The Earth’s First Apocalypse: Texas Red Beds, 285 Million Years Ago

At a dig site in North Texas, the Houston Museum of Natural Science is investigating the animals that would have died off when this first mass extinction event occurred. Recently, a production crew from the History Channel came along on-site – and their footage of Dr. Bakker and the Museum’s team airs tonight at 8 p.m. as part of a two hour special called (aptly) First Apocalypse. UPDATE: In case you missed it, the special re-airs locally Saturday, Jan. 10 at 9 p.m. and a few hours later, Sunday morning at 1 a.m. (Check your local listings.)

In this post, Dr. Bakker explores several extinction events, including the first, Permian extinction you’ll see featured on the History Channel tonight.

Big Hairy Elephant
Creative Commons License photo credit: Yogi

ICE AGE DISASTER: MAMMOTHS & SABER-TOOTHS.

In the early 1800’s, paleontology astounded the world when fossils documented the phenomenon of mass extinctions, times when the whole menagerie of big terrestrial critters went extinct.

The first mass die-off that was discovered killed the gigantic mammoths, mastodons, ground sloths, saber-tooth tigers and dozens of other large mammals. This extinction event occurred during the Ice Age. The Ice Age Event didn’t hit small species – if you were a vole, mole, rat, bat or chipmunk, your species had a good chance of surviving.

Today, we know that the extinction took place between 2 million and ten thousand years ago.

DINO-DIE OFF – 65 MILLION YEARS AGO.

By the 1830s, a second giant extinction event was revealed. All the huge Dinosauria disappeared at the end of the Age of Reptiles. Small creatures – birds and salamanders, lizards and frogs, snakes and furry mammals – survived in great numbers.

DINO-DIE-OFF BOUNCE – OPPORTUNITIES FOR FURBALLS.

Mass extinctions weren’t all negative. Dino-die-offs kick-started evolution in the survivors. From the little furry mammals who survived came a wonderful new evolutionary wave of big predators and herbivores – horses, rhinos, hippos, water buffalo, elephants, bears, tigers, cheetahs and wolves. This Darwinian bounce happened every time there was a catastrophic extinction.

THE LATE PERMIAN DISASTER – 250 MILLION YEARS AGO.

Digging in oceanic strata during the mid-1800s showed yet another catastrophe, when the Permian Period ended. Most common species of marine life disappeared, including trilobites, corals, and many species of shellfish.

Die-offs struck the land too – most of the big land reptiles, who filled the role of Top Predator and Top Herbivore, died out. Many small species persisted and from these humble survivors came the next wave of big land animals, including the dinosaurs.

WHAT KILLED THE LAND GIANTS?

Many theories sprung up to explain the great die-offs: the agent of extinction was identified as:

sudden increases in earth temperatures, or

sudden decreases in temperature, or

changes in atmospheric gases, or

changes in humidity, or

abrupt rise of mountains, or

abrupt disappearance of mountains, or

draining away of shallow seas, or

increase in volcanic eruptions, or

sudden impacts of meteorites, or

invasion of foreign species from one continent to another.

TEXAS RED BEDS – EXTINCTION # 1, 285 MILLION YEARS AGO.

Diadectes, side and top view. (c) Dr. Robert T. Bakker

To sort through all the possible solutions, it would help to find the very first case when large land animals evolved and then died-off. North Central Texas preserves this earliest apocalypse in the red-stained rocks laid down in the Early Permian. This extinction was long before the event that struck at the Late Permian.

Beginning in 1877, Texas excavations showed how the earliest large land herbivores evolved. These plant-eating pioneers were wide-bodied, low-slung reptiles known as “Cross-Biters,” Diadectes. Diadectes and its kin were the first large land animals to acquire the wide molars and big guts needed to digest leaves and branches from terrestrial bushes and trees.

The members of the Diadectes Family were the commonest land herbivore for fifteen million years…..and then, suddenly, they went extinct. The pattern at this first die-off matches what we’ve seen in the other land extinctions – small species were far more successful in living through the event.

RED BEDS BOUNCE – EXTINCTION #1 OPENS OPPORTUNITIES FOR FAUNA # 2 – THE TEXAS WIDE-BODIES.

This first die-off opened niches for the survivors. New and spectacular large herbivores evolved from small ancestors. In the Texas Red Beds, we find super-wide-bodied caseid reptiles who reached weights of more than a half ton.

The wide-bodied caseid reptile. (c) Dr. Robert T. Bakker

EXTINCTION #2 OPENS OPPORTUNITIES FOR FAUNA #3 – THE DOME-HEADS.

The wide-bodied caseids flourished for millions of years in the Middle Permian – then, the second extinction struck. Caseids disappeared. Evolving into the gap were advanced mammal-like reptiles with thick bone foreheads. There were both giant carnivores (anteosaurs) and giant herbivores (keratocephs).

Keratocephus, having a bit of trouble with anteosaurus. (c) Dr. Robert T. Bakker

The Houston Museum continues digging in north Texas, where the Red Beds record the earliest waves of large land animal evolution and the first extinction events. Many mysteries remain. But one pattern seems confirmed:

Mass die-offs on land are targeted like smart bombs. If you’re a big herbivore or big carnivore, you have the highest probability of going extinct.

Learn more about the First Apocalypse, and see Dr. Bakker and the Museum’s paleontology team in action, tonight at 8 p.m. on The History Channel.



My love affair with the tropics (how and why I became a biologist)

 Our fearless leader
Dr. Larry Gilbert

My introduction to the tropics was in the summer of 1983, when I lucked into accompanying Dr. Larry Gilbert (UT Zoology) and his students on a field course to Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.  Not being a student at the time (I’d gotten a BA in linguistics a couple years before but was working as a secretary on the UT campus), but having some proficiency in Spanish, I was hired by Dr. Gilbert as his assistant and translator since his regular teaching assistant was off making a film in New Guinea. 

After several weeks in Patterson Hall on the UT campus, translating documents and readying equipment, we left for Costa Rica, flying into the capitol, San Jose.  Here our party (5 graduate students plus Dr. Gilbert – Larry to his students – and myself) spent a couple of days at the “Costa Rica Inn” – a rambling one-story labyrinth of a hotel near the downtown area.  San Jose is a typical Central American city, with lots of traffic and pollution, no interesting architecture to speak of…but great ice cream and plenty of activity – and in those days, very safe at all hours.  We visited the Natural History Museum and the local university, picked up some supplies (foam mattresses and rum are what I remember!), and made our flight arrangements.  We were flying in to the park in two 5-seater Cessnas; there was no other access to the remote field site location. 

View of the Corcovado canopy from the plane.
Photo by Dr. Larry Gilbert.

The day arrived and we boarded the tiny planes.  I was quite nervous as I had never flown in such a small plane before, and the pilot warned us that it might be a bumpy ride due to rising air currents as we crossed the mountains.  And Larry joked about the two wrecked planes that decorated the end of the airstrip in the park… 

The flight took about an hour, and it was indeed turbulent.  Finally we flew out over the Osa Peninsula and saw nothing but forest below us, and then the Pacific Ocean beyond. We suddenly turned at right angles to the coastline to land at a tiny airstrip cleared in the rainforest, ending at the beach…and there, indeed, were the two wrecks.  Welcome to Sirena Station of Corcovado National Park!

We pitched tents in the clearing/horse pasture behind the rustic park station building; this would be our home for the next six weeks.  The students included Darlyne, studying heliconius butterflies; Kirk, studying the fish communities in freshwater streams; Jamie, studying howler monkeys, and Peggy and John, new students who had not yet decided on projects.  Two senior students, Peng Chai and Sue Boinski, were already in the park.  Peng was studying bird predation on butterflies.  “Bo” as she was called, was the equivalent of a mountain man, in my somewhat awed view.  She had spent the past several years following troupes of squirrel monkeys to learn about their behavior and mating habits, sometimes staying in the park for over a year at a stretch. In the course of her wanderings she had dodged fer-de-lance and bushmaster snakes, and had some (very shaky) video footage of a pair of jaguars lazily playing together, oblivious of their nervous human watcher. 

Fruits of the
Corcovado rainforest.
Photo by Dr. Larry Gilbert.

The Sirena station was a bustling place.  Since in those days (before the gold miner crisis of 1985) it served as the park headquarters, it was the central point in Corcovado for communications and supplies, which were all brought in by plane.  The park director was stationed here, along with about 5-6 park guards.  Other park guards travelling by horseback from the outlying stations came in to pick up their allotment of supplies, or to rotate out for a week’s holiday.  The radio crackled all day long:  “Sierra Papa Norte Dos a Sierra Papa Norte” (National Park Service station 2 to headquarters).  I learned all sorts of things in radio lingo – “Cambio” meant over, “Dos” meant good, “Dos y medio” was so-so, “Tres” meant bad, “un 22” was a telephone call, “10” was crazy, etc. 

The station in those days was rustic.  Electricity was provided by generator only at lunchtime and for a couple hours in the evening.  Running water was ingeniously piped in from a nearby stream.  Course participants and park guards all ate together in a little open-sided building:  generous portions of rice and beans, smaller portions of meat and vegetables, inventive desserts, and drinks made from fresh tropical fruits, all deliciously prepared by Maria, the feisty and attractive cook.

Buttress of a tropical giant.
Photo by Dr. Larry Gilbert.

The first few days Larry led his students and me on long, sometimes wild walks through the forest – up over the steep knife-edged ridges, crashing down through stream beds, slogging along the beach or sweltering through open areas.  What an amazing place!  I was in love with the forest from the moment I saw it.  So many plants – so many insects, birds, monkeys, frogs, snakes, etc.  But especially plants.  It was like being in the most amazing botanical garden.  Here things I’d only seen as houseplants grew rampantly everywhere.  Ferns were not just ferns but trees.  And trees, with their huge buttresses as big around as a house, towered into the canopy.

Squirrel Monkies are common
near Sirena

After a week or so of our introductory walks, the students settled down to their research projects.  Since I wasn’t a student and didn’t have my own project, I helped some of the others where I could.  I soon was spending most of my time with Kirk, helping him census the fish in the many small streams that cut across the peninsula – streams so clear and clean that we drank out of them.  I learned a lot about fish that summer!  At night, we all sat in the little screened porch behind the radio room, burning candles and mosquito coils while we read or wrote up our field notes, or listened to one of the students give a status report on his or her project.  Larry often regaled us with funny stories of his past students…considerably embellished over the years, I am sure!

 Tropical leaf-footed bug

All too soon the summer came to an end, and we had to leave the park and head back to Texas to begin the new semester.  We packed the tents and our supplies into coolers to keep out the mildew.  Said our goodbyes to the park guards and to Maria.  Cleaned up the area we had taken over as our evening “lab.”  While we waited for the planes to arrive I took a last walk up the Claro trail to a ridge where, sitting on the buttress root of a huge strangler fig, I could see over the forest and out to sea.  What an adventure it had been!  What a lot of amazing biology I had learned!  Nostalgia for the place swept over me – but I heard the drone of the plane and had to rush back to camp.  We boarded the Cessna, and as it rumbled down the bumpy airstrip and began to lift into the air, I thought – if the plane crashes on the way back, I will die happy.  I have just spent the most amazing summer of my life.

I ended up becoming one of Larry’s students and spending several more summers in the park and elsewhere in the tropics.  However, that first experience stays with me as one of the real highlights of my existence on this earth. 

 Ornate flower of a tropical passionvine
 Red-eyed treefrogs.

On the Twelfth Day of HMNS…Discover The Woodlands Xploration Station

It’s the 12th day of HMNS today – and I hope you’ve enjoyed the series of videos and ideas for fun this holiday season at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. For all the ideas in one place, check out the 12 Days of HMNS web site. Have a lovely holiday!

The Museum District in Hermann Park isn’t the only place you can visit the Houston Museum of Natural Science – we’ve got a satellite educational facility in The Woodlands, too! It’s worth the trip just for the amazing array of dinosaurs you can see there. A cast model of Stan the T. rex guards the entrance (probably the only place you can see a dinosaur in a shopping mall); you can also see one of the world’s largest juvenile Triceratops, Raymond; a fighting Protoceratops and Velociraptor; and a full sized Acrocanthosaurus skull.

In the video below, site manager Nancy WeHunt takes you on a fascinating tour of this unique facility, from the live frogs to exotic insects and much, much more.

The Woodlands Xploration Station is just one of the fun and fascinating options for families, from the Houston Museum of Natural Science. In a take-off of everyone’s favorite holiday classic, The 12 Days of Christmas, we’ve got 12 ideas for fabulous family fun this holiday and we’ll be sharing the possibilities here every day until Christmas Eve. Best of all, most are activities that last past the holiday season – some, year round. You can also check them all out now at the spiffy new 12 Days of HMNS web site.

Visit the 12 Days of HMNS web site to
look behind-the-scenes this holiday;
click each small box to explore different videos.

Check out the first eleven days of HMNS:
On the first day of HMNS, explore The Birth of Christianity.

On the second day of HMNS, shop for Sci-tastic gifts.

On the third day of HMNS, meet Prancer the reindeer.

On the fourth day of HMNS, discover the making of The Star of Bethlehem.

On the fifth day, move it, move it with Madagascar 2 in the Wortham IMAX Theatre.

On the sixth day, hunt dinosaurs with Dr. Bob Bakker.

On the seventh day, look inside the human body in BODY WORLDS 2.

On the eighth day, meet the HMNS Entomologists.

On the ninth day, peer into the Gem Vault.

On the tenth day, explore the cosmos at the George Observatory.

On the eleventh day, go on the Quest for High Bear.

I Sold My Soul to Science

I have been associated with the Museum in some form or fashion for over 10 years. Not only do I work for the Museum, I live with and am married to the Museum as well.  During this time I generally get asked three questions.  The first question is always, “What is it like to be married to / live with David?” My husband David Temple is the Associate Curator of Paleontology.  If you don’t like rocks and fossils, he will be around to convert you shortly.

People assume that we have some crazy life, but mostly we are just really busy. We truly enjoy being at our house (both at the same time, which makes it more difficult). I like to think that our house is styled after the Victorian period.  Dave likes to think of it as Neo Adams.

We get the weirdest questions about our house. As if we wouldn’t have all the standards that other houses have. So to prove that this is a fact, I have some pictures. (The house is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.)

We will begin with the kitchen. To prove that we are normal, here is our fridge. Like everyone else, we tack important bits of info to the fridge so they don’t get lost.


Like everyone else, we have scorpion and cobra whiskey on the fridge stored neatly under a Thai head dress. We have the odd assortment of frozen foods, like butterfly wings. And dead animals.

We like coffee in the morning. And we keep our pets next to the coffee maker on the counter.

As for the Dermestid Beetles.  They are actually my pet project.

We are trying to make skeleton mounts for the Education Collections and  I thought that the beetles might help with one or two dried frogs we had managed to acquire. This is about a month into the process.  The frog in this case had been mummified for about a year before giving him to the beetles.  A smaller, fresher frog, only took about two weeks.

I love baking cupcakes. Believe me, there was talk of an intervention. Dave loves to cook.  The kitchen is the central area in our house, as it is for most people.  We often have a variety of projects beside baking or cooking though.

In our kitchen, we have a hutch where we keep cook books. Cook books are safe and normal, I am sure you would agree. Dave collects cookbooks of various cultures and time periods and cuisines.

We have a room in the house that started off as the study/office, but it wasn’t widely used as most of the activities in this room ended up in the kitchen anyway. SO, I claimed it as my sewing room. Quilting often keeps me from killing my family. It is a great creative outlet and I am surrounded by inspiration.

 

Our back yard is often neglected, but we do seem to have an abundance of Aloe Vera for some reason.  Occasionally we water them and call it gardening. Directly next to the Aloe is my bucket o’ bones.  If you have read my previous posts on the Museum’s blog, you will be happy to note that the bones have made it inside and are being sorted. Plus, there is the bullfrog rescue operation Dave has started.

The second question I am always asked is, “What is it like to work at the Museum?”

The Museum is a cruel mistress.  You work long hours on weird projects, often on the weekends and you love every minute of it. The Museum is home.  Your house is where you keep your stuff when not at home. Here are a few shots of my office so you can envision the crazy. Note the Tapir skeleton in the background. 

The third question I am asked is, “You must learn a lot working at a Museum, right?”  You would think so, but yet I seem to be filled with only useless information.  I think that I might have a shot on Jeopardy. So, what have I learned working here?

 I know that the Rock Hyrax’s closest relative is the elephant.

 That Thomas Jefferson fully believed that Lewis and Clark would find a live mammoth when they mapped the west.

 

That the cone snail is one of the most deadly animals in the world, but is also used for pain medication. 

That it is better to have a hippo head than no hippo at all.

 

That the First Lady can’t walk under swordfish

 That the admin elevator is the exact right size for a tapir

 

That the giant squid has the largest eyeball of any animal

 And that it isn’t unusual to find your place of work altered on a daily basis.

 

But most importantly I have learned that without the support of the Museum volunteers, our patrons and the Houston community, the Museum could not provide the quality exhibits and programming that we do!