Digging in the dirt: Getting to know the Dimetrodon of the Texas Permian Red Beds

I love my job. Not everyone can say that. My avocation and vocation are as two eyes with one sight (paraphrasing Robert Frost). Part of that job was taking a group of 15 patrons up to the Museum’s dig site outside Seymour, Texas. There, under the tutelage of Dr. Robert Bakker and David Temple, the group learned how to properly excavate bones of ancient animals —  in this case, Permian synapsids, amphibians, and fish.   

I got to go through a spoil pile (the pile of debris and castoff that others have thrown aside), and found several bits of our very early ancestors, the synapsid Dimetrodon.  I also worked on removing the overburden (the rock and dirt that is over a site we want to excavate), and found bits from a dorsal spine of a Xenacanthus, an ancient shark. It was the fulfillment of a childhood dream (as I child I played paleontologist rather than fireman and my first Deinonychus is still buried out back at my childhood home).

But I’m not the only one who dreamed of finding fossils in Texas.

Noted Swiss naturalist Jacob Boll came to Texas in 1869 to join La Reunion commune that is located in the current Reunion District of Dallas. (The Reunion Tower is named in honor of that small settlement.) La Reunion commune was responsible for the first brewery and butcher shop in the Dallas area. It also helped Dallas become the center for carriage and harness making.

Jacob Boll came over to set up high schools based in scientific inquiry. Through the late 1870s, he searched for fossils for Edward Drinker Cope, the noted “Bone Wars” paleontologist. Boll found over 30 new vertebrate species from the Permian period, which can be seen in the collections of the American Museum of Natural History.  Unfortunately, on his last trip, he was bitten by a rattlesnake, wrote some final letters to his family, composed a short poem in German, and died.  

In the Permian period, Texas was very different from today. Near Seymour, there were rivers and seasonal flood plains. However, even with this picture, there are still unexplained factors about the life of Dimetrodon — one being that there was not enough prey to sustain the population that we have found in the fossil record. While the Dimetrodon were making sushi out of Xenacanthus and chewing on some Trimerorhachis legs (like frog legs, only much shorter), there was not enough food to go around.

Now add to this case the curious fact that almost no Dimetrodon skeleton found has an intact tail. Anyone who has been to a good Cajun restaurant will know that the best meat on an alligator is the tail. And Dimetrodon would agree — hence the lack of tails.

But even this does not account for all the food necessary to keep all the predators alive.  Where is the missing food?

Dr. Bakker gave us a couple of hints as to what he thinks is the answer. 

 A few miles away from the site, there is an old Permian river basin where we find Edaphosaurus, a large Dimetrodon-like herbivore. Was it possible for Dimetrodon to walk a few miles, ambush an animal about its size, then walk back for a rest? This would provide food for the population.          

If you are interested in learning more about the Texas Red Beds, join us for our Fossil Recovery Class on May 20. You can go through some of our collection from the trip and learn about fossil collecting and identification techniques.

Click here for more information.  

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.

Dumb as a rock? A lumpy bit of earth reveals a geological timeline in Seymour

Editor’s note: Today’s blog comes to us from paleontologist and field volunteer Neal Immega.

You all know by now that the museum has a dig in Seymour where we are finding fabulous Permian fossils, including the toothy Dimetrodon and the weird boomerang-headed salamander Diplocaulus. We don’t dig in just one place; lots of people go prospecting for new sites (or maybe they are just looking for a private spot to do their business).

A previous blog topic was on a weird lump that turned out to be a caliche ball. Today we have another lumpy rock to look at. This specimen was collected by geologist Gretchen Sparks, who brought it in just to plague me.  Let’s see just how much information we can squeeze out of it:

CrossBeds

At first glance, it’s just a rock showing cross-bedded sandstone with low-angled bedding, doubtless caused by water deposition in the Permian creek that crossed our digging area. This is pretty normal stuff. We see cross-bedding everywhere at the dig site, because the sandstone is durable and stands in relief.

But why is it lumpy? The bulge in this picture is not exactly standard:

Profile

It gets better. The rock is too heavy to be only quartz. A heavy, light-colored sandstone is likely to be cemented by barite (barium sulfate). Let’s cut the rock in half and polish the face.

cutLumpLabeledThis is turning out better than I expected. You can see a seam of barite cutting the nodule vertically in half. The sandstone shows horizontal layers which correspond to the cross-bedding.

What about the red-colored area? The area we are working in North Texas is called the Permian Red Beds because everything got oxidized from prolonged exposure to the atmosphere. It was a really dry time, and the critters stayed close to the Permian creek which deposited these sediments. It is good for us because the fossil remains are concentrated in a small area (our dig site is just about the size of a tennis court).

Let’s consider this possible sequence of events.

1.    250 million years ago, sandstone was deposited in a creek. It is all cross-bedded.

2.    The sand grains were likely coated with iron oxide and thus turned red.

3.    The sandstone was buried by maybe 1000-plus feet of additional rock.

4.    Shales deeper in the geological section were heated by the normal geothermal gradient to hundreds of degrees and adsorbed water was squeezed out, taking with it the barium that was also adsorbed (from the ocean) on to the clay surfaces. The water moved vertically along cracks in the rock.

5.    When the barium reached the rocks we are digging in, the barium precipitated because the pore water is very “hard” with dissolved gypsum. The barium reacts with the local sulfate, producing barium sulfate which is essentially insoluble in water. It is the ultimate “hard water” scum.

6.    The barite precipitated as the vertical seam and filled the pore space in the red rock.

7.    A whole lot of rock was eroded in the next 250 million years to bring us to the present and the rocks back to the surface.

8.    10 to 100-thousand years ago or so, North Texas was in an Ice Age, and it was really wet with lots of vegetation. Decomposing vegetation created a reducing environment which dissolved iron right out of the rock. Barite is very chemically resistant, and this lump could have been at the surface through part of the ice age. The iron could have partially leached out of the lump at that time. You can see that the leaching went deeper into the lump where there are horizontal fractures in the rock.

All this from a lump of rock. Thanks, Gretchen!

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