Dead Things That Might Be Under Your House!

The line between hallowed ground and home is a thin one in Houston. Our city isn’t exactly known for the preservationist spirit of its citizens, and looking out your window at skyscrapers or suburban expanses, you may not see any visible evidence of the city’s history, but that’s exactly the problem: You don’t see it because it’s under your feet!

Are you dubious of the of this assertion? Well, after we’re done I guarantee you will never rest assured that you are the only resident of your happy home. We will begin long ago, past the stretch of collective human memory. In this time, herds of Mammoths roamed over a cold savannah that stretched across North America. In this unfamiliar landscape, Giant Sloths thundered here and there using their huge, retractable claws to literally scratch an existence out of the land, and Glyptodons fought off saber-tooth cats.

When you think of Paleontology, you don’t think Houston, but the remnants of that epic world are here. In the Paleontology Hall of HMNS Sugarland there is displayed the skeleton of a giant armadillo, HolmesinaIn North America during the Pleistocene, armadillos the size of Volkswagen Beetles roamed Texas; Holmesina is a smaller species of armadillo cousin from that era. When I say “smaller”, I mean that instead of being 7 to 10 feet long and up to 5 feet tall, they were closer to 6 or so feet long and a couple feet tall. Still quite large… Our specimen was discovered in 1955 by Florence Dawdy, along with her son and a friend on Brays Bayou, not far from HMNS!



Holmesina specimen at HMNS Sugarland

A giant sloth was discovered not long ago in the Galveston area. Many don’t know this, but there was a time when the coast was a hundred miles further out from Houston than it is today, but as the glaciers melted at the end of the last ice age and ocean levels rose the graves of countless Pleistocene prey and several Human habitation sites were swallowed by the Gulf of Mexico. Occasionally spear points or fossilized camel bones will wash up on certain beaches in the area, like High Island. 


Megatherium, a type of ground sloth. Note the giant claws, which were retractable,like a cat’s claws!

A Columbian Mammoth was discovered in a sand pit in the town of Clute near the Lake Jackson area in 2003. Columbian mammoths are the less hairy cousins of the famous Wooly Mammoths. Both species thrived in the vast grasslands that stretched from Minnesota to Mexico 10,000 years ago. The Wooly’s tended to stay further north, while the Columbians roamed in the warmer Southern regions. 



Columbian Mammoths

The Columbian Mammoth was named after Christopher Columbus, the most famous explorer of the New World, because this species of mammoth is unique to the Western Hemisphere. The one found in Clute was the first mammoth to be discovered in the Texas Gulf Coast area. The mammoth is nicknamed Asiel, and if you’re ever in the area, you can stop by “Asiel’s Restaurant”, which boasts a replica of the skull, and an exhibit including some real fossils of deer, camel, and giant sloth that were also discovered in the area.

So there are indeed a few paleontological discoveries that have unexpectedly popped up in the Houston area. And who knows, maybe the next find is under you right now! Next week we will turn the dial of geological history forward to the era of human occupation to discuss some more intriguing specimens found lurking beneath the surface of our city.

Incidentally, we happen to have an entire Hall of Paleontology devoted to prehistoric North America here at HMNS, so next time you’re visiting, be sure to check that out. We have examples of all three animals discussed in the article.

100 Years – 100 Objects: Giant Armadillo

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from David, the museum’s associate curator of paleontology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the most fascinating fossils in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and on – throughout the year.

The armadillo is an iconic animal in Texas, and this relative of the smaller, modern forms takes “Texas-sizing” to the extreme. This species, commonly known as Giant Armadillo, would have been nearly 6 feet long and weighed nearly 500 pounds. Like its modern cousin, this ancient animal was an immigrant to North America from the south, slowly migrating northward and subsisting of a diet of mostly plants and perhaps insects. The giant armadillo roamed and rooted along the Gulf Coast and as far north as southern Oklahoma, but disappeared about 10,000 years ago.

The Museum’s Giant Armadillo is a Houston fossil, discovered in 1955 by Florence Dawdy, a teacher, with her school age son and a friend near the old Scott Street Bridge on Brays Bayou.  Her family’s curiosity and concern about the fossil brought the find to the attention of the geology department at the University of Houston. This decision saved the fossil from further erosion or looting. UH students and volunteers excavated the fossil and provided the initial curation. It was described as part of a Masters Thesis at UH and then later published by Gideon James in the Journal of Paleontology, Vol. 31, No. 4, pp796-808, July 1957, An Edentate from the Pleistocene of Texas.

For over 30 years, the Museum’s Giant Armadillo was the best example of Holmesina septentrionalis known to science, and it is still one of the most complete.

The Giant Armadillo was given to the Museum by the University of Houston and was mounted by proceeds raised from the Museum’s 1991 armadillo-themed Guild Gala. The specimen was mounted in two dimensions as a plaque, so visitors would experience the fossil as it was originally found.

Wander among prehistoric beasts in the Paleontology Hall, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see larger and more detailed images of this rare specimen – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the photo gallery on