Digging in the dirt: Getting to know the Dimetrodon of the Texas Permian Red Beds

I love my job. Not everyone can say that. My avocation and vocation are as two eyes with one sight (paraphrasing Robert Frost). Part of that job was taking a group of 15 patrons up to the Museum’s dig site outside Seymour, Texas. There, under the tutelage of Dr. Robert Bakker and David Temple, the group learned how to properly excavate bones of ancient animals —  in this case, Permian synapsids, amphibians, and fish.   

I got to go through a spoil pile (the pile of debris and castoff that others have thrown aside), and found several bits of our very early ancestors, the synapsid Dimetrodon.  I also worked on removing the overburden (the rock and dirt that is over a site we want to excavate), and found bits from a dorsal spine of a Xenacanthus, an ancient shark. It was the fulfillment of a childhood dream (as I child I played paleontologist rather than fireman and my first Deinonychus is still buried out back at my childhood home).

But I’m not the only one who dreamed of finding fossils in Texas.

Noted Swiss naturalist Jacob Boll came to Texas in 1869 to join La Reunion commune that is located in the current Reunion District of Dallas. (The Reunion Tower is named in honor of that small settlement.) La Reunion commune was responsible for the first brewery and butcher shop in the Dallas area. It also helped Dallas become the center for carriage and harness making.

Jacob Boll came over to set up high schools based in scientific inquiry. Through the late 1870s, he searched for fossils for Edward Drinker Cope, the noted “Bone Wars” paleontologist. Boll found over 30 new vertebrate species from the Permian period, which can be seen in the collections of the American Museum of Natural History.  Unfortunately, on his last trip, he was bitten by a rattlesnake, wrote some final letters to his family, composed a short poem in German, and died.  

In the Permian period, Texas was very different from today. Near Seymour, there were rivers and seasonal flood plains. However, even with this picture, there are still unexplained factors about the life of Dimetrodon — one being that there was not enough prey to sustain the population that we have found in the fossil record. While the Dimetrodon were making sushi out of Xenacanthus and chewing on some Trimerorhachis legs (like frog legs, only much shorter), there was not enough food to go around.

Now add to this case the curious fact that almost no Dimetrodon skeleton found has an intact tail. Anyone who has been to a good Cajun restaurant will know that the best meat on an alligator is the tail. And Dimetrodon would agree — hence the lack of tails.

But even this does not account for all the food necessary to keep all the predators alive.  Where is the missing food?

Dr. Bakker gave us a couple of hints as to what he thinks is the answer. 

 A few miles away from the site, there is an old Permian river basin where we find Edaphosaurus, a large Dimetrodon-like herbivore. Was it possible for Dimetrodon to walk a few miles, ambush an animal about its size, then walk back for a rest? This would provide food for the population.          

If you are interested in learning more about the Texas Red Beds, join us for our Fossil Recovery Class on May 20. You can go through some of our collection from the trip and learn about fossil collecting and identification techniques.

Click here for more information.  

We can dig it: Celebrate National Fossil Day and learn what to do with what you find

There’s a day for just about everything these days, but National Fossil Day is one we can really dig.

Organized by the National Park Service, National Fossil Day isn’t just about appreciating past millennia frozen in time by the likes of these little guys:

A teensy TrilobiteA stunning pair of Trilobites, currently residing in the Morian Hall of Paleontology.

It’s also about public awareness and promoting stewardship of fossils. Says the National Park Service:

Fossils discovered on the nation’s public lands preserve ancient life from all major eras of Earth’s history, and from every major group of animal or plant. In the national parks, for example, fossils range from primitive algae found high in the mountains of Glacier National Park, Montana, to the remains of ice-age animals found in caves at Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Public lands provide visitors with opportunities to interpret a fossil’s ecological context by observing fossils in the same place those animals and plants lived millions of years ago.

Do you know the rules when it comes to fossils found on public lands? If not, educate yoself! Happy finding!

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.


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!