News alert: HMNS field expedition uncovers terrifying evidence of prehistoric zombies?!

Our intrepid fossil-hunters, digging in the sun-baked Red Beds of Baylor County, face myriad dangers to life and limb (and fingers and toes). There are afternoons when the thermometer in the bone quarries reaches 140 degrees, and even Harvard PhDs have been known to hallucinate.

There are two species of rattlesnake, plus the occasional angry Black Angus bull.  At times, thousands of dark, hairy tarantulas — all males — start marching on their courtship walk-about, searching for coy females tucked away in their burrows. Much worse are the fearsome foot-long centipedes who run up inside your pants to sink their venomous fangs into the soft sectors of your thigh. These will send you to the friendly folks at the emergency room at the efficient Seymour Hospital.

Could there be a more malicious menace? Our paleontologists might have found one: Paleo-Zombies!

As cable TV has taught us, the key identification mark of a zombie is its hunger for brains. Well, classical zombies are also cannibals. They are especially fond of the cerebral morsels from the heads of their own species. Given such zombie lore, how would we tell if a prehistoric critter was a zombie? Easy. It would leave gnaw marks on the skeletons of its own kind, concentrated on the braincase bones that housed the brains in life.

Since 2007, we’ve dug up hundreds of chewed reptile and amphibian bones from our Red Beds sites, which were formed during the Early Permian Period about 285 million years ago. We have thigh bones chewed on both ends, shins bitten in half, shoulders and hips deeply scarred by scavenging teeth. We’ve found the “chiropractor’s nightmare” — vertebral spines snapped in two by massive bites. Even some jaw bones and muzzles bear scars made by gnawing, gnashing fangs.

We have some fossils that are truly disturbing — bones that wrapped around the brain in the living animal. We can see clear evidence of determined nibbling and biting. Something was trying to gobble down brains — or so it seems.

Were there paleo-zombies in the Permian?
The back of a Dimetrodon skull. Note the serious nibbling to the left of the brain cavity. Photo by Matt Mossbrucker, Director of the Morrison Museum in Morrison, Colorado

Our brain-bitten victim is a Dimetrodon, the top predator of early Permian times. Dimetrodon was about as heavy as a tiger, but with short legs and scaly toes. So who was the biter? We have some CSI evidence in what we call “fossil ballistics.” When Dimetrodon fed, it shed tooth crowns shark-style. A hard-gnawing D’don would lose a crown or two, but no harm done — new crowns were already growing up through the tooth sockets to replace the old ones. Crowns get fossilized in the mud next to the skeleton that was chewed. The shed crowns are like the bullets found in crime scenes today — unambiguous evidence of who chewed whom.

Our HMNS field crew is super-compulsive about “fossil ballistics.” We crawl around on hands and knees, scouring the red rock, gently extracting every scrap of dental clue. We shovel up piles of mud and then dissolve the sediment over fine-mesh screens to catch the tiniest crowns. We’ve recovered more hard evidence on gnawing than any other expedition to the famous fossil fields north of Seymour.

But enough about us. Let’s get back to our brain-bit victim, Dimetrodon. Shed teeth dug near the skeletons are strong evidence pointing to the perp. The identification of the chewer is clear: It was another Dimetrodon! That is seriously spooky. Even for a veteran dino hunter, the image of brain-crazed Permian reptiles is a bit unnerving.

Were there paleo-zombies in the Permian?
A scientifically accurate reconstruction of a brain-seeking zombie Dimetrodon.
Don’t worry, no Federal funds were expended in generating this image.
(Dr. Bob drew it while eating a breakfast burrito.)

But there’s a catch. Human zombies are more efficient predators of their own kind.  Human brains are huge, with each braincase offering up to three pounds of easily digested food that’s naturally low in cholesterol, to boot. (If you’re not a zombie, I’d suggest going to one of our fine Greek restaurants and sampling Miala tiganita, or fried calf brains, to get a sense.)

By comparison, Dimetrodon brains were tiny. A determined Dimetro-zombie would get only a few ounces of Permian brain-meat from an adult victim. When I cleaned out the inside of a big Dimetrodon braincase, the brain inside was smaller than a cocktail frank.

Gnawing and losing crowns just to get at a D’don brain appears to be a waste of time and teeth. So what was going on? Is there an alternative explanation for the bite marks on the braincase?

Maybe.

What do you think is a more believable hypothesis to replace the notion of Red Bed Paleo Zombies?

Learn more about Dimetrodons and what their extinction can tell us about our own evolution this Tuesday, Oct. 30 at a lecture I’m hosting: “Life After the Dinosaurs: Darwinian Saga of the Mammalia.” Click here for tickets.

Roach races, edible bugs, a mad scientist + more! Join us at HMNS Sugar Land for Spooktacular 2012

Looking for a Halloween celebration that’s more treat and less trick?

Join us at HMNS Sugar Land on Sunday, Oct. 28 for Spooktacular, a costumed celebration for the whole family! This kid-friendly party includes our Spook House, a mad scientist, and a creepy entomologist who will offer a different kind of Halloween treat — this one with a crispy bug.

Sugar Land Spooktacular 2012While you’re there, try your hand at our roach race track, participate in holiday crafts and leave with a treat bag! All Spooktacular activities are included with the price of general admission, so explore our museum halls while you’re here.

For more info on Spooktacular and other HMNS Sugar Land programming, click here.

What: HMNS Sugar Land Spooktacular
When: Sunday, Oct. 28 from 2 to 4 p.m.
How Much: FREE with general admission

Spirits & Skeletons approaches: Dress up without dumbing down with these scientifically inclined costume ideas

We know you know all about Spirits & Skeletons: Molly and the Ringwalds will be rockin’, a caricature artist will be zombifyin’, and a bug chef will be grossin’ you out. But do you know the most important part of all? Namely, what you’re wearing?

We’ve all been atwitter over here planning our ghoulish get-ups, and we figured we should share the wealth of in-house costume ideas with you fine folks.

Here are three scientifically inclined costume ideas sure to strike a nerve with any nerd worth their pocket protector.

The Pacific Garbage Patch

Turn a sad thing funny with this easy last-minute costume. Simply wear blue clothing and glue or pin bits of plastic refuse. Bonus? You can inform anyone who asks about the acres of plastic junk floating in the earth’s oceans.

Winners! Beth Terry & Eli Saddler at Bay to Breakers 2009Antimatter

Spending Halloween as antimatter is the scientific equivalent of dressing up as Daria. What could be more misanthropic?

Remember Lost in Space? I don’t, because I wasn’t yet born, but I hear it contained the perfect get-up in “The Anti-Matter Man”: A full black-and-cream jumpsuit. Recreate the look!

The Anti-Matter ManPinky and the Brain

Can you say “couple’s costume”? Pinky and the Brain make a perfect pair, particularly if one of you is a little portly.

Pinky & BrainHave your own science-themed costume ideas? Share them in the comments or, better yet, show us yourself on Oct. 26!

What: Spirits & Skeletons, the annual HMNS Halloween party
When: Oct. 26, 8 p.m. to midnight
Where: The Houston Museum of Natural Science, 5555 Hermann Park Dr.
How much: $25, $15 for members
This event is 21 and up only.

Prison Flashlight Tour – Ghost Edition at HMNS Sugar Land Oct. 18

Flashlight tours have become a mainstay of the season and always have something new to offer. Join David Temple, HMNS Associate Curator of Paleontology, for an after-dark flashlight tour of HMNS at Sugar Land, highlighting the history of this unique building and the ghosts that may still be haunting it.

Historic BuildingThe historic brick building that now houses HMNS Sugar Land was a state prison building before being renovated and reborn as a science museum in 2009.

This special Halloween tour, geared for patrons over the age of 13, is not for the faint-hearted or those who are afraid of things that go bump in the night!

What: Prison Flashlight Tour
When: Thursday ,Oct. 18, at 7 p.m.
Where: HMNS Sugar Land
How much: $25, $20 for members

Click here for advance tickets!