An American Tale: Camels Go West (And South)

Photo courtesy of wikipedea

 

When you think of a camel, you probably imagine it standing in the middle of a North African or Asian desert. Nowadays camels live in the arid climates of the Middle East and Central Asia, but that wasn’t always the case. Let’s not forget that the closest relatives of Old World camels are the llamas, alpacas and vicunas of South America. How did these camelid cousins end up so far away? 

Interestingly, the oldest fossils of camels are found in North America, and it’s not until millions of years after the earliest camel ancestors lived that more modern camels show up in the fossil record in either Old Word or the Southern Hemisphere. So they basically evolved midway between Asia and South America, and then dispersed in opposite directions, some going North through Alaska and some heading South.

Camels are an American invention. Although the earliest camels inhabited grasslands, the adaptations that would later help Dromedary and Bactrian camels survive in Old World deserts were shaped by the evolutionary kick-start of extreme Arctic winters. The branch of the camelid family that moved south evolved along different lines, adapting to the cool, mountainous terrain of South America. If you have never owned an Alpaca wool sweater,  I highly recommend trying one out.

As for the populations of early camels that remained in North America, they became extinct around ten thousand years ago, either due to climate change or human predation. Their bones can be found all over North America, even here in Texas. Don’t believe me? You can go see for yourself! There are actually places in Texas where you can go look for the fossils of camels and other ancient creatures. Although I must admit, it’s quite a bit harder than finding sea shells or sharks teeth.

As a side note, you may have heard about wild camels living in West Texas. The U.S. army experimented with using camels to supply remote Western outposts in the 1850’s, and after the Civil War many of these animals were released into the wild. For decades camels would pop up throughout the West, and stories of the “Red Ghost” would make the papers. But these were imported Dromederies, far removed from the early camelids that raomed the West thousands of years ago.

 

Camelops skeleton for our Hall of Paleontology

Sea Scorpions: Terrifying Predators of the Paleozoic

 Photo courtesy of wikipedia 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eurypterus_Paleoart.jpg

 

Eurypterids: you may never have heard of them, but you will come to fear them.

They appear in the fossil record during the Ordivician Period, over 400 million years ago, and finally went extinct about 250 million years ago during the Great Permian Extinction.

Because of their appearance, Eurypterids are sometimes called Sea Scorpions. However, despite their nickname, these Paleozoic predators are not actually scorpions. They are, however, believed to be closely related to arachnids, a group that includes scorpions.

Most of the fossil specimens that have been discovered are about the size of lobsters or smaller, but there are two giant species. The first, Jaekelopterus, may have been the largest arthropod ever to live, coming in at about seven feet long. Pterygotid follows closely with specimens just inches shorter. Pterygotid may have been a scavenger, however it is assumed that most Eurypterids were predatory or at least opportunistic feeders.

Eurypterids have six pairs of appendages attaching to their prosoma (or “head section”) the first pair acted as fangs and in some species are quite large resembling pincers, the next four pairs are legs which would have allowed the creatures to scuttle along in their shallow, brackish habitats. The final pair are sometimes adapted as paddles to help with swimming. Some Eurypterids also have paddle-shaped tails to further assist with swimming, but in others the tails are sharp, resembling the stingers of scorpions.

Eurypterids also have compound eyes which would have aided in hunting. Some may also have been able to walk on land for short periods. Which means that there were few places for their prey, which may have included early arthropods, fish and amphibians, to hide. The evolutionary arms race going on in the Paleozoic oceans that led these creatures and other scary, armored predators to evolve is believed to have spurred the ancestors of modern terrestrial animals to abandon the ocean

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Above is a picture of one of our Eurypterid specimens, with only its paddles and a couple legs preserved.

 

 

Above is a Eurypterid “claw” displayed in our Morian Hall of Paleontology. All of our Eurypterid fossils on display were discovered in Herkimer County, New York. Herkimer County has some of the best fossil sites in the world to find Eurypterids.

 

 

A reconstruction of one of the larger species of Eurypterid from our Morian Hall of Paleontology. 

Be sure to visit HMNS during the holidays to see these and other terrifying creatures in our Hall of Paleontology! After all, there’s enough cuteness going on this time of year, it’s time for something cool and creepy!

 

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.

 

coprolite4

 

 

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.

 

coprolite1

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.

 

diatectes

 

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!

othnielosaurus1

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.