Tales of the Continental Divide: The Adventures of Mesosaurus

Mesosaurus was an unusual reptile. It looked kind of like crocodiles do today, with a long, thin body, eyes located on top of the skull, webbed feet, and an average length of about 16 inches. It also lived kind of like many crocodiles do today, in freshwater environments. Possibly one of the weirdest things about mesosaurus is that it did all of these things during the Permian period, 320-280 million years ago. That’s 130 million years before crocodiles (and dinosaurs as well) even existed!



Mesosaurus, next to an Ichthyasaur of a much later age, photo courtesy in the Internet Archive Book Images


                In fact, Mesosaurus is was one of the earliest reptiles discovered to have made the transition back into a marine environment. The earliest reptiles appear in the fossil record around 340 million years ago, so it seems that after a mere 20 million years, this retile was done with terra firma. In fact, one of the mesosaurus skeletons that have been discovered is the earliest reptile found with amniote embryos fossilized with it, meaning these are one of the ealiest animals known to have laid hard-shelled eggs. So we’re talking about the early history of reptiles here.


Lower Permian

Lower Permian Mesosaurus, photo courtesy of elrina 753


But speaking of reptiles, it should be pointed out that mesosaurus is not like most of the reptiles we see today. Ancient reptiles can be divided into different categories, based partly on the number of holes they have on either side of their skull. Snakes and lizards are diapsids, defined by two particular holes on either side of their skull, but mesosaurus was an anapsid, which means that it lacks these holes. Anapsids are very primitive reptiles, and in fact some scholars classify them as “parareptiles”. The only species of anapsids living today are turtles and tortoises, who have a fascinating history of their own.



Mesocaurus in matrix, photo courtesy of Museo Civico di  Historico Naturale Milano


The most common type of large reptiles found in the Permian were synapsids, like the dimetrodon in the Permian section of our Hall of Paleontology, and the Edaphasaurus in the great mural featured in that hall. The only synapsids that exist today are, well, all mammals. That’s right, that big, fin-backed lizard in our hall is more closely related to us than to a dinosaur. But of course he’s still a distant relative, like an old uncle.



Recreation of a Dimetrodon, photo courtesy of Rick Hebenstreit


But back to Mesosaurus… There’s another reason that this animal is notable, and that’s the 7,772 mile journey some of its fossils made after their deposition! During the Permian, when mesosaurus was doing its thing, Pangea, the ancient Super Continent, was still forming. Pangea formed around 270 million years ago, ushering in the end of the Permian Period and the extinction of the great synapsids, and making way for the reign of the dinosaurs. It was actually the formation of Pangea and the resulting environmental changes (helped by volcanic activity and climate change) that caused this extinction, which was the worst extinction event in Earth’s history.


Photo Courtesy of David Smith


Around 200 million years ago, Pangea began to break apart. The continents that are now called Africa and South America separated, drifting away from each other and carrying the already fossilized bones of Mesosaurus with them. In the early 20th century, Continental Drift was a hotly debated topic, and it was the fossils of mesosaurus that helped to validate the theory. The remains of this fresh water-dwelling reptile, can be found in Eastern South America and Western Africa, separated be 7,000 miles of ocean. We are sure mesosaurus lived in fresh water, because the rock that its fossils have been discovered in specifically forms in that environment. So, either some of these little guys hopped a tramp steamer, or they were dragged with their respective continents. This, along with numerous other bits of evidence, like the mid-Atlantic Ridge, have helped to validate the theory of Continental Drift.


Win a 3D printed Dinosaur Skull! If you can identify it…

Alasaurus skulls

These 3D printed skulls were made here at HMNS, in preparation for a larger project we are planning for one of our rare specimens, which will eventually be placed in our Hall of Paleontology. The 3D prints that we will create when everything is up and running will be used to further our knowledge of Permian life from what is present day West Texas.

But until then… Let’s have some fun! The first person who can comment the correct identity of what dinosaur these skulls belong to will win their very own 3D printed copy and 4 tickets to see our Hall of Paleontology!

The winning entry will be contacted on Monday, September 5.

FAQs with a Frequent Flyer Museum Member

Some of my earliest memories are of the Houston Museum of Natural Science, thanks in large part to my parents. When I was young, I didn’t go to daycare or preschool; I went to work with my mom every day, and every day at lunchtime, we went to the Museum. With just one visit per year (or, you know, like 200), our HMNS Membership was paid off, and, by age 3, I was hooked.

As an Ecoteen, I got to work with various objects and artifacts, including Leonardo, the Brachylophasaurus mummy currently on display in the Morian Hall of Paleontology.

As an Ecoteen, I got to work with various objects and artifacts, including a cast of Leonardo, the Brachylophasaurus mummy currently on display in the Morian Hall of Paleontology.

I was a summer camper at age 6, a Moran Ecoteen volunteer at age 15, an Xplorations summer camp employee at age 19 and, finally, a full-time employee at age 22. The Museum is almost a part of my identity at this point. One of my first purchases when I returned home as a college graduate was a Catalysts Individual Membership.

Over the years, I’ve fielded many questions from friends, family and visitors to an Outreach program I may be presenting about trips to HMNS, and I wanted to share some of those questions and answers with you all here!

“The Science Museum is too advanced for little kids, right?”

My young cousins love the Morian Overlook at the Morian Hall of Paleontology.

My young cousins love the Morian Overlook at the Morian Hall of Paleontology.

My young cousins love the Morian Overlook at the Morian Hall of Paleontology.
I’m the oldest of my generation in my family by a long shot; next in age is my younger brother, who is six years behind. But I started coming to the Museum before I had made any lasting memories, and, even today, my young cousins all enjoy HMNS their own way. True, HMNS is full of advanced science topics; if the only thing you were going to do is read the scientific names of dinosaurs and gemstones, a small child could get bored easily. But, as my coworker Allison puts it, there is so much to learn by just experiencing the trip to the museum. With her young son, she asks questions about size, shape and color, such as, “Which of these two dinosaurs is bigger?” or “can you name that animal?” or “What color is that gemstone?” The Museum exhibit halls are basically a giant three-dimensional learning tool and picture book!

“There’s so much to see, it just doesn’t seem like a good value.”

There is definitely a lot to see, but that just means repeat visits are necessary!

There is definitely a lot to see, but that just means repeat visits are necessary!

There is definitely a lot to see, but that just means repeat visits are necessary!
An HMNS Membership is the best value around. Coworker Allison from above saved $714 in a year full of Museum visits with her family! A Membership can pay for itself in just one visit, thanks to FREE access to the permanent exhibit halls all year as well as discounts on special exhibits, venues like the Cockrell Butterfly Center, souvenirs in the Museum Store and much more! And this way, you can come back as often as you want in case you miss something the first time around.

“I don’t have kids, so is there anything for me to really do there?”

HMNS Catalysts events are always a ton of fun!

HMNS Catalysts events are always a ton of fun!

YES! HMNS isn’t just for families. With stunning exhibits and a constantly cycling series of special exhibitions, there is always something exciting to see at the Museum for all ages. For the young professionals in town, it doesn’t get much better than the HMNS Catalysts group. The Catalysts Membership I purchased was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my post-grad life. This Membership includes four young professional parties at the Museum each year as well as FREE tickets to Mixers & Elixirs, on top of the benefits afforded to basic Members. It’s perfect for the 20’s and 30’s crowd in Houston!

“It can get pretty crowded on weekends! Any tips on how to make the Museum visit easier for all of us?”

I could write a book on insider tips to visiting the Museum, or I could direct you to the HMNS Members Welcome page! There are a bunch of great tips in the bullet points under the video, and I highly recommend watching the video to make the most of your Membership. A few of those bullet points I want to specifically mention:

  • Come to the Museum early in the day. Most crowds will come around lunchtime or in the afternoon. If you can get to the Museum before 10 a.m., you should be in great shape to find parking and explore before the rush later.
  • Take a tour with a Discovery Guide! Our Discovery Guide tour team is world-class, befitting an institution of this caliber, and they add an entirely new level to the visitor experience. My five-year-old cousin still asks if “Jurassic James” is free to give her a tour every time she visits.
  • If anyone in your family has special needs, please visit the Accessibility section of our website ahead of time. Our new accessibility guides and resources are extremely useful for planning your day as a family before your visit.
  • If things get a little hectic, head to the lower level of the Museum. It’s usually pretty quiet, and you can try to find one of the best-kept secrets of HMNS, the animal alcove. You can even look through the glass at some venomous snakes!
  • Buy a Membership! The visitor experience is vastly improved, and you will not be disappointed. It’s really quite the deal!

If you have any more specific questions you’d like to ask, feel free to contact us at (713) 639-4629 or email webmaster@hmns.org and it will get to the appropriate party. I hope to see you here soon!

Leave Unique Meetings to the Experts: HMNS Has Special Events Down to a Science


by Ashley Zalta

unconventional6Recent studies have found the current attention span of a human is between eight and nine seconds. That’s the same attention span of a goldfish! To say the least, your typical boardroom meetings aren’t capturing people’s attention anymore, so how do we make more interactive and engaging meetings? Well, the Houston Museum of Natural Science Special Events Department has a few answers for you.

1. Hold a meeting in an unconventional location.

Unconventional locations capture attention from the get-go, as clients’ senses are heightened in unfamiliar spaces. At HMNS, we offer meeting spaces that allow guests to view all of our permanent exhibit halls during their breaks. This gets people up and moving and not in a “meeting-coma” as the day proceeds.

Desmond Dino Tour 22. Seating matters

Nowadays, you have so many more options than typical conference chairs and board tables for meetings. The trends are leaning towards a more fun style of seating. Try using bean bag chairs. This allows guests not only a comfortable place to sit, but also elicits more group conversation.


Also try charging furniture — that is, furniture with outlets. With all guests “plugged in” these days, it’s hard to find enough outlets for everyone without wiring up the room. Well not anymore! Charging furniture now puts live plugs both wall style and usb right into the couches, chairs, and tables where guests are sitting.

unconventional3. DIY food stations

The food served at a meeting can be a great way to get people up and moving and create new conversations during an event. With DIY food stations, people not only create the exact food perfect for their dietary needs, but this type of meal can also be a point of conversation, and for some, even a competition.

Taco station — it’s a festive spin on Tex-Mex that leaves everyone satisfied.


Salad bar — something healthy, something for everyone.


Decorate-your-own gingerbread cookie — perfect for informal competitions!


At HMNS, we’ve got engaging audiences down to a science, so contact us at specialevents@hmns.org to help make your next event truly unique.

Editor’s Note: Ashley is the Assistant Director of Special Events at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.