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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.