Carnegie model seen second to the left is the only one with the correct dentition. When I show this feature to museum guests on tours, they are shocked and amazed! I can see why now — 80 percent of Mosasaur toys in the mainstream market lack that feature. But know that the Jurassic World Mosasaur has the teeth, which can be seen when it eats the poor British woman who did nothing wrong. Unfortunately the Jurassic World Mosasaur toy (which I do not have yet) neglected to be consistent with their own movie. No second row of teeth!

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Ceratosaurus family reunion.

Ceratosaurus lived in North America during the upper Jurassic. The name Ceratosaurus translates to “horned lizard” because it has a nose horn and two crests over its eyes. Ceratosaurus also has four fingers on its forelimbs. The tall yellow one in the back is from Remco Galaxy fighters from the 1980’s. It has the nose horn but only one crest between its eyes. But it does have all four fingers! The tall green one to the left has the nose horn, but is missing the eye crests altogether and only has three fingers. One step forward, two steps back. It also lacks its manufacturer’s logo, as if they didn’t want to take credit for their work…

The figure with a purple hide and pink nose horn is labeled Oviraptor. Which is almost a felony if you knew anything about Ceratosaurus or Oviraptor! The toy is manufactured by Boley, who is known for putting out mislabeled figures in the world of fast and furious dinosaur toy collecting. But it does have the nose horn and four fingers. If it had two eye crests it would be a good example (in toy form) of Ceratosaurus. Too bad it’s labeled Oviraptor. In front on the right is the Jurassic World Ceratosaurus. It has a nose horn, two crest-like projections over the eyes and four fingers. I know it’s not said very often, but good job Jurassic Park franchise on your scientific accuracy. The medium figure in the middle with a red hide and yellow underbelly is from 1998 (hard to read the stomach). The horn and crests are good enough, but it only has four fingers. Missed it by that much.

I saved the best for last. The three small figures on the lower left are, from left to right, Safari 1996, Safari 2012 and Terra 2015. All three figures have the correct horns, crests and finger counts! In short, buy the smaller more detailed models.

Dino7But there is a silver lining. As you might have noticed there is an attempt to correct these mistakes over time. And the Boley figure to the left tells it all. When this very same figure was produced in the early 2000’s it was labeled Metriacanthosaurus. Metriacanthosaurus was like a Ceratosaurs without horns and a small sail running down its back and tail. Later the name was changed to Edaphosurus. This was close but still wrong, but they at least classified it outside the dinosaur clade. The animal the toy represents is a relative of Edaphosaurus. Unfortunately, an Edaphosaurus has a smaller skull and a sail of a different shape, and the spines have small projections. But one day, one glorious day, I saw this figure label Dimetrodon. A victory, no matter how small. After two failed attempts, Boley finally got it right. The third time was actually a charm!

Now I know you may think of me as a grown man obsessed with dinosaur toys, and you are probably right. But my fiancé thinks it’s cute. She considers it better than collecting motorcycles or gambling. All I’m saying is many people go to college to earn degrees and/or commit countless hours to understanding the exact morphology of these long-extinct animals. And for a toy company to barely attempt to fact check an educational model that they sell to children? It’s just unacceptable. Imagine a store selling toy tigers with stripes and lion-like manes, whales with gill slits and blow holes or sea lions with long floppy rabbit ears. And that weirdness is what plagues comments. Thank you.

Editor’s Note: Watch for a special exhibit opening in the Morian Hall of Paleontology Feb. 19! Amber Secrets: Feathers from the Age of Dinosaurs offers a glimpse back in time to the forests of Burma in middle Cretaceous, when plants were just beginning to develop flowers. See extinct insects trapped inside fossilized tree resin, and an astounding surprise: feathers in the time of T. rex and Triceratops!

James is a Discovery Guide at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Ecoteens build model artifacts for Block Party, opening soon

by John Pederson and Marce Stayer

The Aztecs, one of the greatest Mesoamerican cultures, had all the hallmarks of an advanced civilization. One of their most famous structures, the Templo Mayor, graces the Aztec portion of the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas. It is a fantastic temple complex, the main religious center of the Aztec capital, and is a feat of architectural genius.

Aztec pyramid complete!

A true-color version of a model Templo Mayor will grace the demonstration shelves of Block Party, HMNS’s new interactive exhibit. And it was built by Moran Ecoteens

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is building a new exhibit called Block Party inspired by the materials used in the construction industry. Curated models of exhibit hall pieces (and visitor-submitted ones) will be on display at the new exhibit. So when the Moran Ecoteens were presented the task of making some of them, an Aztec temple was a popular choice. An image of a temple as inspiration was printed out, and we were ready to build…or so we thought.

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John and Connor solve building support problems while constructing the pyramid.

Turns out, not all toy building blocks are useful for this purpose. And after we grabbed enough bricks to make the first two exterior layers of the temple (e.g. the Step Pyramid at Saqqara has six “layers”), it was all we could do to prevent the third level from collapsing under its own weight. (To save bricks, we had only built the outside of each layer, leaving the inside hollow.) Eventually, over the course of several days, I worked out a system of struts, columns, and crossties to hold the layers together; the hollow inside was now full of scaffolding. This allowed us to construct a model with accurate dimensions, while reflecting realistic building techniques. The Aztec temple walls were stone encased in painted plaster; our temple reflects this with rigid supports enclosed by a decorative outside shell.

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John stands with his model Aztec pyramid built from plastic blocks.

Our multicolored model is the prototype of a future model of the Templo Mayor. The new one will be made of realistically-colored bricks and have a simpler brick-laying scheme, more similar to the Aztec inspiration. Hopefully, those who see it will appreciate both the spirit of the Aztec culture and the engineering genius that defines the monument.

 

Cream of the Science Crop: Becoming an Ecoteen

You might be wondering how you can get involved doing cool projects for the museum like the Block Party demos. Here’s some information and application advice directly from Marce Stayer, director of the Ecoteen program.

The Moran Ecoteens are the museum’s teen volunteer program, open to teens ages 14 to 17 and rising ninth grade through rising 11th grade. Teens may apply beginning in December by sending their contact information to Stayer. You’ll be asked to provide your name, street address, a phone number and an email where they can be reached. The first week in January, information packets and applications are sent out to all who apply. Applicants will be asked to include a résumé, a letter of recommendation from a current teacher and an essay on the teen’s favorite area of science. The essay can be related to artifacts in our permanent exhibit halls, but it doesn’t have to be. If you’re interested, work hard to write well! We always receive more applications than slots available for this very competitive program.

Completed applications are due Feb. 28. As applications are turned in, teens are invited to schedule an interview. The process must be complete by the second week in March.

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Ecoteens built this model Dimetrodon skull for Block Party, as well.

Selected teens are required to volunteer for one two-week session during the summer. Xplorations summer camp runs on a two-week-on, one-week-off schedule and Ecoteens may choose from these two-week sessions. A new Ecoteen is required to volunteer in the classroom as his or her first assignment. At the end of each week, the teen’s performance is graded by his teacher and turned in to me. If his performance is satisfactory, the Ecoteen may volunteer for additional weeks and have opportunities to work in other areas.

In addition to classroom assignments, Ecoteens are trained to work the touch carts and permanent halls throughout the museum and some are allowed to work in the Special Exhibit halls. They are trained by master docents from the adult volunteer guild for these assignments. They also give science demonstrations to the classes during camp sessions. We have movable demos in Chemistry and Physics, we have a catapult and trebuchet demo, and this past summer, one of the Ecoteens wrote a biology demo called “Microscope Safari” and another created a Morse code demonstration.

Lastly, the Ecoteens help the Youth Education department by working on various crafts that are used during camp — wands and hats for Wizard Academy, belts for Star Warriors Academy, plaster footprints, teeth and claws for the various paleo classes, giant T. rex footprint cut-outs, complete skeletons made out of paper bones, and whatever the classes need. We also write and perform the CSI crime scene on Fridays and put on the Wizard Academy Triwizard tournament. In short, we jump in wherever we are needed!

If this sounds like something you’re interested in, now’s the time to ask for an application so you can get started and be competitive. Best of luck!

Editor’s note: John Pederson is a Moran Ecoteen Coordinator and high school student. Marce Stayer’s official title is Director of the Moran Ecoteen Volunteer Center.