HIPS HIPS HURRAY! [Dimetrodon Fossil Update]

Your HMNS field crew and lab staff score the missing pelvis!

Willie the Dimetrodon continues to command the attention of your Paleo Dept. personnel. In May through June, David Temple led an intrepid crew who gently lifted the plaster jacket containing Willie’s torso, shoulder and rump. Local ranchers Donny Gale and Gary Max Coltharp once again generously donated their time and machinery – especially useful was the Coltharp front-loader named “Lola.”

But still – though Willie is among the very finest D’dons anywhere, he had a pelvic deficit. Check out this hip diagram.

CB-WilliHipsEdge

Willie’s sacral ribs are there, the parts of the vertebral column that hold the hips. However, the hip bones themselves are still missing. Probably some hungry scavenger came by and bit these meaty bits off (one rib was twisted out of place too  and the lower left shoulder had some bite marks).

“Locality Edge” comes to the rescue. Discovered by a local science teacher four years ago, Locality Edge is an awesome outcrop of badlands, full of tortuous arroyos, box canyons and spires of red rock. The strata here are just a bit later than our Craddock Bone Bed and about a mile away. We removed a pelvis and set it in a drawer.

c-Willi-Edge-Pelvissmall

We did note that this set of pelvic bones was unusual – the shape was not distorted by the tons of rock that had buried it. Most of the time the burial layers flatten out natural curves of the upper bone, the ilium, and the wide lower bones, pubis & ischium. The Edge pelvis miraculously survived 285 million years under the rock layers. The lower bones kept the strong inward curve that the living animal had.

c-williedgevaronicasmll

The thought erupted in our minds: Could the Edge pelvis fit our Willie? Was it big enough??

Was it the correct species? We took the pelvis out of its museum tray and I brought it to the small but excellent prep lab at the Morrison Museum in Colorado (located a short drive from the famous Coors Brewery). The Morrison Museum generously opens its facilities for special Houston projects. Thirty hours of work later, with the assistance of three delicate pneumatic chisels, the outer form was cleaned of the rock (note the specimen in the skilled hands of a Morrison volunteer at right).

Superb!  And  when the inner surface of the ilium was placed next to Willie’s sacral rib, they clicked together precisely.  The size was perfect. So was the shape – the Edge specimen clearly came from the same species and the same body size.

Now, the pelvis is getting its final beauty-treatment at the skilled hands of volunteers at the Houston Museum prep lab.

Thus the contributions of a dozen volunteers and staff, plus two labs, has taken us one step further in getting Willie up on his feet, to delight and instruct  HMNS visitors.

Examining the Aftermath of Hurricane Ike

Today’s guest blogger is Bryan Carlile, an environmental cartographer and photographer. Bryan will join a panel of experts at HMNS on Jan 21 at 6 p.m. to discuss the threats that affect our Texas Gulf Coast. In the article below, Bryan discusses his interest in geospatial technologies and how he was involved in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike.

Growing up, while kids around me pretended to be soldiers and football stars, I was recreating the great adventures of discovery in my backyard.  I imagined myself as a member of the Lewis & Clark expedition, discovering new worlds and mapping virgin territories.  Nothing has ever been as fascinating or exciting to me as the natural world.  I grew up with this obsessive passion for science, never knowing that it could become a profession.  I did not believe it was possible to make a career out of studying maps, weather patterns and taking pictures of the animals and landscapes that enthralled me.  After all, who gets to list ‘fun’ in their job description when they’re grown up?

As a geospatial technologies consultant my life is full of doing what I love.  I find myself at the center of modern technology, focused on both ancient and developing patterns of our incredible planet Earth.  Every day I combine geographic, temporal and spatial information to assist in the planning, decision-making and operational needs of many types of organizations.  I create everything from aerial maps of potential corporate sites to defined pollution boundaries for state and local agencies.  I am regularly involved in archeology, biology, cartography, ecology, forestry, geology, hydrology and real estate.

Working in Texas definitely keeps me busy.  Because it is such an enormous state, it encompasses many environments and endless potential.  Settled in Houston, I can study urban sprawl, the plains of the Hill Country and the fascinating Gulf Coast.  In 2008, when the coast was hit by the monumental hurricane named Ike, I was called upon as a first responder.  I boarded a helicopter and traveled to Galveston, prepared to assist when nature had dealt one of its worst blows.

As I hovered in the Galveston sky, searching for survivors and emergencies to report, I realized the gravity of what had occurred.  Nature left me awestruck.  I knew very few aircraft were allowed in this area, particularly not press helicopters, and because of this the average Texan would never know how hard their homeland was hit.  It felt important to me to capture this moment as a witness to the power of natural disasters and with the hope that maybe scientists could study these images to learn a little bit more about how the natural world works.  For the next several days my time on the helicopter was spent concentrating on obtaining the best aerial photographs I could.  Aerial photography has always been a hobby of mine and there was no better time to put my skills to good use.

Educating ourselves about nature and natural disasters is one of the most important things humans can do.  Our planet is a precious resource and the more we learn about the way it works the more we can do to keep it healthy and happy.  My next adventure suddenly seemed obvious: What better way to learn about these images than to present them to oceanographers, photographers and natural scientists?  Better yet, what if their findings could be discussed among not only each other, but residents of the area that was so affected?

Thursday, Jan. 21 at HMNS, an assembled team from across the country will join together to assess the impact of Hurricane Ike as well as the fragile state of our unique and wonderful ecosystem.  The panel is composed of experts that can educate all of us about the Texas Gulf Coast and the effect of such a historically strong storm.  Beside me will sit environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn, Oceanography professor John B. Anderson, former director of Texas Parks & Wildlife Andrew Sansom, and the former chief scientist of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Center for Coastal Geology Abby Sallenger.  I have no doubt that I will learn as much as I can teach at this symposium, and my hope is for interested and concerned Houstonians to join us.  Let’s educate ourselves about the Texas Gulf Coast.  I’d love to see you there.

Come check out our symposium on the Texas Coast at HMNS on Jan. 21 at 6 p.m. Make sure that while you are here on Jan 21. you sign up to win an aerial tour of Galveston by helicopter.

The Heart of a Collector: 500 pez dispensers don’t lie

Pez Collection
Creative Commons License photo credit: Okaggi

One day it just happens. You look around your living space and realize, oh-my-gosh, I have 500 Pez dispensers. Well, ok, maybe not Pez dispensers and maybe not 500 of them but you do have a whole lot of one particular item. Congratulations! Whether intentional or not, you’ve got a collection!

Since you’re reading the HMNS blog, I’m thinking your collection probably runs more towards natural specimens and artifacts. But it doesn’t matter whether it’s Pez dispensers or wombat figurines, every personal collection could use some management. And viewing your collection like a museum collections professional can be helpful.

To start, I’m putting on my registrar’s hat to caution all collectors strongly about specimen and artifact collection. There is a myriad of state, federal and international laws about surface collection, sale and import/export of natural history specimens and antiquities. Please be sure you’re up to date on them. Ignorance of these laws won’t get you out of hot water and the penalties are pretty stiff. If you want to know more about these laws contact me or a curator and we can point you towards the appropriate websites. Caveats issued, let’s begin.

Sand Dollars and Shells
Creative Commons License photo credit: Zevotron

First, define your collection – briefly please. Do you collect rocks, shells and fossils? Take a broader approach and say you collect natural science (or natural history) specimens. As you organize further you can break down the collection into its various categories of geology, conchology and paleontology. Next, spend some time pondering the scope of your collection. Are all additions welcome no matter how tangential? Or do you collect with a narrower focus? If your collection has a sharper focus what are the criteria? People collect for all kinds of personal reasons. The scope of your collection might be dictated by color, size, geographic place, cost or a combination of things. The important thing is to define it as one all-encompassing entity.

Now that you know what your collection is you have to know what’s in it. If you haven’t been an intentional collector it’s likely that you’re not so sure how many items you’ve got. An accurate count is essential. Start with an overall count of every item; for example, a pottery collection of thirty pieces. In the highly unlikely occurrence that you collect only one thing identically replicated over and over you can stop here.

Otherwise, the next step is where you truly put your own stamp on your collection. Decide and define the different categories of your collection. You’re not just a collector but a curator as well, so you can lump items together however it pleases you – size, shape, color, date, whatever. If you’re serious about natural science specimens, it is best to follow the Linnaean system. But whatever you use, get an accurate count of the number of items that fit in each category.

Harry Potter
A picture of the artist adds
to your collection.
Creative Commons License photo credit: lakshmi.prabhala

As every devout fan of the Antiques Roadshow knows, documentation is most important. Always document the date and place where you’ve collected. If you’ve added to your collection by purchase, keep the receipt. If your collection has ethnographic artifacts such as pottery or textiles, ask the artist if you if you can take their photograph. Getting yourself in a photograph with the artist also helps to document your collection. When collecting specimens be as specific as you can about location and circumstances.

Good images, digital or film, are very important. Individual images are best but group shots are good too. Brief written statements about your collection add to its educational value. Detailed documentation is of enormous help should you decide to part with your collection by donation or sale. It is absolutely necessary if your collection is lost to theft, fire or water. It’ll also stop your heirs from pitching it, especially if they haven’t a clue about what you collected.

How you keep track of your collection may also change over time.
This is the very first collections ledger for the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
(Learn more in this year’s history series: 100 Years – 100 Objects.)

So, how do you keep on top of all that documentation and cataloguing? Again, it’s up to you. Many people do just fine keeping receipts, photos, etc. in an archival notebook or album. If you want to keep it all digitally you can scan hard copies (but keep those originals!) and use a spreadsheet for cataloguing. Excel will do, especially if you’ve got less than two hundred items. Should you want to get really serious, lots of collectors use Filemaker Pro, though I hasten to add that I haven’t personally worked with it. There are collection management databases but they’re all geared towards museums and libraries, expensive and way too complicated for the needs of a private collector.

These are just a few suggestions to start maintaining your collection. A future blog will cover basic care and preservation. And if all this seems too arduous, don’t worry about it. Collecting should be a fun and relaxing pursuit. After all, those 500 Pez dispensers are meant to be enjoyed.

Beyond the Bones: ABC-13 features Leonardo in 30-minute special

Ack! Paleontologists often take their lives in their
hands to get to fossils. In this shot, they’re looking
at some T. rex fossils on a two-foot ledge that’s
hanging over a 100-foot drop.

Thanks to Hurricane Ike, most of us were still without power when the Discovery Channel aired their documentary about Leonardo, the mummified dinosaur.

Luckily, a local ABC news crew came along on our recent trip to Malta, MT (it’s quite a trek) to see Leonardo, the mummy dinosaur, and venture out to the very remote site (about 2 hours outside a town that is 4 hours from the closest city) where this famous dinosaur was discovered.

It was an amazing experience – and ABC captured it all for their newest 30-minute special, Beyond the Bones: Dinosaur Mummy CSI, airing tomorrow night – Saturday, Oct 4 - after the 10 p.m. news. They braved the elements, trekked to the top of the highest cliffs, risked the ire of some very enthusiastic cows - and even hung outside of vehicles to bring you the story of an extraordinary 77-million year old duckbill dinosaur. If it sounds dramatic – that’s because it was.

Now that’s commitment.

As a photo, this is kind ofimpressive – in the sense that nowadays, anyone who doesn’t wear a seatbelt is perceived as a crazed loon. But I was in the car in front of this one – and what you don’t see is the foot-thick mud we’re fish-tailing through, the 200-foot cliff that’s only slightly to the left of this frame, the forty-degree incline of the hill and the pouring rain that’s obscuring all of the drivers’ vision. I felt like a crazed loon just for being there, and I was buckled in, windows up with a white-knuckle grip on the hang-bar. Mike (holding the camera) is just crazy-awesome – and I can’t wait to see the shots he got.

Art Rascon interviews paleontologist Mark Thompson,
who was on the dig that uncovered Leonardo.

The rain and the mud were so bad that only extremely tough vehicles could make it through to the site where Leonardo was discovered – which is located in one of many, many almost unbelievably gorgeous ravines that – out of nowhere – just fall away from solid ground. (It’s a good idea to watch where you’re going.)

It’s actually pretty tough to get there in normal conditions – so, our transport options were limited. When Mark, one of the paleontologists who was there when Leonardo was uncovered, jumped in the back to ride down to the site – Art and Mike rode with him to get an interview along the way. (Notice I am taking this photo from the safety of the car’s interior). This shot really does not do justice to the madness of trying to avoid being thrown from a vehicle that’s descending 40 degree, unpaved inclines littered with boulders – in the rain.

You can get in on the action – which covers everything from Leonardo’s life 77 million years ago and the site of his unexpected discovery in Montana to behind-the-scenes shots of the exhibit in Houston and the second hurricane Leonardo experienced – when ABC airs the special this Saturday night. Tune in – and come by to see Leonardo for yourself; he’s in Houston through Jan. 11, 2009.