HMNS changed the way I think about Earth, time, humanity, and natural history

After 90 days working at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, here’s the verdict:

I love it here!

Through research required to compose and edit posts for this blog, I have learned about voracious snails, shark extinction, dinosaur match-ups, efforts to clean up ocean plastic pollution, Houston’s flooding cycle, a mysterious society in south China, and the inspiration for the design of costumes for Star Wars.

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Look at the size of that T. rex! My love for the Houston Museum of Natural Science began with an affinity for dinosaurs.

I’ve learned about many, many other things, as well, and I could feasibly list them all here (this is a blog, after all, and electrons aren’t lazy; they’ll happily burden themselves with whatever information you require of them), but the point of this blog is to excite our readers into visiting the museum, not bore them with lists.

Coming to the museum is a grand adventure, and it’s my privilege to be here every day, poking through our collection and peering into the the crevices of history, finding the holes in what humanity knows about itself and speculating about the answer. That’s what science is all about, after all. Learning more about what you already know. Discovering that you’ve got much more left to discover.

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As a writer, I identify with the oldest forms of written language, like this tablet of heiroglyphs. You can even find a replica of the Rosetta Stone in our collection!

When I took this job, I was a fan of dinosaurs and Earth science. I could explain the basic process of how a star is born and how the different classes of rock are formed. Igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary. Now, I can tell you which dinosaurs lived in what era and the methods paleontologists use to unearth a fossilized skeleton. I know that a deep-space telescope owes its clarity to a mirror rather than a lens, and I can identify rhodochrosite (a beautiful word as well as a fascinating mineral) in its many forms. And there are quite a few.

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Rhodochrosite. My favorite mineral. Look at that deep ruby that appears to glow from within, and it takes many other shapes.

I have pitted the age of the Earth against the age of meteorites that have fallen through its atmosphere and have been humbled. The oldest things in our collection existed before our planet! How incredible to be that close to something that was flying around in space, on its own adventure across the cosmos, while Earth was still a ball of magma congealing in the vacuum of space.

Time is as infinite as the universe, and being in this museum every day reminds me of the utter ephemeralness of human life. It advises not to waste a moment, and to learn from the wisdom of rock about the things we will never touch. Time and space reduce humanity to a tiny thing, but not insignificant. Our species is small and weak, but we are intelligent and industrious. We have learned about things we don’t understand from the things we do. The answers are out there if you know where to look for them.

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Everything turns to stone eventually, even this gorgeous fossilized coral.

I was a print journalist for three years, and I am studying to become a professional writer of fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. (Don’t worry. It’s a low-residency program. I’m not going anywhere.) I am a creator of records of the human experience, according to those two occupations, and in some ways I still feel that as the editor of this blog, but there is a difference.

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This epic battle between a sperm whale and a giant squid recalls scenes out of Herman Melville.

Here, rather than individual histories — the story of one person or of a family or of a hero and a villain — I’m recording our collective experience, our history as a significant species that participates, for better or worse, in forming the shape of this world. We were born, we taught ourselves to use tools, we erected great civilizations, we fought against one another, we died, those civilizations fell. We have traced our past through fossils and layers of rock and ice, we have tested the world around us, and we have made up our minds about where we fit into the mix.

We are a fascinating and beautiful people, and through science, we can discover our stories buried in the ground, often just beneath our feet. To me, this is the real mission of our museum. To tell the story of Earth, yes, but to tell it in terms of humanity. In the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals, we wonder what makes certain minerals precious to us when they’re all spectacular. In the Morian Hall of Paleontology, we trace the fossil record back in time and wonder how things were and could have been had dinosaurs not gone extinct. In the Cockrell Butterfly Center, we connect with the little lives of insects, compare them to our own, and fall in love with our ecosystem all over again. In the Weiss Energy Hall, we learn how life and death create the fossil fuels that now power our society. We find both ingenuity and folly in the values of old civilizations in the Hall of Ancient Egypt and the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas.

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These chrysalises, a powerful symbol of personal growth and change, teach a lesson in natural cycles and big beauty in tiny places.

I have often wondered how we justify placing a collection of anthropological and archaeological artifacts under the heading “natural science.” Why don’t we consider our institution more representative of “natural history?” In my first 90 days, I think I’ve found the answer. It’s not just about the story of humanity; it’s about the story of the science we have used to learn what we know.

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The Houston Museum of Natural Science, including the Cockrell Butterfly Center, is truly one of a kind.

Our goal at HMNS is to inform and educate. To challenge your assumptions with evidence and bring the worlds and minds of scientists to students and the general public. It’s a grand endeavor, one that can enrich our society and improve it if we pay attention.

A ticket to the museum isn’t just a tour through marvels, it’s a glance in pieces at the story of becoming human. After 90 days here, by sifting through the past, I feel more involved in the creation of our future than I have ever been.

And that feels pretty great.

Back to Seymour, Back in time: Part One

Far up in north Texas, past Ft. Worth and Wichita Falls, past the point where the flora turns from trees to shrubs, past a town with a funny name, Megargel, pop. 203, past a massive wind farm with tall white blades lording over thousands of acres of land, and then another, and another, lies the humble community of Seymour. Nestled in the Red River Valley near the southeastern corner of Oklahoma, the little city contains a high school (Go Panthers!), a couple of small hotels, a handful of fast food restaurants and steakhouses, several churches, and a tiny collection of historic prairie-style homes tucked behind Main Street. It’s the kind of town you live in not for the amenities, but for the rich soil and the open sky that stretches to the horizon, and the friendly rural folk, farmers and ranchers, who with their own hands have built it up from nothing.

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Wind turbines stand over fields of wheat on one of several wind farms outside Wichita Falls. Kelly Russo

On a weekend, you can enjoy a movie under the stars, take the family to the park, or hop in your SUV and explore the landscape. Nights open above like a planetarium, studded with a billion stars that would delight any gazer, and if you’re up for some night adventure, it’s a great time to search the dirt roads for nocturnal wildlife. But for all this, a trip to Seymour is incomplete without a visit to the pride of the city: the Whiteside Museum of Natural History.

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Seymour storefronts and cobblestone streets are a testament to this city’s history. Jason Schaefer

A recent addition to the rural landscape and a welcome diversion from daily life on the ranch in burning heat, the museum has blossomed into a local treasure in a single year. Under the direction of geologist and paleontologist Chris Flis, the once-dusty abandoned building that used to house a car dealership now contains excellent specimens of Permian-era fossils discovered less than 10 miles away in the Craddock bone bed, including the iconic Dimetrodon.

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Murals on the Whiteside Museum of Natural History provide a fascinating departure from the rural look of historical storefronts. Kelly Russo

With the help of paleo curators Dave Temple and Dr. Robert Bakker, The Houston Museum of Natural Science has obtained its Permian fossils from this site for the past 11 years. Flis began building the Whiteside collection from the Craddock and other local dig sites, and in the past year, to use Temple’s words, “He’s been busy.”

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A model Tyrannosaurus rex head at the Whiteside Museum of Natural History displays the contemporary conception of the dinosaur’s appearance. T. rex had pinfeathers on its head and jaw. We joked he looked a little like John Travolta. Kelly Russo

Racks of specimens jacketed in element-proof plaster-and-burlap casts line the back wall of the Whiteside, and in the fossil prep lab, the skeletons of Edaphosaurus, Diplocaulus, and Eryops line a long table as Flis categorizes the fragments to piece together whole prehistoric animals. These bones, about 280 million years old, represent a time in the fossil record when amphibians first exited the water and dragged themselves across land, eventually developing into early reptiles. And the Craddock bone bed is one of the richest cross-sections of this time period in the world.

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At the Whiteside Museum of Natural History, an open jacket of an Eryops skull, a Permian-era amphibian, displays the methods paleontologists use to prepare fossils. Jason Schaefer

Kelly and I visited Seymour, the Craddock and Whiteside the weekend of June 6 to gather information about our site and assist in the celebration of the Whiteside’s first anniversary. While the trip didn’t require any miles-long hike-ins through the backcountry, nor a tent and a sleeping bag since we “camped” in the Sagamar Hotel for four nights, the trip was nothing short of an adventure. We met the locals, played in the dirt, prospected for new fossils, and helped our paleontologists work on our active Dimetrodon digs. The work was sweltering and filthy, but the excitement of discovery, of putting hands on bone that hadn’t seen sunlight in hundreds of millions of years, holding history in the palm of your hand, was enough to keep us out in the heat, fueled by the magic of wonder.

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The spinal column and fin spines of an Edaphosaurus, a Permian-era land herbivore, line a long table in the fossil prep lab at the Whiteside Museum of Natural History. Kelly Russo

The first day, we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. To beat the heat, Temple prefers to rise early to eat breakfast around 6:45 a.m. at the local Maverick diner, where Seymour’s agriculturalists congregate for any combination of bacon, eggs, sausage, potatoes, and biscuits. Kelly doesn’t drink coffee, but I required about a half-gallon just to get the day started. I’m a late riser.

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Kelly (right), and educator and HMNS volunteer Shana Steinhardt, photograph a Texas horned lizard on the Craddock ranch near Seymour. Jason Schaefer

After the rich meal, plenty of calories to burn, our group caravaned off to the Craddock, a 4,400-acre ranch down a lonely county road. A dirt truck path carved through the mesquite and cedar brush was our only access to the dig site. Normally, we were told, the land is dry and brown, more a desert than a semi-arid valley, but following heavy rainfall two weeks prior from the same storm system that flooded Houston in May, the land was the greenest it had been in a decade. The rain caused an explosion of life, giving us five sightings of the Texas horned lizard, our state reptile, now listed as a threatened species due to its rapid decline in recent years.

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This Texas horned lizard, listed as threatened by the State of Texas, was one of five sightings that we had during the course of our trip. Jason Schaefer

But what’s good for the land ain’t so hot for digging fossils. On the way out to the site, Temple worried the mud would be too sticky for our company vehicles to push through, and even if we did, that the soil at the site might be too wet. Paleontologists depend on dry conditions to fleck away sedimentary rock with delicate tools. Wet ground means a difficult dig and sometimes the loss of specimens.

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Paleontologists and volunteers from the Houston Museum of Natural Science and Seymour locals gather at our dig site in the Craddock Bone Bed. Kelly Russo

Conditions weren’t as bad as we thought, however. The site was about as good as it could get in spite of the rain. We cleaned up some litter, tarpaulin fragments and other jacketing materials that had aged in the weather, and set to work removing a pile of scree that had fallen in the rains and partially covered our biggest jacket. You can dig with anything you can prod the ground with, breaking up the clay into dust like a toothpick cleaning teeth, but Temple prefers a bayonet with a modified pommel to stab the soil and unlock it with a quarter turn. Others used screwdrivers, dental picks, or awls. Dr. Bakker hadn’t yet joined us; he would come a day later.

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A regular sight on the Craddock, Donald Gayle Coltharpe, lease-holder for the Craddock ranch, carries his dog Sissy perched on his shoulder. Kelly Russo

We dug slowly, handful by handful, making sure no bone fragments were lost in the soil we collected in buckets and discarded over the side of a nearby ravine. That first day, with the help of volunteers Dr. Mitch Fruitstone and Shana Steinhardt, Kelly and I learned about the process of extracting bone from the dirt. Using whatever digging tool you choose, you enter the soil at a shallow angle, digging into the side of a hill rather than down until your pick hits solid rock. It’s easier than you’d think to notice the difference. Though the sediment has hardened with time, it crumbles away easily. Bone fragments and rock will not break apart unless struck with an implement, hence the ginger digging. The idea is to remove the dirt from the rock, not the rock from the dirt. Each significant sample that is discovered must have its depth in the soil and location relative to other fossils recorded to place it in the geological record.

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The plaster jacket we hoped to flip over the weekend and transport back to the museum was buried under a layer of sediment after heavy spring rains. Jason Schaefer

The goal of the day was to “flip the jacket,” that is, carve the dirt out from under a fossil-rich lump of sediment until it stands on a pedestal, then turn it upside-down to plaster the underside. When the specimen is completely jacketed, it’s ready for transportation. Contrary to what the movies may suggest, paleontologists do the painstaking final prep work for fossils not in the field, but in a controlled environment, a laboratory with fine, electric-powered implements.

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Using a replica bayonet as a digging tool, HMNS Paleontologist Dave Temple teaches me how to uncover the plaster jacket without harming it. Kelly Russo

The plaster field jacket is made of layers like papier mache. Diggers begin with a separation layer, usually aluminum foil, so the plaster doesn’t stick to the specimens, and then dip fragments of material like burlap or cotton into plaster of Paris that hardens in minutes. Once the specimen is completely covered and dry, it is marked for cataloging so paleontologists know what it contains and its upright orientation when they return to it days, weeks, months, or sometimes years later.

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A jacketed Dimetrodon rib specimen from a neighboring dig site illustrates both the layering and soil removal techniques paleontologists use to preserve the integrity of fossilized bones. Kelly Russo

By one in the afternoon, we broke for lunch and to tour a nearby longhorn ranch. We had dug no more than a foot into the soil around the jacket, and Temple was nearly bitten by a four-inch centipede, a common sight for this part of Texas, but it was a good start to the weekend, with much more adventure to come.

Author’s note: This is the first part in a series detailing the HMNS excursion to the Craddock Bone Bed.

Among fossils: How very old things remind us of our youth

The earth is 4.54 billion years old. That’s a big number to wrap your head around. Spending time among very old things helps, but even then it’s easy to forget that not only the fossils themselves are ancient; so is the rock they came out of, the planet circling a sun that has been around a long time.

Since my childhood, dinosaurs have arrested my imagination like nothing else in science, and what better place to witness the majesty of these ancient animals than the Houston Museum of Natural Science, displaying some of the oldest things on Earth? When I walk through the Morian Hall of Paleontology, I see the bones of creatures that lived millions of years ago, preserved naturally by the processes of geology, like mummies, but embalmed by mud, pressure, and minerals. These aren’t bones, really. They’re rocks, no different from petrified wood or the crystals in the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals. They were once creatures of flesh and bone, but the organic molecules and chemicals that made up their bodies, if they didn’t decay, were replaced atom by atom while the rest of life on Earth developed.

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Lane, the most complete fossil specimen of Triceratops in the world. 65 million years old.

Mine is a problem of scope, I think. It’s a strange feeling to understand that Lane the Triceratops, the most complete specimen of this dinosaur, was under our feet during the fall of the Roman Empire, was still buried in the time of King Tutanhkamen, and remained undiscovered while Shakespeare wrote his sonnets. This animal died, and life went on as it always does. Its life among presumably millions of others like it was common. Undistinguished. But that specimen is no longer a Triceratops; it’s a skeleton made of rock. Not even a skeleton, but an impression of it. A three-dimensional photograph dug out of the album that is the many-layered dirt of our planet. This animal has become a symbol of history. Now that is rare.

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Icthyosaurus mother. At least 146 million years old.

It’s remarkable, this action of preservation that the Earth is capable of. And it’s remarkable that we have developed the science to identify and understand these stones. We had to consider both the life cycle of rock and the taxonomy of life before we could begin to speculate what these samples could mean. But really, so what? They’re just rocks.

It’s the feeling of humility they deliver that makes them fascinating. It’s like walking through modern Rome after living in developing Houston, surrounded by buildings a thousand years old that stood before the United States was even imagined. We’ve been walking around these seven continents for millenia, in the dark about what was under our feet until the birth of paleontology in 1666, when Nicholas Steno identified “tongue stones,” known then only as triangular rocks, as fossilized shark teeth. Dinosaurs were around whether we knew they existed or not. They are as old as the rock we walk on.

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Impressions of Icthyosaurus pups in the rib cage of this rare specimen suggest this animal died in childbirth.

Now consider this. In 2011, biologists identified 20,000 new species, a large number of them beetles, and most of them invertabrates. That was in a single year. Now take that diversity and multiply it by the age of the Earth. I’m not going to do the math, but that’s the number of species paleontologists have yet to discover. That’s the amount of life we potentially have yet to search for in the rock.

After early hominids, fossils of the first humans date back 1.8 million years, along with mammoths, mastodons, and saber-toothed cats that appear in the rock alongside them. Triceratops lived in the late Cretaceous, discovered in rock at least 65 million years old. Icthyosaurus swam the oceans and gave birth to her young between 245 and 146 million years ago, in the Jurassic and the Triassic. (Their era lasted 100 million years. Again, we’ve been around for 1.8.) Trilobites in our collection have been preserved for between 540 and 360 million years, and the stromatolites, layered rocks formed by ancient bacteria, date back to 3.4 billion years. Not million. Billion. They appeared in the Archaeozoic Eon, about a billion years after Earth solidified out of molten space-rock.

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One of the best preserved and most intricate trilobites in the world. At least 360 million years old.

What will the occupants of this planet find after the next million years? We’ve been around for a while, but not nearly as long as these fossils. What will paleontologists of the future, if they still exist, find in another 65 million years? 146? 540? 3.4 billion? The Earth will still be here by then; humanity is another story. Will we still cling to the crags in a different form, the maps unrecognizeable to the once-dominant species of 2015 CE, if they could see them? Will we have preserved our history as well as the rocks have preserved the dinosaurs?

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Stromatolite formed by layers of ancient bacteria preserved in rock. At least 3.4 billion years old.

In another 3.4 billion years, the sun will be nearing the end of its life, having expanded into a red giant and swallowed Mercury and Venus. According to many estimations, by the time the sun is 7.59 billion years old, it will engulf the Earth. We are living in our planet’s middle age. It took half the Earth’s life for humanity to arise and build its cities. For the United States to claim its sovereignty.

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Lucy, Australopithecus afarensis, the most complete skeleton of this hominid in the world. 3.18 million years old.

The Earth is old, dude! We never pay this age any mind until we identify something to date it against. Here we have Triceratops, say, a creature that lived in the time when this rock was young, just a pile of sediment on the floor of the ocean or a river. Paleontologists owe a lot to the power of speculation and theory. We may never know for sure what life was like in the era of these ancient creatures. But if we have anything in common with the dinosaurs, ancient mollusks and archaebacteria, it’s that we all grew on this same rock.

In a way, we’re just as old as they are. Our bodies are made up of the same elements that have always been here in some form or another, buried under the crust in a molten mantle, or exposed to the light of the sun that has fueled life on Earth for as far back as the imagination will stretch. As Carl Sagan said, “We are all made of star stuff.”

Girl Scouts earn badges for science at HMNS

by James Talmage, Scout Programs

After more than a year of hard work, Girl Scouts Heidi Tamm, Zoe Kass, Meredith Lytle and her sister Angela Lytle completed the entire Scouts@HMNS Careers in Science instructional series, earning each scout a total of seven badges.

Careers in Science is the Scouts@HMNS series of classes for Girl Scouts that aims to introduce girls to different scientific fields, lets them meet women working in those fields, and shows them what it’s like to work at the museum. There are seven different classes: Archeology, Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Fossil Dig, Geology, and Paleontology. As the Fossil Dig class finished up March 7, those four girls added their seventh and final Careers in Science patch to their vests.

Girl Scouts accept badges for completing the Careers in Science series of classes at HMNS. Pictured from left to right are Angela Lyle, Meredith Lyle, James Talmage, Heidi Tamm, and Zoe Kass.

Girl Scouts accept badges for completing the Careers in Science series of classes at HMNS. Pictured from left to right are Angela Lytle, Meredith Lytle, James Talmage, Heidi Tamm, and Zoe Kass.

Heidi Tamm and Zoe Kass have been taking the classes together since the summer of 2013.

“They were really into earning all the patches and completing the whole series of classes.” said Julia Tamm, Heidi’s mother.

Heidi, whose favorite class was Archeology, said, “I liked science before the classes, but now I understand about the careers and what people actually do.”

Zoe kept taking the classes because of the fun activities and being able to see the museum in more detail. Her favorite class was Paleontology, which focuses on the Museum’s Morian Hall of Paleontology. 

Meredith and Angela, Girl Scout Cadette and Senior, respectively, have also taken all the classes together. Angela explained that she learned “there are lots of careers in science available and there are lots of women that work in science, especially at the Museum.”

Meredith encouraged other girls to try out the classes, even if they aren’t interested in science.

“You may decide you like it, or you’ll just learn something new,” she said.

The sisters agree that the Girl Scouts organization is moving more toward STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) careers, and that it’s not a boy thing to go into science. Anyone can do it, especially Girl Scouts.

For more information on the Careers in Science series, visit http://www.hmns.org/girlscouts/ and start collecting your patches today!