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.

HMNS Xplorations Interns Share Wisdom (and Laughs)

All of us in the Youth Education Programs department at the Houston Museum of Natural Science started as volunteers, part-time, or interns. We all came from different backgrounds, departments and experiences. The thing we have in common (other than we each bring our own flavor of nerd to the department) is that we all got hooked. We have a joke that the museum sucks people in. There’s something addicting about this unique and totally weird workplace where asking things like “Did someone move the tiger I put in the freezer?” elicits a response of “Wait, which tiger and which freezer?” Each year, we bring in a new cohort and give them a chance to get sucked into the wonderful world of HMNS. It takes a village to operate our Xplorations summer camps, and our interns are an integral part of our team. This summer, we’re highlighting our entourage of interns. Each group is responsible for a different aspect of our summer programs. Read below for their interesting take on what it’s like to work during the busiest 11 weeks of the year for Youth Education Programs!

Xplorations Interns

Collections Crew

Our collections interns are responsible for making sure all of the camp classes have the supplies they need. In other words, they’re in charge of the “stuff.” Education Collections is kind of like the Room of Requirement from the Harry Potter series. If someone comes in and starts a sentence with “Do you have…,” the response is almost always going to be “Yes.” Live leeches? Got ’em. Sheep brains? Yep. Cut out of a life-sized T. rex footprint? Of course. Chenille worms? Always. Spectrum tubes? Absolutely. Anatomically correct dinosaurs? You betcha.

Sara Hayes, Before Camp Coordinator, Texas A&M

What is one thing that you now find totally reasonable that was unthinkable before? Mummifying potatoes. The kids in Mummies and Mysteries do this to learn about the ancient Egyptian practice of mummification.

When people ask about your summer, what do you immediately think of?

Making a Jell-O brain for kids to eat as part of the Weird Science camp.

What’s the funniest thing you’ve overhead at camp? I once heard a camper say, “My favorite part of camp is digesting eyeballs.” They meant to say that their favorite part of camp is dissecting eyeballs.

Olivia Close, After Camp Coordinator, University of Dallas

What new and unusual vocabulary have you discovered this summer? Axolotl and atlatl. We have a pair of axolotls, a type of amphibian, as part of our live animal collection. The campers in Archeology 101 practice using atlatls, a spear-throwing tool, while they learn about ancient civilizations.

What’s the most unusual use of an everyday item you’ve seen this summer? Recycling items like old CDs and egg cartons are used to make lungs, cars, robots, rockets and so much more!

Allison Walker, Xplorations Resource Coordinator, University of Texas at Austin

What’s your favorite fun story you tell your friends and family? I tell them about the time I was casually asked to carry two real human skulls down the hall to the Crime Scene Investigators camp.   

What is one thing that you now find totally reasonable that was unthinkable before? Keeping bags and bags of butterfly wings in the freezer.

Jayme Schlimper, Camp Assistant Coordinator, University of Houston

What work story has created the greatest look of horror on your family and friend’s faces? I forgot that I placed a bag of sheep brains on top of a box and went to grab them later…To my surprise, I got a handful of sheep brains.

What’s your favorite fun fact you tell to impress your friends? I love asking them about T. rex arms! “Want to know why they’re so tiny?” Immediate intrigue.

 

Animal Wranglers

Our animal care interns are responsible for taking care of our extensive live animal collection during the summer. They do rounds with our Get Set to be a Vet camp as campers learn what it takes to care for different types of animals from amphibians to reptiles to mammals. They also do live animal presentations for many of our camps as campers learn about animal adaptations. It involves a lot of snuggling scaly critters and all of the smells. All of them.

Kelsey Williams, Animal Care Intern, Hendrix College

What new and unusual vocabulary have you discovered this summer? Nebulize. We had to learn how to nebulize one of the snakes. A nebulizer is used to administer medicine in the form of a mist, so it can be inhaled into the lungs.

What’s your favorite animal you’ve worked with this summer? Leu the leucistic rat snake, because he will hang out around your waist like a snake belt.

Holly Hansel, Animal Care Intern, University of Texas

What after-work story has created the greatest look of horror on your family and friend’s faces? My job encourages me to handle alligators, tarantulas and snakes. And I love it.

What is one thing that you now find totally reasonable that was unthinkable before? I accept the fact that animals can and will poop on me. Additionally, I can use an animal’s poop as a learning accessory during class presentations.

Lizzy George, Animal Care Intern, Ohio State University

When people ask how your summer’s going, what do you immediately think of? I think about how fun it is to chill with and take care of the almost 75 animals we have here at the museum.

What is one thing that you now find totally reasonable that was unthinkable before? Letting a tarantula crawl on me.

 

Health Squad

Our healthcare interns have the lofty and important task of ensuring each camper has a health form on file. They’re also responsible for managing medications and making sure any health concerns are passed along to our teachers.

Aida Iriarte, Healthcare Intern, Purdue University

What’s the funniest thing you’ve overhead at camp? A teacher came in with a camper and said, “We’re looking for a pink dinosaur…”

What’s your favorite story that you tell to impress your friends? I love telling them about the one time a camper told me I reminded her of Beyoncé.

Cristian Cruz, Healthcare Intern, University of Texas at Austin

What’s the funniest thing you’ve overhead at camp? Someone came into our office and said, “The sign on the door says the kids are at macaroni?” This was in reference to a trip our Backstage Pass class takes to our offsite storage facility, called Marconi. 

What new and unusual vocabulary have you discovered this summer? Using the word “snake” as an insult as in “You’re a snake.” We had a camper who regularly used this as an insult.

If you’re interested in becoming a part of our summer camp team, keep an eye out for job postings on the careers page on the HMNS web site. Xplorations positions are typically posted in December for the following summer.

Crater Science Reaches New Depths at Chicxulub, Ground Zero for the End of the Dinosaurs

If there was ever any doubt whether an asteroid impact killed off the dinosaurs, field scientists continue to bring back proof from ongoing research in the Gulf of Mexico.
Last week, geologists working in the Yucatán Peninsula reached a major milestone in an offshore drilling project of the Chicxulub Crater, now known to be the remnant of a 66-million-year-old collision of a gargantuan asteroid into the Earth’s surface. Reaching a depth of 670 meters (2,198 feet) in the crater’s peak ring for the first time, the scientists brought up core samples of the original granite bedrock that occurred as a result of this Earth-shattering impact.

Discovered in 1978 by geophysicists Antonio Camargo and Glen Penfield, the crater has been the subject of study and controversy for some time, but this is the first time scientists have dug this deep offshore, into the inner ring of the double-ringed crater. From the core samples, taken from below 66 million years of sediment piled onto the original molten rock formed at the time of the impact, paleontologists now have a completely new data set to study the earliest moments of Earth after the Cretaceous.

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Wikipedia

With this evidence, we can now put to rest a point of contention regarding the exact border between the Cretaceous and the next age in the life of the Earth, the Paleogene, known as the K-Pg boundary. Prior to this project, paleontologists defined the K-Pg boundary with the appearance of foraminifera, fossils of small shelled creatures. In a sense, the drilling project took science back in time through rock layers never before investigated and passed the K-Pg boundary at ground zero. Because this layer of ancient rock is so thick and and so unique, the drilling team is considering re-naming it the “event layer.”

This news highlights a great number of phenomena in both natural history and astrophyics. Astronomers have studied peak rings in craters on the moon, Mars and Mercury, but never before on our own planet. The Chicxulub now offers a local opportunity to study this type of supermassive impact.

Apparently, peak rings form in a matter of minutes when an asteroid is so big, its impact liquefies rock, causing the center of the crater, while it’s in motion, to splash upward in a cone shape like a drop of water into a filled sink. This molten rock creates a distinct layer of minerals that only form from asteroid collisions. As the team continues to bore deeper, now working more slowly to study this unique type of rock, they will search for rock layers “out of order,” testing a proposed model for this type of impact. Theories state when these impacts occur, older rock layers are tossed above younger rock layers.

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Wikipedia

The discovery of Chicxulub is a fascinating story in itself, and shows how difficult this thing was to find. Essentially, the crater is so old, the only evidence of it is a trough that forms a faint semi-circle on the western portion of the Yucatán Peninsula and a system of thousands of cenotes, sinkholes formed as a result of the impact. (We’re still unable to explain why.)

Prospecting for oil drilling sites for the Mexican oil company Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), Penfield noticed a huge underwater arc 40 miles across in his geophysical data. He found another arc on land years later. Penmex suppressed specific data to the public, but allowed Penfield and Camargo to present the findings at the Society of Exploration Geophysicists conference in 1981, which was poorly attended.

In 1980, unaware of Penfield’s discovery, Alan R. Hildebrand, a graduate student at the University of Arizona, published the first paper proposing the Earth-impact theory and was searching for a probable crater. He and his team found evidence of an impact in shocked quartz, a type of deformed quartz created by intense pressure and limited temperature (the conditions of an impact crater), and tektites, beads of glass shaped like drops of water that form when molten rock is ejected into the atmosphere. Both of these materials occur in large deposits in the Caribbean basin.

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Wikipedia

Carlos Byars, reporting for the Houston Chronicle in 1990, connected the dots between Hildebrand’s theory and Penfield’s discovery, and Hildebrand and Penfield obtained Penmex drill samples stored in New Orleans for Hildebrand’s team to study. The samples matched Hildebrand’s theories.

Further research into the crater in the late 1990s using gravitational anomaly imaging showed the crater is a system of two concentric circles, the outer circle measuring 190 miles in diameter, nearly five times the diameter of the inner circle.

Personally, as a Texan, a Houstonian and a dinosaur nerd, I take pride in these developments. 1. The Chicxulub crater was discovered by a Mexican oil company. 2. A Houston reporter identified the crater as the one that killed the dinosaurs. Two points for Texas, a state steeped in petroleum science and Mexican culture.

For a grandiose, and slightly terrifying, example of how an asteroid impact can change the face of the Earth (the Chicxulub crater was created by a much smaller asteroid), watch this Discovery Channel simulation set to Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them.”

The Adventures of Archie the Traveling T. Rex: Big Bend National Park

by Charlotte Brohi

Well, it’s Archie reporting in….

After my visit to Paris, I thought it high time I went to a place closer to home that has fossil records of some of my friends in the dinosaur world. Can you guess where?

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So, I hunkered down in my suitcase for the short flight to Midland, Texas, my jumping-off point for my adventure to the Big Bend National Park. Don’t worry. I brought sun protection (a hat) and extra water because I was planning to hike as well as learn a few things.

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You are probably asking, “but Archie, why Big Bend?” To be honest, I was totally inspired to go WILD and visit a national park ever since I saw the new Giant Screen/IMAX film at HMNS called National Park Adventure 3D. That’s me in my 3D glasses below. Spoiler alert: this film showcases 13 of the famous parks and it has better music than what is on my playlist!

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Feeling adventurous, and having learned that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park system I just knew I HAD to go! How often do we get to celebrate a centennial? Do you know who is credited with this monumental feat? If you shouted to yourself, “President Teddy Roosevelt” then you would be correct! Sadly, he lost both his wife and mother on the same day but he credited his time in the wilderness as crucial to his emotional healing and thus inspired him to protect the wilderness. I LOVE being in the wild too, don’t you?

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Because I didn’t want to play favorites I also ventured to Big Bend State Park. You can’t tell from this photo, but Big Bend is considered moderate-altitude (between 5,000 and 6,000 feet). I still had to catch my breath and take it slow up the trail. Remember, altitude can negatively affect those who are older and can only use half of their appendages when walking… Like moí! See, I did learn something in Paris.

As I prepared for my hike, I took a look around and remembered that Big Bend has the youngest of all Texas dinosaurs, dating to the end of the Mesozoic, 66 million years ago! I am walking in the footsteps of greatness!

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The next day was pretty hot (100 degrees, to be precise) so I decided to stay cool in my traveling suitcase as I pondered the fact that more than 90 dinosaur species, nearly 100 plant species, and more than two dozen fish, frogs, salamanders, turtles, crocodiles, lizards, and even early mammals have been discovered here. But to most of us, it’s just so darn BEAUTIFUL!

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And because I’m a good steward of the environment, I didn’t pack anything extra to take home with me. It’s important to preserve all cultural and natural artifacts. So I only took photographs and left only footprints.

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Did you know that the Rio Grande River is the international boundary (1,000 miles) between Mexico and the United States, and the “big bend” follows more than 100 miles of that boundary? In fact, the park was named after the area, which has a large bend in the river. I love learning the origins of names. Just like my name, Tyrannosaurus Rex, which comes from Greek and Latin roots that mean “tyrant lizard king.” My friends just call me T. rex, though. Or Archie. It’s less intimidating.

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The Stars at Night are Big and Bright…

Once the sun went down, I gazed at more than 2,000 stars. Big Bend has the least light pollution of any other National Park in the lower 48 states. There’s even a song to celebrate its greatness. I also used this cool app called StarView to identify stars and planets in the night sky. Jupiter, one of the five bright planets, was indeed bright and beautiful!

I didn’t want to leave, so I promised myself I’d come back when it’s a little cooler. Shoot, I may even decide to head to the McDonald Observatory in Ft. Davis (which has nothing to do with burgers and fries). But until then, I’ll get my stargazing fix at the George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park, another very cool place to see the stars and enjoy the natural beauty of the great state of Texas.

You can find Archie and the whole Adopt-a-Dino family in the HMNS Museum Store. Drop by and take one home!

Editor’s Note: Charlotte is the Vice President of Film Program and Distribution for the Houston Museum of Natural Science.