A Study in Patience

Written by Jack Alger, HMNS Paleontology Intern

Jack Alger, HMNS Paleontology Intern

Jack Alger, HMNS Paleontology Intern

This summer I bring dimetrodons back to life.

No, life has not found a way, I’m not extracting DNA from inclusions found in amber; I work in the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Sugar Land. It’s a small brick building with a splendid collection of history both recent and prehistoric whose residents stand 30 feet tall and have razor sharp teeth.

Every weekday from 9 in the morning to 1 in the afternoon I sit behind a large table, stare through a lit magnifying glass, and with implements of dentistry I carefully extract the bones of Diego, a 280 million year old dimetrodon, from the hard north Texas rock.

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I am an exhibit.

Visitors of the museum who meander all the way back to the Paleozoic section have the opportunity to watch me work and to ask me questions about anything they please, thankfully usually pertaining to my work. One of the most common questions and comments I get deal with patience. “Wow, that seems really tedious” or “How do you have the patience for that? I certainly couldn’t do it” to which I grin and laugh politely with a “yes it is detailed work for sure”.

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After a few weeks of these comments I would like to make a few comments on the work myself and let you in on some of my secrets on being patient.

My first task upon arriving as the new Paleontology intern for the summer was to sift through the context dirt that once surrounded Diego and now filled a half dozen catering trays stored in a small closet in the museum. I would pick out a pile of dirt half the size of a golf ball and search for the microscopic bones hidden among the dirt often spending hours without finding anything. Now you may be saying “How could you keep your focus and stay patient when you had so much work to do?” To which I answer now “one rock at a time”.

I never thought about the amount of dirt in the tray nor in the closet, I just focused on my little pile, combing through it as if I might find a diamond or some other jewel (being an unpaid intern, this seemed like the greatest outcome) and after just a couple weeks I had finished looking through every single tray in the closet. This early lesson in discipline set me up perfectly for my real job, fossil prep. Now when I attack a bone I don’t think about trying to get all the rock off and reveal the entire bone. No, that would drive me insane. Instead I focus on pushing back the rock a micrometer at a time. Under intense magnification I watch flakes the size of a grain of sand that appear to me to be the size of paving stones come off in bunches. In rare cases large flakes of rock that covered half the bone come flying off in a single touch of my tools and I am filled with such elation that may surpass ever seeing the Texans win a Super Bowl from the sideline. My first lesson in patience is to focus on the little things, take small victories, microscopic even, so that when something big happens you are surprised and filled with joy.

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Now I would be a liar if I said my neck never ached and I never got frustrated with lack of progress, so this is my second lesson. When I begin to feel weary from hunching over the desk or when I become irate at the stubborn rock encrusting my precious Diego, I change my pace. I get up and stretch; I walk around the room and study the fossils on display. I get a drink of water, or I simply rotate the bone and take a different perspective on the situation, attacking at a different and hopefully more prosperous angle. I chuckle to myself every time I change the angle of the rock and where it was once impossible to cut through, large chips start to fly off the bone. Lesson two is when the impatience starts to creep in just take a deep breath, stretch, then change your perspective and you’ll be amazed at the result.

Four hours a day, that’s how long I work. It’s not a long time in the grand scheme of things, but those 360 minutes can feel like 3,000 if you get impatient and watch the clock. During my workday I try not to look at the time more than 4 times because nothing will drive you more insane than watching time slowly crawl onward. They say a watched pot never boils, well a watched clock never ticks. I have come to believe that a minute spent staring at the clock feels slower than an hour spent doing something. So next time it’s 4:30 on a Friday and you’re caught up with all your work don’t just sit at your desk and watch the little clock in the corner of your monitor, don’t even sit around, go clean the break room, go talk to someone in your office who is also done with their work, do something productive and engaging that you normally don’t do and next thing you know it’ll be 5 o’clock and your weekend has started.

Anyone can be patient and everyone can be impatient, patience isn’t something you’re born with its just something you do, like a sport you have to practice to get better. So next time you start to feel impatient just focus on the little things, change your perspective, and don’t look at the clock and you’ll start to notice life get just a little easier.

Aperture and Amber: Our Amber Secrets Pixel Party Recap

After-hours at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on April 10, we hosted one of our exclusive Pixel Parties — where we open select exhibits just for photographers (both amateur and professional). This time around, we gave photographers access to the Morian Hall of Paleontology and Amber Secrets: Feathers from the Age of Dinosaurs. Here’s a small sampling of what they gave us in return:

Michael Palmer, https://www.flickr.com/photos/mikedaddy/25767535184/in/pool-hmns/

Michael Palmer

Michael-Palmer

Michael Palmer

Sergio Garcia Rill, http://sgarciarill.zenfolio.com/hmns_amber

Sergio Garcia Rill

Sandy Grimm, https://www.flickr.com/photos/sulla55/26345218786/in/pool-hmns/

Sandy Grimm

Dwayne Fortier, https://www.flickr.com/photos/fortier_photography/25778251933/in/pool-hmns/

Dwayne Fortier

Randall Pugh, https://www.flickr.com/photos/uffdah777/26086547700/in/pool-hmns/

Randall Pugh

Arie Moghaddam, https://www.flickr.com/photos/coogie/25774417994/in/pool-hmns/

Arie Moghaddam

Randall Pugh, https://www.flickr.com/photos/uffdah777/26293102051/in/pool-hmns/

Randall Pugh

Ivan Moreno, https://www.flickr.com/photos/37chess/26322021871/in/pool-hmns/

Ivan Moreno

Ivan Moreno, https://www.flickr.com/photos/37chess/25783405474/in/pool-hmns/

Ivan Moreno

Arie Moghaddam, https://www.flickr.com/photos/coogie/25774411244/in/pool-hmns/

Arie Moghaddam

Randall Pugh

sandy

sulla55

It’s Alive! Dr. Bakker Tells us how to make skeletons dance

Bakker Skeleton Mount

A life restoration of the great mammal-like reptile, Placerias, chasing an early dinosaur, Chindesaurus.

Some museums buy fossil-kits, all the bones drilled and filled with pipe fittings so that they click together to make the whole skeletal assembly. It’s quick. But if you have an anatomically sophisticated eye, and you scrutinize the kits, you’ll see serious errors of articulation as well as a general clunkiness.

For our Houston Hall (The Morian Hall of Paleontology), Pete Larson and I and Pete’s co- workers constructed every joint from scratch. We drew up dozens of pages of diagrams for shoulders and elbows, hips and knees, for every skeleton. The dinosaurs are tough but not the biggest challenge.

The Triassic Placerias, last of the big mammal-like reptiles, seemed to be a chimaera , croc-like thighs combined with the forequarters of a duck-bull platypus and the body cavity of a small ox. This barrel-chested beast took three weeks to pose in a believable full-speed run.

Here are the steps we took to capture the live beast:

I). Basic kinesiology.

A). Motion studies of extant species are reviewed to help in determining the limb posture and gait of the extinct species. In the case of Placerias the forelimb is close to that of a platypus and a terrestrial lizard, while the hindlimb is closer to that of a crocodilian and a chameleon.

Bakker Skeleton Mount

Motion studies of an Alligator mississippiensis, left, and a Tupinambis nigropunctata, right, part of the documentation for posing the HMNS Placerias and Smilosuchus.

B). The motion studies are reviewed to determine the range of lateral and vertical movement of the vertebral column, plus torsion in the extinct species. For Placerias the neck and dorsal column is compact but free to twist and flex as much in a Mississippi Alligator.

Bakker Skeleton Mount

Flexibility study of Placerias, top and side view, showing lateral flexibility of vertebral column and twisting, so head rotates down on the right and the pelvis rotates down on the left.

C). Placerias limb joints were like those of lizards and platypuses — motion was not simple flexion-extension in one plane, as occurs in humans, but included rotation in planes at right angles to the flexion-extension. Consequently, detailed diagrams for shoulder, elbow, hip and knee were drawn to guide the mounting process.

Bakker Skeleton Mount

Details of how shoulders and hips, elbows and knees rotate during the restored step cycle in Placerias.

Bakker Skeleton Mount

The movements at the elbow are especially complex — motion studies combined with detailed dissections of elbows of a tegu lizard, shown here, are used as a guide for Placerias.

II). The main limb and axial muscles are restored to determine which motions would be most powerful in locomotion and in combat.

A.) Our library of dissections shows which combination of extant species are most appropriate for restoring the extinct species. For Placerias, forelimb and hindlimb musculature are best reconstructed from the conditions in an echidna (Tachyglossus) or platypus (Ornithorhynchus). The reconstruction was used by the mural artist as he mapped out the body masses for the painting.

Bakker Skeleton Mount

Top and side reconstruction of muscles in Placerias.

B.) The relative strength of the muscles informs our choice of posture and gait. In the case of Placerias, the domination by the forelimb suggests that the animal could dig or climb uneven ground more easily than archosaurian potential predators.

III). Choosing an interactive choreography.

Bakker Skeleton Mount

The Placerias cast being mounted at the BHIGR. Pete Larson on right.

A). A review is carried out for all the species known from the particular habitat and time, and available as skeletons. Placerias occurs in the lower Chinle Formation of Arizona. In the same beds are found three other large tetrapods that are represented by casts: 1). The large terrestrial predator Postosuchus. 2). The very large semi-aquatic predator Smilosuchus. 3). The large terrestrial armored herbivore Desmatosuchus. For the Placerias mount we chose Smilosuchus as the attacker because the body form — long snout, long, low body, long tail — made a dramatic contrast with the rotund compact design of Placerias.

Bakker Skeleton Mount

Final mount of the Placerias cast, viewed from the front.

B). Multiple sketches are generated to test various combinations of poses. The most pleasing pose for the predator-prey dyad was the Smilosuchus lunging from behind the Placerias.

Bakker Skeleton Mount

Antepaenultimate plan for Placerias-Smilosuchus mount.

Summary: The final mounts of a Smilosuchus lunging after a Placerias were not “out of the kit” exhibits. Rather than using pre-fabricated skeletons ready to assemble, we cut apart most of the bone units and studied the range of movements indicated by the joint surfaces and by the attachment sites for major muscles. Analysis of the locomotion adaptations led to choosing posture and gait that are documented by the anatomy in the extinct animal and by study of living species which demonstrate similarities in form and function.

Bakker Skeleton Mount

 

Come see Placerias and more amazing specimens in the Morian Hall of Paleontology at HMNS! Open extended holiday hours (9:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.) through January 4!

 

Dispatches From South Dakota: Willie The Dimetrodon [Day 4]

Today’s post is from Michele Whisenhunt, a volunteer on the Museum’s paleontology team. She’ll be sharing photos with us while the team is at the Black Hills Institute, prepping Willie, the Dimetrodon the team discovered. Missed the team’s first dispatches? Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3

All work and no fun makes for a dull paleo preparer, soooo Mary Anderson, Pat Greenfield and I headed out early this beautiful morning for Custer State Park and a 14 mile drive where the buffalo and the pronghorn play. Autumn has hit in the Black Hills but the wildlife was worth the drive not to mention a glorious day. South Dakota is beautiful in so many ways.

Buffalo on the range

Arriving early afternoon for prep work at the BHI our direction turned to beginning the bone cleaning under Dr. Bakker’s direction and the microscope.

Precise fossil cleaning

After experimenting different methods of cleaning, a recipe was found. A vinegar bath gave the desired results.

Willie's leg
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Bernt under the magnified visor uncovers and cleans the most compete lower jaw of the Judy block, Trimerorhachis or Panzer Mudpuppy.

Jawbone

Tomorrow will be the beginning of many days prepping thousands of bones to complete Dimetrodon for his 2012 premiere in the new paleo hall.