Priscilla, queen of the paleo hall: Our mastodon has a story worthy of the silver screen

Well, “queen” might be inappropriate. Priscilla was actually a boy, and only so-named because her enormous ribs reminded the diver who discovered her of his childhood pet pig, Priscilla.

(You can’t make this stuff up.)

Priscilla in Black Hills

Priscilla, the 12-foot-tall mastodon cast who will be joining more than 60 other new mounts in our new paleontology hall this summer, was discovered in 1968 by diver, occasional T.V. repairman and recreational paleontologist Don Serbousek. Called “Priscilla of Aucilla” for his resting place in North Florida’s Aucilla River, Priscilla is among the largest mastodons yet discovered in North America.

Says Associate Curator of Paleontology David Temple:

“The girth of this animal brought back a childhood memory, and a good childhood memory. [Serbousek] grew up on a farm, and they had a litter of piglets. There were one too many piglets, and he loved this piglet so much he wanted to keep it as a pet, and so he saved the piglet and named it Priscilla.

“From there the piglet turned from being a runt until finally it became a huge sow – one of the biggest ones they’d ever had. And so the wide girth of the mastodon reminded [Serbousek] of his beloved pet pig, Priscilla. That’s how this animal got its gender-confused name.”

Priscilla in Black Hills

Although the cause of Priscilla’s death can only be speculated — it’s been suggested that human hunters may have driven him into a sinkhole — Priscilla was near the end of his natural life, as evidenced by arthritis in his backbone and the fact that his jaw contained its final set of teeth.

Priscilla roamed the earth some 13,000 years ago, and was preserved nearly completely 22 feet underwater in an isolated stretch of the Aucilla River called “Little River”— just outside Tallahassee. After three years of weekend excavation trips lead by Serbousek and his cohorts, Priscilla was finally freed from the riverbed. Eventually, museum-grade reproductions were cast of his bones, the clones of which have been displayed across the U.S.

Priscilla’s original bones reside at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, Fla., but you can enjoy the massive, majestic mastodon right here in Houston at HMNS.

For more information on our new Hall of Paleontology, open to the public June 2, click here.

VIDEO: The mummified dinosaur Leonardo – too good to be true?

“Unbelieveable!”

“Too good to be true…”

“A dinosaur with its last meal meal still preserved inside its stomach…..no one could hope for that….”
Those were some of the skeptical comments heard by Dr. Robert Bakker, Curator at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, from distinguished colleagues in the dino-science word.

“I was unconvinced too….until I came up to Malta, Montana myself,” says Bakker.

“One glance showed that all us PhD’s were wrong. Leonardo the Dinosaur MummyDOES have his gut contents superbly – beautifully – fossilized. At last, we know what the single most important family of dino-species ate.”

Over the past four years, a talented crew of hi-tech, x-ray specialists have scanned and probed and computer-manipulated Leonardo, inventing new techniques. “Northing’s the same anymore…” Bakker mused, “from now on…all us dino-hunters will search for bones on the outside AND the secrets on the inside.”

Now, Leonardo has made his way down to Houston, for a very special exhibit, Dinosaur Mummy CSI: Cretaceous Science Investigation. In this second video in our ongoing series (check out the first video in the series here), Dr. Bakker explains the inner workings of Leonardo’s species from The Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta, Montana.

We’re diiiiging in the rain…

Just diiiiiging in the rain

Well, actually we’re not. That would actually be a really, really bad idea – and if you saw our post earlier with a photo from yesterday’s site, you have a good idea why.

The weather started building yesterday afternoon and by this morning it was coming down hard. Since we were planning to dig Marco, the site Steven discovered yesterday, he was a little disappointed.

And it did rain all day – the first time they have had rain like this in over a year. So it’s not just soaking in – it’s running over the surface in rivers and creating vast quantities of mud that make scaling the steep cliff faces these sites are at the top of near to suicidal.

So, we got the opportunity to work the Dinosaur Field Station, which was just as fascinating (and much less dangerous and/or muddy). This is the facility where they do prep work on finds once they have been brought off the site – stabilizing the fossils, removing the dirt, or “matrix,” and preparing them for display.

It used to be an auto machanic shop, but they have renovated it to include all of the tools they need – large workspaces, a huge storage closet, a wine refrigerator that houses vinac (a glue solution), outlets for air drills that are used to pick away at the matrix and much more.

Right now, the Field Station is a mix of display and work-in-progress, but when the Great Plains Museum opens on June 6, it will serve as a permanent home for these fossils, as well as Leonardo, after his world premiere debut at HMNS.

Leonardo and Roberta

A life-size model of Leonardo stands guard of the real
remains of Roberta, another Brachylophosaur.

So, in addition to prospecting this week, Dr. Bakker is directing the movement of fossils from one place to the other. Today, we assistied with the documentation and categorizization of what they have in storage from over 10 years of digging here – which was quite fun, as they were constantly discovering something they hadn’t seen in several years, like a T. rex brain case (essentially, a natural cast of the inside of a skull) and we got to hear the stories of discovery and excavation. (We’ll share more video soon.)

Dr. Bakker, Mark and Tim

Dr. Bakker, Mark and Tim going through stored fossils to
identify them and analyze their significance
within the planned displays at the new Great Plains Museum.

Roberta closeup

A closeup of Roberta’s ribcage.

Dave and Kathy

Dave and Kathy are examining some fossils in storage,
to record them before the move later this week.

Bye-bye blondie, massive mars and the potato powered web!

Upside down fun

Soon to be extinct?
Creative Commons License photo credit: Phil Romans

The Discovery Channel has named their picks for the top 10 science hoaxes of all time.

Among these “shams of science” are a web server powered with potatoes, the idea that blondes are headed for extinction (the origin of this hoax is an article that the World Health Organization has since requested a retraction of, from the Sunday Times) and the email reminding you not to miss the once in a lifetime experience of seeing the closest approach Mars will EVER make to the Earth’s surface. I know, now you’re thinking “yeah, I got that email!” I did as well. According to Snopes, this will be the sort of prank email that we will see again and again; it started in 2003, and just won’t go away.

You can check out many other hoaxes and even take the gullibility test at museumofhoaxes.com.