Among fossils: How very old things remind us of our youth

The earth is 4.54 billion years old. That’s a big number to wrap your head around. Spending time among very old things helps, but even then it’s easy to forget that not only the fossils themselves are ancient; so is the rock they came out of, the planet circling a sun that has been around a long time.

Since my childhood, dinosaurs have arrested my imagination like nothing else in science, and what better place to witness the majesty of these ancient animals than the Houston Museum of Natural Science, displaying some of the oldest things on Earth? When I walk through the Morian Hall of Paleontology, I see the bones of creatures that lived millions of years ago, preserved naturally by the processes of geology, like mummies, but embalmed by mud, pressure, and minerals. These aren’t bones, really. They’re rocks, no different from petrified wood or the crystals in the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals. They were once creatures of flesh and bone, but the organic molecules and chemicals that made up their bodies, if they didn’t decay, were replaced atom by atom while the rest of life on Earth developed.

Triceratops

Lane, the most complete fossil specimen of Triceratops in the world. 65 million years old.

Mine is a problem of scope, I think. It’s a strange feeling to understand that Lane the Triceratops, the most complete specimen of this dinosaur, was under our feet during the fall of the Roman Empire, was still buried in the time of King Tutanhkamen, and remained undiscovered while Shakespeare wrote his sonnets. This animal died, and life went on as it always does. Its life among presumably millions of others like it was common. Undistinguished. But that specimen is no longer a Triceratops; it’s a skeleton made of rock. Not even a skeleton, but an impression of it. A three-dimensional photograph dug out of the album that is the many-layered dirt of our planet. This animal has become a symbol of history. Now that is rare.

Icthyosaur

Icthyosaurus mother. At least 146 million years old.

It’s remarkable, this action of preservation that the Earth is capable of. And it’s remarkable that we have developed the science to identify and understand these stones. We had to consider both the life cycle of rock and the taxonomy of life before we could begin to speculate what these samples could mean. But really, so what? They’re just rocks.

It’s the feeling of humility they deliver that makes them fascinating. It’s like walking through modern Rome after living in developing Houston, surrounded by buildings a thousand years old that stood before the United States was even imagined. We’ve been walking around these seven continents for millenia, in the dark about what was under our feet until the birth of paleontology in 1666, when Nicholas Steno identified “tongue stones,” known then only as triangular rocks, as fossilized shark teeth. Dinosaurs were around whether we knew they existed or not. They are as old as the rock we walk on.

Icthyosaur Baby

Impressions of Icthyosaurus pups in the rib cage of this rare specimen suggest this animal died in childbirth.

Now consider this. In 2011, biologists identified 20,000 new species, a large number of them beetles, and most of them invertabrates. That was in a single year. Now take that diversity and multiply it by the age of the Earth. I’m not going to do the math, but that’s the number of species paleontologists have yet to discover. That’s the amount of life we potentially have yet to search for in the rock.

After early hominids, fossils of the first humans date back 1.8 million years, along with mammoths, mastodons, and saber-toothed cats that appear in the rock alongside them. Triceratops lived in the late Cretaceous, discovered in rock at least 65 million years old. Icthyosaurus swam the oceans and gave birth to her young between 245 and 146 million years ago, in the Jurassic and the Triassic. (Their era lasted 100 million years. Again, we’ve been around for 1.8.) Trilobites in our collection have been preserved for between 540 and 360 million years, and the stromatolites, layered rocks formed by ancient bacteria, date back to 3.4 billion years. Not million. Billion. They appeared in the Archaeozoic Eon, about a billion years after Earth solidified out of molten space-rock.

Trilobite

One of the best preserved and most intricate trilobites in the world. At least 360 million years old.

What will the occupants of this planet find after the next million years? We’ve been around for a while, but not nearly as long as these fossils. What will paleontologists of the future, if they still exist, find in another 65 million years? 146? 540? 3.4 billion? The Earth will still be here by then; humanity is another story. Will we still cling to the crags in a different form, the maps unrecognizeable to the once-dominant species of 2015 CE, if they could see them? Will we have preserved our history as well as the rocks have preserved the dinosaurs?

Stromatolites

Stromatolite formed by layers of ancient bacteria preserved in rock. At least 3.4 billion years old.

In another 3.4 billion years, the sun will be nearing the end of its life, having expanded into a red giant and swallowed Mercury and Venus. According to many estimations, by the time the sun is 7.59 billion years old, it will engulf the Earth. We are living in our planet’s middle age. It took half the Earth’s life for humanity to arise and build its cities. For the United States to claim its sovereignty.

Lucy

Lucy, Australopithecus afarensis, the most complete skeleton of this hominid in the world. 3.18 million years old.

The Earth is old, dude! We never pay this age any mind until we identify something to date it against. Here we have Triceratops, say, a creature that lived in the time when this rock was young, just a pile of sediment on the floor of the ocean or a river. Paleontologists owe a lot to the power of speculation and theory. We may never know for sure what life was like in the era of these ancient creatures. But if we have anything in common with the dinosaurs, ancient mollusks and archaebacteria, it’s that we all grew on this same rock.

In a way, we’re just as old as they are. Our bodies are made up of the same elements that have always been here in some form or another, buried under the crust in a molten mantle, or exposed to the light of the sun that has fueled life on Earth for as far back as the imagination will stretch. As Carl Sagan said, “We are all made of star stuff.”

We can dig it: Celebrate National Fossil Day and learn what to do with what you find

There’s a day for just about everything these days, but National Fossil Day is one we can really dig.

Organized by the National Park Service, National Fossil Day isn’t just about appreciating past millennia frozen in time by the likes of these little guys:

A teensy TrilobiteA stunning pair of Trilobites, currently residing in the Morian Hall of Paleontology.

It’s also about public awareness and promoting stewardship of fossils. Says the National Park Service:

Fossils discovered on the nation’s public lands preserve ancient life from all major eras of Earth’s history, and from every major group of animal or plant. In the national parks, for example, fossils range from primitive algae found high in the mountains of Glacier National Park, Montana, to the remains of ice-age animals found in caves at Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Public lands provide visitors with opportunities to interpret a fossil’s ecological context by observing fossils in the same place those animals and plants lived millions of years ago.

Do you know the rules when it comes to fossils found on public lands? If not, educate yoself! Happy finding!

On Happy Puppies, “Bugs” and Honorary Dinos: A statement by Dr. Robert T. Bakker

When I was a lowly freshman hanging around the Yale Peabody Museum, one mind-opening surprise was the unrestrained joy of paleontological language. I’d been a dino-geek since the fourth grade. I knew a dozen duck-billed dinosaurs by name — their technical names.  I’d met Corythosaurus casuararius and Saurolophus osborni face-to-face in the exhibit halls of the New York museum.

But real-life paleontologists in the Yale lab addressed their favorite fossils as if they were family pets. The great Tyrannosaurus rex had been known as “that big bug” since 1909. The Montana canyon where the finest rex had been dug was “Bug Creek.”  And the whole slice of geological time recorded by the rocks there had become the “Bug Creekian Age.”

buggy blogOur esteemed Curator of Paleontology, Dr. Robert T. Bakker

The term “bug” was a term of paleontological endearment. Tiny, microscopic fossils were “bugs.” The paleo folks squinting down their microscopes searching for single-celled fossils said they were searching for “my beloved Early Paleocene bugs.” Field expeditions looking for tiny Jurassic mammals spoke of “furry bug jaws,” a.k.a. the dentigerous rami from Paurodon, Docodon, and Ctenacodon.

Gigantic species, too, were encompassed by the affectionate buggy label.

Trilobite specialists — and I have met many — always smiled when they showed us students an especially ornate Devonian phacopidan: ”Check out this elegant bug,” they’d say. Trilobites with smooth, streamlined shells — adaptations for burrowing through the sediment — invariably were “mud-bugs.”

buggy blogA trilobite or “dino-bug,” as they are affectionately called in the paleontological community.

“Puppy” was popular for Mammalia of gargantuan sizes. The immense, multi-ton Eobasileus cornutus, an herbivore with six horns and giant saber-teeth, was “that bumpy-headed puppy.”  Even cold-blooded Amphibia could enter that category.  When we moved a cast replica of the Triassic Mastodonsaurus, with its yard-long skull, we were cautioned to be especially careful with that “monstrous puppy.”

The term “Dinosaur” was an honorific as well as a narrowly defined taxonomic category. Any fossil that evoked the mystery of the Deep Past could be an “honorary dinosaur.” Mastodons and mammoths, saber-toothed cats and fin-backed Dimetrodons were all included in the “dinosaur exhibit.” Trilobites, because they were so captivating, were honorary “dinosaur-bugs.”

The labels in our new HMNS fossil hall follow the paleontological tradition of using both technical and affectionate terms. The free app, which be available soon, will give even more scientific data, plus stories from the scientists. Our superb skeleton of an Early Permian lake amphibian is labeled as an Early Permian archegosaurid. But it also goes by the nickname bestowed by the collection-management crew when the crate was opened — “Happy Puppy.”

The breathtaking sea reptile with seven unborn embryos is described in the signage as “Stenopterygius from the Toarcian Age of the Early Jurassic.”  And also as “Jurassic Mom.”

Our HMNS trilobite display is among the very best in the world. All our many trilobites are identified by genus and species, family and geological age. There’s a compact but precise scientific family tree of all trilobites, showing their Darwinian booms and the puzzling busts of extinction. But, since we are very fond of every single trilobite specimen, we are are quite happy to call them “bugs,” too.

The only way to experience the joy of paleo-nomenclature in all its multi-levels is to visit our hall, stroll past the petrified bugs, puppies and mini-monsters, and thereby absorb the wonder of the Deep Past.

She has a gift: 7-year-old Hannah Aaronson lends a rare Anomalocaris to HMNS’ new Hall of Paleontology

Anomalocaris. This shrimp-like creature, which measured about 6 and a half feet long, was the biggest predator of the Cambrian Explosion — around 530 million years ago.

It was a funky-looking thing, with two funny feeding appendages at its front and undulating lobes down its sides. It was a swift swimmer, and feasted on trilobites much the same way we eat crawfish today — breaking them open and sucking out their insides.

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Our top-of-the-line Anomalocaris replica, courtesy of a generous young donor.

To suss out the teensy trilobites, Anomalocaris used its super sharp vision. It had 30,000 lenses in each eye — compare that to the dragonfly’s 28,000!

When something is hundreds of millions of years old, it’s easy to understand why a complete specimen might be hard to come by. Although the Museum does have an original arm segment of a 500 million-year-old Anomalocaris, we wanted a high-end replica so patrons could get an idea of what this creature was really like.

Japan-based Griffon Enterprises had just such a model. The problem? It wouldn’t be on sale for many months after our new Hall of Paleontology opened to the public.

Enter miss Hannah Aaronson. Hannah won one of the company’s original prototypes in an auction, and decided to lend her spiffy prehistoric model to the Museum.

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Hannah and her mom at the installation of her Anomalocaris at HMNS’ new Hall of Paleontology.

Hannah’s generous gift — on loan for one year — helps to complete the evolutionary story of the trilobite. Anomalocaris had been a mysterious creature to scientists for some time, and many now speculate that it may have contributed to trilobites evolving the ability to roll up for protection.

Once the model becomes available for purchase, the museum will get its own Anomalocaris and return our current model to its rightful owner, who promises to visit it while it’s on loan to HMNS.

Of course, you should visit, too! The new Hall of Paleontology opens Friday to members and June 2 to the general public.