The World’s Oldest Vegetarian Poop?

Winding through the Paleozoic section of our Morian Hall of Paleontology, past the trilobotes, the placoderms, the Sea Scorpions and the other terrifying creatures that roamed the earth at that time, you will eventually come to what we affectionately call our “wall of poop“. It’s in the Permian section of the Hall, to the right of the big Dimetrodon model. The wall has some amphibian skulls, part of a Dimetrodon jaw, and a whole bunch of coprolites.

 

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Coprolites are fossilized feces. It may sound gross, but these coprolites are important to science! For example, we know for sure that T. rex’s ate Triceratops’ in part because we find triceratops bones in T. rex coprolites. In the same way, we have learned about the diets and lifestyles of Permian-era creatures (who lived millions of year before T. rex) in our hall by studying these coprolites.

One very interesting piece is a coprolite that was most likely produced by a herbivorous animal. This is a big deal because as far as we know, land-dwelling, herbivorous reptiles were just evolving in the Permian. They show up later in the fossil record because herbivores have more complex digestive systems than carnivores do. You know how cows have eight stomachs, have to regurgitate their food and chew it a few times so they can digest it? Well, that’s because most plants are really hard to digest. So the idea is that the first land-dwelling animals were carnivores and some of them later evolved more complex digestive systems to eat plants.

 

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The coprolite we’re discussing is believed to be herbivorous because of its shape and consistency. Compare it (above) to the pictures of those of a carnivore (top of article) and you will notice that the meat-eaters generally produce straight, smooth coprolites, while our vegetarian coprolite is coiled and lumpy. It is believed that the herbivore who produced this particular coprolite was Diadectes, a model of which is pictured below.

 

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Do you like coprolites? Are you interested in learning more about vegetarian evolution? Do you have a hilarious or, better yet, informative comment about this blog? Feel free to leave a comment by clicking the little bubble at the top of this post. We want to hear from you! 

 

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5 Reasons Why Our New Dinosaur Is Amazing!

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Unlike the pieces on display here, HMNS is not a preserved relic. This museum is a living organism, constantly changing and evolving. Our exhibits are by no means all-encompassing, but we strive to always keep what we have on the cutting edge of science and museum design. As part of that effort, we have recently added a new skeleton of Othielosaurus to our Morian Hall of Paleontology. But this Othnielosaurus isn’t just a new mount, it has features that are both new to science and museum design! Here are five reasons why our new Othnielosaurus is worth a closer look:

  1. Generally when people think of dinosaurs, most envision large sauropods. But I bet most of you readers out there have probably never heard of the Othnielosaurus, which represents the whole mysterious family of Ornithopods. This smallish dinosaur was just a little bigger than a dog and lived in a world of giants like the Apatosaurus or Diplodocus, whose feet this little guy may have scampered under while foraging for food. 
  2. This is the first Othnielosaurus found with a well preserved skull. In fact, the skull is so well preserved that it is currently being studied by paleontologists to shed light on the lifestyle of this Cretaceous creature. Right now the big question is whether this animal was strictly an herbivore or if it was an omnivore eating whatever it could find.

    For now, the skeleton displayed in our hall has a 3D printed version of its skull, but the original will be reunited with the body after the research is complete.

  3. This is the first ever dinosaur mounted using magnets! Notice in the photos below how the bones are held in place by chunky steel armatures and supported by heavy beams. Although hidden as skillfully as possible, these supports are readily apparent. Right now, this is the only way to display the fossils in three dimensions, without drilling into them and altering their scientific value. fossil-mounts1fossil-mounts2But our new Othnielosuarus is blazing the trail to a better method of display. Magnets have been carefully glued to the bones and skillfully set on a metal armature. Although a steel “skeleton” is still present, there is no metal wrapped around the bone. And besides the better visual quality provided by this method, the new system also allows a much more dynamic posture to be obtained with the mount.
  4. Beyond the rarity of the specimen and the uniqueness of the mount, there are mysterious details to the skeleton that will keeps paleo-fans intrigued. Take a look at these sections of the tail and foot:othnielosaurus4othnielosaurus2Some of the bones have been crushed! It’s not for sure yet if this was caused during the skeleton’s oppressive stay under the earth or if these are injuries occurred during life, but there is a chance that these may represent bones that have healed after being broken. If these were injuries, you can tell that they healed because the bones have fused together, this often happens during the healing process when an injured bone tries to repair itself by producing more bone. 
  5. Take another look at those pictures of the tail and foot. Notice anything besides the crushed bones? Some of the bones are pyritized! What is pyritization? That’s when pyrite (aka “fool’s gold”) forms on a fossil. Look again and you may notice a slight golden luster to some areas of the fossils.

 

An American Mastodon in Paris: A Story of Charles Willson Peale

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Photo courtesy of wikipedia

Charles Wilson Peale: ever heard of him? 

Most people haven’t heard his name, but they probably have seen his work. Peale was one of the most famous portrait artists in the Colonies, and later the new United States, in the late 18th Century. He painted seven portraits of George Washington, some of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock and many other founding fathers. He is known as the “Painter of the American Revolution“. 

After the American Revolution, Peale continued to paint and exhibit his works but in his later years he became increasingly interested in science. In the mid-1780s he set up one of the first natural history museums in the United States on the second floor of Independence Hall to exhibit his growing collection of gadgets, paintings and preserved animals. This is where the Mastodon comes in. Fossils of these animals, usually small, fragmentary pieces, had been popping up for decades in the New England colonies. At first these remains were a complete mystery, but as more samples came to light scholars began to realize that the bones were quite similar to those of elephants, but with important differences. It was during this period that the concept of extinction first came to light, and Mastodons were one of the most obvious examples of life forms that no longer existed.

In 1799, John Marsten discovered large animal bones on his farm outside Newburgh, New York. When they were identified as “mammoth” bones (people did not understand the difference between mastodons and mammoths at the time), Peale purchased them and paid Marsten for permission to search his property for more. Some of the bones discovered during this early paleontology excavation were submerged in a pond; the ensuing recovery effort is chronicled in the amazing painting below. 

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Photo Courtesy of extinct monsters.net

Peale and his son Rembrandt, Marsten, and many others were involved in the excavation of the fossils which were later exhibited in Peales’ museum. Although Peale wrongly believed that the animal was a vicious carnivore, his exhibit did a lot to expand public knowledge and interest in the subject of paleontology and was a source of great national pride.

Part of the reason the skeleton was such a big deal was because scholars in Europe at the time did not have a very high opinion of American fauna. They thought that the Americas had a volatile climate, poor soil, and limited sources of nutrition and that this deficit in natural abundance meant that native animal life forms—including people—were mentally and physically inferior to their European counterparts.

One of the proponents of this theory was Georges-Louis Leclerc Cout de Buffon, a famous French naturalist who not only proposed that the earth and other planets in the solar system were created by celestial collisions, but who also supported an early theory of speciation that vaguely suggested evolution. Buffon proposed that the earth was around 70,00 years old and that life had formed in a hot, primordial world in which the earth was still cooling from its fiery birth. His theory continued to say that animals were created spontaneously during this time, and then over the ages many of the larger animals migrated to the equator. This was the basis for his explanation of why Mammoth bones were found in Russia and Mastodon bones found in North America. He asserted that as these animals migrated, they changed a little to become better suited to their new environment: in essence, they adapted.

This idea, although not appreciated by many scholars at the time, was a great leap forward in the understanding of life on earth. Unfortunately, some of the assertions he made in his writings were not so great for science, or politics for that matter. For example, Buffon proposed that it was adaption to the poor climate of the Americas that lead to the mental and physical “inferiority” of native humans and animals. This idea, held by many scholars of the time including Buffon, would affect society in the Americas for the next two hundred years. As late as the 1940’s, Latin American governments created programs to encourage indigenous and mestizo citizens to eat European products to improve their physical and mental capacity, a sort of neo-Eugenics.

This theory was heavily disliked by early scholars and statesmen in the Unites States, partly because they were proud of their country and didn’t want it to be considered “lacking” in anything, and partly because the theory suggested that they too suffered the loss of nutrition and good climate and therefore could not live up to their European brethren. The “mammoths” were considered by Thomas Jefferson the be the “living” proof that the European scholars were wrong, and he even urged Lewis and Clarke to keep an eye out for living specimens during their journey. The Mastadon on display in Peale’s museum became a symbol of national pride and of the living diversity of North America’s wilderness, something the the U.S. is still famous for today.

So there you have it, from artist to paleontologist, Charles Willson Peale helped shape international perception of the Unites States. Although many people today have never heard of him, he lives on in the international legend of the heroic formation of the United States and the perception of the U.S. as the “land of plenty”. If you want to learn more about Peale, and the other men and women who have worked for the last 200 years to form a more perfect union, check out out new special exhibition Amending America: The Bill of Rights.

 

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!

 

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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. 

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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. 

 

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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.