Wash, rinse and repeat: See pics from Paleo Wash Day at HMNS Sugar Land

I would like to thank the approximately 175 citizen scientists that came out Saturday at HMNS Sugar Land. They helped us process approximately 1,000 pounds of soil and rock from the specimens we’ve collected from our Permian-aged (182-187 million years ago) site near Seymour,Texas.

washday 010I was impressed with your cooperativeness, curiosity, and, most importantly, the care you all exhibited in processing these samples. Also, this experience absolutely would not have been possible without the facilitation of our experienced museum and field crew volunteers.

washday 011The Process:

In excavating fossils, many times we will work to retain the matrix that is removed from around the specimen. This matrix is soaked in water and allowed to disaggregate. Then the mud is placed and screens and gently rinsed, leaving behind hard pieces — including fossils.

UntitledAfter rinsing, the specimens are dried and then searched. This process will typically reduce the bulk sample size by 80 percent.  People processing the sample typically are left very wet and muddy, as you can see here:

washday 048From all of us here at HMNS, thank you!

Paleontological Pandemonium! It’s happening: Read on

Listen, we need to talk. We have something to tell you, and it’s going to change things. Are you sitting down? Okay.

OUR BRAND SPANKING NEW, HUGEMONGOUS, YEARS-IN-THE-MAKING NEW HALL OF PALEONTOLOGY OPENS JUNE 2.

Hayyy! Ohhhh! Hayyy! Paleooo!

Phew, we feel better getting that off our chests! With all of our prep work, all of our research and all of our behind-the-scenes sneaking, we’re relieved to finally get to share with you all that we’ve been working on.

Here’s a couple figures to get you started:

30,000 square feet
60 brand new mounts
30 prehistoric creatures
12 feet of Megalodon teeth
$85 million buckaroonees

But there’s more: Where other exhibitions feature stagnant skeletons mounted in formal poses, all the mounts in our new paleo hall have been designed in action poses for the ultimate interactive experience. Ever seen a Megalodon eat a prehistoric elephant? Just. You. Wait.

Make sure to follow all the action on Twitter at @hmns and Facebook at facebook.com/natural.science and join the Twitter conversation yourself at #hmnspaleo!

For a full array of great paleo hall photos, check out our Flickr feed here!

Members…And Monsters! [The Prehistoric Kind]

This summer is still swinging (17 straight days of 100+ temps make that fact hard to forget) – but we’re already looking forward to summer 2012!

Why? Because that’s when our new paleontology hall opens!

To get ready, we previewed the new hall this summer with a series of member events – each one featured a different dinosaur that will take up residence in the new wing next year.

Shark Week at HMNS: Megalodon!
Associate Curator of Paleontology David Temple shows an HMNS volunteer
around our 10-foot Megalodon jaw on display to celebrate Shark Week!
The jaw will be part of the new Paleontology Hall, opening Summer 2012!
Prehistoric Monsters: Mosasaur! [July 16, 2011]
Members who attended our Prehistoric Monsters series of events
this summer had the opportunity to talk dinosaurs with our curator of Paleontology, Dr. Bob Bakker!
Prehistoric Monsters: Mosasaur! [July 16, 2011]
Meet the Mosasaur! This prehistoric sea monster will be on display in the new paleontology hall!
Prehistoric Monsters: Quetzalcoatlus [6.11]
Kids dig for – and identify! – fossils!

We want to say a huge THANK YOU to all our new and existing members who joined or renewed this summer – your support is vital to our expansion project, and will enrich science education in the Houston community for decades to come.

If you visited our photo booth during one of our Prehistoric Monster events, find your photos here!

If you’re not yet a member – what are you waiting for?

Members will be the very first to experience the new paleontology hall when it opens next year – and if you join or renew now, you’ll get 3 additional months of membership free! Plus, there are still several great summer member events coming up!

The Man Who Made Fossil Fish Famous

Our Archaeopteryx show has bedazzling fossils – the only Archaeopteryx skeleton in the New World, complete with clear impressions of feathers. Plus frog-mouthed pterodactyls, fast-swimming Sea Crocs, and slinky land lizards. Today we learn about the Louis Agassiz and his theories.

Louis Agassiz (1807-1873)

Paris and the Lure of Fish, 1836
Agassiz grew up in Switzerland where he excelled as a student in  chemistry and natural history. He went to Paris to study fish fossils under the Father of Paleontology, Baron Georges Cuvier. The geological history of fish seemed muddled at the time. Agassiz brought order to the fins and scales.

“There’s order in the way fish changed through the ages…” Agassiz concluded. He was the first to map out the long history of fish armor, fish jaws and fish tails.

1) The earliest time periods, the Paleozoic Era, most bony fish carried heavy armor in the form of thick scales covered with dense, shiny bone.

2) In the middle Periods, the Mesozoic, the armored fish became rarer and were replaced by fish with thin, flexible scales.

3) In the later Periods, the Cenozoic, thin-scaled fish took over in nearly all habitats.

4) Today, the old-fashioned thick scales persist only in a few fresh-water fish like the gar.

5) Tails changed too. The oldest bony fish had shark-like tails, with the vertebral column bending upwards to support the top of the fin. Later fish had more complicated tail bones, braced by special flanges, and the base of the tail was more symmetrical.

6) Jaws in the earliest bony fish were stiff, like the jaws of crocodiles. Later fish developed jaw bones that could swing outwards and forwards.

Discovery of the Ice Age
As he traveled across Europe, Agassiz saw evidence of giant ice sheets that had covered the mountains and plains. According to Agassiz’s theory, New England too had been invaded by mile-high ice layers. Giant hairy elephants – woolly mammoths – had frolicked in the frigid habitats. At first,  scholars harrumphed at Agassiz’s idea of a Glacial Period.  But by the mid 1840’s the theory was proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Boston 1846: Toast of the Town & the New Museum
Fish and glaciers made Agassiz the most famous scientist of his time. When he came to Boston in the 1846, his lectures were so successful that the New England intellectuals wouldn’t let him leave. Poets and politicians, rich merchants and artists all helped raise funds to get Agassiz a professorship at Harvard. He repaid the support by working tirelessly to build a grand laboratory of science and education at Harvard – the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Opened in the 1859,  the MCZ has been a leader in fossil studies ever since.

Design in Nature
Agassiz’s interests spread beyond fish and glaciers. He sought the Plan of Creation, the key to understanding all of Nature. Was it  Evolution? No. Agassiz rejected any notion that natural processes somehow had transformed one species into another. He was a fierce exponent of the theory of Serial Creation: every species of fossil creature was created to fill its ecological role in its special geological time zone.

Darwin and Agassiz
Though he fought Darwin’s theories for his whole life, Agassiz’s work in fact provided support for the new views of evolution. The long trends in fish fins and scales were best explained by Natural Selection. Agassiz’s best students at Harvard went on to become strong supporters of Darwinism.  Endowed faculty positions were established in Agassiz’s name.  Agassiz Professorships were given to Alfred Sherwood Romer, the greatest Darwinian  paleontologist of the 20 century, and to Stephen Jay Gould, the most eloquent defender of Darwin in the last thirty years.

Don’t miss Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution, currently on display at HMNS. To read more about Agassiz and Darwin, check out my earlier blog.