Back to Seymour, Back in Time: Part Two — Bringing back a city

The visit to our active digs at the Craddock Ranch red beds exhausted Kelly and I, but it was fascinating to learn how the Houston Museum of Natural Science discovers, jackets and moves its Permian fossils to our lab. The second day, we lent a hand at the Whiteside Museum of Natural History in Seymour for their one-year anniversary celebration. I conducted interviews with Museum Director Chris Flis, our associate paleo curator David Temple, and a handful of Seymour residents, while Kelly shot photos, posted Tweets and produced Periscope videos.

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The Whiteside Museum of Natural History in Seymour, Texas has the potential to breathe new life in to the city through historic ecotourism. Jason Schaefer.

The Whiteside has the potential to bolster Seymour’s dwindling economy through historic ecotourism. Locals want to keep Baylor County fossils at home, housed in a single facility, in hopes that visitors will spend a weekend and their money in the shops, restaurants and hotels of the dusty Texas town. Dimetrodon has the potential to attract paleo-fans and academics alike from far and wide and give Seymour a new brand as the home of the richest Permian fossil accumulations in the world. It has been known as such unofficially for nearly 100 years.

Flis, Temple, and paleo curator Dr. Robert Bakker, who arrived in Seymour the previous night, regard the Craddock bone bed as crucial in the understanding of some of the most important enigmas of modern paleontology. In the past century, the information unearthed from the caked deposits of these ancient rivers has answered many questions about Permian ecosystems. However, with each layer removed, new riddles emerge. How many species of Dimetrodon were there? Why did they live so far away from the swamp, where the herbivorous Edaphosaurus lived? Shouldn’t Dimetrodon have preyed on Edaphosaurus? Should Dimetrodon be considered a mammal ancestor? And, perhaps the most fascinating, why are there more carnivores than herbivores buried here? Paleontologists are certain the story is in the bones, and for this era, there’s no better place to find them.

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At the Whiteside Museum of Natural History, Dr. Robert Bakker puzzles over the broken shin bone of a Diadectes, a rare Permian herbivore. Kelly Russo.

The exposed Permian landscape from north Texas into southern Oklahoma dates back about 290 million years. To the southeast of Seymour, the rocks get a little older, providing samples from the Pennsylvanian era, about 310 million years ago. The landscape grows younger as you travel west out of Baylor County, then ages again in eastern New Mexico about 100 miles away. Here, paleontologists have found other Permian-era sites that extend as far as Arizona, Flis explained.

“Those sites are well-known for trackways, but they’re not well-known for bones,” Flis said. “For bones, Texas is the best.”

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Jacketed lumps of earth lining the wall of the Whiteside Museum of Natural History contain not only fossil specimens, but valuable information about Permian ecosystems. Jason Schaefer.

The soil is rich with exposed Permian fossils. Visitors can walk across the landscape and happen upon excellent specimens of vertebrae, joints, and bits of Dimetrodon’s famous fin spines right at their feet. The bones are preserved so well in the clay soil, they still carry their indigo luminescence when turned in the sunlight. These aren’t mineralized bones, but the real thing. They are the actual mummified parts of animals that human hands have never moved, that haven’t been exposed to light or air since their deaths.

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The Craddock red beds are rich with outstanding bone fossils, nearly half of them crushed, broken or bearing tooth marks from Permian-era violence. This fragment of Dimetrodon rib could tell paleontologists more about how the reptile lived than a complete skeleton. Kelly Russo.

It’s not just the bones or their ubiquity in the red beds that makes the Craddock so valuable. It’s the story the bones tell in pieces. A perfect skeleton is great for anatomy, but for information about ancient ecosystems, the pulverized fragments are pay dirt. Paleontologists learn much more about the interaction between extinct species from bones damaged by chewing or some other trauma than from bones unscathed. There’s no story in a complete skeleton.

“You don’t know how it died. You don’t know who chewed it,” Bakker said. “It tells you nothing.”

When Bakker and HMNS teams first began digging at the Craddock about 11 years ago, he was looking for shed Dimetrodon teeth, he said, knowing that losing teeth was common for the reptile. He didn’t expect as many as he found.

“There were shed teeth everywhere,” Bakker said. “It was like a Civil War battlefield that souvenir hunters hadn’t gone over.”

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The Whiteside Museum of Natural History is outfitted to prepare its own fossils with its own lab. Volunteer Dr. Mitch Fruitstone removes sedimentary rock from a fossilized jaw specimen. Jason Schaefer.

The team estimated less than five percent of the specimens would be chewed and have tooth marks. After all, T. rex swallowed his prey in chunks, tearing flesh from their bodies without much mastication. From what he’d learned from his predecessors, Bakker expected the same of Dimetrodon. However, the bones were marked in high frequency, about 45 percent, and some were chewed to pieces.

“This means Dimetrodon wasn’t chewing like a dinosaur. It was chewing like a wolf or a hyena,” Bakker said. “That’s the most surprising thing. That’s a way primitive guy, but it’s chewing like an advanced mammal predator. … Our group is the first to document that.”

Through observations made at the Craddock, these discoveries broke open new possibilities for the life of Dimetrodon and the Permian world in which it lived. It could be an ancient relative of mammals instead of reptiles. As a cross-section of the development of life on Earth, the Permian represents the dawn of land-dwellers, when amphibians first began to crawl out of the water. The link between amphibians and reptiles was discovered in the Craddock in 1904, putting Seymour on the paleontological map. Named Seymouria baylorensis to pay homage to its home town, it contended with gravity better than its amphibious predecessors 20 million years earlier, and had other adaptations that allowed the species to succeed in the dry Permian landscape.

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Volunteer Dr. Mitch Fruitstone demonstrates precision fossil preparation as a child looks on during the Whiteside Museum of Natural History’s first anniversary celebration. Jason Schaefer.

Now, a model of the animal occupies a hallowed space in the Whiteside, a shining example of the value of this area to the study of the Permian. As Baylor County digs continue, paleontologists layer details about the past with each layer of soil removed: microfossils, traces of flesh-eating arthropods and fossilized pollen grains, and what appears to be different species of Dimetrodon or perhaps just male and female aspects. Bite marks and stab wounds from Xenocanth suggest the ancient shark preyed on Dimetrodon from the water while it hunted the shark from land. With each shovel of soil and swing of the pickaxe, more comes to light about Eryops, Diplocaulus, Trimerorachus and Edaphosaurus.

For the agricultural residents of Seymour, the science could spell success for a struggling community. A contract with the landowners ensures the fossils excavated from the Craddock will remain in Texas, and most of them at the Whiteside. According to Bakker, having a municipal museum is “a huge game-changer” for Seymour, for HMNS and for the state.

 

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Dr. Robert Bakker uses his sketching skills to teach children about Dimetrodon. “Science should make you giggle,” he told the kids. Jason Schaefer.

“Our hope would be that the Whiteside would be a locus not for just digging local fossils but for teaching short courses, especially for teachers so they have hands-on experience digging fossils,” Bakker said. “We’ll take them out and they’ll go back to their classroom and show how fossils are dug.”

The building itself is not without its own history. A renovated Chevrolet dealership, it was handed down from former owner Gene Porter Robinson, who had sold cars out of the building since the 1950s. As Chevy went corporate, Robinson kept the business open, remaining active until 2001 as one of the last remaining independently-owned dealerships in the franchise.

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Judge Clyde Whiteside of Baylor County, and the namesake of the Whiteside Museum of Natural History, sits beside models of Edaphosaurus and Dimetrodon during the museum’s first anniversary celebration. Jason Schaefer.

When Robinson died, Judge Clyde Whiteside recognized the value of the lot, and cherishing his friendship with Robinson, decided to purchase the half-block with the clear intent of turning it into a museum to re-invigorate the community.

“I bought my first car right here,” Whiteside said, seated in his wheelchair beside the first Dimetrodon model display. “Hopefully this will bring people back. … Now that we’ve got this interest in [the Craddock], we’ve got five active digs going, and we’re finding stuff you wouldn’t believe! I’m not a scientist, I’m a lawyer and a farmer. But it’s working, and I’m thrilled to death by it. It makes my life worth living.”

Author’s note: This is the second part in a series detailing the HMNS excursion to the Craddock Bone Bed.

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Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Total Lunar Eclipse this Month

Stars

Saturn is now in the southwestern sky at dusk. It outshines the stars around it, so it’s also easy to see. 

Mars is a little higher in the morning sky this month. Look for it low in the east at dawn. Mars remains dimmer then average, though, and won’t rival the brighter stars until next spring.  

Venus and Jupiter reappear in the morning sky this month. Venus is already visible in the east at dawn; Jupiter will join it after the middle of the month. Venus outshines everything but the Sun and the Moon, while Jupiter is next brightest after Venus. Both, then, easily outshine all the stars we see at night and are clearly visible even in twilight.

Venus, Mars, and Jupiter will come close together in the sky late next month.

The Big Dipper is left of the North Star, with its handle pointing up. From that handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus’ in the west at dusk. 

Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the southwest, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius to its left. Saturn is to the right of the scorpion’s head. The Summer Triangle is overhead. The Great Square of Pegasus is now in the east, indicating the approaching fall.

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Moon Phases in September 2015:

Last Quarter: Sept. 5, 4:54 a.m.

New: Sept. 13, 1:41 a.m.

First Quarter: Sept. 21, 3:59 p.m.

Full: Sept. 27, 9:50 p.m.

The Full Moon of September 27 enters the Earth shadow, causing a total lunar eclipse. Partial eclipse begins at 8:07 pm CDT, about an hour after sunset and right as twilight fades. The Moon is totally eclipsed by 9:10. Totality lasts 74 minutes, until 10:24. The Moon then comes out of eclipse until the eclipse is over at 11:27. This is the last of a series of four total lunar eclipses in 2014-2015, all visible from Houston. Unlike the previous three, which occurred at midnight or at dawn, this eclipse takes place in evening hours while everyone is still awake. Remember, whoever can see the Moon can watch the eclipse. Let’s hope the weather cooperates and we can all enjoy it. Our George Observatory will be open Sunday evening, September 27, for this event.

If we miss this eclipse, the next one we can see is at dawn Jan. 31, 2018.

At 3:21 a.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 23, the Sun is directly overhead at the equator, shifting southwards. This, then, marks the autumnal equinox, the ‘official’ start of fall. On this date (and on the spring equinox in March) everyone on Earth has the same amount of daylight.  After this date, night is longer than day for us and keeps getting longer until our longest night at the winter solstice. Below the equator, day becomes longer than night after this equinox. It is springtime down there. 

Planetarium Schedule

On most clear Saturday nights at the George Observatory, you can hear me do live star tours on the observation deck with a green laser pointer. If you’re there, listen for my announcement.

Clear Skies!

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Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 8/31-9/6

Bust out your planners, calendars, and PDAs (if you are throwback like that), it’s time to mark your calendars for the HMNS events of this week! 

Fan Faves for 30 Day Film Festival
September 1-30, 2015
Experience the 7 greatest adventures on Earth in a single day!
From the depths of the ocean to the top of the clouds, from ancient ages to modern marvels, now you can embark on seven astounding expeditions, and never leave your seat! The most popular movies return to the Houston Museum of Natural Science during the Fan Faves for 30 Days Film Festival. Relive these amazing 3-D adventures or catch them for the first time! But hurry, the fun ends Sept. 30.

Final Days: Four Special Exhibitions Closing Soon
Don’t miss your chance to see these special exhibitions before they leave!
Shark!, China’s Lost Civilization: The Mystery of Sanxingdui, and TreeHouses (at HMNS at Sugar Land) close Sunday, September 7th, and Samurai: The Way of the Warrior closes Sunday, September 13th.

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Stego says HMNS makes field trips easier on teachers

by Kaylee Gund

Hi all,

Stego the Stegosaurus here, putting my best plate forward for the beginning of the school year!

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Stego the Stegosaurus, team leader for the field trips department.

I was chatting with my Discovery Guide pals the other day and we’re all looking forward to the great school field trips we see every year. But surprisingly, a few local teachers they’ve spoken to are intimidated by the prospect of planning a field trip.

I have to admit, the idea of taking more than 500 students off campus and bringing them back in one piece does sound overwhelming, but here at HMNS, it’s our job to make field trips the best possible experience for everyone involved.

As the face of the Youth Education Sales team, I, Stego the Stegosaurus, feel duty-bound to dispel the myth that organizing a field trip is by nature stressful. In fact, I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce you to two wonderful ladies who can give you all sorts of great tips and ideas for students to put a spike in their learning curve (pun intended).

Karly - Paleo

Karly Hunt, Marketing Coordinator (khunt@hmns.org).

The newest member of our team, Karly Hunt, is the Marketing Coordinator for all districts west of Houston. She comes to us from Liberty Hill ISD, where she taught high school science. Karly, by the way, appreciates a good chemistry joke, but unfortunately all the good ones Argon… Get it?

This is Karly’s first year at HMNS, but she is already hard at work sharing her love of all things scientific with Houston educators. Her favorite part of the museum is the Morian Hall of Paleontology.

“We have such an amazing collection that really puts prehistory in perspective,” Karly said.

Needless to say, being a dinosaur myself, I like her already!

When she’s not traveling to schools, you’ll find Karly spending time outside, enjoying music of all genres, and playing with her dogs.

Cathy - Jurrasic Bark

Cathy Walton, Lead Marketing Coordinator (cwalton@hmns.org).

Cathy Walton, our Lead Marketing Coordinator, is the museum representative for schools in Houston ISD, districts centrally located in the metroplex, and districts to the East. Having originally taught World Geography in Tennessee, she began her career at HMNS three years ago. Cathy is a wizard at finding field trip packages that fit an individual teacher’s needs, and she loves being able to work with amazing educators to help them inspire their students. She encourages teachers to “be as creative as you can to get students excited about learning!”

Cathy enjoys hiking, cooking, and entertaining (when she’s not hanging out with us dinos, of course). Fun fact: she grew up in Shelbyville, Tenn., better known as “Pencil City,” home of the No. 2 pencil!

If you have any questions or would like to know what exciting new exhibits your students can learn from next, feel free to contact one of these representatives. Check out our free curriculum and our field trip preparation guide for more info, too. And you can fill out a booking request form online if you already have an idea of what you’d like to do at the museum.

Have fun, keep learning, and we’ll see you soon!

Sincerely,

Stego

 

Editor’s Note: Kaylee Gund is in Youth Education Sales at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

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