100 Years – 100 Objects: Pholidocercus hassiacus

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 Temple, the museum’s 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 at 100.hmns.org/ – throughout the year.

Early Insectivore, Pholidocercus hassiacus

CHI_7711LWe are fortunate to have a few fossils from the Messel Pit in the Museum’s collection.  Located near Darmstadt, Germany, the quarry was originally a pit mine for oil shale. Abandoned when the mine no longer was profitable, plans were made to convert the pit to a landfill. The site was eventually saved and declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO because of the spectacular number and preservation of the fossils found there.

During the Eocene, the quarry was a deep lake. The lake bottom, an anoxic, silty ooze, was toxic to bottom-dwelling fauna. With nearly 50 million years of hindsight, the inhospitable waters created an environment that guaranteed dead animals which had drifted to the lake floor were not scavenged and their remains mixed by the daily activities of bottom dwelling animals. The lake accumulated the remains of algae, bacteria, insects, spiders, fishes, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals – potentially anything calling the lush tropical forest home. A dark side to the fossil accumulation was spurred by releases of Co2 and hydrogen sulfide from the lake that poisoned and suffocated large numbers of animals living near the lake. One of the most famous recent Messel fossils to come to light is Darwinius masillae or “Ida”, an early primate.

This early relative of a hedge hog was covered with bristle hairs similar to modern hedge hogs but had scales on its head and tail. Traces of the bristle hairs can be seen as a faint black silhouette around the fossil. The stomach contents are also preserved and visible. This perfect articulation of the skeleton and the tantalizingly preserved traces of soft tissue point to a quick burial, absent of scavenging and bioturbation – a hallmark of the unique preservation found at the Messel Pit.

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

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the 100 Objects section at 100.hmns.org.

100 Years – 100 Objects: Spadefoot Toad

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 Temple, the museum’s 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 at 100.hmns.org/ – throughout the year.

Spadefoot Toad, Eopelobates wagneri

CHI_7713We are fortunate to have a few fossils from the Messel Pit in the Museum’s collection.  Located near Darmstadt, Germany, the quarry was originally a pit mine for oil shale. Abandoned when the mine no longer was profitable, plans were made to convert the pit to a landfill. The site was eventually saved and declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO because of the spectacular number and preservation of the fossils found there.

During the Eocene, the quarry was a deep lake. The lake bottom, an anoxic, silty ooze, was toxic to bottom-dwelling fauna. With nearly 50 million years of hindsight, the inhospitable waters created an environment that guaranteed dead animals which had drifted to the lake floor were not scavenged and their remains mixed by the daily activities of bottom dwelling animals. The lake accumulated the remains of algae, bacteria, insects, spiders, fishes, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals – potentially anything calling the lush tropical forest home. A dark side to the fossil accumulation was spurred by releases of Co2 and hydrogen sulfide from the lake that poisoned and suffocated large numbers of animals living near the lake. One of the most famous recent Messel fossils to come to light is Darwinius masillae or “Ida”, an early primate.  

Though well preserved, these fossils are extremely delicate. The shale encasing the fossils has a high water content and crumbles when dried. It wasn’t until amateur collectors perfected the technique of embedding the fossil in resin that they could be fully appreciated.

This amphibian likely lived near the shore of the lake, burying itself by day and emerging at night to feed and mate. The stiff body posture hints at a last spasmodic leap from being poisoned by the release of toxic suffocating gasses from the lake.

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

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the 100 Objects section at 100.hmns.org.

Famous Fossil “Ida” (Plate B) Joins Lucy on display in New York

We are very excited to have recently announced the next venue for Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia: Times Square! The world’s most famous fossil, Lucy, will soon go on display in the world’s most famous destination – when the exhibition opens June 24 at Discovery Times Square Exposition, a new, state-of-the-art facility located in the former printing presses building New York Times.

ida-smaller
A recreation of what Ida would have
looked like in life, by paleoartist
Viktor Deak.

In addition to Lucy and the other fascinating fossils and stunning artifacts seen in the world premiere of the Lucy’s Legacy exhibit in Houston, the exhibit in New York will feature preliminary results from the research recently completed on the Lucy fossil in UT’s High-Resolution X-ray Computed Tomography Facility, one of the world’s premier labs for this work, as well as an interactive experience with Viktor Deak, one of the world’s leading paleoartists. Deak created the 10-foot-tall, 78-foot-long mural representing 6 million years of evolutionary history in Ethiopia (check out an online version here) that you may have seen when Lucy’s Legacy debuted in Houston – and he’s created brand-new paleoart for the exhibit in New York. He’ll be in the exhibit frequently, where visitors can observe him at work, ask him questions and learn first-hand how he has merged his passions of science and art to communicate an understanding of our prehistoric past, as well as how he utilizes modern technology to re-create a vision of our beginnings more vivid than ever before.  

Perhaps most exciting – we announced today that the newly famed fossil Ida (Plate B) will also be on display in the Lucy’s Legacy exhibition when it opens in New York. Officially called Darwinius masillae, this 47 million-year-old fossil is almost-unbelievably well-preserved, providing a window into our primate past – when the key adaptations of opposable thumb and big toe had just evolved.

Hear Dr. Robert Bakker, visiting curator of paleontology, discuss the significance of Plate B of the Ida fossil – including preserved fur and stomach contents – in the video below.

Headed to New York this summer? Know any science buffs in the area? Be a fan of the “Lucy’s Legacy in Times Square” page on Facebook for the latest news, photos and video from the exhibition.