Ecoteen Myria Perez earns Girl Scouts’ highest honor — and a congrats from the Mayor — for collaboration with HMNS

Editor’s note: Museum volunteer and Ecoteen Myria Perez was recognized by Mayor Annise Parker on Friday after earning the Girl Scouts’ highest honor for her work with HMNS. Perez collaborated with the HMNS paleontology department to construct a Permian-period touch cart using specimens that she helped uncover at our dig site in Seymour, Texas. We caught up with Myria to talk a bit about her project and what it means to get the mayoral stamp of approval.

An Ecoteen meets the Mayor
Myria with the Mayor

HMNS: You were an Ecoteen and have logged some 1,000 volunteer hours at the Museum. When did you start volunteering at HMNS and what’s been your favorite project or memory?

Myria Perez: I started volunteering at HMNS in the fall of 2008 when I was 12 years old. During that time, the Leonardo Dinosaur Mummy CSI exhibit was up on display. During my visit to the Museum for Leonardo’s exhibit, I found out about Dino Days and Breakfast with Dr. Bakker and immediately saved the date. When November came around I was able to meet paleontologist Dr. Robert Bakker. There I was, wearing my over-sized Leonardo Dinosaur Mummy shirt with a pen and drawing in my hand for him to sign.

Volunteering was brought up during our conversation. “The minimum age is 14; how old are you?” And of course, I responded, “12.” Dr. Bakker looked at me and repeated the question. “12,” I chirped once more, until I realized I had repeated my mistake. The third time, “The minimum age is 14; how old are you?” I was 14 now! The first thing I learned from paleontologist Dr. Bakker was to lie about my age; I was good to go!

My favorite memory was helping my mentor [associate curator of paleontology] David Temple with the new hall of paleontology during the summer of 2011 by preparing, painting, and packing up specimens such as the Megalodon jaw, Triceratops skull, and Edmontosaurus bones. An unforgettable memory was a trip to Seymour, Texas for a paleo excavation in the Permian red beds. The drive is around eight hours, so my mom and I arrived in the town of Seymour around midnight. My mom decided to stop and stay at the Sagamar Inn, the one and only inn in Seymour. The rest of the crew was staying at their normal place.

My mom and I checked in and got ready for bed. About an hour passed since I had drifted to sleep when I woke up to foul words from my mother’s mouth. She was half-awake, jumping up and down, throwing her hands around with a disgusted look on her face. Her bed sheets were stripped away and little black and red bugs scurried, fearful of the lamp light.

This was the horrific bed bug encounter. From nymphs to adults, each part of life cycle stages were present. They were in my sheets, as well. At 1 a.m. we notified the people in charge; they denied the bed bugs and offered us another room — the room next door. Of course, we called poor David Temple and relocated under the darkness of the premature morning to the old tractor factory to join the rest of the crew.

An Ecoteen meets the Mayor
Myria in the field

HMNS: What got you interested in paleontology? Is it something you’d pursue as a career path?

Myria Perez: I caught fossil fever back when I was 2 years old, and still to this day have yet to find a cure for it. I never played with Barbie dolls. Instead, I spent my time analyzing dinosaur bones (garden rocks in my backyard) and conducting prehistoric battles with plastic dinosaurs. Every year, my mom would take me to the Houston Museum of Natural Science to see ancient life. I could say I just grew up with a passion for paleontology.

My ultimate goal is to achieve my doctorate of vertebrate paleontology. I want to study the paleobiology of ancient life.

HMNS: How many hours did you spend on the touch cart? Can you tell us a bit about the process?

Myria Perez: I spent a total of 129.5 hours on the Permian touch cart. This included the planning, presentation of the cart to the museum guild, the Seymour trip to collect fossils with the paleo crew, specimen molding and casting (as well as painting), creation of the manual, docent/volunteer training on the cart, and touch cart presentations to museum visitors.

An Ecoteen meets the Mayor
Myria poses with her touch cart in the new Morian Hall of Paleontology

The Permian touch cart was a great opportunity to combine Girl Scouts, paleontology, and earth science education. The timing could not have been better with the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s new hall of paleontology that opened the summer of 2012. The Permian time period (around 287 million years ago) and the critters that inhabited the earth at that time were and are still being excavated and studied by the paleontology crew at HMNS. This was the perfect opportunity to show museum visitors the entire process of fossil display. In the touch cart, I was able to include items such as excavation site pictures, tools used in the field, and a “fossil hunt” for visitors to spot the fossils as if they were looking for them in the field, ultimately achieving the goal of “bringing the field to you.”

HMNS: What does it mean to you to be receiving the Girl Scout Gold Award, and to receive personal commendation from Mayor Parker?

Myria Perez: The Girl Scout Gold Award is the highest award to be earned in Girl Scouts (it is the equivalent of the Boy Scout’s Eagle Award). The project must be sustainable and address a community issue. I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of this project because I was always learning about not only myself, but also about how to work with all kinds of people, how to write a manual, and important paleo skills such as molding and casting specimens. This project has been a wonderful experience and opportunity for me to meet and work with new people and promote earth science education.

To be able to share the HMNS paleo crew’s discoveries in Seymour with Mayor Parker was an honor! It made it very exciting to share a few fossils with her, as she also exhibited great interest in ancient relics. She enjoyed a coprolite (fossilized poop) from a Permian shark called a Xenacanth as well a skull from the boomerang headed amphibian, Diplocaulus.

An Ecoteen meets the Mayor
Mayor Parker examines a coprolite

Discovery! HMNS Paleo Field Team Unearths Extremely Rare Dimetrodon

The Houston Museum of Natural Science Paleontology team has discovered an articulated specimen of a Dimetrodon on the Craddock Ranch in Baylor County!

The team named the fossil “Wet Willi”—“Wet” because it was found while excavating a drainage trench for the quarry, and “Willi” for Samuel Williston, a paleontologist and educator who was active at the site one hundred years ago. Dimetrodon bones are common in the Craddock quarry, but articulated fossil skeletons, like “Wet Willi,” are extremely rare. Most of the Dimetrodon fossils on display in museums across the country, and even globally, have come from this area of north central Texas.

Our Associate Curator of Paleontology Dave Temple shows what makes Wet Willi so special in this clip:

Can’t see the video? Click here to view it on Vimeo.

“Willi” represents a subspecies, Dimetrodon giganhomogenes, originally described by Paleontologist E.C. Case in 1907. The type of specimen he used for his description had no head; “Willi” is the first example of this species found with the head attached.

Wet Willi! New Dimetrodon Discovered by HMNS team
Get a load of those TEETH.
See the full set of photos from the site on Flickr.

In life, “Willi” was the dominant predator of his world, and he would have been 11 feet long with a four-foot vertical fin running the length of his body. The purpose of the prominent fin that defines this species has been debated since it was first discovered by Edward Cope in Texas in 1878. It was originally suggested that the fin was used for thermoregulation—self-regulation of body temperature, even when outside temperatures may vary drastically. However, it now seems more likely that this dramatic fin was for show—to intimidate enemies and fascinate potential mates.

“Wet Willi” will be the star of the Permian section of the Museum’s newly renovated paleontology hall, opening in 2012, and will serve as an ambassador from this geologic period for millions of patrons. The Permian ended with the worst mass extinction known, and was a direct precursor to the rise of dinosaurs. At present, the Museum has a mural of the Permian Period featuring a Dimetrodon, but no fossils on display.

Wet Willi! New Dimetrodon Discovered by HMNS team
See the full set of photos from the site on Flickr.

Over the past five years, HMNS field crews under the direction of Dr. Robert T. Bakker, paleontology curator for the Houston Museum of Natural Science, have collected hundreds of bones, teeth, and coprolites, as well as complete skeletons of the smaller reptiles and amphibians that lived alongside “Willi.”

“There is a very strong Texas connection to Dimetrodon, and we are thrilled to be able to display one in Houston, along with the other animals that made up this ancient ecosystem,” said Dr. Bakker, adding that the specimen is “jaw droppingly beautiful.”

Area ranchers agree; local cattleman Donald Coltharpe remarked, “The only thing prettier is a new born calf.”

Whole Hole Catalogue – How to be a Dino-Skull Sleuth

Last month we had a great question about what was inside a dinosaurs head. Today, we look at a dinosaur skull and answer “What are all those openings in the head for?”  Dino skulls do seem totally, wholly hole-y.

Check out our exploded Archosaurus head. The appearance in life is at the top – we don’t really know the color but this fellow had to hide in the bushes, so we painted him green. Archosaurs is INCREDIBLY important in dino evolution. He’s way ancient – from the latest Permian Period of Russia, about 248 million years ago.

The holes in the Archosaurus head are the clues to how it and its close kin were about to evolve into genuine dinosaurs. There weren’t any true dinosaurs in the Late Permian – that would come later, in the Late Triassic, about 220 million years ago. But the basic proto-dino head architecture had been fixed in Archosaurus.

Some holes are easy – the nostril is at the front. The eardrum was in a little notch at the back. The eyeball was in the big oval hole, second hole from the rear. Now for the good part…..

….there are two big holes for jaw muscles behind the eye, one low on the side, the other high up on the top. These jaw-muscle holes are temporal fenestrae – they mark a huge clan of critters that include lizards, snakes, crocs and dinosaurs. We mammals have only one hole on each side, low on the skull.

But wait, there’s more: between eye and nostril  in Archosaurus is a big aperture that you WON”T find in a mammal,  a lizard or a snake. It was packed with a special air-chamber connected to the throat and lungs. When Archosaurus breathed, air went around through these chambers, keeping the head cool.

Many Early Triassic creatures, descendants of Archosaurus, carried these holes, and so did early crocodilians. We call the snout-hole group “Ruling Reptiles” which in Latin is “Archosauria.” Archosaurs took over the land ecosystem during the Triassic, monopolizing the roles of large predator and large herbivore. There was something in that head design that gave Archosaurs a competitive edge.

Then came dinosaurs. All early dinos had the same blueprint – two muscle holes behind the head, one big air-chamber twixt nose and eye. Don’t take my word for it. Go to our galleries and find the holes in our T. rex. You’ll find the same layout in stegosaurs and raptors, duck-bills and ostrich dinos.

That’s the end of the first hole lesson. Do your homework. Find photos of dino skulls and label the openings.

Discovery! Mass Burial of Ancient Red Beds Amphibians Uncovered

PhD scientists aren’t the only ones to make spectacular new fossil finds. Case in point: a skilled bulldozer operator digging a cattle tank in Baylor County caught a glimpse of fossils – hundreds of tree trunks, branches, leaves and…skulls! It’s the biggest discovery ever of flat-headed, bottom-living frog-relatives in the famous Clear Fork beds.

Background of Discovery – the “Age of Frog-oids”

The north Texas Red Beds from the Early Permian Period are most famous for the fin-back reptile Dimetrodon, a tiger-sized predator who was close to the direct ancestry of furry mammals, including us. But the Red Beds habitats swarmed with amphibians too, creatures who hatched from frog-like eggs and breathed with gills early in life the way salamanders do today. So common and diverse were Red Beds amphibians that this geological time-zone can be called: “The Age of Frog-oids.”

Some frog-oids were huge and armed with alligator-shaped skulls. Some were tiny and squirmed through the mud like squatty snakes. Others ruled the pond bottoms and stream beds, hugging the mud with low, wide bodies and wide, flat jaws – a design ideal for ambushing crustaceans and fish passing overhead. One of the dominant bottom-huggers was the “Panzer Mudpuppy,” a twenty-pound amphibian with powerful jaws, curved fangs, and big eyes that scanned the water above. Known technically as Trimerorhachis (“Three-Part-Spine”, in honor of the vertebrae, which were composed of three sections), this flat-bodied hunter was an extraordinary geological success. It survived for twenty or thirty million years, a constant companion to the big Dimetrodons who prowled on shore.

The “Panzer” part of the nickname comes from the armored skin. Amphibians today have mostly naked, frog-oid/toad-oid skin. Red Beds amphibians were different. Their bodies usually were completely covered with thin bone scales that worked like the scale-armor suits of medieval warriors. Darwinian theorists have suspected that “Panzer Mudpuppies” were key elements in the Dimetrodon diet. Few land herbivores were available, so the fin-back predators may well have waded into the water to snag amphibians. If the theory is true, then Trimerorohachis played a vital role in the survival of our reptilian ancestors.

Gaps in the geological record

Despite 130 years of intensive study, “Panzer-Mudpuppy” history still had gaps. This amphibian was very common in the earlier Red Beds, like those in Archer County. But then it became rare. In the later Red Beds, the Clear Fork Group, good skulls and bodies are few and far between. What happened? Were there local habitats where “Panzer Mudpuppies” enjoyed reproducing and growing in Clear Fork time? No one knew, until Jimmy Smajstrla and his bulldozer arrived at the Craddock Ranch. Thanks to the generosity of Mr. Bill Whitley, ranch owner, the Houston Museum has been surveying all the fossil sites in the Clear Fork sediments that outcrop in the ranch. Bits and pieces of “Panzer Mudpuppies” were recovered but no specimen had a complete skull or jaws.

The Discovery

Mr. Smajstrla had a ranch job to perform: excavate a new tank to trap water for the cattle. However, he also had a talent for paleontological discovery. When his twenty-year-old Caterpillar, named “YSOB,” was digging down to the ten foot depth, the blade overturned grey clay chock full of fossilized plant parts. Smajstrla salvaged many valuable chunks and led the HMNS party to the spot. Fossil wood is rare in the Clear Fork, so the discovery was exciting.

Then came what no digger had dared to hope for. Even deeper went the ‘dozer. Fossil parts were in the bed below the plants. Not botanical remains this time, but what thrills the heart of every paleontologist: skulls and jaws, dozens and dozens of them, many perfect. For the very first time, science had a beautiful sample of later “Panzer Mudpuppies.” Some of the heads were larger than any previous discoveries. The official name of the skull-bed is “The Judy Site,” in honor of Mrs. Judy Whitley. What will the “Judy Site” tell us? Lots. We’ll know much more about the habitat choice of the “Panzer Mudpuppies.” And we’ll be able to detect micro-evolutionary changes. Investigations have just begun.

We look forward to sharing updates on our investigations as well as new finds with you. Stay tuned!