HMNS at Sugar Land: Installing the new Dig Pit

Sugar Land FrontOne of the most popular exhibits in the new HMNS in Sugar Land is the dig pit. This kid-friendly activity contains several different dinosaurs, and gives the budding paleontologist the opportunity to see, up close, exactly what the discoverers, excavators and preparators saw when they worked on the original fossils. The dinosaurs in the dig are casts, meaning they are created from silicone and rubber molds made from the actual, real fossil. This process reproduces all of the detail of the original with exacting accuracy.

Foremost in size is a cast of “Raymond” the Triceratops. Named for a rancher, this particular Triceratops is a real rarity, being one of only a few articulated examples ever found. Displayed on his right side, his left side was exposed by erosion during the Pleistocene and weathered away. Fortunately he was reburied before the weathering was complete. When you uncover him in the dig he is almost exactly as discovered only a few tail bones and skull bones were repositioned.

Another cast fossil is a recreation of the famous “Mongolian Fighting Dinosaurs.”  This fossil was discovered and 1971 and features the skeletons of a Velociraptor and a Protoceratops locked in a combat that neither won.   This mount has some restoration, bones were added to fully complete the skeletons, but the positioning dinosaurs are as discovered and amazing.

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Stan the T-Rex is on display
in the entrance hall

Tucked in a corner of the dig pit is a cast of the most complete skull of Acrocanthosaurus known. Discovered in Oklahoma, this “razor backed” therapod was a fearsome predator in the early Cretaceous of Texas. Tracks attributed to Acrocanthosaurus have been found in the Paluxy River near Glen Rose, Texas in Dinosaur Valley State Park. This cast copy was made after the initial preparation and before the individual skull bones were removed to restore the skull- so you the view is exactly what was seen in the field and after initial cleaning.

Lastly, to complete this hands-on collection of Cretaceous dinosaurs there are two panels from the Tyrannosaurus “Stan.”  One features his spectacular skull and the other a section of thoracic vertebra and ribs.  A fully articulated and mounted copy of “Stan” is on display in the entrance hall.

Volunteers and staff fill the dig pit with matrix.  The matrix is a recycled rubber product and a popular material for playgrounds. Unlike the ancient sediments covering dinosaur bones in less controlled environments, these can be successfully removed with scoops and a variety of brushes. The experience offers budding paleontologists the opportunity to “keep it real” by working on casts of actual dinosaurs without the dilemmas of strained muscles, mashed fingers, cactus, snakes, dangerous storms, scorpions, centipedes, heatstroke, bad food, and looming concerns about a place to go to the bathroom.

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100 Years – 100 Objects: Giant Armadillo

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from David, the museum’s associate curator of paleontology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the most fascinating fossils in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and on – throughout the year.

The armadillo is an iconic animal in Texas, and this relative of the smaller, modern forms takes “Texas-sizing” to the extreme. This species, commonly known as Giant Armadillo, would have been nearly 6 feet long and weighed nearly 500 pounds. Like its modern cousin, this ancient animal was an immigrant to North America from the south, slowly migrating northward and subsisting of a diet of mostly plants and perhaps insects. The giant armadillo roamed and rooted along the Gulf Coast and as far north as southern Oklahoma, but disappeared about 10,000 years ago.

The Museum’s Giant Armadillo is a Houston fossil, discovered in 1955 by Florence Dawdy, a teacher, with her school age son and a friend near the old Scott Street Bridge on Brays Bayou.  Her family’s curiosity and concern about the fossil brought the find to the attention of the geology department at the University of Houston. This decision saved the fossil from further erosion or looting. UH students and volunteers excavated the fossil and provided the initial curation. It was described as part of a Masters Thesis at UH and then later published by Gideon James in the Journal of Paleontology, Vol. 31, No. 4, pp796-808, July 1957, An Edentate from the Pleistocene of Texas.

For over 30 years, the Museum’s Giant Armadillo was the best example of Holmesina septentrionalis known to science, and it is still one of the most complete.

The Giant Armadillo was given to the Museum by the University of Houston and was mounted by proceeds raised from the Museum’s 1991 armadillo-themed Guild Gala. The specimen was mounted in two dimensions as a plaque, so visitors would experience the fossil as it was originally found.

Wander among prehistoric beasts in the Paleontology Hall, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see larger and more detailed images of this rare specimen – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the photo gallery on