The Bakker is back! Join renowned paleontologist Dr. Bob Bakker at Jurassic Jam this Saturday and Sunday

World-renowned paleontologist, curator of the new Morian Hall of Paleontology, consultant and character inspiration for the cult classic Jurassic Park: Dr. Bob Bakker is back in Houston and lighting up the halls of HMNS this weekend at Jurassic Jam.

Image here http://paleo-studies.tumblr.com/post/23628762217/featured-paleontologist-robert-bakker

The two-day event includes an adoption party at at the Museum Store, arts and crafts in the Herzstein Hall and a meet-and-greet with Dr. Bakker from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday for new and veteran dino parents.

Admittance to meet Dr. Bakker requires a general admission ticket and a prehistoric pet (either adopted that day or previously taken in).

Then on Sunday, we’ll be screening Jurassic Park 3D with a special introduction by Dr. Bakker, who consulted on the film and is even name-dropped by young Joseph Mazzello (Timmy Murphy). A Q&A session will immediately follow.

To book your tickets in advance, click here!

Today in the Department of Mysteries: 12-year-old Robby uncovers “culturally modified” bone in Jersey Village

Occasionally we receive artifacts at the Museum uncovered by curious residents who are looking to have their discoveries identified. The latest comes from 12-year-old Jersey Village resident Robby, who took it upon himself to write Associate Curator David Temple the following (quite impressive) letter:

Dear Sir or Madam,

My name is Robby, I am 12 years old, and I was walking along in my backyard, playing by myself, when I felt something painful and sharp stick into my foot, so naturally I stopped to investigate. I felt around for the article that wounded me, and I concluded that it was a bone. I unearthed it and further found that it was a bone that looked like it was a washer joint (the kind that the spinal cord travels through), and I washed it off carefully to see if there were any further marks that could tell me if it was a dinosaur bone, but there was nothing. I was hoping that you could either radiometric date it, or DNA test it to see if it was. I have enclosed the bone in an envelope. Please let me know as soon as you find out.

Sincerely,

Robby
P.S.
2 days later, I found another bone that looked almost identical to the bone I found previously. It is a little bigger, and dirtier. Please respond!

"Culturally Modified Cow Bone" - the latest from The Department of Mystery

Temple looked over the bones and, upon concluding his research and determining their true origins, issued the following response on official Museum letterhead:

Dear Robby,

Thank you for your inquiry regarding the bones. When researching these things, particularly to which ancient animal a fossil bone may have belonged, a great place to begin would be a geologic map of the relevant area.

Geologic maps are peculiar; they are less about telling you how to get some place and more about telling where you are in time. The sediments that Jersey Village sits on are from the Quaternary within the Cenozoic; your backyard is outcropping the Beaumont Formation at the oldest, which gets you somewhere between 10,000 and 2 million years ago (give or take).

Pleistocene-aged animals lived on the sediments in your yard, and their remains could be buried in these sediments. No dinosaurs; however mammoths, mastodons and giant sloths all are animals that lived in the area during that time. I am enclosing a copy of the geologic map of Texas for your perusal. Find Houston and match the color on the key; where ever you find yourself, that’s where you are.

From careful analysis, we know your samples to come from an ungulate from the genus Bos. These pieces are not vertebra, but pieces from the legs of the animal. Though not old enough to be a paleontological sample, these do qualify for archaeological/anthropological analysis.

One thing I determined was that this animal was probably eaten by a sometime predatory species, likely Homo sapiens. I will say this conceding that the teeth and jaws of Homo sapiens are not adapted for chewing hard bones. You yourself noted the absence of marks on your sample bones, and I agree with your estimation and believe it significant.

Also, your samples do not bear any markings that would indicate primary feeding or secondary scavenging by Canis lupus familiaris, or Canis latrans. These animals are or were recently common in Jersey Village. Their teeth and jaws are well-adapted for crunching bone and leaving diagnostic traces of this feeding behavior.

Another bit of evidence pointing to primary consumption by a member of the genus Homo is that species’ nearly unique adaptation for making and using tools. Your sample bones show cultural modification, specifically butchering.

As mentioned above, the flat sides of the bones show them to have been modified with a saw, probably with the muscles attached. The smooth, even sides point to a mechanical, fine-toothed saw rather than a hand saw.  Considering practices in local culture, this bone and attached muscle were likely placed over a fire, for a short period of time, as the bones do not appear to be charred.

In archaeology, the three things to remember are context, context, and context. Were these bones by themselves or were there other objects with them? Bits of metal or glass maybe? If those objects are associated with the bones that would strongly support the “BGM” hypothesis below. Also the age of your home is a potential clue.

Before trash pick-up was available, garbage was frequently burned in the backyard and buried. While more charring over all surfaces on your bone samples would help support this, the absence of charring does not rule out the “Buried Garbage Model.” It is possible that there was a burn ban, or the responsible party for trash disposal just did a really bad job. Sadly there are questions science cannot answer, at least not without more fieldwork. Your sample could still have been buried, which would have kept it from being chewed by dogs or coyotes.

To summarize, you do not have a dinosaur, sadly. You did find the remains of a barbeque, shank steaks were served, they were likely served rare, medium rare, medium well at most. The bones were then thrown outside and the people either had no dog, and/or buried their trash. Your samples are not good candidates for radiometric dating; what is associated with the bones would be your best way of dating your site, but I would guess near the Late Recent.

I encourage you to keep looking down; you never know what you’ll find. If there is old glass or metal where you found the bones, be careful not to cut yourself when examining these fragments.

If you would like to go fossil hunting, get your parents to look up the Houston Gem and Mineral Society. They take regular trips to outcrops to collect fossils. If you want to know where dinosaur fossils in Texas might be found, the enclosed map has the answer. Dinosaur fossils can also be found locally at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

I am returning your samples as I am contemplating becoming a vegetarian, and they make me hungry.

Sincerely,
David Temple
Associate Curator of
Paleontology

Robby’s samples were returned to him this week along with the Museum’s encouragement to keep curious. Tune in to the Beyond Bones for future installments from The Department of Mysteries.

Bakker blogs: Murder by hickey — or a dinner date with a meat head

We’ve been pondering  the problem of Dimetrodon-on-Dimetrodon violence. It’s a Red Beds tragedy; fin-back reptiles were nibbling each other’s brain bones and gouging each others’ cheeks.

But now, maybe, we have some evidence for the softer side of fin-backs: hickeys and love-bites.

Here’s a scientifically precise reconstruction of one fin-back smooching another on the back of the neck, sort of like the cover for a Permian romance novel: Fifty Shades of Red (Beds).

Murder by hickey: Dr. Bob explores another side of Dimetrodon-on-Dimetrodon violence in the latest Bakker blog

Neck-nibbling is quite the thing among living species of predators, both large and small. Cats do it. Go to Animal Planet and see male lions grabbing the lioness by the nape.  Or come visit our Seymour digs in north Texas and meet “Elton,” the male Mountain-Boomer Lizard. Male Mountain Boomers, aka “collared lizards,” are the brightest lizards in all of the Lone Star State.  Not “bright” as in “smart,” but as in wearing “fabulous iridescent blues and pinks and yellows in the mating season.” Elton stakes out a wide, flat area in our quarry where he struts his stuff, doing Marine-style push-ups to attract females and frighten away younger males. Every spring he succeeds in enticing a healthy female, almost as muscular and buff as he is.

Here’s a portrait of Elton, snapped by David Temple, Curator and Herpeto-photographer extraordinaire.

Murder by hickey: Dr. Bob explores another side of Dimetrodon-on-Dimetrodon violence in the latest Bakker blog

(Warning: If you keep Boomers in captivity, never have two males together in a small cage. They’ll beat the coprolites out of each other. The same warning often applies to keeping two curators together.)

Actual Boomer mating includes neck-grabbing. Elton has an extraordinarily wide forehead housing mighty jaw muscles, so the love-nibble has force behind it. If she’s willing, the female displays a hunkered-down posture and shows off her red dots. Therefore, when the female Boomer signals “Bite me!” it’s in fact a “Come hither!” message.

Here’s a fine snap of a female Boomer, from Mike Cong Wild Photography.

Murder by hickey: Dr. Bob explores another side of Dimetrodon-on-Dimetrodon violence in the latest Bakker blog

Elton does NOT view us humans as a higher species. He’ll race to where we’re digging under the shade of a tarp and give us the hairy eyeball, lizard-style, cocking his head right and left. Then out he goes to ascend his viewing stand, a foot-tall sandstone block 20 feet away.  I think he’s checking us out to make sure we are not competition for his favorite lizard-love.

Given such behavior by Elton, we expect that our 400-pound Dimetrodons engaged in some sort of gnathic-cervical love-grabbing. Do we have petrified evidence? You bet. Here’s a cervical vertebra number two, the big bone right behind the head. It belongs to a full grown  D. loomisi, a species nicknamed the “Keira Knightly Finback” because of the excessively long, slender neck. The arrow points to a bite — a  powerful nibble that actually removed a piece of bone.

Murder by hickey: Dr. Bob explores another side of Dimetrodon-on-Dimetrodon violence in the latest Bakker blog

But that’s a bit too big of an ouch. There would be thick muscles running from the vertebra to the back of the skull that flex the head up and down, side to side, and twist the head around. This bite would have gone right through the thick part of the muscles, leading to massive trauma, blood loss and death.

Murder by hickey!

Check out this diagram: On the right you’ll see some of the massive and meaty muscles that are located around the head and neck.

Murder by hickey: Dr. Bob explores another side of Dimetrodon-on-Dimetrodon violence in the latest Bakker blog

It was a sad day when we realized that our love nibble was instead hard evidence of cannibalism. But the head-neck bites also prove something elegant and marvelous about Dimetrodons. We mammals are, supposedly, the Highest Class. We have the most advanced, most efficient anatomical tools for cutting up our food and digesting it quickly. We are far better than the cold-blooded class Reptilia, or so the textbooks say.

Cold-blooded reptiles today do seem sloppy and inefficient. Nile crocodiles and komodo dragon lizards kill zebra, wildebeest and goats — but once their prey is dead, their table manners are primitive. The big reptiles bite their prey anywhere and everywhere, chomping down on bony snouts and chins where there’s not much meat.

Mammal top predators display far greater precision. The tiger examines his prey carefully before removing bite-sized pieces off the meaty zones. The rear teeth slice meat as efficiently as your neighborhood butcher making prosciutto.

You can do this experiment  at home: buy some delicious Texas beef jerky and present a big piece to your hungry dog (or your friend’s). The pup will position the jerky between its rear teeth and slice, slice, slice, GULP. The quick slicing action comes from special features of those rear teeth.

Scrutinize these photos of a wolverine. See the big rear teeth?  When the wolverine bites meat, the upper rear tooth slides against the lower tooth, and the teeth hone each other like metal shears. That’s why mammal meat-eaters can cut even tough meat and tendons swiftly.

Murder by hickey: Dr. Bob explores another side of Dimetrodon-on-Dimetrodon violence in the latest Bakker blog

Fossil predator lairs from the Age of Mammals show that these precision-slicers are old adaptations. When we excavate prey carcasses left by saber-toothed predators like Dinictis and Hoplophoneus (both on display in our new Morian Hall of Paleontology), we see bite marks on the skull bones where there was lots of meat — the rear of the skull, the brain case and the tops of neck vertebrae. The extinct mammals ate like the highly efficient carnivores in today’s world. Saber-toothed cats did not waste much time and energy gnawing bony, meat-poor zones of chin and snout. Neither did the extinct dog-like Hyenodon.

Our Dimetrodon was a very, very primitive reptile. In fact, in most ways, D’don was even more primitive than a crocodile or komodo dragon. One big deficiency was the set of meat-slicing teeth. Dimetrodons didn’t have the enlarged self-sharpening chompers. The upper rear teeth could not slide past the lowers in a honing action. Therefore, so the theory goes, a Dimetrodon would have been sloppy and slow and inefficient when dismembering big carcasses.

If D’dons were really as sloppy as crocs and komodo dragons, then we’d find bite marks all over skulls and necks. But if D’dons were careful and efficient, they would have left tooth marks concentrated on the meaty zones of heads and necks.

When we analyzed bite marks on all the necks and heads from our digs, I was flabbergasted. (Talk to anyone in the lab — Dr. Bob hardly ever gets gabberflasted.) Our supposedly primitive Dimetrodon did not bite a la lizard. Or a la crocodile. Or a la gator.  Bite marks were targeted with consummate precision. Little energy had been wasted gnawing at non-meaty parts. Bony snouts and chins were not chewed upon. Instead, the tooth marks had been concentrated on all the most meaty zones of the head and cervical region. Bites on the braincase are exactly where big, thick muscles attached. Bites on the cheek are where the jaw muscles attached. Bites on the neck are where the thickest cervical flesh was located.

I have new respect for the Texas Red Beds Dimetrodon. Whenever we unearth another D’don victim, I doff my hat in honor of its masticatory prowess.  Our modern mammal efficiency began a hundred million years earlier than we had thought. And now, when we do lunch at Smokey Bros Barbecue and we chew succulent brisket and bring a doggy-bag back to Skippy, we thank our fin-back ancestors.

Peruse Sugar Land’s new Paleo Hall — it’s newly doubled in size and open now!

HMNS at Sugar Land has quite the pretty new Paleo Hall.

Check out the stunning new Paleo Hall in Sugar Land!

With 5,000 square feet of major mounts (including a Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus rex and Giant Ground Sloth), an impressive selection of trilobites, detailed to-scale models and an animated prehistoric aquarium, it’s got more than enough to interest a developing dino-lover or a seasoned fossil expert.

We've got trilobites

The trilobite section is one of the best in the area.

Fossilized in-ground Stegosaurus

Check out this fossilized in-ground Stegosaurus!

Triceratops

The Sugar Land Triceratops skeleton features a full tail.

Giant Armadillo

A fossilized prehistoric giant armadillo is just one of the specimens that once existed in the Texas area. To schedule your next visit to HMNS Sugar Land, click here.