Hittin’ the road with the HMNS Paleo crew!

BB describing boomerhead

I got the chance to travel from Houston to Seymour, TX and explore the Texas Redbeds in search of fossils with David and the HMNS Paleo Program. HMNS staff and volunteers have been making these trips for four years now. They have found several excellent specimens and brought them here to prepare for our new and improved Paleontology Hall. I’d had some experience looking at the bones and things that the crew had been bringing back to the Museum but this was my first experience actually in the field – and I was pretty excited!

Drawing of a Diplocaulus

The first morning we arrived at the site and looked around at a few different locations before settling down in the “pit” to dig. I got to spend a little time training my eyes to see fossilized bone, teeth, cartilage and coprolites among the rocks at the “spoil pile” which is a great experience because the ratio of fossils to rocks on the surface is such that you have a pretty good chance of closing your eyes and picking up a fossil! Then we moved over to learn the digging technique where fossils were a bit more hidden in the pit; it took a few minutes to get the hang of how to hold the tools and make sure that you are using enough force to move the dirt but not so much that you break a hidden bone. All and all it was really enjoyable first day at the site.

Over the next two days after Dr. Bakker arrived we visited several other sites on the property and I got a chance to work on excavating a dimetrodon spine, map some dig sites (here’s a fun school dig site mapping activity), learn about other findings like the diplocaulus or “boomerang head” skull we’re looking at in the photo above. I enjoyed the opportunity to work alongside the experts and learn about all of the preparation work that is required for each and every specimen that will be in the new Paleontology hall (coming soon!) here at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. I can’t wait to see everything on display in the new wing of the Museum – it’s going to be so exciting!

For more information about what fossils are found at the dig site in Seymour check out some of the entries on the Prehistoric CSI blog, you can also find some really awesome illustrations on that site to bring the animals to life!

The Truth is in the Tooth

When you take a bite into a juicy hamburger or dive into a pile of asparagus, do you ever wonder how you’re able to eat the way you do? Humans, by nature, are omnivores; this means that we eat fruits, veggies, and various meats. If you NEVER saw a person eat, though, you could still tell what his diet was! The truth is in the tooth, my friend.

something will jump in my mouth, if i just wait long enough
Creative Commons License photo credit: PhyrePh0X

Canine teeth (you could call them your vampire teeth) are found in carnivores, or animals that eat meat.  For instance, you wouldn’t find any blunted teeth in the mouth of a Velociraptor! Molars, on the other hand, are used by herbivores (animals that eat plants) for grinding hard to digest foods. Try looking into the mouth of camel sometime and see what you find – watch out though, they spit.

Diphyodont animals, like mammals, have two sets of teeth in their lifetime.
Polyphyodont animals like sharks have teeth that are constantly being lost and replaced; they grow a new set every few weeks. Can you imagine losing every tooth in your mouth twice a month? Sounds pretty terrible, but at least you’d collect a lot of quarters under your pillow! Incidentally, the Shark Tooth Fairy is also the Queen of England.

Elephant Tongue
Creative Commons License photo credit: greggoconnell

Another useful tool for eating is the ever-important tongue. Some tongues are attached and cannot be stuck out, like the elephant (no raspberries there,) and some are used for more than just eating. Cats’ tongues are rough to aid in grooming, for instance. A frog’s tongue is sticky to trap their food and bring it to their mouths. Did you know a frog uses its eyes to swallow? If they used their tongues, they’d choke.

If you find yourself without the opportunity to observe the mouths and eating habits of wild and extinct animals, come on down to the Museum! It’s the only place in town where you can see a poison dart frog in action and view a T. rex locked in battle with a duck-billed dinosaur.

Mystery Skeleton – Update 4

While I was waiting for the skull to dry I checked out the bits and pieces.  A few curious traits stood out and I may be a bit closer to the cause of death for our mystery Fido.

Item 1:plaque.JPG

A weird chalky white substance was on several of the teeth.  I noticed it first on the big back teeth dogs use to crack bones. At first I tried to figure out where the skull would have been that mortar could have gotten on the teeth.  Then it hit me.  Not mortar.  Tartar.  This is what old bleached tooth plaque looks like.  Who knew.  So, what does any good skeleton preparer do with tooth plaque?  She gets herself a dental pick to clean said teeth.  No joke.  It is in my car right now.  This is a significant build up.  You can also see where the gum-line ended as that is the highest place the plaque rests on the tooth.

Item 2:

The next item of question is the amount of wear on the teeth in such weird places.  Here you have a picture of Millie’s teeth.  I went to the vet at the end of June and she told me to get soft Frisbee for Millie as her teeth are really getting worn.  Compare her canine teeth (the pointy ones in front) to mystery skeleton’s.

Mystery skeleton upper jaw.Millie’s worn teeth. Broken bottom canine teeth.

Now, in the first picture, you can see mystery skeleton’s canine’s resting on my thumb.  The point is nice and sharp. Millie’s teeth are in the next picture. Her upper teeth are squared off, but still fairly long.  The lower teeth are flat and end at her gum line.  She is about six years old.  So comparing the two sets of teeth, I would say that the mystery skeleton is an adult – all the bones in the vat are completely fused – and probably about 2 or 3 years old.  NOW!  Look at the third picture closely.  This is where things get weird.  The lower canines are totally broken off, but have been worn smooth.  You can actually see the quick – look for the two tiny dark colored circles in the center of each tooth.  This means that the tooth was broken off and that the dog lived long enough to work the teeth on something to even out the rough bits.  It had to have been painful.  Think about an exposed tooth when you get a crown.

Item 3:

On the inside of the lower right jaw, I found an interesting spot.  Literally.  There is a huge cavity in one of the teeth.  Huge.  I have had a couple small ones in my life, but never one that big.  Once again.  Painful.  Cavity.

Conclusion:  This dog had serious issues with his teeth.  The pain from the teeth probably made it uncomfortable to eat and quite possibly contributed to his demise.

Scars or Trophies?

photo credit cbattan

Giraffe Skull. Scar left arm and thumb.

“What happened to your hand?”

“A giraffe bit me.”

“But, you don’t work with giraffes.”

So started another conversation in which I confused a family member. It sounds odd, even implausible. In truth, it was really just a skull I was carrying which slipped and a sharp piece jabbed into my thumb, but this way the telling was much more fun.

I have a few stories of skulls or jaws having punctured my skin; I can claim crocodile, bull shark, and owl talons in addition to the giraffe. For instance, I sliced my finger open on a shark tooth while carrying the jaw, but the more interesting version involves getting bitten by a dead shark. I have since learned to handle shark jaws with both hands well away from the razor-sharp teeth.

photo credit cbattan

Shark Jaw. Scar right index finger.

Zoologists do not go out of their way to get bitten by the animals they care for, but it does sometimes happen. The choice is in how you react. I like to think of the wounds, and ultimately scars, as my brother and I did as kids. Cool trophies of dangerous times, living on the edge, or mementos of your rite of passage. When you are eight, the edge usually meant riding your bike off a home-made ramp or jumping off a swing on purpose.

We even make scars and blisters in camp. Wait, let me rephrase that. We make simulated scars and blisters in camp. You probably remember some conversation on the bus, at lunch or on the playground about this or that scar or showing off your latest scab or even cooler, stitches – truly the most revered of scars.

Some of us have to think back to middle school for stories, some only as far as college. I have some good stories and I have some I’d rather not share. There are of course some mistakes I’d rather not make. Maybe you heard some of these nuggets of wisdom from your parents: look both ways before crossing a street; wear oven mitts when taking muffins out of an oven; use snake handling equipment when working with venomous snakes. You know, basic stuff – common sense even.

So long as a lesson is learned, scars remind me of my mistakes and how much I have grown since receiving them.

I was bit by a dog as a kid and have a scar on my forehead. My mom says I asked if I could keep the bit of flesh they cleaned out (ew, really?!). I recall lifting my bandages to show off the stitches. Well, it was cool at the time.

Some scars we blush to remember, like I had seven stitches in my finger from “cutting the cheese,” to hear my brother tell it. Totally embarrassing, and now I remember to use the right tool for the job (cheese slicer: yes; large carving knife: no!) I still like to tell funnier versions of what really happened to explain most of my scars.

Like the song says, “always look on the bright side of life.” In other words – make mistakes, learn from them and share!

Trex at HMNS