Tales of the Continental Divide: The Adventures of Mesosaurus

Mesosaurus was an unusual reptile. It looked kind of like crocodiles do today, with a long, thin body, eyes located on top of the skull, webbed feet, and an average length of about 16 inches. It also lived kind of like many crocodiles do today, in freshwater environments. Possibly one of the weirdest things about mesosaurus is that it did all of these things during the Permian period, 320-280 million years ago. That’s 130 million years before crocodiles (and dinosaurs as well) even existed!



Mesosaurus, next to an Ichthyasaur of a much later age, photo courtesy in the Internet Archive Book Images


                In fact, Mesosaurus is was one of the earliest reptiles discovered to have made the transition back into a marine environment. The earliest reptiles appear in the fossil record around 340 million years ago, so it seems that after a mere 20 million years, this retile was done with terra firma. In fact, one of the mesosaurus skeletons that have been discovered is the earliest reptile found with amniote embryos fossilized with it, meaning these are one of the ealiest animals known to have laid hard-shelled eggs. So we’re talking about the early history of reptiles here.


Lower Permian

Lower Permian Mesosaurus, photo courtesy of elrina 753


But speaking of reptiles, it should be pointed out that mesosaurus is not like most of the reptiles we see today. Ancient reptiles can be divided into different categories, based partly on the number of holes they have on either side of their skull. Snakes and lizards are diapsids, defined by two particular holes on either side of their skull, but mesosaurus was an anapsid, which means that it lacks these holes. Anapsids are very primitive reptiles, and in fact some scholars classify them as “parareptiles”. The only species of anapsids living today are turtles and tortoises, who have a fascinating history of their own.



Mesocaurus in matrix, photo courtesy of Museo Civico di  Historico Naturale Milano


The most common type of large reptiles found in the Permian were synapsids, like the dimetrodon in the Permian section of our Hall of Paleontology, and the Edaphasaurus in the great mural featured in that hall. The only synapsids that exist today are, well, all mammals. That’s right, that big, fin-backed lizard in our hall is more closely related to us than to a dinosaur. But of course he’s still a distant relative, like an old uncle.



Recreation of a Dimetrodon, photo courtesy of Rick Hebenstreit


But back to Mesosaurus… There’s another reason that this animal is notable, and that’s the 7,772 mile journey some of its fossils made after their deposition! During the Permian, when mesosaurus was doing its thing, Pangea, the ancient Super Continent, was still forming. Pangea formed around 270 million years ago, ushering in the end of the Permian Period and the extinction of the great synapsids, and making way for the reign of the dinosaurs. It was actually the formation of Pangea and the resulting environmental changes (helped by volcanic activity and climate change) that caused this extinction, which was the worst extinction event in Earth’s history.


Photo Courtesy of David Smith


Around 200 million years ago, Pangea began to break apart. The continents that are now called Africa and South America separated, drifting away from each other and carrying the already fossilized bones of Mesosaurus with them. In the early 20th century, Continental Drift was a hotly debated topic, and it was the fossils of mesosaurus that helped to validate the theory. The remains of this fresh water-dwelling reptile, can be found in Eastern South America and Western Africa, separated be 7,000 miles of ocean. We are sure mesosaurus lived in fresh water, because the rock that its fossils have been discovered in specifically forms in that environment. So, either some of these little guys hopped a tramp steamer, or they were dragged with their respective continents. This, along with numerous other bits of evidence, like the mid-Atlantic Ridge, have helped to validate the theory of Continental Drift.


Travel through time with HMNS collections on Google Arts & Culture


We’re proud to announce that HMNS and some of the most loved natural history institutions in the world have partnered with Google to bring you a new online experience! This new online exhibition is available on g.co/naturalhistory and allows people to come face to face with Jurassic Giants and browse through the most spectacular collection of natural history available in one place!

The new collection uses state of the art technology to give a new virtual life to extinct animals and tell fascinating stories about our planet’s evolution over billions of years. Viewers come face-to-face with Jurassic giants in 360 degree videos, giving a better sense of how these animals lived, and what it might have felt like to be in their presence. 


For this exhibition, HMNS and natural history institutions from 15 countries created over a hundred interactive stories, sharing a total of 300 000 photos, videos and other documents online in collaboration with Google. The latest innovations in tech help bring the magic of these legendary venues to life, and give everyone a chance to reconnect with our evolution story and our planet environment in all its richness.


The new online exhibition opens today at g.co/naturalhistory and is open for all online, for free on the web and through the new Google Arts & Culture mobile app on iOS and Android. You can watch all the 360 degree videos on YouTube.

Start exploring!

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.


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”.


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.


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.