100 Years – 100 Objects: Pholidocercus hassiacus

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 Temple, the museum’s 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 at 100.hmns.org/ – throughout the year.

Early Insectivore, Pholidocercus hassiacus

CHI_7711LWe are fortunate to have a few fossils from the Messel Pit in the Museum’s collection.  Located near Darmstadt, Germany, the quarry was originally a pit mine for oil shale. Abandoned when the mine no longer was profitable, plans were made to convert the pit to a landfill. The site was eventually saved and declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO because of the spectacular number and preservation of the fossils found there.

During the Eocene, the quarry was a deep lake. The lake bottom, an anoxic, silty ooze, was toxic to bottom-dwelling fauna. With nearly 50 million years of hindsight, the inhospitable waters created an environment that guaranteed dead animals which had drifted to the lake floor were not scavenged and their remains mixed by the daily activities of bottom dwelling animals. The lake accumulated the remains of algae, bacteria, insects, spiders, fishes, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals – potentially anything calling the lush tropical forest home. A dark side to the fossil accumulation was spurred by releases of Co2 and hydrogen sulfide from the lake that poisoned and suffocated large numbers of animals living near the lake. One of the most famous recent Messel fossils to come to light is Darwinius masillae or “Ida”, an early primate.

This early relative of a hedge hog was covered with bristle hairs similar to modern hedge hogs but had scales on its head and tail. Traces of the bristle hairs can be seen as a faint black silhouette around the fossil. The stomach contents are also preserved and visible. This perfect articulation of the skeleton and the tantalizingly preserved traces of soft tissue point to a quick burial, absent of scavenging and bioturbation – a hallmark of the unique preservation found at the Messel Pit.

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

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the 100 Objects section at 100.hmns.org.

The study of dinosaurs and the modern world

Our guest blogger today is Dorothy, who runs the blog site Dinosaur Home. Though she originally majored in philosophy working with computers, her true loves are natural history and paleontology. Here, she’s combined all of her talents to share a post on the importance of dinosaur research for the modern world.

Being fascinated by dinosaurs, I’ve often heard the question “why are creatures that disappeared from the earth so long ago are the center of so much research.”
I believe that the answer (at least as I see it) might be surprisingly simple and I’ve decided to focus on two aspects.

1. Researching prehistoric creatures such as the dinosaurs is a really excellent way to learn how evolution works. One of the best ways to study evolution is to have as long a timeline as possible. A researcher today would need to examine and study a species over many years to see how they change and adapt to changing circumstances. When we examine fossils from millions of years ago we are given a rare glimpse into the dinosaur’s existence and even the rare opportunity to see what they have evolved into – birds. Without the study of prehistoric creatures it wouldn’t be possible to get the whole picture of the changes of biology over a really long time.

2. Research into the story of the disappearance of the dinosaurs is actually a very relevant one. The changing climate that we experience today might be something that reminds researchers of other cycles of climate changes years ago. Whether it was an asteroid, climate changes, changes in the earth’s gravity or any of the other explanations that have been offered, there is a direct relevance to our lives today.

 Sometimes if we want to know what is possible, or what might happen, we have to learn about what has already happened. It is an important scientific goal to investigate various possibilities. If Antarctica was once a snow free continent it might be snow free again. If there are dinosaur fossils found on different continents with similar heritages it certainly helps us imagine the globe very differently than its modern structure.

People all over the world have the tendency to imagine the reality they know as the only possibility; it is thanks to the study of dinosaurs and natural history that we can open our minds to very different realities.  The less knowledge we have, the more reluctant we are to admit changes that are happening and that will continue to happen. The Buddhist call it the “recognition of impermanence” and attribute a lot of importance to it. They believe it is vital to the process of becoming more aware of the impermanence of ourselves, and helps us become less ego centered. In fact the whole theory of there being no self says just that “we are all just a flow of events and changes that never starts and never ends.” It works for the whole picture as well.

Few subjects in the Earth sciences are as fascinating to the public as dinosaurs. The study of dinosaurs stretches our imaginations, gives us new perspectives on time and space, and invites us to discover worlds very different from our modern Earth.
From a scientific viewpoint, however, the study of dinosaurs is important both for understanding the causes of past major extinctions of land animals and for understanding the changes in biological diversity caused by previous geological and climatic changes of the Earth. These changes are still occurring today. A wealth of new information about dinosaurs has been learned over the past 30 years, and science’s old ideas of dinosaurs as slow, clumsy beasts have been totally turned around. Although much has been discovered recently about dinosaurs, there is still a great deal more to learn about our planet and its ancient inhabitants.

For more from Dorothy, visit her blog, Dinosaur Home. For more on paleontology, check out:Dimetrodon sighting!
Roberta, the other brachylophosaur
What’s it like to discover a dinosaur?