100 Years – 100 Objects: Spadefoot Toad

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.

Spadefoot Toad, Eopelobates wagneri

CHI_7713We 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.  

Though well preserved, these fossils are extremely delicate. The shale encasing the fossils has a high water content and crumbles when dried. It wasn’t until amateur collectors perfected the technique of embedding the fossil in resin that they could be fully appreciated.

This amphibian likely lived near the shore of the lake, burying itself by day and emerging at night to feed and mate. The stiff body posture hints at a last spasmodic leap from being poisoned by the release of toxic suffocating gasses from the lake.

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.

2009: International Year of Astronomy

Creative Commons License photo credit: judepics

We could say that modern astronomy began in 1609.  That was the year when the telescope, invented by the Dutch in 1608, was first used to observe and describe celestial objects.  Until telescopes were used, astronomy was primarily about measuring the positions of the Sun, Moon, and planets in the sky.  This helped early astronomers make calendars and to plan their harvests, but people were unable to study the celestial bodies and learn their characteristics.  A recently discovered lunar map indicates that Thomas Harriot of England was the first to observe and draw a magnified image of the Moon in July 1609. 

Galileo Galilei, of course, is most well-known for building and using early telescopes.  He did his lunar observations in December 1609 while observing from Padua, Italy.   The prevailing idea at the time was that everything in the heavens had to be perfect and unblemished.  Drawings of mountains, valleys, and craters on the Moon contradicted this idea, showing the Moon to be an ‘imperfect’ world like Earth.  As Galileo published his drawings and Harriot did not, Galileo gets the credit for changing our concept of the universe, helping us realize that celestial bodies are worlds and not just sources of light.

On January 9, 1610, Galileo saw three ‘fixed stars’ next to Jupiter.  Four days later he discovered a fourth and realized that these ‘stars’ orbited Jupiter.  Today, those four moons– Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, are called the Galilean moons.  The direct observation of moons orbiting Jupiter disproved Claudius Ptolemy‘s model of the universe, already centuries old at the time, which held that all bodies in the universe orbited the Earth.

Moon n Venus played hide-and-seek
Creative Commons License photo credit: voobie

In December 1610, Galileo observed Venus and saw that Venus showed phases like the Moon’s when magnified in his telescope.  This meant that sometimes the sunlit side of Venus faces Earth, while at other times we see the night side, although Venus is never opposite the Sun in the sky.  This could happen only if Venus orbits the Sun rather than Earth.

By the way, Galileo did far more than just astronomy.  Rice University’s Galileo Project has more on his extraordinary life, including a timeline.

It was also in 1609 that Johannes Kepler published his New Astronomy, containing his first two laws.  The first law states that each planet’s orbit is an ellipse rather than a perfect circle.  The second law states that a planet sweeps out equal areas in equal times.  Kepler published his third law, which relates the square of a planets period (time for one orbit) to the cube of its average distance, in 1619. 

This makes 2009 the 400th year of modern astronomy.  Appropriately, the United Nations declared this year to be the International Year of Astronomy.  At that link, you can learn about events taking place all over the world promoted by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).  Their goal is for people all over the world to discover the wonders of the sky and to appreciate our place in the universe.

Star Cloud Over Saskatchewan.jpg
Creative Commons License photo credit: Space Ritual

You can participate in the International Year of Astronomy right here in Houston.  Several of the Fun Hundred events we’ve set up to celebrate our 100th anniversary are astronomy-related.  They include Sun-Earth Day at the vernal equinox, our annual viewing of the Perseid meteor shower in mid-August, members nights at the George Observatory, and a winter solstice event on our sundial. 

Also, you can observe the phases of Venus in the first three months of this year, just as Galileo did through his telescope.  Keep in mind that Galileo’s telescope looked like this; anyone with a good pair of binoculars has better observing equipment.  Go outside at dusk and look west southwest for the brightest point of light in the sky.  That is Venus.  Through a telescope, you’ll notice that Venus appears half-lit in mid-January 2009.  As you keep observing through March, you’ll see Venus become a more and more pronounced crescent.  This is because Venus is coming around to our side of the Sun and thus turning more and more of its night side to Earth.  The very skinny crescent of mid-March is so pronounced that it is noticeable in binoculars.

Remember, the great discoveries, or aha moments, as my co-blogger described, are not limited to great, historic scientists.  The beauty of science is that anyone who takes the time to observe can share in the act of discovery.

Science Doesn’t Sleep (7.2.08)

Before Machu Picchu
Creative Commons License photo credit: icelight

So here’s what went down since you logged off.

It survived the ravages of nature for hundreds of years…but the footprints of tourists might be too much. UNESCO is considering whether to make Machu Picchu an endangered world heritage site.

SmartEnergyViews – a new blog devoted to energy efficiency. (Thanks, ScienceBuzz)

The Earth’s magnetic field is changing - fast. This indicates “the possibility of an upcoming reversal of the geomagnetic field.”

McCain vs. Obama, MAOA vs. 5HTT. Whether or not you vote may be influenced by your genetic makeup.