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.

Swifter than eagles! Stronger than lions!*



Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, 1971; AOL Time Warner

Nope, not the *Hsawaknow but extraordinary beasts instead, arising from where the fantastical and the wondrous collide.


Some animals are so exotic that their initial discovery is difficult to comprehend. Stories of griffins, dragons and more may seem like tall tales to us today, but most mythical beasts actually have a basis in reality. People who unearthed odd bones and stones often relied on religious and cultural stories to explain what they had uncovered.


More than two thousand years ago, gold miners sought their fortunes in the vast Gobi Desert. These miners were Scythians—nomadic people among the earliest to master mounted warfare. Relying on their accounts, Greek writers reported that in the sweltering heat of the desert, the miners battled the mighty griffin—a fierce half-eagle, half-lion hybrid that ferociously guarded extravagant treasures of gold. Because the lion was traditionally considered the king of the beasts and the eagle the king of birds, the griffin was thought to be an especially powerful and majestic creature.



Joannes Jonstonus (1603-1675). Historiae Naturalis; Griffon (Tab. 62); 1657. (590 J73 vol. 2)


Classical folklorist and historian Adrienne Mayor, Ph.D. argues that the many similarities between Protoceratops dinosaur fossils and griffins indicate that the mythic creature likely originated from ancient paleontological observations.

The Greeks and Romans developed sophisticated concepts to explain the fossil evidence, concepts that were expressed in mythological stories.


griffons3Protoceratops. Mick Ellison/American Museum of Natural History



Dragons are among the most popular and enduring of the world’s mythological creatures. These fabulous creatures of classical mythology continue to live in the modern imagination. Dragon tales are known in many cultures, and they populate our books, films, and television shows, shown as playful to fearsome.

A variety of creatures’ remains have been said to belong to dragons. With their enormous size, reptilian shape and threatening teeth and claws, some dragons might easily be taken for cousins of Tyrannosaurus rex. The fossil remains of extinct animals have sometimes been taken for dragon bones—and helped perpetuate old dragon stories.



Falkor, Toothless, Drogon, Smaug


Fossils of lepidodendron (an ancient tree-like plant) have also been exhibited as dragon skins, even as recent as 1851, when pieces found were said to be of the body of a gigantic fossil serpent.

“The idea that impressive fossils played a role in how people of the past imagined monsters and giants has been influential on several surprising fronts. People now realize that in fossiliferous lands, the bizarre bones of extinct creatures could help to explain dragon imagery” writes Dr. Mayor.


griffons6Black Country Museum

… and more!

Join Dr. Adrienne Mayor of Stanford University and HMNS on October 20 for a paleomythology lecture on Mythological Beasts: Dragons, Griffins – and Dinosaurs? and a fun-filled Family Talk October 22 on The Griffin and the Dinosaur. Book signing of The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times and The Griffin and the Dinosaur: How Adrienne Mayor Discovered a Fascinating Link Between Myth and Science will follow both programs. Sponsored by AIA, Houston Society with support by KPMG.

And the skull goes to…


Will Carlson!

Earlier this month, we posted a picture of two 3D printed skulls and asked our readers to identify which dinosaur they belonged to for a chance to win their own copy! 


This ten year old kid was able to identify the 3D printed skull of Deinonychus all by himself, with help only from his Dinosaur books at home. Most adults couldn’t do that!



For his prize, we not only gave him the 3D printed skull, but I also led him on a tour of our Morian Hall pf Paleontology. I’ve showed a lot of people around that hall, but few have displayed the level of enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, the subject of Paleontology like Will did. 



Congratulations Will!!


Now let’s talk a little about the skull.  “Deinonychus? What?” you may say… “Who….?”


Photo courtesy of Dallas Krentzel


Most people haven’t heard of Deinonychus, but they have probably seen them. The “velociraptors” in the Jurassic Park movies were basically Deinonychi. In reality, Velociraptor was a small dinosaur, about the size of a turkey. They were terrifying, and a pack of them could probably kill us all if they broke into the marketing offices here at HMNS, but small nonetheless



Photo courtesy of the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History


Deinonychus, on the other hand, was quite large, much larger than the Velocitraptors that have been discovered so far. Deinonychus grew to about 13 feet long and between 4 and 5 feet tall, similar proportions to the “Velocitraptors” you see in the movies. The name Deinonychus means “terrible claw” in greek, referring to the large second toe claw of the animal, most likely used to pin down its prey as it tore away at their flesh.



Photo courtesy of James St. John


Deinonychus is important in the history of paleontology because its initial scientific description by Dr. John Ostrom of Yale ignited the classic debate over how active Dinosaurs were. Up to that point, dinosaurs had been generally regarded as “sluggish lizards”, wallowing in shallow water or competing in stop-motion style fights. However the similarities between the skeletons of Deinonychus that had been discovered and that of modern birds led Dr. Ostrom to theorize that these animals were active hunters who were agile enough to take down prey that was much larger than they were.

Dino-chores at HMNS

The last three evenings have been spent doing a dinosaur cleaning. Three times a year staff and volunteers give up a few of their evenings to dust the mounts in the Hall of Paleontology. We clean the mounts using a variety of tools ranging from low tech dust clothes and soft brushes to pretty fancy vacuums and air guns. We give everything a thorough inspection.

It’s not all that different from dusting your home. Excepting that a fair amount of the work takes place high above the cement floor maneuvering a multi ton hydraulic lift in and around delicate bones. In some places the clearance between exhibits is just a few inches. Paleo volunteers regularly help with the task.

Our digging volunteer crew is adept at this and I completely trust them,the quarry skills involved in chipping rock away from bones and being able to account for your hands and feet naturally translate to dusting the mounts when they are out of the rock as well.
Another benefit is to see the exhibits and specimens from an entirely alien perspective.